The waitress at the Cracker Barrel keeps calling everybody baby, like we’re all in some kind of relationship. The embroidery on the front of her apron reads Jolene. This is funny because she seems to enjoy being a waitress in the same way Dolly Parton enjoys being a country music singer.  I say this to Temple and the guys, meaning in a good way, but Temple takes it wrong.

“I bet she’s got a little pad at home where she writes down what her husband wants for dinner. ‘You want the cornbread or the biscuits, baby?’” she says in this put-on Tennessee accent, or what she thinks is one.

Ray and Lionel laugh with her. There is unspoken agreement that she should do comedy.

“Don’t be a bitch,” I say.

I don’t much like Temple, and she knows that.  The whole trip has been her needling me, seeing how far she can push it. Yesterday she made us drive an extra half hour because she wanted a hotel with a pool and then didn’t swim in the pool. I have this fantasy where I tiptoe over to her and Lionel’s bed and quietly smother her with the neck pillow she naps on in the van. I could do it. They’re heavy sleepers.

“Why don’t you get off your high horse, Edie?” She wrinkles up her nose, trying to be cute, because when it comes to fighting with me, she knows where the line is.

 

Ray and Lionel are in a band, which is why we’re in Nashville. It’s called Quantum Tentacles, after this old horror movie I saw a couple of years ago. Classic fifties disaster plot: a sick and depraved humanity is dumping its toxic waste in the ocean, causing sea life to change at the subatomic level. There are sharks and lampreys that can make themselves invisible, fish swimming in and out of the spacetime continuum, changing the history of the planet. Just when people think it can’t get any worse, a bunch of giant octopuses come squelching out of the ocean to ransack the beach towns. They’re looking for who’s responsible: turns out it’s everybody.

The octo-freaks move fast for things with no bones. They flurp across the sand on slime and leg coils turning like tank wheels until they find someone to tentacle, trailing sticky black ink behind them. Half the movie is close-ups of suckers on people’s faces.

“They have quantum tentacles,” I told Ray.

“Octopuses don’t have tentacles. Strictly speaking, they have arms,” he said. “It’s a good name for a band, though.” So I guess you could say that everything that happened after that was because of me.

Back then, Ray and I were going through a rough patch, during which time I was also having a lot of nightmares about global calamity. Giant cephalopods, nuclear holocaust, whole deal. In most of them, I ended up on my own because everyone else was dead or had left to save their own skins. In the one with the zombies, Ray left with a survivalist named Margery to get more weapons. He never came back.

 

Temple and the guys are concentrating on their cornbread, which is filling and good in a glutinous, market-tested sort of way and makes everybody quiet down. The guys shove the yellow discs into their mouths whole, as if this is their first shot at food in weeks. Temple takes all day, tearing hers into little pieces, putting them in her mouth one by one. This is how she eats, like a raccoon or something.

I want us to have a nice dinner, in spite of Temple and how she is, in spite of everything. I want to show I understand the gig later tonight could change everything.

“Have you guys given any more thought to holding auditions?” I ask.

Ever since that indie paper in Atlanta wrote them up, the Tentacles have had a hipster following around the Southeast. Hornrim P. Bedhead called them the future of the Nintendocore movement, with their unexpected shades of bluegrass and gypsy punk. Ray tells people they’re Depreciation Guild meets DeVotchKa meets Flatt and Scruggs, which I think assumes a lot about people’s musical knowledge. On stage, he’ll toodle these Super Mario Brothers synth beats while Lionel busts out on accordions, dulcimers, once a bunch of wooden spoons. The crowd shits itself.

“You just don’t get it, do you, Edie?” Temple says. “What they’re trying to do onstage? They’re trying to create something?” Her voice goes up at the ends of her sentences, telling me things I should already know. She still has some cornbread in her mouth, and it makes her words come out pasty.

“Easy T,” Ray says. “It’s a valid question. Every band gets to the point where they have to evolve. I’m just not sure we’re there yet.” Lionel shoves more cornbread in his mouth, which is the kind of thing he does when I talk.

Temple cocks her head to the side, her lips pooched out. Her eyebrows go up and down once. Told you, bitch. Back in high school, she used to do that after she’d kicked the crap out of some girl. She’d have this look of satisfaction, and usually a few hair strands caught in her fingernails. If you go back there, you can still see flecks of Megan Blackwelder’s nose blood the janitor didn’t get off the gym wall.

“What are you smirking at?” I ask.

“How negative a person you’ve become,” she says. The guys sweep themselves into their own discussion, something about amps or ants or aunts, so they don’t hear any of this. She says, more with her eyes than anything else, “And how big your butt looks in those jeans.

I want to knock her head off her neck, but I don’t.

