My mother sent me an envelope with her picture in it, so I’d recognize her at the Port Authority bus terminal. On the back of the photograph she wrote, “Dear Karlee, this is me, but I’ll be blond by then, Your Mom, Kimmie Kirkland.” That was no lie. Like a headlight. And she had on all new clothes. She needn’t have announced it. They still had the crease marks in them from their packaging. She tripped right out of the new sandals getting off the bus. I caught her, and she held on to me. She thought I was giving her a hug.
There were empty tables in front of the pretzel place in the main concourse. First, she needed a smoke. Fine with me. There was more than enough time. It would kill a few minutes of the hour before the return bus. I went out with her. Her lighter didn’t want to stay lit in the swoosh and breeze of the traffic. I cupped my hands around her cigarette to help get it going.
“You hang with people who smoke,” she said between bubbly coughs. “Only way you learn that.”
“The last place I was, the guy had me light his for him.”
“They put kids in foster homes with smokers?”
“Seems to be a requirement,” I said.
“Amazing you didn’t get hooked yourself, take up the habit.”
“I don’t get to have habits,” I said.
She squished the butt with the ball of her foot. The little bells on her toe ring jingled. We went back inside to chairs under the pretzel sign. The lid of our table tipped toward the floor and smelled of bleach. I pointed to the coffee kiosk.
“How?” I yanked napkins from the metal dispenser. “Cream? Sugar?”
“Oh, wow, sure. Let’s see. How about a squirt of peppermint, if it’s not extra,” she said, “and whipping cream. Grab some sugars.”
The cups scalded the curves of my hands. I hurried them to the table and blew on my palms. The cream on my mother’s shimmied as I skidded it to her across the table. She turned it around in front of her, admiring it until she found the right spot to lick on the cream. I took the form from my backpack and flattened it on the wobbling table top. I pointed to where she had to sign.
“Kind of nice,” she said, “my kid taking me for a fancy coffee. In the city.”
“Two places for full name,” I said, tapping the spots.
“You don’t bite your nails.” She fluttered her fingers for me to see the pecked at cuticles. “I always have. Can’t seem to stop. Tried stuff that you paint on that tastes bad. Supposed to kill the urge. Got hooked on that. Defeated the purpose you might say.”
“It looks like it hurts.”
“Yeah well, if only we’d all stop doing stuff just because it hurts.” She snorted a laugh. “That’s my area of expertise.”
“One for just initials.” My perfect oval nail traced the line. “There, see?”
“Army’s going to be hard for a girl. You sure?”
“I’m doing it for school. It’ll pay for school, after.”
“What if I don’t? What if I say I don’t want that life for you?”
“I wait a year until I’m 18. Or forge it.”
“Of course, I got no right. You’re not saying that to me, but you could think that.” She poked a straw into the whipped cream. “I gave you up. Barely any contact.”
“Look,” I said, “I only need a signature. Nothing else. If you don’t want to, that’s okay.”
“Least I could do, sign the thing. Right? Cross your mind?”
“Why me? Must be somebody else who could sign it for you legally.”
I shook two sugar packets and pulled them open like I was trying to rip a phonebook in half. Sugar exploded onto the table. My mother lifted her coffee and swept the spill onto the floor with her arm. She pushed her extra packet toward me with a finger.
“Go easy on that one,” she said. She waited while I tore the packet and sprinkled the sugar into my cup. “So, why’d you call me?”
“Case worker could sign, but I didn’t ask him.”
“He’s got opinions.”
“About the war.”
“What’s your opinion about it?”
“That’s another thing I don’t get to have.”
“You could’ve just sent it to me,” she said.
“Things get lost. I just thought this would be better.”
“Nobody at school can sign for you?”
“You’re it,” I said.
“I’m you’re only option, is that it? And you don’t trust the mail?”
My mother sipped the coffee and exhaled peppermint. I debated tapping my lip to let her know she had a whipped cream mustache. She shook the pen and scribbled on a napkin to make sure it was working. Her tongue poked between her lips as she signed her name and etched her initials. We did our Ks the same way, curling the points, fancying them into pigs tails that pointed off the page, like they were trying to decide which of the four major directions to take off in. She slid the paper back toward me, the top edge of it trapped under fingertips so red and chewed they resembled pizza leavings. When I tried to pull it away, she held on. She watched me, steady and calm, until I gave in and looked at her full in the face.
“I was trying to get you to say you wanted to see me,” she said, “that you’re going in the service and before you left seemed as good a time as any. I just thought maybe. That you actually wanted to see me.”
“I know,” I said.
She eased up on her end of the form and let me take it. I worked it into perfect thirds, aligning the corners and sharpening the creases with the side of my thumb, edge by edge, as slow as I could. Her watching me made me hot from the collarbone up. I wanted to tell her to stop, to put her eyes that were my same color on somebody else’s daughter. Go watch some other kid win a cheerleading trophy or get dressed for the prom. Don’t waste your time on somebody bent over a piece of paper like lives depend on it. Of course, she couldn’t hear that spinning in my head. She just hung on to me with our gray-colored eyes.
They started announcing the bus for Jersey and points south. It was a computerized announcement that was cutting in and out, interrupting itself with static. Instead of saying Atlantic City it sounded like Attic City. She didn’t make a move. She sat still and made like the smartest thing in the world anybody could do was tease a form back into an envelope under a pretzel sign. My mother reached across the tipsy table and squeezed my hand with hers, chewed fingernails and all. She rubbed it with her thumb like people do that like each other. She didn’t say anything for the longest time. Finally she pulled a pad of napkins from the dispenser and pushed it against her eyes. Then she blew her nose into it.
“Sorry,” she said. “I wasn’t going to do that.”
We heard them call the bus again. The announcement spit static off the high ceiling of the terminal. My mother cocked her thumb toward the sound.
“That’d be me. Destination ‘Attic’ City,” she said.
“They run every hour,” I said. “How about another coffee?”