Author | Anna Konradi
There is one restaurant in Loco Valley, Texas. This makes a world of sense, because there are only about six hundred eating, breathing citizens of Loco Valley, and two-thirds of them are too poor or too stubborn to leave their houses and get on out to eat. It was half a miracle the little restaurant managed to stay afloat at all, what with all the troubles between the owner and his wife.
Dale and Elaine Miller were sweet-as-sugar country folk to their cores. Elaine had taught at the local elementary, which both she and Dale had attended nearly forty years before. The children called her Miss Elaine, because Mrs. Miller was Dale’s mother. They brought her valentines the whole of the month of February and left apples on her desk with little notes that read, “We love you, Miss Elaine.” It wasn’t just the children who found themselves lost in the sweet timbre of Elaine Miller’s voice. It was the parents, too, who made special phone calls requesting their children be placed in her class. Really, there was not a sane soul in Loco Valley that found themselves with a bad word to say about Elaine. Dale, even after the troubles, was of no exception.
Dale and Elaine were lucky in a lot of ways. They both had smarts and a home-grown attractiveness about them—a combination found few and far between in tiny Texas towns. They had a roof above their heads, and a nice one at that. And of course, they had the diner, which Dale had opened nearly two decades prior. If you’d asked them about their luck, Dale and Elaine would’ve shrugged their shoulders and told you that if there was such a thing, it sure had been good to them, hadn’t it?
When Elaine was thirty-five she became pregnant. Dale came home with key lime pie and a bottle of sparkling cider, and together they got drunk off the idea of the little baby in Elaine’s tummy. Dale and Elaine giggled all night long.
“Imagine,” Elaine said between fits of laughter. “Imagine if we named our baby like they do in Hollywood. Niagara Louise Miller, or Dandelion Rose. Just imagine.”
Dale’s expression became serious. “Come on, now. She couldn’t become president with a name like that, could she?” To which Dale and Elaine dissolved into laughter once again, as no one from Loco Valley, Texas had ever found themselves farther than Colin County no matter how hard they tried.
Four months into the pregnancy, Elaine felt a rumbling in her stomach. She called Dale at the diner to tell him the news, that she’d felt the baby swimming. Dale nearly dropped the phone. He left for home at once, stopping only to pick up tuna and rocky road ice cream upon Elaine’s request.
When Dale got home, he found his wife curled into a little ball on the sofa. He thought she looked like a sleeping mouse. Dale set the groceries down carefully on the kitchen table and walked over to Elaine. He bent to kiss her forehead but stopped upon seeing Elaine’s eyes clenched tight. His gaze made its way down the rest of her body.
“Elaine,” he said, slowly. He saw her there, body curled in upon itself. A dark stain bloomed around her. Dale fell to his knees. And then the roaring in his ears subsided, and he heard her: A wail was building at the back of Elaine’s throat, like groaning metal, like the feeling of being lost. The sound of it ripped through Dale’s chest like hurricane wind. He’d never heard a sound like that. He said her name again, over and over: “Elaine, Elaine, Elaine.”
Elaine’s eyes sprung open. She hadn’t heard him walk over to him or even enter the house. A sob escaped her then, seeing Dale on his knees and feeling his hands clawing at the fabric around her stomach as if, if he gripped hard enough, he could stop the life from leaving her. But it was too late. Dale and Elaine’s baby was gone.
Not long after, Elaine planted a little tree in the backyard. She’d come home with it one day, dragging it though the house and leaving a trail of dirt behind her. Dale had followed her silently through the back door. He went to the garage and pulled out a shovel, which he handed to Elaine once she had paced the yard and decided on a spot for the tree. Elaine gathered handfuls of grass in her fists and pulled hard, like she was trying to sink into the ground. She stayed like that, clutching the earth like her life depended on it, until dusk fell over the Texas skies. Despite the heat, Elaine began to shiver uncontrollably. Dale headed inside for a blanket. When he passed by the window on his way back outside, he saw Elaine hunched over the ground, digging furiously. He wondered for a moment if she’d been waiting for him to leave.
