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TOM BARLOW Smothered and Covered
The young girl walked into the Waffle House, alone, at 3 a.m. on a Thursday morning. We all looked up from our coffee and cigarettes, waffles, sausage and hash browns. She stood on her tiptoes to take a seat on a counter stool, picked up a menu and held it close to her face, like one of the 6 a.m. retirees without his bifocals.
Sandy, the night shift waitress, looked at me and raised her eyebrows. I knew the look; she gave it to me four or five times a week. It meant, Do you think I should call the cops?
I considered the idea. The girl looked no more than twelve, black, slim, but composed. Her hair was platted so tight I wondered if they tugged at her eyebrows. Her perfume, spicy with a hint of sandalwood, cut through the onion and batter odors of the diner. She wore clean, well-fitted jeans, a pink fuzzy sweater over a lime green top, and new-looking Nikes. Gold chain, oversized plastic watch. Not enough clothes for February.
She displayed no fear or uncertainty, which struck me as odd. Twelve-year-olds are always uncertain around adults.
I turned to look outside. The day manager had finally replaced the broken lights in the lot, so our cars were brightly lit. There were none I didn’t recognize, and I would recognize a new one. I’d been running into the same people at the same hour of the night for almost three years, and had come to know them by their cars, the sound of their nasal congestion, and their bathing habits. We rarely spoke.
“What you doing here this time of morning?” Sandy asked the girl.
“I’m here for the atmosphere,” the girl said, keeping her nose in the menu. The sarcasm in her voice sounded bitter as a fifty-year-old’s.
Sandy looked at me again. This time she was asking me if it would be okay if she dumped a pot of hot coffee on the girl’s head. Sandy’s skin got pretty thin by 3 a.m.
I shook my head. “The lady’s just trying to be friendly,” I said to the girl. “No need to be rude.”
The other regulars stared at their plates and cups, but I could tell their ears were locked in, the same way they had been a couple of weeks before when the place was held up.
“Mind your own business, old man.” The girl pronounced it bidness.
Sandy laughed. She knew the “old man” would piss me off. “I like that, Tim. From now on I’m calling you ‘old man.’”
“You suppose you could take my order?” the girl said to her. Not a hint of a smile to soften her words.
“What’cha want, honey?” Sandy said. “Lucky Charms? Count Chocula?”
“Two waffles, hash browns smothered and covered, coffee with cream, bacon, crisp.” She folded the menu and stuck it back in the chrome holder next to the napkins.
Sandy didn’t write it down. “You got money, honey?”
The girl shook her head in disgust, reached two fingers into her back pocket, pulled out a Visa card, and flashed it toward Sandy like she was trying to blind her with a hand mirror.
Sandy rolled her eyes toward me but turned to the grill. Otilio had gone outside for a cigarette ten minutes ago, but this time of night, it often took him forty-five minutes. His girl, who worked at the Wal-Mart next door, took her break about then as well, and they liked to pooch up in his old Chevy van.
The show apparently over, I returned to my book, the last one Ed McBain wrote before he passed. I read another ten pages and drank another half cup of coffee before I heard a car horn outside. I looked up to see a bright red Escalade parked as close to the front door as the curb would allow. Through the heavily tinted windshield I could make out the driver, a white man, bald, fortyish, tan coat with a thick white wool collar. His nose and right ear were pierced.
The girl seemed to expect the car. She made eye contact with the driver, smiled, pointed to her plate, and crammed a piece of bacon in her mouth. The rest of us stared at the car.
The guy opened the car door, slid off the seat and onto the curb. When he closed the door, I could see his beefy shoulders, leather pants, sharp-toed cowboy boots. He wore a Fu Manchu mustache that had overgrown his chin and hung loose like a couple of air roots.
When he first pulled up, I’d assumed daughter and grandfather, but she didn’t appear to have any white blood, and he didn’t show any black. Everyone but Sandy, the girl, and me stared down at their tabletops as the guy entered, probably sensing the same threat vibe I had. An old couple, Vernon and Viv, regulars—she the western omelet woman, whole wheat toast, dry, he the pecan waffle, sugar-free syrup, two link sausages, decaf—began buttoning up the layers of shirts and coats they wore until midsummer.
