“Good Friends” by Rhonda Browning White

She has a great body, my friend does, I’ll give her that. And I have no problem telling you she’s at least ten years younger than I am, and looks it. Doesn’t seem fair that she’s got a grown son and still has a flat belly and perky… well, you know. I don’t talk like that. No sense in mentioning body parts the Lord told us in the Good Book to keep covered.

She don’t feel ashamed of dirty talk, though. Every other week or two she says, “ass,” or “hell,” or “damn,” and once she even called Simpkin Dodger down at the bank a peckerwood! She liked to have embarrassed me to death, being as I was the one who told her to start up her accounts there. (They give away a fifty-dollar bond to the one who refers somebody). No, she didn’t call him that to his face. She told me he acted like one, though, and that’s enough.

It ain’t like I expect her to act ladylike, that one, because I know she ain’t got it in her, but a little common decency is called for, especially around the good folks at Rikki’s Tiki. See, it was one of them days at Rikki’s when she sat across the bar from me that let me know she’s got a thing for my man Jackson. She don’t hide what she’s thinking none too good. Tends to say what she thinks, even when she don’t think.

People seem to love her, though, and she soaks up all that attention and affection like a big, soppy-wet sponge. I’d just like a little of her spillovers to trickle my way. My love sponge has been hard and dry for years. She don’t seem to notice she takes more than her share, though.

Could be the way she was raised. I suspect she wasn’t taught no better.

I never met her parents. They live in Atlanta, up in what she calls “the big house.” For a long time, I thought she was talking about prison, but she meant one of them mansions like what sits on a postage-stamp yard and costs six or seven digits. They gave her the cottage, which really ain’t no cottage at all, but a three bedroom, two bath beach-style house on the inlet. Maybe that’s what makes her like she is—you know, wanting everything she sees, like it’s owed to her. Like she wants my man.

Well… he ain’t my man, really. I don’t own him. But ever since me and Jackson went out that time, he’s been watching me from the far end of the tiki bar. Keeps eyeballing me, even though when I catch him at it, he looks away in a hurry. The shy type.

My date with Jackson was way before she started showing up at Rikki’s Tiki, wearing her frilly tops and high heels and that fake suntan. She keeps a fake suntan, I tell you. And us living right here at the best beach in Florida. The way she throws away money!

She came down here because of her boy. He’s in school at the aeronautical college, getting some high-in-the-sky degree. My oldest boy should be about his age by now. No, I ain’t seen him since he was a tadpole. State of Kentucky took him away from me, gave him to his daddy, my first old man. We kept in touch for a while after I moved away, but then my spiteful in-laws poisoned his mind against me. But her boy, he’s already learned how to fly a plane! I don’t reckon they own one, though. He must be borrowing the ones at the aeronautical school.

He takes her to lunch every Wednesday. Or she takes him, I’m not sure which way it works. I envy her that—I admit my flaws, and envy is one—her getting to see her boy regular. I wonder what my boy looks like, if he’s tall like his daddy, or short like me. My boy could fly a plane, too, if he had money to go to one of them big colleges. She says her son’s gonna be a pilot at a big airlines, but he can make more money if he gets his doctor’s degree first. I told you she’s all about the money, didn’t I? Well… she is.

That’s why she’s after my man, Jackson. He ain’t rich, mind you, not the kind of rich she’s used to, though he comes from good people. Owns a farm out in Samsula, the one what sells them cows with the camel humps on their backs. He does all right.

Her husband? Oh, he died. Some electrocuting tragedy. That’s another thing we have in common, both of our men were zapped. Her man’s misfortune probably wasn’t as horrible as the one what killed my Luther. I must have told him a hundred times not to play that CD player next to the bathtub. He always said he’d be careful, that a man needs good music to relax him after a hard day. The sheriff kept asking when it was Ed started listening to Prince and the Revolution, ’cause he hadn’t ever heard him like anything but country all them years they played poker together. I told him I reckon it was when he got some good sense and cheer about him, ’cause country is sad enough to make a kitten wail. Besides, my husband must have been distracted that particular day, probably because we’d been in a big fight about housekeeping and laundry-washing and drinking. I don’t hold no grudge against him, even though he did die before he apologized. I figure the Good Lord got the last word on that one.

