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    The Hilltop Inn
    by Shirley A. Moll



    The abnormally hot and humid, thick and sticky days could only be described as ‘sultry.’ The air was still and tacky with heat that caused sweat to glisten around hairlines, made the floors creak and caused the long spring on the wooden screen door to screech. Every customer seemed to let the door slam, and everyone remarked about the weather. “Reckon it’s gonna’ get hot t’day?”

    “Yeah. It’s not gonna’ let up any time soon.”

    Our cash registers were old bulky black beasts with white keys and no running totals. We knew how to count change; that is, if we had a paying customer. Long before the advent of Visa and MasterCard, we let regular customers sign the back of the cash register tape and come in and pay it up on Friday.

    “Hey, Mrs. Huprich. Ya’ know that ham salad you like is on sale for 79 cents a pound.” We talked as I slid the bread and ham hock wrapped in white meat paper down the counter. “Hey, Jackie, can you double-sack that milk for her? She’s walkin.”

    Jackie held the screen door open for Mrs. Huprich, and a burst of hot air came in just about the same time the store owner came up front by the cash register.

    “Don’t stand there holdin’ that door wide open! I got the air conditioner runnin’ tryin’ keep this produce fresh and you’re coolin’ off the whole damned neighborhood. You kids ain’t got a lick o’ sense about ya. Dammit. Can’t find any good help these days. I oughta fire the whole damned bunch o’ you kids.”

    He was a tall, skinny, old white-haired man in his 40’s who moved slowly, and his breath always smelled like day-after whiskey. He looked like Lee Marvin and had a deep voice like his. His white butcher apron was always covered with blood swipes where he wiped his fingers. Nasty. He was always grouchy except when he was flirting with lady customers. They’d giggle at him, but that was probably because they thought he’d give ‘em an extra ounce of lunchmeat if they were nice to him. Ah, but not him. He’d flirt just so they’d think he was a nice enough guy, all the while rippin’ ‘em off by an ounce or more.

    The produce section ran right alongside my cash register. He glanced sideways as he bagged up the lettuce and mumbled about how small those heads of lettuce were gettin’ lately. I wondered what kept him from falling over onto the whole bin of lettuce. “Whatcha’ gonna’ do, Sammie, while your boyfriend is out overseas?”

    “What do ya’ think? I’m waiting for him. I’m loyal and I write him everyday. He knows I’m waitin’ for him.”

    He’d snicker. “Well, what do you think he’s doin’ overseas? Huh? Waitin’ for you? Why, he’s got a girl in every port!”

    “No, he does not. I know him. He’s loyal to me too. I would know if he was cheatin’ on me. I know him.”

    Then he’d say, chuckling, “Okay, you go on thinkin’ that.”

    “Well, just ‘cause you think like that doesn’t mean all guys are like that!”

    I didn’t care what that old man had to say. I knew Joey would never cheat on me, no matter where he was in the whole world and no matter how long he was gone. We were 18; mature.

    Vivian looked over from the other cash register and rolled her eyes. She agreed the old guy didn’t know what he was talkin’ about. “Ignore him,” she whispered. “He’s been sippin’ whiskey back in the cooler all day. Can’t you smell it?”

    It was nearly 9:00 p.m. anyway; quittin’ time.

    The old drunk usually got obnoxious toward the end of every day. He’d barge in behind the counter to the cash register and always manage to fall against one of us. We knew the stumbling was coming and sometimes managed to dart out of there and go straighten up the bread shelf or the penny candy. He continued with his detestable whiskey mumble. “Yeah, you call me if you get lonely. I’ll show you what experience can do.”

    What a pig. He was joking anyway, the dirty old man. I went home every weeknight after the store closed and faithfully wrote to my sailor who was so far away, desperately wanting to come home and missing me.

    Ah, but the weekends were different! The Food Park closed at 9:00 and we were out the door by 9:05! We rushed to Vivian’s house and threw on our ‘goin’ out’ clothes. My skirt was denim, above-the-knee, with a checkered blouse that tied in the front and plain white tennis shoes. Vivian usually wore a prissy flowered skirt and white blouse; a little old-fashioned. By 10:00 we were pulling up the hill and skidding into the gravel parking lot of the Hilltop Inn.

    The music from outside the huge barn was exhilarating. Fiddles, banjos, stomping, clapping, laughing – mere moments away – sounds that beckoned to come inside – vibrations we could feel in the air. The sensation was captivating. Inside, our table in the corner near the fan waited for our arrival. Vivian’s father was the ‘caller’ in the band. That was clout enough for us to get inside and get more than 3.2 beer. We were the youngest patrons in the whole crowded place, getting free drinks, dancing every dance and having a total blast.

    Toward the end of the night the band played fast waltzes. I was good at it. My dance partner was an older man in his 30’s with thinning hair and a slight gut. He was a good leader and I could follow any fancy spinnin and turnin he’d think up. The band played faster and faster. Couples dropped off the floor and only the ‘best’ couples were left.

    “You ready for this?” He was giving me the signal. We were ready to take control of the floor.

    Of course I was ready. In the one-two-three timing of a waltz, sliding in the sawdust in the smoky room in perfect unison, we indeed had command of the floor. Sweat trickled underneath my hair and my partner’s shirt was sticky, but neither that nor the heat mattered. We spun past the fan for the split-second shot of cool air. Vivian was off to the side, holding a drink and laughing – laughing and shaking her head. She knew we’d be the last ones out there.

    Last call! Back at the table, panting and laughing, Vivian and I “bottomed up” the last of the ‘Seven and Seven’ or whatever we were drinking. They didn’t serve fancy colored cocktails at the Hilltop Inn.

    Later, Vivian and I found it tricky to act straight in front of her dad, but we always convinced him we were okay; not trashed; just acting silly on purpose.

    Usually our departure for home was long after the time I was allowed to be out and usually we had to speed home without getting stopped. We shouldn’t have been driving, either of us. We were in a 1961 white Plymouth Valiant with push buttons instead of a gearshift – not a car that would attract attention from the cops. Still laughing, one of us watched and navigated while the other one drove. I can’t remember what was so funny, but we snickered at every red light as if the lights were deliberately trying to keep us from getting home ‘on time’.

    I had to be crafty to open the front door and quietly get inside and upstairs to my room without anyone hearing me. (Thinking about that now, I know they probably heard me every time.)

    Oh, what an effort, changing into an oversized t-shirt and p.j. bottoms in the dark, shoving my “goin’ out” clothes into the corner, all the while trying not to wake up my 11-year-old kid sister, who shared my bed! I lay my head back on my pillow and looked out the window at the moon while the room spun slightly – eyelids getting heavy, one last reflection of the Hilltop Inn, and one last snicker.

    I fell asleep with final thoughts of a lonely sailor, so far away, desperately wanting to come home, and missing me.

    __________________________


    Shirley Moll writes: "I live in the 'Shallow South' in Maryland with my husband and our blended family (8 adult kids and 19 grandchildren). My son and his clan live in Tennessee where the air of the 'Middle South' is so inviting -- I love to visit. By day I'm a Human Resources Director; nights and weekends, I enjoy quilting. I currently have about 18 quilts started and undone -- the sign of a true artist. I also enjoy gardening, fishing, dancing and baseball. This year I'm a volunteer biology instructor on an oyster boat (skipjack Martha Lewis) in the Chesapeake Bay. We're conservative Southern Baptists who love cookouts and hangin' out and laughing. Life is good."


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