The man ignored us and walked to the girl’s stool. She swiveled to face him, still chewing her toast. He leaned over until his mouth was at the level of her ear. I could hear him saying something, couldn’t make out the words, but the tone sounded tense—not commanding, not pleading, something in between.
Sandy retreated behind the swinging door to the storage room and office and watched through the window in the door. When she saw me looking, she held up the cordless phone. She obviously sensed something wrong about the guy.
I shrugged my shoulders. I was slowly easing my way to the edge of my booth, my hand lightly holding the glass ketchup bottle.
As I shifted my weight, though, I could feel the stiffness in my knee. My shoulder, the one not completely fixed by surgery, creaked, and the roll of fat around my middle wedged me between the tabletop and the booth seat. And I had so much money tied up in my new bifocals that I couldn’t afford to replace them.
Still, if the girl had appeared frightened rather than pissy, if she’d shrunk away from the man, if she’d looked around for help, I’d have stepped in. I’m sure I would have helped.
Instead, she stood up, not looking at any of us. He pulled out the wallet chained to his belt and threw a ten on the counter. As she walked out he followed so close behind her it looked like they were glued together, back to chest.
He kept his hand on her back as she climbed into the Escalade, shut the door behind her before getting in the driver’s side. Before he drove off, he turned to me, winked, and gave me a two-finger salute from his temple, like a Boy Scout.
Sandy wrote down the license plate.
“Should we call the cops?” she said, refilling my coffee. I noticed her hand was shaking. Her hair, usually neatly pulled back and pinned with one of a variety of barrettes, had escaped and hung loosely on the shoulder of her yellow and black uniform.
“Tony’ll be here in half an hour,” I said. Tony and his partner usually took their breakfast break about 5 every morning. We all felt comfortable when their cruiser was in the lot.
Sandy nodded. “She wasn’t much older than Iris would have been.” The comment caught me by surprise. Our daughter would have been twelve, but I carried a picture from Iris’s eighth birthday party, so I tended to remember her as that age.
Tony stopped by a short time later with a cadet on ride-along, a fish-faced woman who couldn’t sit still. She kept swinging on the counter stool. At this hour of the night, we saw a lot of speed freaks at the Waffle House, and cops weren’t immune. Especially ones new to night shift.
Tony listened to our story, took the license plate info, and handed it to the cadet. She returned to the cruiser to call it in.
Tony worked on his waffle and bacon, chatting quietly with Sandy. I figured they were working their way toward a half-assed affair. I’d seen it before, from both of them.
The cadet returned a moment later, her hand resting on the grip of her pistol in its holster. She stared at Sandy until she walked away from Tony, picking up the coffeepot to take a refill swing through the dining room. Fishface then whispered in Tony’s ear.
He whispered back, finished his coffee in a single gulp, and pulled a tablet and pen out of his breast pocket.
“Nobody leaves till we talk to you, okay?” he said to the room in general.
The young guy in the corner who spent every night muttering and writing in a ratty spiral notebook muttered a little faster.
Tony told us the girl had been spotted jumping out of the Escalade at a light at the Hague Road exit to the freeway, on the other side of Columbus. The driver chased her on foot to the top of the overpass. Just as he was about to grab her, she jumped over the railing and landed on the freeway right in front of an eighteen-wheeler hauling corn syrup. From the timing, the whole thing, from the time they left, must have been a matter of half an hour.After the cops finished questioning us, I stayed to help Sandy make some closed signs. Since Waffle House never closes, they don’t have any. The front door lock, seldom used, wouldn’t work, so we wedged a ladder under the door handle to hold the door closed and left via the back door, the one that had a working lock.
I walked her to her car, a ratty old Escort. I gave her a half-assed hug, which she tolerated.My roommate, a Mexican guy that had answered my local roommate-wanted ad, worked days at the local brake replacement place, so he was still asleep when I arrived back at the house. He yipped and muttered in his sleep, one reason I spent my nights at the House. I turned up the television until I could hear Katie Couric over his snores.