By the time she reached the age of forty-five, three little trees made a neat line in Dale and Elaine’s back yard. With each pregnancy Elaine had hoped, hoped furiously and whole-heartedly that she’d be able to hold this little baby in her arms, to sing “Hush, Little Baby” and rock it to sleep. Dale was not so hopeful. He was a man who had watched his wife suffer far too many times but had not learned, if such a thing could be learned, how to help her.
It was an unusually hot summer when Elaine became pregnant for the fourth time. She had been swept up with waves of nausea for nearly three weeks before she let herself believe that it could be happening again. Elaine took Dale’s truck to the store— “to pick up a frozen pizza, need anything?” She had watched Dale’s face for any sign of skepticism, since only the day before he’d put the groceries away and must’ve seen the freezer full of frozen pizza. But Dale’s nose was buried deep in diner paperwork, so he only shrugged and dug out a twenty from his pocket. She thought it better not to tell him, not yet. Elaine bought three pregnancy tests and a frozen pizza, which she stuffed sideways into the freezer upon returning home. She planted a kiss on Dale’s soft crown of hair, at which he looked upon her with so much love that she thought, for a moment, that they would be just fine—complete, even—if these tests showed up negative. But that thought only lasted a short while.
That night, Elaine made fried chicken and biscuits for dinner. It was Dale’s favorite. She pulled him away from the TV despite his protests— “But it’s fourth down!” She’d have thought he would’ve recognized by now that something big was coming. After all, with each big announcement (and quite a number of those had been Elaine’s pregnancies) she had put together the fixings of true Southern soul food before breaking the news. But at his core Dale was a simple man. He stuck his finger in a pool of grease on his plate and plopped it noisily between his lips.
“What did I do to deserve you, darlin’?” Dale asked between bites. Elaine took his hand, then, and placed it on her abdomen. Dale’s eyes found his wife’s face, which was full of wonder. He forced himself to swallow the bitter taste that was rising in his throat. Elaine threw her hands in the air, and Dale’s hand fell limp.
“Isn’t it wonderful?” she said. “I know, I know, it sounds crazy. But I have a wonderful feeling about this child.” Elaine left for the kitchen and returned with a pecan pie.
Later that night, Elaine lie in bed wide awake, holding a pillow close to her chest and rocking it methodically. She moved a hand to her stomach. It was too early for a bump—for any sign of the living thing that was growing inside her. But Elaine tapped her hand against her body to the rhythm of a tiny unformed heartbeat. She delighted in the sound of it. After nearly an hour of watching the rise and fall of Dale’s chest and wondering if he was dreaming of their baby, Elaine succumbed to her restlessness.
She found herself outside, brushing against the leaves of her memorial trees. With each loss Elaine had ripped into the earth with the fierceness of a mother scorned and then, trembling with exhaustion, had placed each sapling into the ground with great care. By now the tree she had planted upon losing her first baby some ten years ago had grown as tall as Elaine.
As she paced the line of trees she became taken with a sudden desperation. Her breaths were shallow and shaky. Elaine brought a hand to her stomach and held it there firmly.
You stay with me now, she thought.
Elaine Miller was not a god-fearing woman. Maybe she had been, once; but any god that should rip a child from its mother for no good reason at all was no god for Elaine. Still, she fell slowly to her knees and bent her head toward the earth. Elaine decided then that the baby inside her would live. She would give anything for it.
And so Elaine prayed, prayed hard and slow and to anyone that would listen. By the end of it, her sweet voice was raw. She felt hot tears on her cheeks and swiped at them with the backs of her hands. Elaine lie in the grass until the sun rose and swallowed the night whole. When Dale woke up he found his bed half-empty and went to search for Elaine. Through the window he saw her in the backyard, curled up in the grass, and was reminded suddenly of the image of his wife’s body wilted in on itself and pooled in blood. Dale threw open the back door and lumbered over to her. Elaine sat up then, and sleepily reached her palms to the sky. She turned toward Dale. Half of her face was stamped with the pattern of overlapping blades of grass. Dale sat beside her and plucked a thick green piece from her cheek.
“We should talk,” Dale started.
