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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Cornbread and Swamp Pop

By Jenny Ortiz


You think about a person long enough, they’re bound to show up in your life. By that logic, I should be in a bar dancing with Sam Trammell to a C.C. Adcock song: gritty voice, lusty lyrics, and a guitar solo long enough for my body to shimmy up real close to Sam Trammell’s. My hand should feel the back of Sam Trammell’s shirt, damp from the sweat.

One thing is right: I’m at a bar. I’m taking orders at a place right outside New Orleans at the only place around here that plays Bon Jovi twenty four hours straight. This could be why we don’t have much clientele, or because we’re the only place that sells frozen food. Only reason we get by is cause we sell good cheap beer.

It’s a temporary job. A month from now, I’m likely to be in Arizona, Colorado, hell I could be back home in New York. For now, the pay is decent, the customers who do come in are pretty generous with their tips, and the breaks come with free food and nobody looking for you.

Most of my breaks are spent outside reading. Tonight I’m lucky and some guy inside has handed out cheap cigars. Smoking and reading poems by Kimberly Grey. Taking a long puff, I close my eyes. I imagine I’m the bomb she’s talking about—the bomb I imagine Coi had been. What would I want? Is Grey right? Do I just want to stay in the air, flying? Be a comb or a womb instead? Hey Coi, what you think? Everything I’ve done up to this point suggests I’d crash and explode in a desert—only echoes of me would be heard by people who live on the outskirts with cactus and sand.

If Sam Trammell was around here, I wouldn’t be on these steps reading. I’m only twenty two, but I’ve met a lot of men, close up too, and they’ve never stayed on my mind long. But when I see Sam Trammell on television, all I can think about are open belt buckles and sweat. At night, when I can’t sleep, I think about him and the way he says cher. If I think too long, I can see kids running around and a big back yard. My roommate, she says I have a crush. They’ll be a ton of men and a ton of fantasies. She could be right. In high school, the only thing my friends did had been to imagine their husbands—the latest star on some drama. But I always imagined those men on TV were only good for one night and then the glamour would disappear. They’d either be vain or boring. But with Sam Trammell, I can only imagine him as an ordinary man in his apartment reading, grabbing a water bottle from the fridge.

Maybe I’m just damn lonely.


“They’re filming in Baton Rouge,” my roommate tells me. She sits in my section, but doesn’t order. She doesn’t come in often, but when she does she has coffee and a piece of corn bread, the only two things we make fresh.

“What are you talking about?”

“That show you’re obsessed with.”

“I don’t have time to be obsessed with a show,” I tell her. I’ve been taking some courses at the local community college. The women at the registration office laughed at me, couldn’t understand why anyone wanted to take intro to photography.

“The one with Sam Tramble,” she says as she rips a paper napkin into small snowflake sized pieces.

“Trammell,” I correct her.

“Right. Well, that show he’s on is going to be filming in Baton Rouge.”

“I can’t take time off to go to Baton Rouge. He might not even be there.”

“He is there. My cousin Phil told me—he’s setting up their tech service. They’re going to be there a while. Filming most of the season there,” she says.

“That doesn’t change the fact that I work.”

“Maybe he’ll come by.”

“Why would anyone drive an hour and half to a dump like this,” I whisper the last part.

“It’s anonymous. Ain’t noone going to think to search for a bunch of actors here,” she says as she looks around. I follow her gaze. We stare at the men hovering over their glasses and the women chatting about their kids. There is a damp smell and all the wood is chipped or covered in lovers’ names etched in with a sharp fork.

“Most people think this place is abandoned,” I say.

“That’s why they’ll come.”

“How are you so damn sure?”

“You have no faith. No faith. Leave it to me. I’ve got connections.”

“Just because your cousin fixes television sets, don’t mean he knows the people on TV.”

“Very funny. If you’ll excuse me, I have to get to Baton Rouge. I swear, if you get to sleep with Sam Trammell, you’ll owe me.”

“You get him to come here, and I’ll pay your part of the rent next month.”

“Keep throwing wood in the fire. Save my piece of cornbread for when I get back,” she says before leaving.

I let out a sigh and rub my ankles. She reminds me of myself before Coi. That never-ending optimism. I let Coi go to Iraq with that same optimism; I believed everything the recruiter had told me. Coi would come back. He’d come back with more than he left. The recruiter had even shown us a Kevlar vest exactly like the one Coi would wear overseas. It was heavy and hard. A Kevlar vest may keep a bullet out of your chest but what about your arms? Your legs? Your head? I hadn’t asked those questions.

When we went to Coi’s funeral, there were other soldiers there, some of them in crutches, or with bandages on their heads. Some of them stood straight and still; they seemed fine, but their brains were scrambled. I had wished Coi had come back like that, even if he came back like that, he’d still have come back. Now I know better. I wish I didn’t. I go to take the next order.


