|Publisher:||Paragraph Line Books|
|Product dimensions:||5.98(w) x 9.02(h) x 0.40(d)|
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I was let go.
That was months after my wife threw me out, taking our daughter with her. I was twenty-seven and starting all over again with life. I moved in with my father. Moved back to Ohio, a place that I thought I'd left in the rearview mirror. Instead, it was in my cracked and hazy windshield.
My car, a ten-year-old Ford Mustang, broke down in my father's driveway never to recover. It had thrown a rod.
I got out of the car. The parking brake popped. The car slowly rolled into the street. A small fire crackled under the hood. In few minutes, dark black smoke poured out from the undercarriage and a red glow simmered within the passenger compartment. For a moment, I saw a shadow behind the wheel, a remnant of my former self, the one who was so confident that he would never again grace the state of Ohio. A small explosion. Another small explosion. They sounded less like explosions than someone manually popping a paper lunch sack. The driver's side front wheel fell off and the car tilted over. The Mustang emblem clinked onto the pavement. A car, and then another car, drove past as if this sort of thing happened all the time. Nothing to get excited about.
"My clothes are in there," I said aloud. "My employee of the month certificate. My Army uniforms. My crazy pills."
My father emerged from the tiny house I'd grown up in, leaning forward on an aluminum walker, a wry grin on his mossy face. There was a reason why he'd never grown a beard while my mother was alive. The beard was patchy in so many ways. The coloration was wrong. The growth was uneven. There were too many things wrong with his beard to list.
The look he sent my way told me that he hadn't yet forgiven me for not coming around while my mother was dying. I came to the funeral. Wasn't that enough?
The police arrived. They pulled their cruiser up to the curb. A decal on the side of the car read, POLICE INTERCEPTOR. An older fat patrolman strolled up to me. He stood alongside me in silence and we watched my car burn for a while. Finally, he said, "That yours?" His name tag said, SMITH.
"Yes," I said. "I have no money."
"Who does?" He patted me on the shoulder solicitously.
The flames licked the air. It was sensuous.
"This is my son." My father was beside us, opposite the cop.
"Total loss," the friendly, gray-haired patrolman said. He rubbed his belly like there was a cat underneath his shirt.
His partner, a youngish woman, her hair pinched into a severe bun at the nape of her neck, stood near the car in the street, waving other cars past. When the street was clear, she pulled out her ticket pad and wrote me up.
My state of Illinois vanity plate fell o? the back. It read, "E4MAFIA." It was a joke that wasn't funny now that I was out of the Army. I'd been out of the Army for years. I was in the Army for four years, most of it spent in a Navy hospital in Illinois, recovering from my war wounds. The Navy corpsmen would wheel us all up to the roof of the hospital at times, I remembered. We'd sit up there, high above the base, staring at Lake Michigan. It was calming. The hospital specialized in traumatic brain injuries. It was why we were all there. We were learning to speak again. To feed ourselves. To walk. To read and write. The Navy's corpsmen school was there, so the student corpsmen would come by to gawk at us, or help us out with basic things. Eating. Finding our way back to our ward.
The female cop put away her ticket book, picked up the plate and then dropped it. "Hot," she said. She crinkled her brow and wiped her burnt hand on her pants leg.
"Of course it was hot," my father said. My father wasn't an old man. He was only sixty-five. But a lifetime of hard labor had destroyed his body, left him without a couple of vertebra in his back and a raw spinal cord. My father built things with his hands, mostly walls, mostly out of bricks, rocks and mortar. It all depended on the job.
When I was a child, and up into my late teens, I went with him on jobs, when school didn't interfere. I remember eating sandwiches that my mother made for him. She loved yellow mustard and dill pickles. Sometimes, that was all that was on the sandwiches.
The Mustang went up in a whoosh, pushing us all backward. The female cop ended up on her keister. She got back up, none the worse for wear, and walked over to the driveway where we were all standing. "Total loss," she noted.
"Yeah," Smith said.
"Ticket?" she asked me.
"Um," I went, puzzled by the question. If there was an option, I did not want to take it.
She handed me the ticket with a slight shrug. I looked down at what she'd written. In a box labeled OTHER: "Public nuisance." "Fair enough," I said.
"That's your court date," she said, pointing it out with a well-honed fingernail lacquered in glittery polish. She had huge eyes that dominated her face. She wore bright pink lipstick. She was half a head shorter than me. Her name tag said, JONES. "Here. Have a flyer." She handed me a sheet of paper, eight-and-a-half by eleven. REPORT ALL STRAYS, it said at the top. In the middle of the sheet, there was a photo of a man with slicked back hair and a well-trimmed Van Dyke. I tipped the paper and the photo morphed into a bulgy-eyed chihuahua. At the bottom: $100 REWARD.
"I'll let you know if I see any," I said. "Strays."
Smith was half a head taller than me. He grabbed me around the shoulders from behind and gave me a shake. "Attaboy." The Cleveland Police Department is not known for this sort of encouragement, so he was exceeding my expectations.
