*This short story placed as the 4th runner up of the 2021 Sad Girls Club Short Story Contest
**Cowboy Jamboree is the original publisher of this short story
It’s 4:30 AM and both of us are up—Mom and me. She’s commuting over an hour these days, into the city. Since they closed the plant, she works in a big corporate skyscraper. She got a promotion when most people got laid off. She says I should be thankful, not to giver her any grief. In the mornings, she just smiles at my impatience for the restroom.
“Kacie, honey, it takes time to look this good.”
“I know Mama,” I tell her with a nod.
I don’t remind her that she could sleep longer if she was home earlier or went in a bit later. I don’t say anything about the overnight bag she has sitting by the garage door. I’ll have the house to myself again this weekend. Checking the clock, I intentionally, audibly sigh.
“Alright, alright. I’m out of your way,” she says.
I plop my makeup bag on the counter and sit on the toilet. I lean over to turn on the water for my shower. Feeling the temperature with my fingers, I wince it's ice cold.
“Mom, the pilots out again!” I shout.
No answer. I finish up and stick my head out into the hallway. I can hear Stevie Nicks and Mom’s hairdryer blasting from her bedroom. Our water heater is an old piece of shit. Embedded smack in the middle of our hallway wall, nestled among wood paneling and family photos. It’s original, a classic of 70s style housing that littered the front section of Shady Glen, our neighborhood. I turn the little brushed-brass knob opening the knee to ceiling panel that contains the water heater. With practiced skill I use the grill lighter, left here for this very purpose, to relight the thing. When it lights the heat from the flame reminds me that my throat feels like sandpaper and I start to cough. I’m nineteen but I sound like I’m sixty-five. I should quit smoking. I want coffee, that should help. I’ve got time to kill while the water warms up. I pour a cup into an over-sized mug. Extra sugar, extra cream. A cloud of perfume proceeds the arrival of Mom to the kitchen.
“You want a little coffee with that?”
“Ha-ha,” I say slurping at the edge of the cup.
It’s too hot to gulp like I want to. Mom pours herself a cup into her travel thermos.
“Grabbed these for you at the CVS,” she hands me my birth control.
I don’t remind her that I’ve asked her to let me do these things. I take the pills and head back to the bathroom. Praying the shower is ready. I pop open the box and slide out the little yellow dial. Popping out my pill I swallow it with my hot sugary concoction. Good thing she picked them up—I’d forgotten. But it's not like I need them. She’s the only one getting laid in this house. Mom would say, better to have them, just in case. I know why they’re important to her—it’s why they’re important to me too. I don’t want another—neither of us would use the word, accident.
I work at the Valero outside Shady Glen. A five-minute walk to another twelve-hour shift. Good thing too because I don’t have a car. By the time I was in the tub Mom was shouting her goodbye through the door.
“I’m sorry I can’t wait and drop you off honey.”
She could wait, she sets her own hours.
“No worries, Mom. Have a good day!” is what I say, but I’m thinking, what the fuck ever.
I really shouldn’t complain, it’s just a short walk, but I still do. I’m not a morning person, to begin with, and this day already feels long. I grab my purse, my smokes, my keys, and head for the garage door. We never go out the front. The sun is just rising and there’s shimmering wetness to the grass. It's more than morning dew, it's as if a big fat cloud just settled itself down on the road. Feels like walking through a wet blanket. I’m glad I braided my hair, even if it does extenuate my roots. By the time I walk up to the glass doors of the station my sneakers and the bottom of my khakis are soaked. Pete lets me in, his giant ring of keys clanging against the glass.
“Mornin,” he says with a crooked smile.
I like Pete. Most people think he’s a creep, but I know better. He might take a little too long checking your uniform, lean in a bit too close, but overall, he’s harmless, sweet even. For one thing, Pete has never made me work the nightshift, not once. He’s old school like that. He thinks it isn’t safe for a lady to work overnight. I didn’t need to tell him it was risky day or night—he knew. He knows nobody takes a gas station job because they want to. His keeping me on days was what he could do, so he did it, and I’m grateful.
I smile back and take the keys he’s left in the door out and hand them to him.