I slept like shit, which I always do when I’m sober. It had been almost three years since my last sound night’s sleep.The girl was still on my mind when I woke later that afternoon. I surfed the television for news until my roomie arrived home from work. He went by the nickname Texaco, which fit since he wore ostentatious cowboy boots tooled with pictures of rattlesnakes and longhorn steers.
“Hey,” he said, the extent of our usual conversation, since he didn’t speak much English. He carried a plastic gallon jug of milk out the back door onto the landing, where I heard him light a cigarette. He spent hours leaning on the railing, watching dumpsters and alley cats, drinking milk from the jug.
I got nothing off the TV, so I dressed and walked next door to the library to use their computer and Internet access.
According to the web edition of the Columbus Dispatch, the girl’s name was Nancilee Harper. Local girl, city school, basketball player. An angel, but aren’t they all, when they’re dead? No parents mentioned. Her grandmother’s picture was up on the home page, a pencil-thin black woman with carrot-orange hair and a bombed-out look in her eyes; maybe they caught her on the way home from the clubs. She looked younger than me.
According to the lead story, Nancilee had no enemies. She attended the Baptist church on the east edge of downtown. Good grades. She’d been asleep upstairs when Grandma left that evening for work. Grandma, Phara Johnson, waited tables at Caddy’s, a near eastside dive. Grandma returned home at 7 a.m. to find her front yard full of cops and reporters.
No mention of the white guy, the Escalade, no artist’s sketch of a person of interest. I figured he was in the can already or two states away with his pedal to the floor. The license plate we’d written down was no doubt in a dumpster somewhere.
I signed off and drifted to the magazine room. I never knew what to do with myself late afternoon, early evening, the time when families would be regathering after school, work, errands, fighting for the remote, doing homework, arguing about dinner.
My disability check didn’t cover entertainment, so the library was my second most frequented haunt. I was sitting by the picture window reading the latest Popular Science when Sandy called.
“You see the news?” she said.
“The girl? Nancilee?”
“Yeah.” I knew she was leaning against the door frame in the hallway between her kitchen and dining room, probably twisting her index finger through the phone cord. She never sat down when she talked on the phone. I once asked her why. She told me her father used to sneak up behind her, take up some slack from the cord, and pull it around her neck like a garrote. All in fun, he’d said.
“We should’ve called.”
“We couldn’t have known,” I said. An old man across the table, holding a copy of Home and Garden an inch from his face, pulled it down to glare at me.
I ignored him. “She went with that guy like she wasn’t worried.”
“I’m going to call on that girl’s grandma. It’s the least I can do.”
“Don’t. You don’t have anything to tell her that would be a comfort to her.”
“She’d want to know,” Sandy said, her voice rushed, breathy. “I wanted to know.”
“Talking to the EMTs only made it worse for you.” One EMT had told Sandy he thought I had alcohol on my breath. That one off-the-cuff remark had driven a stake through our marriage. I never realized when I was a kid that every day of your life is a high-wire act. Twenty years you can say the right thing, and then pow—one casual comment, one inattentive moment, and you’re in freefall. Ask Karl Wallenda.
“Would you go with me?” Sandy said. “In an hour or so?”
I saw Tex walk out of our apartment building toward his Civic. He was dressed to kill, clothes tight and shiny, the silver on his belt buckle sparkling under the streetlights.
I agreed to go with Sandy. Not because I wanted to, but because I couldn’t think of anything else to do. I was also perversely drawn to pain, and I assumed there would be plenty there.
I looked through my closet for something more formal than blue jeans. I considered my black suit but decided it might suggest I was claiming grief I didn’t deserve, as I’d only met the victim that one time. I settled on gray slacks, a dark green checked shirt, and a black sport coat, no tie.
Sandy picked me up twenty minutes later. The temperature had dropped back into the twenties, and the heater in her car was broken, but she wore only a thin overcoat. Her teeth were chattering.
