When I met Rosa, my freshman year at Georgia, I was majoring in art history. Several things made “the technicolor slide”—as it was known—the perfect hideout for me academically. My mother had urged (not far shy of exhorted) me to go north; she plied me with sweatshirts and a book called From the Kudzu to the Ivy, even pulled me out of school during the winter of my junior year for a trip to scout what she called, with dreamy pomposity, “the halls of higher learning.” As we slogged through soapy gray slush behind Alexander Hall at Princeton, she interrupted her sermon about the majesty of collegiate Gothic architecture. “What you’ve got to do,” she said, tapping a hard-bitten fingernail against her forehead, “is devote your life to the apprehension of the beautiful. This is the place for it. This is the place.” She stamped a decisive foot, an astronaut planting her flag. I started to laugh; only my mother’s advice could sound so much like badly translated Latin. Next she’d be telling me to be sure to strive; striving is the thing to do: don’t leave excellence unstriven for.
But I had to recognize, as I let my eyes roam over the austere oaks, the salted flagstone walks, the somber and lovely stone of the dorms, how attracted I was by her vision. Here, among people smarter than me (or was it I?), among monuments to a history longer and larger than mine, I might find a life outside the bounds and binds of home, without expectations, without golf: a life of the mind.
But it was cold, after all. The slush invaded my clothes, my skin, and new granules stung my face every second or two. I wanted to find a warm place to eat, to split a beer with Mom, have a cigarette, listen to her enthuse: “Gosh, Brian, it says here Princeton’s often called the northernmost school in the South and the southernmost school in the North. In the War, they lost exactly as many students in butternut as in blue. How about that?” At home she rarely drank, never smoked, but up East we were to be sophisticates, Ivy League material, not refugees from some Dixie cowtown. She wanted me to see, too, that this trip—and my impending “decision”—marked a passage into adulthood. I was a big boy now, my own man . . .at least until we crossed back into the South, into reality, into my father’s realm and purview. I knew, as we settled onto stools in a belowstreets tavern, that on our way home Mother would remind me that Some things are best kept to ourselves, and certain omissions, in a good cause, needn’t count as deceit.(Near Richmond, three days later, she said her piece . . .and then flipped the last of our cigarettes, along with a disposable lighter, into a dumpster behind McDonald’s.)
But it pleased me anyway to sit in a bar with her, smoking, nursing an English ale on draft—Mom having misled a shrugging waiter: “He’s my son, flesh of my flesh. You don’t think I know how old he is?”—and listening to her prophesy how I would thrive in what she kept calling “a stimulating environ.” I knew we’d go home eventually, knew this illusory “adulthood” would evaporate, knew my father and golf would loom up again, stake their old, their prior, claim . . .and my grades wouldn’t have cut it, most likely, and anyway my parents’ little bit of money was tied up in my travel, equipment, entry fees. I’d go to a school where I got a full ride, crip classes, and year-round sunshine. We were pretending, and Mom saw that as well as I did. But we sat there still, fingering the taffrail, spinning cardboard coasters, blowing smoke, talking and listening. . .equals. Is there anything lovelier than an amber ale in bar light, underground, amid brass and black wood and bric-a-brac, on a winter afternoon? We knew it couldn’t last, but we averted our eyes from the truth, kept up our chatter: Omission, after all, needn’t count as deceit. Not always. Not in Princeton.
So art history was the best balm available for Mom’s disappointment, and perfect for my purposes: high-toned but low-key, ether enough for her, gut enough for me. It had other advantages: what better place to apprehend beauty than a department where fourfifths of the students are women? In what other skate major could I nap in class without having to battle the lights? The college trip was a fading memory by then; I was in Athens to play golf, not to learn. I had left that behind. It could wait, always had.
Golf had been my focus since I was seven, when my father sawed down a set of clubs for me, Tommy Armour Silver Scots; their shafts were still warm to the touch when he steered me into the backyard to get me started on a short game. By the end of the next summer I was playing 45 holes every day and shooting under 40 a nine from the women’s tees. On my way, Dad told me, to something great. We’d get there, he assured me; he’d have done it himself, if only he’d been gifted with “the advantages you’ve had.” I would swing the club, not a thought in my head, and he’d take care of the rest: graphite drivers, smooth-bore irons, travel, coaching, thinking. Together, we’d make it.