“I’ll watch the floor. You get the coffee going,” He says.
Nice guy. He knows I like to wake up slow. It's 5:05 AM and the morning rush won’t start for another twenty minutes. I pull out my bright teal Valero vest and set my purse under the front counter. I stretch my arms wide and back as I slip it on, the fabric of my white cotton t-shirt pulling tight across my chest. As if on cue I catch Pete sneaking his morning peek. I knew what I was doing. I did it for him. My small thanks for his patience. He seats himself with a groan on the stool behind the counter. I know it’s so he can easily watch me walk toward the coffee station. I walk over to the three-gallon coffee brewers that are located opposite the soda fountains and cattycorner to Pete’s seat at the counter, giving himself a perfect view. I don’t mind, not really. It’s easier to placate older men like Pete rather than call them out. Mama always said forgive an old man for his vices and he’ll always have your back. Maybe, that’s bad advice.
“Turn on the radio, Pete,” I call back over my shoulder.
“You got it. Rock or Country?”
“Put it on the Skynyrd station on the XM would ya?”
Tuesday’s Gone starts playing. I can’t hear that one without thinking of Happy Gilmore. My dad loved that movie. I wonder if he watches it with his new family. I wonder how he is with his new daughters. Did they have special, daddy-daughter movie time, too? I don’t watch movies anymore. I hate the movies. By the time I’ve got the coffee brewing, Regular, Decaf Regular, and Cinnamon Pecan, Pete is drooping on his stool and the pumps out front are starting to see some action.
“I got it, Pete. Go get some sleep.” I pat him on the shoulder as he passes me the stool.
“Your throne, Highness.”
“Good night, Pete.”
Same routine, every morning. Nothing changes around here, not for me at least.
By 7:00 AM I’ve seen most of my regulars. Marla Sadler has rolled through with her twin toddlers. Alejandro with his painting crew gassed up for that long drive to the suburbs of San Antonio. Bev Jenkins I couldn’t get rid of, she spent twenty minutes at my counter talking about the guy she met at the grocery store, ignorant of the other commuters as they came and went. She never paused, not even to take a breath.
We’d gone to school together, but we weren’t close—we never were. She doesn’t have anyone better to talk to. Knowing this, I let her talk anyway—she’s good people, sweet in a bruised sort of way. I get that. Since her surgery, she’s all about the dating scene. In school, she had always been kind of a bigger gal and the guys had never paid her much attention. Not that I felt sorry for her or anything, not even back in the day—I know there’s plenty of guys out there into bigger ladies. But Banderas is small and most of the guys—well, guys that age is shallow cruel little assholes and the girls were even worse. But no, I never felt sorry for her, at least not until her parents sent her to fat camp our junior year. Kind of messed up—since we all knew she didn’t want to go, and she wasn’t even that big. But parents do weird shit that they think is helping when it’s hurting—hurting more than anything anyone else could do. She came back skinny, well skinnier, and she kept it off for a while. Word around The Glen is that she had started to pack it on again, so her mom paid for the surgery. Without the fat, she was all T & A with a tiny waist, just how they like ‘em round here. It’s no surprise Bev is getting all the dates. At least she met this one in person. I don’t trust internet dating.
When Bev starts to repeat herself, I leave the counter to check the coffee machines. She follows me, ignoring my attempts to imply that I’m busy, working. Bev doesn’t work, not really, she keeps her mother’s house and Mom cuts her a check. That’s not a job it’s an allowance. As I begin brewing a fresh batch of regular and restocking the flavored creamers the chime for the door goes off. I turn to see Manny and Jesse Sanchez walking in. Habitually, I do a double-take, looking for Toni. Antonio never comes inside when he’s mad. I see him standing out at the pumps. He’s filling up the work-truck at the one diesel pump. He’s looking older, darker than he did on Sunday. It makes me sad to think I played a part in that.
“Mornin’ Kacie, Bev” said Manny, walking past me on his way to the energy drinks.
“Good morning.” I say to his back.
