Published in Off the Rocks Anthology Vol. 16 (2012).
I saw her step into the Pancake House, through the dust-colored glass door and across that faded yellow tile. Her name was Nancy; I had met her years before at a gay club, a few years after my divorce. Now, a little boy toddled along at her side, his hand in hers. She hadn’t changed much—same curly brown hair that wouldn’t stay back, broad hips and sloping, thin shoulders, little pinched eyes beneath her plucked eyebrows. Not ugly; not beautiful. The boy had big eyes that were a shade of water-blue, almost white around the pupils, that seemed to glow as she walked over and sat him down at the table next to mine. He wore tiny jeans with an elastic waist and a red shirt with a dinosaur on it.
I looked down at my eggs, at the speckled white plate smeared with yolk and ketchup, and for a minute listened to the grinding purr of the open kitchen, the murmurs of the people sitting up at the bar and some waitress yelling from the back. My grits were halfway gone from the little bowl and the only thing left in my glass of sweet tea was the ice. I figured I was done.
I got up, using my thumb to adjust my sports bra—the one with the seam that bites into my right side—and lit a cigarette slowly. Then I picked up the little blue bill and walked over to Nancy’s table.
I don’t think she recognized me at first—I’ve put on some weight and my hair’s gone a little grey, plus my skin color is better since I graduated from NA. I got the red keychain and everything. They give you a gold one when you make it a year. It hangs on my keys and I show it to anybody who asks. Nothing to hide.
She looked up at me from the menu, her eyes screwed shut a little bit, as the little boy across from her hummed in his highchair and stared at me.
“It’s Nancy, right?” I said as I stuck out my hand. She nodded and shook my hand as her eyes flickered over to the little boy. “I’m Mindy. Remember? From Blaze’s? I knew Tommy, that bartender—”
She jumped up then, tossed those almost-too-thick arms around me. I never knew her that well, but I hugged back.
“I didn’t even recognize you, it’s been forever.” She nodded to the little boy, her hand still on my arm. “This here’s Tony. Here, you want to sit down?” she asked. She sat back down and smiled up at me.
I slid behind her, pushing the empty chairs at my table in against the plastic tablecloth, and sat on the hard wood of the chair beside her.
Nancy looked over at me. “How are you?”
“I’m doing good, I reckon. Changed a little since my bar days, but I’m good. What’ve you been up to?”
She looked sideways over at little Tony, still humming away happy as you please and watching me with them blue-white eyes. “Been taking care of this one. He’s my niece’s son.”
“I see.” I tapped my cigarette in one of the gold-foil ashtrays they put on each table. I waved smoke away from my face but Nancy didn’t seem to mind it. She must be about forty now—she’d been early thirties when I met her. “I was wondering if he was yours, if you’d found a man or if a man’d found you.”
She grinned at me, all teeth and thin lips. “Nope. It sure must have been a while, you must not remember how I was at the bar.”
Truth was, I did. Nancy was one of the girls that would lean too far over the pool table, missing a shot just to stretch out her ass in tight jeans, her mouth small and coy because she knew all the single women like me would stare. The kind of girl who orders drinks for everybody on the tips she got that night. Her hair wasn’t as frizzy then, her eyes not as thin and wary. She looked back over at Tony. He smiled and said “Momma.”
I puffed on my cigarette and pushed it cherry-first into the little tray. I moved the light metal to the edge of the table with my thumb as a skinny waitress strolled up.
“What do you need to drink?” she asked. “More sweet tea for you, Mindy?”
“Nah.” I looked back over at the mess left on my table. “I figure I’m good.”
“I’ll take a Diet Pepsi and he’ll want some apple juice,” Nancy told her. The waitress snickered down at Tony, who reached his baby-fat hand out to grab the pen in her short apron. She sidestepped him.
“Be right back with that.” The waitress swished away in the green knee-skirt they asked all the girls to wear.
“Did he say Momma?” I asked, thinking of my daughter, her little blonde mass of hair and wide, almond-colored eyes. I shifted my cigarettes on the table; the waitress yelped as another waitress spilled Nancy’s Diet Pepsi across the kitchen floor.
“Yep. I’ve had him a while. He barely remembers his real Momma now—I got him when he was near five months old.” She leaned across the table and held the hand he strained out at her, rubbing his sausage fingers with her wide thumb. Her fingers looked soft, like she smoothed them with lotion every night after Tony fell asleep—like she’d been doing that same thing ever since she was a kid.