“I think so, too,” said Elaine. “I said it last night, and I’ll say it again: I have a wonderful feeling about this child.” She took Dale’s hands in her own. “Don’t you feel it? It’s wonderful.” Elaine’s face was full of bliss. Dale’s many protests (We shouldn’t hope; remember last time—the pain you were in? And even if it all works out this time.... we’re getting older; you hear the stories) died on his lips. He rested his forehead in the crease of Elaine’s shoulder.
“Dale,” said Elaine.
“Hmm,” he murmured.
“I’d like to go with you tomorrow, to church.”
Dale raised his head. Elaine’s eyes were trained on a small bird balancing precariously on their fence. He waited until her attention turned toward him.
“You’d like to go to church?” He repeated. Elaine would not admit doubt in her pregnancy; Dale knew this with all of his being. To admit doubt, for Elaine, was to offer up excuses on a silver platter for the baby not to make it. Still, he knew the fear she must have pitted in her stomach if she was willing to attend church with him. It was probably, he thought, the same fear that was pitted inside him.
The next morning, Elaine and Dale Miller blew imaginary dust off their Sunday Best. Upon entering the church, they were greeted by Albert Black, who was the town sheriff, and by Albert’s granddaughter Melissa; down the aisle there were Cricket and Frances Finch, who owned the grocery down the street from the diner; lastly they were met by Pastor Brooks, a leather-faced man with a voice far too large for Loco Valley. Pastor Brooks placed a calloused hand on Dale’s shoulder before turning to Elaine. A small smile pulled at the corners of Elaine’s lips as she greeted the pastor. She imagined he could see right into her stomach at the little secret she was carrying. Pastor Brooks always seemed to know things like that. Dale felt suddenly that he was imposing on a private moment.
“I sure am pleased to see you both,” said Pastor Brooks. He motioned to two spots in the front row and headed to the pulpit. Dale and Elaine settled into the pew and listened to the murmurs of the congregation. She had forgotten, in her time as a godless woman, what a hotbed of gossip church could be. She tuned into the conversation behind her.
“Did you hear about little Melissa Black and the Jackson boy?”
“I did. It’s a shame, really.”
“Well, did you hear about the new girl come to town?”
“I heard from Frances—’’
“What does Frances know?”
Their tittering was drowned out by the boisterous opening notes of “To God Be the Glory.” When the congregation stood, the pews let out a collective groan. Elaine struggled to focus on the hymn; there was a ringing in her ears. She placed a shaking hand on the small of Dale’s back.
Pastor Brooks opened his arms to the congregation. Elaine focused on his every word, until her breathing began to slow and the tingling in her lips stilled.
“‘The day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.’”
The ringing was back, and Elaine’s breath hitched in her throat. A wave of nausea threatened to overtake her. She felt Dale sit down beside her and followed suit. He looked at her with a question in his eyes.
Pastor Brooks’ voice boomed through the church:
“Let us welcome today a new sister into our congregation. Miss St. James, would you stand for a moment?”
A slender woman across the aisle from Dale and Elaine stood and bowed her head shyly. She had hair the color of wheat.
Without warning the ringing in Elaine’s ears became unbearable. She rose from the pew. Dale glanced up at her, startled, and placed a steadying hand on Elaine’s arm. She shuffled past the other people staring curiously at her from their seats and descended down the aisle. Dale caught the eye of Pastor Brooks, whose chin was tilted upward and whose eyebrows were pinched together as if he was reading a particularly grueling segment in the morning paper. Dale returned his hymnal and followed his wife outside.
Gossip was a living, breathing thing inside the church. Even Pastor Brooks’ rich voice shrunk beneath the tittering of the congregation.
Ebbie St. James fought the urge to pick up and carry on out of the church herself. She had only come to Loco Valley some short time ago, but she felt versed in the grotesque nature of gossip in small Southern towns; how different could this one be? Sure enough, despite the ongoing sermon there was not a soul in the congregation whose mind and whispers were not focused on Elaine Miller. Ebbie wished that gossip did not run so rampant as it did. Still, she felt a perverse interest in the couple who had fled, and most especially in the woman.
When Ebbie St. James arrived in Loco Valley, the locals looked her over once (that was all they needed) and decided that she fell into the one-third of Loco Valley residents that were sociable, sane and pennied enough to wind up eating at Elaine’s.
