Shirleen McCoy was late. Adrien's old blue Ford wouldn't start. Shirleen had taken Adrien and Hanna to school and called Big Ed's Fixit Shop to have the car picked up. It had been in the shop twice lately. Ed said it needed major repairs, but she couldn't afford them. Not with the support money always behind.
She expected LaWanda to be at Coiffure Magic, the beauty shop Shirleen owned, when she arrived. It was LaWanda’s morning to open up, start coffee, empty trash. But the parking lot was empty, the door locked. That flighty woman would be the death of her.
The phone was ringing when Shirleen opened the door. There was the mess LaWanda had left last night--bottles of polish, emery boards, cotton balls. She was tired of cleaning up after LaWanda. She had probably been trading jokes and laughing like a hyena. Some of her customers were downright bawdy. Some of Shirleen's were, too, but she never encouraged it.
LaWanda was due at eight, and it was a quarter past. She was twenty-eight years old, old enough to clean up after herself. But her life was as messy as the manicure table. A divorce, affairs, live-in boyfriends, an abortion. And now, dating Rocky Woodall, a seventeen-year-old high school student.
Talulah Jory, guidance counselor at Eastridge, had told Shirleen about it. Talulah often told tales out of school, confidential stories that would get other guidance counselors fired. But her father was on the board of education, her husband a councilman. Nobody would dare reprimand her.
According to Talulah, Rocky's parents were going to bring charges against LaWanda. They’d discovered Rocky's room empty, his car gone, when they thought he was studying. Mr. Woodall found Rocky and LaWanda parked on Lover's Loop. Several people had witnessed the scene he created. Now, Rocky was threatening to leave home.
Shirleen had watched Rocky play football many times. She went to the games because of her girls. Adrien played the clarinet in the band, and Hanna was a cheerleader.
Rocky had received several awards. Shirleen had seen a picture of him and his parents with the coach from Baldrich College. A four-year scholarship. "Not bad for somebody who can barely sign his name," Talulah said.
Shirleen was on the telephone, trying to soothe an irate customer, when LaWanda came in. "Didn’t you choose the color?" Shirleen asked.
"Who is it?" LaWanda mouthed. She started putting on makeup.
"Nanelle Grundy. You colored her yesterday.”
“Oh, God," LaWanda said. "I tried to tell her it would be real light."
"Well," Shirleen said into the telephone, "come in. We'll see what we can do."
She slammed the phone down. "That woman. Threatening to have her lawyer call."
She turned to LaWanda. "Where have you been? You were supposed to open.”
"I'm sorry. I was sick." LaWanda was pale. And she’d lost weight. She looked like a chicken in red stretch pants.
"Didn't you use that excuse last week?"
"But I am sick." LaWanda covered her mouth and hurried to the restroom. I could strangle her, Shirleen thought. We'll be covered up with Felisa out today.
Shirleen started coffee and straightened up the clutter. Felisa, she thought. Trying artificial insemination. For the fifth time. She ought to quit wasting her money. Sometimes, kids are just a peck of trouble. Like this morning with that old car. And them too good to ride the bus.
Shirleen's customer came in, ten minutes late. Behind before she even got started. But she had to laugh and talk about the weather and whatever else the woman wanted to talk about.
LaWanda came out and started working on a customer, but dropped the emery board and rushed back to the restroom.
When she came out, Shirleen excused herself and met her in the kitchen.
LaWanda got a soda out of the refrigerator and took a sip. "What's wrong?" Shirleen whispered.
LaWanda shook her head. “You don't want to know. I can't believe it myself."
"Are you pregnant?"
LaWanda nodded. She took another sip of soda.
"Whose is it?"
"You don't want to know that either."
LaWanda's eyes widened. "How did you know?"
"My sources," Shirleen said. "What are you going to do?"
LaWanda walled her eyes.
"Does he know?" Shirleen asked.
"Not yet," LaWanda said.
"You can get in a lot of trouble, fooling around with high school boys. Legal stuff.”
"I know. His parents are a pain in the butt."
Does she expect them to be thrilled? Shirleen wondered.
LaWanda sipped her soda. "A lawyer called. Threatened to sue me. I told him Rocky might be only seventeen, but he has years of experience. He said if I knew what was good for me, I wouldn't see him again. He hung up before I had a chance to tell him Rocky was the one did the chasing."
Just wait till they find out about the baby, Shirleen thought. What does she think Rocky will say when he learns he's going to be a father? His parents will have a conniption.
She returned to her customer. Instead of listening to her chatter, she thought about LaWanda's talent for trouble. She’d had an abortion after an affair with a married man. Surely, she wouldn't go through that again. Not after all the tears, sleepless nights, guilt.
Rocky Woodall. Shirleen had seen him flirting with the high school girls. What was LaWanda to him, except a minute of passion in a parked car?
Shirleen had been married to one like him. One who keeps score, as if tallying touchdowns.
What would Felisa say? Already in her mid-thirties. Married to Dillon for fifteen years, trying to get pregnant for ten. Felisa and Dillon would be wonderful parents. At least, Shirleen thought they would, though you never can tell. Nothing easy about being a parent. Angels become demons at the drop of a hat. And sickness can descend at any moment. All the decisions, rules, tantrums.
Shirleen worked like a robot, from one head of hair to another. LaWanda was not her problem. She had only hired her to do manicures and frostings; she hadn't taken her to raise.