“What, she didn’t pick him up one time?” I plucked another cigarette from the pack and let the box fall back on the table, raising my lighter to my mouth. That first inhale is always the best.
“Nah, I took him from her.” Nancy looked at me as she pulled her hand back and I suddenly saw how vivid her hazel eyes were, this shining brown with streaks of leafy green pulling in toward the pupil. They were beautiful.
The waitress set the drinks on the table and lifted her order pad, pen ready. “What would you like?”
Nancy stared down at the menu for a second. “Well, I just want the number six with bacon. And he’ll have the kiddie waffles.”
The waitress scribbled and nodded, lifted Nancy’s menu from the table and strode back off to the kitchen. Two men at the bar looked over at us from under their caps and then went back to pointing at the newspaper spread in front of them. Little Tony curled his hands up and smacked his fists against the table, looking up all surprised-like when they hit.
I leaned in to Nancy. “Do you mean like kidnapping?” I took a long drag from my cigarette and held the smoke in my mouth, letting it creep out slowly.
Nancy laughed, this big, quick guffaw. “Naw, naw. Nothing like that. My niece had this boyfriend—a grown man, I tell you—and he put Tony in the hospital.” She cast out her hand for his again. “He was drunk, snatched Tony from the crib one night and broke both his arms. I couldn’t leave family in a place like that, growing up that way.” The way she looked over at Tony was tender and shy, like if she looked too hard, the damage the hospital fixed might pop back up again. “He’s been my baby ever since I went to that hospital. My niece didn’t have a say in the matter, not after I got social services to come see Tony. They handed him straight to me and that was that.” Her straw got caught on some bubbles and lifted up, tipping out of the cup toward her. She fixed it between two fingers and sipped, still looking at Tony.
Tony spread his fingers in front of his mouth.
I thought back to when Stacy was a kid, older than Tony though, when I taught her to rub the cocoa butter on her hands after the bath, slowly in figure-eights up her arms and onto her shoulders. Back when I was married, I told myself if I devoted enough time to my husband, I would stop staring at women, would stop watching their movements instead of his. When that didn’t work and he caught on, he kicked me out, told the divorce court some bull: that I was cheating, that he was scared for Stacy. When her daddy told me I’d have to leave, I told Stacy to watch the stars for me. “When they twinkle, it means mommy loves you,” I’d said. She’d smiled real big and gave me a hug as the crickets made their noise off in the woods. Then her daddy moved halfway across the country and wouldn’t even let me talk to her. He kept the front door locked after the first time I came to visit her, would say Stacy was in bed even if I called in the middle of the afternoon. I used to save up my paychecks and drive over there, just watch the lights of the city they lived in from an overlook on the parkway. Her junior year of high school, she sent me a letter saying she wouldn’t send me a school picture because anyone who abandoned her the way I did wasn’t worth talking to. She never responded to the letters I sent back; I gave up a few years later, after three or four came back with “No forwarding address” stamped in red on the envelopes. She must be out of college by now, on her own; she might even have a kid.
“I’m going to give him a good life, though,” Nancy said. “Social services still keeps a quick eye on me. They want to make sure nothing like what happened before happens again.” She turned her head back to me, the corduroy over her knee slipping from under the crinkled tablecloth and running into my thigh. My palms were itching like they do when I want to be in the car, driving. “But how are you?” Nancy stared straight at me.
I looked over to the kitchen, at the cook in his backwards grey cap, moping over some omelets behind the grill, at the skinny waitress talking to the two men at the bar and bending to set her elbows on the slick surface. I couldn’t tell what they were talking about, but she was laughing and looking into their eyes. “I been good,” I said, crushing out my cigarette. “But I have to go, I reckon, got to meet somebody uptown for a minute.” I stood even though I didn’t have anybody to see. “It was nice to catch up. I hope Tony isn’t too much for you. They can be.”
She smiled again. “Yep, but it’s worth it. They’re worth it.”
“Yeah,” I said. I squeezed between the chairs again, my cigarettes and crumpled bill in one hand, and shook her hand from the end of the table. “I’ll see you.”
Her mouth moved like she wanted to say something, like she had a question, but it went still as I turned for the cash register. As the waitress rang me up, I pulled singles out of my thin wallet and handed them over when she stuck her hand out. Then I turned and walked in shaky steps to the dingy glass door and the burning sunlight outside.