Smothered and Covered
The young girl walked into the Waffle House, alone, at 3 a.m. on a Thursday morning. We all looked up from our coffee and cigarettes, waffles, sausage and hash browns. She stood on her tiptoes to take a seat on a counter stool, picked up a menu and held it close to her face, like one of the 6 a.m. retirees without his bifocals.
Sandy, the night shift waitress, looked at me and raised her eyebrows. I knew the look; she gave it to me four or five times a week. It meant, Do you think I should call the cops?
I considered the idea. The girl looked no more than twelve, black, slim, but composed. Her hair was platted so tight I wondered if they tugged at her eyebrows. Her perfume, spicy with a hint of sandalwood, cut through the onion and batter odors of the diner. She wore clean, well-fitted jeans, a pink fuzzy sweater over a lime green top, and new-looking Nikes. Gold chain, oversized plastic watch. Not enough clothes for February.
She displayed no fear or uncertainty, which struck me as odd. Twelve-year-olds are always uncertain around adults.
I turned to look outside. The day manager had finally replaced the broken lights in the lot, so our cars were brightly lit. There were none I didn’t recognize, and I would recognize a new one. I’d been running into the same people at the same hour of the night for almost three years, and had come to know them by their cars, the sound of their nasal congestion, and their bathing habits. We rarely spoke.
“What you doing here this time of morning?” Sandy asked the girl.
“I’m here for the atmosphere,” the girl said, keeping her nose in the menu. The sarcasm in her voice sounded bitter as a fifty-year-old’s.
Sandy looked at me again. This time she was asking me if it would be okay if she dumped a pot of hot coffee on the girl’s head. Sandy’s skin got pretty thin by 3 a.m.
I shook my head. “The lady’s just trying to be friendly,” I said to the girl. “No need to be rude.”
The other regulars stared at their plates and cups, but I could tell their ears were locked in, the same way they had been a couple of weeks before when the place was held up.
“Mind your own business, old man.” The girl pronounced it bidness.
Sandy laughed. She knew the “old man” would piss me off. “I like that, Tim. From now on I’m calling you ‘old man.’”
“You suppose you could take my order?” the girl said to her. Not a hint of a smile to soften her words.
“What’cha want, honey?” Sandy said. “Lucky Charms? Count Chocula?”
“Two waffles, hash browns smothered and covered, coffee with cream, bacon, crisp.” She folded the menu and stuck it back in the chrome holder next to the napkins.
Sandy didn’t write it down. “You got money, honey?”
The girl shook her head in disgust, reached two fingers into her back pocket, pulled out a Visa card, and flashed it toward Sandy like she was trying to blind her with a hand mirror.
Sandy rolled her eyes toward me but turned to the grill. Otilio had gone outside for a cigarette ten minutes ago, but this time of night, it often took him forty-five minutes. His girl, who worked at the Wal-Mart next door, took her break about then as well, and they liked to pooch up in his old Chevy van.
The show apparently over, I returned to my book, the last one Ed McBain wrote before he passed. I read another ten pages and drank another half cup of coffee before I heard a car horn outside. I looked up to see a bright red Escalade parked as close to the front door as the curb would allow. Through the heavily tinted windshield I could make out the driver, a white man, bald, fortyish, tan coat with a thick white wool collar. His nose and right ear were pierced.
The girl seemed to expect the car. She made eye contact with the driver, smiled, pointed to her plate, and crammed a piece of bacon in her mouth. The rest of us stared at the car.
The guy opened the car door, slid off the seat and onto the curb. When he closed the door, I could see his beefy shoulders, leather pants, sharp-toed cowboy boots. He wore a Fu Manchu mustache that had overgrown his chin and hung loose like a couple of air roots.
When he first pulled up, I’d assumed daughter and grandfather, but she didn’t appear to have any white blood, and he didn’t show any black. Everyone but Sandy, the girl, and me stared down at their tabletops as the guy entered, probably sensing the same threat vibe I had. An old couple, Vernon and Viv, regulars—she the western omelet woman, whole wheat toast, dry, he the pecan waffle, sugar-free syrup, two link sausages, decaf—began buttoning up the layers of shirts and coats they wore until midsummer.
The man ignored us and walked to the girl’s stool. She swiveled to face him, still chewing her toast. He leaned over until his mouth was at the level of her ear. I could hear him saying something, couldn’t make out the words, but the tone sounded tense—not commanding, not pleading, something in between.
Sandy retreated behind the swinging door to the storage room and office and watched through the window in the door. When she saw me looking, she held up the cordless phone. She obviously sensed something wrong about the guy.
I shrugged my shoulders. I was slowly easing my way to the edge of my booth, my hand lightly holding the glass ketchup bottle.
As I shifted my weight, though, I could feel the stiffness in my knee. My shoulder, the one not completely fixed by surgery, creaked, and the roll of fat around my middle wedged me between the tabletop and the booth seat. And I had so much money tied up in my new bifocals that I couldn’t afford to replace them.
Still, if the girl had appeared frightened rather than pissy, if she’d shrunk away from the man, if she’d looked around for help, I’d have stepped in. I’m sure I would have helped.
Instead, she stood up, not looking at any of us. He pulled out the wallet chained to his belt and threw a ten on the counter. As she walked out he followed so close behind her it looked like they were glued together, back to chest.
He kept his hand on her back as she climbed into the Escalade, shut the door behind her before getting in the driver’s side. Before he drove off, he turned to me, winked, and gave me a two-finger salute from his temple, like a Boy Scout.
Sandy wrote down the license plate.
“Should we call the cops?” she said, refilling my coffee. I noticed her hand was shaking. Her hair, usually neatly pulled back and pinned with one of a variety of barrettes, had escaped and hung loosely on the shoulder of her yellow and black uniform.
“Tony’ll be here in half an hour,” I said. Tony and his partner usually took their breakfast break about 5 every morning. We all felt comfortable when their cruiser was in the lot.
Sandy nodded. “She wasn’t much older than Iris would have been.” The comment caught me by surprise. Our daughter would have been twelve, but I...