I’m sidetracked. Let me get back to her acting all flirty with Jackson… she owes it to me to leave him alone. I was the first friend she ever had at Rikki’s. You know how I am, kind to everybody, the real friendly sort. She walked up here to the tiki bar, trying to keep her balance on those uneven deck boards in her wedges, looking all self-conscious and nervous. I recognized the lonesome and scared on her, just like looking in a mirror, and I talked to her right away. We chatted while Nelson made us a drink—she offered to buy me one, and in the spirit of brand-new friendship, I let her—and then when the band started up, I asked her if she liked to dance, and she sure enough said, “Yes!” She jumped right up there on the dance deck, too, and her not even having her drink yet to cut the awkwardness. That right there ought to told me what kind of flop-house doll she really is.

I give everybody the benefit of the doubt. And look where it’s got me. She don’t even have a real drink, some nights. Just walks right in, gets her a barstool, orders a Diet Co-Cola with lemon (more waste, since the lemon just decorates her glass—she don’t even squeeze it), and then she hops out on the dance deck and shakes it. Most of the time I join her. I hate to see a woman up there alone like that. Makes the place look bad. Oh, sometimes I dance up there by myself, too, but never when I’m stone cold sober. Besides, people at Rikki’s know me. They know what kind of woman I am, that I ain’t like her. I’m one of the rare birds who cares what people thinks about them. Reputations are hard to shine, once you’ve let them rust.

See these fingernails? Rough, ain’t they? I’d like to get them fancy stick-ons, but I’d probably just chew on them, too. My nerves make me do it. I ain’t one of them crazies or nothing, but I do have my bad days. Bad nights, really. My trailer gets too quiet in the dark hours, especially until that rowdy bunch of bikers who live at my end of the park settle down. I thought about getting a dog, but that’s just more food to buy.

She’s got a little lap pooch, did I tell you? She totes it her car sometimes. Gets its hair styled with bows, as if she needs one more way to throw away good money.

She has her good spots, though they’re stretched so far apart you got to look to find them. There’s nights she’ll pick up my tab, like at the end of the month when she knows times is lean. For a while, I thought it was Jackson doing it, him being secret about our love and all, but when I asked Nelson at the bar, he says no, it wasn’t Jackson, it was her. Disappointed me a little, though I know you ain’t supposed to look at a gift horse’s teeth. I’ll tell you the truth, if you’ll keep it to yourself . . . I might not have even went out with Jackson again if he’d asked me, before she came along. No, me and him got along fine. Never had a disagreement. It’s just that I can’t bear the thought of that floozy digging her nails into a Romeo like Jackson. Oh, he’s a romantic. He don’t show it, but I know.

Surprised me the first time she bought me a drink like that, because she didn’t even tell me before she left, so I couldn’t thank her proper. I been meaning to tell her I appreciate it, but things slip my mind more and more nowadays. Besides, once she throws one of her fringy, sparkly pocketbooks up on the bar and starts tap-tap-tapping them dragon-lady fingernails against her Diet Co-Cola glass, even Einstein’s train of thought would derail.

That’s what happens when you’re a looker. You become a distraction. People really don’t want you around, like you might think they would. She knows it, too. Sometimes when I’m talking to her here at the bar, she’ll get that faraway look in her eye, and I know she’s just realized that she’s starting to strum my nerves. It ain’t long after that ’til she leaves. It’s a blessing that she realizes it, yes sir. There’s times when she gets here, and she’ll see me, and I’ll wave, and she’ll wave back, and then she’ll take a seat on the other side of the tiki hut. Them’s the days when I know she’s probably feeling too pretty for her own good, and she knows I know it, so she just keeps a bit of distance. Maybe she’s a distraction to her own self.

It don’t bother me none when she keeps her distance like that. Not all friends are as good a friends as me and her, so it would bother some, but not us. Me and her are tight, like the kids say nowadays.

