The other night I stopped for orange juice at the Pico station on the north side of Boerne, and I picked up this men’s magazine just to browse it, and then I wound up buying it because of this article about sex dolls so realistic you could dress them up and no one would know the difference. They had soft skin like latex, like they make all those Hollywood masks out of. They had the same kind of hair they use on wax dolls in museums—inserted the same way, too, one at a time. And these dolls bent like Barbies into all sorts of poses. Man, they did everything but breathe. They were women, only not. In some ways, Florida was like that. Back then, Florida always smiling and flirting with everyone, me washing dishes in that restaurant as I watched her sashay in and out of the kitchen with a tray on one arm—she was everything I thought a woman would be. It had nothing to do with sex, with things I could dress her in or positions I could put her in. Florida was only twenty, I was still just fifteen, but I didn’t much care back then—she was older than I was and proven a woman by that heavy swell in her belly. Hell, Florida was the woman, the first I’d ever loved.
We worked together in Carlo’s, that little Italian place off Main Street where all the rejects in Boerne worked. My first day there, Josh, the main waiter, he said to me, “This is a family restaurant, man. It’s a dysfunctional family, but it’s family.” I felt at home there, even if I was too young to legally wash their dishes. The kitchen in that restaurant always pulsed. Sometimes, it was laughter, all of us cutting up to keep our energy going. Sometimes, when Charles wasn’t around, it was the old heavy metal Josh would play while getting his salads ready or counting out the tips at the end of the day. But even in our down time there was this soft thrum from the ovens, the walk-in fridge, the freezers. The walls had yellowed from years of burning grease and oil. They were tired and worn as the two guys who owned the place, the cook and his accountant-lover. Arnie and Charles, the cook round and meaty, the accountant skinny and worn. You’d have never guessed they were a couple if not for all the fighting, those “discussions” in the office, the wet, red circles under Arnie’s eyes, the kind of shit only lovers do to each other because nobody else would put up with it. I’d watch them fight, then watch Charles’s red knuckles in the bleachy water when he got worked up and took over my dishes, watch Arnie at the stove drinking box wine from a plastic soda glass.
The air in the kitchen was always thick with these garlic-freon-butter smells; the concrete floor was slick in soapy dishwater and sweat. Which wasn’t my fault, but Charles’s—that skinny shit always got excited banging dishes around. He liked it more than skimping on the food he bought, more than fucking up my name and making it white—“Michael, use more bleach,” that sort of thing. Same thing my Irish dad did, everyone ignoring my long-gone Mexican mom. I thought about asking this friend in home ec to stitch “Miguel” on my apron, just to piss Charles off, but then I looked at Arnie and decided pissing Charles off wasn’t a good idea. It would have pissed off my dad, too. So I added bleach, took my paycheck in cash because they’d hired me off the books, smoked joints with Josh out back, skimmed tips from the tables when no one was looking, and waited for something to happen to my little teenage life.
And into all this came Florida Mayhugh, pregnant and twenty and single and glorious.
I fell in love that first day. It was a teenage thing, hopeless, queasy, delicious, that kind of gut-churning silly shit we all get off on. My stepmom, she thought it was some girl from school. But Florida was no girl. She smiled at me, stroked my cheek sometimes, probably knew I fantasized about her at night. And that yellowed kitchen in the back of that restaurant brightened while she was in it. The light in there opened up from that stale, dried mustard to the white-yellow of bumper-sticker smileys. These were the glorious days, back in the beginning, before the cops came.
One day, I had the chalk and a rag from the old wood bar and I’d gone up to the specials board by the door. The old words took some scrubbing to get off—Eggplant Parmesiano had been there three days. The new words: Sausage Spaghetti Specioso—grilled Italian sausage and a fiesta of sliced bell peppers served on a heaping pile of pasta. The P of Parmesiano still showed through the S of Spaghetti. I shook my head and shouted toward the kitchen. “Hey, Arnie, fiesta is Spanish, man.”
Arnie stuck his head through the kitchen entry, a heavy pizza dough hanging off his thick hands. He said, “Sure. Why?”
