w.t. pfefferle

She doesn't recognize me at all. I let her in the car a block from Pancake Ranch. She looks in the window for a second, and then opens the door, tosses her backpack in the seat and gets in.
“Mimi,” she says. “My name's Mimi, what's yours?”
“Dunn,” I say. “Hi, Dunn,” she says.
“Hi,” I say. I drive another block and I ask her where she's going. She looks at me like she's sizing me up or something.
“Chicago,” she says. “Are you going to Chicago?”
“No. I'm going east.”
She doesn't say anything. She sees my map on the dash and picks it up. “Whereabouts out east?” she says.
“Maryland,” I say. She looks a bit longer, her finger tracing the line I had drawn with a thick, red pen.
“We're almost out of St. Louis,” she says. “If you're going east I've got to get out. I need to go north on 55.” She hands the map over to me and I glance down at it at a stop sign. She's right. If I keep going this way, east, she’s going to miss Chicago. If I go north on 55, I can take her and head east from there. It doesn't matter to me.
“What’s in Chicago?” I ask.
“Nothing,” she says. We drive a bit more and then we're on a freeway. Up ahead I see the junction of 55 and 70. I stay in the left lane and head north.
“You're a sweetie,” she says, clapping her hands together.
“I'm not in a hurry,” I say, meaning it.
“Neither am I,” she says. I turn the radio on, turning through stations until I find something I figure she might like. It's fast, with a big beat and after it's on for a while, she starts tapping her shoe against my dash.
“Your friend had some trouble with his car?” I say.
“Friend?” she says.
“The guy in the VW,” I say. He didn't look the same to me but I wonder if it was the tall guy from the motel that she was kissing.
“No friend,” she says. “He picked me up hitching this morning.”
Suddenly she looks over at me. “Hey. You're the salesman from the motel.”
“Yeah,” I say. “Room 180.”
“Right,” she says. “You know you looked familiar. I probably wouldn't have gotten in but there was something about you. I guess you were familiar.” She smacks her hand against her leg hard and kind of laughs once, short.
“I'm not a salesman,” I say.
“You're not? Hmmm. I'm pretty good with things like that,” she says. “Pick 'em out before they sign the register.”
She smiles to herself for a while and I wish I could tell her I used to be a salesman.
“Dunn, right? That’s right. I remember your name now. “She looks out the window some more. “ Dunn, what do you do?”
“Security,” I say. I don't tell her I used to be an editor. Or that once thought I might be a writer. I wrote some stories, started a novel when I was twenty. Wrote thirty pages and threw it away.
“Security?” she says, now looking at me carefully. “Like a cop?”
“No,” I say. “Just security. Security guard. I patrol neighborhoods. Boring.”
“Nah,” she says. “That’s okay” She turns away again and I think she's a little interested. “What? You carry a gun, uniform? What?”
“Yeah,” I say. “That's all standard stuff. “ I think about Parker, my landlord. He calls it the security game. He likes my security stuff. He’s got a key to my place and he knows that I've gone away. I've been having this vision of him putting on my uniform and driving around my route for me. He could get my gun out. I showed him where it was. Maybe nobody would notice the difference. I'm sure he'd do a pretty good job.
“Shoot a lot of people?” she says.
“No,” I say, seriously, but then I realize she’s kidding me. Maybe I'm a little embarrassed.
“Just joshing you,” she says, reaching over and punching my arm.
“I thought your name was Caroline,” I say.
“It is,” she says. “Legal name, you know. No one calls me that.”
“I've never heard Mimi before,” I say.
“Me neither,” she says. We drive some more. I can't tell her age. I don’t know anything about that sort of thing. She could be a number of ages and I wouldn't know the difference.     
She turns the dial on the radio when the static starts to cut in. She tells me she’s got a bunch of CDs, and wants to know why I don’t have a CD player in my car. I tell her I never thought of it.
“I don’t listen to much music,” I say. “I get the news. Baseball at night. I listen to that woman with the advice.”
“Dr. Laura,” Mimi says. “Yeah, she’s a nut.”
Mimi keeps turning the knob on the radio looking for something. It’s all static for the most part. I used to have an antenna, but I sheered it off at a car wash a few years ago. It doesn’t matter to me.
Finally, Mimi finds something half clear. It’s a country song. I can’t imagine she’ll like it, but after all that spinning, she seems to be happy to have found anything without hiss. She gives me a sort of thumbs up, puts her head back on the rest, closes her eyes. It looks like she might try to sleep.
It's about noon or shortly after. Mimi picks her head up off the back of the seat and looks around a bit. Looks once at me, focuses for a second, and says hi.
“You've been sleeping,” I say.
“Uh-huh,” she says. She sits up straight and picks up the map again. “Where are we?” she says, holding the map over toward me.
I look at it between glances at the deserted highway ahead of me. I point at Lincoln, Illinois on the map and she takes it back.
“I haven't been sleeping long,” she says.
“Just an hour and a half or so,” I say. “Maybe it’s two hours. “
“When will we make Chicago?” she says, squinting a little.
I think for a bit. “Three hours. Something like that. “It's quiet for a while again. “ You quit your job?” I ask.
“I guess so,” she says, and then waits. She taps one perfect fingernail on the glass of the side window. “It’s my dad's place. “
 I look over at her and she looks scared to me. She's a kid. I know it now. “How old are you?” I say.
She doesn't answer right away. Instead, she reaches into the back seat and pulls her backpack up onto her lap. She opens up a side pocket and then pulls it open so I can see in. The pocket is full of bills. I see twenties and hundreds mostly. Some tens and fives scrunched around in comers. It looks like thousands of dollars to me.
“I'm eighteen,” she says.
