Bernie’s Burgers

By the time I was fourteen and Ma lost her third job at the mill, she told me I had a choice between a full-time job or the door. She said it in the kitchen, over a bowl of grits, with the same cool, collected tone she’d had the day she told Pops it was done, that she couldn’t spend her life split between work and the Billings County Jail.

And when it came down to money, between me and my brothers, Mama just couldn’t do it she said, and because I was the oldest, well… that was all there was to it. I knew it wasn’t worth the argument. There was no arguing, with Mama. I was the oldest and that was that. I’d get a job.

Everyone in town knew Bernie Parsons. He was the guy who walked into Dizzy’s Diner every morning, shouting “How are ya’ll doing on this fine morning?” purposely loud enough for everyone to stop—coffee mug or waffle bite midair—and watch him sit at the counter.

He had a scruffy salt and pepper chin that he scratched when he had to think hard about something—the stiff hair crunching like candy wrappers under his calloused fingertips–and always had white flecks of dandruff on his collar. He wore the same cognac leather jacket almost every day, and when he brushed past you it smelled like Montana—fresh and stale at the same time, like manure and pine, with a hint of sandalwood. Woodsmoke and sage. The dipping tobacco that Curtis—my brother—hid in his jean pockets, and the Jameson bottles that Mama stowed up high in the cabinet so none of us could reach them. In one inhale, I got all of the Midwest in Bernie’s old and faded leather jacket.

Sometimes I would stop him by the antique shop on 1st Avenue North, the street he took to get to work every morning. I would recognize him by his walk — arms swinging, steps heavy on the asphalt. I’d pretend I was walking that way too and meet his pace.

He usually gave me a mint. Or a tootsie roll. Whatever he had in his shirt pocket, the candy soft and shapeless from being nestled against his chest too long. I never told Mama that I kept the wrappers because they smelled like leather and reminded me of Pops — The Pops I’d seen in old photographs, his body thin and sinewy, shapeless under his old flannel jacket. The Pops sitting shirtless on a yellow tractor with his older brother, Uncle Curtis — seventeen and eighteen — all cigarettes and bravado. The Pops who, for as long as I could remember, came home with the smell of work on his hands. The one I’d watch in silence, scrubbing his palms raw with a bar of soap, muddy rivers forming down the rim of the kitchen sink.

Bernie was Ma’s man, at the time at least. Not that she’d ever told me or my brothers, but I wasn’t stupid and his chipped red Chevy was always outside on weekday mornings, so I knew that they weren’t just sitting around playing a game of Euchre. Ma never said much about those things and we knew better than to even ask. She’d suck her teeth and tell us to go on and mind our own business. We knew there was nothing worse than getting Ma upset over nothing.

Unlike what everyone in Billings liked to say about him, Bernie was always good to me. If anything at all bothered me about working at Bernie’s Burgers, it was the other girls. I heard them whisper in the back about Ma and Bernie getting it on, about him doing Ma a favor by hiring me. It didn’t bother me, most of the time, but I still couldn’t help but listen.

Those poor hicks, they called us, because they knew about Pops, and because everyone in town knew we weren’t from Billings, originally, but from Sweetgrass, up North.

Bernie, he was always nice when he came in to check up on things, and I can’t say I ever hated working for him, even if my hair always smelled like burger meat and my clothes deep fried. Ma bought me a pair of nonslip shoe because on my first day at BB’s I slipped in canola oil, bruised my knee, and ruined my only pair of work pants—one of Ma’s old ones that didn’t fit her anymore. That was where my first paycheck went. When I told Bernie about the new pair of pants he dug into his pocket but Mama slapped his hand away. There was nothing Mama hated more than pity.

The second, third, fourth, and fifth paychecks, I crammed under my mattress thinking, like the fourteen-year-old girl I was, that it could get Pops out of the county jail for good this time. That I wouldn’t need Bernie’s old jacket to remind me who my Pops was. That he could be real again, and not just a smell.

© 2014, Johanna Grea

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