By Ellen J. Perry
She keeps the home fires burning
while I’m out earning a living in a world
that’s known for its pouring rain.
She keeps the home fires burning;
oh, and it’s her warm loving
that keeps me returning again and again.
–Don Pfrimmer, Dennis Morgan, Mike Reid, “She Keeps the Home Fires Burning” (1985)
Goddamn Ronnie Milsap. What the hell does he know? Blind in more ways than one. That’s awful, I take it back. I’m ashamed of myself, having such ugly thoughts about a nice man who was born and raised right near where I grew up in the mountains of North Carolina. But I can’t help it because here I am by myself on a Saturday night in the loneliest place there is, a truck stop just off 26 somewhere in South Carolina, cussing at poor blind Ronnie Milsap when all he ever did to me was record this stupid song that’s blasting on the radio and making me mad.I decide to tell the cashier about it. Her nametag reads BERNICE.
“This song makes me mad, doesn’t it you, Bernice?” I ask.
“Shoot, I got more’n a song to be mad about,” she says, popping her gum. Bernice has skin the color of coffee beans and can’t be any more than 22 years old. I realize with a start that at 43, I could be her mother.
“I been here eight hours straight already, and ain’t nothing waiting on me at home but a two-year-old that’s teething,” Bernice says. “He cry all the time. My brother and his girlfriend watching him. ‘We want kids,’ they said. Well, they don’t now. Every five minutes they calling me here at work, talking ‘bout where the Legos at, where the Cheetos at. Bossman say he gon’ fire me if they don’t quit tying up the phone line, and I need this job, girl. My son’s daddy stay at Cross Anchor, can’t count on him for nothing but trouble. He finally out of jail now on probation.” Bernice gestures to my pack of Combos. “Is that all?”
I nod and feel bad again. First I had ugly thoughts about Ronnie Milsap, and now I’ve aggravated Bernice, who’s just trying to get by. But, see, her just getting by is part of what makes me mad. The other part is hardly anybody will talk in plain language about real stuff; most people just keep everything bottled up, boiling on the inside. Well, not me. Not anymore. There’s nobody in line behind me, nobody here at the truck stop but me and Bernice and an old man in overalls eating a hot dog at a corner table, so I pay for my junk food supper and let it fly.
“Bernice,” I say, leaning on the counter and popping a Combo, “all these songs that make it seem like women are supposed to be home tending the hearth while the man is out working and providing—doesn’t that make you mad? Us women are doing all of it, every bit of it, working jobs to pay the bills and then coming home to work a second shift, and here’s Ronnie Milsap singing, ‘She got something cooking for me tonight.’ Well, that sure as hell makes me mad!”
Bernice glances over at the man eating a hot dog.
“Chester,” she says, “you hearing this?”
“Mm,” Chester grunts. He doesn’t even look up from his newspaper. Which also makes me mad.
I follow Bernice to a table near Chester’s where she sprays greenish soapy water all over the formica. “Here, I’ll wipe it down,” I say. She looks at me funny but hands me a rag and lets me help. While Bernice rattles around in the supply closet to get a mop, I start in with my life story. I tell her about how I married Wayne at 20, put myself through nursing school, had two miscarriages, kept Wayne going while he trained to become a paramedic, finally gave birth to a son, Gabe, raised Gabe, survived a cancer scare, took on extra shifts after Wayne lost his temper at work and then his job, buried both my parents, who died of heart disease, one right after the other, and pushed through exhaustion and stress for years until finally, a month ago, I couldn’t stand it anymore.
“Girl,” Bernice says, “you been through it. And to look at you, you’d never know. All tan and cute. Not no care in the world to speak of.”
“Well, I took time off work and spent the last two weeks at the beach with some girlfriends and my sister. Her husband’s family owns a condo at Wild Dunes resort on Isle of Palms. We had the best time laying out by the pool just the way we used to in high school.”
Bernice nods, and we’re quiet a while, still working and cleaning. The beach trip with special women had been almost, almost, like being 18 again, young and free, our whole lives ahead of us. We collected seashells at dawn, ate shrimp and grits for lunch, and napped or read magazines until suppertime. Around 8:00, we ambled over to somewhere, anywhere on the island, drank piña coladas, and watched the sun go down. No schedule, no demands, no problems.
“And now the problem, Bernice,” I say, wiping down tables furiously, “is that tonight I’m on my way home from the beach, and I don’t want to go home. I just can’t face those mountains looming over me, keeping me trapped. I don’t want to deal with the mess Wayne has surely made in the house, and no telling what Gabe has gotten into.”
“Look, lady,” Bernice says. She has finally lost patience with me. “All that ain’t nothin’ compared to working at this truck stop day and night. Shit, I’d switch places with you in a minute. Two-week vacation, shit. Hey, call Wayne up, tell him I’m comin’ on home after my smoke break. You can stay here and mop for minimum wage.”
Bernice storms back toward the cash register, reaches for her purse under the counter, and jabs around in there, I guess, looking for a pack of cigarettes.
“It’s the song that did it!” I say, following her. “Not just Ronnie Milsap but all those old country songs. God, ‘Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses’ will be coming on next.”
Bernice softens, puts her hand on her hip, shakes her head. “If I hear ‘Stand By Your Man’ on this radio station one more time,” she says, “I’m gon’ kill somebody.”
All of a sudden, Chester, who hasn’t spoken two words this whole time to me or Bernice, either one, wads up his hot dog wrapper and says, “Y’all could just change the channel.”
Bernice sets her cigarettes on the counter and changes the channel.
“Ok, Chester, you think you so smart,” Bernice says, and I’m betting it’s going to be somebody like Hank Williams belting out, “Heeeey, good lookin’, whatcha got cookin’.” But I’m wrong.
Jennifer Lopez’s voice fills up the room. Ain’t gon’ be cookin’ all day, I ain’t your mama. Aint’ gon’ do your laundry, I ain’t your mama. Boy, I ain’t your mama. When you gon’ get your act together? I ain’t your mama.
With those lyrics, it’s like Jennifer Lopez cancels out not just Ronnie Milsap in 1985 but all the injustices women feel like they have no choice but to tolerate. How crazy! We just needed to change the channel.
Bernice’s head starts bobbing. “Ohhhhh! I ain’t your mama, no,” she sings along with Jennifer.
I join the party. “No more playing video games…”
Bernice echoes, “Things are about to change, ‘round here, ‘round here.”
And then as if on cue and without looking up from his newspaper, Chester chimes in, his voice a deep baritone. “Boy, you lucky to have these curves.”
We hoot with laughter.
Right then, on a summer Saturday night in South Carolina somewhere off 26, there is no distinction between man or woman, black or white. There is no hostility or misunderstanding or resentment. Bernice, Chester, and I are just three ordinary humans living life, laughing and singing together in this truck stop that, just for a moment, is no longer the loneliest place there is.
Ellen J. Perry is a native of western North Carolina. Her academic interests include 17th- and 18th-century British life and literature, Restoration drama, and Southern/Appalachian culture. Her story “Milk, Bread, Soft Drinks” was awarded First Place in Fiction by the Bacopa Literary Review. Ellen enjoys teaching her amazing college students, reading, traveling, dancing, working on her collection of short stories, and playing with her stylish cat, Ms. Coco Chanel.