“Where are your gloves?” I asked as I pulled the door shut and belted myself in. I had given her a nice pair of kid leather gloves for Christmas a couple of months before.
She pulled away from the curb right into the path of an old Volvo wagon. I could read the lips of the woman behind the wheel as she screeched to a stop to avoid hitting us.
“They’re at work,” Sandy said, oblivious to the close call. Her tone of voice was part of a package I recognized. It went with her head held high, and a way she has of drawing her upper lip down over her teeth, then curling it up, as though trying to dislodge something in her nose without touching it. That package says, Don’t talk, don’t touch. I regretted agreeing to accompany her.
We rode in silence for a few blocks. The address she had was on the other end of town. I waited until we were on the freeway before I said, “This is a mistake.”
Another nose twitch. “You can’t spend the rest of your life hiding. She needs us.”
“The last thing she needs is us. She’s probably suffering enough as it is.”
That was enough chitchat for our car ride. A short while later, she turned onto Bryden Road. We cruised slowly down the row of huge old houses, now subdivided into apartments, until we spotted the address. Most of the houses were dark upstairs, with a few lights on downstairs. We could see a group of people on Phara’s front porch. Or, more accurately, we could see cigarette glows, moving in arcs from waist level to head level, growing in intensity, then descending.
Sandy parallel-parked a few doors down the street, which took a few minutes. We walked up the unshoveled sidewalk, snow squeaking under our shoes. We could hear conversation, laughter, even the clink of a glass from the porch. Sandy took my arm.
The concrete steps up to the front yard were broken, uneven, without a guardrail. I took them one at a time, favoring the hip and knee I’d had replaced. I could feel the eyes on us. The conversation on the porch stopped.
Sandy stopped at the foot of the stairs onto the porch. A small black man separated himself from the circle, crossed to the top of the stairs, and said, “May I help you?” He said it politely, usher polite.
Sandy stood mute, so I said, “We came to express our condolences to the girl’s grandmother.”
The man didn’t move aside but looked at me. “Do we know you, sir?” He had a subtle accent, not Western Hemisphere.
“No, I don’t think so. We were in the restaurant where the girl was kidnapped.” As soon as I said it, I realized how pathetic I sounded. Grasping.
One of the men farther back on the porch, deeper in shadow, made a snort of derision. I could hear muttering. Sandy was studying the stairs, holding on to my arm as if it were a life preserver.
“You saw my daughter? Last night?” The man didn’t come down the steps, but he leaned forward at the waist, as if he were looking into a fish tank.
I nodded. “This morning. About three. She came in the diner for some breakfast.”
The muttering grew louder. “And the police have talked to you?”
“Sure. They were there this morning. They catch the guy yet?”
“What guy?” he said, placing his cigarette in the corner of his mouth.
“The bald white guy,” Sandy said. “That picked her up.”
Another man emerged from the group. He was black as well, much larger, younger, beefy with the wide head, nose, round cheeks and chin I’d come to associate with Central Africa.
The bigger man said, “What did this guy look like?” He had no accent. He stood well apart from the first man.
I described the bald white guy. As I talked, I could see faintly someone deeper on the porch writing on a spiral pad. The large man turned toward the porch when I was finished, said something I couldn’t hear, listened, and nodded.
“Mrs. Johnson’s not here. Who shall we say came to call?” He said it perfunctorily, like the kiss-off from a good administrative assistant.
I gave him our names. He nodded, as did the smaller man. Neither seemed prone to continue our conversation or move aside to invite us in, so we nodded in return and headed back to the street. My heart was beating so loudly I could almost not make out the laughter as one voice said, “You tell ’em Phara’s back at the club?”
“Well, that was a clusterfuck,” I said as Sandy started the car. I was plenty warm now, although the heater still didn’t work. I hadn’t been exactly scared, but I was certainly on edge.
“How can they laugh with that poor girl dead?” Sandy said, nose twitching again. “With her father standing there? Have they no respect? And that grandmother? What a bitch.”
