by DOUGLAS COLE
My father drove in silence. We were off the familiar roads, now. The few houses there were stood back inside deep black groves. It felt like the country, even though we had just left the city, and everything was dark except for those occasional house lights that shone like coyote eyes in the trees. “You want to meet a friend of mine?” my father asked. I really never thought of my father as having friends. He had golf buddies and drinking buddies. He said he would teach me to golf “next year,” but there would be a lot of next years. For now I was a caddy, walking the course with his work friends, those same golfing and drinking buddies. They were a tight group that had little to say but swore a lot. They smoked and hacked and had their individual twitches and ticks. Hector would shrug a few times before each swing, and when I pointed it out to him he glared at me with that superstition that said you don’t point that kind of thing out to a guy. It didn’t seem much like a sport the way they played it, though. They tossed cigarettes on the side of the fairway to make a shot and then picked them up again and kept on smoking and walking, and they all looked like candidates for heart attacks. “She’s got a son your age,” my father said. “What’s his name?” I asked. He was silent for a few moments. Then he said, “I don’t know.” The apartment building was on a cul-de-sac. It was there alone, out of place, no other homes around. Three forlorn lights burned under the eaves. I could see a blue flickering glow behind the curtains of every window. One street light off to the side illuminated the darkness with a gloomy yellow light. My father pulled up, his headlights strafing the lower doorways. Then he came to a stop and turned off the engine. He looked over at me and smiled and said, “Well, here we are!” A fine silver mist was floating around, billowing and shifting in the light of that one streetlamp. The ground was a glowing black snakeskin. I followed him up to one of the apartments on the first floor. A simple horseshoe knocker gleamed on the door, but my father just put a hand on the doorknob and pushed on through. “Hey, there,” he called out. He seemed to feel pretty comfortable, like he had been there many times. It was kind of a dump, but I made no judgments in my mind, really. The brown couch was made of shiny velour, and it was crushed smooth on the arms and the center of the seat cushions. A show was on. The king of Jeopardy, Alex Trebek, was asking some impossible questions with that smug look, as if he knew all the answers and didn’t have them written down in front of him. I could smell something cooking, like hamburger and onions. My father looked around. Then his friend, a woman, came out from the kitchen, which was just a separate little alcove to the right of the living room. “Hey, sweetheart,” she said, and she threw her arms around my father’s neck and wrapped herself around him and gave him a big kiss and dropped her head on his shoulder. She stayed that way a long time. When she finally pulled away, she looked over at me and smiled mechanically. I knew the difference. “And you!” she said. “I’ve heard all about you!” And she came over to me and put her arms around me and pushed her body against mine as though I had no personal space. Her rose perfume was overpowering. Her hair was white, bleach white, and it fell across my face. My mother referred to this kind of hair as bleach bottle blond. What had this woman heard? I couldn’t imagine my father talking to anyone about me. Not unless he could get something out of it. When she pulled back, I saw her face. From a distance she would have been pretty. Up close, her make-up was thick as putty. Her smile was a fracture in the mask. “Hello,” I said. “So you’re in the….sixth grade?” “Yeah.” She looked over at my father and said, “He’s the splitting image.” That’s exactly what she said. Her teeth were big and yellow. “Hey,” she said, still holding me by the shoulders. “Go say hi to Zack, my son. He’s been looking forward to seeing you all day! He doesn’t have any friends out here…” She pointed toward the hallway, the only other way to go in that place but out. My father smiled, nodding, waving me on. And looking at him, I just wondered, who are you? I went down the hallway. The walls were white. The ceiling lights were bright and glaring. This must be it, I thought, when I came to the end of the hallway and stood before a door that was slightly open. I knocked gently as I pushed the door back and went into Zack’s room. He was sitting on the floor, his back against the bed, and as I entered he barely looked at me. There wasn’t much to see in Zack’s room. The walls were bare. He had no furniture except for a bed. He had a few clothes in the closet and a few toys on the floor, Legos and plastic cars and a little plastic pirate ship, but that was about it. It looked like they had just moved in. It was the most dismal thing I had ever seen.
He had one of those twisted metal ring puzzles in his hand, and he was staring at it. I received a wave of intuition that said he wanted to work out in his mind first how to separate those rings and then do the job.
