Mama was leaving him. She said she was going to leave my father for real this time.
We drove toward North Carolina, I sat in the passenger seat. My baby sister was in back. We were going to live with my aunt and uncle—at least that was the plan.
It was night. There were no lights on the highways. I was Mama’s navigator. I held a map in my lap and translated highway routes for her. I had no idea what I was doing.
We stopped at a truck stop diner. The kind with linoleum floors and Willie Nelson on the radio.
My mother used a payphone, bouncing my sister on her hip. I sat at a counter, eating a burger. I could hear Mama talking to my aunt in an anxious voice. I was sick to my stomach.
“He’s lost his mind,” I heard my mother say. “I’m afraid he’s gonna try something stupid...”
My father had not been himself for a long time.
Mama didn’t want me to hear her conversation,
so she faced her backside toward me.
My waitress was a woman with phony red hair, big glasses, and colorful pins on her apron. The buttons she wore were spectacular.
The waitress said to me, “Why aren’t you eating your food? You feeling okay?”
She refilled my glass, then leaned onto her elbows. She looked like a sweet woman. She placed a poker chip on the counter beside my plate. It was red.
“If you promise to eat,” she said, “you can have this poker chip.”
I stared at it.
“This is no ordinary poker chip,” she went on. “Why, this thing’s magic. Brought me a lotta luck when I needed it most.”
It didn’t look like anything special to me. I reached for the chip and she swatted my hand.