“What I don’t get is why they didn’t know about the bald guy.”
“Maybe the cops are afraid they’d go after him themselves.”
“Maybe they should.”
Sandy dropped me off at home after a silent ride across town. We didn’t even say goodbye, just nodded, knowing we’d see one another again in a few hours at the Waffle House.
Tex had not returned yet so I had the apartment to myself. I filled the tub with hot water and soaked for a while, until my back and hip stopped aching. I usually shower, because the tub brings back memories of bathing my daughter, Iris, when she was two or so. I’d keep an old pair of swimming trunks on the rack on the back of the bathroom door to wear, because she loved to soak me with hand splashes of water, and I enjoyed it too much to convince her to stop.I found the same old crowd seated in their same old places when I arrived at the Waffle House about 3 the next morning. Sandy was on break, her feet on the manager’s desk and Art Bell on the radio. Otilio waved to me and slid a coffee cup down the counter, following with the coffeepot to fill it.
“How you doon?” he said, accent heavy. I knew he didn’t expect, even want, a reply. He understood English fine but didn’t have any confidence in his ability to speak it.
I shrugged and unfolded the New York Times, my daily indulgence, a buck from the box outside the door. I could, and usually did, spend hours working my way through each day’s issue, even before I began the crossword.
I didn’t get far this morning, though. About 3:30 a.m., just as Sandy came back on duty, a TV truck pulled up outside. An attractive young black woman, buried inside a thick down parka, got out. The parka fell lower on her thigh than her skirt did.
She came inside. The truck kept running, and I could see the silhouette of the driver, his head against the headrest. I recognized the woman as a reporter on the morning news, which I usually watched before going to bed. She did the weather reports, too.
She flagged down Sandy as she carrying the coffeepot on a circuit of the counter. “Can I talk to you for a minute?”
Sandy put the pot back on the warmer and took a step back. “What you want?” She was beginning to do the nose thing again.
“I understand Nancilee Harper was in here last night before she was killed?”
I waited for the reporter’s notebook to appear, but the woman kept her hands in her parka pockets. Sandy looked at the floor, shook her head, and walked into the back room.
The reporter glanced around the room, appraising the rest of us, before approaching Notebook Guy. I heard her repeat the question to him. Sandy peeked through the door just as the guy replied with a word salad, the way he does when he’s been palming his medications. I winked at Sandy.
Unfortunately, the reporter persisted by moving down one table to the old couple. Vern and Viv knew who I was. They knew about Iris. The reporter sat down at his invitation, and the three of them talked for a long time.
Sandy finally had no choice but to come out of the office when a four-top of security guards came in. When I saw the old guy and the reporter looking at me, then at Sandy, I threw a few dollars on the counter and left. Sandy watched me go as she dealt a tray full of waffles to the guards.
Against my better judgment, I watched the early news later that morning. They led with the girl’s report. She did a standup with Vern and Viv in front of the restaurant.
“This is Tayndra Stephens. Behind me is the Waffle House restaurant on Staley Road, where twenty-four hours ago young Nancilee Harper was abducted, in front of eight witnesses who did nothing to stop her kidnapper. An hour later, she was dead.”
She skewered, skinned, and hung the old couple, who seemed oblivious to the callous impression they were making on the audience. All the time they talked, Sandy was visible in the background, moving back and forth in the same forty feet of behind-the-counter space that now circumscribed her life. The reporter made sure to work my name into the report.
“Among the witnesses was Tim Parker, ex-husband of the waitress you see behind me, Sandy Parker. Only three years ago, Parker was charged with drunken driving and negligent homicide in the death of their only daughter, Iris, who, ironically, was also twelve. The charges were later dropped. Neither Parker nor his ex-wife would comment for this report.”
I was seriously mulling over the bars that I knew were open and quiet at 8 a.m. when Sandy called.
“You saw the news,” she said.
“Yeah. Good decision, refusing that interview.”
“Thanks. Tony got here a little bit ago.” I could hear her twisting the cord again.
