The shakes at Ed’s Burger Joint on Route 94 are supposed to be the best for miles. So when Owen said that’s where he wanted to go, I’m not gonna lie, I was up for seeing what all the hype was about. Owen is Shelley’s kid, I guess you could call him my step-son but Shelley and I ain’t quite that serious yet, so when Owen said to me that he wanted to go for shakes, I knew it was a big step for us.
Shelley and I met some months back. She works in the bar down on Mason and 9th and I knew I liked her from the second I saw her. She was bussin’ tables after the dinner rush and I sat on this one with a tonne of empties on it. ‘Course she comes over and starts pokin’ fun, sayin’ she ought to cut me off I’ve had that many. For a second I thought she was serious but then she got that little twinkle in her eye that she gets and I knew she was havin’ me on. We flirted back and forth for a good while before I plucked up the courage to ask for her number. She’d told me about Owen before but it was a good six months before she introduced us; said she wanted to be sure I was stickin’ around.
She’s so protective of that kid, part o’why she’s so lovely, all carin’ and that, but it does show on a young boy. He ain’t a wuss per say, he likes his baseball and got put up a group in little league, but…quiet I guess is what I’d say. Some might say cautious, conscientious and I suppose he’s those things too but, I dunno, he likes to keep himself to himself. That’s why when he walks into the den while Shelley and I are watching the box and announces he’d like us to go to Ed’s it was a real moment.
“Sweetie, you can’t demand stuff like that,” says Shelley
“No,” says Owen, “Eli said we could do something, my choice, I’d like to go to Ed’s and have a milkshake.”
“Eli said that did he?” Shelley looks across at me, eyebrows raised, the edges of her lips curling up into that cute, crooked smile of hers. I flash her a look that says ‘you bet I made a connection’ before I turn to Owen.
“If Ed’s is where you wanna go then that’s what we’ll do. You’re mom’s workin’ the lunch shift on Saturday, how about we drive up and have a bite. A road trip, you and me, what do you say?
Owen glances over at Shelley, little boy lost. His eyebrows knit together and his eyes seem to double in size as he pleads his mother to make this decision, but she just looks back at him. It’s your choice boy, she ain’t makin’ it for ya. This is what I mean. He already built up the courage to ask, if he wants her to come with or if he’s changed his mind or whatever, just say, but no. They just look at each other for a minute before he looks away.
“Okay,” his voice, so timid, is barely audible over the canned laughter from the TV.
“What do you say?” prompts Shelley in that voice all mothers have.
“Thank you,” he mutters before rushing back to his room.
Saturday rolls around and Shelley pushes his mop of hair out of his face before kissing him on the forehead. She’s got her uniform on, apron and all, with a pencil stuck in her hair like she’s in the middle of takin’ orders already. I know some look down on it but it ain’t easy waitin’ tables I can tell you that, and Shelley’s a real natural; she works hard and remembers details about people like you won’t believe. It’s why she gets such good tips, that and she’s quite easy on the eye but then I am biased.
“You be good now,” she calls as the screen door swings closed and I hear her turn the key in the ignition of her old pick-up. I turn to Owen and he’s stood there lookin’ up at me like I’m some big ol’ giant or somethin’. I pick his zip-up off of the lounger and chuck it playfully in his direction. “Come on then kiddo, it’s gone nine, let’s hit the road!”
The car ride is silent and I can feel I’m losin’ him, so I turn on the radio. Some pop nonsense is blarin’ from the tinny old speaker in my saloon but I resist the urge to change it. I look over and he’s still starin’ straight ahead through the windshield and I let out a sigh.
“You like this kinda stuff?”
He listens a moment before replying, “it’s alright I guess.”
“What kinda music do you like?”
He shrugs. A way off being a teenager but getting the language down early I see.
“You must like somethin’. Everyone likes music.”
“I guess I like the music mom listens to.”
“Never had you pegged for a country boy but if that’s what you like.”
I turn the dial, stations merging a garbled tune until I find a country track; some woman whinin’ about her shitty childhood and whatnot. Pretty sure most country ain’t appropriate for a kid his age but I guess he don’t understand all they’re sayin’. The twangin’ of steel strings and liltin’ misery serenades us all the way to the diner.
Inside, the diner is shiny silver and checkerboard floors like them old ones you got in the fifties. We slide into a booth and bury our heads in the menus. You can tell the shakes is what they’re known for; there’s a whole page dedicated, every flavour you could think of. We order our food and the shakes arrive with a cherry on top for that nostalgia feel. We sip in silence for a while.
“So how’s school?”
“Alright I guess…”
“You workin’ hard?”
“Oh buddy, you don’t need to call me sir. Remember what I said before, Eli’s just fine.”
He nods and goes back to sipping his drink. The pink of the strawberry shake makes his skin look pale and I notice for the first time these shadows under his eyes.
“You been sleepin’ alright bud?”
He glances up at me a moment before lookin’ back down at his drink.
“If you want I can come check on you again tonight? Make sure there are no monsters under your bed.”
He doesn’t respond, just stares at his drink. The waitress brings our meals and as we eat I study him, hopin’ to find out what’s goin’ on. I always said I’d never have kids but I seem to have developed a soft spot for this guy.
“If you’re scared, bud, I can come sing you that lullaby again, that helped didn’t it? My dad always used to sing it to me. Kinda thought it could be our thing. Our secret thing.”
The silence hangs over us as we eat and he studies the table as I pay the bill. In the car ride home it’s that same radio station, different singer but same sorta shit. They’ve always been hard-done-by: lived in a trailer, poor as sin, mom on drugs, daddy touchin’ ‘em up, it all sounds the same to me.
We pull up outside the house and I stop the car a moment to get a good look at him. I run my hand through his hair, my thumb soft across his cheek, and flashes of the other night play across my vision; the glow of the nightlight on his skin and the softness of his sheets. My tongue instinctively darts out to wet my lips and I feel him tense under my grip. Shelley appears in the frame of the door wipin’ her hands on a cloth, smilin’ from ear to ear; her boys are back. I remove my hand to wave to her then lean over him to open the door. As I get close I mutter quietly to him, “remember, it’s our little secret.”