Breaded pink slime. Barbecue sauce. Heroin. My stomach churns and I’m about to throw up but then I’m fine. It’s cold in here, but it doesn’t seem to bother you.
I need to learn how to fix your hair. There’s a video where a dad uses a vacuum cleaner to do it. I should try that. It’s impossible to sit comfortably in these booths. I heard they do that on purpose. Keep you from sticking around too long. The staff behind the register doesn’t give a shit. My ass will tell me to leave long before they need to.
Where are they? They should be here by now.
We wait for your grandparents at this McDonald’s roughly halfway between the shotgun house where I live and drink and their home in the woods where they pray and cling to their half of the custody agreement.
Here, at this cold, sticky table beneath the golden arches, you tell me that you’re hungry. I haven’t eaten yet today, but that’s my own doing. I can feel the tiny ridges in the cap of the half-pint bottle of Jim Beam. They rub against the space between ribs through my jacket pocket. I can almost count them like rosary beads. I am devoted. I take a sip and wait for the next one.
We were supposed to meet at 4:30 and it’s creeping up on 5. In the years since a judge divided our time, it’s always been here. Since you were two and they started letting me take you for a couple of weekends. As my time grew it never changed. When they found you running around the room carrying a needle like a baton while your mom slept with her mouth open, we met at McDonald’s.
They should be here by now. I’ve rationed the bottle to last just long enough to make it to the Circle K next door once I can see your curly head through the rear window.
“Can you get me a happy meal?” you ask.
“Mawmaw and Pawpaw will be here soon,” I say.
“Please, dada? Chicken nuggets, please. And a girl toy?”
The whole drive in you asked about the garbage, leaves, and branches in the road. The lake was dark with small waves capped in white—still reeling from the hurricane that hit two days ago. The power went out and we lit the little emergency tea candles every person in the Gulf South keeps stashed in the back of the cabinet beneath the sink. You said they were birthday candles.
My mother called from the Northshore to tell me about a boy who was killed—Tyler. He was a few years younger and lived on the same gravel road. He used to sit beside me on the school bus, but I always had my headphones on and never spoke to him, which I think he appreciated.
“Storm come through here real bad,” she said. “Knocked down trees and rolled trailers on their side.” I pictured turtles stuck on their backs and held the phone pressed to my ear while I watched you eat cereal. “But that’s not what killed him. It was that damn music.”
He was clearing the broken land with his father and didn’t hear the cracking wood over the song of the chainsaw and the headphones in his ears. Hands waving, arteries bulging, red and hot in the face, his father shouted at him to move, son. The skinny pine leaned and drooped and then it fell.
I wonder what was he listening to while he nodded his head and worked. Was it happy? Was it about love? Did it make him feel good?
Was it “Georgia on My Mind?” The version with the strings. The song his mother danced with him to in the kitchen, holding him in her arms when he was not but a year and a half. The one she told him she wanted to dance with him to at his wedding.
Was it the Eagles? That cassette his father kept in the dented pick-up they used for work. The one that starts on a dark desert highway. The one he said he hated but secretly pirated and added to his mp3 player.
Was it Boosie? That music he’d never heard before. Music that made him move and made him friends with new people. Best friends.
What was the last thing he heard? As the ridged trunk pressed him into the earth, was his favorite part playing? The part he would wait for. The part that made him feel most alive.
They still aren’t here.
I checked my phone this morning when I woke up and saw a two-second video of myself sleeping with my mouth open. You must have been playing around and accidentally recorded it. I can’t remember what I gave you for dinner. You were nuzzled up next to me and I thought about how you were in a box for a month after you were born.
Sometimes you’d be under a bright light wearing an eye mask. Getting a suntan, your mom and I joked. You’d wrap your tiny, noodle-like fingers around my thumb. The nurse would spoon you out and I didn’t want to touch you. You were like an egg without a shell.
I’ve got enough money for a happy meal or another half-pint, but not both. I’m lightheaded standing up from the table and the square tiling on the floor expands and bends. The lady in line in front of me looks over her shoulder and takes a half-step closer to the register. I can hear myself breathing. You’re just sitting there, clueless, with your hair knotted and held in a loose ponytail. I’m overdue for another sip.
These people are taking so long.
“Chicken nugget happy meal, please.”
I take the tray back to the table and I can see your grandparents parking outside. They both hop out of their SUV and trot over to the entrance, look at me, and then to you and smile.
“Mawmaw!” you shout and run over to them. She picks you up and nuzzles you. They both nod to me and head back outside. I can see your mouth running as they strap you into the car seat. You’re smiling and your curly hair is bobbing up and down. I look down at the neatly packaged happy meal in front of me. Inside is a small, plastic dinosaur. It’s a scary one. Its mouth is open, its teeth are sharp, and its gums are bright red like blood. The nuggets are warm and the barbecue sauce is tangy and sweet. I run my fingers over the tips of the pointed plastic teeth and wonder if I should keep it for you.
W.A. Hawkins is a writer from South Louisiana. You can find his work in Rejection Letters, The Daily Drunk, Scalawag Magazine, Bayou Brief, and others.