July 13, 2016
In the Toy Box
Gabe squirted the hose at crows feasting on the grass seed he’d sown so his grandkids would have a place to play. As he swung the nozzle, he composed a couched come-on in his head to his decades-out-of-date version of the woman he’d loved in college, incorporating esoteric words to impress her. The sun heated his head, lulling him into a stupor on this, his last day of peace. Tomorrow his parents would descend with their hovering and bickering, ending the tranquility of his winter stasis.
The warm Saturday afternoon demanded a verboten pale ale. He envisioned one in the very center of his refrigerator, moisture shimmering on the brown bottle, but he’d dutifully uncapped and drained every beer in his house when he got slapped with the DUI. He sipped hose water then turned the stream on an errant crow. Like a ship cresting a wave, his parent’s salt-water rusted Chevy Impala nosed onto his driveway. He reached behind him to wrench off the water. The hose in his hand went limp.
The sky blue boat shuddered to a stop, making Gabe think old Fred, his father, wasn’t quite in control at the stern. Seemed absurd to drive extra miles to check up on him. Like the three days it took from their winter home in Florida to upstate New York wasn’t tiring enough. They should have known that without his license he’d be a virtual prisoner on his property the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that.
His mom unfolded like she’d creased herself to fit in the cramped space between her embroidered pocketbook and the cooler loaded with canned coffees and gas station sandwiches. Obviously they hadn’t completely unpacked.
“Sweetheart.” Smelling of the sea and river mold, his mother threw her bony arms around him.
His dad, angling the beak on his dingy nautical cap downward, looked like he hadn’t regained his land legs. Hanks of hair hung to his collar, taunting Gabe with the unspoken assumption Fred considered himself a better man than Gabe.
“Let me show you around,” he said. He slid his arm around his mom’s wrinkled Florida T-shirt with its outline of the state running from her armpits. Somewhere between Orlando and Daytona Beach the shirt disappeared into the crinkly waist of her pink pants. She set her sandaled feet like she feared chipping her fuchsia nail polish on the rocks that littered his drive. He helped her up the one splintery step and into his great room. When they’d left near the end of last summer, the foundation had been half dug.
She scuttled to and fro across the floor he’d installed the month before and cooed over the work he’d accomplished. Fussed over the marble tile counters and the finished kitchen walls. Five minutes back and they had already insinuated themselves into his life. He needed a beer.
His mom stood with her head back so that she looked like a chicken eyeing a perch on the nonexistent loft railings. “What if your grandkids fall out of there? Poor Milty with a goose egg.”
“Or dead, you mean, Iris?” His father ducked through the front door as if he hadn’t shrunk six inches. “Fall and crack his head on one of those fireplace stones.”
Never mind the fieldstones were fake. Old Fred would razz him about not putting anything authentic into the house. An ersatz house, his father would call it, if he knew that word.
“Fred Stevens, how could you say such a thing?” His mother bustled over to the latest snapshots of the grandkids on Gabe’s picture wall. The rows of photos formed an inverted triangle tethered by the oldest brat.
His mother touched the latest, Milton’s hair in a mini Mohawk. Gabe predicted her next words would be how the kid resembled him. He didn’t see it. Milton had dark hair and chubby cheeks; he’d been blond and skinny. These days his hair was a colorless, patchy covering for his protruding scalp. When he was young, his hair had been like corn tassels, but now it was more like stray corn silks.
“Coffee?” He needed to be doing something, anything to keep from strangling first one, then the other.
His dad buried his stubby fingers in the bowl of M&Ms kept on the counter in case the grandkids stopped over, then tossed red and yellow ones in the his mouth. The M&Ms left in the container were brown, making Gabe wonder if the old guy washed his hands. Usually after he visited, Gabe dumped the leftovers and poured fresh ones.
Fred twirled the handles of each window as if he thought Gabe had installed them backwards. Next he stuck his fingers in the chinks between logs.
His mother yakked about the trip home and how they had rushed over to see him. “We’ve barely been home for an hour.” She tapped the lone picture above the kids’ photos. “Who’s this?”
Gabe winced, imagining Piper’s facial features smudged to smithereens. As it was, he had to squint to see his college lover in the woman who was now decidedly middle-aged. “You want coffee or not?” He pulled the spent grounds out of the maker and swished hot water around the carafe to wash out the charred ring.
“Use half a scoop.” His father flat-footed back across the room, stepping lightly like he was worried the floor would collapse. He ran his hand along his neck, the sandpapery sound echoing, and gawked at the pictures. “Another woman?”