Jesse doesn’t say anything to me, just tips up his hat and gives this forced smile like he’s got indigestion. So Toni told him. He must be on his you’re-ruining-my-brother’s-life kick again. I don’t know why I even care. Everyone thinks Jesse’s this saint, but he’s not. I know him now—now that we are technically some kind of family.
Bev’s mouth has stopped running for the first time in what felt like a century as she watches us. She doesn’t know, nobody knows that I, quiet Kacie Diaz from Shady Glen, secretly had a baby with Antonio Martin Sanchez. Nobody knew that Savanah Maria Sanchez, now four years old, was my baby. Nobody but our parents and but these boys, Savanah’s uncles. Not even my best friend Annie. Man was she pissed when I moved away to have the baby. She never treated me the same after that. Maybe because I didn’t tell her why I left or that I was coming back. I barely spoke to anyone during my pregnancy, my Mom here in there. She was the opposite of supportive. In fact, I lived a whole year, up until the few weeks after Savannah’s birth, Toni’s mom, Mama Sanchez. That sweet woman, she moved cities just to raise our baby. Leaving her own to raise mine. That’s what Jesse was really pissed about. Boy just misses his Mama. Can’t say that I blame him, she is an amazing woman. I know she’d been his rock—ever since their dad went to prison. I remember sitting in that little house off 6th, the one that Jesse still lives in, holding Toni’s hand and breaking the news to her about the baby.
“Mom, I gotta—we gotta tell you something,” Toni faltered, and I squeezed his hand.
She looked worried and sat down on the coffee table right in front of us. I had this unbearable urge to pee, so much so that it was distracting me. It was still to early in my pregnancy for that to be a thing. I tried to push the sensation away. Toni kept hopping his knees.
“Mijo, what is it?” she said so calmly, as if she already knew.
“I’m pregnant!” I practically shouted it.
Without hesitation she leaned forward and grabbed my hand.
“That’s wonderful, mija—welcome to our family.”
Then she hugged us both and we all cried. My own mother hadn’t been so understanding, she’d given me two options: abortion or get out. She says nowadays that she never wanted that, that she had been upset that Toni and I had decided to keep the baby—that we were babies ourselves—not even really a couple until it happened. At the time though her disappointment included me packing all my shit into garbage bags.
Manny heads for the counter, so I moved to meet him. I glare at Bev when I notice she’s still watching us. She finally takes the hint.
“Well I’ll catch up with you later, Kace,” She leaves.
Jesse joins Manny at the counter and exhale like a deflating balloon rolling my eyes at Bev’s back. Manny laughs.
“How’s my niece?” Jesse says tersely.
“How does Toni say she is?” I respond.
“Easy you two, it’s still too early,” says Manny, and he’s right.
“She’s fine, just started Pre-K last week, didn’t you get the picture?” I ask.
I know why Toni didn’t come in—Jesse, and probably Manny, did as well. Toni had proposed again last weekend. It was the third time he’d brought it up—and the third time I’d said no.
“yeah, so cute in that little yellow dress with her glasses and shit,” said Manny.
“Your Mom made it,” I said.
“Of course, she did,” said Jesse.
Mama Sanchez was a dressmaker, a very talented dressmaker. She made the most beautiful little gowns, christenings, weddings, you-name-it and she’d made a dress for it. She’d worked at the same little alterations shop in Banderas for 20 years before Savannah came along. Now she just took special orders out of her new house in San Antonio. She did ok, but both me and Toni had to work full-time jobs to help foot the bills on the little place she shared with our baby girl. Ruining his brother’s life, hah! Toni at least has a chance at a life. He got to finish high school has a decent job. He sure as hell doesn’t have any stretch marks. I have to work in this shit hole six days a week and I had to drop out and get my GED. Its total bullshit that Jesse thinks he can blame it all on me. I ring up the coffees, breakfast sweets, and Manny’s oversized Redbull. Jesse pays and I hand him the change.
“It was good to see ya Kace,” says Manny.
Jesse just grabs his coffee and pulls his hat back down.
“Likewise.” I give a little wave as they leave.
