He walked into the diner and there she was, looking as though she’d been expecting him. Her eyes flitted across his face, then back to the empty table before her. He studied her down-turned face, hair mussed up but not too much, makeup there but less than what he was used to seeing. Then he glanced at the smudgy windows and scuffed floor, and the brown stains on the tables, and he walked over and sat down.
The waitress came and asked if he wanted anything, like she was already certain he didn’t.
“Coffee,” he said. “And you got ice cream?”
“That’s fine. Vanilla’s fine.”
The waitress left and he turned to the girl and thought about telling a joke before he remembered she’d said he wasn’t funny. So instead he said, “‘Fraid I was gonna have to go all the way to Tennessee.”
She glanced at him but didn’t say what she wanted to. He tried to let his face tell her she could talk to him, but he’d never been good at that and couldn’t start now.
“Thought I saw your car outside Springfield,” he said. “Almost put the flasher out and pulled them over until I got close enough to read the license plate. Saved myself a good deal of embarrassment.”
The waitress brought his order and he drank the coffee black and ate a small scoop of ice cream. Almost as bland as one could get, but it’d been a sweltering few days and he’d been using the air-conditioning as little as possible to conserve gas. He hadn’t known a man his age had that much sweat in him. Thought it all would’ve leaked out over the previous decades. But maybe he wasn’t as old as he felt. He couldn’t always remember anymore because it didn’t matter.
He said, “He leave you, then?”
She met his eyes for the first time. Empty but hard, like she’d fought herself into a corner and didn’t have any fight left in her but still refused to accept defeat. He knew he was in some way responsible for that, and nothing he could say or do would ever untie the knot coiling in his stomach. Can’t change who you are, or who you’ve made those around you.
“Three days ago,” she said. Her voice a dulled knife blade. “Some town smaller’n this one.”
“You don’t seem too wrecked by it.”
“We’d been fighting a while. Got tired of it.” The closest she would ever come to admitting he’d been right.
“Hattie,” he said, but his mouth went dry and even another scoop of ice cream couldn’t coax the words out. He knew he looked a fool, sitting there chewing ice cream when he should be asking about the most important question a father could ask. He figured this must be how she’d seen him for a long time, and his cheeks flushed and he took another bite but it didn’t help.
“I’m fine,” she said, and now he was the one who couldn’t meet her eyes. “We’re both fine.”
He nodded, still looking down. “Okay. Well. Good.”
A semi rumbled by outside, causing the windows to rattle. He turned to watch it pass. Remembered a few years ago he’d pulled over a similar rig and as he was walking up to it he had some sort of premonition, like a brilliant flash went off in his head, and he was already reaching for his pistol when the door opened and the driver stepped out with the crowbar. All hopped up on energy drinks and PCP, didn’t even notice when he fell and twisted an ankle, wasn’t any pain, barely even a limp. Kept on coming and swinging that crowbar until his own momentum spun him around and a few solid whacks with the pistol butt against the back of his skull took him down.
That was the closest he’d ever come to dying on the job and he’d never told anyone outside the office. Hattie had been too young, just ten, and her mother was six months in the ground. Who else was there to tell? To admit that he’d been scared shitless, that he’d seen that crowbar arch within an inch of his face and the metal was so rusted and dirty the sun didn’t even reflect off it, and he’d been certain his death would be brutal and dull without even the glint of polished steel. He would get a star on some wall and his daughter would be shipped off to her grandparents and maybe there would be a nice obituary in his hometown paper, if they still even had one. That wasn’t supposed to be enough. There had been more to it once, he thought.
But he couldn’t say it now anymore than he could then, and she still wasn’t old enough to understand. So he watched the truck go by while she watched him and eventually she said, “I knew you’d find me.”
