Mary Miller

We met at a Waffle House outside Memphis. Ben was coming from some little town in Missouri where his father had mined lead and I was coming from Nashville where I'd been visiting my sister. Christmas break was over—his life put on hold again, an ex-wife and two kids left behind. I had no life other than the one that went with me wherever I was.

We sat at the counter and talked to the cook, a friendly man who asked what we did.

"We're graduate students," I said.

"I'm a dishwasher," Ben said.

"You're not a dishwasher, you teach college students. In a few months you'll be a doctor."

"Nobody's calling me doctor. I'll never be a doctor." The cook tapped the counter with a fat hand and turned back to the grill. "I've always been a dishwasher and I'll always be a dishwasher," Ben said. It irritated him that I couldn't just let him be a dishwasher.

"I wonder if you'd enjoy telling people you were a dishwasher so much if you knew that's all you'd ever be."

"You're making me insane already," he said, but then he took my hand and held it on his leg and we watched the cook scrape grease off the grill, break frozen meat patties off a stack.

After a few minutes, he set our plates in front of us, smiling at Ben with a shake of his head. A look that said, women! I picked at the orange cheese on my sandwich. Ben squashed his burger down with one hand and ate until it was falling apart.

He missed the place he used to wash dishes, the Four Leaf Clover or something, how all he'd had to do was make dirty things clean. How, at the end of each shift, he'd been too tired to think. Now we were tired because we had too much time and too little motivation to fill it with anything other than drinking at the bar where we went to get away from the university, the university people and their university talk. They didn't even trust us enough to put phones in our offices. Ben played Johnny Cash on the jukebox, Jimi Hendrix and Tom Petty for me. Thursday night was steak night and, in accordance with local custom, we put on our nice pants and combed our hair, sawed into the slabs of meat that filled our plates. We liked how the waitresses called the little bowls of iceberg green salads. Ink pen, we'd say. Tuna fish. Raise up. Then we'd say of course no one wanted to hang out with us, of course we were alone, and we were happy.

But all of that was coming to an end. We had four months left and already it felt done.

In the parking lot, he lit a cigarette. He smoked the cheapest cigarettes he could buy, brands I'd never even heard of. I bummed one and we stood there leaning against his old-man car: American and boat-like, a car he insisted had been nice when he'd bought it. We still had another four hours to get to Hattiesburg, a town ninety miles northeast of New Orleans, though we'd yet to go there.

He was thirty years old and already a failure: a family left behind, mother and brother dead, reliving traumas he would never get past. He didn't even want to get past them any more. Before we'd left for break, he'd told me the story he'd not been telling me for years. I offered to kill the man but he was already dead, had died in a four-wheeler accident years ago. In the place he came from, there were more accidents than seemed possible: caves giving way, motorcycles and cars smashing into walls and careening off embankments, the people trying so hard to die before finding it wasn't as difficult as they'd imagined.

Mary Miller is the author of BIG WORLD, a collection of stories. She's a Michenor Fellow at the University of Texas, where she serves as editor-in-chief of Bat City Review.

Detail of photo on main page courtesy of Pete Zarria.

Read more of MM's work in the archive.

W i g l e a f               10-01-12                                [home]