Observe the detail on the bumper of an eleven-year-old Subaru Outback: “Proud Parent of a Terrific Kid,” two of the corners peeled back slightly, one of them torn. Bumper stickers don’t come off easily, and whoever tried to remove this one gave up rather than leave a papery mess for all to see.
The man wore a lightweight brown coat over a maroon sweater. He rubbed his hands together and then stuffed them into his coat pockets. He didn’t hurry but didn’t dally either.
The girl was already out of the car and halfway across the parking lot. She wore a dark coat and a purple scarf and a whimsical knit cap with matching gloves. Underneath the coat she wore a sweater and two T-shirts, and leggings under her jeans. She wore canvas sneakers, which was a poor choice for this weather, but she had on two pairs of socks. She walked quickly with her head down and her arms across her waist, not looking back to make sure he was following.
Just inside the door, though, she stopped and turned to watch him come. Bundled under yards of cotton and yarn she was an echo of the obedient child she had been not long ago.
“I have to use the bathroom,” she said quietly when he entered, and walked away without waiting for acknowledgment.
“Should I get you the usual?” he asked her, and in reply she shrugged her shoulders.
There was only register open, and the customers in front were to a one very indecisive about their orders. The man studiously read the menu while waiting his turn. From time to time he checked to see if she was coming back. If he was annoyed by the slow service he didn’t let on.
When it was finally his turn he ordered two cheeseburger meals, both with Diet Coke. This order was simple enough for the bored staff, and in moments he had his tray and went to look for the girl. She had found a table for two near the bathrooms, beside the windows, with a view of the car.
He served her, and as she arranged her food she revealed herself as unmistakably his daughter. Her eyes were the same shade, and her mannerisms bore the influence of years of watching and imitating him.
He draped his coat on the chair before sitting. She, still fully swaddled, shivered. Although the temperature outside was respectably cold it was a kind of cold that he could live with. She must have been out of practice, for even under her layers she continued to shiver, and it was only with reluctance that she removed her gloves in order to eat.
Observe the way they sat in their chairs. She stretched her legs far out into the aisle for a moment, straightening the whole of her body before returning back to her food. Less dramatically but in a similar vein, he bent his neck side to side and stretched out his fingers before taking his food. They had been in the car for at least a few hours, perhaps since dawn, and are sore. The looks on their faces suggested that they had a long way yet to go.
They said very little. He tried not to stare at her, but his eyes picked up on her movements and the details of a face he had watched and loved for years. She was intent on ignoring him, either looking at her food or out the window towards the monochrome winter scene. They were just off the interstate, in a McDonald’s that sat amid a half-dozen other fast food restaurants and gas stations.
It was slightly late for lunch, and the way they ate confirmed that they were hungry. Consider then also that she was young, probably still a teenager, either in the last years of high school or the first years of university. Either way school was in session, and on this weekday, for some reason, wasn’t in it.
She searched around for things to look at, anything to avoid looking at him, who did everything in his power to keep himself from doing nothing but looking at her. Her eyes picked up on the receipt on the tray. “For the record,” she said finally, in a voice of muted brass, “this particular shit-hole is called Ashland.”
His face registered a sting, and she, slightly ashamed, looked down and went back to her meal. He stopped eating and rested his chin on his hands. It was the last sentence she would say to him here, and in a way he appreciated that whatever scene there would inevitably be, mercifully it wouldn’t happen here, over junk food in the middle of nowhere.
Her appetite picked up, and she finished all of her food. When he excused himself to go the men’s room–quietly, barely even forming the words, certainly not actually directing them at her–she turned the tray around and ate the fries he had left behind.
The silence that hung between them remained after he was gone. Her words–childish, vulgar, inappropriate–reverberated in her ears and her cheeks flushed. As he had done earlier, she looked around to see if he was coming to her, but he didn’t.
She gathered the food onto her tray and carried it to the trash, then came back to the table. Little details: she brushed the shoulders of his coat, and took it off the chair. She couldn’t hide her anger but she couldn’t hide that there was more there, too.
When he came from the men’s room she was standing at the table with his coat folded over her cross arms. As he drew closer she held it out to him. Neither said a word or dared to smile. He took it from her, slipped it over his shoulders, and zipped it up. And then took two steps ahead and held the door for her. She looked down at her feet as she passed him, and he kept himself from reaching out and stroking the back of her head as she went by. The chilled air slapped their faces like an angry parent and they hurried back to the car, to resume a journey that would be longer than either of them wanted to admit.