Ebbie drove her 1998 Explorer to Elaine’s Diner on Tuesday evening. She told herself that she needed a change of pace, that she couldn’t stare at unpacked boxes for one more second or she might implode. In truth Ebbie had been agitated since Sunday morning’s service. Curiosity itched in her like a hunger, and there was no better place to satiate curiosity than Elaine’s.
People might’ve come to Elaine’s Diner for the gossip, but they stayed for the food. And goddamn, was the food at Elaine’s worth staying for. Even Texas Monthly said so. There were the fried corn nuggets, which were a crowd favorite. The regulars knew to order the chicken fried steak, but only on Tuesdays and Fridays when the gravy was fresh. The hippie kids ordered the veggie platter: a choice of three vegetables from a list of fried green beans, fried okra, fried pickles, mashed potatoes and a baked potato, loaded.
Ebbie ordered the all-you-can-eat catfish. The waitress, a middle-aged woman with smeared lipstick and hay-colored hair piled high on her head, smiled warmly at Ebbie.
“Of course, honey,” said the waitress. She bent to fill Ebbie’s cup with water, unintentionally shoving her large, fake breasts in Ebbie’s face. Ebbie noticed after a moment that the waitress was speaking.
“And I said, sweet thing, of course we serve somethin’ other than catfish. It’s not, all-you-can-eat-is-catfish. You should’ve heard the cooks hootin’ and hollerin’ when I told them.” She sashayed away, giggling to herself.
Dale Miller watched Ebbie enter the diner. He recognized her from the pastor’s introduction. Dale’s eyes followed her into the cracking vinyl booth. His was not the only gaze fixed on Ebbie, whose slender hands twirled a strand of hair around her face. Newcomers were few and far between in Loco Valley. What was more curious, thought Dale, was that the girl seemed not to notice the eyes trained upon her. She stared at her menu with an amused expression.
Dale caught the waitress who had taken Ebbie’s order by the crook of her elbow. He nodded toward her notepad.
“I’ll take this one, Dixie.”
The waitress shrugged and handed over the notepad. “Whatever you say, boss.”
When Ebbie’s meal was ready, Dale carried it over to her table. Ebbie was in the process of counting the number of times the word “fried” appeared on her menu—fourteen, so far—when he set the plate before her. She laid her menu down. Dale pulled over a chair from an empty table and sat in it so that its back was facing the table. Ebbie studied Dale. His hair was turning grey at the tips of his ears, and fine lines spread from the corners of his eyes. They were kind eyes, decided Ebbie.
Dale cleared his throat. “I won’t bother you long,” he began. “I—well, I heard you were new to town, and I wanted to see how life here was treating you.”
“You’re Dale,” guessed Ebbie. She had heard his name floating around the church on Sunday. Dale nodded.
“I’m Ebbie,” she said. Ebbie told him how she had heard about Elaine’s Diner before she had set two feet in this town, and how she’d been living off TV dinners ever since she moved, so he could imagine how in want she was for a hearty meal.
Ebbie and Dale chatted until closing time. Ebbie told him about her parents, who still lived in Louisiana, and about her new job at the high school, which she’d start in August. Dale told Ebbie about the diner, how his wife had turned red as a beet when he’d revealed he’d named it after her some twenty years back. He told her about Elaine: how she used to teach down at the elementary, how she sang Aretha Franklin when she thought no one was listening, how she had the strangest pregnancy cravings anyone could imagine.
Ebbie had chuckled. “How many children do you have?” she’d asked. She thought she had said something wrong, for a moment, because Dale’s eyes shifted to the ceiling and he became quiet. But after a moment, a smile played at his lips.
“Just the one,” he said softly. “On the way.” Ebbie clapped her hands together, and Dale couldn’t help but grin. By the end of the night, Ebbie had agreed to take a break from TV dinners and join Dale and Elaine for a home-cooked meal.
Later that week, Dale and Elaine welcomed Ebbie into their home with open arms. Elaine prepared chicken pot pie and a cobbler for dessert. Elaine thought the young woman was simply delightful; she found herself staring into Ebbie’s cornflower blue eyes and hoping that her child should turn out so lovely. Before Ebbie left, Elaine made her promise to return the following week. Soon their dinners became a standing date. Elaine and Dale began to think of Ebbie as a child of their own.
