When Brody’s mom shows up at the drive-through, he’s mopping the floor, so he waves me over to deal with her. He plunges the mop into the bucket and sloshes dirty water across the tiles. He won’t look in her direction.
As soon as I slide the window open, the humidity cuts through the air-conditioning.
“I’ve got your order right here, Ms. Hopkins.” I smile real big. She’s always been one of the hot moms. Big tits, a freckle right by her mouth like a speck of caramel. “Chicken sandwich, grilled. Side of fries.”
In the driver’s seat she tilts her head like what she’s ordered is a surprise. She tilts her head so far that her ear almost touches her shoulder. With a little wobble, she blinks and tries to set her neck right again. She’s skinnier than I remember, hollowed out somehow.
“Dude, your mom looks drunk,” I tell Brody once she’s gone. “Should she be driving?”
He only shrugs.
By the time I hear—the whole town hears—that Ms. Hopkins is sick with cancer, she’s coming to the drive-through most every night. We fall into a routine where I hand over her food and she asks if I want to dance.
I scratch my beard—the first I’ve managed to grow without looking like an idiot—and pretend to consider her offer.
“I can’t,” I say finally. “I’m on duty.”
Most nights I give her a large ice water, though she hasn’t asked for it, thinking maybe that’ll help her sober up. I’m not judging her. I’d drink too if I were that sick. Anything to forget. But she shouldn’t be on the road.
Tonight she’s got Bon Jovi playing in the car, one of those old power ballads. Forever and a day, always. She’s swaying back and forth and letting her eyes fall shut. I worry she’ll drive off with her eyes still closed.
“Wanna dance?” Her words sound as slurred, as blended up, as one of those cherry icy drinks.
Brody’s in the stock room grabbing a pack of napkins. Carl, the shift manager, is always writing him up for not keeping the dispensers full. Now, all of a sudden, he’s a model employee.
Two cars pull up behind Ms. Hopkins’ Honda, engines humming. My headset buzzes in my ear. I need to take the next order.
“Brody,” I hiss in the direction of the stock room. No question he can hear me. “Your mom needs you.”
Ms. Hopkins lifts her arms and taps them, moving with the beat, against the roof of her car. She’s wearing flannel pajamas with a stain across the front.
“Come on,” she says. “Please?”
“Not tonight.” I can’t walk off this job. I need the money.
Carl heads toward my station to see what the holdup is.
Ms. Hopkins slits her eyes half open and squints at the lights in the parking lot, the kind you see everywhere. Mosquitoes bat against the bulbs and dart away, stunned.
“Those lights are so pretty,” she says.
Once upon a time I’d have been proud to dance with her. I would have made sure all my friends saw.
“Yes, ma’am.” As I nod, my headset buzzes again. “They’re very nice.” My voice cracks like I’m a kid again, but I feel old as dirt. An old man who’s seen everything.
Somewhere down the line an impatient customer lays on the horn. Carl barks out my name and jabs at the order screen to get my attention.
“I’m too tired to dance,” I say, which is the truth. I take off my headset and set it on the counter.
Outside, the air smells like grease, same as inside. Ms. Hopkins nudges her car forward. She follows me to the corner of the lot where there’s space to park and to dance and the lights she thinks are pretty.