I was writin’ down the day’s specials on the chalkboard—chili cheese fries, chili mac, and chili dogs—when the little silver bell on top of my door clink-clinked. I turned, and there was this little feller, no more than eight or nine, walkin’ in the door all by his lonesome. He had brown hair and brown eyes, and I knew by his tidy clothes he’d been taken good care of. But he carried a stick, with a red bundle at the end.
I’ve been running my diner twenty years now, and I’ve seen many boys come in almost the same way—too clean to be off the streets, but carrying bundles that reveal ‘em for runaways…runaways who go back home within the day, when the newness of it wears off, but runaways no less. Course, most of them boys have a look in their eye that says, “I’m a man, and I can do this on my own.” They’re the kinds that think they don’t need their mommas and daddies anymore. That’s where this boy struck me as different. He looked sad, as if someone had told him to go away, even if they meant for a minute, and he’d taken it into his little heart that he wasn’t wanted anymore.
“ ‘Lo there,” I called out as he came up to my counter. “Are ya hungry?” The young’n shook his head and set down his bundle. I noticed a fuzzy arm, maybe a teddy bear’s, poking out the side. “How bout a drink then?” I asked. He did a little shrug and pulled himself onto the metal stool, scootin’ forward to put his elbows on the counter top. He put a hand to each of his cheeks and sighed real long.
“Ya sure?” I tried again as I watched him shrug off his coat and fold it in his lap. “I could make you a root beer float.” The boy’s eyes lit up, and I thought I saw a smile start on his gloomy face. Then he frowned, and I saw he was diggin’ in his pockets. He pulled out a nickel, three pennies, and a candy wrapper and shook his head. “Don’t worry about it,” I told him, patting the hand that held his wealth. “It’s on me.”
“Thank you,” he mumbled.
“No problem,” I told him and went to make the float. A couple minutes later, I came back and he was looking at his shoes. He clicked them together, one…two…three. I thought about Dorothy and her “there’s no place like home,” and I wondered if his scuffed brown shoes might work him the same magic. “Here ya go,” I said and set the mug in front of him.
“Thank you,” he said again as he grabbed the mug. His little fingers looked so small on the glass, and I hoped he’d get a hold on it and not spill it down his lap on his clean jeans. After liftin’ it half way, he put it back on the counter and started to take small bites with the spoon. He played with the froth, and he seemed to be sunnying up some, so I thought it might be a good time to get him talkin’, see if I could get out of him what’d happened.
“I’m Rudy,” I said as I sat down. “What’s your name?”
I felt like the young’n was studying each of my gray hairs, though I don’t have so many of those anymore. Don’t have much hair left at all. He seemed to be searchin’ my smile, which felt lopsided and goofy, for anything that sent him a flag saying, “stranger danger.” I’m a good guy, honest, and friendly. But I didn’t expect the little feller to know that right off, or trust it, but I had to hope. “I’m Jon,” he said, finally. He was so quiet, it seemed like he wanted his name kept secret.
I lowered my voice a little, so’s maybe he wouldn’t feel I was calling attention to us and said, “Well, Jon, it’s good to meet ya.” I offered him my right hand. He gave me a timid shake and returned to sipping his float. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a cop walk in the door.
“ ‘Scuse me, for jus’ a minute here, Jon,” I said, touching his shoulder. He nodded and continued workin’ on the float.
As I walked over to the cop, I motioned toward Jon. His back was to us, and I pointed to the bundle on the floor. I looked at the cop, and he nodded. “I got his name outta him,” I said, “but that’s all. He doesn’t seem to want to talk, seems real sad.”
“Let me try,” the cop said. He walked over to Jon, who was looking down, stirring the last of his float. “Mind if I sit here?” he asked in a quiet voice. The little feller glanced at the cop and shrugged as he slid to the right, putting some space between ‘em. The cop rested his left elbow on the counter and leaned toward Jon. “That good?” he asked, waving toward the float, which was now thin, and almost gone.
I walked back over to the counter, and Jon was noddin’ his head. He sucked his straw for the last sip, only there wasn’t enough to go through the straw, and it made a slurppin’ noise. Jon pushed the float toward me and I took it from him. He started to move off the stool when the cop asked him if he had somewhere to be. After a couple seconds, he mumbled, “I guess not.”
“Well, stay awhile,” the cop told him, “I don’t like to eat alone.” Jon didn’t say anything, but he got back on the stool. The officer smiled, crinkles forming in the corners of his eyes and mouth, kinda like the ones that form in mine. “Thanks,” the officer said, “I’m Jon.” He held out a hand.
