A pickup truck pulled up in front of the sidewalk table where John was peeling the foil off a burrito as thick as his shoe. The boy who got to with his father had a thatch of dark hair that looked like it had been trimmed with a weed-whacker. He was about five, all arms and legs, the way boys are when they begin to stretch out. He moved cautiously, though, with none of the freewheeling energy that usually comes with that transition from toddler to colt.
At a table near John the boy sat in a chair with a broken weld, and when he began kicking his feet back and forth the chair wobbled like it might collapse under him. John held up one hand to warn him to be careful, but the boy didn’t notice, or didn’t understand. His dad gave John a puzzled, slightly hostile look. John nodded genially—No worries, I’m not some pervert—but this only seemed to irritate the man further. He clamped his hand on the boy’s leg and told him to quit fidgeting. He didn’t say it in a nice way, like “Be careful, son,” but with a harshness that had the dead tone of habit.
John thought: No, why don’t you quit talking to your son that way.
The boy’s quesadilla arrived with two ice-cream scoops of guacamole and sour cream on top. He lifted one side tentatively, as if looking for a prize underneath. The father took another pull on his beer and told him to quit playing with his food. John could see the disaster coming. He made a little involuntary motion with his hand as if to reach out to the boy, but he couldn’t do anything to stop the sour cream and guacamole from plopping into the boy’s lap.
They were both so still, the man staring obliviously into the street, the boy looking at his lap; it felt like they were controlling John’s breathing. He scooted his chair back and stood up; he should just pay his bill and leave.
“Oh, hell, son,” the man said when he saw what had happened.
There was a quaver in his voice. Maybe John had misjudged him. Perhaps his wife had left him and he had brought the boy here to tell him his mother was gone. He was drinking to get up the courage.
John was still standing, staring at them stupidly. The man looked over and said, “Piss off.”
“Sorry,” John said.
The boy was watching him, imploring him, he imagined: Don’t mess with my dad, I’ll be all right.
“Come on,” the man said. He grabbed his son by the forearm and jerked him out of his chair.
The boy resisted. “I want to eat.”
As they came toward him, John stepped into their path.
“I told you to piss off,” the man said.
His freckled cheeks and thick neck darkened. A long strand of ginger comb-over fell across one eye. The boy was practically swinging by his arm.
John said: “Why not let the boy finish his food?”