"Carol" is one of fourteen stories in Dandelion Crossing, my unpublished collection of linked short stories about characters who work at or visit a brand-new suburban shopping mall in November 1983.
This gives you a flavor of what the book is like. If you're an agent, editor or publisher and want to learn more, please message me!
It was just after six o’clock on the Friday after Thanksgiving, and it was Carol’s first day as a waitress at Prairie Sunset.
It was also the very first day that the restaurant, which was located in Dandelion Crossing, was open. Prairie Sunset was situated right inside the west mall entrance, across the way from Club Shabadoo, a dance club that featured New Wave Tuesdays, according to a sign outside. Carol was admittedly curious about the place but was inexperienced in nightlife activities, so she was too afraid to peek inside.
Although the afternoon had been a bit overwhelming so far, Carol felt she had a decent handle on the restaurant’s menu, which offered burgers and fried seafood as its main entrees, as well as dangerously rare steaks that customers were already complaining about. Each table in the main dining room featured checkered red tablecloths and low-hanging chandeliers with colorful stained-glass grapes and peaches on them. There were also plastic baskets filled with peanuts that the busboys were tasked to constantly refill.
Carol was twenty-eight, a Mormon from Utah who had only lived in the large Midwestern city since June. She was an avid reader and had used books as an escape throughout her childhood and adolescence, curling up in the armchair in her bedroom on Friday nights with Peyton Place or romantic mysteries by M.M. Kaye while her classmates were at the movies or packing the stands at a football game. Carol was admittedly curious about the world, but she was embarrassed by her quiet nature and knew it would be a barrier to making a mark, as extraordinarily brave women like Shirley Chisholm had done.
Carol completed a year and two months of college, on track to becoming a librarian, before she met Richard. He was stock market savvy and lifted ten-pound barbels regularly, which made him look sexy in a dress shirt and tie. Most importantly, he always listened to whatever Carol had to say, and for the first time, she felt like she had tangible value, like an Egyptian artifact uncovered from an archaeological dig. They had a whirlwind courtship that finished with a summer wedding just days after Carol turned twenty. She barely had time to blink, but she became a housewife in Salt Lake City – the exact thing she hoped she’d never be.
Carol and Richard had moved to the city after he accepted a job as Junior Vice President of Development for Miller Research. Carol still hadn’t admitted to him that she didn’t understand what it was that his company actually did, but his starting salary was so impressive that she didn’t complain. Neither did their six-year-old daughter Molly, who was enjoying first grade. The little girl already had a new – and extremely polite – Peruvian-American best friend named Graciela. Living in a large Midwestern city brought with it an ethnic diversity that wasn’t present in the quiet desert town where Carol grew up.
They had secured a condo in a quiet suburb known for its old money, which pleased Richard to no end, especially when he could share the name of their neighborhood at cocktail parties. The complex had a gym, a deluxe laundry room and even an impressive pond with occasional geese. It was located close to the highway outerbelt that afforded easy access to the important parts of the city, and Dandelion Crossing was just two exits away.
At first, Carol threw herself into making the new place a home – choosing dynamic but tasteful wallpaper, buying plants that would thrive in moderate sunlight, even shopping for impressive-looking but affordable furniture at thrift stores. She tried to make friends, joining a reading group at their local branch library that was currently slogging its way through Poland by James Michener. And yet, despite enthusiastic but unsatisfying lovemaking with Richard, it hadn’t been enough.
So Carol told him she wanted a part time job. She didn’t have many marketable skills, but the opening of the restaurant was too big an opportunity to pass up. Carol enjoyed helping people, and she thought waitressing would be a natural fit. She was convinced she could juggle her responsibilities as a mom with earning some extra money and expanding her small corner of the universe – or at least give it a trial run.
Carol left the restaurant dining room and made her way to the kitchen, past a Christmas tree decorated with white lights and God’s eyes made of yarn. She was glad she had found a pair of comfortable shoes at Thom McAn, with all the walking back and forth she’d already done in little more than an hour. Her shoulder-length blond hair was up in a tasteful bun, to keep the back of her neck cool.
LaWanda approached her, balancing a tray of shrimp poppers and pan-fried scrod. The older woman seemed to be a pro at this, and she had already given Carol several helpful pointers as they’d gone through training together during the previous week.
“The crowd from the hootenanny’s coming in now,” LaWanda told her. “Stay sharp.”
Carol knew that she was referring to the official opening ceremony for the mall. She smiled and tried to project an air of confidence as she handed her order ticket to the expeditor, a muscular bald man named Enrique, who looked like a nefarious character Carol had seen recently on an episode of Hill Street Blues. “Make sure that steak’s medium rare,” she told him, then turned to head back into the dining room.
A group of three diners arrived and sat in one of the front booths adjacent to the entrance foyer, where the manager had installed a Defender arcade machine. Carol knew nothing about video games apart from playing Pac-Man once or twice. LaWanda told her that according to her son, Defender was the most difficult game out there. So maybe it would bring in profits from teenagers who were desperate to beat it. Carol wondered if it would bother the guests.