“This is an Italian place, serves Italian specials. Why use Spanish in the description?”
“We’re in Texas, and I’m not Italian. Whatever sells the food,” he said. “I got no loyalties.”
I just shrugged. I tipped over the gumball machine by the front door and shook it until quarters fell out the bottom seam. I dropped one of the quarters back into the machine and bought a piece of gum, then pocketed the change. Wouldn’t be long before Charles would show up with a scowl and a fist full of order slips, and he would yell at Arnie and make him cry, and then he would yell at me for not doing dishes. I couldn’t let that shit happen—Florida worked today, and I wasn’t about to be bitched at in front of her. So I walked back to the kitchen and turned on the taps in the big steel sink, and I daydreamed.
Just before Charles was due, I uncapped the bleach, splashed it into the suds, and plunged in my hands. Charles was picky about his dishes, and he wasn’t happy unless my hands were red as raw meat. Besides, I’d been learning how to cook on the side, some from my stepmom and some from Arnie between loads of dishes, and if I wanted a chance that night to cook the “family meal” for all the staff, Florida included, I couldn’t risk pissing Charles off.
Josh arrived late and angry. Problems with the girlfriend, from what I could make out. He was supposed to double as prep cook that day, so he grabbed an apron and a bowl of sausage links, but he slammed the bowl onto the counter wrong and it spilled the whole coil of sausage onto the floor. He reared back his arm like he was about to throw the big chef’s knife, but then Arnie dashed over and took him into the walk-in cooler. Arnie always took people into the cooler when he wanted things to calm down. I could hear Josh’s shouts through the door, muffled and incoherent, but after a few minutes things got quiet and then they both emerged and Josh went to work, slicing fast and dangerous.
He told Arnie and me about his one semester in college, where one of his professors got arrested for dealing pot out of his office. Campus police came in during Josh’s class and hauled the professor out right in front of the students. One of the cops had his gun drawn, his arms locked and the gun pointing at students’ shoes as he moved into the classroom. It’s why Josh quit school, actually, but it wasn’t going to scare me away. I was going to culinary school. I’d become a great chef, get a job in a good restaurant, somewhere with a functional family running the place. There was a spot down in San Antonio back then, a place on the Riverwalk called the Vulgar Mushroom. A weird vibe and pricey food, but I’d heard it was swank, and I figured that would do. I could cook there, and then I could support Florida and the baby, and then she could love me. That was my plan.
At six, Florida wafted in, lotiony like gardenias and smiling that smile all the customers said was the look of a mother-to-be. Skin like a jar filled with buttermilk and a flashlight inside. And on this day, for some reason, she came to me first, before clocking in, before giving her hug to Arnie, before putting down her huge canvas purse. She came to me, and she said, “Miguel, you ever wonder what’s next?”
I had no idea. “Sure,” I said.
She laughed, a sound like daisies blooming, and she said, “You don’t even know what I’m talking about.”
“No,” I said. “Next after what?”
“Nothing, sweetheart, nothing.”
She called everyone sweetheart. Arnie, Josh, the customers, even that asshole Charles. Florida could see everyone’s heart, and everyone’s heart was sweet. But this time—and this is why I remember all this shit about that day—this time she leaned in quick like I was sunshine and she kissed me, light on the forehead, just like that.
I did get to cook that night, and I remember everyone thought it was delicious—Arnie said I was a natural, Josh said I was a freak to cook that good at fifteen. I think I made shrimp scampi, and maybe a Mediterranean pasta for Charles. I know I made the special for Florida. But honestly, after that kiss, I don’t really remember much.
Technically, Florida waited tables. That’s what she got paid for, it’s why the customers always gave her tips even if she wasn’t their waitress. But most of the time Florida just made salads, rolled silverware into the green napkins, set tables, and sometimes, if the table was small, she’d take an order or two. Arnie’d hired her just because she needed the money—she’d blown what she had when she moved down to Texas. From somewhere in southern Illinois is all she ever said, but it’d been far enough that she was broke, and pregnant broke on top of it. But Arnie never made her wait tables unless she wanted to. She shouldn’t be on her feet all day, Arnie said, she shouldn’t be lifting heavy things like trays full of plates, and she shouldn’t have to deal with the stress of angry customers. I thought she shouldn’t have been working at all, pregnant like that. She looked eight months, at least. Of course, I didn’t know—I was only fifteen—but she was big enough. “You ought to be at home,” I’d say. “You ought to have a man take care of you.”
