Dumplin - Julie Murphy
All the best things in my life have started with a Dolly Parton song. Including my friendship with Ellen Dryver.
The song that sealed the deal was “Dumb Blonde” from her 1967 debut album, Hello, I’m Dolly. During the summer before first grade, my aunt Lucy bonded with Mrs. Dryver over their mutual devotion to Dolly. While they sipped sweet tea in the dining room, Ellen and I would sit on the couch watching cartoons, unsure of what to make of each other. But then one afternoon that song came on over Mrs. Dryver’s stereo. Ellen tapped her foot as I hummed along, and before Dolly had even hit the chorus, we were spinning in circles and singing at the top of our lungs. Thankfully, our love for each other and Dolly ended up running deeper than one song.
I wait for Ellen in front of her boyfriend’s Jeep as the sun pushes my feet further into the hot blacktop of the school parking lot. Trying not to cringe, I watch as she skips through the exit, weaving in and out of after-school traffic.
El is everything I am not. Tall, blond, and with this impossible goofy yet sexy paradox going on that only seems to exist in romantic comedies. She’s always been at home in her own skin.
I can’t see Tim, her boyfriend, but I have no doubt that he’s a few steps behind her with his nose in his cell phone as he catches up on all the games he’s missed during school.
The first thing I ever noticed about Tim was that he was at least three inches shorter than El, but she never gave a shit. When I mentioned their vertical differential, she smiled, the blush in her cheeks spreading to her neck, and said, “It’s kinda cute, isn’t it?”
El skids to a stop in front of me, panting. “You’re working tonight, right?”
I clear my throat. “Yeah.”
“It’s never too late to find a summer job working at the mall, Will.” She leans against the Jeep, and nudges me with her shoulder. “With me.”
I shake my head. “I like it at Harpy’s.”
A huge truck on lifts speeds down the lane in front of us toward the exit.
“Tim!” yells Ellen.
He stops in his tracks and waves at us as the truck brushes right past him, only inches from flattening him into roadkill.
“I swear to God!” says El, only loud enough for me to hear.
I think they were made for each other.
“Thanks for the heads-up,” he calls.
We could be in the midst of an alien invasion and Tim would be like, “Cool.”
After he’s made it across the parking lot, he drops his phone into his back pocket and kisses her. It’s not some gross open-mouth kiss, but more like a hello-I-missed-you-you’re-as-pretty-as-you-were-on-our-first-date kiss.
A slow sigh slips from me. If I could avert my eyes from all the kissing people ever, I’m positive that my life would be at least 2 percent more fulfilling.
It’s not that I’m jealous of Ellen and Tim or that Tim steals Ellen away from me or even that I want Tim for myself. But I want what they have. I want a person to kiss hello.
I squint past them to the track surrounding the football field. “What are all those girls doing out there?” Trotting around the track are a handful of girls in pink shorts and matching tank tops.
“Pageant boot camp,” says Ellen. “It lasts all summer. One of the girls from work is doing it.”
I don’t even try not to roll my eyes. Clover City isn’t known for much. Every few years our football team is decent enough for play-offs and every once in a while someone even makes it out of here and does the kind of thing worth recognizing. But the one thing that puts our little town on the map is that we’re home of the oldest beauty pageant in Texas. The Miss Teen Blue Bonnet Pageant started back in the 1930s and has only gotten bigger and more ridiculous with every passing year. I should know since my mom has led the planning committee for the last fifteen years.
Ellen slides Tim’s keys from the front pocket of his shorts before pulling me in for a side hug. “Have a good day at work. Don’t let the grease splash you or whatever.” She goes to unlock the driver’s-side door and calls over to Tim on the other side, “Tim, tell Will to have a good day.”
He pops his head up for a brief moment and I