He could never remember his father’s birthday. It was in September, Nick knew that much, but the date eluded him every year. Thank God for Google alerts. Nick sat on the folding lawn chair on the back porch, the smell of sweet, tangy barbeque drifting to him, while the old man squinted in the smoke. His father flipped over the slabs of ribs, a cigarette angling down from the corner of his mouth, his faded blue suspenders holding up an ancient pair of oil-stained jeans, and Nick wished that he could feel something, anything. But he couldn’t.
“Hand me that platter, would you Nick?” His father held the Weber lid in one hand, the large black dome like a gladiator’s shield pointed in Nick’s direction, blocking out his son.
“Sure, Dad, here you go,” he said as he placed it on the small plastic table next to the grill.
“No, not there, dammit, over here.” His father waved his other hand towards the shaky slats of wood that were attached to the side of the grill. That’s where Nick should have set the ceramic platter. His father glanced at him for a second and shook his head. A salt and pepper stubble dotted his face.
Nick was not a child but he often felt like one, as if he could still dribble a basketball for an hour on the beaten down gravel turnaround, flinging it at the metal backboard that banged like a gong. For the first time in a long time, staring at the back of his father’s head, he thought that he could take him, finally muscle him to the ground. His father was sixty-four. Nick had just turned forty.
Nick stood close to his father, the smoke drifting around him, and he thought of last night, sitting alone in a Chinese restaurant, taking a moment for himself away from his wife and son, a bowl of egg drop soup and an egg roll savored in the dark, his little foodie affair. It was nothing new, this disappearing Nick did, sneaking off to see a movie, losing an afternoon at he park tossing stale bread to the ducks; it was something that he fell into now and then. But when the waitress saw his credit card, the same name as his father, she smiled and winked at him. She had said for Nick to tell his father that Mei said hello.
“So, Dad, did you have a lot of girlfriends before mom?”
His father turned to him and opened his mouth, then closed it.
“It’s okay, Dad, just you, me and the dead pig. I won’t tell.”
“That’s a hell of a question, Nick.”
“Well, I’m tired of talking about the weather.”
“It is nice out though. Supposed to rain tomorrow.”
“Dad, you won’t live forever. Tell me a story—a woman, a bullfight, give me something real.”
His father, Nick Senior, grimaced at the back yard, at a blur of giggling boy, his grandson, and the barking dog, a pain in the ass, and a watchful mother wilting in the sunshine, while above a cool breeze rattled the oak trees.
Lisa and Nicholas the third ran around the yard, kicking a red rubber ball. The black lab, Max, chased the ball, then chased the boy, then a stick, then a shadow, then a squirrel. Every once in awhile Lisa would look up, checking on Nick, to see how it was going. Lisa never saw it—the anger and distance in his father’s eyes. He was just a grumpy old man to her. Of course, she hadn’t talked to her own father in ten years. Lost in the wind that wound its way through ancient oak trees were phrases a father and son could never say out loud. Mingled in the blooming azaleas were his mother’s quiet protests, having ignored his youthful indiscretions—a fractured family of occasional strangers.
“Of course there were other women, Nick. I didn’t meet your mother until college. I used to have a thing for Asian women,” he said, and his eyes looked off into the trees, “and I would frequent the only places I knew to meet them—Chinese and Japanese restaurants. It wasn’t like I could go get a pedicure back in those days.”
“But you hate Chinese food.”
“Do I?” he asked.
“We never get it, not even delivery, and we’ve never even been to that little place over on Maple.”
“No, we haven’t been there as a family,” he said. “But sometimes, I go. Alone.”
Smoke poured out of the grill, and his father lifted the lid and disappeared for a moment.
“Does Mom know about this?”
“She knows nothing.” His voice drifted to Nick on grey wings.
Even though it was his father’s birthday, this trip was a gift to Nick’s mother. She asked him to come down, bring the whole family. Of the long line of women Nick had paraded before his parents, they liked Lisa the best, by far. She was kind and chipped in, washing dishes, peeling potatoes. She looked like a younger, slimmer version of Nick’s mom, dark hair and brown eyes; the similarity wasn’t lost on Nick. Nick’s son loved the open space, the freedom to dig a hole big enough to climb into, to fill coffee cans filled with acorns or a collection of rocks from every corner of the yard. Every once in awhile Nick would catch their reflection in the sliding glass door, grandfather standing next to his son who hovered over his boy. It was like a row of Russian nesting dolls, each of them lost in their own thoughts.