The new patrons were a man and woman in their late twenties, along with a little boy around five. Their puffy winter coats lay bunched around their waists as they sat looking over the menus.
“Welcome,” Carol said with a smile as she approached. “My name’s Carol and I’ll be taking care of you tonight. Can I get you started with something to drink?”
The man wore a clip-on on tie and his matted blond hair was short in the front and long in the back. He looked to Carol like someone who might sell narcotics to junior high school kids from the back of a van. His significant other wore a silk blouse with a ruffled collar underneath an off-the-shoulder periwinkle-colored sweater. The adults sat next to each other, with the little boy barely able to see over the table across from them. He had a deep purple bruise under one eye and a Band-Aid on the opposite cheek.
Carol sucked in a breath.
“Ain’t you got any burgers?” the man demanded.
Carol leaned over, making sure not to hit her head on the chandelier. “They’re down there,” she told him, pointing at the bottom of the menu. “They come with fries or German potato salad.”
“Give us a minute or two,” the woman told her, and smiled unconvincingly. Carol nodded. She stole a glance at the little boy.
He met her gaze. “I –,” he whispered. Then he was silent.
Carol turned and caught LaWanda casting an inquisitive look from across the room, her pencil tucked behind her ear. Carol shrugged her shoulders and went to check on the diners at another table. “Did you save room for dessert?” she asked them, trying to push the disturbing sight of the injured boy from her mind. He was around Molly’s age, and that frightened her.
After serving another family a meal of burgers and fried shrimp, somewhat apprehensively, she went back to the booth by the entrance. “Randy,” the man was saying to his son. “Shut your fat mouth.” His wife clutched his arm as she saw Carol approach. The man pushed her hand away disgustedly.
Carol frowned. “Have you decided?” she asked, trying not to look at the boy. “Or do you need more time?”
“Prairie burger for me, well done fries, and what kind of beer you got?” the man asked.
“We don’t serve beer,” she explained. “But that might change if this place catches on.”
“What the fuck?” the man asked no one in particular. “All right. Coke for me, then. She’s having scrod with cottage cheese on the side, and he’ll have chicken fingers off your kids menu.”
Carol nodded as she wrote it down. She looked down at Randy. “What would you like to drink?” she asked him.
Randy sat cross-legged and his eyes were bloodshot, like he’d been up all night. “Daddy only lets me have—”
“Chocolate milk,” his mother finished for him. “Chocolate milk for him, please.”
Carol nodded. She met LaWanda at the kitchen window as she put in her order.
“What happened to that child?” LaWanda asked. She wore spectacles with metal chains on them, like a librarian.
“I don’t know,” Carol told her. “Maybe he got hit by a baseball?”
“In November? I have four kids and I never been afraid to discipline them appropriately. But I never seen anything like that. That there is child abuse.”
“I’m not sure if we should get involved,” Carol said. She picked at the creases in her gingham uniform, afraid to meet her coworker’s gaze.
“Did that little boy say anything to you?”
“No. He just looked—”
Carol hesitated. Then she nodded. “But it could be anything,” she said. “Who am I to put myself in someone else’s shoes?”
“Well, I ain’t afraid of no man who looks like he should be selling car stereos,” LaWanda told her. “I ain’t afraid of getting fired, neither. Hell, if we turn out to be right, maybe we’ll get our pictures in the paper.”
“But what if we’re wrong? And you said yourself that sometimes you discipline your own kids.”
LaWanda glared at her and gestured toward the table. “Are you coming or not?”
Carol took a deep breath. “Yes,” she said. “I guess.”
“That’s my girl.” LaWanda gave her hand an encouraging squeeze, then led Carol back to the booth by the door.
The three patrons looked up as they approached. “Excuse me,” LaWanda said. “I was wondering what happened to this little man?”
“He felt off his bike,” the man said. “What’s it to you?”
“Did you hit this child?” LaWanda asked him.
“What the fuck?” the main replied. “You can’t be serious.”
“We’re concerned about you,” Carol said to the little boy. “What’s your name?”
“Randy,” the boy said. “I’m five and I’m in kindergarten.” His sweatshirt had Hefty Smurf on the front. There were a few faded dark spots on it. Carol wondered if they were blood.
“Shut up,” the man told him. “You ain’t gotta tell these bitches nothin’.”
“Lewis,” his companion said, blushing. She looked like she wanted to be anywhere but there. “They’re just trying to help.”
“They can help by getting us our food,” Lewis said. “How about we start there?”
“We’ll just see about that,” LaWanda replied, fearlessly staring down the man for twenty tense seconds. Satisfied that she had made her point, she took Carol’s hand again and brought her back to the Christmas tree, its serene white lights promising safety that didn’t seem to be there.
“What do you think?” Carol asked, trying to ignore Enrique’s disapproving stare from the kitchen nearby. “Randy seems okay now, wouldn’t you say?”
LaWanda glared at her. “Go to the break room and call the police right now,” she told her. “Tell her that a couple is sitting in Prairie Sunset and their child has been beaten up by his father.”