“You that man, Miguel?” she’d say. Touch my cheek, that smile of hers.
And I was, or would be. I just needed time to learn the stove, get my job at the Mushroom. Thing was, though, I didn’t have that kind of time. I wanted Florida then, there in the kitchen, in the back room—I wanted her anywhere. I want her now.
I watched her out of the room, kept staring at the empty doorway until she returned and slipped past, headed toward the salad prep table, and then Charles, right behind her, scowling at her and then at me and I plunged my hands into bleach, burn away the longing.
When Florida went to the hospital, we all wanted to go, too, though none of us had time for the drive. For some reason, she checked herself into the hospital up in Kerrville, forty miles away, instead of heading south to San Antonio, which was closer. Most of us figured it had something to do with the personal care she’d get at a smaller hospital, which made sense to me, though Charles thought it had something to do with health care fraud. “He would think that,” Josh said on break later. “Chuck cooks the books every chance he gets.” It was true—we’d been trained to dodge phone calls from the IRS.
And Charles had no sensitivity for Florida’s condition, either. Once he threatened to fire me for helping Florida roll silverware during my break. “You gonna work on your break, Michael, work on the dishes.” He hated her working there.
“Shouldn’t the father be helping out?” he’d ask her.
“Don’t know where the father is, sweetheart” Florida’d say.
“Hm,” Charles’d say. “You knew where he was when you got knocked up. Should’ve kept tabs on him. I don’t like single mothers, girl.” He never used her name, said it sounded too hippie. “Single parent messes up a kid.”
But Florida, my Florida, she’d just smile and keep on rolling.
Florida took off two weeks around her due date. Just in case, she said. Didn’t want her water to break right there on the floor, in front of a customer. She was smart like that. So I had to go two weeks without her. I tried to find her house one night—I had my license, which my dad got for me early partly to prove that he could and partly so he didn’t have to drive me around anymore—but she lived outside of Boerne, way out on Sisterdale Road. The only time I was able to go look was after work, when I could tell my parents I’d stayed late with an extra load of dishes, and out there in the dark, all those little side streets and county roads winding into the cedar hills, half the signs painted on wooden boards and the other half missing, I couldn’t find shit. So it was two lonely weeks. Florida didn’t even have a phone. Said she’d come down here from Illinois to get away from the father, left everything behind, no parents, no help of any kind. And when Arnie tried to set her up with a phone, she refused. “If I take your help now, what’s to stop you from wanting to help with the hospital bills, or the rent, or everything? I can’t be a burden like that on you, Arnie.” Arnie tried again, but Florida said, “What would Charles say?” and Arnie let it drop.
Then one night at the restaurant the phone rang, and Arnie was busy with an order and Charles was into the books and Josh was on the floor—the only waiter left—and so that left me, and I answered it. It was Florida. You know those nature films they show in biology class? Those little reels of film where they show a morning glory opening up, the petals coming apart and those little yellow stamen reaching up like antennas, broadcasting for bees or something. And there’s that music from the cassette in back of the projector, all flutes and violins. That’s what was coming over the phone when I answered it, all of that—it was Florida, motherhood in a telephone line, beautiful.
“Miguel, Miguel, I’ve had my baby!” she said. God, that smile came right at me, right over the phone. Hell, that smile is still coming, from all the way back then—I can still hear it in her voice.
“Florida, hey!” I said. “When did it happen? What room are you in? Was it a boy or a girl?” I asked a lot of questions, actually, all strung out in a single breath. It was stupid, one of those things you do without thinking how uncool it sounds. But Florida loved it and laughed.
