by DL Minor
Lynette and her father were parked on a side street in a gritty, litter-strewn neighborhood she had never seen before. She stared out the windshield and the open passenger side window trying to get her bearings and wondering why they were here. They were sitting almost directly across from an ancient-looking beauty supply store, a shack really, which leaned for support on a storefront eating place with fogged windows; the sort of establishment Lynette knew would be described by her grandmother Meira with lip-curling disdain as a “greasy spoon.” Maybe, but the aroma wafting from it was intoxicating and triggered hunger pangs in Lynette, reminding her that she hadn’t eaten since breakfast.
She watched with longing as two buxom young women in matching hot pants and high heeled sandals yanked open the door and swayed and tottered inside. His manicured hands drumming the wheel, her father was watching them too. As the door swung behind them, the smell of steaming coffee, sizzling hamburgers, grilling onions and deep-fried potatoes billowed out and drifted into the open windows of the car.
Lynette’s stomach began to complain, rudely, prompting her to fiddle with the glove compartment to cover her embarrassment. LeRoy, who’d been deep in thought, looked over at his fidgeting daughter.
“You hungry?” She nodded, her cheeks flushing.
“I’ll buy you some lunch in a minute” he chuckled. “Right now I want you to do something for me.” He leaned toward her.
“Okay,” she said warily, her antenna going up. “What?”
“See that bar over there?” he pointed toward the corner on the opposite side, toward a tavern several doors down from the greasy spoon with the delicious smells. From inside it they could hear the thumping strains of the B.B. King classic The Thrill Is Gone.
“I want you to go in there,” LeRoy paused, as if for effect. “By yourself.”
“What!?” Lynette gasped. Her eyes widened and her mouth fell open. “No!”
“It’ll be okay,” he said soothingly. “Just go on in—”
“No!!” she said, cutting him off, her jaw set stubbornly.
“Lynette“, he reached toward her, trying to calm her.
“Why??” she whined.
Le Roy took his sunglasses off and looked straight into Lynette’s eyes. His were a rich brown with flecks of green in them, just like her younger brother Jamie’s. She used to be so jealous of Jamie’s eyes, so much prettier than hers. She never understood why he had them and she didn’t. What did boys need with pretty eyes?
“I know the bartender,” her father was saying slowly, hypnotically, using his eyes to command her, keep her still. “Her name is Nikki. She’s little like you, but darker. Her eyes are black, her hair is black; she usually wears it pinned back. Okay? I want you to walk to the bar, go right up to her—if you don’t see her ask for her, ask whoever is there to get her for you—and then I want you to say to her ‘Hello, Mother, I’m your daughter.’”
Lynette stared at him, incredulous. She wanted to go home right now. She opened her mouth to tell her father that.
“I can’t,” was all she could manage, faintly.
“Yeah, you can.” Le Roy smiled his dazzling smile. “Just say it: ‘Hello Mother, I’m your daughter.’”
Lynette took a deep breath. This was crazy. She was not doing this.
“’Hello Mother, I’m your daughter,’” she repeated, appalled.
“Very good. That’s all you have to say.” Le Roy got out of the car and walked carefully around it to open the passenger side door. Lynette sat there, watching him through the windshield, watching her father’s elegant Big Stuff strut, the graceful swing of his big shoulders, the way he held his hands. A brief, welcome breeze fluttered his silky tie, its pattern setting off his crisp Arrow shirt and matching the Chrysler’s gleaming cobalt blue.
Tough and tailored. That was how Lynette once heard her mother, Patricia, describe her father while talking on the phone. You can’t count on Roy for a loaf of bread, she’d said, laughing, but honey he knows how to work a Versace suit.
Lynette stepped out of the car and looked up at him hopefully, waiting for him to walk her over to the tavern. Instead he hopped back in and slammed the door.
“I’ll be in right behind you.”
He leaned back in his seat and waved her along.
She crossed the sunlit street, watching for traffic, blinking around her in dismay. She might as well have been on the moon. Even if she had had the bus fare, she had no idea where in the city she was, or how to get home from here.
She never told her mother, but that second time she ran away, she’d changed her mind and tried to get back but couldn’t retrace her steps. She got so lost so fast that, instead of dread, she’d cried with relief at the sight of the patrol car rolling toward her.
“You’re too big for this now, Lynette,” her grandmother would scold her about her poor sense of direction, and the way she didn’t pay sufficient attention to landmarks and street signs. “You’re not a little girl anymore.”
Lynette approached the door of the tavern like a prisoner bracing for the firing squad. She placed a shaking hand on the door knob and crept inside, her heart pounding in her ears. Except for the couple of times she’d gone into Jimmy’s to get a Swiss cheeseburger, she hadn’t been in a bar since she was a small girl, accompanying her family after Sunday Mass. She felt very small now.
