"Yes, ma'am. Cold outside to-day,"
He grins with large white teeth
Pulling his collar up against
His salt and pepper beard
And the frigid, gray morning.
"It's the wind," I reply,
Arriving at the bus stop
Flipping back my errant scarf.
"Yes, ma'am. Yes, ma'am.
It's the wind cuts through ya," he nods,
Cupping his white breath into his black hands.
He buries those hands pocket-deep
Braces his shoulders in his tattered navy pea coat.
I lean against frozen bark.
We settle into bus stop silence.
Shift in our boots with shrunken necks
Huffing white, crystal clouds.
Tree and corner lamppost our only cover
Beside the insurance company parking lot.
He checks his watch
Swivels a glance behind the post
And cries to the parking lot,
"Baby Girl! You come here now.
Bus be comin' soon!"
She explodes from beside a parked car
Where he had tucked her safely from the wind,
Flailing the long arms of a
Bursting neon pink coat,
New, three sizes too big.
Under her hand-knit rainbow colored hat
Blooms an identical wide, white grin
Framed by deeply dented, caramel apple cheeks.
"Come on, Baby Girl. Don't you be playin' with me, now."
Gingerly she hobbles across the slick, packed snow
But as he extends his hand
She chortles and hides behind the lamppost
Giggling and rocking foot to foot.
"Okay," he smiles and slides his back down the pole
Curls up on his haunches and covers his eyes.
Laughing, she swings her vacant neon sleeves
Slaps at his huddled form
Until his baseball cap is whacked into the wind.
"Uh, oh," I say in mock dismay.
She freezes, eyes wide.
"No, that's okay," he grunts with pride
As he hand-crawls his back up the pole.
"It's Baby Girl."
As if by right of birth and love
She was forever vindicated from sin.
The cap was luck-caught
On a snowbank ice shard.
As he swoops it up he boasts
"I take Baby Girl with me everywhere I go."
He places his hand on her back.
"She's my only Baby Girl."
He lifts a stiff pink sleeve and peers in.
"You got your gloves, Baby Girl? Where your gloves?"
She grins, scrunching her chin into her neck.
"They in your pocket, Baby Girl?"
Squealing brakes startle us
As the bus sighs to a stop.
He lifts her in.
Rattling heater, coins clinking,
And the winter fragrance of wet boots.
He blocks me in the isle
Greeting a burly blonde man
With intricate handshakes.
I sideways past them
Settle in against a foggy, splattered window
As the bus driver sighs into his mirror,
"You gotta siddown back there."
He turns and puts his hand on her small back.
Her grin returns
Automatic to his touch.
He places her against the window
In the seat opposite mine
And the big blonde perches sideways
On my seat.
Head-to-head and knee-to-knee
As the blurry buildings slide past.
I sway and vibrate with the road.
Baby Girl and I are like bookends
Silent and still.
I close my eyes.
At her age
I remember panic
In a department store downtown
Straining to keep sight of my mother's blonde hair
And brightly flowered blouse.
My heart in my throat,
A maze of counters and racks,
Weaving through the Amazon shoppers,
A sudden bottleneck of legs,
And I lost her.
That was my job.
To keep up with her.
I had failed.
A clerk finally noticed me
Huddled under a clothing rack.
As she led me behind the counter
She told me not to worry
And put her hand on my back.
They called my mother's name.
From the ceiling.
In the car on the way home,
With her eyes on the road,
My mother told me
That she didn't bother to hurry,
Took her sweet time with her purchase.
"That'll teach you."