I became a very solid junior player, won a passel of state and regional events and a handful of national ones. I loved the winning from the beginning (who doesn’t?), and eventually the golf leached its way down into my soul, too, a creeping poison. My rivals, mostly country giants who swung out of their shoes at every shot, had to stand by and watch me knock three-woods stiff from 75 yards behind them, and they couldn’t take it. Trying to outdo me, they would flail at their wedge shots like woodcutters, lay a shroud of sod over their barely budged balls. The dreaded chili-dip. Having walked ahead, I stood on the edge of the green, putter against my scrawny leg, hands on my sawhorse hips (making sure to point my thumbs to the front, like a pansy). I watched the fuming brutes fetch divots thick as their forearms, then kick them savagely back into place. I watched middle irons get buried up to their hosels in fairways; I watched wedges windmill into ponds; I heard curses of impossible virtuosity. No finesse, poor bastards. All the strength in the world, but no finesse at all. In defeat, their handshakes were always sweaty and limp, and their congratulations were inaudible.
Far from the greens—in itchy shrubbery, canebrakes, abandoned deer stands, and even, once, in the bed of a construction-site dump truck—my father, his view of the action partially eclipsed, pumped his fist in the air where only I could see it. Later, in the car, we replayed my victories shot by shot, over and over. As we sped home past clapboard groceries and disemboweled stock cars and fields of broomsedge, the gold trophy I’d won sitting in the backseat like a passenger, I was happy. My father mussed my hair; the wind roared; the trophy gleamed; he let me work the gear shift. We were a team . . .as long as I kept up my end of the bargain, as long as I kept winning.
When I finished high school, the scholarship offers rolled in, though my scores had leveled off during my final two seasons. After trouncing the competition at the state championship as a freshman and again as a sophomore, I slipped to third—then, senior year, I shot a fat 80 the last day and fell all the way out of the top ten. I blamed my punchless play, not very nervously, on senioritis—by then I’d signed a letter of intent. Nothing to worry about: the future was already written.
I chose the best golf situation I could find close enough to home for my father to see me play. Georgia had a solid tradition, good practice facilities, a well-organized, hands-off coach, a decent home track, and four graduating seniors; if they happened to have a library equipped with books—and Mom assured me, trying to make the best of it, that they did—that was gravy as far as I was concerned.(As for Mom: the only sign of discontent I could see was in the way her hopes for me had wilted. Grand aspirations can’t take the climate down here, it seems. Too hot, too stupid: we don’t have amber ales or mind-clearing cold or collegiate Gothic, the prerequisites of respectability. “Be good, Brian,” she said, as I sat in my packed car, idling, raring to go: Off to college. I shifted into gear, set my foot on the brake: Get it over with, Mom. Tell me you love me. Tell me to excel. “Be good,” she repeated, almost sadly; I edged forward. Tears were welling in her eyes, and I turned away to drive. I expected her, as she usually did, to rally at this last moment, to lift her head, wave briskly, and shout something about performing to my intellectual capabilities. Instead her voice grew soft, plaintive. “Play well,” she mumbled, and I went.)
I’d like to say I didn’t date in high school because I was shy and afraid, didn’t rebel out of a lack of imagination, didn’t toke or snort or trip because I was sleepy and incurious; and all that’s true, up to a point. Mostly, though, I was indifferent; I wasn’t interested in people my age. I didn’t care, didn’t have to. Dad had cut a snug niche for me in the world; we had poured my energies, my skills—all I had to offer—into golf. I had every assurance I needed: I was a winner. Coming down our street in the rain, you’d pass a dozen houses, two dozen, without seeing a single car exposed to the elements; but my father’s convertible dripped ostentatiously in the drive, displaced from the garage by my trophies. It was a sleek red billboard: Winner Lives Here.
