At the time, my daughter was known as Whitey the Cat. She would only answer to Whitey, unless she was sleepy—then her guard was down and you could call her by her real name. She only ate Cheerios, because they resembled cat food. Of course she did not use a spoon. She ate the cereal dry and insisted that a second bowl of milk be placed in front of her. She would only wear a white T-shirt—her fur. Her mother, my ex-wife, called it a phase, seven-year-old psychology. We needed to be stern, and she’d grown out of it. But I admit I indulged her. I stroked her warm, sun-tanned arm as she rested, curled in the front seat of the car, and she purred deep in the back of her throat. She was a striking mimic, and I was almost proud.
I was her father, and I was driving her across the desert.
I stopped for gas around halfway. The sun was hight and there was the smell of oil and creosote. We were coming to a town—I could see it shimmering in the distance. When I paid I asked the attendant if there was any place ahead to get a decent meal.
He nodded at a glass case of frankfurters revolving on metal rollers. They were pink and wrinkled, like fingers out of a long bath. “More decent ‘n that?” he said.
“More of a sit-down thing, maybe,” I said.
He laughed. “Just kidding, chief. Only people that buy those hot dogs is stoned kids.”
He gave me directions to a place called Lolly After’s, a diner off the highway. “Can’t miss the signs,” he told me, and it was true. As soon as we got back on the road I began to see billboards, one after another, for Lolly After’s Grub and Gags, Lolly’s for Breakfast—Yolks and Jokes, L. After’s Fun Under the Sun, Home of the Singin’ Cacti, Big Rig Parking, Buses Welcome, etc. There must have been forty signs along that fifteen miles of road. I tried to get my daughter to look at them, but she was busy batting a bit of floating goose down her pillow had exhaled when I fluffed it for her.
“Can’t get in to Lolly After’s without telling a joke,” the host told us. Lolly After’s was one of those refashioned diners—gleaming chrome and boomerang formica—that are depressing to anyone who remembers the real thing. This one had a twist. Framed photographs of stand-up comedians lined the walls. There was a mounted horse’s ass sticking out of the quilted chrome above the grill. The waitstaff all wore oversized bow ties in different colors.
The only jokes that came to mind were some cruel ones my uncle had taught me. What do you call a paraplegic in a bathtub? Bob. A leper. Stu. I wouldn’t tell them. The host stood with his arms crossed. He was sticking to his position.
“Look—I can’t remember any jokes. How about this?” I pulled my daughter in front of me. “This girl’s a cat.” She was thrilled to be acknowledged as her chosen species. She licked the back of her hand and wiped spit all over her upper lip, cleaning her whiskers. The host, who was really only a teenage townie, looked confused, as if he might need to consult a rule book.
“I guess that’s kind of funny,” he said, picking two glossy menus from behind his stand.
He sat us in a booth next to a big window. I leaned my forehead against the cool glass. My daughter was nudging the lid of the creamer with her nose, sniffing furiously. I opened it for her and poured some cream into a saucer. She lapped at it slowly with her thin tongue. Outside the window, people were gathered around a cactus grove, waiting. My daughter looked at me, her lips dripping. A waiter told a joke to the table next to us and they laughed uproariously. You had to tell a joke to get in and then you got a joke with your meal.
The waitress came to take our order and I almost dropped my water glass. It was my mother. I hadn’t seen her since 1972. Her name tag was blank—only Miss was printed on the top—and she was much shorted than I remembered, but it was her, sure as anything; that birthmark above her eyebrow, like an apostrophe. She didn’t recognize me, and she shot a disapproving look at my daughter—her granddaughter—who was picking grains of sugar off the tabletop with her tongue. I didn’t know what to do. I ordered lunch. The bow tie my mother wore was cherry red. She wrote our order and walked away.
“Melissa,” I said to my daughter. “Melissa, we’re leaving.” Of course she didn’t answer me. Her upper body was sprawled across the tabletop in a patch of sunlight.
Soon enough, my mother came back with our food. She laid our plates on the table with a perfunctory smile. I caught a whiff of that same perfume—that same perfume! I’d ordered my daughter a cheeseburger, which, to my surprise, she picked up and began to nibble on.
“Is there anything else I can get you?” my mother asked. I avoided her eyes.
“We’re fine,” I said.
“Mayonnaise,” my daughter said.
“Back in two shakes,” said my mother.
Her shoulders were broad. Her skirt was tight around her substantial bottom, and her legs, encased in white tights, were thickly muscled. I wondered what had brought her to this place. Outside, the cacti began to sway. They began to sing “Moon River.” I could hear muffled applause through the window. My daughter ate french fries and painted at my chef’s salad, indicating that I hadn’t touched it. She asked for a quarter for the jukebox. I wanted to ask her, Where’s the Whitey?
My mother came back and presented my daughter with a dish of mayo, on which a smiley face had been drawn in ketchup.
“Ok,” said my mother.
She put her knuckles on the table and leaned in toward us. I looked into her eyes and saw that she knew me. She leveled her gaze at me—it was the same look she’d given me thirty-two years ago, the day she’d left me at her sister’s house forever. “It won’t be pretty,” she’d told me then. “But you’ll get through it.”
We looked up at her, my daughter and I. She cleared her throat. It was time for our joke.