 

Cracker Barrel food is always good. In a world that could quit on you any second, it’s nice to know you can pull off the interstate anywhere in America and it will be exactly like the last place you stopped. You enter through the gift shop, with its comforting displays of angel figurines, windchimes, tubs of licorice whips and head-sized lollipops, sacks of gourmet grits, wall plaques with Live, Laugh, Love written on them in loopy, feel-good script. You sit down among old tractor parts and think about simpler times. You play that little pegboard game while you wait, and then the waitress brings you food that makes you want to go to sleep.

The section we’re in has a rusted wagon wheel and tin ads for motor oil on the wall. Temple is sitting under a moonshine jug that looks like it’s about to come down on her head. I stare at it hard in hopes I can make it move.

She didn’t want to eat here, which partly explains how she’s being. She saw a sign for a truck stop on the interstate that said Eat Here, Get Gas and wanted to pull over, saying it would make a good story when people asked about the trip. I pointed out that it would just be a bunch of fat truckers eating those chemical pink hot dogs, and she said she feels sorry for me sometimes.

I slide the pegboard game in front of me, not especially wanting to play but knowing it irritates Temple. She says I take forever, even when the moves are obvious.

“You give me that, Edie,” she says, reaching for the board. “It’s like fingernails on a chalkboard watching you do that.”

“It’s not a race,” I say, pulling it closer. What I mean is Get out of my life.

That fringe of flesh tubules at her neck, what she uses to breathe with, I guess, flutters like an electric current has been shot through it, so I figure she gets me.

 

Dolly has a tray as big as a spaceship balanced over her shoulder, sort of excessive for just four teas. I guess trays are easier to carry that way. I guess waitressing is hard on the joints, on the soul, and you have to find ways to lighten the load. If Dolly heard Temple’s hick impression from before, there could well be a foamy spitwad floating in her drink. I order positive thoughts around this possibility, hoping to bring it into the world, and feel like I’m partners with Dolly somehow.

Something’s happened since the cornbread that’s caused her to wilt. I know because she gives everybody the wrong drink and doesn’t call us baby. She looks out at the parking lot while she waits for our orders, I guess at our van with that big green octopus on the side, its tentacles curling off the edges. It’s hard to miss.

“What’ll you have?” she asks when it’s my turn.  I haven’t been able to decide between the chicken fried steak and the meatloaf because there’s a joke rising from my gut, one she hears twice a day at least, and she can see it bubbling up. Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, I’m beggin’ of you, please don’t take my man. She’s pretty much daring me to try it. Her pen hangs over the pad, its time and hers wasted.

“Chicken fried steak,” I say.

If she had a neck fringe, it would be going crazy right about now.

 

Another waitress brings our food. Janice, according to her apron. She’s not here for the career advancement, this is obvious, and she slides our plates across the table hard, like she finds them offensive.

“I think you’ve got the wrong table,” I say. Janice looks at the ticket and then my food and then me. “Chicken fried steak?” I nod. “What happened to Dolly?” I ask. She hands me a bottle of peppers in vinegar, like that was the trouble.

 

I stumble up from the table and into the bathroom, pouring myself a cup of ambition to wash my hands. The waitress change at the last minute is too much to adjust to. I don’t like things like that, especially here. There should be continuity, a sense that you can close your eyes for a minute and when you open them again everything’s exactly how you left it. The ground not constantly shifting under you. I start to worry that something bad has happened to Dolly. A zombie attack in the breakroom. Some kind of ransom situation. I don’t worry long because when I push into the cold bathroom there she is, bending over the sink. She looks up, and her face is like people’s faces in the octopus movie: tentacled, nowhere left to run.

“Are you all right?” I ask.

“I’m doing fine, baby,” she says, smiling a big white Grand Ole Opry smile. “Anything else we can do for you all?”

“You can tell me what Janice’s problem is. You can tell me why you were just crying into that sink.”

She wipes her face with a paper towel, throwing it in the trash like a severed head. “I don’t guess that’s your beeswax.”

I want it to be my beeswax. I want to slide down the wall next to each other and trace our bad decisions backwards through our lives. I have this one where I follow a trail of sticky ink into the bathroom, where I find panties that aren’t mine in the hamper. Skanky thong ones, made to show over the top of someone’s jeans. I want to find out if she’s got one, too. I want to tell her about moving in with that bartender instead of taking the LSAT and Temple and her tentacles and the baby they think I don’t know about. It’s probably got tentacles of its own, pink nubby ones just starting to bud off. When it slithers out, it’s going to come for me and I’ll have to run. I want to put my head on Dolly’s shoulder, but something tells me she needs it more than I do.

“Why would I want to put my head on your shoulder? I don’t even know you,” she says. Her hand is on the door, primed for a getaway.