She said she’d already taken the baby home, and she’d named her daughter Iris, and everything was fine. I made her promise to bring the baby in, and she said she’d be in later, like two weeks or so. “Babies can’t be out so soon, you know,” so I waited.
But she didn’t come two weeks later. She called instead, said she needed some more time at home. Arnie gave it to her, even though we needed her in the restaurant. I thought Charles would get pissed and fire her or something, but turns out Arnie had already taken care of that—he’d fired Florida when she called, which shut Charles up, even though Arnie told the rest of us he’d hire her back as soon as she was ready to return.
I tried to find her place again, patrolling the backroads out beyond the northeast edge of town. Got pulled over once, too—took me half an hour to explain that I had my license legally, even though I was only supposed to drive to and from work, and in the end my dad had to come out and vouch for me, which pissed him off to no end, and I got grounded for a week. Partying on a school night. I’d told them I was going to a friend’s house—they never would have bought the real reason.
I was off work for a week to study for semester exams. I didn’t study, really, just smoked out with friends and read comic books at home and shit like that. That week, Josh the prep cook got in a fist fight with Charles, something to do with a crack Charles made about Josh’s girlfriend—way I heard it, Josh threw one loose punch and Charles jumped in and just started hugging him, so Josh couldn’t do anything but wriggle and slap his way free before storming out to keep Charles from calling the cops. On his way out the door he quit before Charles could fire him, but Arnie hired him back before the Friday rush, and Charles let it happen because there was no one else to help.
Some crazy shit went on in that restaurant, like this other time when Josh and his girlfriend got caught blue-assed and steamy in the walk-in fridge, or the time Charles’s ex-wife, from when he thought he was straight, showed up drunk and looking for money and Josh had to drag the woman screaming out the back door by her hair. And those times, the really cool stuff, I always missed for some reason. Josh and the girlfriend? Out back dumping the trash. That thing with Charles’s ex? On my way to work, late because I’d gotten really high after school and lost track of time. And this same week that Josh decked Charles, when I was off supposedly studying, that’s when Florida showed up again at work.
Iris was a big pink bulb of a baby, all round and heavy. Florida was the opposite, a reedy stalk and short like me, and I couldn’t see how she’d gotten that baby out. Iris was that big. Arnie kept shaking his head, and Josh whistled every time he saw Florida with Iris—“Damn, girl,” he said, “she must have come out like a rocket once you managed it. Jesus, she’s big.”
Florida just called Iris healthy, and together they glowed, like a candle flame in a mirror. And I fell in love with the both of them, Iris for the first time and Florida all over again. Pure crazy adoration love. My mama, before my dad had divorced her and sent her back to Mexiso, had given me this framed print of the Virgin and baby Jesus, fuzzy like an old romance movie and alive with these golds and blues right out of an evening sky. Holy colors. And the way the Virgin looked at Jesus is the way I looked at Florida and Iris, that same adoration.
But Florida started acting weird after she brought Iris in. For one thing, she never answered the phone, which wasn’t too big a deal, except that after she’d had Iris, people started calling for her. Florida’d received calls before, but just from her landlady, who watched after Florida’s dog in the evenings—she’d call to say the dog had thrown up or shit on something. And for a while people were calling looking for Rayanne, some woman I’d never heard of, and we all handed them the same line we always used when we had a suspicious-sounding caller: “This is a residence, man, I’m Carlo, and I don’t know who you’re looking for.” But now there were other people, people who asked for Ms. Mayhugh, not Florida, people who wanted to know how long Florida had worked at the restaurant, that sort of thing. Charles nodded and smirked, sometimes muttered “insurance fraud” as he hung up the phone. But we always hung up, or claimed not to know her, even Charles, because Charles was finally getting looked at by the IRS, and we figured these calls might be related to that.
Also, Florida didn’t talk as much, not to anybody, not to me. She didn’t touch my cheek like she used to, either. When she was out on the floor, she’d watch the windows while taking an order or serving her drinks. When she was in the back with the silverware, she watched the phone she never answered. The girl was nervous, and I was nervous too, not sure how to help but desperate to do something, to prove myself to her.
