"Cindy, Cindy, Cindy Lou/ Love my rifle more than you/ You once were my beauty queen/ Now I love my M-16"
Ray is still half-asleep—and a little pissed off (they were totally singing King of the Road without him, the lying fuckers)—which is the only reason he lets the conversation get as far as it does. But, really, who knew letting the reporter talk about his girlfriend would be such a minefield? It starts ‘cause Reporter's still trying to track down his girlfriend's photo; he keeps giving Ray these suspicious looks, like Ray would go anywhere near that picture without hazmat gear and an HIV cocktail. Of course, the bastard has to, like, set the scene or provide context or some literary shit like that by talking about every other woman he’s ever slept with. Which means Walt gets all blushy about some girl-next-door from Bumfuck, Virginia. Ray wants scandalous details but Walt is all, ‘I have to watch the road’—like he’s driving a mini-van to the Wal-Mart instead of driving a Marine Corps victor through the desert. So Ray lets his attention wander (Brad says the scenery this close to the border is soporific, ‘causing drowsiness; sleep-inducing’) and that’s when, wouldn’t you know it, goddamn Trombley says, “So, Brad, what about your first girlfriend?”
“Warriors,” Brad announces loftily, “do not fucking kiss and tell. Unlike certain scrofulous sewer rats who were raised without recourse to civilized society.” He says it in the same bored, slightly reproving tone he saves for talking to junior Marines, but it doesn’t sound quite right. And it is not fucking possible that the Iceman actually proposed to the first girl he…but even as Ray is thinking this, Trombley’s opened his goddamn mouth.
“Hey! You don’t mean it was the same girl who—“
“Doesn’t anybody wanna hear about my first pussy?” Ray sits up like someone’s just injected Ripped Fuel straight into his carotid artery, “I mean, if we’re playing Ask the Expert…”
“Jesus, Ray, if I wanted to hear about your cousin, I’d ask your aunt,” Brad replies. If he’s relieved to have the subject shift from that two-timing skank of an ex-girlfriend, you wouldn’t know it from his tone. Fucking Iceman.
“Oh, yeah? Oh, yeah?! Well, I’m gonna ask…your Mom.”
“Ray,” Walt begins, patiently, “that doesn’t even make any sense.”
The way Ray tells the story, the girl practically flung herself at him, which is maybe a little bit of a lie, because, really, she flung a clipboard at him. Actually, she sort of slid it down the counter of the diner…but she had freakishly good aim and nearly took out his coffee mug.
“If you’re gonna deliver breakfast supplies, you should try to deliver them before breakfast.” She doesn’t say you moron, but then, she doesn’t have to. It’s implied.
It’s the summer before his senior year of high school and Ray’s been running deliveries for Mort Mason’s three-truck delivery business for about four weeks. Every Tuesday and Saturday, when he drops off the supplies for Harvelle’s Diner, he stops in for a cup of coffee and a muffin. He’s never seen this waitress before, but it’s a hellacious 100 degrees in the shade and he’s only too happy to tell her how his day has gone.
“First, it’s not breakfast supplies. It’s three days worth of supplies that just happen to include things you serve for breakfast ‘cause that’s about all anyone eats here and it’s certainly all Ruth Ann knows how to cook. And second, it’s not my fault we’re populating the ass-end of the Ozarks, so far off any beaten delivery track that the best your suppliers can do is drop stuff off at the fucking Wal-Mart so a middle-man—that would be me—has to pick it up and bring it the rest of the way, for which I get no thanks and only a piss-poor cup of what some deluded motherfuckers might call coffee. In fact, our geographical location is the fault of the Republicans and possibly the Late Carboniferous era, which formed the coal upon which early settlers subsisted. Unfortunately for your so-called ‘breakfast supplies,’ these same Carboniferous-era mountains are murderous hell on radio reception so even if the radio in my sad excuse for a truck actually functioned, I still wouldn’t have gotten the CB call about the change in the goddamn route, which means I still would’ve gone about 25 miles out of my way, so—”
Usually, when Ray goes on a rant like this, his conversational partner backs away quietly. This one, though, this new blonde waitress, she just watches him, unimpressed, until he has to take a breath. And then she swipes his coffee.