My car had burned to the ground. There was little left now.
Lumps of unshiny metal glowed in the street.
"Welcome home, son," my father said. He turned to the white cop and shook his hand. "Larry Derleth." He turned to the black cop and shook her hand. "Larry Derleth," he said again. "My son is being rude. His name is Phillip. Phil, shake their hands."
"Phil Derleth." I shook each of their hands in turn.
"Don't forget your court date," Officer Jones said. "You wanna ...?" she went to her partner, tilting her head toward their car.
"Oh ... sure. Excuse me," Officer Smith said.
"Yes," Officer Jones said. "We beg your pardon."
"Such a beautiful day otherwise," Officer Smith commented.
He looked skyward to demonstrate.
"Indeed," Officer Jones said, glancing skyward. "It is indeed a beautiful day."
The two of them strolled over to the police interceptor, opened their respective doors and casually entered the vehicle. The two doors slammed shut. Jones turned on the siren and lights for a moment, and then turned them off. The engine roared to life and the tires chirped on the hot pavement. Off they went.
"We can clean up later," my father said. He nodded toward the house. "C'mon. I've fixed dinner. There's plenty for the both of us."
I trailed behind him to the house. The scent of burning rubber and axle grease followed us. A stack of waffles sat on a plate in the middle of the dining room table. I didn't remember the house being this cramped, but everything was where it was meant to be. Nothing had changed. A painting that I'd executed as a high school student still hung on the wall by the dining room table. Calling the room a dining room was an insult to dining rooms. The room was far too small for something as luxurious as dining. No, we would eat there. Eating is far more pedestrian. Ordinary.
My father sat in his usual seat. My chair was still there. We, each of us — me, my mother, my father — occupied different styles of chairs. My chair was a reproduction of a Shaker chair. It was hard and wooden. My father's chair was a chrome number taken from behind a diner. My father thought the owner of the chair was throwing it out, but he was not. The chair was behind the diner because the owner of the diner liked to sit back there and smoke in between rushes. I knew this because I worked at the diner the summer of my fifteenth year, when my father was between jobs. "I don't smoke anymore," the owner said. His name was Supperclub Mike. No one knew why he was called Supperclub Mike. He was portly and seemingly covered over in a fine layer of yellow grease. Even his eyes, which bulged from his head and twitched side-to-side constantly, seemed to be covered in a fine layer of grease. "Some son of a bitch stole my smoking chair from out back." I looked around at all the chairs in the diner, and they all matched my father's chair. Same chrome.
Same red vinyl. Same white vinyl. I gave Supperclub Mike a guilty look. "Do you know where my chair is? Do you? Do you, you little cunt?"
"No," I lied.
He didn't believe me. The rest of the summer, I spent cleaning out garbage cans. There were too many garbage cans in that little diner. They were all filthy. I wondered where they all came from.
I confronted my father about it and he said that Supperclub Mike shouldn't have left the chair outside if he didn't want someone — that someone being my father — to take the thing. "It was practically begging to be rescued. I couldn't let that chair sit out in the elements."
"Supperclub Mike can't smoke anymore because of you."
"Then I consider myself to be his savior," my father said. "You can see now that it was Christian of me." Another thing my father was proud of was rarely stepping foot in a church.
My mother listened to this exchange sitting in her own chair, a Danish modern number with an English racing green cloth seat, and said that my father was no savior. And also, that my father mumbled too much. "Blah, blah, blah, and nothing comes out," she said, sitting there in the floral housecoat she'd bought at a garage sale in 1994 from a woman who was packing up to move to Florida. She'd said to that woman, "What's in Florida that isn't in Ohio?"
"It's too cold here," the woman said.
"It's too something everywhere. But you'll find that out. Nothing but weirdoes down in Florida. And bugs." A thick cloud of mayflies drifted past and everyone standing in the driveway waved their hands in front of their faces.
"Lake Erie smells like chicken soup today," the woman said. It sounded like an accusation.
"That's the Cuyahoga River," my mother said.
"The Cuyahoga? We're not anywhere near the river."
"We're close enough."
"Do you want the housecoat or not?"
"I'll pay you a buck seventy-five for it."
My mother handed the woman two bucks. "You want the quarter back?"
"Of course I want the quarter back. Otherwise I would have said, 'two bucks.'"
The woman made a great show of slowly hiking back to the cash can she had on a card table near the garage. The garage was an attached garage, which my mother described as a "la-dee-dah attached garage. She can afford the quarter, selling a house with an attached garage. Fricking putting on airs like she is, with her fancy house."
My father had built the brick planter in front of the fancy house, so we knew how much money the woman had piled up in her coffers: Enough to build a fancy brick planter for her fancy house with a fancy attached garage. Now she was selling the place.
I think her name was Schmidt. Or maybe it was Schmelling.