Then Florida started bringing Iris to work with her. She kept her in a playpen she set up in the break room, the TV in there tuned to the Cartoon Channel all night long. Charles’s face stayed a dark burgundy for the first week she brought Iris. His whole head the color of my scalded hands. Arnie finally pulled Florida aside on a slow Sunday and said, “Florida, I thought you were paying your landlady to watch Iris for you. The woman who watched your dog before? What about her?”
“I had to fire her, I had to move.” Florida looked at the prep table. “I had to.”
Arnie’s eyes went small, only partly from worry. He’d been paying Florida extra so she could afford the babysitter. “Well, who’s watching your dog then?” He held his own hands, and his lips were tight.
“My dog,” Florida said. She looked all over the kitchen, then she saw me, staring from my steamy sink. Her eyes went wide, and she smiled a high-eyebrow smile. Florida held her own hands, too. She kept looking right at me, and she said, “I gave my dog to Miguel. It was scaring Iris.” She nodded, agreeing with herself, and I found myself nodding too. Arnie turned and looked at me, caught my head in motion, and I jolted. Then I said, “Um, yeah. Good dog,” and plunged my hands into the suds, rattling the dishes loud to drown out everything.
Later, Florida slipped past me and whispered, “Thanks,” stroked my cheek like she used to. But it was the last time.
The night it finally happened, Charles’s ex-wife was back, screaming outside by the dumpsters for Charles to let her in. Arnie wanted to call the cops, but Florida, passing through the kitchen with an armload of plates, dropped the whole stack on the stainless steel counter with a clatter and grabbed Arnie. Had him by the shoulders, pulled him right up to her little face. She said, “Arnie, don’t, I’ll take care of her,” and she slipped out the back door.
I was across the kitchen, hands in suds, terrified Charles would leave his ledgers in the nearby office and drop his fists in the water with mine, grab a loose knife, and in his fury accidentally hack off one of my thumbs. But when Florida left the kitchen, Iris started crying and Charles threw his pen into the ledger and stormed past me, grinning. I hated when that guy smiled—it never looked natural, even when he was genuinely happy, and that night he’d developed this hard V of a grin. He rounded the corner past my sink, went straight to the phone, and dialed. While it was ringing he looked through the door at me, leaned in like we were friends and said, “Might as well take care of two problems at once, eh, Michael?”
“It’s Miguel, asshole,” I said, but the water was running and the phone was against his ear and, to tell the truth, I didn’t say it very loudly. Now, knowing what was about to happen, I wish I had said it loud. I wish I’d grabbed one of those soapy knives and cut the phone cord.
Instead, I leaned into the sink, over the fumes and the rushing tap, and tried to ignore him.
Which is why, a load of dishes later, it was such a surprise when Florida shot past me and into the break room where Iris lay crying. That baby’d cried before, and Florida had always been patient, walking to her, never running, like she’d been a mother for months and months instead of just weeks. But tonight the back door had slammed and rebounded with the force of her. When she passed me, I turned toward the back, saw the door shaking itself closed again, heard through it the drunken shrieking of Charles’s ex-wife and, muffled but getting louder, the electronic broken conversation of a walkie-talkie, like the kind the cop had worn when I got pulled over looking for Florida’s house. Then the door swung open again and a sheriff deputy stepped through it, a thick tan sack of a man with a star-shaped badge and a brown mustache, just like on TV, and he came stalking slowly across the kitchen. My weed was in my backback, my backback was in the break room, Florida was in the break room. I left my suds and moved to block the doorway. I said, “Florida, Florida, get out!” But I fell backward, jerked through the door by my apron straps, and then Charles was holding me by my arms. He said, “Let her go, Michael.”
I wonder sometimes if other men can pinpoint the moment they became a man. With me it was more gradual, but it was all about Florida. Meeting her, realizing what I wanted in a woman and what I wanted to become as a man, those were some of the first moments. And that night, Charles’s wiry fists on my arms and this deputy trying to shove past me toward my weed and toward Florida, this was a turning point.