The place was dimly lit and partitioned, with a few tables and chairs pushed to one side. On the other, worn leather stools fronted a scarred wooden counter that stretched the length of the room. A large, old-fashioned looking jukebox in the corner was playing The Dell’s dramatic, five-part harmony version of the Dionne Warwick hit Walk On By.
Lynette moved quickly to the nearest bar stool and started to sit then thought better of it when she noticed a heavyset man in a tan leather jacket three stools down, sizing her up with narrow-eyed interest.
“Pretty,” he whispered at her, pursing his lips to mimic blowing her a kiss. Disgusted, Lynette tore her gaze away from him and pressed closer to the bar searching vainly for the woman who matched her father’s description of Nikki. The door swung open behind her and two men and a woman walked in, laughing and swearing at each other fluently. She looked anxiously around her. Where was her father? He’d promised he’d be right behind her and he was nowhere in sight.
A different bartender, a doughy, light-skinned young guy with pockmarked cheeks and a wisp of a goatee who was cleaning glassware, eyed her curiously.
“Hey,” Lynette said shyly.
“Hey, Li’l Bit,” he grinned, looking her up and down and still wiping vigorously. “What can I do for you? Got some ID?” A sharp, slightly sour smell lingered in the air between them.
Lynette pushed herself forward and whispered hurriedly, trying not to breathe. “Um, I need to speak to Nikki? Is Nikki here?”
His expression changed. Lynette wasn’t sure, but she had the fleeting feeling that he was disappointed.
“Nikki? Sure,” he shrugged.
He strolled toward the end of the bar and said something to someone just out of sight. A slim, ebony-skinned woman appeared. The woman had hard dark eyes and hair pulled back into a ponytail. She walked over to Lynette with a puzzled expression.
“Can I help you?” she asked politely. Lynette swallowed, hard. She couldn’t believe what she was about to do. She looked again toward the door, hoping for reprieve, praying her father would walk in and rescue her, but he was not there. She took a deep breath and the dark woman smiled at her, warily. Lynette thought of burnt almonds.
“Hello—hello, Mother” she stammered, a fake smile freezing on her face. “Hello, Mother. I’m your daughter.”
There. She did it.
The woman stared at Lynette like she was a crazy person, blinking and frowning at her. The bartender with the bad skin and rubbing alcohol breath rooted to the spot, gaping at Lynette in stunned silence.
“I’m sorry—what?” said Nikki in bewilderment. “What did you say, baby?”
Oh, God. Was this woman deaf? Did she not hear her? She’d have to say it again?
Feeling idiotic, feeling foolish beyond measuring, Lynette said the insane words again, robotically: “Hello, Mother. I’m your daughter.” She felt her face flame, as if she’d been slapped. Her eyes pleaded with Nikki’s: Please don’t make me say this again.
Lynette stood there and watched Nikki’s eyes change: confusion spilling into concern, concern sliding into calculation. Was she wondering what had wandered in here off the street? Was she about to yell for the cops? And still Lynette just stood there, the anger that had been on slow simmer when she first stepped out of the car now beginning to boil inside of her, enraged first with her father for pushing her into such a stupid stunt, but also with herself for going along with it.
“Baby—“ Nikki started to say, pity in her voice. Before she could go any further, however, booming laughter jerked everyone’s attention to the door. Le Roy was sauntering towards them with a face-splitting grin, looking very pleased with himself. He wrapped his big hands around Lynette’s shoulders and playfully pushed her forward, right into the woman’s arms.
“Nikki, this is Lyn.”
For the barest second Nikki stared at him and then at Lynette without comprehension. Then she erupted: raucous fireworks of laughter, almost as big as Le Roy’s.
“Oh, Lord! This is Lyn?“ she clutched at Lynette, rocking them both back and forth. Lynette was giddy with the smell of perfume, beer and sweat. Her stomach churned.
Still holding onto her, Nikki twisted in the direction of the pockmarked man behind the bar who was now wiping the counter down: “Piggie! Piggie, you know who this chile is? This Roy’s daughter! With Patty! This his other girl, Lyn!” to which Piggie cackled: “Yeah! I knew it had to be some shit like that! I knew it was Roy!” and then to Lynette: “How you doin’, baby?”
And everybody in the place fell out laughing, even the creepy man in the leather jacket who’d leered at Lynette when she first walked in. “I didn’t know what was goin’ on with this chile,” Nikki was exclaiming, “ I was ‘bout to call the po-lice! Roy, you know you better get your ass on outta here! Why you make her do that shit?”
Lynette was trying to edge away from Nikki and closer to her idiot-grinning father, but Nikki was having none of that. She pulled the girl firmly back into her arms, kissing both her cheeks and wrapping her in a bear hug. For such a stick thin person, she was very strong.
“How’s ya mama, baby?”
“You wanna soda? Piggie, give her a 7-Up!”
“You wanna soda?”
“Lyn? You wanna soda?”