I check the time on the register, its only 7:30 AM and I’m exhausted but I’m thankful the store is empty. Just like every other day, I’ve hit the 7:30-11:30 AM lull. I turn on the little TV behind the register. There’s airing Steel Magnolias on TBS, I leave the volume on mute and plop onto the stool, elbows on the counter, chin in my hands. The last thing I want to do is sit here alone and think about Toni. But here I am—thinking of him and Savanah and trying not to cry.
Its not that I don’t love him, or that he’s a bad guy or anything, I’m just not in love with him. Toni wants to get married because, it’s the right thing to do, he’s says. Real, romantic. I don’t want to be his or anyone else’s obligation. I don’t want to tell that story to my daughter. I know we could make it work. I could probably grow to love him. We tried being a couple, during the pregnancy, and for a little bit on and off afterwards, but when I wouldn’t marry him—Toni broke it off. I couldn’t hide my indecision. That was years ago, when Savanah was still in diapers. It’d be old news if he’d just stop asking. Maybe if I had a guy he’d stop, but I ain’t got time for that.
Last weekend Toni and I drove down to the city together, as we’ve done every weekend for the last four years. It had been a nice two days. Toni and I helped around the house, some easy yard work, minor repairs, little chores—whatever we could to help out Mama Sanchez. We spent time playing with Savannah and discussing the school she’d be attending. I cried when she tried on that little yellow dress. She was already so big. Our days together feel so short. I miss that time when I’m stuck here alone in the store. During those brief hours I have a family, a real family, or the shot at one. I don’t know why I won’t take it.
On Sundays Mama Sanchez always makes our shared favorite, enchiladas, for dinner. We laugh and smile, kiss our baby girl and make pretend. I cling to those moments but the minute I’m on the road headed back here—back to Banderas and The Glen it all begins to crumble. Feels like I’ve spent the weekend playing house. It was bad timing. I was moody and moping about not being there for Savannah’s first day of school.
“Well we could be there.” He’d said.
“You know I’ve got work.” I said.
“You don’t have to, you know—you don’t have to work ever again.” He smirked.
“What?” I said absentmindedly already thinking about the week ahead.
“Let’s get married Kace, we could move in with Ma, you wouldn’t have to work. I’ll get a better job in the city.”
“Toni don’t start.”
“Why not? I know you miss her. I know you want to be there for her, and we can. If you just let us.”
I sighed audibly and crossed my arms.
“We could be a real family, Kace. Savanah could have both her parents, something you and me never had.”
I hate when he tries to use her against me.
“Will you please just look at me Kassandra?” he pleaded.
“Stop Toni. How many times do I have to say no?” I snapped.
Then I reached down and grabbed my smokes, a signal to him that I was done talking.
I look at the clock on the register—it’s already 8:15 AM. Time for my first smoke break. Technically, I don’t get breaks. The counter is always supposed to be manned. But I’m right here and I smoke too much to lock up the store each time. I take my phone and grab a fresh Bic off the lighter rack. I sit down on the curb just outside the dinging glass doors, as I always do, blocking the door a little. I love the first smoke in the morning, that woodsy burn filling my lungs, harsh and comforting at the same time. With each drag I feel the stiffness in my neck and jaw release just a bit. Thank you, nicotine. Toni hates when I smoke, says I use it as an escape. He’s not wrong. The first smoke I ever had was the night we hooked up. Annie gave it to me. She’d swiped them from her dad. I wish I could talk to her, like I used to. Even now I think about telling her everything. Its not all on me though. She hasn’t been the same since she started hooking up with that rich kid from Four Rivers. I love Annie but she can’t keep her mouth shut, she loves to gossip and those preppy pendejos eat up our drama. Toni says it’s even worse now that she’s into coke. I don’t need the whole town in my business. I don’t need anymore people telling me how I should be living my life, certainly not Annie fucking Stuckey. I put out my cigarette and go back inside. I change the TV to channel seven, Days of Our Lives should be starting soon.
I sit on that hard-wooden thing until my ass goes numb, then I check the shelves, the bathrooms, mop the already clean floors. There’s nothing to do. Then the door chime goes off and Abuelita walks in the door. Not my granny, Granny Sanchez—she insists that all of us kids from The Glen call her that.
“Buenos días, mija.”
“Hola, Abuelita. ¿Cómo estás hoy?”