As Elaine’s belly swelled, Dale’s fears began to subside. One night, while Ebbie washed the dishes, Elaine pulled Dale out the backdoor and into the yard. The night was cool; the leaves had long-since fallen from all the trees but the pines, and a layer of crunchy red and yellow debris littered the ground. Ebbie was farther along in her pregnancy than she’d ever been before; she told Dale so. Dale sank to his knees and placed both hands on either side of Elaine’s round stomach. He touched his forehead to her. Elaine took his hands and pulled him up. She saw that Dale’s cheeks were wet with tears.
“I know,” she said. “I know.”
A month later Elaine gave birth to a baby boy. Ebbie left class early to meet Dale and Elaine at the hospital. When she arrived, Dale was pacing nervously at the foot of the bed while Elaine watched him, amused. Ebbie walked over to Elaine and squeezed her hand.
“How are you feeling?” she asked.
“Wonderful,” said Elaine.
They called the baby Deacon.
A week later, Pastor Brooks received a letter in the mail from Ebbie. They said the She had packed her things and left Loco Valley for good. She didn’t say why, only that she had not a doubt in her mind that she could not remain in Loco Valley, and that anyone with any wits about them would follow her out. Pastor Brooks called Elaine Miller at home; he knew they were close.
“Hello?” Elaine’s voice was as lovely as ever.
“Elaine,” Pastor Brooks began. “I hope you’re well.”
“I am,” Elaine responded, but her voice was shaking. Pastor Brooks heard a wailing in the background.
“I’m calling about Ebbie St. James, Elaine. Have you heard from her?”
The line was silent save for the screeching of the baby. “I—I have to run, Pastor. Deacon needs me.”
Dale heard what the people were saying at Elaine’s; he couldn’t help it. They said Ebbie St. James had left Loco Valley because she’d seen the child, that she had known upon first glance that it was not a child of God, but of the devil himself. They said the baby had claws for hands and eyes black as coal. They said Elaine sold her soul so that the baby would live. Some possessed enough audacity to inquire about the child to Dale’s face. They asked, when are we finally going to see the little guy? They meant, when can we confirm you’ve been hiding a monster in your home, all this time? Soon enough Dale stopped coming to the diner altogether.
One night, Dale came home to the sound of Deacon’s wailing. He found the child red-faced in his crib. He swept Deacon into his arms and attempted to quiet him, but Deacon’s wails only seemed to grow louder. He called out Elaine’s name but received no response, so he picked up the phone and dialed her number. But Elaine had unplugged all the phones in the house the day before; she was sick of the noise. He found her in the backyard, lying under the tallest tree. She heard the baby’s cries and sat up, reaching blindly toward them. Dale saw that the skin on her arms and neck was red with scratch-marks, and that her under-eyes were swollen. Elaine stood and took Deacon into her arms; his cries quieted into soft whimpers. Elaine stared into the eyes of her child. Slowly, she lifted her head at met Dale’s gaze.
“I’m sorry,” she said, voice barely above a whisper. Dale knew she was not referring to leaving the child to cry in the crib. Her attention focused again on Deacon, as if she was fearful that she could not look away for a moment longer lest he disappear back into the night. She held him tightly to her chest and rocked him gently. The night stilled as the little boy fell into sleep, and Dale and Elaine sat holding each other under their trees until morning.
About the Author | Anna Konradi is a sophomore Nemerov Writing Scholar at Washington University in St. Louis. She is originally from Dallas, Texas. Anna is majoring in both English with a Concentration in Creative Writing and International and Area Studies. She is minoring in Russian. Anna is involved in Russian Club, Chi Omega, and Koaches for Kids. In her free time, Anna enjoys unironically singing along to Johnny Cash, warding off the occasional tall joke, drinking hot chocolate year-round, and falling down the LinkedIn rabbit hole. If Anna is not napping, you may find her lost in in an art museum, lost on the way to a coffee shop, or possibly, lost in her dorm. Anna is often lost. She hopes that this quality will sire situations worth writing about.