By Kathryn Schleich
“Thanks for staying with me,” he said as they exited the air-conditioned chill of the doctor’s office into the stifling heat of an August afternoon.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she replied, waving a slender hand done in a French manicure. “I’m your mother and you were having surgery.”
Crossing the parking lot under the blazing prairie sun, she felt the squashy black asphalt yielded with her every step.
“Well, a hair transplant isn’t exactly major surgery.” He smiled, pointing to the cast protruding from his head. Just for fun, he’d tied a red and white bandana around the cast, a flag marking the spot of triumph.
Donna looked at her son; the soft beginnings of crow’s feet giving the impression the cornflower blue of his eyes twinkled. She knew he was trying to make light of the situation, that losing one’s hair prematurely wasn’t on the level of a serious illness. Still, she understood that it bothered him knowing his younger brothers and father didn’t have as much as a gray hair or receding hairline among them. Perhaps it was simply vanity, but to her it didn’t matter. He was her eldest, and she felt it important to offer support, as only a mother could. “I wanted to be there and besides, someone needs to drive you home.” She held the cluster of keys in her hand and hit a button, the car doors unlocking with a pop. Opening the driver’s side, a blast of stifling air rolled out of the vehicle. “Do you want something to eat?”
Matt stood at his open door letting the heat escape. “That would be great.”
His mother suggested a restaurant known for its soups and salads. “It’s too hot for soup, but they’ve got some nice seasonal salads,” she said, settling into the front seat.
The strap of the safety belt angled across Matt’s bulky chest, clicking securely. “Am I presentable?” he asked, gesturing at the tank top and denim shorts he wore.
“You’ll be fine,” she replied and eased the Lexus into the flow of traffic.
* * *
This late in the day only a few patrons were scattered throughout the restaurant, some diligently typing on lap top keyboards as others savored cool refreshment. While a quick meal could be eaten here, such restaurants never referred to themselves as serving fast food. Rather, it was “casual dining.” Comfortable and inviting, the mood amid the stone and wood décor was relaxed.
From behind the granite counter, where a sign overhead announced, “Place Order Here,” Mavis Johnson watched Matt and Donna make their way across the sticky asphalt parking lot, into the refreshing cool air. A petite brunette, her green eyes inquisitive like a cat’s, Mavis had been in this job over three years, waiting on an endless spectrum of people as their lives briefly crossed with hers. At twenty-five, Mavis was quite confident the position had made her an authority on one’s character; she could learn a great deal about people in the few minutes they spent placing their meal orders, not to mention in what they chose to eat.
From under her company-issued visor, Mavis eyed the two of them coolly. In this case the woman was older, early sixties, she estimated. Silver wire-rimmed glasses framed an attractive face, and even in this heat, the woman gave off an aura of pristine coolness in white slacks and shell, a green-striped cotton shirt. Her designer bag wasn’t a knock-off (Mavis could tell by the intricate stitching on the handles and around the zipper, a fact her sister who worked in retail had pointed out). That and the woman’s car made her appear quite affluent.
But the much younger guy with her, now he spelled trouble with a capital “T.” Sculpted muscles strained against the too-tight faded red tank top, the denim shorts hugged the curve of his powerfully-built thighs, and the bandana tied over some type of cast; well, he looked like he’d just gotten released on parole. When she had first noticed them in the parking lot, Mavis had thought that perhaps this was a May-December romance; an attractive, well-heeled older woman enjoying the company of a man her junior by at least a generation.
At the counter, Mavis gave them her most professional smile. “Can I take your order?”
The young man ordered first, which Mavis immediately interpreted as a gesture of rudeness. “Yes, I’ll have the chicken Caesar salad, with a French baguette, and iced tea,” he said.
“Will that be for here or to go?” Mavis asked briskly.
“For here,” answered the young man. Facing the woman, he said, “Mom, can you get this? I don’t have any money on me.”
Relieved they were not dating after all, the voice inside Mavis’ head spoke with irritated authority. For crying out loud, mooching off your poor mother! Get a job, why don’t you! Then from the corner of her eye she spied the jagged pink scar, beginning near the top of his left shoulder, twisting down past the elbow and stopping on his forearm. The muscles of his biceps raised the tissue so that it appeared almost three-dimensional.
