This is another of the Manitoulin stories. As usual, I have added it to the Island Stories file on the Longer Works page for anyone who would like to read all the stories together.
The diner is just across the border of the reserve, filled about equally with local residents and with the cottagers who lease property from the band. The laws against smoking in public places don’t apply here, and many of the cottagers come here just for that reason, so the dining room is filled with smoke.
There are three officers from the reserve police in the corner closest to the kitchen, farthest from my own table. They speak to the cook through the open doorway with the ease of regulars. They are tall and well-built, all of them, with closely cut dark hair and handsome faces, wearing very clean, very sharp uniforms, complete with bullet-proof vests and hand guns and brushed caps set carefully on the table beside their plates. They know they are the symbols of a new kind of reserve that takes care of its own business. Much of the reserve is lagging behind them, of course, but they are a symbol of what is possible, law and order and beautiful uniforms, all with a native face.
They are drinking coffee from white diner mugs, and one calls into the kitchen, “Hey, Susan, has that Barbeau kid come around since we picked him up?”
“Nope. Haven’t seen him,” a woman’s voice replies, disembodied, emerging throaty and sensual from the kitchen, a smoker’s voice. “You guys didn’t rough him up too badly did ya? He’s really not a bad kid.”
“He took cash from you at knife point, Susan. He’s a bad kid.”
“He just steals because his mother steals.”
“Maybe, but she steals for booze. He just does it for kicks. He’s gonna be a mean one when he gets older.”
“Maybe. Band should have done something earlier, placed him with an auntie.”
“That’s what they’d do now, for sure.” He sipped from his mug. “But times were different then.”
“Says the boy talking to his grandma.”
The three officers all laugh, bright and handsome.
The girl in the next booth looks up at them and then away again before they can meet her eyes. She is sipping from a mug of coffee also, staring across at an elderly woman in a pink, floral hat, humped over a pot of tea. The girl is thin, not like an anorexic or an athlete, but like someone whose body only ever bothered to grow upward, spent all its energy on height and had nothing left over for roundness, for breasts or hips. Her eyes look past the old woman without interest, past the pink hat with its white and blue flowers, past the hand-knitted pink shawl and the blue dress with its delicately scalloped collar. She looks at the same time fierce and bored.
“How’s your soda, lamby?” the old woman asks.
The girl’s eyes focus for an instant on the elderly face and then drift into the distance again. “It’s not soda Grandma. It’s coffee. And nobody calls it soda anymore. It’s called pop.” She fidgets, running her thumb along the inside of her necklace, rearranging the salt and pepper shakers, spinning her rings on her fingers. Her eyes drift across the restaurant toward my table, so I look down to my breakfast until her gaze passes over me, just another teen boy eating his breakfast.
The older woman seems either not to hear or not to care. She sips daintily from her teacup, the perfect caricature of a grandmother.
“Will you need me this afternoon Grandma?” the girl asks. Her mouth hardly ever moves, even when she speaks.
“What’s that?” The older woman tilts her head to the left and leans toward her granddaughter.
“I said, “Do you need me for anything this afternoon?”
“No, not today, lamby. I think I’ll have a bit of a nap after lunch. You go ahead and have the afternoon to yourself.”
The girl takes a cigarette from her purse and puts it between her lips but leaves it unlit. “Can I have the car?” she says. The cigarette twitches in time to her words.
“You know I never let anyone drive it without me,” her grandmother replies, “and you know I can’t abide smoking, so put that dirty thing away.”
“It’s not lit, grandma.” She takes the cigarette from her mouth and turns it between her fingers until it breaks. She tosses it into the ashtray. “Please, grandma. Daniel’s parents won’t let him use the car anymore. And he says he shouldn’t come into town for a while. Can’t I take it just this once?”
“I certainly will not send you off unattended with my car to see some, some Indian. Certainly not.”
“Native, Grandma. He’s native. It’s rude to say Indian.”
“I don’t care what you call him. You may not take my car.”
The girl stood up and grabbed her bag from the seat. “Fine,” she said, “I’m going for a smoke,” and she stalked to the door, her heels clicking hollowly on the linoleum floor.