“The detectives say he’s somebody she met online. They found a bunch of messages on her computer from a chatroom, going back a couple of months, from a boy named Torrey, who claimed to live on a horse farm near Springfield. The plan was his cousin would pick her up here and take her to his estate.”
I smacked the table. “It was a scam, right? One of those trolls?”
I heard her strike a match, the sipping sound of a cigarette. “The bald guy has a record. He did time for molesting his own daughter. There was a court order prohibiting him from using the Internet. That did a fuck of a lot of good, huh?”
“They catch him?” Although Iris was only three years gone, I couldn’t quite remember what it was like, worrying about your daughter in a world where there was a boogeyman behind every door.
“Yeah, in some strip club in Whitehall. Tony said he was throwing himself a going-away party. He’d been passing rocks of crack around like they were jelly beans, had himself quite a posse.”
“Yeah, boy. You want to get some breakfast? I’m off at eight.”
I begged off, claiming I’d taken a Vicodin and was ready to crash. In truth, I was in pain, but not the kind a painkiller would help with. I was afraid to leave the house, since the bars were calling to me again. Also, Texaco had left half a bottle of cheap merlot in the fridge, although I’d asked him when he moved in to keep any booze in his room, and I wanted to reserve my option to uncap it.
The knock on the door an hour later caught me standing at the fridge with the door open, staring at the wine. I slammed the door closed and limped over to the peephole. Sandy stood there, her cheap pile jacket wrapped around her black and yellow uniform. I let her in.
“Jesus,” she said, “what a pigpen.” She smelled faintly of grease and flour. The room looked messy in a way you only notice when someone you care about enters. Papers stacked against the wall, CDs in disorder, lint on the couch. The windows hadn’t been washed for at least a decade.
She fixed a pot of coffee; out of habit, I suppose. “You know what I don’t get?” she said as she filled the pot with water.
I played along. “What’s that?”
“Where the hell are the girl’s parents? How could you walk away from your own baby? What do they expect to find in their lives that they think is going to be better than sleeping next to your own baby?” She lit a cigarette, although she knew I didn’t allow smoking in the apartment. “And the grandmother. What kind of cunt lets her kid go to a Waffle House in the middle of the night to meet some pervert?”
When Iris was killed, we were on our way to visit Sandy at work. On her break.
She walked to the back door, pulled the blind to one side, and looked across the backyard fence like Texaco did, watching a truck upend one dumpster after another. I pretended to resume the crossword I’d given up on twenty minutes before.
When the coffee was ready, she poured herself a cup and took a chair across from me at the kitchen table. She picked up the metro section of the paper and began to leaf through it, licking her finger before each page turn.
I took some relief from the page interposed between us. Then I heard the clunk of metal on the linoleum tabletop.
I reached over and lifted the paper a few inches, until I could see the revolver. I recognized it as the one Sandy had shown me one night, when the manager forgot to lock his bottom desk drawer. A .38, five-shot, cheap. I could see the shells in the cylinder.
“Have you lost your mind?” I said.
She picked up the gun by the end of the grip, letting it dangle in front of my face.
“So what—you’re Jack Ruby all of a sudden?” I said.
“Who?” She slugged back the rest of the coffee in her cup.
“Never mind.” I thought to myself I used to know what to do with her. I didn’t anymore.
“You owe me,” she said, swinging the gun like a hypnotist’s watch. “You owe me this.”
“You want me to walk into the police station and murder this guy? I owe that to you?”
She shook her head as though I’d made a bad joke. “No, asshole. I expect you to kill Grandma. Tony promised me the bald guy’s going to get what coming to him. She’s the one that’s going to walk away.”
Sandy cocked the trigger. “She was supposed to look out for the girl. Instead, she went partying. The bald guy was the boogeyman. There’s a boogeyman under every bed. Anybody knows that. But that’s why we’re on this earth, right? To stand between our kids and the bad guys?”
I didn’t know what to say.
“Right?” she said again, challengingly. She stuck the barrel in my face. “Right?”