They’d been on the interstate for two hours when Ted began to feel drowsy. “I can’t keep my eyes open,” he said. “I hate driving in the afternoon.”
“Carbohydrates,” Augusta said grimly. “You had two pieces of cake. All that icing.”
There was an exit coming up, but it was a shame, because both the children were asleep in the back, and a stop would surely wake them. Buddy was teething, running a low-grade fever. Four year-old Laura had just celebrated her birthday at Granny and Pop Pop’s. For the first hour of the trip she had whined for her new doll. Ted had inadvertently packed it in the trunk.
They took the exit, which ended at a stoplight. A truck pulled up behind them, squealing its brakes, and two motorcycles roared by on the shoulder. Laura yawned and whined. “Mommy, when will we be home?”
Buddy woke up crying.
“Well, it was nice while it lasted,” Augusta said.
Directly ahead was a small restaurant with too many cars on the lot, and across the road from that, a gas station. No fast food places.
It was Ted’s idea to try the restaurant—an early dinner, and they’d still be home in plenty of time to get the kids in bed by eight. Augusta was all for getting out of the car, but didn’t like the greasy look of the restaurant, all those cars, and the unusual number of motorcycles. Laura was whining that she had to go to the bathroom.
Augusta sighed and unbuckled Buddy from his car seat. “If we have to wait for a table, let’s just use the bathrooms and get back on the road.”
The interior of the restaurant was yellow—dull yellow curtains at the windows, dusty yellow plastic daffodils in the planters by the door. A tired-looking hostess appeared with a stack of menus. “Table for four,” she said, as though it were an imperative, and led them across the packed little dining room toward a table in the far corner. In the light from the window, Augusta could see a large wet swirl that covered only the middle of their table. There were crumbs on the seats.
“We’ll need a booster and a high chair,” Augusta said.
The hostess pressed her lips together and listlessly scanned the room. “I think maybe all the high chairs we got are being used right now. I’ll see what I can find.”
“I have to go to the bathroom, Mommy,” Laura said again, more urgently.
“You take her to the bathroom and I’ll see to the high chair,” Ted said, taking Buddy from Augusta’s arms. “Here Buddy, come sit with Daddy. The lady will get you a chair.”
The bathroom was about what Augusta had expected—damp floor, overflowing trashcan, sickening strawberry air-freshener. She wreathed the toilet seat with paper, and sat Laura down. Afterwards she held her up at the sink so she could wash her hands. There were no paper towels. She used a towelette from her purse.
When they got back to the table, Buddy was already in the high chair—an old-fashioned one with a metal tray. The waitress, a large woman in a mustard-colored uniform, was slapping at the tray with a wet rag while Ted held Buddy’s fists out of the way. Augusta noticed that they hadn’t buckled him in.
“Oh, there you are,” Ted said. “I ordered iced tea for you, and milk for Laura, OK?” He handed Augusta a menu.
The waitress smiled.
“You know he’s not buckled into that chair, ” Augusta said.
“I don’t think he’s going anywhere,” Ted said. But immediately Buddy began to squirm around and got one foot up on the seat.
“See what I mean?”
Ted ducked underneath to investigate. “I don’t see a strap—no wait, here it is. But it looks like it’s broken off.”
“Let me see,” the waitress said. As she squatted beside Ted, Buddy looked down at her head and the big, purple hair clip. They managed to buckle the strap over his legs. In the meantime, Augusta got out another towelette and wiped Buddy’s hands and the tray.
“Not an inch to spare, but he’s in there good and snug,” Ted declared, slipping behind a menu.
The waitress reached a hand up to adjust the hair clip. Her name-tag read Darla.
“I hope his circulation’s not cut off,” Augusta said.
“He’s just fine, ma’am.” The waitress wasn’t smiling any more. She proceeded to reel off the day’s specials.
They ordered. The waitress went off to be snapped up by the kitchen doors.
“Why do you always have to put it that way, Augusta?” Ted said. “Do you think I deliberately left that strap just hanging there?”
“No. I think you forgot. You always forget.”
“I do not always forget.”
“All right, you don’t always forget. But one time is all you need to have him on the floor.”
“Come, on. I’m sitting right here looking at him.”