“Too damn easy, really. They couldn’t even go out to eat dinner because of the swarm of photogs and fans. You gotta respect the dedication of some of these fans, though. One girl ran behind the director’s car, fell and scraped her knees. You think she stopped? It only made her run faster. Blood all over her legs, and she looked like she was in the damn Olympics.”

“My shift starts in twenty minutes,” I tell her as I put on my sneakers.

“Well, my cousin was hooking up the trailers with TV and wireless and shit. So I went with him as an assistant and the girl running behind the director’s car happens. And all the actors are talking about how they can’t go out without worrying about these fans hurting themselves for a damn autograph. So I tell them about the bar. Nice place to hang out where no one will bother them.”


“Yeah. They were dying for a nice quiet evening out. They’re probably on their way.”

“I don’t doubt it. But what’s it concern me?”

“You like this Sam guy. Not every day does regular folk like us meet famous people. So you bring him and his friends a couple of drinks. Start up a conversation with him. Something like ‘what’s a fine man like you doing in a dump like this? Lemme buy you a drink while you tell me your story. Or you can come round my place and tell me there.’” She smiles at me.

“I was with you until you advised me to bring him home. I don’t want to be that kind of girl.”

“You are that kind of girl.”

The last man I’d been with I’d left in a motel room. From the time it took us to drive from the bar to his room, I knew by the way his hand rested on my thigh as he drove, he’d be happy to take care of me for the rest of my life. He’d write songs about me and make love to me every night. Nights with him would be full of warm sheets and the drone of an AC running. Maybe a baby crying. But I hated the way the AC makes the air smell processed and the last time I held a baby, he tried to head butt me.

He wasn’t the first man I left behind, but he was one of the few I thought about staying with. He’d reminded me of Coi. His long dark arms and the big wide smile reminded me of the summers Coi and I’d spent on the road, looking for good eats and empty beaches. Driving cross country every summer since we turned sixteen. But then Coi stopped being my boyfriend and became a dead soldier in Iraq. Ever since, I’ve been staggering around the country knowing full well a girl with a heart broken dies of it, no matter who she meets.

“People can change,” I say as I get up and stretch.

“You saying you’d change, if this Sam guy gave you the time of day.”

“You said it yourself. We every day folk don’t see TV stars. It’s a damn miracle that he might be at that bar tonight. And I could fuck him tonight, but then where does that leave me? The same person as yesterday. Sam on my mind. Maybe I can learn how to get to know a man before I take him to bed.”

“Lord, next thing you’ll tell me is you’re planning on staying in New Orleans.”

“Slowly now, slowly. I’ll see you later.”

“Oh no, I’m coming with you. I don’t want to miss when him and his good looking co-stars come in.”


My roommate is in the bathroom and misses him coming in. Sam Trammell isn’t the first of his group to walk in. Two blondes and a Brit come in first. If I was quick enough, I could make a funny joke about them, but I’m not. I hear the Brit ask the tall blonde guy if he’s hungry, while he puts his arm around the blonde woman’s waist. Sam Trammell comes in next with two other people, and holds the door for a pretty brunette with red lipstick.

The manager gives me a look and I take a tray of water to their table. Playing on the jukebox someone, my roommate I suspect, has put on Loaded Gun. My hips naturally swing to the beat as I walk.

“How’s everyone doing? Ready to order?” Smiling, I wait until they flip through our thin menu and ask me what’s good. Sam Trammell doesn’t say much. He’s leaning back in the booth, looks out the window a few times. His eyes are round. He’s wearing jeans and a t-shirt, the collar is slightly damp from the ends of his hair, which are still wet. He took a shower before coming.

They all end up ordering beers. Someone orders a coffee as well. I walk away quick, afraid I’ll tell them about how I push the TV into the bathroom and watch their show while I take a bath. And how, sometimes when I’m real lonely, I force my roommate to sit on the toilet seat and watch with me. If she wasn’t so clingy, I’d ask her to join me in the tub.

“Did you talk to him?” My roommate is sitting at the bar; she has a crush on the manager, who is also the bartender tonight. He’s in his early thirties and inherited the place from his father. He leans in close to stay in the conversation. He’s worse than my roommate, but talks less.

“I took their order. I haven’t gotten to the ‘you’re a man I could buy a house with’ speech yet.”

“You going to tell him what I told you to say?”

“If I get him alone.”

“He’ll have to get up to use the bathroom. This beer doesn’t stay long inside you,” she says before taking a swig from her bottle.

I give the order to the manager and he gives me a small tray of complimentary cornbread to bring over to Sam Trammell and his fellow actors.

“You planning on taking one of them home tonight?” I ask my roommate.

