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.
“Not so fast,” she said. “You only get it if you eat.”
I ate slow—I chewed each bite at roughly the same speed it takes a roomful of Rotarians to recite the Four-Way Test.
And, a deal is a deal. She gave me the poker chip.
We left the truck stop. Mama drove through the dark. The silhouettes of mountains were passing across our windows.
My sister started whining in the backseat. Then, the car started to smell like a pot of collards. My mother pulled over. She changed my sister’s diaper in the backseat, and that’s when my mother started crying.
“I had to leave,” she said. “Your daddy’s sick.”
Sick. That’s what they called it back then. That’s the same word they would use years later, at his funeral.
My mother and I hugged. And I know this is bizarre, but my mother has always had her own smell. A sweet smell. It’s embedded within my earliest memories. I remember my face against her chest. I remember her smell.
We arrived at my aunt’s house. It was still dark. My aunt was standing in her driveway.
That night, I fell asleep holding a poker chip. It was only cheap plastic, but it meant something to me. When I held it, I almost felt magic in my hand. It was as though things in our ugly life would be better. One day.
With enough luck.
And I don’t know why I’m telling you this. But last night I met a kid after I spoke in South Alabama. He was a quiet kid. His mother told me he’d been having a hard time. I handed him a poker chip—I keep a pocketful of them.
“What’s this?” the kid asked.
“It’s good luck,” I told him.
His mother looked at me funny, and I don’t blame her.
So I wrote this.