From his perch atop the rusty, dented and fingerprint-besmirched napkin dispenser, Triceratops returned the stares of the patrons of ene’s iner, their mouths agape and stuffed with borscht or chicken or burgers; their stares weren’t for him, rather they were directed at the Avasaur’s brutal attack on her third plate of three-high, syrup-drenched blueberry pancakes.
Each vibration of the Avasaur’s metal fork to porcelain plate made drywall dust fall from the empty nailholes in the center of bright white squares, eight by ten, that Lena was certain once held more black and white rememberances of the boxer with the badass handlebar mustache that filled up the other walls of the diner. The smell of musk and sweat dripped from the booth and the broken plaster. Lena flicked plaster speckles from Ava’s hair and offered a nervous smile to the counter jockies.
– Maybe you should slow down. Keep up the snarfdom and we’re going to have a mess in the car.
The Avasaur rolled her eyes at the ignominy of Lena’s caution.
Lena glanced at the Avasaur’s Hello Kitty watch: 10:03AM. She had managed to call off Calming Waves before the call from Sally, Lena’s attempt at personifying the automated phone company voice, and Sally’s demand for immediate action on her account, a phone bill payment she couldn’t make; before her phone jumped to “no service” and Lena hurled said phone against the passenger door; before said phone disappeared into the murky depths of the under-seat along with the stale corpses of innumerable french fries, thrown teething rings, pacifiers, straw wrappers and shiny round presidents; before Sally forced Lena to take three risks: one, that they would be able to make the three-hour drive home in time for dinner service at the Parlor Grille; two, that the drive would be devoid of projectile vomit-enforced delays, which, as the Avasaur continued her relentless pancake decimation, became less likely; and three, that Ben had learned the truth about flying monkey pyrotechnics so Claire could babysit as scheduled and not pull another last-minute-cancellation.
10:04AM, said Hello Kitty.
Junior placed the rusted box in the center of the table, just out of the Avasaur’s path of destruction. Lena admired his mustache, a sign of life below his tired eyes, a perfect genetic replica of or homage to the boxer in the pictures, as he sat down across from them. He wiped his nose on his batter-spattered apron. Avasaur looked up.
– Do you have boogers?
– Boogers? Nope, kiddo, no boogers. I’m sad.
– Why are you sad?
– The lady that sent your mom that note? She was really nice to me when I was your age.
– I’m four and I don’t like boogers either. She told Mommy to get a kitty carrier. But there’s no kitty.
– You know, she sorta did that to me once.
– Did you get a kitty?
– No, I got this.
He pulled the string from his apron pocket. Ava stared and chewed.
– Were you bad?
– Was I…? No, no. This is a good present.
– It’s a piece of string.
– It’s a lot more than that.
– What do you do with it?
– You make shapes.
– Oh. Can I have it?
Junior smiled. Ava shrugged.
– If I give this to you, do you promise promise promise to learn?
Ava nodded. Junior handed her the string. Ava took it in her syrup-encrusted fingers.
– Ok then. Maybe your mom’ll teach you how to make figures. Important to have someone show you how.
– Mommy? Will you?
– I can try. Say thank you.
– Thank you. Your sign’s broken.
The Avasaur returned to her prey.
– She’s something.
– You didn’t have to give that to her if it meant that much to you.
– Your girl reminds me of her.
– She’s something alright.
– Was she happy?
– She wanted a margarita. She said she was celebrating.
He laughed a delicate laugh that belied her expectation of a raucous, body-and-plaster-shaking guffaw.
– Dad used to say that. Said that when dinner service was done, he was celebrating. Made it through another day.
– You’re open 24 hours.
– Guy had to sleep sometime.
– What did she do there?
– Your town.
– Prize-winning apple sauce.
– Prize-winning? Tess? That girl couldn’t cook to save her life! She tried to make me pancakes once. Oh man. Cast-iron stomach ‘cause of all that baking soda. Learned what not to do from her cooking. But you like my pancakes, doncha kiddo?
Ava nodded, her mouth full, her eyes wide.
– You sure you don’t want anything to eat?
