Loxley, Alabama—it’s dark. I’ve been driving all night, listening to Nat King Cole sing about chestnuts. I pull over to use the little columnist’s room.
It’s cold. It snowed in Mobile last night—I could hardly believe it.
I’m jogging inside the gas station and I see her. She’s sitting on the curb, outside the truck stop. She’s fourteen, fifteen maybe. Woven hair, no coat.
I ask if everything’s okay. Her eyes get big. I know fear when I see it.
“I’m good,” she says.
Not buying it.
I hurry inside to Tinkle Tinkle Little Star. Then, I buy a hot cocoa and a coffee to the tune of four bucks. On my way out the door, she’s still there.
“You want this hot cocoa?” I ask.
She’s terrified of me. I can tell. And I don’t blame her, this world is full of dangerous people carrying cocoa.
She takes the cup, but she’s not drinking it. She tells me what happened:
She shopped all day in Pensacola, with friends. Her seventeen-year-old pal left her here. She was only supposed to be here five minutes, waiting for her mother to arrive.
It’s been two hours. Her phone battery is dead.
I offer her mine.
“Won’t do no good,” she explains. “Don’t know any phone numbers by memory.”
I ask if she needs a ride. Bad move. More terror in her eyes. So I sit on the curb—several feet away. She’s not touching her hot chocolate.
I keep talking.
Talking is a trait inherited from my mother. She can talk the paint off a fire hydrant.
“Did you see the snow last night?” I begin.
“Yeah,” she says. “It was really cool.”
My mother has always been the only soul who can make me feel less afraid by talking.
Once as a boy, in a North Carolina emergency room, with a five-inch gash in my leg, I was so scared I almost vomited. My face went white when the doc started sewing my leg. The first thing my mother said was:
“Did I ever tell you about the time…”
And for the next twenty minutes, she stroked my hair, telling stories while that doc turned me into a human dartboard.
Funny. At this age, I don’t remember the pain, just her stories.
So, I tell the girl every story I know. Her cocoa is untouched. I almost give up, but I don’t. And after ten minutes, I win her over.
I tell the I-Wet-My-Pants-in-the-Third-Grade story; she giggles. And the one about my coonhound stealing a pork loin off my neighbor’s grill; she snorts and takes a sip of chocolate.
By the time I’m on my final story, a minivan rolls into the parking lot. A woman jumps out and hugs the girl. She is crying. She’s a frantic mess.
“I broke down!” the woman says. “I couldn’t reach you! Kept going to voicemail! Jesus, thank you, Jesus.”
She kisses the girl a hundred times.
And that’s that.
“Bye,” says the young girl, in a soft voice. She crawls into the van and they drive away before I can say anything.
I sit on the curb for a few minutes, listening to the interstate. I stand. She left her paper cup on the pavement. I pick it up to throw it away.
Her cup is empty.
Lord God above. Thank you for my mama.