At this, the young’n looked at the cop, the corners of his mouth turning up slightly into a sort of half smile. “Really?” he asked.
The cop nodded.
“That’s my name too,” he said.
I set the mug in the sink and turned back toward them. “Well, well,” I folded my hands on the counter top, “two Jon’s in my diner in one day. I think that calls for burgers on the house for you two.” As long as Jon was talkin’, I wanted to keep him around for the cop. “You hungry yet?” Jon shook his head, but his stomach let out a loud grumble, and he nodded. “All right then,” I said and smiled, “I’ll cook those up for you in no time.”
The two Jons sat quiet ‘til the cop said, “So, Mothers’ Day is tomorrow. Have you made anything for your mother?”
At this, Jon’s face fell, and he shook his head. After taking a deep breath, he let out a shaky sigh. “I can’t,” he said, real sad like.
The right side of the cop’s lips twitched. “Can I ask why not?” He sounded like he was maybe afraid of the answer. My thought was maybe the mother was dead or somethin’, and this could be a problem for the young’n.
Finally, Jon said, “I ran away. My mommy doesn’t love me.” My heart fell at this, and I hoped it was a mix-up. But I know there’s lotsa parents out there don’t love their kids enough, and he might be one of them.
The cop leaned closer to the little feller and said, “Jon, I’m sure your mother loves you.” He rested a large hand on Jon’s back, “and she’s probably worried sick.”
Jon shook his head. “No,” he said, “I broke her vase.”
“Surely a vase can’t mean more to your mother than you.”
“She said she loves it more than anything in the whole world,” he said. “The whole world. That’s what she said when Daddy bought it for her on her birthday.”
“Jon,” said the cop, “look at me.” Jon turned in his seat and did. “Sometimes, grown-ups say things like that, especially when they get a present from someone that they love. Now, she may like it a whole lot, but given the choice between having her vase intact and having you, I’m sure she would choose you.”
Tears started to roll down the little feller’s cheeks and he said, “I didn’t mean to. I was chasing Scruffy–that’s our cat. We were playing, and she jumped on the table. I tried to get her off, and I bumped the vase with my elbow, and...and...and...it crashed on the floor.”
“It’s okay,” said the cop as he patted the boy’s back, and handed him a napkin off the table. “It was an accident. I’m sure she’ll understand.”
The cop said he had to go to the bathroom, and I saw him head toward the pay phone. I couldn’t tell what was said, but I figure he musta been looking for the boy to start with and knew just who he belonged to ‘cause a few minutes later a woman came in the door. She had on a yellow sun dress, and I wouldn’t have pegged her as a momma any other day, but her face was red and she looked dog-tired. She ran straight to the counter when she came in.
Without a word, she wrapped her arms around Jon and buried her face in his neck, rocking a little, and crying. He looked at me and then at his momma. Don’t think he knew quite what to make of her. He patted her on the back and said, “It’s okay, Mommy.”
“Why,” she said finally, pulling back “why did you run off? Mommy was so worried.”
“I’m sorry, Mommy,” he said. “I’m sorry. Don’t cry. I broke your vase, and you love it. Love it more than anything in the whole world. Isn’t that what you said, Mommy?”
“Oh, honey. I didn’t mean. I mean—”
“I know. Jon told me,” he pointed to the cop who was leaning on the counter, watching. “I know you didn’t mean more than me.”
“That’s right.” She smiled, pullin’ Jon into a hug. ‘Thank you,’ she mouthed to the cop. He nodded.
“That’s right,” she said again. “I don’t love anything more than you, not anything.”
“What about Daddy?”
The momma laughed. “Can you deal with a tie?”
Jon nodded. “I think so, but do we have to tell Daddy that? He likes to be number one.”
“No, we don’t have to tell Daddy. But I’ll tell you what. Daddy loves you as much as I do, and he’s going to be getting home in a couple minutes.” She gasped, then.
“What?” Jon asked.
“I forgot to cook dinner.”
I stepped in, then. “Ma’am. If your husband likes chili, we’ve got some specials today.”
“Oh I didn’t bring any—”
“Don’t worry about it. It’s been nice havin’ your son around. Reminds me of me when I was a young’n. It’s on the house.”
As I made their food, I watched them talk and laugh. The cop joined in. Once I handed them their boxes and said goodbye, I watched them walk to the door. Jon turned to me and waved. I waved back, even after he’d turned around. The bell clink-clinked as they walked out the door hand in hand, the boy’s pole dragging, and I thought I’d never heard a better sound in the world. The cop got on his radio, told someone that the runaway was safe, and that it was time to go home to his own little boy. I went to my chalkboard and wrote under specials, “Root Beer Float.”