“I’ll be right back.” You slide awkwardly out of the booth, adolescent limbs a jumble beneath the table. When you stand, I notice you are taller than you were yesterday. You lope through the busy West Virginia diner to the dark doorway in the back, white wire snaking from your left ear into your jacket pocket. Even though you are over six feet tall and your hair is a wild mess of starchy bleached ends and mousey roots, no one looks when you walk by.
With you gone, the booth feels uneven. Like I’m sitting on one side of a canoe. I’m listing so steeply, I might fall out. I feel eyes on me from the breakfast counter, but resist the urge to check out which of the slumped Carhartt-garbed, bed-headed figures is staring.
“Know what you want?” the waitress asks while she hasn’t even made it all the way to our table. I’m not sure if she’s talking to me until she cracks her gum between her teeth and looks at me like I’m wasting her whole day.
“Coffee for both of us. And a tall stack, two plates.”
“Bacon or sausage links?”
She pulls the sticky laminated menus off the table before she bustles off. You nearly trip over her as you return from the bathroom and fold yourself into the booth again. You scooch all the way to the end of the cracked vinyl seat and lean against the window. A scrabble of noise leaks from your earbuds as you stare listlessly through the smudged glass. A picture-postcard of disaffected youth.
But I know you. To say you are happy or having a good time would be overstatements, but content and comfortable would not. You are at home in the world, even in this odd little diner in a back-water town. Even with me, your mother.
I study the paper placemat that’s printed with ads for local businesses while you listen to your music and watch the truckers maneuvering in the gravel lot.
Hanson’s Lawn Service: We mean green!
Dignity and Respect for your loved ones. Bartolli’s Funeral and Cremation Services
Septic problems? Get rid of the stink with Adler and Son Plumbing
I think about that game we’d play when you were little to keep busy until the food arrived: I’d say a word from the placemat and see if you could find it. Back then I would’ve picked the word stink. You’d have thought it was funny.
Your fingers gently drum against the speckled Formica table top. I touch them, partly to get you to stop, partly to get your attention without invading whatever is going on inside your head.
“Problems.” I don’t say it loudly, but I shape the word clearly with my lips since I’m not sure if you can hear me.
You give me whatever eyes, then gaze back out the window. I listen to silverware clink and old people complain about the weather as the waitress slides white mugs of fresh coffee in front of us.
The food comes quick. As I arrange the plates, you push up your sleeves, exposing tangles of black lines drawn on your pale skin. As of now, they are just Sharpie marks that you redraw into different designs every week or so. I’m sure one day they’ll be permanent, ink punched into the skin with needles. I just hope you go to a professional and don’t attempt it yourself like the holes in your ears that always look sore, but you say are “fine.”
I count the pancakes. There are six. I‘m about to give you three and keep three for myself, when I realize I should have ordered more. You’re a sixteen year-old boy. Well, sixteen next week. I plop four cakes on the extra plate and push it toward you. I take one slice of bacon from the little plate and send the rest of the bacon and sausage toward you, too.
You drown both your pancakes and meat in cheap maple-flavored syrup and start shoveling them into your mouth. You’re almost done by the time I’ve buttered and syrupped my pancakes.
“It’s my turn,” I say when I’ve finished my breakfast and get up to go to the bathroom. You nod. I notice as I weave through the tables that at least eighty-five percent of the people here are male. Whenever I pass through West Virginia, I always wonder where all the women are. I imagine them teaching in the schools, keeping the libraries open, caring for babies, or literally keeping the home fires burning. But I don’t really know for sure.
On my way back from the bathroom a man with a big beard and tattered Schlitz t-shirt puts himself in my path.
“Did you enjoy your breakfast?”
“Sure. It was good.” I feel stranded and I don’t know what he wants.
“You’re in good shape, you could’ve had more.” He must have watched me eat just the two pancakes and a slice of bacon.
You step in between us, standing uncharacteristically straight, shoulders back. Your chin is breaking out long the jawline and I can smell grease in your hair.
“Ready to go?” you ask, your back to the stranger. A barrier. “I took care of the bill.”
“Thanks.” It couldn’t have been more than ten bucks including tip, but I am so grateful. “Let me grab my bag.”
As I tug the strap of my purse from the bench, I check the table to make sure we aren’t forgetting anything. I see a black circle drawn around the word problems on your placemat.
“Only four more hours until we’re home,” I say as the glass door closes behind us.
“Can I drive?”
The road we’ve been on is a lonely highway—steep and windy, but not much traffic. It might be good practice for your test in a couple weeks.
“Sure. We’re not in any hurry.”
Marsha Timblin received an MFA from Chatham University and her work as appeared in The Occulum, Cold Creek Review and Boston Accent Lit. She writes fiction from her home near Pittsburgh, PA, where she lives with her husband, son and Shiba inu puppy. Follow her on Twitter @MarshaLena.