Dad had enclosed the carport, installed backlit lucite cases, astroturf for bad-weather putting, a workbench for club repair—he’d made a shrine to the idea that I was special, that I was immune from the world’s petty insults, its distractions, its ways of wearing one down. He kept the trophy room immaculate, the cases windexed, plaques polished, lights bright. One stormy day in junior high I decided to monkey around with a Crenshaw-style swinging-door putting stroke, so I sequestered myself in the garage. On my father’s bench, spread over sheets of newspaper in ragged rows and columns, were nearly a hundred of the miniature plastic drivers that crown trophies the way angels sit Christmas firs. I scanned the room, saw that every trophy’s clenched hands were empty, then looked back down at the drivers. Around each was a halo of gold touch-up paint: triumphs, my father believed, must not be permitted to dull. He’s a scary man. Had I been an adult, I might have pitied him. I’m sure other parents on the junior circuit had a good chuckle at his obsessiveness, his on-course peculiarities; maybe I wasn’t the only person to see my old man crouched in the forks of low trees, peeking from between giant heads of fountain grass. But I had no basis for comparison. He was my father; he loved me; he wanted my wins to stay golden.
So when I got to Georgia, I was convinced that my life had been laid out and that my destiny was simply to traipse through it, uncovering the glories. I’d been lucky enough to find, at an age when I needed it, a talent. My life was on the links: school was just the purgatory where I worked off the excesses of joy. I was naive: I suppose I assumed that everyone had a gift, a vessel into which to pour a life. I guessed everyone sleepwalked through the rest of it, the unworthy hours devoted to other things. Mediocrity didn’t exist, so far as I knew: I had found something I did better than anyone else in the world. That would never change, and every person must have a similar skill, a preserve, a reason for living. It never occurred to me to question—Dad had told me a thousand times: Winners win. Losers think.
I arrived in Athens assuming I would put in my four years of golf, attending class, as always, as a counterweight to bliss. I would collect my All-America plaques, my NCAA Championship cups; I’d pass them wordlessly to my father, whose eyes would be moist as he installed them in their allotted spaces in his garage. Then it would be on to the PGA, to wealth and stardom.
The team practiced on several courses around Athens, including one way out off Highway 129—a rough track called Cob’s Glynn. Cob’s attractiveness as a practice site had nothing to do with golf; its bunkers were bottomed with gluey red clay, its greens were pocked with poa annua, billygoats grazed in pastures that abutted (much too closely) the fairways of the back nine, and in its layout there were all kinds of gimmicks: blind shots, hidden fingers of creek, old oaks in landing areas, even a greenside bunker in the shape of Georgia (cut with all the punctilio you’d expect from a speed freak on a backhoe).
Cob’s was a dog-track; but practice there was followed by a sojourn to Hawg Heaven, a legendary barbeque joint in the sticks. The proprietor was a huge booster of Georgia athletics, a bald fireplug named Seamus O’Lughnasaigh. On fall Saturdays between the hedges you could see him in his seat behind the Bulldog bench, jabbing the air with a whiskey flask, a red-and-black logo painted atop his pink pate. Mr. O’Lughnasaigh could be counted on to give all Bulldog athletes—even those who played lowly non-revenue sports like golf—free plates of Q, slaw, hash, and rice.
I’d heard all about Hawg Heaven, and I was primed for the free meal after we played Cob’s early in my freshman fall. It wasn’t that I’m a barbeque nut (I don’t, truth be told, much like the peppered mustard-grease that passes for sauce in north Georgia). More than the food, what I was ready to dig into was the feeling I’d hit the big time: rules were being finessed for me, risks run (piddling risks, true, but risks all the same). At Hawg Heaven I would collect, on a wafer of styrofoam, the first modest perk of celebrity. I skipped lunch in preparation.
But things didn’t work out as I’d hoped. Hawg Heaven turned out to be a white cinderblock shack with the caved-in look of a mouth devoid of teeth. Dangling from the side of the building was a gnarled air conditioner; the niche for the unit had been cut too big, and someone had stuffed the resulting space with oilrags and plastic grocery sacks and scraps of corkboard. The gray wreckage bore spray-painted swastikas, bullet holes; its vents had been pinched like a pie crimped lovingly shut. It was covered on one side with bumps, swellings, nodules—an unreadable rash of braille that made it look like someone had tortured it, from inside, with a tack hammer. The window unit was one of those things so sublimely damaged, so dumbly ugly, that it had depths of expression: I felt for it, somehow. And despite the disfigurements it chugged away—the deafening suck drowned out all other sound.