His father never asked for help and retreated into his shell as often as possible. Whenever Nick called and his mother wasn’t home the phone rang on and on until the answering machine picked up after five rings. It sat there in the wood paneled living room, dusted in cigarette ash, the tiny red light blinking in the dark. Nick could picture his father staring at the machine, the incessant sound of the ringing phone just another thing in the world that wouldn’t give him a moments rest. Nick pictured his father listening to his voice, his hello, how’s it going, just returning mom’s call, I’m at home, call me back when you can. What was his father thinking in that moment? Was he wondering why his son wasn’t more like him? Was he wishing he could pick up the phone and have a conversation with Nick about cars—engine blocks and transmissions, or maybe the new reciprocating saw he got on sale at Sears?
As a child, Nick used to go get him his beer, the fridge in the garage filled with cans of Busch. He’d tap the top three times and then crack it open for his father. He’d watch him high up on the ladder, cleaning out the gutters, flinging dark, wet leaves to the ground, and he’d dance out of the way, avoiding the bombardment. The can of beer would sit on the concrete front porch, sweating in the sunshine, much like his father.
“Hand me that beer, would you, son?” he’d ask.
Staring up into the glinting sunshine, his father was lost in the light. Was it trust or just impatience? Whatever age he was, Matchbox cars in the dirt, stacks of baseball cards sorted, a paperback book in his hands, Nick would leap to his feet, grab the beer, and run it up the ladder. There were only a handful of possible responses.
“Dammit, Nicky, don’t shake the ladder so much.”
“Dammit, boy, this can is empty.”
“Jesus Christ, watch out for the leaves.”
But he’d do it anyway. And when it was empty, he’d crush the old can beneath his sneakers and toss it in the recycling bin. The blue plastic container filled up on the weekends, but it’d be empty by Monday night, after the garbage men came. His mother would open the garage door, always ready to pass judgment. Her hearing was sharp, always on alert for irresponsible behavior, like the sound of a beer can being crushed in the cool garage, as Nick enabled his father to get drunk once again.
“How many is that, Nicky?” she’d ask.
“Two, Mom,” he would lie. “This is the second.”
She’d stare at Nick, squinting, waiting to see if he flinched.
“You expect me to believe that crap?” she asked.
“It’s hot out there, Mom. He’s just cleaning out the gutters like you asked him to.”
Her lips would purse and she’d stare at the bin, trying to see if the pile had grown. There were days that he hid the cans. Every other can would go into the toy box, the wooden rectangle that his father had built from scratch, hiding in the corner. Nick would open it up and bury the cans under baseball gloves and bats, soccer cleats and tennis balls, basketballs and an old Slip N’ Slide. On Mondays, when Nick would take out the trash, he would roll the large, plastic canisters up to the corner, two for garbage, and one for the recycling. But before he made that trek he’d pluck the sour smelling remnants out from under the tennis rackets and add them to the pile. His mom was a detective, sure, but she was no Agatha Christie. She saw what she wanted to see.
Nick’s father quit drinking years ago, as if it were no big thing. Just up and stopped one day. Nick’s mother simply drove the old man home early from work one day, but Nick never got the whole story—just a house filled with silence, his parents avoiding each other, his father slinking upstairs. Nick thought it was simply to change out of his work clothes, but he never came back down. His father used to drink a lot there, at his office, and come home soused regularly. Instead of becoming nasty or violent, he got quiet and disappeared. He’d go to bed early, a ghost.
It still haunted him, those quiet days of repressed anger. Something was always happening just out of earshot, just floating past him, up and away, drifting behind shut doors where the words turned into muffled sounds.
Standing on the porch, as the smoke swallowed him up again, Nick stared as his father’s sweaty neck, dirt pushed into the crinkled lines of flesh, tufts of white hair pushing out of his ears.
“What’s her name, Dad?” he asked.
“What do you mean, Nick?”
“The woman over at China Inn. Does she have a name?”
“Sure. Her name is none of your damn business.”
“I think I met her. Is her name Mei?”
“Ask your mother if the deviled eggs are ready,” he said, painting the ribs with more sauce, his face pushing into a scowl.
Nick moved to go inside, and waved off his wife’s raised eyebrows with a shrug of his shoulders and a hand flapping in the air. “You want a drink, Lisa? Iced tea, beer?”
“No honey, I’m fine,” she said, hands on her hips as the dog and boy encircled her.
“Water for Nicky?”
“Sure,” she said.
Nick smiled at his father, a mean streak washing over him. His father wasn’t made of stone it seemed, and he let a grin slide across his face. The screen door opened and his mother stuck her head out, his father turning away further, his back to them all, face settled back into a mask.
“Lemonade?” she asked.
“Sure, Mom, I’ll come help you. And I need to check on the deviled eggs anyway.”