The waitress returned with a basket of rolls. “Here, honey,” she said to Laura, withdrawing a small box of crayons from her apron. “Maybe you’d like to color on your place mat.”
“How nice,” Augusta said. “What do you say, Laura?”
“You’re welcome.” The waitress smiled, but only at Laura, before turning on her heel.
Ted took a bite of a roll. “Good,” he said. “Fresh. Want one?”
Augusta shook her head.
Both the children were content now, Laura drawing on the placemat, Buddy blowing bubbles of drool. Augusta stretched and looked around. Except for the four motorcycle types in black leather, there were mostly families in the dining room. She counted three high chairs, including Buddy’s. “You know,” she said, “this place isn’t half bad.”
The words were barely out of her mouth when the hostess appeared and dealt three menus on the next table over. Three people sat down: two bony young men in T-shirts and jeans, and an older woman—their mother, Augusta decided—in a bulging orange dress. Someone had a strong body odor. The woman took out a cigarette and placed it between her lips.
The waitress named Darla arrived. “I’m sorry,” she said to the woman, more kindly than Augusta expected. “Smoking isn’t allowed.”
“Oh, I know that, hon,” the woman said. “I wasn’t gonna light it.”
The waitress spun around. “Everything all right over here?” she asked with a smile for Ted.
Ted beamed at her over his roll. “Everything’s fine.”
“Okay then,” she said, turning back to the other table. “What can I get you folks?”
“I think I’ll have the hotdog,” the first son said.
“A hotdog again?” the mother said. “You’re gonna turn into a hotdog one of these days.” Her thin gray hair was pulled into a ponytail, which pointed to the frayed label poking up from the yoke of her dress. “I can just see it,” she went on in a gravelly voice. “One of these days I turn back the covers to get this boy out of bed and bingo, there’s this hotdog staring up at me.”
The entire table laughed. The waitress laughed with them.
“Ma! For christ’s sake, let’s order,” said the second son, punching her lightly on her pale, fleshy arm.
“Yeah, Ma,” the first said, “order.”
“I believe I’ll have a hotdog,” the mother said. The waitress was still laughing as she hurried away.
“Thank you, Darla,” the mother called after her.
Their dinners arrived. There was the usual shuffling around of plates and cutting up food for the children. Augusta methodically mashed some peas into the potatoes and spooned them into Buddy’s mouth. She saw that Laura was mesmerized by the goings-on at the next table. “Eat your dinner, Laura,” she said. “Try your applesauce. It’s really good.”
“Mommy?” Laura said loud and clear. “Is that man going to turn into a hotdog?”
Ted laughed. They laughed at the other table, too.
Augusta leveled off a spoonful and shoveled it into Buddy’s open mouth. “No,” she said. “The lady was only teasing.”
The mother at the other table scooted her chair around. “Will you look at these two pretty babies!” she said. “Hello, sweeties.”
“Hello,” Laura said.
The sons ducked their heads like embarrassed teenagers, though they were considerably older than that.
The mother was taken with Buddy. “Look at this pretty boy,” she crooned. “Couldn’t you just eat him up?” She winked at Laura. “Don’t worry, honey. I wouldn’t really eat him. That’s just something mamas say about to sweet little babies. Don’t your mama say she could eat you up sometimes?”
“No,” Laura said flatly.
Suddenly Buddy was arching his back, straining against the safety straps. Augusta fished in her bag, and came up with a teething biscuit. Buddy took the biscuit and settled down to gum it.
The woman turned back to her own table then, to her own sons.
Augusta ate her salad, gazing out the window at the cars on the parking lot and the straggly row of shrubs beyond. It wasn’t yet six o’clock, but already the light was going.
Ted was drawing a picture of a dog for Laura on her placemat.
“Make his eyes green, Daddy,” Laura said.
The green crayon was on the floor. Augusta reached down to retrieve it, and was just coming up from under the table, when Ted leaped from his seat.
Buddy was slowly and silently retching.
“He’s choking on the goddamned biscuit,” Ted said.
They had to get him out of the high chair. Augusta dropped to her knees and fumbled with the strap. She couldn’t find the short end of it. Ted grabbed Buddy under the arms and pulled.
“No! Wait, Ted!” Augusta cried, looking up, around the tray. “It’s still caught.”
With each retch, Buddy turned a shade grayer.