The woman came back with the quarter and slapped it in my mother's palm like it was killing her to give it up. Who knows? Maybe it did. We heard a few months later that she'd died down in Florida. Something to do with the tides.
The painting up on the wall our eating room was of a platter of fruit. My mother liked the painting enough that she wanted it up on the wall. Or maybe she was being a supportive mother. I don't know. She'd had it framed properly.
"You got any syrup to go along with the waffles?" I asked, taking two plates out of the tiny cabinet above the miniature stove.
"These are savory waffles," my father said. "Not dessert waffles. If you're good, I'll make some dessert waffles next."
I looked down and saw a circular waffle iron on top of the stove. Next to it was a dog-eared copy of Will It Waffle? A Guide to Waffle Cookery by Lowell Thomas.
I set down the two plates and picked up the book. "Is this the same Lowell Thomas who —"
"No," my father said. "Hurry up with those plates. These waffles are fresh."
I brought the two plates over to our dining room table. Our eating table. The table in the nook where we consumed our food. I sat down and looked over at my mother's empty chair.
"Should we pray?" I asked.
"Pray? What would we want to do that for?" my father mumbled.
I heard him just fine, but out of habit, I said, "What?"
"God damn it. God damn it," he mumbled. Or something like that. He failed to enunciate. He often didn't. He glared at me and said, "Your mother isn't here. You know that. No praying anymore. We only eat waffles in this house. That's it. And no praying. I've mentioned that. It's okay that I repeat myself. Shut up. Shut up with your goddamn praying."
"Sorry," I went. I stabbed a waffle with my fork and it nearly fell apart as I dragged it to my plate. There were things inside it. Fish. Mashed potatoes. Maybe some sort of green vegetable.
Mashed peas? My father had gone rogue in his waffle making. Lowell Thomas was to blame.
"Walleye," my father said, as I dissected the waffle with the tines of my fork. "Straight out of Lake Erie."
"Is it okay to —?"
"Of course it is! The EPA cleaned all that up decades ago. Are you crazy? Just eat your dinner. This is how dinner is done around here. Nothing out of the ordinary here. The waffle iron is a noble cooking device. It's been around for centuries in one form or another."
I ate the waffle without complaint, without thinking about the parts per picoliter that were probably composed of one toxin or other.
"We'll watch the Cavs later on. They'll win the NBA this year unless that Stephan Curry character steals it from us. Or the refs. The refs always have it in for Cleveland. Fucking refs." He muttered darkly for a while, none of which I could make out.
The waffles were missing something. Possibly, it was gluten.
Some sort of unifying element. Something that would lend a chewing factor to the food.
My father finished, coughed into a paper napkin, and hauled himself wearily to his feet to shuffle back to the cooking implement of his choice to create a dessert. He mumbled something.
"What's that?" I asked.
"I said, 'chocolate chip waffles.' Would that warm your heart?"
"I said it! You heard me. Your heart! You know that your mother called out your name while she was dying. Your only mother. Her only child. You couldn't be bothered to come back home for that. No. It takes your life falling apart for you to come back and visit your old, broken down dad. The neighbors all look in on me and wonder where the hell you are. They used to bring casseroles, but I guess that got old. I'm still here. Mostly. Mostly still here. Mostly functioning. Getting by on my Social Security checks. You'll have to find a job. When are you planning on looking for a job? I hope tomorrow. I can't support both of us on my Social Security checks. I'm a broken man. Your mother wouldn't forgive me if I let us both starve. Look at me while I'm talking to you. Look at your broken down old dad. Can't you even give me that courtesy? Jesus H. Christ. I'm a broken man. I haven't got anything but an ungrateful son who couldn't even be bothered to visit his dying mother when all she wanted was one last glimpse of her boy. Did you know that she prayed for you the entire time you were in Iraq? It was Iraq, wasn't it? Not Iran?
We're not at war with Iran right now. I think that was in the nineteen eighties or so. Jimmy Carter. Helicopters and stuff."
"It was Iraq."
"Who can remember? Now do you like chocolate chips in your waffles? How about nuts? I have mixed salted nuts here. I could grind them up, maybe smash'm with a hammer. The hammer is in the basement near the water heater. Don't go down there! I have a project going on down there. You'll disturb it. Also, we're on the verge of needing a new water heater."
"I don't need nuts in my waffle."
"How about Hershey's syrup? You want some of that?"
"Only if we have some."
"Well, we don't."
"Then, no. I don't need Hershey's syrup."
"Your mother only needed to see you one last time, but you couldn't be bothered."
"Sorry doesn't pay the bills."
"I don't know what else to say."
"I like a lot of chocolate chips in mine."
"That's just the way I like 'em. I don't know how they make chocolate chip waffles in Chicago. Those Illinois assholes."
"They make them with plenty of chocolate chips."
"Good. At least they do something right there."
"Do you need any help?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Needs Work"
Copyright © 2019 John Lawrence Sheppard.
Excerpted by permission of Paragraph Line Books.
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