“You’ve been telling me how you haven’t been able to make your mark since y’all moved here. Isn’t that how you put it? Well, now’s your chance. I’ll cover your tables.”
* * *
Carol had never been in a situation like this. Her last job – if you didn’t count being a mother, that is – had been working in an ice cream shop in high school. She imagined she should tell her manager about it, but what if it backfired? The studious man, who was busy greeting customers as they came in, was partial to clip-ons, too – bow ties, in his case. What if he took Lewis’s side?
Finally, she decided to make the phone call, but to keep things a secret between herself and LaWanda. It took quite a bit of persuasion, but after Carol gave the policeman specific physical descriptions of Lewis and his female companion, it seemed to flip a switch in the cop’s mind, and he became suspicious. He assured Carol that two officers would wait nearby in the parking lot and confront the man then. There would be no scene inside the restaurant and no repercussions for her.
“But how can you guarantee that?” she asked. The cop didn’t have an answer.
Because Prairie Sunset was located at one end of the mall, three windows looked out on the parking lot, which was still packed. About fifteen minutes after she made the call, Carol saw a police car turn off the main drag and find a parking spot fairly close. Two dark figures sat in the front, watching the restaurant.
The overflow crowd from the opening celebration kept her busy for the next half hour, so she didn’t have much time to think about what she had done. LaWanda gave her encouraging smiles from time to time, mixed in with several decisive nods. Carol did her best to discreetly give Randy special treatment, like giving him a free refill on his chocolate milk, as well as an extra special vanilla caramel pudding that she told him was “on the house” – even though it was strictly against restaurant policy.
Finally, Lewis asked for their check with a scowl. Less than two minutes after she gave it to him, they were gone.
Carol felt LaWanda next to her at the window. “Which way did they go?” she whispered.
Carol nodded to the left. “That way,” she said, indicating the direction that offered them no clear view of the parking lot. “But the cops got out of their squad car pretty quick, so they definitely spotted them.”
“We did the right thing,” LaWanda assured her.
Carol wanted to tell her that she felt like she was floating above herself, disembodied, watching someone else make decisions that she had no part in. But she couldn’t find the words to explain it.
* * *
Richard let Carol have it when she got home.
“I tried to heat up leftover turkey and stuffing for me and Molly in the microwave and the damn thing exploded,” he told her, not looking up from the TV, where he was watching Matt Houston. She could barely see him because of all the ferns in the living room.
“Oh my gosh. Was anyone hurt?” Carol asked as she took off her coat. She went down the hall and took a look in the kitchen. A fire extinguisher lay on the floor and the microwave was a mess of blackened glass and foam residue. A pizza delivery box sat on the table; several slices still left inside.
“Just my pride,” Richard replied. “If you were around when I needed you, maybe things wouldn’t have turned into a disaster.”
Carol reluctantly came into the living room. Her husband glanced up at her as a commercial came on. “No wife of mine should be working,” he said. There were pizza crust crumbs in his carefully groomed reddish-brown moustache. “I make plenty of money to support us. Look at this beautiful condo. It’s a mess because you decided to split and leave us in the lurch.”
“It’s fifteen hours a week,” she told him, noticing two empty beer cans on the card table, and a crumpled one on the floor.
“It’s a tacky restaurant where low-class people come to spend their paychecks on cheap grub.”
“I don’t have to listen to this,” Carol told him, surprised at how decisive the words sounded. She turned and went up the pastel carpeted steps to her daughter’s bedroom.
Molly was still up, even though it was after ten o’clock. She was having a private conversation with Alexander Persimmon – her Cabbage Patch Kid -- by the dim light of her desk lamp.
“The microwave blew up,” Molly told her mother solemnly. Carol could see that she hadn’t yet had her bath.
“I heard, honey. Daddy got you pizza for dinner?”
“He said Grandma and Grandpa didn’t want to come here for Thanksgiving because it’s too far to drive from Utah and because you didn’t want them to come.”
“Daddy doesn’t always know what he’s talking about,” Carol told her, kissing the top of her head.
“The hell I don’t!” slurred a familiar voice from behind her.
Carol turned around and found Richard looming in the doorway. He glared at her with drunken contempt.
Molly immediately left her desk and stood next to her mother protectively. “You’re so mean,” she told him. “Why can’t you just leave us alone?”
“What the fuck did you say to me?” Richard snarled. He drew back his arm, ready to slap her in the face.
Carol shoved Molly out of the way without a moment’s hesitation. The little girl landed on a soft rug, startled but unhurt. Just as quickly, Carol felt the jolt of her husband’s fist as it struck her in the chest. She stumbled backwards and smacked her head on the wall, then slumped to the floor.
“I make the money in this house!” Richard yelled. He kicked the side of Carol’s thigh, sending a bolt of pain through her body. “Do you hear me?”
Carol was too exhausted to even acknowledge her husband. All she could think about was Randy’s satisfied expression as he finished his second glass of chocolate milk. She hoped the little boy was safe in bed that night.