Carla and the Prez
When Dad said I’d better get a job or start working toward a college degree, I thought he was joking. I mean, I didn’t need to rush. For years, Dad made plenty in consulting, and even though now he was teaching at a university we had enough for a good life. The thing is, when we moved from suburban Michigan to the Piney Woods of East Texas for Dad’s teaching job, all my ambition was completely squelched. Maybe it was the crazy heat and humidity of summer in East Texas that bushed my straight hair and zapped my energy.
Despite this, before summer was done and Dad started his first semester he declared I’d have to do something productive. I told him I needed more time to adjust, but when he heard about a job fair in nearby Glimmer he dragged me to it.
Now, I knew there were educated people in this part of the world, but honestly! These job reps were the epitome of Southern redneck. I told Dad they were. One barbecue restaurant rep had a gut like a lard bucket. “Dad! He lives in fat!” I whispered. Then there was the hotel rep who called me “Dahling” and “Sweetie.” I told Dad that she’d never have gotten away with that condescending terminology if she’d been up north.
Every one of them was like that, but the clincher was the last—a guy around my age. When I stepped up to his booth, he tipped his cowboy hat and I blurted out, “Hey, it’s the President!”
Dad turned beet red and this fellow asked (in a perfect Southern drawl), “Sorry, Ma’am?”
“You look like a young George W. Bush!” I laughed.
The guy stared at me, his face kind of white, and dad started dragging me off.
“Bye Prez!” I laughed as we left. He was cute.
“I can’t believe your behavior,” Dad hissed. “What’s gotten into you, Carla?”
“Dad,” I sighed, “You and Mom didn’t raise me so I could work for some local yokels.”
Dad ran his hand over his forehead, and groaned. At dinner the next evening, he put his fork down and looked at me.
“Since you won’t seriously look at work or school, we’ve decided you’ll take the first job we find you.”
“No buts. In fact, I’ve arranged a job interview for you.”
I cried, but Dad was set. The next day he drove me to Glimmer and pulled up at the local Whataburger.
“Are we getting lunch?” I asked.
“Oh no, this is it,” he smiled grimly.
And he sent me into a fast food place to interview! I almost walked out when the manager greeted me. I thought the job fair folks were stereotypical Southerners, but this guy! His name, he said, was Joe Bob and he had a set of real Bubba teeth. I endured his drawl and spoke very properly back to him. I mean, he was polite and I didn’t want to be rude, but I wanted to clarify the difference between us. Finally, he stood and stuck out his hand.
“Welcome to the team, Miz Carla.” He grinned around those awful teeth. “You’ll be workin’ with Mindie.”
I started the next day, and sure enough, working at Whataburger was boring. Glimmer’s a one-traffic-light town, and we were never busy. At least the air-conditioning worked, and thankfully Mindie was fun. She entertained me with all kinds of stories about the area. Her ancestors had lived near Glimmer since Texas was a Republic, and before that they’d hailed from Ireland. Her family had a signed land deed with “Republic of Texas” on it, and her red hair backed her claims to her Irish roots. She was pretty biased about the superiority of Texas, but even so, Mindie liked my stories about winters and the gorgeous clear lakes in Michigan.
Glimmer wasn’t pretty, but the pasture lands around it were. Despite the baking heat, I looked forward to the daily rides in and out of town because I loved to watch the sleek cows and horses browsing in the fields. Mindie lived near me so she drove me home each day, and every evening we took a little farm road to my house. The first time we took the route, we spotted a white pickup parked along the road by a field. A cowboy leaned against the truck, his eyes on the evening sun and a camera in hand. He heard us and turned, touched his hat, then went back to his view.
I gasped. “That was Prez!”
“Who?” Mindie asked. “Wait, you mean Rob there?”
But it was him, the job fair guy. Mindie cracked up when I explained the nickname and agreed there was a resemblance.
“So does he live around here?”
Mindie looked at me like I was crazy.
“That field he was by?” she said. “That’s just one on his family’s ranch.”
Well that floored me. I started to wonder what kind of job he’d been offering. Every evening after that I’d see Prez there by that field eyeing the sunset, and I’d wonder.