On the wide front window, “Hawg Heaven” had been stenciled in silver script, and painted above was a bulbous cartoon pig complete with halo and harp; otherwise the shack bore no decoration. The window was as broad as a service bay; in fact, the restaurant looked very much like a superannuated filling station, dragged into the woods to live out its golden years in peace. The hot tang of barbeque sauce filled the air, strong enough to bring me to the verge of a sneeze.
We walked in. Hawg Heaven’s floor was cracked cement crammed with picnic tables set end to end. Checkered sheets of plastic had been fastened to the tables with an industrial stapler that hung on a hook beside the cash register; iced-tea pitchers and loaves of white bread were spaced along the tabletops. Outdated calendars— Norman Rockwell, power tools wielded by women in bikinis, chimpanzees on toilets—lined the walls. Behind the counter, absently shooing flies away from the potato salad with a ladle, was a girl in a sauce-smeared apron. No Mr. O. No customers. It was only four o’clock.
I was near the back of our group, a freshman—I think there were probably 10 of us. Like the other guys, I hadn’t bothered to put on my street shoes after I shed my spikes at Cob’s. We wore shorts, and our legs were deeply tanned, but our feet gleamed like bone. One of the ways we could be recognized by Mr. O’Lughnasaigh as golfers, I supposed, was the way we’d track clay into Heaven on our pale, homely feet.
The first guy to the feed-trough was this asshole named Wass, our only senior. He wasn’t a good player—he’d never made the traveling squad for a tournament—but as our grayest, loudest, brayingest veteran, he rated the front of the chow line. “Coach left me in charge,” Wass bellowed in the parking lot, “in his absence. Watch and learn, youngsters.” Forays into Hawg Heaven were the only benefit Wass got out of his affiliation with the team; he was planning to take full advantage. I had played with him at Cob’s (Coach believed in spreading the misery; no one—especially no freshman—was exempt from being paired with Wass). For a change, he didn’t spend the day bragging about how, in his spare time, he starred in porn movies under the name Iron Johnson. After every bad shot, instead of screeching about his ratshit luck or helicoptering clubs as was his habit, he’d only rubbed his belly, smiled a rapturous smile, and said, “Good groceries comin’, friends. Good groceries comin’.”
Most of what Wass said was legitimately awful, but everything he said, even the rare innocent remark, was rendered a bit creepy by his aspect. He’d had his eyebrows singed off in a lab accident in high school, and at some point, fueled by bourbon and vanity, he’d hired a tattoo artist in Atlanta to draw him new ones. He’d gone to a grimy parlor in Buck Head with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s to cut the pain and a dishrag to stifle his screams, conceiving of the operation as a sort of old-time waterfront-movie adventure. The result was grisly: too high, too dark, and with an impossibly steep, quizzical arch. The new brows made him look like a cross between Lon Chaney and Divine. Wass was sensitive about his replacements, and he often wore a widebrimmed white plantation hat tugged down over them.
But he’d doffed the lid when we came inside Hawg Heaven, in accordance with some quaint Christian custom his parents had taught him, a habit that (unlike every moral tenet) he’d never quite gotten around to abandoning. The too-snug hatband had left a bright red track across his forehead, from brow to vaulted brow, and Wass looked scary. As he approached the counter, he fisted flat the crown of his massive overseer’s hat, then reinflated it with the fingers of his other hand. He faced up to the poor girl and growled, in about as friendly a tone as you ever heard from him, “Where’s Big O at, sweet?”
“Not here out. What can I do for you?”
The girl was staring frankly at Wass’s forehead. His tone grew chilly. “Well, we’re the golfers, and we’re hungry. Dish us up some Bulldog specials, would you?”
The girl pointed at a hand-lettered sign on the cash register, smiled wanly. “No shoes,” she read aloud, “no service.” She backtracked to the top. “Hawg Heaven regrets.”
Wass snorted. “Glad you didn’t leave anything out, miss,” he said. “You know who we are?”
The girl shrugged. “No,” she said. “But I know you don’t have shoes on. Sorry.”
