My stepmother’s eyes bulging with anger, my father’s lips pressed into a flat line: this was what I held the laminated menu in front of my face for. So I couldn’t see them. See or be seen. Behind creamed corn and baked beans and meatloaf with gravy, I might be safe.
“Look at me when I’m talking to you,” hissed my stepmother. “I said look at me!”
She tried to slap the menu from his hands but he clutched it tight. “Do you mind?” he snapped, each word like an iced pat of butter wrapped in foil. “I’m trying to order.”
The old guy reading the newspaper at the cash register turned to look. It was late, even the traffic on the highway outside had slowed to a drip and we were the restaurant’s only customers, the only things breaking the routine. Some quiets are soft but some are heavy as boulders and the mood at our table was as oppressive and inescapable as a swollen bladder. A waitress in a calico apron came to take our order but by the time she came back with our plates, my parents had taken their brawl out to the parking lot.
“They’ll be back in a minute,” I told her, pulling the baseball cap low over my eyes. “They just need to get something from the car.”
“Don’t worry. I’m in no rush.” She put the plates down and wiped her hands on her apron. Her smile stretched her face like a well-worn wrinkle. “That’s right, put your napkin in your lap,” she told me. “At least somebody taught you some manners.” When she joined the man at the register, I sat up straight and chewed carefully while they whispered, but I couldn’t hear a word over the angry shrieks exploding like fireworks in the parking lot.
I concentrated on the plate in front of me. After awhile, the place was quiet again. The florescent light grew thinner. Near the counter, a tower of pies rotated quietly in a glass case. The waitress wandered back to remind me to eat my vegetables and then stood there to make sure I did. The green beans tasted rusty but I ate every one. She brought plates to cover my parents’ dishes and after she cleared mine, I hid a spill under my napkin and played with a straw.
There was no clock, only the carousel of pies spinning clockwise. The neon signs on the wall behind me hummed. I was resting my head on my arm when the old man cleared this throat. “I thought you might like to try this.” He placed a wooden triangle studded with pegs on the table in front of me. He had dark shadows hollowing his sallow face. I told him I’d never seen “The Original IQ Tester” before so he explained the rules: There are 15 holes and 14 pegs. Every time you jump one peg with another, the jumped peg gets removed.
“The object of the game is to leave only one peg standing,” he told me. “If you can do that, you have mastered the fine art of solitaire.”
The first time, I bungled it but he told me the first time doesn’t count. The second time, I ended with three pegs. When the waitress came out of the kitchen he told her, “This kid’s no dummy.” He turned to me. “How old are you, anyway?”
I sat up as tall as possible. “I’m ten, sir.”
“I bet you might beat this game. You just might have the wits and stamina to do it. The old lady has never figured it out but I bet you can.”
She shot him a look before unfolding her perma-press smile. “I tell you what,” she said. “If you can get it down to only one peg, I’ll give you a slice of pie.”
I kept trying. The room got quieter. The pies performed their relentless evolutions and the windows revealed nothing but a dark so solid it turned the glass into a mirror reflecting the flypaper strips and cash register and vinyl wainscoting back to us, sealing us inside a time capsule of fulvous light. A driver on the highway might not even see us. A passenger might blink and sail right by without noticing.
After awhile, the old man came back. I looked up at him and shrugged. He slid into the booth across from me and put both elbows on the table. Under his breath he told me, “I know the trick and I’ll teach it to you if you want. Just don’t tell the old lady.”
His face was as stiff as if he’d been whittled in balsa wood. Without saying a word, with only his long fingers he showed me the secret combination. There was only one way to solve the puzzle, one path to memorize, but I learned fast and soon I could do it in less than a minute.
The waitress brought me a piece of blueberry pie. “He’s going to grow up to be a big shot, I bet you,” the old man told her. “He’ll be the man who can get the job done.”
“What do you mean he?” She asked him.“She’s a girl, not a boy.” And she told me to take off my hat to show him.
I didn’t want to. If I left the hat on I could be a boy and I could stay in that secret stillness forever, but I did what I was told. I pulled off my cap.
“See? I told you so,” she razzed him. “You were fooled by a hat.” The old man’s face didn’t change but I could tell that in fact, everything had changed.
Maybe I fell asleep because the next thing I remember, the sun was coming up and I was in the back seat of our car. I still had my hat on but the triangular board game was gone. The back of my father’s head was fixed on the vanishing point and my stepmother’s was turned to the side where the landscape blurred by. I turned my head, too, and tried to see it.
I just slapped this title on last minute and I’m not sure if it fits. Maybe “IQ Test” would be better. Maybe just “Roadside.” Maybe “Girl in the Hat” or “Solitaire” or “Insert Title Here.” Why are titles so hard? Are you good at titles? How do you do it? What’s your secret?