Meanwhile, my job at Whataburger was better than I expected. Most people who came in were pretty nice. I had to admit there was a lot of truth about Southern charm. Even when someone obviously thought I was a nitwit they were polite. Joe Bob was a decent manager, bad teeth and all. He complimented my work and started giving me other jobs—he said I had good organizational and communication skills.
But then one horrible day came toward the end of August. I was at the register when this guy strode in like he owned the place. He wore ritzy sunglasses and didn’t even take them off inside. His hair was slicked back and he had his expensive gray sports coat slung over one shoulder. Leaning over the counter, he pushed his glasses down his nose and glared at me.
“Bacon and cheeseburger,” he said. His accent was straight out of the upper Midwest. “No onions, no cheese. Mayo, ketchup—no mustard. Fries. Large. And pop—make it a large, too.”
I gaped at him. It had been months since I’d heard the Midwest accent it took me a second to understand him. I even had to mentally translate “pop” to “soda.” And he was so rude!
The guy stood and tapped his foot. “Well? I don’t have all day!”
I mumbled an apology and tried to put in his order. He’d rattled me so much I messed up; then he got mad and started calling me all kinds of names, so I messed up again. Mindie organized the meal but when we handed him the tray he went ballistic and threw the whole thing over the counter at us. The soda soaked me top to toe. Then he turned on his heel and stalked out.
Mindie helped me mop up, but I was humiliated and it was hard to say how much of my soaked shirt was from soda and how much was tears. Joe Bob came in while we were still cleaning. When we told him what happened he looked worried.
“That was our new boss,” he said. “I think he was testing you, Miz Carla.”
“Well, I failed!” I sobbed. “Now what am I going to do?”
Joe Bob ruminated, then his eyes lit up.
“I got a job for you gals if y’all can spare an evening. My sister is catering barbecue for a big shindig tomorrow night. If y’all can help, the cash can tide ya over if y’need to find a new job.”
Mindie shrugged and I agreed reluctantly. Dad was going to be furious I’d lost my job. And, much as I hated to admit it, I’d come to like my Whataburger gig.
It turned out Dad and Mom had a year kick-off event at Dr. Hart’s, the university president, so Mindie picked me up the next evening. We drove out through pastures wreathed with Texas lantana and purple thistle. We passed the field where I always saw Prez and his pickup, but he wasn’t there. Eventually Mindie turned in at a set of wrought iron gates and we worked our way up a winding drive through loblolly pines and live oaks. Suddenly we rounded a bend and the house opened up before us.
“What in the world?” I gasped. “This in East Texas?”
The house looked like someone had picked up a colonial mansion and set it down in the Piney Woods. Its brick face rose tall and classic, the front lined with cedars, and a multicolored gravel circle fanned out before it. Fields opened up behind, gridded with pretty white fences.
“Oh, I know whose house this is!” Mindie laughed, driving us around the corner to the kitchen entry. “It’s President Hart’s house. He modeled it after Mt. Vernon.”
“What?” I strained around to see the cars pulling up on the front circle to let out visitors. “My parents’ll be here and all the profs I’ve met. How embarrassing!”
“Buck up,” Mindie said. “It’s an honest living.”
Joe Bob met us at the kitchen door looking scrubbed and uncomfortable in a bolo tie, buttoned shirt, and fancy jeans. He waved us into the lofty, flagstoned kitchen and introduced us to his sister who looked a lot more polished than him.
“I gotta run and take care of other details, gals,” he said. “See y’all ‘round.”
Joe Bob’s sister put us to work and soon we were up to our ears in brisket and coleslaw. The wait staff scurried in and out to collect trays and I glanced out the tall windows at the back portico and manicured lawns filled with dressed-up folks. I couldn’t help but wish I was out there with Mom and Dad.
After a bit Mindie took a quick break. When she returned she caught Joe Bob’s sister who nodded to me.
“Carla, can you take out a fresh pitcher of sweet tea? I need Mindie here.”