So as I was telling you, it was one of them days when she sat across the bar from me that let me know she’s got heartstrings for Jackson. Well, maybe heartstrings ain’t the right word, but she’s sure getting flirty-eyed with him. See, she was talking with me, and me and her danced with all the girls like we do, and then a few men here and there got up to dance, and I was dancing with Jimmy Lee Hester, and next thing you know, she’s sitting at the other side of the bar all by herself. Nursing that Diet Co-Cola. With the lemon.

No, honey, she ain’t got nothing for Jimmy Lee, but that’s funny to think about. Poor Jimmy Lee has got one of them horse faces with eyes that don’t quite look in the same direction at the same time, and she’s just too prissy for that. She’s always polite to him, though. And she ought to be, ’cause he’s a good ol’ boy.

What made me know she’s after Jackson is the way she looked at him, and him at her. She smiled at me when I came back to my barstool, and then her eyes cut over to Jackson, and he gave her one of them hush-hush looks—you know the kind—the ones that say, “I know what you’re thinking, but let’s keep it a secret.” Yes, one of them. Then they both glanced at me and turned away. I ain’t stupid. I can read a look.

Her and Jackson ain’t even been on a date, as long as she’s been coming to Rikki’s. See, me and him hooked up right away. First night I seen him here, he sat next to me right here on this corner—it’s my regular spot—and we hit it off. We danced to “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction,” and when the music slowed and the band played Skynyrd’s “Love Don’t Always Come Easy,” Jackson didn’t hurry off the dance deck like some men will. No, he slid that calloused hand around my waist, and we kept right on dancing. Oh no, honey, Jackson ain’t the type to rub up against a lady. Leastways not in public. It was all proper for prying eyes. He’s a real gentleman, I tell you, a cowboy-type man.

Anyways, I had been here a while before he arrived, so I already had a good buzz going. He couldn’t have known that, so he bought me a couple or three drinks, and before you know it, I was stumble-drunk. Told you Jackson’s a gentleman, and he proved that to me right off. When he seen I wasn’t in any shape to drive, he offered to take me home. I had to ask him to stop somewheres on the way, ’cause my stomach wasn’t agreeing with me, and I didn’t want to embarrass myself by getting sick in his fancy truck.

Him being a respectable sort, he didn’t just pull over at any two-bit convenience store. He took me to Denny’s, and after I came out of the ladies’, he already had us a table with a little pot of coffee waiting. Bought me breakfast and seen to it that I was okay, and once we’d eaten and I’d sobered up to driving-level, he took me back to Rikki’s to get my car, and he followed me all the way to my place to make sure I didn’t get pulled by the law. Now ain’t that romantic! Our first date. I’ll never forget a minute of it.

You see now why I’m rethinking my relationship with Jackson, in light of the way she’s taking a shine to him. I just don’t want him falling prey to someone like that. Besides—and I’m being honest here, so don’t judge me—there’s not much else for a woman like me, except to find the next good man. Look around. You don’t see too many good ones left, do you? The best ones are already paired up. I don’t want to settle again.

I reckon I waited a little too long for a special man to come along. And now at my age… well, it’s real tough.

She could have her pick of good men. Jackson’s a catch, so I can see why she’d make eyes at him, but if he wanted her, he would offer to follow her home, like he did me, now wouldn’t he? Guess she just can’t take a hint, or else she’s one of them that don’t do too well with rejection. I don’t hold no grudge against her. She’s got her problems. I understand what that’s like. I can’t relate to having plenty of money, or to everyone I meet smiling at me, acting like they care about me, but just because her problems are different than mine, don’t mean they ain’t real.

So I’m here for her, standing by in case she needs me. Why, if it wasn’t for me, Lord knows where she’d be. Lonesome and alone like me, maybe. No true friends at all.

R Headshot 2013In July, Rhonda Browning White earned an MFA in Creative Writing (Fiction) at Converse College. Her fiction, essays, articles and poetry have appeared in Appalachia’s Last Stand, Seeking the Swan, Mountain Voices, Thrive, Gambit, Bluestone Review, and elsewhere. She blogs here. Her professional website is here