My mama, she waited tables at a diner out on Route 12. Just outta town that was. Best kind of work she could find, her having no high school diploma and all. Took a real liking to that job though. Like a fish takes to the water. A real people person, you might say. Type of woman to always greet you with a big old smile, no matter what troubles she might’ve been going through. And she had troubles. Troubles by the barrelfull, believe me. Single mama, no man round, raising four little ones. Things a lot different back then too. Single mama? You all on your own in this world. Not like today. My mama, she kept her chin up, kept that beautiful smile on her pretty little face and went about her business. Minding it. Taking pride in it. Bussing those tables. Carrying round those plates of hot food. Bussing tables for all kind of folk. Folk coming. Folk going. Folk just passing through. Might’ve even waited on someone like you. Waitressing is hard work. Kind of work a woman come home from, soak her feet in warm water. But my mama, well, she just about loved that job.
Being the kind of woman she was, hardworking, smiling and all, she got a lot of tips. A quarter here. A dime there. Maybe even a buck if someone was feeling generous that day. Those tips helped a helluva lot I can tell you. Especially come the holidays. Christmas time. Birthdays. Told us kids, she always drew a little smiley face on the check. Wrote ‘Have a nice day.’ Said that helped folks give a little more in the case they weren’t feeling so inclined.
One day, this fine-looking fella, he waltzed into the diner, suit and tie. Real smart. Tall cotton man. Ordered a coffee and a slice of the pecan pie. Told my mama she had the most wonderful smile he ever did see. Real charmer this man. When she came outta the kitchen with someone else’s order later, she saw he’d finished his pie and coffee and was gone. Left her a crisp, twenty-dollar bill. Double sawbuck tip. Let me tell you, back then, twenty dollars was close to a few days pay for my mama. With overtime. Mama, well, she almost wept when she told us all over supper that night. Steak supper that was. Had me scratching my head thinking I missed someone’s birthday. Have you ever eaten steak on an empty stomach? I can tell you, it’s a taste you never do forget, especially when you ain’t got a pot to piss in, nor a window to throw it out of. Folks called us poor, white trash. Sure were poor and white. Weren’t never no trash though. Not then. Well anyhow, mama she didn’t forget that man neither. Recognized him soon as he walked in the diner not a week gone by. They got to talking more that time. Naturally. Told her his name was John. A good Christian name that was. John was a traveling salesman. Sold leather-bound Bibles door-to-door. A god-fearing man. Said my mama had the face of an angel. Reckon my mama just about sprung wings and floated through the rest of that day. Especially as he left another double sawbuck tip underneath his coffee cup when he departed. And every other time he went in there to see her and eat that delicious pecan pie.
Well mama, she got all jazzed up about this John. Talking to all us kids excited like she knew something special was gonna happen. John this and John that. Romantic woman my mama. Or maybe she just listened to too many of those stories on the radio we had at home. I don’t rightly know. But she was hooked good.
Every week me and my little sisters gathered round a special feast, courtesy of John, listening to my mama talk head over heels about a man we never even met. Got to be we were all counting on that mysterious John and twenty-dollar tip. Mama bought me some shiny new shoes even. Real good ones too. Kind with the real leather. ‘Sunday Best’ kind of shoes. On account of my others being too small and having holes in and all.
Way mama talked him up, sounded as though we finally fixing to meet that man. John, the traveling Bible salesman. Recollect my little sisters telling tales about how we might could even get to live in one of those houses with a second story and all when mama and John got hitched. Imagine that. Reckon mama was pondering those very same things when she agreed to meet John for dinner after her shift one evening. Called us kids from the diner, real excited, saying she’d be a little late in coming home that night. Told me to fix my sisters a sandwich and to make sure they brushed their teeth. We could listen to the dramas on the radio until eight-thirty but absolutely no later. Mama. Dream about that telephone call most nights. Gets to be I dread falling asleep. A ringing telephone like a dog whistle for me. Like some of them boys come back from the war. Shell shock they call that.
Was a truck driver found my mama. Out where the buses don’t run. Thrown away like trash. Naked as the day she came into this world. Wearing nothing but the belt ’round her throat that man killed her with.
No, mama never came home that night. No other night neither. Me and the girls, we waited. Still waiting for mama when they finally separated us. Different foster homes and all. Kind of foster homes where bad things happen to kids that shouldn’t.
I had given up waiting by the time I ran away from the fifth place. Don’t know if my sisters ever gave up waiting or not. Never saw them again. Youngest one, she died from a drug overdose. Other two were hooking last I ever heard. You see when a family loses a father it tends to pull together, like a broken bone, become stronger at the broken part. But a family without a mama, especially a mama whose life got cut short like ours, well, families like that, they tend to just break bad.
And boy, did I break bad. Nothing but a young and crazy fool. I fell in with some no-account fellas. Sure you know the kind. Or maybe they fell in with me. Held up my first liquor store age of sixteen. Got away with that one. Dumb luck that was. Robbed my way from Texas to Kansas and then back again. Ate at a lot of diners. Saw a lot of waitresses smiles, though none as pretty as my mama’s. Left a lot of crisp double sawbucks underneath empty coffee cups too.
Law caught up with me my seventh or eighth gas station, I reckon. Can’t rightly recollect now. Plead guilty. Made myself a mighty fine deal with the district attorney. Only condition—I got to choose the penitentiary they locked me up in. Told them it was because of such and such educational program. Fed them bullshit, of course. You see, the law, they caught up with John too. Right about when I was still in that last foster home. John weren’t his real name. Weren’t no fucking Bible salesman neither. You see, this fella had a habit of killing women. Took the lives of three in total, including mama. That a lot of families broke bad. Lot of kids. Lot of mamas never going home. Fella’s serving three life sentences. No possibility of parole. Piece of shit escaped the death penalty. You believe that? You know what? I’m real glad he did. You see, whole time I was in those foster homes where the bad things happen, one little scrap of hope I kept in my cold, dead heart, was knowing one day, one mighty fine day, I’d be able to tell this story of mine to that man I wanted to hear it most of all. Right before I slit his throat.
Copyright © 2022 Stephen J. Golds.
Stephen J. Golds was born in North London, U.K, but has lived in Japan for most of his adult life.
He writes loosely in the noir/crime genres, though is heavily influenced by transgressive fiction and dirty realism.
His three novels are a trilogy of connected but standalone novels that deal in themes of mental illness, trauma, betrayal, and twisted love.
He enjoys spending time with his daughters, reading books, traveling the world, boxing, and listening to old Soul LPs. His books are Say Goodbye When I’m Gone, I’ll Pray When I’m Dying, Always the Dead, Poems for Ghosts in Empty Tenement Windows I Thought I Saw Once, Half-Empty Doorways and Other Injuries, and the story and poetry collection Love Like Bleeding Out With an Empty Gun in Your Hand.