“You kidding? If he don’t live in New Orleans, I want nothing to do with him. Besides, you know I’m working on getting me a husband and a bar,” she says before the manager comes back with the order.

Laughing, I grab the cornbread and the tray with the glasses and the pitcher of beer. Walking over to their table, I notice that they’re all laughing. The blonde guy is telling a joke. A vampire walks into a bar…

“Cornbread on the house. I’ll be back with the second pitcher and the coffee.” There is a round of thank you's, Sam Trammell’s voice being one of them. It sounds gruff; he might be catching a cold. After I bring the rest of their things, I go to the bathroom.

Sitting on the toilet seat, I think about what to say to him. The last time I’d been so nervous about talking to someone had been the day I tried to tell Coi I wanted to be more than his friend. It’d been a month into our first road trip. We were leaving Florida, deciding where we wanted to go next. And the night before he’d almost slept with a girl he’d picked up at a bar. But she got too drunk and ended up crashing in our motel room. Her body was heavy and in between us. Her sweat and drool were on my pillow. That morning, I kept my mouth shut. Kept quiet when she woke up, when she showered, when she kissed Coi on the mouth and waved goodbye. I kept quiet during breakfast, and pretended to be asleep in the car until he confronted me over lunch.

“Why you not talking, you?” He was stabbing his fries with a fork.

“Don’t know what to say.” I had only ordered coffee, though I was starving.

“You think too much. You angry, then be angry. You sad, you want to tell me off, then tell me off. But don’t go sitting there quiet and thinking, cause nothing much is going to happen with you thinking more than you doing.”

Later on that night, when I was driving, some band was playing a swamp pop cover of Jeff Buckley’s "Everybody Here Wants You". The lead’s voice was gritty and dry before the guitar went on a minute-long solo. I pulled the car onto the side of the road, unbuckled Coi’s seatbelt and made love to him. We’d left the motor running and later on that night we joked about how losing my virginity could’ve also left us stranded.

After that, there wasn’t a man who left me grasping for words. Introductions were easy: hi, my name is and my motel room number is. And if I didn’t want to talk, I’d kiss them on the mouth. And after sex, they’d do much of the talking. Most of them were musicians. They’d tell me about the songs they were writing, the big break that was coming, and the house they’d buy their mama. I listened until they fell asleep and then I left. I can’t tell you how many country songs have been written about me.

What to do with Sam Trammell? So what if we can make it past the first night. Then what? What’s going to do us in? The seventeen, eighteen year gap? His job? A random fight? Another woman? Another man? Coi? Too many variations to the same end. Too many detonating bombs. Coi had never heard the voice saying detonate, detonate, detonate and explode like I did. I guess not hearing it makes life easy. It’s why in the middle of a war he could send me letters talking about the kids we’d have.

There is a knock on the door. Someone needs to use the bathroom. Upon opening the door, I see that there is a line forming. The tall blond guy and Sam Trammell behind him. Muttering an apology, I let the blond pass and go into the bathroom. Sam Trammell smiles at me. I smile back. We’d have two kids. They could be runners or writers or better still, secretaries or garbage men. A big house in West Virginia. Something with a porch and a deck in the backyard. BBQ in the summers. Before Sam Trammell, those were the plans I’d had with Coi when he got back from Iraq. The day his mama called me to tell me what happened, I’d been sitting on my floor playing Scrabble by myself. I was practicing so when Coi came, I could finally win a game. I don’t remember much of the conversation except for baby, Coi’s gone and the word history on the game board. After I hung up with his mama, I chuckled, cause that’s what Coi was: history.

Sam Trammell goes to say something, but I excuse myself quickly. On my pad I write a note to my roommate telling her to use my last paycheck for the rent. As I walk out the door, I hear the rest of the actors laughing. Making my way to the car, I again wonder about the kids I could’ve had with Coi, with Sam. They all look like me and that makes me want to cry.

I sit in the car for a few minutes, imagining Sam Trammell coming back to the table, looking for me briefly, but not seeing me, and falling back into the conversation he was having. I don’t pretend the few seconds we were in each other’s company will cause him a sleepless night. I wouldn’t want that anyway. Thinking doesn’t do much anyhow. But as I pull away I think about Grey’s poem. I’m a bomb. I’m a bomb that doesn’t want to be a bomb. Still, I’m a bomb.

Jenny Ortiz is a 23 years old writer living and working in New York. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Adelphi University and is currently teaching at St. John's University as well as LaGuardia Community College. Her work has been featured in Fiction at Work,, Jersey Devil Press, and this summer Ink Spill Magazine. When she isn't teaching, writing, or reading a ridiculous amount of Haruki Murakami, she is with friends eating pancakes and talking about zombies.