The girl sat at the counter slurping a coke float, flip-flops flapping from her feet. A woman all purse and shopping bags folded into the chair beside her.
“My God, it’s hot,” the woman said to no one in particular. “It’s like breathing through dryer lint out there.” She waved over the waitress. “Lucy, glass of iced tea, please. Make it sweet. And hurry. I’m about to suffocate.” She pulled a napkin from the dispenser and dabbed at her neck.
“My daddy says it’s a two bath day,” the girl said.
“Your daddy would be correct.” The woman scanned the diner, forlorn empty with the exception of the girl and herself. “Where is your daddy?”
“Hardware. Buying nuts and bolts. Daddy says you can’t have enough nuts and bolts.”
“I wouldn’t pretend to know.” She looked down her nose at the girl. “How old are you?”
The girl fanned her fingers to five.
The waitress set the iced tea on the counter with a wedge of lemon on the side. The woman pressed the cold glass to her forehead before taking a sip. “Lucy, who in their right mind leaves a child sitting at a luncheonette counter alone?”
“My daddy,” the girl piped in. “He does it all the time. He tells me to wait right here in my spinning chair until he gets back.” She gave the chair a couple go-arounds. “And, for your information, I can take care of myself.”
“Well.” The woman busied herself with her bags, arranging them to stand soldier to soldier. “I wonder what your mother would say about such sassy talk?“
The girl drew long on the straw, vacuuming the last drops of Coke float from the bottom of the glass. “Oh, my momma’s dead. She died with a baby inside her. Big as a piano, my daddy says.”
The woman twisted her lips sour at the mention of piano. She hated the instrument for good reason, having found her young daughter dead within the body of the family grand piano, her head crushed by the elegant falling lid. “John Thompson’s Modern Course for the Piano First Grade Book” was found inside with her and the best anyone could determine was she was hiding the book to avoid practicing what she called “silly songs” an hour each day. “You shouldn’t blame yourself,” people told her, “kids will be kids, you can’t watch them every second.” But she had blamed herself, and as penance, brushed the coat of the cat one hundred strokes a night as she had her daughter’s hair, clasping barrettes in the fur or tying ribbons around its neck until it dawned on her to take an ax to the piano and go shopping.
The woman sipped her iced tea, pinkies extended, and watched the girl lick dribbles of Coke float off the formica counter. Her ponytail straggled half in, half out of its elastic, the thin green elastic used to rubber band rolled newspapers. A swimsuit peeked out from beneath her tank top. Ten tiny, dirty toe prints stained the insides of her faded flip-flops. Even in her open casket, the woman thought, her little girl hadn’t looked this bad.
“My daddy’s taking me to the swimming pool after he’s finished. Wanna come?”
The woman choked on her sweet tea. She sputtered and coughed and flapped her hands like a struggling bird. The girl stood on the footrest running the length of the counter and thumped her on the back. “I think it went down the wrong pipe, breathe through your nose and think past the strangle, that’s what my daddy says.”
Catching her breath, she waved the child away, covering her eyes with a napkin. “I’ll have to decline your invitation,” she said in a thin voice.
“It’s delicious this time of year, being so hot outside. And the best part, swimming counts as one. That’s what my…”
The silence hung in the air with the smell of burnt french fries. The woman sneaked a peep from beneath her makeshift compress to find the child up and gone and waving so long, jumping like a pogo stick beside a man holding a small paper bag. A turquoise swim float splotched with pink flamingos circled her waist and jumped up and down right along with her.
The woman raised a still hand in return. “One what, do you think, Lucy?”
“Whatever her daddy says,” she replied, wiping the counter clean of tongue smears left behind.