My heart dropped, but I nodded and grabbed the pitcher, the glass slippery with condensation. I pushed out the kitchen door onto the portico, gasping as the hot humidity wrapped around me. Then I turned and there was Prez—that is, Rob, the sunset watcher. He stood chatting casually with President Hart. Prez looked classy in his cowboy hat, his bolo tie glinting in the late sun. I stepped behind a pillar and swallowed. What was he here for?
“Carla, isn’t it?” One of the wait staff stepped up beside me. He motioned to the president’s group. “Dr. Hart’s son was asking for tea.”
“Dr. Hart’s…that’s his son?” I stared around the pillar. The president’s son looked up as I moved.
“Well, yeh—Dr. Hart’s son runs this ranch,” the waiter said, rolling his eyes.
I squeezed mine tight shut.
“Excuse me, Ma’am. Could I get some tea, please?”
My eyes flew open to see Prez standing there, smiling pleasantly. His smile widened.
“Wait—you’re Dr. Moore’s daughter, aren’t you? Come on out and say hey.”
He took me by the elbow before I could speak and maneuvered me into the open. I stumbled a little and my pitcher sloshed this way and that. I tried to steady it, but it slipped in my hands. Prez glanced over, then paused as if to help, but that threw me completely off balance. The whole pitcher slid out of my hands and fell at my feet sending a wave of sweet tea up my legs.
“Oh!” I cried, and then I shrieked, “Ow!”
Little fiery pinpricks lit into my sandaled feet and up my ankles. I looked down and saw fire ants running all over their mound and swarming up my legs. “Ow!”
I started dancing and slapping like an idiot. Prez grabbed me by the waist and lifted me off and away from the mound. His shoulders were shaking with laughter, but he pulled out a handkerchief and bent down to wipe the fiery beasts off of me.
“Welcome to East Texas, Miss Carla,” he said.
My face must have been as red as Glimmer’s traffic light. I could see people gawking, and my parents hurrying toward me. My soaked legs and feet burned and ached from the fire ant bites and the aroma of sweet tea saturated the air around me.
But for all that distraction, there was something in the way Prez spoke that stopped me cold. I stared down into the kind eyes lifted up to me.
“Joe Bob?” I whispered.
He grinned and stood, then stuffed his free hand into the pocket of his fancy jeans. When he pulled it out, he held a set of fake teeth—Joe Bob’s teeth.
“Aren’t you ‘Rob’?” I gasped, remembering what Mindie had called him.
He tipped his hat slightly. “To my family—yep. Joseph Robert Hart, Jr., at your service.”
I was so confused and mortified. My folks came up and I saw Dr. Hart nearby. They were all smiling.
Prez had the decency to look chagrined, but Dad said, “Honey, I put him up to it.”
“No, Sir,” Prez said. “I’ll take the fall. You see, Miss Carla, I was fuming when you called me Prez at the job fair. I was so sick of that nickname from school days—it didn’t help that my dad is a university president. Then your dad contacted me and apologized, and said if you shaped up you were more than qualified for the job I had. I decided I’d test you a bit and your dad agreed, so Mindie let me play my game….”
“Mindie?” I asked blankly.
“She owns the Glimmer Whataburger,” Prez admitted. “And she’s my cousin.”
“She owns it? But what about the new boss?”
Prez coughed and pulled a pair of snazzy shades from his breast pocket. He put them on and said without a hint of a southern drawl, “You gonna get me some pop since you spilled all that tea?”
“That was you, too?” I yelped.
“Well, you enjoyed Whataburger so much I didn’t know another way to get you out here,” Prez said, removing the sunglasses and falling back into his drawl.
I shook my head, my face still hot. I looked at Mom and Dad who kept grinning like fools, then at Dr. Hart who was trying to reign in a smile.
“Will you forgive me?” Prez—I mean Rob—said. “I shouldn’t get so touchy about who I am. I would have let up a while back, but Mindie was having fun getting to know you. In the past couple months you’ve shown that there’s a lot more to you than some sassy-mouthed northerner. You’d do great in the office management job we have if you want it.”
He looked so sincere and apologetic. I sighed and glanced down at the welts rising all over my feet.
“I forgive you. I’m sorry I was so rude,” I said. “If you can forgive me, I think I’d like to take that job you have…as long as I don’t have to deal with obnoxious northerners or fire ants.”