“I’m cutting you off,” she declares. “You do not need any more caffeine.”
“What the h-” he starts when she comes out from the back, and almost quicker than he can see, she’s up in his face. Literally. She’s got her palm over his mouth.
“Not. Another. Word,” she hisses. “This is a fucking family restaurant.” And then she smiles sweetly and walks to the other end of the counter to serve the two Confederate relics who are waiting on their hash browns.
That’s how Ray meets Jo Harvelle, who’s come to Kentucky to help out at her grandparents’ diner for the summer, and who flatly refuses to be drawn into any of his conversations during the next week. The other waitresses—Janice, who is old enough to be his mother, and Heather and Lisa, who were a year ahead of him in school—usually flirt with him and there’s always someone around who is up for an argument about something. But Jo, who works more shifts that any of the others, just brings him his coffee and keeps her own counsel.
And then, one Tuesday right before July 4th, she brings him cream for his coffee and says, “You said you pick stuff up by the Wal-Mart?”
“Uh, yeah,” Ray replies, once he realizes that she’s talking to him. “It’s out Route 9, a little beyond where they used to have the chicken packing plant, but they don’t anymore, ‘cause it burnt down and the fu-, er, the people who own it live in, like, Cleveland, and can’t be bothered to—”
“If I fix the radio in your truck, d’you think you could drive me out there some time?”
Ray shrugs, a little miffed at being cut off just when he was working up to a really good rant about The Man. He’d drive her out there regardless, ‘cause he figures the radio is fucked all to hell, but he’s not sure he trusts her motives.
“Why do you need to go out that way?”
Jo looks at him steadily. “I need new shoes.”
Ray doesn’t even try to resist. He leans forward until he can see over the counter. Jo is wearing the standard Harvelle’s Diner waitress uniform, unchanged since the late sixties: knee-length polyester dress with short sleeves and a peter-pan collar. The dresses come in a variety of candy colors; today’s in yellow. And underneath, where the other waitresses wear sneakers with orthopedic supports, her bare brown legs disappear into a pair of baddest motorcycle boots Ray has ever seen.
When he looks back up at her, he’s grinning. Something about the contrast just tickles him. “Pick you up Tuesday, but it has to be early. Six thirty?”
“Fine,” Jo says, and she looks like she’s trying not to smile, too. “You’ve got a little, uh…” she gestures at her face to indicate the pastry crumbs on his cheek.
“What? Where?” Ray reaches to wipe off his face, deliberately getting donut jelly on his nose, just so she can shake her head and mutter at how hopeless he is.
Jo fiddles with the radio, which is a cheap Japanese piece of crap that Mort got as part of a job lot and tried to install himself. Her technique seems to involve a lot of swapping wires and spitting on connectors, but just beyond the Route 9 junction, the signal kicks in—a gospel music telethon—and it never quits again.
She wanders off to the Wal-Mart while Ray parks in the corner of the vast parking lot that serves as a make-shift supply depot and day-labor market. Fred, who drives the real supply truck, the one that brings flour and salt from Somerset, sees her leaving the truck, so Ray gets to spin a long, lewd tale about hot hitch-hikers. When he’s all packed up, he finds her waiting for him in Wal-Mart, below the huge map of Missouri mural by the cart return. (In later years, management will paint over that mural and turn it into the Wall of Heroes to honor local servicemen). She is wearing a pair of pristine white Keds, the motorcycle boots stuck in the Wal-Mart bag. In two weeks, Ray has seen Jo upbraid lousy tippers, wrangle handsy customers, and deprive poor working men of their coffee. Adorable is not the first adjective he’d apply to her, but there’s something charming about the shy delight she gets from a new pair of shoes. He suspects she got a lot of hand-me-downs as a kid.
As soon as Jo sees him coming, she stops admiring her shoes. “Do you think these are okay?” she asks diffidently, like she’s just concerned with matching the Harvelle’s Diner dress code.
