Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Enjoy It

Once, when I was a little boy, my parents were screaming at each other in the kitchen. My father stormed out of the house and tore off in his car. He came back that night, after I was in bed and supposed to be asleep. I crept to my bedroom door and stuck my ear to the wall, but couldn't make out what he said to Mom. It was just grumbling.

The next morning, before he left for work, he called me over to where he was finishing his coffee at the kitchen table and asked me to sit on his lap. I did and looked down at his tie and listened to him say that he loved me very much. He didn't mention the screaming, but I could tell from the way he said it and from the way Mom stood right there behind the table watching us, that it was all connected. My sister was only an infant at the time, so I doubt she'd noticed anything was wrong.

Whenever my parents would fight after that, Mom pulled my father upstairs and into their bedroom. This served the dual purpose of keeping the noise level down so as not to frighten me or my sister, but also made the journey to the car that much more distant, should my father wish to leave. Mom won out on most of these occasions, so that trips to the car were rare; even so, I started creeping outside during these fights and into the back of my father's car.

The car was outside but I could look up at the window to my parents' bedroom to keep tabs on the fight. Even though I couldn't hear anything, I had a sense of what was going on, and kept my head low enough so that I'd easily be able to duck down behind the driver's seat, should the front door suddenly open.

When nothing happened, and the sun would go down or the light in my parents' bedroom went out, I'd sidle out of the car, into the house through the side door and back upstairs. If it was already dark when the fight started, I'd close my bedroom door after I left to make it look like I'd gone to sleep. I was always halfway concerned that Mom would check on me post-fight and see that I wasn't in my room, but if she ever did, I didn't know about it. The house was always quiet when I'd re-enter.

After a year or two, I began to suspect that one or even both of them knew what I did when they'd have their hushed disagreements, since I was never caught and they never noticed that I was no longer in the house after the fight was over. Perhaps they knew my motives already, knew that I wasn't crying or attempting to deny that they'd argue, but just waiting in a place that would serve beneficial to view the aftermath, the way a hyena might perch on a cliff top to watch a battle between beasts.

As my sister grew out of infancy, my parents would have long talks in their bedroom with the door open, in chairs side by side. I'm not sure what they talked about, because if I walked out into the hallway and stared inside, they would stop talking and Mom would come out and ask me to play in the backyard or go back to my room and read. The difference between serious talk and average conversation was clear, and I grew accustomed to hearing the bass-heavy mumbles that nearly all children recognize.

I began to feel comfortable hiding out in my father's car, a navy blue wagon that seemed monstrous to me at the time. I would bring a bag of pretzels sometimes or even read a comic book, and by the time we'd all take the car to dinner a few days later and I was sitting back there the proper way, the crumbs would be gone. They always knew. They must have known.

Then it was summer. I was old enough to where I didn't need constant attention from Mom, but too young to be spending every day with my friends. My life still had a structure independent of the social life that would come to dominate it in my teenage years. As such, I still spent most of my time at home, looking after my sister and dreading the daily series of errands on which I'd accompany Mom. As far as I knew, "errands" were all Mom ever did.

That summer, especially, my father grumbled about his job.

When you're my age, you won't get a summer vacation. Enjoy it.

I believe he actually intended for me to enjoy it, though it was near impossible after exposure to the same dreary greeting every morning. I once thought it was the sun that made my father so grumpy in the summer, and would sometimes even hope for snow in August to spark a smile or even a knowing nod.

My parents hadn't fought in months. My dad would take the car and head to work and the sun was already high in the sky. If we were home, I would sit in the backyard and roll a ball back and forth between my hands, watching my sister explore Mom's garden, and the grass rows between sets of flowers and the specks of dirt sprinkled out on the cement.

I could sense a change in Mom over the summer. There was a sly contentment coming over her. There were times in the evening when my father would say something that in years past would have incited an argument, but now Mom would just keep doing what she was doing, be it wiping down the table after dinner or thumbing through the pages of a new mystery novel. It would wash right over her like the calmest tide and she'd sit there with her subtle smile. This is the same smile I started seeing in the backyard by the garden on those summer days.

I began to fear my father's isolation. The change in Mom's strategy had disrupted his routine and without their banter he seemed withdrawn and fidgety.

One morning in early August the sun was streaming through the skylight in my parents' bedroom before either of them woke. I dressed in silence in my room and closed my bedroom door behind me before I went downstairs. I took a Pop Tart out of the package in the cupboard and ate it cold before sneaking outside with my father's spare key and crawling into the back of the car.

I took a gamble by being there. Some mornings Mom would let us sleep in and others she would wake us up to get the day started. My sister could saw straight through the afternoon, but I was an early riser. There was always the chance that Mom would get suspicious, even if my door was still closed at 8:30.

But nothing happened, and when my father emerged through the front door in his casual attire, a button-down shirt tucked into pressed trousers, he appeared unfazed by my recent non-appearance in the kitchen as he gnawed on his usual buttered piece of toast.

I ducked down behind the driver's seat, stowed my snacks and my comic books, and tucked my legs behind me. I heard the car door open and felt the sudden pressure of the seat against my head as my father sat down.

I kept my breath silent and tried not to move.

The engine turned and we backed out of the driveway. I probably could have lifted my head enough to see the street signs but, convinced that any movements would alert my father to my presence, I kept perfectly still, glanced up at the street lights passing in my periphery, and tried pitifully to gauge our destination by my knowledge of the lefts and rights in our neighborhood.