For Mavis, the remnants of such a nasty wound and the cast covering the top of his head explained a lot. Mavis surmised he’d probably been the recipient of both in a barroom brawl, or better yet, a prison yard fight. He had convict written all over him. A fellow prisoner had probably cracked open his skull with a blunt, heavy object. She glanced from the son to the mother, no doubt burdened by this ungrateful offspring. “And for you, ma’am?” she said with just a hint of sympathy.
“I’ll have the chicken Caesar salad and iced tea also, but instead of the baguette I’d like an apple,” she said.
Mavis tapped the keys on the cash register. “Anything else?” she inquired before she rang up the total.
“Matt, do want some dessert?” the mother asked.
The voice inside Mavis’s head shrieked, Don’t coddle him! He needs to get a job, and he should be buying you lunch. Without realizing it, Mavis rolled her eyes in disgust before focusing her stern gaze directly on the son, who she calculated, must be at least thirty.
“No, Mom, I’m good,” he said, a slow smile turning up the corners of his mouth. It hadn’t been lost on him that Mavis had been watching him with utter loathing, her look one of grave disapproval. He’d caught the quick, upward roll of her green eyes and he began to wonder if the word “Loser” wasn’t tattooed across his forehead. Perhaps they should have gotten their food to go after all.
The pronouncements regarding the son continued unabated in Mavis’s head. I’ll bet you’re living with Mom, too, she thought, the crease of her brow rippling across her forehead. She punched the total key hard and the paper receipt rolled out of the register. “What name on the order?”
“Donna,” the mother responded cheerfully.
Mavis handed her the receipt. “That will be $16.80.”
Donna set her handbag on the counter, rummaging deep into the purse before extracting a matching wallet. She removed a crisp twenty-dollar bill and handed it to Mavis, who returned change. Mavis placed two translucent plastic cups on the counter and motioned to the son to take them. She noticed he was closely watching her, a smirk curling his lips. Making eye contact, Mavis was curt in her instructions. “The iced tea is at the end of the counter. We’ll call your mother’s name when the order’s ready.”
He was still smiling at her and for the first time she noticed that for someone who was probably just getting out of prison, he had the prettiest blue eyes. “Thanks,” he said, nodding his head and went to fill the cups.
There were no other customers queuing up for Mavis’s attention, so she watched the mother find a table and the son follow with the cups of iced tea. Maybe he got that scar in a burglary or a shoot-out, Mavis mused, her imagination conjuring up increasingly vivid scenarios. Then she had an “ah-ha!” moment, acknowledged with a snap of her fingers. I’ll bet he’s in a motorcycle gang, she assumed confidently. That no doubt led to lots of fights, injuries, and a life of crime. She heaved a forlorn sigh. His poor mother must be beside herself with worry, wondering how her own child had gone so completely wrong.
* * *
When their order was called, Matt grabbed the receipt. “I’ll get it, Mom,” he said and strode to the pick-up counter. Retrieving the trays, he saw that Mavis’s gaze was following him and Matt gave her his most charismatic smile, which caused her to abruptly turn away and fiddle nervously with her apron.
At their table, Matt handed his mother her tray before sliding onto the wooden chair. “I guess I don’t look anything like a CEO today,” he said, taking a bite of the French baguette.
Donna squeezed lemon into her tea. “You just had surgery, so of course you don’t.”
“I know,” he replied. “But Mavis, the girl who waited on us does not like me. I have the feeling she thinks I’m your lazy, good-for-nothing son, hitting up Mom for a free lunch.”
“How do know her name?” his mother asked, unfolding a napkin.
He smiled. “I read her nametag. I wonder if I should say something to her.”
His mother glanced across the dining area towards Mavis, who cleared tables of the dirty dishes left behind by previous patrons. “What makes you say that?”
“From the moment we walked in, she had this expression of absolute repulsion every time she looked at me. Then, when I told you I didn’t have any money, she rolled her eyes and I knew she was thinking, ‘Yep, complete and total loser.’” Matt finished this sentence holding his left thumb and index finger in the shape of the letter “L.”
Nonchalantly stirring her tea Donna looked in Mavis’s direction, who again averted her gaze and now busied herself straightening the bakery cases. “Well, you do look a bit scruffy, like you just rode into town on your Harley.”
“That’s good,” Matt replied and the two were soon sharing a hearty laugh. “She kept staring at my scar, and I could tell she was trying to figure out how I got it.”
“A fight, naturally,” Donna answered, lifting a forkful of salad. “Most likely in a bar, after consuming copious amounts of alcohol. Over a woman.”