“Hey,” I said. “Hey.” We didn’t say a word to each other after that. I sat down and pushed a matchbox car around for a while, listening to the lights buzz. We were like a couple of inmates, waiting for a prison meal. During dinner, neither Zack nor I spoke. My father and his friend kept up a conversation, or rather she did. She talked a mile a minute. She told stories about people she knew, like most people do, but her stories were all about men she had dated. One was a guy who loved horse racing. She was living in Florida when she knew him. Another was a garbage inspector who did sample analysis at the transfer station. “He was the smartest man I ever knew,” she said. “When he looked at a painting, he didn’t see images and stuff…he saw the paint and the chemicals in the paint and the cracks and…what did he say? Time! He said he saw time!” If she mentioned Zack’s father, I didn’t notice. My father just sat there nodding and grinning like an old wolf. After dinner we watched a few more shows. Well, Zack and I did. My father took off his leather jacket and got down on his knees under the kitchen sink. He said something about how it was just a matter of a few cranks to fix that garbage disposal. “You are such a lifesaver,” she said, stacking dishes into the sink. In fact, the sink was full of dishes, and she didn’t look like she had any intention of cleaning up right then. She sipped wine and ran her fingers through my father’s hair when he came up from under the sink, and she gave him this sleepy-eyed look and grinned and said, “I’ll make it worth it. Do you think I can make it worth it?” She didn’t think I heard, of course. But she was already drunk. After he fixed the garbage disposal, my father got up and headed back towards the bedrooms. “Gonna fix a light switch,” he said as he went down the hallway. She stood for a moment at the back of the couch, wine glass in her hand. “Whatcha boys watchin’?” Zack sat there like a stone. I looked up at her, but she had already turned away, and I knew she wouldn’t hear me if I said anything. It looked like Zack was used to this routine, his face fixed in the glow of the screen. Then, she just drifted down the hallway, catching herself once by reaching out to the wall. She went into the bedroom and closed the door and clicked the lock, and they were gone for a while. I sat there with Zack, absorbing images of fizzing Alka-Seltzer and Scrubbing Bubbles. Driving home in the dark, my father draped his hand on the steering wheel so that it hung over at the wrist. He turned on the radio to a late night blues station. That’s about all he listened to. I wasn’t sure exactly which roads we had taken to get out to his friend’s place, but I knew we weren’t going back the way we had come. We were heading down a two-lane highway in nearly pitch black darkness. Occasionally we passed through an intersection with a gas station or a Mexican grocery. Rain drifted in fishtail currents. We were pretty far out of town. A half-moon cut through a cloud. My father drove right through a red light, but I kept quiet about it. Some things you just don’t point out. He seemed happy and he was humming along with the music and once in a while he slapped me on the chest with the back of his hand. “A good night, huh? You’re not tired, are you?” “No.” “Yeah, me neither. Mind if we just drive for a while?” “No.” “I like driving at night, sometimes, when the roads are clear. No one out here. You can feel the dark. Can you feel the dark?” I nodded. After a while we pulled off into the gravel next to a field. My father stopped the car and just sat there for a moment. The place looked familiar, meaning I sort of knew where we were, somewhere out near the airport. Red guidelines hung down over the highway, leading up to the runway. In the darkness, I could hear the engine ticking. What was he waiting for? He just sat there with his eyes closed and his head moving a little with the music. I thought he might be waiting for a plane to come. Maybe he was, because eventually a plane did come howling down over us so loud I couldn’t hear the radio. I could see the underbelly of the plane as it passed over us, big, silver and white with lights blinking on the wingtips. And just then, my father opened the door and jumped out and shouted back at me, “Come on!” I froze for a moment as he ran out in front of the car. It looked like he was chasing the plane. And then he kept on running. I got out of the car and started to follow him, but I couldn’t see him. He was way up ahead. “Dad!” I shouted. I ran across the uneven ground, my knees buckling as I hit the low spots. I followed him as far as I could, but after a while I couldn’t see him. “Dad!” I shouted. Then I stopped. He was nowhere in sight. I waited, listening hard, looking hard, and trying to make my vision go out there into the darkness. But the field only vibrated with emptiness. “Dad!” I shouted again. But like I said, he was way out ahead of me. I don’t think he would have heard me no matter how loud I shouted, so I just stood there, saying nothing, stuck in the middle of the field. That plane had landed by now, and the sky was opening up, full of lights, some of them stars, some of them planes approaching. Looking back I could barely make out the car and the road. Looking ahead, I saw nothing at all.
DOUGLAS COLE has a B.A. in English Literature and an M.A. in Creative Writing. He won the Leslie Hunt Memorial Prize in Poetry (judged by T.R. Hummer) for a selection of work called, “The Open Ward.” He has had work appear in The Connecticut River Review, Louisiana Literature, Cumberland Poetry Review, and Midwest Quarterly. He lives in Seattle, Washington, and teaches writing and literature at Seattle Central College, where he is also the advisor for the literary journal, Corridors.