“Cinderella, your chariot awaits,” Ray declares, gesturing to Mort’s beat-up old box truck and bowing to the ground.
“Shut up!” she whacks him with her shopping bag and turns to the exit when something catches her eye.
“Hey,” she says, staring up at the map, “did you know there’s a town in Missouri named Winchester?”
“Uh. Yeah,” Ray replies, puzzled. “It’s over by St. Louis.”
Ray ’s living with his grandma for the summer; his Mom and his little brothers are on the other side of town, too far to make his delivery job reasonable. Besides, Mom is just beginning to be concerned about Gran’s forgetfulness. (When he returns from Iraq, Gran will call him Joseph, after her brother who died in Korea). Somehow, having someone to cook for is supposed to stave off time, so Ray packs up some shit and hauls it into the room that used to be his uncle’s. He’s got a huge bed, a small dresser, and a bedside table that wobbles. Pretty much every surface is covered with paper ‘cause he’s reorganizing his debate stuff.
“Really, you shouldn’t have cleaned on my account,” Jo says archly when she first sees the place.
Ray, astonishingly, feels himself blushing. And he’s not the blushing type, which just makes him hotter. “Shut up!” he manages, scooping a t-shirt off the floor, ‘cause it’s totally not like…well, it’s not like a date or anything. They’ve been hanging out, him and Jo, since he took her to Wal-Mart a few weeks ago. They work similar hours: early minimum-wage shifts before the rest of his friends are awake, leaving them free during the long, hot afternoons when every other teenager in town is at work. She doesn’t have any friends in town, doesn’t even have a car or a library card, so when she mentioned that she was halfway through the Wheel of Time series and he said he had a few of the books…well, one thing led to another, and that led back to his room. At his Gran’s house, even though Gran is out at Aunt Michelle’s, watching the kids. So the house, Ray realizes, is totally empty. Just him. And Jo.
When he leans in to kiss her, he bumps her nose. Jo starts giggling, ducks away, which means when he reorients and tries again, he ends up laying one on the corner of her jaw, just below her ear and she laughs even harder. It’s not that he isn’t a good kisser—he’s a fucking fantastic kisser, thanks very much—it’s just that she’s taller than most of the girls he’s kissed. And she doesn’t just stand there all swoony and let him goddamn kiss her…she tries to kiss him back. Plus, the whole time, he’s trying to suavely slide a hand under her clothes, but she’s wearing that ridiculous uniform and how was he supposed to know the zipper is on the side?
“Stop! Seriously…you gotta…” Jo pulls away, still giggling. Ray scowls; he was totally so close and when his balls explode and he fucking dies, she’ll be sorry she laughed at him.
Before he can totally catch his breath, Jo’s straddled his lap, her knees by his hips, and framed his head with both hands. Her palms are cool on his cheeks. “You,” she says, right before she kisses him, “are such a fucking spaz.”
It’s a pretty nice kiss, for values of pretty nice that equal ohmyfuckinggod. She tastes like salt and coffee. When Ray puts his hands on Jo’s ass and pulls her harder against him, she moans so he can feel it in his chest. Her hands leave his face and he kind of whimpers, to voice his strenuous objections to any lack of contact, but then her bra is gone and, oh, he absolutely endorses that development. One of her hands comes back to tangle in his hair and the other one is trying to pull the buttons off his shirt. She snarls when she finally gets his shirt off and sees the tattoos.
When he rolls her over—must get pants off now—Jo crushes most of his research on prayer in schools, but Ray couldn’t give a good goddamn. Somehow, they wriggle off most of the rest of their clothes…Jo nearly wriggles right off the bed. Her lips slide off his, mouthing and sucking down his throat while he rocks against that smooth runner’s thigh. Ray manages to get a hand in her panties (plain white cotton and, oh Lord, are those going to get top billing in his fantasies forever) and he’s the one cursing when he finally gets two fingers into her because Jo arches up and bites his shoulder hard enough to leave a mark.
Later, when they’re lying flushed and sweaty in a welter of cotton sheets and crumpled paper, Jo peels away a photocopy that stuck to his shoulderblade. “School prayer?”