“The Big O is gon’ be pissed if you don’t feed us,” Wass went on.
The girl shrugged again, looked straight at his brows, and said, with no hint of sarcasm, “Gracious. Is that paint? Are you maimed?”
Wass was too startled to be mad . . . yet. “Pardon?” he sputtered. “What did you say?”
The girl didn’t back off. Her eyes never left those ghastly ink arcs, and her tone was all syrupy concern. “On your forehead. Where your eyebrows ought to be,” she said. “You look like you’ve been vandalized. Do you need to use the phone?”
I thought he was going to leap the counter. “Listen!” Wass exploded. “We’re the Georgia golf team, and we can come in here buck goddamn naked if we want, and our food is free. You’re paid to keep your bitch mouth shut and sling hash. So sling. Now.”
The girl’s face clouded. She set her mouth. “I’m sorry,” she told him. “You’ll have to take that up with Mr. O. I don’t know anything about free food for anyone.”
“Which is why I’m telling you,” roared Wass. “Dish us up some grub.”
The girl was marvelous. Her hair was tied into a ponytail and looped through the back of her Hawg Heaven baseball cap. There was an orange daub of sauce under her ear, and tiny droplets of sweat stood out on her face. She was staring at Wass now in what looked to me like genuine bewilderment. Hadn’t he been in some sort of horrible accident? Hadn’t she only been trying to help? “No shoes, no service,” she repeated, firmly. “No exceptions. I couldn’t be sorrier.”
Wass turned to his confederates, the other hangers-on of the team; he shrugged his shoulders as if to ask whether frat-boy noblesse oblige had any hard and fast rules against killing barbeque girls who jeer your eyebrows and refuse you the tangy pork of your dreams.
There was a hush that must have lasted 15 seconds—during which the girl stood fast, Wass fumed and rocked threateningly, and the rest of us made an uneasy peace with our cowardices: what could I do, after all? I was at the back of the pack; Wass was bigger than me, older; the girl was taking good care of herself.
Just when the silence was becoming unendurable, a candy-red Caddy barreled up the access road, kicking up spumes of dust, its horn blaring the Bulldog fight song. Seamus O’Lughnasaigh.
“Hold on a minute, Wass,” someone said, as though he hadn’t been. “It’s the Big O cavalry.”
Everybody except me turned to watch. I pressed forward until I was almost beside Wass. Who was this girl? What was she up to? I glanced around for clues. A stack of textbooks, the top one propped open with a yellow highlighter, lay on a card table next to the walk-in freezer. A student, then. A pair of gold sandals had been slung over a chair by their knotted anklestraps—I could see (by leaning toward the plastic sneeze-shield) that there were duckboard flats laid across the floor behind the counter for footing, and the girl wore blue canvas Keds to navigate the greasy skids. Her ankles appeared slender, but I backed away, scared she’d catch me appraising, before I could make a conclusive judgment.
The girl never looked at me, never budged, merely kept stirring the hash, two brisk swirls and then a solid clack of the ladle against the side of the metal bin, over and over again. Her rhythm was slow and perfect, reminded me of the solemn rumble of war drums in the movies: swirl, swirl, click; swirl, swirl, click. I could see her facial muscles tense as the door chime sounded, and I wanted to help her. Laugh if you want. I thought she needed me.
Mr. O strode in, and golfers parted to let him through. I retreated. The boss man grinned and said, “Hey, fellas! Welcome to Hawg Heaven, where the hogs is dead and the folks get fed. Who wants a little something to stick to his ribs and make his tail twitch?”
“Afternoon, Big O,” said Wass, suddenly calm.
“Good to see you again, Mr. Wassink. How’s your grandpop?”
Wass’s grandfather was a much-decorated general of the Vietnam war, a hero in these parts. . .and the reason there was no getting rid of young Iron Johnson. Ironically, the general was famous for his formidable black brows. Those thick, fierce, unmoving lines could be counted on: fighting dragged on, body counts mounted, atrocities worsened, but Papa Wass’s twin tarantulas never wavered. Again and again they announced that U.S. policy was just and consistent; her boys were fighting the good fight against those sly slopes and their Russian domino. Those brows were a bulwark amid the chaos (I’m borrowing, you might have guessed, from my mother’s testimony).