“Oh, estoy haciendo bien, mija.”
She hobbles over to the counter where she takes up her typical lean.
“Pan, leche, café, ¿algo más?” I say to her tiny weathered face.
I can see traces of Mama Sanchez in her eyes. Funny, I hate when people tell me I have my mother’s eyes but I always notice it in others.
“…y azúcar, por favor, mija.”
I bag her groceries as I gather them, bread, milk, coffee, sugar, always the same. I know her preferences without asking. Before ringing her up I pour her a cup of the Cinnamon Pecan blend with two scoops of sugar and a splash of the French vanilla creamer. I don’t bother telling her it’s on the house—she knows that already.
I catch her looking over my shoulder at the Black and Milds on the rack. I finish sacking the groceries and grab her one—what harm can one do? She smiles sweetly at me then opens her wallet. Always cash, crisp twenties, straight from Jesse’s bank account—he must have dropped it off this morning when he picked up Manny from the house he shared with her.
“No debería comprar esas cosas.”
I know she felt guilty spending Jesse’s money on the habit he hated.
“Te tengo en este. Será nuestro pequeño secreto,” I say, smiling back at her.
We should forgive the elderly their vices. I may not know my Mexican grandma, but I knew her, and she always treated me like her nieta.
“Eres una buena chica, mija. ¿Cuándo te casarás con mi nieto?”
She always snuck that one into our conversations somehow. This whole family was in on it, pressuring me to marry in. Luckily a flustered stranger came through the glass doors before I could answer her. He looks curiously at our casual demeanor and the already bagged goods warming on the glass topped counter.
Clearing his throat, he says, “Pump wouldn’t read my card. Can you ring me up for $30?”
“Sure thing. Pump number?”
“Seven. Thanks.” He says grabbing his card.
Abuelita just stands there waiting while I ring up the stranger. He leaves his receipt for me to trash. She rolls her eyes.
She knows I am half white, but she never treats me like I’m white. Not like some of the other family members, not like some of my own. I laugh and she smiles. That smile reminds me of Savannah.
“Mira.” I say pulling out my phone to show her the picture of the yellow dress.
While she digs in her little purse for her glasses, I slide it across the counter.
“¡Ah, mi bebé, se ve tan bonita! Como tú cuando eras una niña.”
My father had been friends with Antonio’s father, before he went to jail of course. She’d always been around, watching me for my Mom after Dad split. Not that I needed a babysitter at that age—I was nearly fifteen. She’d say well, someone must teach to be a proper woman. She fed us, let us play in her yard, house, garage, everywhere. She’s the reason I speak Spanish, know how to make tortillas, sew—you know things a proper woman should know.
“Gracias, mija, gracias por mostrarme eso.”
"Cuando consigamos las fotos, traeré una por tu casa."
“¡Ah! Me gustaría mucho.”
I walked around the corner and kissed her on the cheek before she gathered her things to leave. I watch her tiny form climb back into her boat of a Lincoln sedan. My phone vibrates in my vest pocket. It’s a text from Annie.
Its my first text from her in weeks. A big part of me is saying “yes!” and the other part is wondering why she’s texting me at all.
So, it’s a coke party. I hear Abuelita in my head, “Tipico, no?” Marco, is another member of my family—he is Toni’s drug-dealing cousin, on his dad’s side. Abuelita had another name for him, “Travieso.”
Sorry. I don’t think I’m leaving the Glen tonight. Gas money.
I lie, I don’t even have mom’s car this weekend.
She doesn’t offer to come get me, even though she lives down the block and she doesn’t text anything else. The last time I let Annie push me into a party I didn’t want to be at—her brother’s fifteenth I wound up pregnant by I guy I had zero interest in. I had a crush on Arlo—sure he was a few years younger, but just two. Arlo was cute, smart, kind of funny in his own way. A little too shy for his own good, but he’d always talked to me. That made me feel special since he didn’t talk to many folks. Annie knew I liked Arlo. Guess she didn’t like the idea. She kept trying to set me up with Toni. It’s kind of funny that she doesn’t even know what all her pushing really caused. All that and Toni and I are still aren’t together. I doubt that she’d really care—she always talked mad shit about the girls who got pregnant in high school. I guess she was right. I wasn’t good enough for her baby brother.