I pulled my right arm loose just long enough to elbow Charles in the gut, and I broke free, I tackled the deputy. I was just a little Mexican kid, but I hit that deputy hard, my shoulder in his soft stomach, and my wiry legs had just enough push in them to double this guy over, and we fell together into the sink, the metal legs buckling and tipping the whole sink full of dishes and bleach and suds over us and onto the floor. A second deputy had come running through the kitchen and hit the slick and skied right into us—his feet caught my hip and he flew headfirst into Charles, who crashed through most of the wine display at the bar. Then a pair of boots dashed past my face and when I looked up, I realized a city cop had joined the deputies and was already in the break room, followed close by a state trooper.
I knew I was screwed, knew that the weed back there was the least of my worries, but I couldn’t let Florida and little Iris get wrapped up in my shit. All I could think to shout was “Help!” but I shouted it twice as I tried to stand. The deputy grabbed my thigh, but we both were slippery from the bleach and I slid through his grip. I saw him fumbling at his hip, popping the strap on his holster, but then Josh came roaring onto us, a plastic serving tray high over his head, and he cracked the tray over the deputy’s back. I turned toward the break room and saw Arnie in a kind of dance with the city cop, slapping at the cop and screaming “Leave my boyfriend alone!” and “Help me, Charlie!” I dashed into the break room but Florida was already surrounded, tears washing over her whole face, her mouth open and twisted but soundless, Iris screaming in her arms. City cops, state troopers, deputies, guys in brown blazers, some with pistols drawn, others just holding out their hands like they were calming a mad cow. I shouted, “It’s mine, it’s mine, leave her alone!” but only one cop, a city cop, turned toward me. He looked me over twice, said, “Get down and shut up,” and then turned back to Florida.
So I ran toward them all. The city cop tried to stop me but I was fast and I shot right to the middle, blocked Florida with my arms outstretched and announced, tears in my eyes from all that bleach and soapy water, “It’s mine and she had nothing to do with any of it.”
Everyone watched me. Iris cried and cried. Josh fell against the doorway of the break room, his hands cuffed behind him and the deputy holding him by his neck. Then one of the blazer guys made a gesture and waited until a state trooper produced a large rubber torso. Breasts, nipples and everything, and a swollen fleshy belly. Straps running backward from the boobs to the waistline.
“This yours, too, then?” the trooper said.
I just stared. I shook my head slowly, four times, then a cop hit me from behind and pinned me to the ground. All I could see were feet, all I could hear, out the one ear not pressed into the linoleum floor, was Iris crying and now, finally, Florida screaming. Then, filtering through this, I heard, “Rayanne Cordula, aka Florida Mayhugh, you are under arrest for kidnapping and endangering a child—”
And, layered behind all this, another woman’s voice. “That’s my Lulu, that’s my baby!”
And then I was dragged to my feet, sat and handcuffed into a chair, and I saw my last glimpse of Florida, kicking her legs wildly as three cops pulled her through the front door of the break room, out into the dining floor and toward the entrance, my gumball machine and my specials board. She was shrieking so loudly I couldn’t understand anything but “baby” and what I think was “Iris.” And once, I swear, my name. I stared after her. Then I heard more crying, softer and deeper, and I saw Charles sitting on the floor between the bar and the break room. He was drenched in varying shades of wine—merlots, chardonnays—all blending to ruined blushes. Arnie appeared beside me, looking at Charles on the floor. Charles was shaking his head, his jaw hanging, both eyes swollen. He said, to no one in particular, “I didn’t know. I just wanted someone to make her to take her kid home.” He looked up at Arnie, his mouth still moving but no more words coming out. He held up his arms like a child for a hug but Arnie hit him in the face, first with a dish towel and then with his pudgy fist, and he stormed into the kitchen, shrugging off the three cops who followed him. Josh looked toward me, then toward the corner of the room, where my backpack lay beneath the overturned playpen, untouched. He raised his eyebrows at me, a gesture I was never able to interpret, and then the deputy he’d attacked hauled him back into the kitchen and, I guess, through the back door.