Monday, Felisa was there when Shirleen got to the shop. She was cheerful, fresh-scrubbed and girlish.
"How did it go?" Shirleen asked.
"I won’t know for a few days,” Felisa said. "We've decided though. If it doesn't work, we're going to adopt. We've been through the ordeal for the last time."
Shirleen noticed that Nanelle Grundy was waiting for LaWanda. She glanced at the clock. 8:20. "She should be here in a minute," she called.
"Give my money back and I’ll go somewhere else,” Nanelle said, her face red.
Shirleen looked at the wispy hair. The only hope for it is time, she thought. She opened the register and counted out the bills. Nanelle grasped them between wine-colored fingernails, stuck them in her sequined purse, and tottered out on high heels. The door slammed. Good riddance, Shirleen thought.
She went back to work. "What's wrong with LaWanda?" Felisa asked.
No way to avoid it, Shirleen thought. "Stomach problems," she said.
Felisa looked at her, set her mouth in a straight line, and kept rolling hair.
Ten minutes later, LaWanda drove up in her smoky-tailed Plymouth, puffed a cigarette, stubbed it in the ashtray, and got out. Smoking again, after she'd worked so hard to quit.
She looked sick, yellowish, body caved in.
"Is she pregnant?" Felisa whispered.
Lips trembling, Felisa turned back to the beautiful young head she was shearing.
LaWanda rushed to the restroom. "LaWanda will be right there," Shirleen called to a customer.
Shirleen wanted to ask LaWanda some questions. Had she told Rocky about the baby? What was she going to do? But she kept silent.
Felisa, who didn’t like LaWanda anyway, barely talked to her. Once she asked her if she had time for another manicure. Later, she said, "Excuse me," when she reached for a bottle of gel.
Shirleen was glad to see quitting time. She had to pick up Adrien and check on the old car. No one to help, no shoulder to lean on.
Ed, the owner of Big Ed's Fixit Shop, sometimes asked her to dinner, but she always had an excuse. She'd gone to school with Ed. He used to give her Valentines, but she'd never given him the time of day. He was a farmer's son. She'd grown up on a hard-scrabble farm, work from first light to bedtime. She'd been looking for "different." And to her sorrow, she'd found it. But Ed was too ordinary, too boring. All he knew was hard work. Of course, she had to admit hard work ruled her life, too.
A few days later, Felisa dragged in, all optimism vanished. "I started my period.” Her lips trembled.
"I'm sorry," Shirleen said. She hugged Felisa who wept on her shoulder. Sometimes, she felt as if Felisa were her responsibility, the same as Adrien and Hanna. Everybody needs a mother's shoulder once in a while.
Felisa went to the restroom, and soon came out, ready to start the day's routine. She'll be all right, Shirleen thought. She's stronger than she looks.
A few days later, it was LaWanda who came to work in tears. She smelled of cigarette smoke. “I told him," she said. "He wants no part of it. Said how does he know it's his. If he don't want me and his baby, we don't want him."
"You're talking sense," Shirleen said. "But what are you going to do?"
"Felisa and Dillon are talking about adopting. They could adopt my baby."
"I don't know," Shirleen said. "You'd always be looking over their shoulders."
La Wanda shook her head. "If I wanted to raise this baby, I'd keep it."
The next day, Shirleen found Felisa in the kitchen, her face pale, arms wrapped around her body. "What's wrong?" she asked.
"LaWanda wants me and Dillon to adopt her baby." She shivered. “At first, I was thrilled. But it wouldn't work. I can't take LaWanda's baby; Dillon can't take Rocky's. Dillon works long hours at the factory, but he's always found time to coach a boys' baseball team. He likes to teach the boys just learning to play. Rocky used to be on his team. I don't like LaWanda, and Dillon don't like Rocky. We don't want their baby."
"Any baby you adopt might have parents like LaWanda and Rocky," Shirleen said.
"I know. But we wouldn't know them. Wouldn't see them in our baby. Can you imagine a little boy who struts around like Rocky? Or a little girl who laughs like LaWanda?”
"She may have an abortion," Shirleen said.
"I pray she won’t,” Felisa said. "It breaks my heart, but it wouldn't work."
"What you say makes sense,” Shirleen said.
She felt surrounded by heartbreak. She would be glad when night came, a football game; she could forget her cares. Of course, Rocky Woodall, superstar, would be doing his thing, but so would Adrien, a good clarinetist, and Hanna, a great cheerleader.
And then, Adrien called. "The stupid old car won't start," she whined. "We need to get home so we can get ready. Hanna has to be at school early. The cheerleaders want to practice the new routine again before the game."
"I'll call Ed and tell him to have the car picked up," Shirleen said. "He can drop you off at home. I'll be there soon."
She looked up the number of the repair shop. She'd have to rush like crazy to get the girls to school on time.
But they were worth it. In spite of money worries, trouble with that old car, unknowns waiting for them. She knew why Felisa yearned for a baby. For joy and love and belonging forever.
It was good to hear Ed's voice. Perhaps, she was ready for "ordinary," after all. The next time he asked her to have dinner, she might say yes.
Elizabeth Howard has an MA in English from Vanderbilt University. She writes both poetry and fiction. Her work has been published in Xavier Review, Cold Mountain Review, Comstock Review, Wind, Poem, Appalachian Heritage, The Licking River Review, The Distillery, and other journals. She has two books of poetry—Anemones (1998) and Gleaners (2005).