We need to talk.
The most feared words in the English language or I guess I don’t know shit. Ruth is standing in the kitchen still wearing her Rusty Spoon Apron. She sighs and shakes her head, bends down to untie her shoes. When she stands up, she squares her shoulders, fixes me with her milky eyes.
Ruth says, start pulling your weight around here or get the hell out. I told your mom I would take care of you but part of taking care is making sure you become more of a man than your deadbeat dad. I can’t take no more of you sitting on your ass, playing that Fortnite and googling on your phone. You need to get a job.
In reply I manage a weak Yes Ma’am. I know better than to say much more than that right now.
Ruth takes off her Dollar Tree glasses and massages an angry red stripe on the bridge of her nose. Reaching into her apron pocket, she fishes out a packet of BC Headache Powder. She grunts and points at the tap so I get her a glass of water.
Ruth is my mom’s favorite cousin and when Mom got busted in the meth lab, Ruth took me in. She doesn’t have much besides regrets. Nobody in Big Stone Gap has much. I’m not unlike most kids here; everybody has somebody they love doing bad. Floyd’s parents are dead. Cheryl’s mom is turning tricks at the Super 8 on Galaxy Highway. Daryl’s dad is doing 15 years for killing his mom.
I tell Ruth that I been thinking of pawning my PS4, getting a job as a line cook, or maybe in a bakery. I hold back some other stuff, the part about me thinking about taking classes at the community college. I don’t rightly know yet how to talk to Ruth about The Plan. People always say they want the best for you but the truth is, if the best is about you leaving them, they don’t really want it. I don’t know how to tell Ruth about things I’ve been learning, the things about the hospitality industry and The Culinary Institute of America. Nobody in Big Stone Gap can see much past The Gap. So, I tell Ruth I’ll pull my weight just not about The Plan, the part about pulling up my roots.
Ruth didn’t expect none of this anyway. She opens her mouth and closes it. And then does it again, like a fish you just hauled out of the water and thrown in the boat. She makes that old fish mouth a few more times before she wipes her glasses on her filthy apron and manages to reply.
Well. Cal, I’m glad to hear it, she says to me.
I ask her, You hungry? I know these words mean more to her than “I love you”. Ruth has been slinging hash and mopping up spills at the Rusty Spoon for 30 years. No one ever asks a waitress what she needs. Ruth sits heavily in the kitchen chair, places her red raw hands on the cracked vinyl tablecloth.
What you got, she asks me, smiling wearily.
I say, you just sit back and be prepared to be amazed. I been watching Gordon Ramsay on YouTube, I tell her. Ruthie, it turns out we been making scrambled eggs the wrong way; you got to cook them low and slow, I say.
Ruth’s tired smile grows a little wider.
I ain’t got nowhere to be, she says.
A version of this story was first published in Flash Fiction Magazine in June 2021.