For a second, Dre few felt like a rabbit caught in a trap, but then Ryan opened his idiotic mouth.
“Hey, Drew. It’s good to see you!”
Ryan Seacrest looked at him, smiling, like all was forgotten and all had been forgiven.
Dre remembered it differently.
“Hey, Ryan,” he said and looked toward the floor.
“Funny seeing you here,” Ryan blathered on. “Let me take a look at you. Wow. You got tall. How’ve you been? You must be in, what fifth grade, now.”
“Yep,” Dre told him and started walking toward the candy aisle.
The fat woman behind the counter was watching him. She felt her eyes on him.
“How’s your mom?” Ryan asked.
“Fine.” Dre began filing through the energy bars and cookies toward the middle of the aisle.
Ryan moved toward him. Dre stepped deeper into the snack aisle to the chips and jerky, which he didn’t care much for and never bought.
“Is she working anywhere?” He asked. “We’d love her come back to Pizza Hut.”
“We’re fine,” he said. “My mother is doing fine. She’s got a good job in town. Thank-you.”
“Well, you tell her I asked about her and if she ever gets tired of doing whatever she’s doing, we’d love to have her come back and work the front of house,” Ryan said. “She was a heck of a server. You should be proud of her.”
“Is she out in the car?” Ryan asked. “Did she send you in to get something? Jeez, I’d love to catch up. How’s she been?”
“You already asked that,” Dre said. “No, she’s not outside. She had to work today. I’m meeting my grandma here. I will tell her I ran into you.”
The Pizza Hut manager’s face was lit up. Dre wanted to punch him.
Dre’s mother worked at Pizza Hut three years ago. The pizza place was on the city bus line, which was a backup. Their car was always breaking down.
Ryan had been the assistant manager then. He’d come up in the world, though just barely. At first, he’d been nice. Dre’s mother had just gotten out of a long-term relationship and she’d been sad for a while when Ryan started coming around.
He said all the right things. He took them out to places and then started staying over. In the beginning, he just spent the night when Dre was at his father’s, but then he was coming over two or three nights a week.
It was nice. They’d have dinner together. Ryan helped him with his homework and they’d all watch television together before tucking Dre into bed.
Ryan had seemed like a good boyfriend, maybe even potential stepfather material, but then it all went south.
One afternoon, Dre came home from school and his mother was packing Ryan’s things up in a box and putting them out by the steps.
“He won’t be coming around anymore,” she explained to him. “You’re not to let him in the house if he knocks.”
Ryan’s expulsion from their little upstairs apartment followed the one sick day Dre ever remembered his mother taking. She’d been feeling crummy for a couple of days and had called in at the Pizza Hut to go visit the doc-in-a-box.
They gave her a prescription for a round of antibiotics and the confirmation that her boyfriend and immediate supervisor was a scumbag.
Now, the specifics were well above what Dre understood at the time, but he remembered some of the words she’d said over the phone to Ryan and to his Aunt Susan, who wasn’t really his aunt. He remembered the words and when they were repeated again in his presence, he asked what they meant.
The older kids laughed at him for not knowing, which was the nature of things, but he’d spoken to his father about it, too, who filled him in.
“Why do you want to know?” His dad had asked him.
“I just want to know what they saying,” he told him.
Dre remembered hearing his mother crying as she talked to Aunt Susan while he was supposed to be in bed asleep. His mother had really liked Ryan. She’d trusted him and what he’d done to her was bigger than a broken heart.
His mother had to quit her job. She had to quit that day.
It might not have seemed like much, but waitressing at a Pizza Hut had been good for them. They’d worked with her schedule, paid her OK and she’d made a few bucks in tips, which helped out.
After she quit, it took Dre’s mother a while to find something else. She couldn’t get unemployment. To make ends meet, they’d cut back on all the extras and started having dinner with Grandma a couple of times a week.
It took a while, but things got better again and now Pizza Hut was a long time in the past, though his mother never ever ordered food from any Pizza Hut and wouldn’t eat a bite if someone offered her a slice.
No, Dre had not forgiven or forgotten. He’d hate that man for as long as he drew breath.
“Well, it was nice running into you,” Ryan said. “You take it easy, Drew.”
Dre nodded as he left.
“Enjoy Hootie and the Blowfish, you piece of crap,” he muttered.
The woman behind the counter called over, “You planning on buying anything?”
Dre planted his feet and turned toward the clerk. He cocked his head and put his hands on his hips, but then he saw the woman wasn’t fat, she was pregnant.
His mama said women can be a little touchy when pregnant, so he dialed back his outrage.
“My grandma is in back playing the poker machines,” he said. “I figure I’m going to get a candy bar, if that’s alright.”
Finally, Dre settled on a Chunky, which rarely showed up in convenience stores. Usually, to get one of those, you had to go to a drugstore or a specialized candy store.
He didn’t particularly like the Chunky more than, say, a Snickers bar. He just got them less.
Candy selection in hand, Dre ambled past the beverage coolers and the crazy quilt of colored cans, looking for anything unusual. He didn’t expect much from this small, independent convenience mart, but every now and again, you found a real gem; something that had been delivered by mistake and now the store was stuck with.
Typically, Sheetz had the better selection, as far as convenience stores. At Sheetz, he found craft sodas from Minnesota, which was fun. They were a little sweeter than regular sodas and came in flavors that tasted like what they said on the label –like blueberry.
Still, you really couldn’t top the candy selection at Cracker Barrel, a restaurant Dre felt conflicted about. His grandma liked the place. Practically, every adult he knew over the age of 40 liked Cracker Barrel, but the restaurant felt overpoweringly white to Dre.
Dre couldn’t put his finger on it, exactly. All the stuff on the walls, the vintage shop signs and old pictures, looked like they came out of places where people like him couldn’t go 50 or 60 years ago without at least getting a heavy dose of the stink eye.
But Cracker Barrel did have a pretty good meatloaf sandwich. He liked the corn muffins, too, and he respected the candy and soda selection in the General Store.
Also, his grandpa and grandma on his father’s side liked it, so Dre didn’t know what to think.
Nothing in the cooler jumped out at him as being utterly necessary. He took his candy to the counter, where the pregnant woman rang it up.
She looked tired.
“That’s a dollar-two,” she said and then added, “You know Ryan?”
Dre shrugged and said, “Yeah. I knew him. We ain’t friends. I hope he trips and falls down a well.”
The clerk nodded, appreciatively.
“What’d he do to you?”
“To me,” Dre replied. “Nothing. But he did a lot to people I know, more than enough. You can do what you want to do, I guess, but I wouldn’t have nothing to do with him, if I was you.”