Wass spoke up. “He’s fit and fine, Mr. O’Lughnasaigh. Sends his regards. But it gets to him sometimes: the country’s going to hell in a handbasket, you know. Fags in khaki. Baby-killing. Japs buying the best resorts. Gooks fucking up the curve in math classes.”
“Amen,” answered Mr. O. “Amen.”
Wass went on. “I’m afraid we have a . . . situation here. This girl of yours says we ain’t welcome. I was sure she’d got it wrong.” He grinned expectantly, raising his awful brows. His yes-men, all the upperclass hacks and squirrels, murmured their agreement. Wass kept pushing. “By the way, Big O, you got a complaint box? This employee was rude to me. Hurt my feelings. Worse than that, she insulted our whole team—she insulted the [University of Georgia. She treated us like a bunch of niggers.” He brandished his hat, a visual aid.
Seamus O’Lughnasaigh’s face darkened. “Is this true?” he demanded, turning to the girl. Slowly, she sunk the ladle in the vat of hash. She looked up at her fearsome pink employer, tears in her eyes but steely. This was the battle she’d been girding herself for. I could tell she needed the job badly, could see her calculating what it was worth. She didn’t answer the question. I looked around, but no one was showing any sign of stepping forward. Least of all me.
Mr. O cleared his throat, and wattles swayed. “I asked you a question, sweetheart. Did you treat my guests with disrespect? Don’t cry now. Just speak up. Did you treat these fine young men like nigras?”
The girl stared at her feet, drowned the ladle one last time in the tub of hash, and through the sneeze-guard I could see her fingers snake around her back—she was going to untie her apron. No job could be worth putting up with these rednecks. No job could be worth occupying a stinking shack in the boonies, alone, fending off packs of barefoot peckerwoods with crayoned facial features.
“No,” I broke in, and my voice surprised me; it sounded like something rusted clean through. “She was fine. It wasn’t her fault. Wass was giving her a hard time.” The girl stared down at her red hands and started to wring them in her apron. I couldn’t tell whether she was pleased with me or annoyed.
Wass and his boys glared. “Fucking hotshot,” Wass muttered. “She wouldn’t serve us,” he explained to our host. “She busted my chops in front of my friends.”
Now the girl spoke up. Her voice was soft but calm. “It was an accident, Mr. O’Lughnasaigh, I didn’t mean to be impolite. He just kept insisting that he and his friends didn’t have to pay. You never told me anything about that, and I was trying to stand up to him. I’m the only one here.”
Mr. O shook his head and said, “That’s OK. That’s a good girl.” He turned back to Wass. “Sorry about this, boys, I suppose I’m to blame. I forgot to mention our little arrangement. . .which is why I dropped by. I hope you’ll accept our apology, Mr. Wassink.” He clapped Wass stoutly on the back and spoke over his shoulder to the counter-girl. “Aren’t we sorry, Rosa?” Let’s make nice; he comes from powerful people.
She nodded miserably. “Hawg Heaven regrets,” she whispered.
“Right,” echoed her boss. “Hawg Heaven regrets.” He began talking to Rosa now, but without looking at her. “These boys are fixing to kick some SEC ass this season, so let’s take good care of them, OK?” Rosa nodded again.
“All right, then,” Mr. O announced, suddenly beaming. “All better. All better.” With that he spun and waddled back to his car, which he’d left running; when he swung open the front door, I could hear the Mills Brothers on his tape deck: “You always take the sweetest rose,” they crooned, “and crush it till the petals fall.”
Rosa began heaping food onto compartmented plates. Wass kept making her add a spoonful of this, a dollop of that, trying to humiliate her. His plate was overflowing when he tired of the game and slid over to the ice dispenser. “Thanks, darlin’,” he said. “How about a hummer for dessert?”
Wass’s friends kept the vitriol coming, unspeakable things, but Rosa bore it silently, with a terrible dignity. I felt rotten for her; she must really need this crappy job. “Look,” said Wass as she started to dip out hash for me, “if it isn’t Lancelot. Why don’t you two get it over with and fuck right now? We’ll clear a spot on the grill. Sizzle, sizzle.”