It's probably a lie. We don't say anything for the next thirty miles. When we see a sign for a restaurant up ahead I ask her if she’s hungry. She nods her head but doesn't say anything. I pull in the rough gravel driveway and park off to one side.
“I'll buy,” she says, hopping out of the car as soon as it’s stopped.
I sit there and stare at her back as she opens the door to the place.
She eats slowly, mixing up all the food on her plate into various combinations. The potatoes go together with some corn in a white and yellow mixture. She cuts her hamburger up and pours too much ketchup on it, peppering the whole thing before she starts eating. She puts the hamburger bun on the table between us.
“Yours, if you want it,” she says. I keep looking out the window for cops. If she’s really eighteen then she's going to jail probably. If she’s younger than that then I've transported a runaway minor with thousands of dollars of stolen money across the Illinois state line.
“Are you going to eat that ham?” She points at my piece of ham with her fork. She's got a mouthful of potatoes and corn.
“Take it,” I say. I'm not hungry. She drinks coffee with cream and sugar in it. Two sugars, I think. “Did you really run away?” I say.
“What do you think?” she says, not looking at me, now concentrating on stacking pieces of ham onto pieces of hamburger, cut roughly the same size.    
“I think you're in a lot of trouble. “
She looks up at me and sort of smiles. “Once I get to Chicago I'll be okay”
“What's in Chicago?” I say.
“My mom. “
“What is she doing in Chicago?” I ask.
“That's where she lives, dummy. “ She smacks her lips hard after she eats the last bit of ham/hamburger. “You want dessert?” she says.
 “Which one was your dad?” I ask.
“Old guy. White hair. His name's Harold. We just call him Hal.”
“Was he at the motel when I was there?”
“How do I know?” She picks up half of the hamburger bun and smears some potatoes on it.
“Won't they be looking for you?” I say.
“Yeah, I suppose,” she says, giving me a tired look. “But I usually go west. They'll never think of this.” She looks around and calls out to the one waitress in the place to bring a menu again.
I reach for the sugar bowl and spin it a couple of times. Nothing spills out. She orders a piece of pie and asks me if I want any. I tell her no and the waitress tells me that the apple is fresh, hot out of the oven. No, I say again, but Mimi orders two pieces.
“You've done this before?” I say
“They usually find you?”
“Sometimes. They find me, take me back. Sometimes I just get tired, run out of money.”
“How old are you?”
“Seventeen,” she says. “Really. That eighteen junk was just so you wouldn't worry.”
The woman brings the pie and Mimi takes my piece and stacks it on top of hers, crushing her fork through them, mashing them together.            
“What about the money?” I ask softly.
“Dad's,” she says. “He's got a safe. I've got the combination for when I close up. “She stops and looks at me. “ Really.”
“How long have you worked there?”
“Ever since I was twelve,” she says. “Family tradition. I have a brother who used to work there, but he took off about three years ago. He's in Oregon. “
“What's this about your mom?”
“Chicago. She's been there for a couple years.”
“They get divorced?” I say.
She finishes the pie and takes a twenty out of her backpack when no one is looking. “This should cover it, huh, Dunn?” She puts it on the table. ­
“Big tipper,” I say, and she laughs. We get up and leave, get in the car and get back onto the highway.
“Does your mom know you're coming?” I say.
 “No. Actually, I haven't talked to her in quite awhile.”
“Do you know where she lives?”
“Yeah. Christmas cards, birthdays, you know. She writes.”
She reaches over and turns the radio on. I reach over and turn it off.
“Listen,” I say. “I'm in way over my head, here. You're a kid. A runaway. You've got money you stole from a motel back there. I don't really want to be in this anymore.”
“I'm not asking for anything,” she says, sharp. “I could get a ride from a million guys out here. Let me off. I don't care. “
I don't say anything to this. I want nothing more than to be back at the Pancake Ranch. I could drive right past her, never recognize her. It'd be somebody else's problem.
“I mean it,” she says. She reaches in the back for her backpack but I touch her arm.
 “We're getting close,” I say. “We'll be there this afternoon. I'll take you there but you've got to tell your mom what happened. I still don't now if I believe any of this.
“Sure,” she says. “But don't strain yourself. I wouldn’t want you to strain yourself.” Then she sits up looking front again. She laughs then says, “Okay if I put the radio on now?”
I do it for her. It's an oldies station. She won’t like it, I'm sure. I'd rather she was uncomfortable for a while, too.
 “How old are you?” she says, but I don't answer her. “You're old enough to know better, I bet,” she says. I look over at her and decide she won't be any more trouble.
If no one finds her, I'll be able to get her to her mom’s in Chicago. I was thinking I might go in with her. Tell the whole story. I was going to tell the woman that I’m an off duty security guard on vacation and I've given her daughter a hand. I was going to be up front with her. Tell her about the money, everything. That was what I was going to do.
Now I just think I might drop her off at the door. Let her get her stuff and get out. I might watch her go to the door, and that's it. Maybe I'll tell her to wave once she's inside. That's enough, though.
I have a lot of things I have to do yet. I'm off target. I'm going north now. I have to go east. When I get to Baltimore, I'll be able to find Clare. She will be an architect, like she was when she left me. Phoebe will have just turned ten years old. They're a puzzle to me. I don't know them anymore. Phoebe has never known me. I have a lot of miles to go and I can't be driving runaway motel robbers back to their mothers.
I'll take Mimi where she's going. But then I have a lot of things to do. I'm the missing piece, I'll tell my little girl. I’m the missing piece, I'll say. She'll be ten.
Mimi is chewing gum and makes popping noises with it. When she looks over at me, she's got a little gum on her teeth. “I'm old enough to be your father,” I say. ­