“Possible topic for some all-state Forensics shit in the fall,” Ray explains, not sure how that could possibly be more interesting than the way his hands look against the tight, pale skin of her tits.
“Tell me about it,” she says. And because it’s the first time someone outside of the debate team has actually asked Ray to talk, he does.
They fuck all through July, which basically makes it the best summer in recorded human history, but almost as good is the other stuff they do together. They watch every lame comedy and shoot-em-up that comes to town ‘cause the second-run theater has great AC and cheap matinees. Unlike every other girl Ray’s ever taken to the movies, Jo doesn’t get all squirrely around the sex jokes and bathroom humor; in fact, she laughs so hard during one of the American Pie movies that she shoots Sprite out of her nose. They compete over who can come up with the most profane description of Harvelle’s Diner coffee. They shoot tin-cans with her granddaddy’s rifle. She tells him he has a natural talent with firearms. He tells her she’s full of shit. She draws him diagrams of radios, lets him teach her all the secret levels in Donkey Kong, and challenges him to a macaroni-and-cheese eating contest (which she wins, but only ‘cause he lets her since she’s a guest and all). They ride all over the county, singing REO Speedwagon at the tops of their voices.
Jo likes to run. A lot (Ray asks if she’s on the cross-country team back home, or something like that, and she looks at him oddly and says “yeah, something like that”). And it’s not like the cheerleaders at school, who might occasionally deign to jog around the football field. Jo runs miles and miles, up and down the eastern hills in the summer damp and, sometimes, Ray goes with her.
“You’re little, but you’re tough,” Jo says, approvingly, after one particularly horrible slog and Ray just snorts like whatever, but he remembers it years later, in basic, in recon training, at SERE. You’re little, he tells himself, but you’re tough. It works—it gets him through, like one of those mantras Rudy’s always talking about—but he doesn’t know if he believes it because it’s true or because she said it. Jo doesn’t talk much about her family back in Nebraska (he gets the idea that she and her mom don’t always get along, that her dad’s not in the picture), but she does mention that her dad was a Marine and the way she says it makes Ray want her to talk about him like that, some day.
August twelfth, Ray’s Gran goes on a bus trip to St. Louis with the other ladies who volunteer up at the hospital and Ray and Jo are naked before they reach his bedroom. It’s the first time they actually spend the night together. Jo doesn’t seem to mind that Ray lives with his grandmother, but he’s starting to find the arrangement cramps his style (and certain other parts of his anatomy). He definitely wants more of this: more evening light on her back when she’s spread out beneath him, more of the way her tits bounce when he thrusts hard, more of the muscles in her belly that he can feel tightening under his palm when she gets close. When she twists to growl over her should (Jesus ,oh! harder, you fucker), his spine kind of melts into his dick.
With a satisfied mutter, Jo rolls out from under him—sometimes, Ray thinks he’d be okay with a little cuddling, not that he’s going to ask for it—and stretches out, slick and sweaty, the curve of her breasts silhouetted by the streetlamp that filters through the curtains. Ray catches his breath, flings the condom somewhere toward the closet, and starts babbling about the time in ninth grade when he and a bunch of guys tried to rewire a streetlamp and—
“Tell me about CJ Rourke,” Jo says suddenly, shifting to face him.
“What?” CJ’s a guy in Ray’s class…they’ve been in class together since sixth grade, though Ray wouldn't exactly call them friendly.
“You talk about him a lot.”
“No I don’t,” Ray replies immediately. Ceej is a big blonde dude, a football player in a high school where the jocks don’t have much to say to the guys on the debate team. Sometimes he laughs at Ray’s antics in homeroom, but that’s it, really. He has a nice laugh, but Ray’s pretty sure he’s kept that thought to himself.
“He was in your story about the Buick, and the one about the book report you did on Our Bodies, Ourselves, and that thing in shop class.” Jo isn’t insistent about it, but she’s very sure. Ray kind of wishes she hadn’t been listening quite so carefully.
