Willa loves donuts.
Every night she makes them, working her father’s machines and enduring the heat that overwhelms the back of the shop even in winter. This is Willa’s favorite time, especially now that she gets to work alone.
The old man’s heart attack is her liberation and Willa is secretly grateful. He has given her what he calls "The Baking" reluctantly, believing still that soon her little brother will take over, once the kid is done with that idiocy called high school. Willa knows better, of course, because Billy talks to her when the old man sneaks out the back for the cigarettes he’s not supposed to suck on anymore.
Billy dreams of engines and axles and he can’t keep his fingernails clean. Billy thinks of food only when he wants to eat some, and he’s damn sick of donuts.
Willa remembers high school, when she didn’t like donuts much either and envied the kids who would go on to college and become teachers, envied the kids who could get a part-time job in the mall or the summer youth program. But mostly Willa remembers the shop, playing behind the counter when she was too small to see over it, helping Mama wash the floor after school, cutting her hand on the carpenter’s saw in the fifth grade when they decided to compete with Dumber Donuts by becoming a "café" and adding booths and seats at the counter.
"An auspicious beginning" Willa says aloud as she fries up her donuts, remembering the old man’s words, the ones he heard from the lawyer in the shiny suit who got them all their new permits from the snooty people at Town Hall. The old man still bitches if Mama doesn’t shine up the glass in the frames that hold them. "Will’s Café," they announce from behind the counter, and the old man wants to see windex on them once a week.
Willa was the café’s first official waitress. The first one to come out from behind the counter with the plates of hot food that Mama makes in the kitchen and places at the passthrough window with a ding on her little bell. Mama still talks about that first Saturday when Will’s Donuts became Will’s Café and they ran out of eggs and the waitress they hired didn’t show, still brags about how little Willa got all the orders right and wasn’t even nervous.
Sixteen years experience, Willa thinks as the hot oil celebrates the arrival of another batch of donut dough. Every Saturday and Sunday since she was ten, except for when Christmas comes on a weekend. And after school, washing the floor and scrubbing the griddle and the pots.
Willa works the early breakfast even now, after hours of making donuts. She is too wound up to go home to bed and Mama needs the help, especially after Tammy left and the new girl’s only been on time twice in two years. Besides, the regulars complain when she’s not there. "Nobody makes a cuppa coffee like you, Willa" they tell her.
The old man comes in with Mama just about every morning, but he’s always been pretty useless except for the donuts. "I’m a baker," he sniffs just like always, puffing up in a way that lets you know making food to order is women’s work. So he sits in the far booth when it’s slow, talking to the old geezers and giving away too many of Willa’s donuts. When it’s busy he retreats to the back, inspecting Willa’s work, checking supplies and examining the exhaust fan. And he frets. About the parking lot, the health inspector, the roof, the weather. About Billy who will never make donuts or pretend to be a baker.
"Pain in the ass" Willa mutters as she pulls the donuts from the hot hungry oil. But it’s better than the roaring rages the old man got into before his heart exploded. Now he resorts to guilt and whining, but he gets tired fast and runs out of breath. The color drains from his face and he has to sit down and Willa pats him gently on his shoulder saying "Don’t worry about it, Pop." When he looks up at her, Willa can see his fear and knows all the noisy complaining and disappointment is just his bluster. She smiles at him, her little crooked smile, and the Smart Willa who talks inside her head whispers what they all know: "He’s gonna die pretty soon now."
Even Billy knows and he feels bad, too, but he can barely stand the café. "I hate this," he says over and over. "No way’m I gettin’ stuck here."
Willa remembers the time Billy splashed himself with the hot oil — had to go to the hospital and the old man got reamed because Billy was only 14, too young to be working like that. Willa enjoys this memory because after that Billy got to join the football team and work some on cars after school. Just a couple of scars on his chest. Worth it, Willa thinks.
A few more weeks and Billy graduates. Best defensive end the school’s seen in years. He wants to learn about electronics. "All automated now," he says. "Can’t do nuthin’ without 'lectronics."
But the old man doesn’t hear it and nobody can make him listen. Mama tries. Willa’s given up.
Billy’s talking about the army, maybe the air force. He’s got the grades, the brains. And he figures the old man’ll throw him out of the house if he won’t make donuts.
Willa doesn’t like this much. Doesn’t think Billy’s cut out for uniforms and marching and yessirs. And she worries about wars. Billy tells her not to worry — he’ll be a mechanic kinda guy, a real technician, he’ll make sure — but he also says don’t tell Mama. So Willa keeps her mouth shut. Yet she wonders as she moves to the rhythm of her donuts dancing with the fervent oil: if the old man keeled over, would Billy still go be a soldier?
copyright © by sophia kell hagin
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