Yesterday at Louie’s: A little boy comes in at sits at the end of the counter. He is eight, maybe nine years old. He’s wearing jeans and a t-shirt, carrying a scuffed baseball in his hand. Kay asks, “Just you today?”
“Yup,” he says.
He orders a cheeseburger, fries, and a Dr. Pepper. He spins on his stool a little. He’s got a wicked cowlick, a dirty Band-Aid on his elbow, something indecipherable written on the back of his hand in blue ink.
I smile at him. “So you got a baseball, huh?” I say, something along those lines, what I imagine to be a pleasant inquiry.
He looks at me. I don’t see the ball—he must have pocketed it. “No,” he says. There’s a defensive edge to his voice. As if to say: none of your damn business what I got. Do I—despite my smile—seem threatening? Do I seem like a guy who might have designs on a kid’s baseball?
“Oh,” I say. Probably no is just what he says to adults with questions. Probably he’s got good reason to be guarded. Fair enough. “I could’ve sworn that you had a baseball with you.”
“Oh, that,” he says. But he doesn’t show it to me.
His plate is shoulder-to-shoulder dogs, three of them, visible only in outline beneath the ladled-on chili. It’s not clear where one dog ends and the next begins.
There’s another Sunday regular at the other end of the counter. He’s hunched over an order of Red Hots, Louie’s specialty, hot dogs covered with chili. His plate is shoulder-to-shoulder dogs, three of them, visible only in outline beneath the ladled-on chili. It’s not clear where one dog ends and the next begins. He’s wearing a beat-up Nascar cap, jeans, and work boots flecked with paint. I happen to know that he paints cars for a living. I listen to him and Kay talk while I drink coffee and look at the paper. I know all about this guy. His name is Rodney. He’s got an ex-wife and a Dodge truck he’s looking to trade in. He’s just finished his shift. After he eats, he’ll shower and nap and spend the afternoon with his daughter.
When Kay fills his cup, Rodney motions with his thumb. “The kid alone?”
Kay nods. “Sometimes his brother comes in with him.”
The man pulls some bills from his jeans. “I got his,” he says.
It’s the just-right gesture, the sort of thing that I admire but never seem to pull off myself. Still, it’s a beautiful thing to see.
Kay rings Rodney up. She waves as he heads out the door. “So long,” she says. “Have a good week.”
Kay looks at the kid. “He bought your breakfast,” she tells him.
The man is outside the window now, squinting in. He points at the boy, and his face cracks open a little, an awkward, possibly pained expression: a grimace-like grin, a benevolent wince. Hard to say. He could be a big jowly, unshaven baby: maybe it’s a smile, maybe just gas.
“Thank you,” the boys says softly, but, of course, the man can’t hear him through the plate glass.
He pulls the baseball from his pocket then—the little squirt, of course he had it—and holds it up. He grips the ball across the seams, pulls it behind his ear, and slow-motion mimes a throw to Rodney, who stands in the sunlight on the balls of his feet, baseball-ready, palms out, ready to receive whatever is coming at him.
First published, Water~Stone.