I have said this out loud, I guess. My thoughts will sometimes not stay in my head, as hard as I try to keep them there, like this morning when I told Ray I was thinking about going back to the apartment in Durham. He talked to me all breezy-like, the way you talk to somebody you need to keep calm, whose head is spinning on its axis. He looked scared I was losing it again.

“Maybe that’s the best reason to put your head on somebody’s shoulder,” I say.

We sit down on the wicker settee between the sink and the stall. Right by my head is a basket of  cinnamon potpourri someone has put out to cover the smell of people’s bowel movements, which tend to be worse in a place like this. The sweet and the spice and the stink together make me feel a little sick. I don’t think it’s doing Dolly any good, either.

“He told my boy Scottie I never wanted him,” she says. “He told him about when we went to the clinic, but he left out the part about how I changed my mind at the last minute and made him turn the car around. That’s how come Scottie wants to go live with him and that woman, that Suzanne.”

She says the name like it’s two separate words, Su Zanne, and we agree that women named Suzanne are seldom to be taken at face value. I know, I work with one at the phone company. She doesn’t like me because I complain about her electric pencil sharpener, how it’s always grinding when I’m on the phone with customers. She really crams the pencils in there, like the sharpener’s screwed with her somehow. Pretty sure she’s the person who told on me that time I didn’t clock out for lunch.

“But I realize that’s not the point,” I say.

Dolly sinks into the crook of my neck. Her smell puts me in this kind of Jean Naté haze that is a whole lot better than the bathroom’s other haze. She gets so heavy and quiet on my arm that I think she’s gone to sleep. After a while a tear rolls down my neck and across my chest, disappearing between my breasts. It warms me.

“I don’t know what to do,” she says. “I don’t know what to do.”

I thought I would come up with beautiful words of comfort just for her. People say I have a way with words. I’ve written three Tentacles songs, all of them about people leaving.

You gotta hold on, you gotta safety-pin that heart, you gotta give all you got to give and then you gotta make a new start,” I say. I’m quoting “Love Casserole,” which won fourth place at [email protected] last year. The next line is Hope is the lonely voice in the heart of our despair, but that seems like it will only make things worse.

She goes all stifflike in my arms. I’ve said the wrong thing. “I ought to be getting back to my tables,” she says.  She gets up and fixes herself in the mirror, smoothing out her hair and retying her apron. When she sees me looking at her in the mirror, her life reassembles itself around her, Scottie, tables needing to be wiped down outside, the light bill past due, and she’s embarrassed. The woman on the settee with the gold eyes that stare too long has tried to sell her a sackful of cat turds.

By the time she pulls the door open, the white Nashville teeth are out. She’s Dolly again. I want to give her my phone number, tell her that she can call me any time she needs anything, even if it’s just a cup of frozen yogurt in the middle of the night, but she’s gone.

 

When I get back to our table, I feel like doing some damage to those who have damaged me. To Temple, who has eaten my creamed corn and spelled out “F U” in green beans on my plate. To Ray and Lionel, who are laughing, probably at that.

It must be twenty ounces of tea, ice and everything, that winds up on Temple’s head. She jumps so high out of her chair that the guys have to use their butter knives to scrape her off the ceiling. When they’ve got her down, Lionel skootches all our napkins into one big wad and dabs at her hair, face, breasts. It was a large tea, so his hands move fast. I think about how fast they’d move if I’d had coffee instead. Temple’s skin swelling up good and mean, an apricot blister shaped like South Carolina if the pot was fresh.

“I don’t know, Ede, that wasn’t cool,” Ray says, probably thinking about the coffee version. The other people in our section are staring at us, cornbready mouths hanging open, upset that their slow drip of grease and friendly service has been pinched off for this.

Lionel tells Ray he should take me back to the hotel, straighten me out, which is the kind of thing he says when I do things.

I wait for Ray to tell Lionel to shove it, to tell him about Temple. He looks back and forth between them, making me wish I had another glass of tea. Since I don’t, I tell them I’m taking the van. They sit there looking at me with their tentacles swirling around them, like I’m the one with the problem. I’m not. I’m the one with the keys to the van.

I want to get Temple’s goat one last time. I decide to finish the pegboard game, just to drag this out. Nobody makes for the keys in my pocketbook;  they just watch me, waiting for me to jump that last peg, waiting for me to explode.  I make it last as long as I can. When Dolly comes back to refill our drinks, it’s like nothing happened in the bathroom. As far as she’s concerned, Temple doesn’t have tea drizzling out of her hair, and Lionel isn’t rubbing at her chest with wet napkins, making things worse. She’s so cool, so waitress-like, that I start to think we didn’t have our arms around each other. Ray could be right about my head spinning off. I don’t answer when Dolly asks if there’s anything we want because if I’m honest with myself I can’t think of one thing.