We all spent that night in jail. My parents were pissed. But I was a minor without a record, and the cops never bothered to find my pot, so I got off without a charge. And my family needed the money, so I went back to work. Not that it mattered—between the ruckus that night and being closed for the week everyone was sorting out legal issues, we lost a lot of our regulars, and the new people who came to gossip about that night usually just came once. Carlo’s closed about a month later. But in that month, I went back working like usual and helping pay the bills. And it was during that month that Florida called us all from jail. She called us each at home, though, not at the restaurant. First Arnie, of course, then Josh, then she called Arnie again and asked to speak to Charles. Even Charles. She called me, too, though my parents wouldn’t let me talk to her—they wouldn’t accept the reversed charges from the jail. But I heard from the others what she’d wanted. Arnie had thought she was calling to explain, and Charles thought she wanted money, or a lawyer. Turns out she just wanted help getting Iris back. She wanted us to file something in court, or try to reason with that woman. That’s what she’d called the baby’s real mother, “that woman.” Or—and this she only mentioned to Josh, but to hear him tell it, she would have asked the same of me—she wanted us to steal Iris back and hide her somewhere until Florida got out of jail.
Arnie cried a lot that last month, and Charles stayed quiet, not a banged dish, not a word about dwindling income or our smoking out back, which Josh and I did a lot more of. Arnie sometimes got high with us. But Arnie and Charles, as far as I could tell, were still going strong. I thought Arnie would have kicked Charles out, or maybe the other way around, but those two had something between them. And Josh, he just rattled on about how messed up Florida was, how he wished he’d known so he could have collected some sort of reward. Other times, if Josh was stoned, he’d talk about how he’d have rescued Florida and hidden her, married her, protected her, done all the shit I’d been thinking since her first day in the restaurant. With Josh, it was just stoned bullshit. Me, I looked into doing it, into taking Iris back. Florida clearly loved the girl, she’d been good to her and cared so much about that baby that she’d made up that elaborate birth story, hiding out in Kerrville for a week and everything. Surely she could come up with a story for us, too, once we got away, me her lover, Iris’s papa, someone to love them both. I flipped through the big San Antonio phone book reading ads for private investigators or for lawyers, family, criminal, whatever it might take. I window shopped at Wal-Mart for knives or shotguns, something to protect us once we were on the run.
Even now I think about what I might have done that night. There were a lot of cops in that little break room, six maybe, and Florida’d got herself cornered in the back by the crib. I couldn’t have saved her. But say I’d have been faster, or bigger, or better prepared. Say I’d seen what was coming all along, or at least when Charles waved that phone at me, grinning like he did, and I booked it out of that place before the cops even turned up. I’d have gone home, starting flipping through the phone book then and there, because really, I’d known all along what Florida needed, and I had been setting aside all this money to hire a good lawyer. She’d have spent a little time in jail, but I’d have gotten her off, and we’d have bought an SUV or a long station wagon, and we’d have driven to Mexico, where we’d find my mama and go into hiding.
What I did instead was hang around the library, reading books on how to care for babies. Looking at the thin line drawings of breasts and picturing Florida naked, or topless, anyway, Iris in her lap. I read that sometimes the father has to massage the breast to get the stuff flowing, and I imagined touching Florida’s breasts, kneading them, squeezing her nipple like a cow’s teat. I could only imagine the breasts as rubber, Florida’s belly still thick and hollow, and of course no milk would come. For Florida, breast feeding wasn’t an option.
It’s been years since I gave up reading those books. I don’t even know where Iris is anymore. Somewhere in southern Illinois. It’s all gone, those old dreams. I had to grow up, I guess. Got a good job cooking, not at the Mushroom, which closed down a long time ago, but at a good chain restaurant, with health care and everything. But then there was this magazine, this long night thinking about Florida, about the two of us. I’m writing Florida letters. They’ll never make it to the post office, or even into an envelope, but I want her to know I’ve been writing, so when she gets out and we find each other again, I can show her how I’ve been thinking about her. It’s been ten years now, and I think both of us are almost ready for what comes next.