“OK, so?” Ray tugs a sheet over his hips. It’s getting a little cold with the window open. “He was there for all those things, so he’s in the story.”
“The whole town goes to the same goddamn high school, Ray. But you didn’t tell me stories about the whole town.” Now Jo sounds a little annoyed—which is fucked up, because if anyone’s annoyed, it should be Ray. He’s the one getting the third degree when he should be basking in post-coital goodness, here.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means,” she says, “that you have a thing for blondes.”
It’s clear that Jo doesn’t plan to qualify 'blondes' with a gender, and in Ray’s section of these United States, that’s a fighting accusation. For a second, he doesn’t even know what to say. Every word in his head deserts him and in the echoing silence, he suddenly wants nothing more than to hit her until that knowing smile is blood and splinters. And he might have, but once again, his mouth comes to the rescue.
“Not all blondes,” he spits out, finally. “Just the easy ones that nobody else wants.”
The words hang in the humid night for a moment, and then Jo levers herself out of bed and turns on the lamp by the window. She doesn’t cry, or throw things, or stomp out in a huff; she calmly collects her clothes (bra on the bedpost, one sock in the corner next to the door). She dresses, gathers all that mussed, golden hair into a neat ponytail, and leaves. He keeps expecting her to try for the last word—to at the fucking least slam the door. But she doesn’t.
The next time he sees her, she signs for the diner delivery like they have never met. She brings him his coffee, she passes him in the street, she goes past his Gran’s house on one of her long runs. Sometime toward the end of the month—he’s not even sure when, exactly—he stops seeing her around; eventually he learns that she’s gone back to Nebraska for the start of the school year.
School starts in Missouri, too. Ray’s a senior. He and CJ are still in the same homeroom, and seeing him makes Ray feel weird. He’s not sure if it’s what Jo said, or if it’s…something else. He tries not to think about it too much. In September, some whack-jobs fly planes into the Twin Towers in New York. Ray fills out college applications, but they suddenly seem less important than everyone else thinks they are. He asks a cheerleader to prom, just for the hell of it, but she says she’s already got a date, so he ends up going with Mary Beth Harper, who is not blonde. She is in fact, Ray discovers, a natural red-head.
Jo wasn’t Ray’s first girlfriend (that particular honor belongs to Heather Schull, now married and fat in Lester, Missouri), but she makes the best story. Or, rather, The Summer Ray Seduced the Hot Blonde Waitress Who Could Kick Your Ass makes the best story, so that’s the one he tells as Walt drives them across the desert. He leaves out the ending, and the part about how athletic, unapproachable blondes may be a bit of a pattern with him.
Strangely, the only person who calls bullshit is Brad, and he objects most to the macaroni-and-cheese contest, which is actually true. “Excuse yourself, Ray, your adolescent fantasies are showing.”
“Are you doubting your dear, devoted, honest-as-the-day-is-long pal, Ray-Ray?!”
“I am doubting that you ever fucked anything that didn’t share at least one grandparent with you,” Brad retorts and at least he seems to have cheered up since Trombley opened his big fucking mouth.
Ray squawks. “You just like, uh,” he sputters, fishing for the phrase, “trafficking in fucking stereotypes, that’s what you like, Brad! Stereotypes of people from the South. You never see me for me!”
“Oh, I know what’s coming now,” the reporter groans.
“Cuts me deep, homes! Dude, I feel like I gotta go ride with Poke now,” Ray continues, “Gotta get away from all you haters…”
“I swear to God, Ray, if you say it again, I’m gonna leave you behind the next fucking berm, hajis or no hajis—“ Brad starts.
“Say it! Say it! Say it!” Walt and Trombley chant.
Brad heaps blame on the Reporter (“leftist, communist influence…”), but Ray is already scrambling through the roof.
3:1 is directly on their six, and they whoop and holler when they see him pop up to make another pronouncement. Ray grabs the footplate of the Mark with one hand and flings the other out to encompass the wide, empty desert that dwarfs the line of humvees. He is testifying for all the girls who like guns and the guys who like guys.
“Can’t we all,” he shouts to the blazing sky, “can’t we all just get along?!”