E looks up at me from the sandbox, squinting in the late sunlight. Her first loose tooth is wiggling around in her gums, a stain of blood around it. We walk home.
Downstairs, I lift her up to one of the lilac trees. She closes her eyes and breathes in their old lady fragrance. I stare at the gnarled wiry skeletons. Clusters of white flowers and lavender make the branches hang low, dipping in an offbeat rhythm as a breeze passes. E grabs a clump as I bring her back down and she smiles at me, suddenly satisfied.
Upstairs, I place them in a juice glass. I always place lilacs in juice glasses.
I form the hamburger patties gently, salting them on the cutting board while the pan gets hot. E looks up at me, poking a finger into the soft meat.
"How do you make them so tasty Pop?" She asks me.
I smile, sigh quickly through my nose and am lost in that glass of lilacs, remembering a summer job from my college years. Working in a sort of diner, getting trained by a guy named Mike who wore rainbow tie-dye shirts under his uniform. He was stoned most of the time. He taught me the ropes, lining up order slips above the fiercely hot grill, snapping them with his fingertips as he threw meat down to sizzle and pop in the summer night. I learned fast, working mustard into the grilled cheese sandwiches, banging the fries out of the hot oil, tossing salt over them with backhand splashes like I was a tennis pro. Mike taught me everything. He never got stressed out, no matter how angry the waitresses were, no matter how many slips fluttered above our heads. He just flicked his fingers on them, called out the plates to me and we pushed it all out.
Mike would bring a clump of lilac in with him from his break, and rest it in a juice glass on a window ledge close to the grill. It was a strange and tender gesture. He would never explain to me why he did it, and I never asked. When the slips really stacked up I would see him stare at the lilac for a moment, maybe close his eyes and let a breath out slowly.
I developed a personal slang to make the waitresses nuts.
"Rip Van Winkle!" I would shout from my station, then clanging my spatula on the counter. "Growin' a beard!"
This meant an order was up, sitting too long waiting to be served. They were not amused. Margaret, a battlehorse in polyester, a single mom with three kids for example. And Rosalie - John Wayne as a gunslinging waitress in a one piece, name tag dangling off the collar. She stared me down, shaking her head no, warning me maybe I needed to wear a hairnet if I didn't cut my sideburns.
The waitresses could leave early if the place got quiet, but first they had to approach the manager - a fat little man with a mustache that covered a miniature mouth. "When can I get off?" They would ask him.
He would pause, his tiny lips puckering into a silent air kiss.
"I dunno, but can I watch?" He would reply, chuckling then screaming in laughter. He told this joke every night.
At the end of my shifts I was supposed to throw out the garbage. He would stand in the doorway, holding he door open, watching me. One night he actually helped me. "What are you studying, college boy?" He asked me, offhanded.
"Film." I said. "But I write a lot. I'm writing a kind of a novel."
"I read." He said, tossing a bag high into the air before it splashed into the dumpster with a soft thud. "The letters to the editor in Hustler."
I smile blandly.
"Some are really good." He added. "But films are better."
They asked me to cover the breakfast shift once, and I was terrified. I could cook an omelette at home in a nonstick pan if I had a little time, but spreading eggs across the great stainless steel grill, stacking homefries and pancakes and making it all work was a sort of nightmare. Mike was not there, instead a guy named Kevin with curly hair. He talked to himself a lot, had a spatula in each hand. I just tried to bring him plates and flip the pancakes to look remotely useful.
As breakfast wound down and we shifted the prep to lunch and my familiar and beloved burgers, a lone order came in from a wide-eyed waitress with skinny legs jutting from her ill-fitting uniform. She was young, a college girl I thought. Kevin stared at the slip for a bit, then looked me in the eyes for the first time that morning, sliding it down towards me. I raised my hands in defense, not wanting to screw up somebody's eggs. I read the slip. In giant curlicue letters it said "let's go out!". I stared down the aisle at her, seeing her biting her lips. I mouthed an OK to her and she disappeared in embarrassment.
We went out, and I learned that she loved Guns-n-Roses more than life itself, that she thought Axl was some kind of angel, the way he sang. She had deep tan lines, and did not drink. I pushed The Clash on her, some old Bowie, The Ramones. She wanted none of it. She let on that she was a Jew for Jesus next, explaining to me she would never sleep with me, that she prayed for me every night. She offered to give me a bible, and if I did she promised to take a shower with me. She had layers of oddness under that uniform, and my typical curiosity disappeared. She kept calling me on the phone at work, in the middle of the dinner rush saying she could save me if only I would pray with her.
I broke things off, and took a job building opera scenery for the rest of the summer.
The pay was much better.
The pan is smoking hot. I spread a thin sheen of oil that shimmers on the surface. I drop the burgers in and they instantly start talking, making happy noises.
E is poking my arm. I look at her. She holds her tooth in her tiny hand. The first one to go. We talk about the tooth fairy and if she should leave rubles or dollars when she places it under her pillow. I find a jar in the cabinets to keep it safe. It smells of vinegar and chili.
She sleeps now. The jar with the tiny tooth at the bottom stands next to those lilacs in the darkness of the kitchen. I think of Mike getting stoned, smiling his wide smile, his perfect teeth. I think of the skinny waitress. I wonder if she knows that I pray now.