After a few moments, I could tell we were turning onto the highway. We were on a curved ramp for a time and then the lower gears turned over and we held at 60 for awhile. It took some time for me to realize the radio was on, a talk DJ moaning low about irrelevant problems. My father hadn't yet said a word, which I thought was odd, as he was known to talk to himself when he thought he was alone. Sometimes I would watch him from a distance when he shaved. He would hum song lyrics or practice lines I presumed he'd be using in a meeting.

"Hi, it's nice to meet you. Let's all take a seat. Can we get you anything? Coffee? Orange juice?"

But, now he was silent as the car ambled along and the talk radio DJ spoke too softly to be heard by either of us.

After a few more minutes, we were angling right, exiting the highway. I moved my hand under the driver's seat and held my snacks and comic books in place so that they wouldn't move around and make noise while we turned.

We pulled into a parking lot. I saw a wide, silver truck directly above me when the car stopped. My dad took a deep breath, switched off the car and got out quickly. I ducked down just in case, but he didn't look in the back as he walked by. I uncurled my legs and pulled myself up onto the back seat. We were in the parking lot of a diner I didn't recognize. My father was going inside.

I took stock of my surroundings. This diner was right off the highway, adjacent to a gas station and a few other restaurants and fast food joints. We had only been on the road for 20 minutes or so; I knew we couldn't be that far from town. All the same, something odd washed over me as I recognized that we were certainly nowhere near my father's office. His was a medium-sized gray building, just west of the downtown area, that I had visited once or twice in past years for whatever reason, to be oggled by the assorted office ladies or to pretend to make myself useful by filing papers or sealing envelopes.

We were not near downtown and I guessed we had driven in the opposite direction, based on the position of the sun relative to where we exited the highway. I looked out at the diner and began to get hungry myself. It was a warm morning and the sun was almost directly above me, despite it being several hours before noon.

I don't know why I did what I did then. If my intention was to stay hidden, as it had been to that point, my actions were tantamount to sabotage. But, I found myself reaching for the handle and sliding out of the car, leaving my belongings under the driver's seat. I looked back at the highway we'd arrived on. It was rush hour everywhere else, I assumed, but this highway was deserted, as if we had traveled the one direction nobody else knew about, as if my father had sought this specific location for pancakes and solitude. This is what I thought.

I approached the door and had a vision of what I was about to see: my father alone at the counter, reading a newspaper, enjoying his coffee, a brief moment of quiet where nobody knew him before he picked up his belongings and worked his way back to the car and off to the office where everyone knew him, where his responsibilities and meetings and agendas would overtake him.

But, this is not what I saw. The diner was surprisingly full despite the lack of movement in the parking lot. I noted this first, as I considered myself very observant, and this is something the protagonist of Mom's mystery books would have noticed before entering. Mystery protagonists are rarely caught off guard.

There appeared to be two active waitresses. One for the counter area and the east side of the restaurant, and the other for the west end which contained the bulk of the booths. The patrons at the counter were not single men, as I would have anticipated. There was an old fat couple, scooping up eggs in silence. There was a woman with a little girl, younger than my sister. She was pouring syrup onto her waffles. The syrup bottle looked like it made a face when she poured: a little syrup monster sticking out its tongue. I didn't see my father.

I must have only been standing there a few seconds before the old woman came over to me. She was probably the hostess or the wife of the owner or something, because she wasn't wearing the same dress as the other waitresses.

Are you lost, sweetie?

I didn't say anything. What could I say?

She looked at me with concern and moved closer to me and got down on a knee. People only get down on one knee when they're proposing or questioning a child.

What's your name?

At this point, I knew I couldn't just turn around and walk out. I was in this.

My father came in here. I'm looking for my father.

Then I saw him. He was dressed like I'd never seen him before, wearing a long white apron and a black visor. He walked right out from the kitchen and took me by the hand.

It's alright, Elizabeth. He's mine.

He said this as if he'd expected to say it all morning, as if he knew I was in the car all along and that this was an inevitable part of his day.

We walked hand-in-hand back to the kitchen. Several other cooks were back there and I tried my best to notice what they were all doing. One was on pancakes. The other had a big line of bacon he flipped 10 slices at a time.

So, you're here now. Do you want something to eat?

I nodded my head. I was hungry, after all, but I really didn't know what else to do. He sat me down at a small table in the back of the kitchen. I watched him move to his station, whipping up a large bowl of eggs, scrambling maybe 20 at a time. I sat quietly.

He gestured to the bacon man and the pancake man after a few minutes and they brought over a serving of each. My father placed a plate in front of me and poured me a glass of orange juice. I stared at the food and I could see my father's hand on his knee in the corner of my eye.

Don't you want to eat? Isn't that why you hitched a ride?

I looked up at him and suddenly became very conscious of the eyes on me. The other cooks had stopped at their stations and were looking at me. I could even see the old woman who had come up to me a few moments before standing behind the counter in the main dining room, looking back at me.

I picked up the fork and began to cut into the pancakes. My father smiled and put his hand on my shoulder.

Atta boy. It's not so bad.

I ate with the ferocity of a starved beast. The food was warm and sweet and soft. He was sitting next to me and wasn't at his station and nobody seemed all that concerned.