Now one of the sons from the other table was there on the floor beside Augusta. Deftly, miraculously, he undid the strap. Ted pulled Buddy from the chair, flipped him over and slapped his back. “Come on,” he said, his voice high-pitched, not his own. “Come on, Buddy.”
Buddy no longer retched.
Augusta grabbed him. But once she had him, couldn’t think what to do. Heimlich—it was just a word, useless. She put a finger into her baby’s mouth, and was terrified to feel nothing there, nothing to grab, and his little mouth so slack.
What is it? . . . 911 . . . Yes, I called. . . Laura shrieking, Mommy, Mommy.
The gravelly voice of the mother at the other table cut through. “Give him to me. I know what to do.” She had already slipped a hand under Buddy’s head.
Augusta let him go. He rolled against the other mother’s breasts.
The mother laid Buddy on his back across her knees. Once, twice, three times she thrust her fingers against the sailboat appliqué on the front of his overalls. Something came out of his mouth. He was vomiting, coughing. Confidently, as though she were working in the kitchen, the woman turned him on his side and scooped the stuff from his mouth with two fingers and wiped it onto the edge of the table. She lifted him up. And now he was crying.
She held him out to Augusta. “Here you go, Mama, ” she said, smiling crookedly. “All better.”
Augusta seized him, pressing her face against his head. She rocked him with her whole body. It felt as though his cries were coming from her own mouth. She closed her eyes and saw the woman’s fingers pressing against the little sailboat. She opened her eyes and said, “Thank you.”
“No need to thank me.” She was standing between her sons now, the three of them holding hands, as though they were about to say grace.
“You saved his life.”
“It was God’s will. God’s will I was here, I mean.” The woman let go of her sons’ hands and sat down heavily. “Jesus. Where’s my cigarette?”
“Here you go,” the one son said, taking one from his pocket. “Shit. You got the whole damned pack if you want.” She put it between her lips and let it hang there.
The other people returned to their tables. Someone was wiping up the floor. The waitress named Darla was holding Laura in her arms, because Ted was sitting at the table with his face in his hands. And now the ambulance lights were flashing through the front windows, probing the dining room. By then Buddy had settled down to sucking his thumb. He looked no different from any other baby boy at the end of a long day.
No, Augusta told the paramedics, she didn’t want Buddy to go to the hospital. Everything was fine now. She promised she would call their own pediatrician the minute they got home. They weren’t far from home, maybe only an hour’s drive.
When at last the paramedics left, Ted seemed to recover. He took Laura’s placemat to the other table and asked the woman and her sons for their names and an address. Augusta watched him write it all down in blue crayon, next to the dog he had drawn. The mother’s name was Sally Burdock. Her sons were Christian and Carl. They lived in Virginia Beach.
They all stood up, all seriousness. Ted shook their hands. Then he hugged the mother, harder than Augusta had ever seen him hug his own mother. All the while Augusta stood to the side, rocking Buddy.
When Ted let her go, Sally Burdock came over to Augusta. She rested a hand lightly on Buddy’s head, like a priestess administering a blessing. Her hand was small and square, the nails torn. “Beautiful little sweetie,” she said. “And what’s his name?”
“Robert. But we call him Buddy.”
Suddenly Buddy popped his thumb from his mouth to smile. Augusta felt it in her breasts.
Sally Burdock held out her arms to him.
Augusta pretended not to notice. She shifted Buddy quickly on her hip, and looked over her shoulder, as though she had lost sight of something important. The crayons on the table—she swept them into her bag.
Sally Burdock dropped her arms.
Ted was waving goodbye now, taking Laura by the hand, leading her across the room.
The sons had already sat down at their table. “Ma,” the one said.
“Goodbye,” Sally Burdock said.
Buddy waved, pumping his arm up and down.
“Goodbye,” Augusta murmured, her lips in Buddy’s hair, which smelled of baby shampoo and also something foreign now—cigarette smoke, or something darker she didn’t want to name.
Madeleine Mysko is the author of two novels, Bringing Vincent Home and Stone Harbor Bound and a poetry collection, Crucial Blue. Her work has appeared in The Hudson Review, Ruminate, and Presence, among other journals. She has received individual artist awards in both poetry and fiction from the Maryland State Arts Council. She serves as contributing editor for American Journal of Nursing.
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