“You’re allowed to smoke in here, you know,” said a man as she passed his table. She ignored him and pushed her way out through the door. He shrugged and leaned on the table, its edge pressing deeply into the heavy flesh of his bare forearms.
“Did you see that?” he demanded. The woman across from him never bothered to look up, kept her eyes on the paper, almost tenderly tapping the ash of her cigarette in the ashtray. Her silence didn’t deter him. He lit a cigarette of his own. “So rude,” he said, brushing his long hair out of his face, his eyes squinting in the smoke as he exhaled. “First we almost hit that one kid. Runs into the road right in front of us. Then gives me the finger when I slam on the breaks, like I didn’t just save his life.”
He leaned back in his chair, pulled his t-shirt down over his belly. “Then that skinny chick…” he stopped himself and looked at the old lady across the restaurant. “Then that skinny chick, ” he continued, his voice lower, “gives me a look like that. For trying to be nice.” He shook his head and idly moved his homefries around his plate. “Are you listening to me, Jessica?”
The woman made no sign that she had heard him. Her blond hair hung long on either side of her face. It swung slightly as her eyes followed the print in front of her.
“Hey!” the man said suddenly, and something in his voice seemed to register with Jessica enough for her to look up as well. “It’s that kid!” he hissed, half-whispering. “The kid we almost hit!”
Jessica turned in her chair, looked behind me to the back door, and I turned too. A teen boy, a bit older than me maybe, stood just inside the door, peering around the angle of the hallway into the restaurant. The couple by the door could see him, and so could I, but the wall hid him from everyone else. He seemed intent on the booth where the girl had been sitting, then noticed the three officers and pulled further back into the door jamb. His dark hair was long and pulled into a ponytail.
The front door opened, and we all turned to see the girl walk in, her jeans hanging low on her thin hips. She looked to her left, past the couple by the door, past my table, to the boy hiding in the back hall. Her eyes widened, and she smiled shyly, checked to see whether her grandmother was watching. “Um, grandma,” she called, “I’m just going to the bathroom, okay?”
Her grandmother looked over the top of her glasses. “Sure, lamby.”
The girl crossed the diner to the hallway and threw her arms around the boy’s neck, her shirt pulling up to show a bird tattoo in the small of her back. She tried to kiss his face, but he looked distracted, whispered something in her ear. She looked over her shoulder to where the three officers were leaning back in their chairs, coffees in hand. He tried to lead her outside, but she opened the door to the bathroom and pulled him inside. There was lettering on the back of his leather jacket. Grizzlies, it read, over a logo of a bear, and then underneath, Daniel Barbeau, Left Wing.
“I should’ve known,” said the man by the door. He scratched the stubble on his face. “Those two were meant for each other.” Jessica had already gone back to her paper.
I finished my food, but the waitress hadn’t been by in a long while. I thought about going to ask for my bill, but the reserve police got up first. “Bill please, Susan,” one called.
“Separate?” came the throaty voice.
“Naw, put it all together. And put my coffee tab on there too.”
“Thanks, Eric. I’ll get it next time,” one of the others said. “I’m just gonna use the can.” He left his hat on the table and strolled across the restaurant to the bathroom, tried the handle. There was no sound from inside. “Hey,” he asked, “is anyone in there?” There was still silence. He tried the door again. Susan?” he called, “I think someone locked the bathroom on you.”
“Could you open it for me?” she called back. “It’s just a toothpick lock.”
The officer knocked again. “I’m coming in, ” he said, “so speak up if you’re in there.” There was the sudden sound of glass smashing from inside the bathroom, like a window had been broken out, and then a scrambling noise. “What the hell?” he said. He didn’t bother finding a toothpick, just stepped back and broke the door in with a kick. It swung open on its hinges and banged against the inside of the wall. A girl’s voice started screaming, and I could see the skinny girl pressed into the far corner of the bathroom, her face in her hands. The officer leapt to stand on the rim of the toilet, peering out through the broken window on the opposite wall. “It’s no use running, Barbeau, ” he yelled. “You’ve got no where to go!”
He came back into the restaurant. One of the other officers threw him his cap, and all three dashed through the door.
“Be gentle with him!” Susan yelled after them, then quieter, so only we could hear, “He’s really not a bad kid.”