“Shut up, Wass,” I said, searching for a clever retort, hoping indignation might supple up my lame tongue. No dice. After a few seconds of strain, I settled: “You’re a big old turd,” I spat. “A big old turd.” To Rosa, I rolled my eyes.
“Thanks for sticking up for me,” she whispered. “I guess.” Her left eye, I noticed, was higher than her right, and she held her head at a tilt—adorably—to keep the world in alignment.
“I’m not sure this job was worth keeping.”
“Better than nothing,” she said, “though you do get your share of freaks out here.” Rosa smiled, smacked the ladle against the side of the trough to clean it. We had already run out of things to say. She really was pretty.
“Could I have a little more slaw, please?” I asked.
I groped for conversation. Nothing came. She kept piling food onto my plate—more slowly than before, it seemed, as though she was trying to buy me time to cook up some passable repartee. The well was dry; I’m not sure it had ever been wet. Golf was all I was good at. Finally I thought of another question. I mustered my courage, smiled my toothiest smile; this was it.
“Happen to have any sweet gherkins?” I asked.
Rosa flashed her gorgeous, uneven teeth. To be bestowed a look like that, and just for asking, stammeringly, after pickles: it was a dream come true, it changed me. “In the back,” she said. “Hold on a sec.”
She went to get them, and I began to rummage through my wallet for a tip. I’d spotted a jar on the counter. All I had was a ten, but that seemed about right, all things considered, and I started stuffing it through the hole in the lid. I didn’t want her to see me and think I was trying to buy her good will. But about the time the bill cleared the slot I noticed the faded snapshot affixed to the jar, of a young couple with bad teeth squatting in front of a cheap silver Christmas tree, the woman holding a squalling baby up to the camera like a caught fish. Beneath the picture was a slip of paper: “Ray and Marlene lost their trailer in a tornadoe and dont have nowhere to live. CAN YOU HELP? God bless you!! (They are Christians!!!)” I was trying to extract the bill from the slot when Rosa returned. She stared at me, stealing from good churchgoing people with a gutted trailer and a colicky new kid. I twitched.
“Umm,” I said, “I was trying. . . .”
“I saw,” she answered, “and it was sweet, but they need it more than me.” She tamped the jar-lid with the butt of a fork—my fork, a gherkin speared on each of its three tines. The ten dropped to the bottom. Then she handed me the utensil.
“Thanks,” I said. “Thanks a bunch. I really like pickles.”
“I’m glad,” said Rosa. “Anytime.” She gave the bin a valedictory clack, sent me on my way.
A few weeks later, when I spotted Rosa in the foyer after an art history class, I tapped her on the shoulder. Would she, uh, be averse, uh, to maybe going out with me sometime?
“Sure,” she said, in a tone of blandest unsurprise. She sorceled a datebook out of thin air (or maybe pulled it out of her backpack), then uncapped a pen and looked straight into my face. “Say Friday afternoon. We’ll score a bottle of sweet pickles and find a nice place to eat them. Does that suit? How about I pick you up at four. OK? Where do you live?”
Friday afternoon we laid out a gingham cloth in deep centerfield of the baseball stadium. Rosa was chattering away wordlessly, brazenly—as though, if caught, we could claim it was by sheer and inexplicable accident that we ended up here, on the matted sod of the outfield, battening blue-and-white corners with a menagerie of animal paperweights that Rosa produced from her bag—accident, too, that we had scaled a hurricane fence and climbed from the right-field bleachers onto the cinderblock wall and then dropped onto the field and were sitting, now, in the late sun, talking, amid the wreckage of our peculiar picnic—our jar of gherkins (now seriously depleted), one of those rubber-gripper jar openers (brought just in case and not, thanks to Rosa’s powerful fingers, needed), and a pair of cocktail forks, face up in the sun, still speckled with little green drops of brine.
Rosa kept her job at Hawg Heaven for another 10 months, until she found something better. The air conditioner kept up its chug, she claims, until the day she left. . .and though I’m not sure I believe her, I want to, which is near about the same thing. That year there was an irremovable orange ring around her fingernails, and we fell in love.