"Helloooooooooooo. . ." a man calls over the intercom, in that voice drive-thru customers use when they're annoyed at waiting and want to annoy in return. "I'm hungry . . . hellooooooooo . . . Anybody there?"
Nobody, just me.
Cherie, the shift manager has herself locked in the restroom, having sex with Jerry, the manager of the bowling alley across the street; he's also her husband's buddy. She'll be back in a few minutes, flushed and momentarily satisfied. She'll make Jerry something to eat like this was her kitchen and then they'll sit in the dining room till he's got to go close up for the night. She'll let him do the talking; mostly she'll just sit and giggle like she's one of those high school girls who come in after a football game.
Walker and Bruce, who run the grill, are back in the break room watching a porn flick on the tv/vcr combo intended for training tapes and getting high. There's just a hint of the bittersweet scent in the air and I breathe deep, close my eyes.
"Hey! Hey!" The guy at the intercom yells sharply.
I ignore him.
He's talking but the way his voice drifts, I'm thinking he's talking to someone in the car.
Go away, I silently will.
Sure enough, minutes later, a white Toyota truck speeds off, tires pealing. An arm emerges from the window, the middle finger raised — to me, the restaurant, and its distracted graveyard crew.
Fuck you too, I think as I continue chewing on my nails as I cradle the phone receiver between my ear and shoulder.
Come on. Get back already.
I'm waiting for Robert to return to the phone and tell me that Kaitlin's okay. He called a little while ago cause she wouldn't stop crying.
"Don't hit her again," I told him first off. "Okay? That won't help. Just stop hitting her."
"Why the fuck did you take off and leave her with me?" he yelled, over our daughter's cries.
Cause you're her father. Cause I have to work so we can continue our suck-ass existence. Cause I don't want to be around you. Cause I'm tired of diapers and rock-a-bye baby and Elmo.
"Is she wet?" I asked like my mother had when I first brought the baby home, and in desperation, called her cause Kaitlin was crying and wouldn't stop. "Have you fed her?" Stupid questions and knew I the answers. Yes. No. But I had to keep him on the phone.
"Take her to Jill's," I suggested to his drunken ranting.
Jill's our neighbor across the hall.
"She's a bitch that can't be trusted— just like you. Why would I leave my daughter with either of you?"
"Then why are you upset?" I argued. "She's not with either of us; she's with you."
"You did and that's why you have a kid on your hands," I said.
Kaitlin's cry pierced the phone line.
"Robert!" I screamed. "Robert!"
"Fuck with me again," he warned. He knows her pain is mine.
"Look, please, just take her to Jill's," I pleaded.
Jill hates Robert much as he hates her. One night, running from Robert's blows, I dashed into her apartment without knocking. She was lying on her couch, one leg balanced on the knee of the other as she talked on the phone. I will always remember the way one eyebrow lifted, questioning my presence, but then she said, "It's okay." She ended her conversation as she rose from the couch. She had the door closed and locked just as Robert made his way across the hall.
His fists pounded.
I watched as she silently went to her desk and retrieved a gun from a drawer. She opened a part of it, looked in and then snapped it shut. She glanced at me, then unlocked the door and yanked it open.
Robert stumbled backwards a bit, shocked at the gun pointed at his head.
"No," Jill told him softly. "No," she repeated.
She and Robert stared each other down, the gun in the space between them. Finally Robert put his hands up and backed towards our apartment. His eyes shot a quick glance at me and I knew I'd pay later on, but for that moment, someone had made him stop.
When he'd slammed the door shut to our place, locked the door — it was loud enough for me to hear — Jill closed the door to her own apartment. She leaned against it; her chest heaving. She blew out a long breath. And then she smiled and put the gun away.
I didn't really know her at that time, but later she sort of became a friend. She told me never to try and explain my relationship with him, because she didn't want to know about it.
"But," she told me, giving me a key to her place, "you know where the gun is."
When Robert started hitting the baby, Jill talked to me less. I was big enough to fend for myself, she told me. She added that it wasn't her job to protect Kaitlin, but if given the chance, she swore she might just "kill him for her."
Maybe sending him there wasn't a good idea. I don't know if he even went, though I guess he has because the other end has been quiet for awhile now.
Cherie comes around the corner. Seeing me, the grin on her face disappears and she says, "There's work to do around here."
"Just a minute," I tell her, promising I'll bust my butt then. I can't let her know what's going on.
Last year when I asked for the restaurant maternity uniform, Cherie stared at me for a moment. Then she said, "I can make an appointment for you. You don't have to do this."
I looked at her, confused.
She sighed. "Don't bring a baby into . . . into whatever it is you've got going with him," she warned me, but I shook my head.
"He needs something to help him settle down," I told her and, for awhile, Robert seemed interested in being a father. He would keep me up at night talking about all the things he was going to give our kid — things his own father hadn't. One time, drinking, Robert had sat at the kitchen table writing down all the things he was gonna say and do.
From across the table, I watched his growing list, but then suddenly he pushed the paper and pen away and put his head down. I didn't know what to do so I reached out and ran my hand across his hair.
He looked up at me, his cheeks wet. I cried with him over all the shit neither of us ever got from our parents. We swore to God and promised each other we'd be the best damn parents ever, hooking our pinkies together and grinning at each other like best friends and then we made love right there on the kitchen floor.
He was gentle and sweet with me that night. And the whole time I was pregnant, he only hit me twice.
Cherie used to let me stay with her when Robert was really tanked and angry, but after that time he kicked her front door in, she never has again. Every now and then, though, she'll offer to take me to the shelter if I want to go. She's told me gazillions of times, she doesn't know why I put up with it. With him. I just shrug and say what my mother always said: "It can't be all bad cause nobody's dead yet."
"One minute," Cherie warns, before she continues on to the grill to fix her lover a meal.
My attention wanders momentarily, but comes back to the phone when I hear the dial tone at the other end. I hold the phone away from my ear and stare at it. Then, frantically, I hit the button. I call home. It rings, but Robert doesn't answer. I hit the button. Dial again.
My hand shaking, I replace the receiver.
I decide to get my ass in gear and work and maybe I'll get done early and Cherie will let me go.
"Everything's fine," I say out loud.
Even when the phone rings, and my heart stops momentarily like it knows something. Even when Cherie comes up to me, after answering the phone in the office and says, "You need to take this call."
Even as I'm stumbling to the phone, even as I forcing my trembling hand to pick the receiver up and move it to my ear, even then I'm telling myself that everything is fine. I'm telling myself that tonight is going to be no different from all the times before:
I'll go home first. If Robert's awake, I'll leave Kaitlin at Jill's. I can't take her crying along with Robert's yelling. And it's too hard to dodge his fists or whatever he throws when she's in my arms. I'll agree with him— whatever he says. I'm a bitch. I don't even care about my daughter — going off and leaving her. He shouldn't have to put up with the shit I'm putting him through.
I'll be hoping, though, that he's passed out on the couch. I'll get Kaitlin from Jill's. I'll carry my five-month old to the bedroom and clean her up. Kiss her ouwies and promise her soon. I'll take Kaitlin to bed with me and we'll snuggle safe till he wakes.
If he's passed out on the bed, I'll find a section me and Kaitlin can curl up in and I'll watch him as he sleeps. My heart will thump out a why? why? why? every beat. And I'll stare at that man I love until my lids fall heavy with sleep or water floods my eyes— and Robert, all at once, will slip from my sight.
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