He glanced at her but couldn’t tell if that was praise or resignation. He’d known he would, too, because all her life she’d been inclined to follow a straight line. She may occasionally divert on a tangent—that damned boy, for example, whom he was relieved to see was gone and not missed—but she kept on the new path until something else knocked her off it. She thought he didn’t listen to her but he did in his own way, her mother had understood that. He’d heard her talk about Nashville, how she had the talent to make it there. And maybe she did, too, but she wasn’t even out of school yet and if that failed, then what? And in her condition, too, which was a hell of a way to think about it, but he couldn’t see it any other way despite how much he’d tried.
“I’m glad I did,” he said, the words sounding flat even though he meant it and she knew he did.
She gestured southward. “Would you have been able to come after me if I’d crossed the river?”
Come after me. Like she was running from him as opposed to something. Like he didn’t have her best intentions at heart. Like he was the enemy. Which he could see how in her eyes he might be, but he didn’t like to think she’d see him that way. He hoped she knew better deep down.
He said, “I took some time off. Jurisdiction don’t matter right now.”
“You kept the gun.”
She held his eyes a moment, thinking why he’d kept the gun. Already made up her opinion why, even though truthfully he’d kept it out of habit and duty. Probably should have left it behind. Sent the wrong message. But he’d been wearing it almost twenty years now. What did she know about habits at her age?
There was a grease-stained clock above the restrooms that told him the hottest part of the afternoon was encroaching, and he felt no desire to get out in it, but the diner wasn’t much cooler. His ice cream had melted and he stirred the soupy remains with his spoon. He wanted to tip the bowl up to his lips and drink it, but he wouldn’t do such a thing even in private.
“Can I ask you a question?” she said.
He swallowed and looked up. “Of course.”
“What would Mom have thought of all this?”
He looked into her eyes and saw that this was the crux of the matter for her, proof that he didn’t understand her because he didn’t understand women in general, to an extent that was almost criminal. And it wasn’t as though he could deny this fundamental flaw in his makeup. He had no more insight into the workings of her mind that he had her mother’s, except for occasional glimpses that only furthered to confuse him. How he had even gotten married in the first place was a mystery to him, maybe the most beautiful and painful mystery of all. He had just taken for granted that his life was going where it was supposed to go, good or bad, except he had never envisioned it leading him to a rundown diner at the southernmost tip of the state, and if he had maybe he would’ve realized sooner how precarious a situation he was in, how apt he was to lose what mattered most to him.
Any answer he gave would be the wrong one, so he said, “She would have loved you and supported you,” which was true enough. But as to what she would’ve thought? Would she have been angry, disappointed, joyous? Jealous, even, because she’d wanted another child and he hadn’t? He didn’t know. She’d been gone too long, which wasn’t really an excuse but it was what he had.
Across the booth Hattie gave a small huff that seemed weighted with disappointment. Or maybe she was just as tired as she looked. He thought maybe this, more than the fighting or the baby, had driven her to stop here off the main highway and wait for him. She was just beginning to understand how weary life could be.
“I can’t make you come back with me,” he said. “I guess legally I could ’cause you’re still a minor, but I won’t.” He paused. “I want you to, though. To come back.”
She stared at him for a bit and he could see her turning it over, looking for a way out, but there wasn’t one so she nodded and said, “‘Kay.”
He left too much money and outside she told him she had a few things at a motel and he said he needed to get gas, and they could meet for dinner a few hours down the road, he’d call her. He watched her pull out of the lot and chose to trust that she would follow him. If she didn’t then he wouldn’t know for a while, but at least he’d have had a chance to see her, see that she was all right. He would have something to take away from this no matter what happened.
He filled up his tank and headed back north but fifteen minutes later the truck started shaking and he pulled off to the side of the highway before it could give out altogether. He climbed out and checked under the hood but couldn’t find anything obviously wrong. A bad batch of gas, then. He climbed inside and let the cool air caress his face, the truck sputtering a little. After a while her car sped by. He thought he saw her turn her head to look at him, but she didn’t stop. He watched her until she merged with the horizon, a slow fade that seemed to drain something from him. Instead of calling for assistance, he just sat there staring ahead, trying to decide if he had the strength to go after her a second time.