– I’m sure, thanks.
– The eating machine sure likes ‘em.
Ava bared her mouth, stuffed end to end with pancake and syrup, to Lena, the same mixture of abundant appreciation and ornery little shit in the gleam of her wide eyes.
– I’m fine, thanks. I’m going to be late for work as it is.
– Well, better get on with it then. Didn’t come all this way for nothing, right?
Lena stared at the box: peeled and replaced stickers (Sentinel Sentry, Chiquita Banana); knicks, dents and scratches. It looked as though a variety of tools had been used–kitchen knives, a meat cleaver, a crowbar, a hammer, a chisel, maybe the rear tire of a two-ton delivery truck, but Lena couldn’t be sure of the last one–to gain entry. Discretion and stealth had been optional.
– Tried for years to get into that thing. Used to catch all sortsa hell. Dad would never say where the key was. Always thought it was her, but was never sure, until you and the eating machine came in the door.
– She said she wanted to show what being a good person gets you.
– She was a good judge of character. Mostly.
– I think she got this one right though.
– She was right about the sign.
– I think you should open that now, Mommy.
– Don’t talk with your mouth full.
– I’m not.
– Kid’s right. I’ve waited my whole life to know what’s in that thing. Haven’t we, fellas?
The counter jockies stopped eating, their utensils and hands and half-eaten meals suspended in mid-air. The haze of expectation hung with the burgers and the grease dribbling from chin to chipped porcelain plates.
Lena put the key in the lock and turned. It moved clockwise, just a bit and then stopped.
– Use some elbow grease.
– Rahr, Mommy. RAHR.
Lena lifted the key up a quarter-milimeter, just like the house, and turned hard. The lock gave way. She opened the lid: it smelled like a used bookstore in a coal mine. Junior raised himself up and peered over the opened lid, only the mustache and his quizzical eyes visible. She pulled out a comic book: Whiz!Bam!Pow! Comics #7. The lower right corner was missing. A piece of string, yellowed like the comic book and with a red stain smeared sporadically over the thread, fell to the table.
– A comic book.
– Wow. I remember that guy. Dad thought he was after Tess. Dad um, took care of him. Turns out he was ok though. Oops. He left, Tess left. Few hours later, she comes running back in with the book saying she has to get outta town. Dad took her into the back room and she was gone. Never saw her after that.
– This is what being a good person gets you.
Lena tapped her feet against the floor, tempo slowing as gum stuck to the bottom of her President’s Day sale service-industry-hero shoes. She closed her eyes. She could feel the wetness behind her eyelids. Ava grabbed the comic book.
– Hey, you ok?
– Ok. Good, good. I mean, you’re not disappointed, right? What didja expect? I mean, this isn’t exactly Rockefeller-land here.
– No. I just – I don’t know.
– Mommy –
– Sorry you came all this way for just, you know, that. Least I can do is pitch in for some gas.
– No, really. It’s ok.
– Mommy –
– You sure?
– You think I could have that string?
– The string. Think I could have it? She taught me the figures with that string.
– Mommy –
Lena handed him the yellow string. He balled it up in his massive hands.
– You can have the comic–
– Mommy: there’s a dinosaur! A robot dinosaur!
Ava flipped through the pages with wanton glee. The brittle paper crinkled and cracked. Drywall dust fell into the binding.
– And the plane-man is fighting it!
– You keep that, kiddo.
– Mommy, what does this say?
Lena looked at the yellowed page that was branded with red crayon. She looked at the time on Ava’s tiny wrist; Hello Kitty said 10:27AM.
– Private Ollie gives Billy permission to kick his – nevermind. Mommy’s going to be late to work. We’ve got to go.
– Kick his what? His… A-S-
– We’ve got to go. Thank you for the pancakes.
Lena grabbed Ava by the arm and pulled her out of the booth. Ava clutched the comic, the string dangling from her wrist. She looked up at Lena.
– Mommy! S! A-S-S! Kick his A-S-S! What’s an A-S-S?
Lena pushed open the door. The bell dinged.
The counter jockies chewed and snickered. Triceratops watched from his perch.
To be continued.