After he had drifted back into the woods and I had locked the house up tight, I sat in front of my computer. I had planned to check my e-mail, but instead I found myself trying to unravel Bill’s meaning. I couldn’t concentrate. Finally, without clicking on the e-mail icon, I gave up and went to bed.
I guess it’s not too surprising that I didn’t sleep well. But I was up and out of bed by eight, utterly tired of hiding out in my house. I showered and put on my makeup and my summer work uniform – Merlotte’s T-shirt, black shorts, and New Balance walking shoes – and got in the car to drive to work. I felt much better now that I was following my normal routine. I was also very nervous as I parked on the graveled area behind the bar.
I didn’t want to stand staring at Sam’s trailer, centered in its little yard at right angles to the bar. Sam might have been standing at a window, looking out. I averted my eyes and hurried in the employees’ entrance. Though I had my keys in my hand, I didn’t need them. Someone had gotten there before me. I went directly to my locker and opened it, wondering if I’d see Sam behind the bar, how he’d be, what he’d say. I stowed my purse and put on one of the aprons hanging from a hook. I was early. If Sam wanted to talk to me, there was time.
But when I walked up front, the person behind the bar was Kennedy Keyes. I felt distinctly flattened. Not that there was anything wrong with Kennedy; I’d always liked her. Today she was as bright and shiny as a new penny. Her rich brown hair was glossy and hanging in loose curls across her shoulders, she was made up with great care, and her sleeveless pink tank fit very snugly, tucked into her linen slacks. (She had always insisted bartenders shouldn’t have to wear a uniform.)
"Looking good, Kennedy," I said, and she spun around, her phone to her ear.
"I was talking to my honey. I didn’t hear you come in," she said chidingly. "What have you been up to? You over ‘the flu’? I started to bring you a can of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle." Kennedy couldn’t cook and was proud of it, which would have shocked my grandmother, I can tell you. And she hadn’t believed I was sick for a moment.
"I felt awful. But I’m a lot better now." In fact, I was. I felt surprisingly glad to be back in Merlotte’s. I’d worked here a lot longer than I’d held any other job. And now I was Sam’s partner. The bar felt like home to me. I felt as though I’d been away a month. Everything looked just the same. Terry Bellefleur had come in real early to get everything sparkling clean, as usual. I began to take the chairs off the tables where he’d put them while he mopped. Moving swiftly, with the efficiency of long practice, I got the tables squared away and began rolling silverware into napkins.
After a few minutes, I heard the employee entrance opening. I knew the cook had arrived because I heard him singing. Antoine had worked at Merlotte’s for months now, longer than many other short-order cooks had lasted. When things were slow (or simply when the spirit moved him), he sang. Since he had a wonderful deep voice, no one minded, least of all me. I couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket if it were raining, so I thoroughly enjoyed his serenades.
"Hey, Antoine," I called.
"Sookie!" he said, appearing in the service hatch. "Glad you back. You feeling better?"
"Right as rain. How are your supplies holding out? Anything we need to talk about?"
"If Sam don’t come back to work soon, we got to make a trip to Shreveport to the warehouse," Antoine said. "I’ve got a list started. Sam still sick?"
I borrowed a leaf from Bill’s book. I shrugged. "We’ve both had a bug," I said. "Everything’ll be back to normal in three shakes of a lamb’s tail."
"That’ll be good." He smiled and turned to get his kitchen ready. "Oh, a friend of yours come by yesterday."
"Yeah, I forgot," Kennedy said. "She used to be a waitress here?"
There were so many ex-waitresses that I’d take half an hour if I started trying to guess her name. I wasn’t interested enough to do that, at least not right then, when there was work to be done.
Keeping the bar staffed was a constant issue. My brother’s best bud, Hoyt Fortenberry, was soon to marry a longtime Merlotte’s barmaid, Holly Cleary. Now that the wedding was close, Holly had cut back on her work hours. The week before, we’d hired tiny, bone-thin Andrea Norr. She liked to be called "An" (pronounced Ahn). An was curiously prim but attracted men like soda cans attract wasps. Though her skirts were longer and her T-shirts were looser and her boobs were smaller than all the other barmaids, men’s eyes followed the new hire every step she took. An seemed to take it for granted; we’d have known it if she hadn’t, because of all the things she liked (and by now we knew most of them), most of all she liked to talk.
The minute An came in the back door, I could hear her, and I found myself smiling. I hardly knew the woman, but she was a hoot.
"Sookie, I seen your car outside, so I know you’re back at work, and I’m real glad you came in," she called from somewhere back by the lockers. "I don’t know what bug you had, but I hope you’re over it, ’cause I sure don’t want to get sick. If I can’t work, I don’t get paid." Her voice was getting progressively closer, and then she was standing face-to-face with me, her apron strapped on, looking spic-and-span in a Merlotte’s T-shirt and calf-length yoga tights. An had told me during her job interview that she never wore shorts outside the home because her father was a preacher, that her mother was the best cook in An’s hometown, and that she herself had not been allowed to cut her hair until she’d left home at eighteen.
"Hi, An," I said. "How’s it been going?"
"It’s been going great, though I missed seeing you and I hope you’re all better."
"I do feel much better. I have to run over and talk to Sam for a minute. I noticed that the salt and pepper shakers need topping up. You mind?"
"Let me get right on that! Just show me where the salt and pepper are stored. I’ll fill those up in a jiffy." I’d say this for An: She was a hard worker.
Everyone was doing what they should be doing. I had to, myself. I took a deep breath. Before I could chicken out, I marched out the back door of the bar and over to Sam’s trailer, following the path of stepping-stones. For the first time, I registered that a strange car was parked beside Sam’s pickup, a little economy car with dents and dust as its main motif. It had Texas plates.
I wasn’t completely surprised to find a dog curled up on the welcome mat on the little porch Sam had added outside the front door of his trailer. My approach was no surprise to the dog, either. It was on its feet at the sound of my footsteps, watching intently as I passed through the gate and crossed the green grass on the neat stepping-stones.