“Why do you want another woman?” The sound of water splattering the sides of the carafe as he filled it almost obliterated his mom’s question.
He smiled the outlines of the grin women considered irresistible and smashed a paper filter into the coffeemaker. “Why not? The sex is better than nothing.”
Gabe dumped coffee in the basket but lost track of measuring when he caught his mom’s look. Except for her immobile mass of cotton-candy hair, she shuddered. He was sure she was remembering how disappointed she was that he hadn’t managed to stay married and had had a series of lovers. Sex, he imagined her shouting, her voice like hot pokers sizzling in a bucket of ice.
“Goddamn,” his father said in a loud voice as if covering for one of them, or his hearing was so bad even with a new hearing aid he hadn’t heard that last comment. Or he was ancient and withered enough he’d forgotten what the sizzle was about.
Fred bent to one knee and touched the splintery pine of the floor molding, tapping the unfinished woodwork. He fit his grimy fingers between two logs and tried to stand. “Iris,” he called in a low voice.
His mom frowned at Piper’s picture. If he’d realized they were coming—and from his mother’s actions in the past, he should have--he didn’t know why he expected anything different this year--he would have stashed that photograph between the pages of the dictionary he used to look up words when writing to Piper and not left it out in plain view. Not even in the state a day and both parents were giving him a headache.
He flipped the coffee machine’s switch, then crossed the floor and attempted to yank his dad upright. For an old guy he was solid, sturdy; Old Fred steadied himself on Gabe’s forearm before brusquely pulling away.
His mother complained about what a rotten job his brother did of getting the house ready for their homecoming. Gabe shrugged. Doing the chores and meeting them on their turf was preferable to them lingering in his space, but he had no one to blame but himself. When he’d lost his license, he’d sold his car. So he was stuck with them in the house, in his remaining hair, and in his life.
When the pot dinged, Gabe poured, glancing surreptitiously at his wall clock. Piper called on Saturday evenings. She lived time zones distant; her husband had a tee time late in the Tucson afternoon after which he stopped for a beer or wine or whatever doctors drank on their days off. Those calls worked for Gabe unless he had a meeting or community service.
“Are you thinking of marrying again?” his mom asked, blowing on her coffee.
“That’s all I need.”
“But a younger woman.”
“Mom. I’ve got grandkids.”
She opened the dishwasher and stowed the dishes he’d left draining. She set each one deliberately between the wire guides as if demonstrating his lack of competence. For god’s sake, he’d built the whole place with his own two hands!
It was close to four. His father ate by the clock, so Gabe started a mental inventory of his packaged dinner items. If he suggested something they wouldn’t want, he might be able to regain his sanity in solitude, but before he opened his mouth, his mother suggested they go out. His dad grunted and gulped the rest of the coffee he’d complained was too strong. Over Fred’s protestations, his mom coddled Gabe out the door. Sometimes he wasn’t sure what mystified him more: why his mom stayed with the bastard or how his dad could stand being herded around.
He pushed the front seat forward to climb in the back. His parents belted in, Fred yanking on the strap as if it were strangling him. His parents’ Florida tans added deep squiggles around their eyes, which they hid with sunglasses that covered half their faces. His father tuned in a station playing old-people music. His mom cranked up the heater.
Gabe tugged down the visor on his Yankees’ cap to drown out the sound and half dozed, creating a version of this homecoming to entertain Piper. Mostly she typed him long epistles since he didn’t have Internet. He wrote tight paragraphs in tiny lettering and stuck his response in envelopes even though he could fit everything on the back of a postcard. Their correspondence had been his sole source of intellectual stimulation, his only camaraderie, now that he was banned from the bar and the garrulous drunks he called friends.
The sex didn’t amount to much. Innuendos. Plans. Even though she wasn’t nearly as attractive as she’d been back in college, she was fodder for his fantasies. He hadn’t had many of those since his last girlfriend dumped him. He hadn’t found anyone locally, no one as interesting as Piper with her theories on everything. She explained movies that never came to the dinky theater in town and spoke of books and authors the library didn’t carry. With her, he had to stretch while his parents hammered him into the toy box of childhood.
“Is Wendy’s okay?” His mother reached through the space between the front seats, attempting to pat his knee. He drew his leg away from her prying hands. They’d crossed the Notsego creek. The fields and trees with their tiny green buds transformed into heaps of rusting cars next to a gas station. “Or do you want to go someplace sit-down.”
“He’s a mess,” his father said, hitting his palm flat against the steering wheel.
