One True Color
In the living room doorway stood Petunia Jennings, a heavyset, beady-eyed woman with a shotgun cradled in the crook of her arm. She was dressed in a chartreuse nightgown and her head, rather round and small, was adorned with a matching sleeping cap. Gray curls sprung from under the cap that, together with the gun, cast a sweet but fearsome look. Her portentous appearance was more than enough to jar me awake.
I eased sideways on the tattered couch and, with a woolen blanket, covered the shoulder of Ricki, Petunia’s sleeping teenage daughter. The TV in the corner was abuzz with static and, at half past four in the morning, the late show had long since come and gone.
Petunia leveled the gun to my chest and hissed through the flat-white noise.
“You do her wrong and so help me Jesus I’ll blow you straight to hell.”
When I opened my mouth, Petunia jutted her chin and gave the shotgun a single shake. She glanced at her daughter and continued in her low Carolina drawl.
“You think I’m blind?” she whispered.
I raised my brows. The gesture was met with another shake of the gun.
“You don’t fool me. All of your yes, ma’am, no, ma’am crap—like you were born in the South—switching-up colors like a damn chameleon. You lie about that and you’ll lie about anything.”
She shuffled her chartreuse slippers forward and narrowed her eyes.
“I know your kind.” She motioned with her jaw in the direction of Ricki. “And when she admits what you did— your ass is mine.”
“I swear,” I said. “We—”
“Don’t bullshit me. I heard it all at the Quick Stop— got the whole damn neighborhood talking. Up there shaking your legs in front of that jukebox like a two-legged dog in heat. Is that how they dance up North? I’ll bet you shoot whiskey, too. And that guitar in your truck— when were you going to tell us about that?”
I leaned forward and coughed. Petunia glanced over her shoulder toward the sound of footsteps creaking down the stairwell. She slipped one hand from the gun and reached up to adjust her cap. When Ollie, Petunia’s husband, appeared at the bottom of the steps, he stood up straight as a taut string.
“Jesus H. Christ!” he said. “Petunia?”
Petunia leaned the gun against the wall and reached up to push her cap back high on her head.
“Heard another rat,” Petunia said. “Little devil must’ve made his way in from the barn.”
“What in God’s name are you doing? Tell me that thing’s not loaded!”
“Damn straight it’s loaded,” she said.
Ollie shook his head and threw a glance toward me.
“You all right, son? Probably scared the tar out of you.”
“Yes sir— I’m fine.”
Ricki rose from the couch and rubbed her eyes. “Daddy? What’s wrong?”
Ollie looked at Ricki and nodded.
“Everything’s fine, sweetie. Your mother’s throwing a fit again, that’s all. Chasing after some fool rat— or some little mouse, more likely.”
Ollie loosened the collar of his pajamas, then turned his attention to me.
“Well son, you better be getting home. It’s near daylight. You awake enough to drive?”
“I’ll sleep for an hour in my truck if that’s okay. Long as I can make it home before church, I’m fine.”
Ollie turned to Petunia and shrugged.
“Might as well fix breakfast,” he said. “It’s darn near morning. I was planning to go in early anyway. Boss delivered a press that needs fixing before first shift tomorrow.”
Petunia trained her eyes on me with one eyebrow snaked up high.
“Breakfast sounds perfect,” she said.
Within an hour the sun streamed through the kitchen to the clatter of pots and pans. Minutes later, the four of us sat around a platter of eggs with sausage, biscuits, and gravy.
Ollie and I struck up a conversation about plans for the upcoming day while Petunia and Ricki discussed cookie recipes for the church bake sale scheduled that afternoon. Most of the talk had faded as Ollie wiped gravy from his plate with the last of his biscuits.
“For the life of me, Pet,” he said. “I can’t figure out what you were fixing to do with that gun. You know you can’t go around the house with a loaded gun.”
“Good lord, Mom,” said Ricki. “Can’t we just get a cat?”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” she said. “I might not kill the little vermin, but you can bet I’ll run him off!”
Ollie and Ricki chuckled as Petunia wiped the gravy from the side of her mouth. She leaned back in her chair, twisted the towel and gave it a sharp snap in my direction.
“How about them biscuits!” she said.
Ollie looked up from his plate.
“Yeah, boy oh, boy,” he said. “Nothing goes hungry around this place. Not even the dog-gone mice.”
Petunia glared out of the corners of her eyes— spoon dangling above her plate.
“Had enough, son?” she asked.
“Yes, ma’am I did. I mean—yes, I did—Mrs. Jennings.”
“That’s what I wanted to hear,” she said. “It’s a god-awful drive on an empty stomach.”
I cleared my utensils from the table, walked to the counter and slid my dish in the sink. I paused to exchange a glance with Ricki then made my way toward the door.
“Ain’t no need to rinse it!” Petunia said as I turned the knob. “I’ve been known to wash color clean-off dishes ’round this place.”
I stopped and, for a moment, stared at my feet.
“Goodbye, everyone,” I said. “Thanks for everything.”
The old truck coughed and clanked up US-79 before the engine smoothed to a high-pitched hum— a sign the flathead-six had reached its limit. I eased off the gas, afraid of a ticket— a barrage of cops in chartreuse caps. I smiled in the mirror, lifted up my chin, and pressed the accelerator down.
John Grabski's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Change-Seven Magazine, The Tishman Review, Boston Literary Magazine, Unbroken Journal, Eclectica Literary Mag, Animal Literary Mag, The Harpoon Review, Ash & Bones, Crack the Spine, Frontier Tales, Cyclamens & Swords, Foliate Oak Literary Mag, Rocky Mountain Revival, and a host of others. He holds an MBA with distinction from the University of Liverpool and is an alumni of Harvard Business School. You can find his published work at GRABSKIworks.com or reach him on Twitter @GrabskiJohn.