We sit at the same table, a nineteen-fifties Formica top of white with silver glitter. A large round melted spot sits in the middle a reminder to always use a hot pad or a trivet when trying to serve spaghetti in a hurry. Some smaller melted spots still contain the ash from a forgotten Lucky Strikes; make that many forgotten cigarettes or cigars of various brands. The metal trim around the edge contains fragments of meals from Christmas dinners to Thanksgiving, baby showers, and probably a crumb or two from the coffee cake that was served the day Uncle Larry was laid out in the parlor of the old house. My father sits across from me. His wife-beater was stained almost as colorful as the table. A trail of coffee tears down the front, the yellowing in the pits and what’s either blood or strawberry jelly on the seam which thankfully is beyond the open door of his pajama bottoms. Our eyes never meet as he slowly dunks his hard toast in his tar black coffee. Espresso wouldn’t have a chance up against his six scoops of pure Columbian coffee. I sit on the padded silver flaked seat with the same metal trim as the table; being ever so careful not to pull out any of the stuffing leaking out of the cracks. The newspaper I’m reading separates us physically, life separates us emotionally. We don’t speak to each other. We bounce off of each other as if force fields surrounded us, even the narrow hallway of this third-story apartment can’t make us touch. By the indentations in the couch and the sweat stains left on the cushions, one can only assume that that’s where he spends his days while I work to support us. It wasn’t always like this.
Uncle Larry’s funeral was in our old Victorian home; my mother justified the funeral being there because at one time it was a funeral home with its pocket doors and heavy curtains to muffle out the sound. She loved the attention of the guests, and the fresh flowers in every vase. Even the Coke bottle in the downstairs bath held a single carnation. My father was a great host and inwardly happy over the fact that his more popular more successful brother had died before him. Most likely to succeed my ass is what my cousin Evelyn said she heard him saying as he stood in front of the casket. Dad toasted Uncle Larry a fifths worth of Jack Daniels before anyone figured out that he didn’t give a crap that Larry was dead. His eulogy included “sorry son of a bitch” and “creepy little bastard” before my mother could interrupt him and apologize to our guests who were nodding in agreement and would have let him continue concluding with thunderous applause. Being an only child, this display from my role model left me thinking that my chance of life being anything but screwed was at best minimal. At fourteen though I still supported my father and joined him as we peed in the big planter of flowers on the back porch.
The divorce didn’t come right away; in fact, they stayed together for the sake of me, a great idea. Four years of fighting and disappointment spread through that house like crabs across a college campus. My father lived in the den, the same den Uncle Larry was laid out in. Occasionally he’d come out for food and beer when his mini refrigerator ran out. I graduated on a Saturday; Dad moved out on Sunday. I followed suit moving out a week later. The divorce became final a month later. The house sold quickly, and the auction of contents brought in enough cash for Dad to get an MG Midget and a cruise ship companion in her twenties. Mother moved in with Uncle Larry’s wife and traded in the Town and Country Wagon for a pink scooter and matching pink helmet. I went to college.
Did you know you can get a BA quicker if you never leave the campus and just take classes year-round? In three and a half years I had a BA in Business Administration and in no time I was a General Manager, at Taco Bell. My dreams were a bit larger but Taco Bell fit my dysfunctional existence. I rented the third-floor apartment, furnished it from Goodwill, and bought my first used car that wasn’t at least ten years old. It was the early eighties so my seventy-eight Sunbird with the sunroof was a major step up from the Pinto. That car had the Firebird steering wheel without the price of an engine twice the size and without the big bird on the hood. The seventy-nine Sunbird added a hatchback eliminating the trunk making it look like a smashed-in Firebird that shrunk in the rain. It was about this time that the letters started coming from Aunt Polly.
Dear Alex, your mother needs you, she’s isolated, she’s started to drink, and she’s this and that. I ignored the letters. It wasn’t until Dad wrote that I realized that I needed to do my son-like duties and visit. It was the first letter from my Dad that didn’t include a request for money. “Alex, it’s your mother. I think she’s finally taken that last step to un-shuffling her deck if you know what I mean”. I think a simple “Your mom is nuts would’ve sufficed.”
I went to Aunt Polly’s on my next day off from my fast food life. I pulled my brown Sunbird up the curb, twelve inches away, as I had been taught by Mr. Snodgrass. There on the porch was my mother, Marietta Freemont, pink helmet on, a yellow scarf around her neck, and no sign of her scooter to be found. Hello Mother I said with no response from her. Aunt Polly came out of the house and gave me a hug and explained to me that she hadn’t taken that helmet off for a week. I asked where the scooter was. She told me that one night my mother had been drinking at the Pink Lady lesbian bar on thirty-second when one of the butch lesbians made a crack about the helmet. My mother as I was told calmly got off of her stool and cracked the butch out of her. On the ride home she rode closer than twelve inches to the curb, jumped it, and cracked her scooter in half off the library steps but not her pink helmeted head. Aunt Polly said that was two months ago, about when the letters started. I asked why she contacted my father. A guilt trip later about my non-responsiveness and “a who else would I call” comment made it perfectly clear, somebody had to commit her and that somebody was me. The hospital took her helmet away but let her keep the scarf. I promised I would visit. She died there of an unknown cause. Probably some crazy butch lesbian who wanted a yellow scarf, or a heart attack or cancer, I didn’t ask for details.
Fast forward ten years, Dad’s turn. I never married, fear of mental illness and alcoholism, or maybe just the fact that I’m an asshole. He called on a Sunday night and asked if he could stay with me for a while. Barbie, now in her late thirties, left Dad the minute he bought a mini-van and stopped taking cruises. I had the three-bedroom apartment still and was now managing a Wal-Mart working sixty hours a week so why the hell not. After all, he was still my father. This brings us back to the present; I folded up the paper and nodded to my Dad, wiped my coffee ring off the table, and tossed the paper towel in the trash. My Dad scratched his sack, smelled his finger and walked over to the couch, sat down, and turned on the Price is Right. I put on my jacket and grabbed my keys for my Miata, turned to look back at my dad with one hand on the remote and one in his pajamas. Maybe he could be a greeter someday; I’ll have to look into that.