So a grimy sailor’s cap and shitty plaid shirt that looked like it’d been moldering in the closet since the sixties was dressier than his sweatshirt? Gabe considered tugging on the strands of gray escaping under his father’s hat. Hard. “Wendy’s is fine.”
“We could go to the diner.”
“Wendy’s. Is. Okay.”
“I’m not driving to Little River and all the hell and back to get him home.”
Gabe winced, waiting for the tirade about his lack of a license. As if it was his fault, although he supposed it was, even if he hadn’t been drunk no matter what the police officer or blood alcohol level indicated. He couldn’t help if the law was catching up with him now, in his fifties, when he was old enough to know better.
“If some god-damned people controlled their drinking, we wouldn’t have to waste money on gas.”
“Fred, five miles! And we haven’t seen him in months.”
They were approaching the only fast food restaurant in town. As if combating a giant wave, his father wrenched the car into the drive-through lane.
Take out? He didn’t want his parents lingering around his little wrought iron table. “We got to eat at my place?”
“We could picnic in the park,” his mother suggested.
“You think this is, Florida?”
“Let’s eat inside,” Gabe said, and his father swung the car over to an empty parking slot.
Gabe waited in the back like his grandkids that couldn’t release the buckles on their car seats. His parents half opened their doors and inched to the edges of their seats to slide out. His father shoved his door. It smashed into the shiny yellow Mini Cooper parked next to them. Gabe tugged his cap lower.
“Damn thing, how am I supposed to see something so small?”
The only person in town with a Mini Cooper was the woman who ran his therapy group. She’d been instrumental in sending him away over Christmas. Nothing like the holiday, cold turkey with congealed gravy, no presents, not even a card. Nothing on the tube.
Even though they’d spoken after he got out, neither parent brought up his month incommunicado. That’s how he saw the enforced rehab, as incarceration, but he never said, “I was entombed in an inpatient therapy unit because they didn’t like my attitude.”
His father didn’t like his attitude now, either, Gabe could tell as slipped out of the backseat and ran his hand along the yellow paint checking for a gash. There might have been an imperceptible dimple. A chip in the paint? Retribution would be sweet. But what if it wasn’t her vehicle? He rubbed the hide of the car. Who was to say the slight indentation wasn’t a chimera he concocted to discredit his dad? No point in alerting Nurse Ratchett II to an imagined defect.
He didn’t see any sign of her as he opened the door for his father, his mother limping along behind them. No way of telling who else’s car it might have been, a stranger passing through, a local who’d made a recent inadvisable purchase. The joint hopped, teenaged girls shrieked, hitting boys in fake leather jackets. Women in jeans that barely contained their abdomens shouted at sticky kids who whined or yelled loud enough you’d think they were on a ball field.
“You treating?” his father asked, raising his voice and patting his ear, setting off high pitched ringing.
“It was Mom’s idea.”
His father crossed his arms and gazed at the menu board. “Spoils you.”
He didn’t carry a wallet. How are you supposed to be an adult if you don’t carry a wallet? Or wear a watch? There are some things you do, his old man reiterated over the years. Gabe mimicked the words, letting the geezer vent. The rest of the tirade was get married, stay married, have kids, stay married. Go to work. Stay married no matter what, no matter how much your wife made you drink so you forgot you were married.
“I’ll pay.” He pulled a wad of bills out of his pocket and waited while his mom decided between adding a salad or a Frosty. She ended up with both. He paid and carried their tray to an empty table.
“You aren’t eating?” His mother pouted.
“You’ll force-feed me,” he said, disbursing the tray’s contents. He sat down next to his yattering mom and stared directly into the colorless, unblinking countenance of Ratchett II biting into a hamburger dripping ketchup. She wrinkled her nose, narrowed her beady eyes. She must have recognized him and was taking mental notes of how he half-tossed a paper-wrapped package at his dad but carefully set the salad in front of his mom. Probably was concocting a theory that his drinking was to blot out his hostility toward his father. If Gabe would forgive him for grounding him for smoking dope---poof---his addiction would dry up. If he had an addiction, he’d consider the theory, bogus though it was.
The prudent thing, the adult thing, to do would be to introduce his parents, maybe mention his dad might have dented her car door, but he’d have to explain who Ratchett was, and his mother would sniffle reflecting on how her son couldn’t be in trouble. He didn’t drink! Never smoked a joint in his life! He was a good boy, never gave them trouble! Didn’t chase women! Chances were, tears would dilute her frosty before they could rewrap their sandwiches and escape the critical scrutiny of his counselor. Besides, Rachett didn’t like to be recognized. She lectured about confidentiality and privacy, then went right ahead and violated his.