He chuckled and shook his head. “If only it were that interesting. Pushing a glass door too hard and putting my arm through it is pretty boring.”
“We certainly didn’t think so at the time,” Donna reminded him. Matt recalled his younger brother Will’s frantic hyperventilating as blood spurted from the gaping cut down his arm, shards of broken glass scattered across the hallway. Trying to get Will to calm down enough and dial 9-1-1 on his cell phone before he bled to death had taken a Herculean effort, but medical help had arrived. Fifty-six stitches had left a permanent reminder of the consequences suffered as the two of them, in their first year of law school and late for class, rushed out the glass doors of their apartment building.
Matt tapped the bandana covering his head. “This probably clinched it for her – I’m a no-good hooligan being nursed back to health by my put-upon mother,” he said.
“Of course,” his mother replied slyly.
He watched Mavis as she waited on a blonde suburban mom pushing an enormous double-stroller carrying two cherubic-faced toddlers, a cell phone tucked under her chin as she ordered. Matt faced his mother and shook his head good-naturedly. “I probably can’t keep a job either.”
“Oh no,” Donna answered emphatically. “You’ve had six or seven at least. And, you’re living in my basement.”
“Thanks, Mom,” he said raising the glass of tea.
“You’re welcome.” His mother leaned into the table and whispered, “You’ve also done some jail time, but the family doesn’t like to talk about it.”
Matt grinned. “Figures I’m the black sheep of the family.”
“Black as coal, absolutely. But we’re hoping your parole officer will keep you on the straight and narrow.”
“Then, of course, there’s the issue with alcohol and that unfortunate incident at the last family gathering,” Matt added, barely able to get this sentence out with a straight face.
“We were hoping you’d sobered up in prison, but once you were released you’ve been making up for lost time,” Donna explained, her tone matter-of-fact. “A stint in rehab looks to be in your future.”
Spinning their wild tale, Matt and Donna were flush with enthusiasm, embellishing their story with ever more outlandish details.
* * *
Mavis couldn’t help but hear the mother and son’s laughter echoing across the restaurant as she made repeated attempts to catch the blonde’s attention and get payment. Each time she addressed the woman and requested the amount, the blonde shouted, “What! Are you kidding?” into her phone, oblivious to both Mavis and the children, who were now screaming a high decibel chorus.
As had occurred with nearly every customer she encountered, Mavis’s thoughts on the blonde woman’s parenting skills unspooled inside her head. These kids will be in therapy forever, and then, when they’re older, they’ll experiment with alcohol and drugs to get their mother’s attention, but that won’t end well. Another heavy sigh escaped from Mavis’s lips and she attempted once again to get payment. “Ma’am, your total is $14.35,” she yelled above the din, waving the receipt in front of the blonde.
Finally, after the blonde sorted through the contents of her entire purse in what Mavis thought for sure was slow-motion, the tab was paid, and the mother and her two squalling toddlers moved nosily on to the “Pick Up Order Here” station. Relieved that was over, Mavis returned her attention to the wayward biker and his mother. They were certainly enjoying each other’s company, and she wondered if the son might have some redeeming qualities.
* * *
Matt speared the last bite of salad. “Part of me wants to tell this girl – ‘hey! I’m not a criminal. I’m a successful business owner; I’ve got a wife and three great kids, and a nice house. I just happen to look like hell today.’”
Donna finished her tea and smiled. “Let it go, Matt. We’re all guilty of making snap judgments. But, we had a good laugh and gave you a most colorful background.”
“That’s for sure,” he agreed, the ice clattering at the bottom of his cup. “You ready?”
“I think so,” Donna replied, wiping her mouth one final time with a napkin. Matt cleared the trays and dishes from the table, depositing them at their proper stations beside the trash bin. Approaching the door, Matt saw that Mavis was alone at the cash register. “The salads were very good. Have a great day, Mavis and stay cool,” he said, charming her with a smile that made the blue in his eyes twinkle.
“You t-too,” Mavis stuttered, surprised by his civility and the fact he addressed her by name. As she stood watching, the good-for-nothing, biker son with the ghastly scar and head injury, who had only recently gotten released from prison, held the door open for his mother. Outside the intense heat shimmered in waves, and the son offered his mother an arm and they walked as one across the steaming blacktop. And as she looked after them, Mavis began to consider the very real possibility that she might not be such a great judge of character after all.