Every time I tried to speak to Arlo that night, she’d walk over with Toni shoving us together while grabbing Arlo by the elbow and leading him away. I was so bored and lonely I just started talking to Toni, he kept getting us drinks, one thing lead to another. We were both drunk, some idiot had sold us a keg. I wonder if Abuelita would still love me if she knew I let Toni take my virginity in the back of her Lincoln. I decide its best not to text Annie back, I lock the screen and put the phone back in my pocket.
After a brief lunch rush, mostly guys working road crews and cops grabbing prepacked sandwiches and oversized sodas, the station is once again a ghost town. The middle of the day is the longest part of any shift. I didn’t get another in store customer until 2:15 PM. A couple of high schoolers, girls I vaguely recognize as under classmen—well they were under classmen when I was still at Banderas High, they’re probably juniors now.
“Playing hookie?” I ask trying to be friendly.
The prettier of the two girls scoffed, “No. early dismissal.”
Rolling my eyes, I rang up their Dr. Pepper and hot Cheetos. Early dismissal, my grades were never good enough for that, Manny’s were though, hell Manny graduated a year early. Shame really that Jesse put him on the job so quick afterwards. I was proud of Toni for standing up during that fight—the only time I’d seen him argue with his big brother. Because of Toni, Manny only worked half-days. The door chime rings.
“Speak of the devil!” I laugh as Manny and Arlo stroll in, sweaty from their walk.
“Huh?” says Arlo.
“Hey Kace.” Manny waves walking towards the beer case.
I watch him grab two forties of Ole E. Arlo is searching for Takis.
“They’re on the other aisle now.”
“Pete said he wanted all the Mexican stuff together.”
“Ok,” He says sarcastically.
I reposition myself on the stool, blocking the camera. Manny tosses Toni’s old driver’s license on the counter.
“Toni know you have this?”
“Maybe.” Manny smirks as he says it.
“Whatever.” I can’t help but laugh; they do look alike.
“What time are you off?” Manny asks.
“You know I’m off at four.” I reply.
By then Arlo has wandered up with two more forties and like six bags of Takis.
“You all set there?”
He shrugs. Still the shy guy.
“You didn’t have the big bag,” Arlo explains.
“You and Manny are the only people eating’em on this side of town.”
Arlo smiles rolling his eyes.
“Come drink with us,” Manny interrupts.
“What? No,” I say.
“Yeah, come on,” Arlo chimes in.
“No, but I’m about to take a smoke break want to chill a sec?” I wave my pack at them.
We go out front and sit on the curb Manny cracks the first forty.
“Seriously?” I ask.
“What? Pete won’t be here for another hour. Right?” he’s already raising it to his lips.
I shake the pack, I must have finished them on my last break.
“Damn, I’m out.”
“I got you,” says Arlo, handing his pack of reds to me.
“Phew! Cowboy killers, huh?”
He just smiles and lights me up. Habitually, I pull out my phone and set it in my lap.
“Who’s that?” Arlo asks.
I look down at the image of Savannah on my lock screen. I catch Manny looking too.
Manny looks away before I can meet his eyes.
“Wow, she looks just like you, cute!” Arlo says smiling again.
“Really? Thanks.” I stammer.
I take a long drag, hoping it’ll burn away my guilt. I exhale a big cloud of blue smoke. Nope no change. Just another day.
Miranda Ramírez is a multidisciplinary artist and author residing in Houston, Texas. You may find her publications in Ripples in Space, Glass Mountain, Shards, The Bayou Review, Coffin Bell,Puro Chicanx Writers of the 21st Century, and forthcoming later this spring, Cowboy Jamboree. She is a founding editor of Defunkt Magazine whose visual works have been exhibited at Williams Tower Gallery, Tea+Art Gallery, and Insomnia Gallery. She is currently drafting her first novel as an MFA candidate and fellowship awardee at Sam Houston State University. Instagram: @ramirez.miranda.n, Twitter: @tellme_to_smile