Gabe shifted to his right, getting a chocolaty grin from his mom who slipped half her fries to him. If he knocked Iris out of her seat, he’d be out of Rachett’s direct purview. Hiding in the ravine of rust his father had created on the woman’s car door might be best. That Mini Cooper had to be hers.
If he asked to change seats so that he wouldn’t have to stare at Rachett’s mobile jaws, his mom would grill him. If he moved, Rachett would assume his guilt, that he’d dented her shiny vehicle and was avoiding his culpability. She wouldn’t consider that he didn’t have a license or that he was law-abiding.
Opposite his mom, his father’s hamburger and six little cups of ketchup were spread out across both sitting spaces. If Gabe shoved the mess to one side, Fred would demand in a loud voice, “What the hell are you doing?” Diverting my hostility, he’d respond, but his father would rant about what hostility and why the hell couldn’t he appreciate anything his parents did for him?
So he tried to ignore the woman’s oblivious stare and bovine complacency. It was as if she knew her car was desecrated, the scratch oxidizing in the spring humidity so half the car was brown, and was ruminating over a lawsuit. Or like he ceased to exist outside her therapy group for degenerate drunks.
They masticated in their own bubble of silence, his mother making slurping sounds. He wanted to say something about masticating, wishing his dad would do his with his mouth shut, but even though he would have said it to trick his father into thinking he was talking dirty, he didn’t want Ratchett to go hyper-vigilant. She’d pat him down to check for a flask.
Gabe ate three fries and one spoonful of his mom’s Frosty. Ratchett folded up her trash, matching the corners of the bloodied papers, fitting both into her empty French fry container. She swished past him, pursing her lips, but before he could get to his feet to ask about a dent, which he imagined her x-ray vision could see through the sides of the building, she was shoving her trash in the can.
Alerting her to the scratch was the right thing to do. Gabe knew that. If it had been his car, he’d want to know. He would. When he wasn’t under the shadow of his parents, he could act mature. He could. At least his dad had insurance.
He started toward the door when a crowd of high schoolers stepped in front of him. “Hey,” he called, “hey.”
She pushed open the interior door, then the outer. The kids herded after her, filling the space. “Miss Ringcomb,” he said to Rachett’s back, and strained his neck to see out the window, staring over a table with an infant throwing opened ketchup packets.
Rachett didn’t look back, didn’t glance at his parents’ car, didn’t notice the scratch, which Gabe now envisioned as deep as the Grand Canyon. She pulled open her door, bumping the Ford next to her, and wriggled her fat ass behind the wheel.
Fuck it, I tried, he thought, returning to the table, his mom grinning.
“Don’t be a fool,” Fred bellowed as Gabe slid back in his seat.
His father had bellowed long before he’d lost his hearing, had yelled from the moment Gabe was born. Mother, the brat’s diaper; Mother, get him away from the TV; Mother, no longhaired kid is a son of mine.
His mom grinned like she’d won a free Frosty with a scratch ticket. “Now a nice young woman, I wouldn’t object to that.”
Gabe snickered. His mother transferred more fries to his napkin. Ratchett? Even from a photo it was apparent Piper was more attractive, more his type.
“Someone young, someone near home. . . .”
“Let’s go.” He rammed the last three fries in his mouth. He might not have the balls to confront his therapist, but he could derail his mother’s ludicrous hopes.
“Drink the rest of my shake,” his mother said, pushing the cold cup into his hand. She shoved her way thought the thinning crowd, looking like she wanted to grab Ratchett’s skirt tails. Gabe crammed the Frosty cup into the trash.
His mother pressed her hand against her forehead, like a salute, staring at the rear of the Mini as it pulled onto Main Street. “Was that her cute car? Just your size.”
Gabe studied the humongous Expedition now in the spot next to the Impala.
“Damn imbecile thing,” his father said and unlocked the car.
Gabe waited to climb in back. He wished he could drive.
He shut his eyes, no longer able to conjure up Piper, instead seeing a fat woman in a yellow Mini flipping him the bird. He rested his head against the seatback, imagining himself floating out to sea, cresting waves, ramming into shore. Between Rachett and his parents, he wondered if he’d survive, intact, until fall.
The truth may be stretched thin, but it never breaks, and it always surfaces above lies, as oil floats on water.
—Cervantes, Don Quixote
© 2016 The Indianola Review