The deviled eggs. His mom would make two dozen, sprinkling the tops with paprika (for color) and a tiny bit of minced chives. There was a large, yellow duck plate, with those half-moon indentations that could only hold deviled eggs. What else could they possibly hold? It could handle up to a dozen of those eggs, but that didn’t include the extras, the diversions, the ones out in the utility room fridge. Out there he’d sneak one or two, they all would, and somehow the eggs would disappear without a word. They had three refrigerators, and a freezer in the basement too. The one in the kitchen was Mom’s, and Dad was not allowed in it. He’d make a mess out of it, leaving lids off, sticky jellies and jams smeared across the bottom of the jars, the mustards mixing with the soy sauce—chaos on cold, white shelves. The one in the utility room was for the overflow, the extra soda, the backup ketchup and mayonnaise, oversized hams and turkeys, the special imported beer and expensive wine for guests. The one in the garage was his father’s. It held all manner of detritus—soda, batteries, cigarettes, Styrofoam cups of worms—even the odd carburetor or car part, antibiotics for the dog. It was a regular Pandora’s box.
In the kitchen, his mother poured the lemonade into tall clear glasses and stirred it with a wistful detachment. She went back to chopping things, mixing salads, everything else but the ribs. She was allowed to trim them, and she could certainly buy them, but she was never allowed to cook them. That was his father’s thing. Nobody could flip a slab of ribs like his father.
“Dad wants to know if the deviled eggs are ready.”
“Does he?” she said. “Almost. How are the ribs?”
“They look good, they smell fantastic. They always do.”
“You need help with anything else, Mom?”
Nick was not allowed to help in the kitchen, either. They had their worlds and he was just a visitor. Nick couldn’t rebuild an engine or finish his own basement, but he could cook. And that didn’t mean the food he made for his son—macaroni and cheese, cinnamon toast or grilled cheese sandwiches. It meant stir-fry, meatloaf, garlic mashed potatoes, and sauteed asparagus. In his parents’ eyes, he was still a child.
“No, I’m good. Go help your father.”
Nick placed his hand on his back and winced. He did it on purpose in front of his mother, to see if she would notice. He arched his sore back a bit more and grimaced. But he wouldn’t say anything in front of his dad.
The reason he came down here, besides his father’s birthday, was to help him put in a new heater. Three nights ago, Nick had marveled at the fact that his father knew what he was doing. Or at least he’d looked like he did. They stood in the hot St. Louis sun—a large container of sun tea steeping nearby, sprigs of mint from the garden floating on the surface—and wrestled the heater across the yard, the dollie doing most of the work. The humidity clung to them like a net. When the time came, Nick was the muscle. It must have weighed three hundred pounds. They hesitated at the top of the stairs, an uncomfortable laugh slipping from their lips. The first time they went to pick it up it didn’t move.
“We’ll just roll it down the steps, son. We’ll keep it on the dollie.”
Nick stared at his father as if he were crazy. But his father simply rubbed his hands together and they tried it again. Moving it slowly, inch by inch, they lowered the dollie down the concrete stairs, each drop sending a shock through their bodies. Moving it one step at a time, Nick’s back muscles tightened. His father was getting impatient, the swearing increasing with every step, their faces red from exertion, his mother in the kitchen, trying to stay out of it. Nick’s back slipped and stretched, every step a jolt to his spine.
They wheeled it over to the spot where it would be installed and paused for a moment to collect their breath. Nick leaned against an aging metal shelf, and when he put his entire weight on it, wiping his brow with the bottom of his t-shirt, the whole shelf shifted. In one quick groan the rusted metal shelf leaned to one side, a mason jar falling to the basement floor and shattering on the concrete. It started to lean forward, a bit of metal buckling down at the legs, boxes sliding forward, another jar falling to the basement floor, shattering. Nick moved in front of the shelves, his arms shooting up to hold it, spread wide to the edges of the shelving as more items fell to the floor.
“Dad, help me, I can’t hold it.”
“Nicky, I can’t, I got this heater here, I can’t let it go.”
“Just push it back up, you’ve got it.”
Nick strained against the weight of the shelving and pushed it back up, his father watching with a face of mixed emotions—part amusement, part concern.
One final box tumbled out and hit the floor, its contents spilling out all over the floor. Nick pushed the shelves against the wall, and they stood still, solid and quiet. Nick looked down and all around his feet were hundreds of fortune cookies, still in their wrappers. They formed a small mound at his feet.
Back in the kitchen, Nick’s mother turned to him. “He appreciates you being here, Nick.”
“Of course he does,” she said. “He’s just not big on saying anything. You know that. You okay? How’s your back?”
“It hurts. I took some aspirin. I just need to take it easy. Maybe I’ll go sit in the hot tub later.”
“Give my best to the goldfish.”
The hot tub was a running joke. It was one of those things his father promised, drunk one night, out in the back yard with a measuring tape, showing Nick where it would go. It was before he started high school, when he was barely a teen.
“It’ll be great, son, we’ll put it right at the end of the porch, so we can step right in.”
“Have you ever done anything like this before?” Nick asked, the sun fading, shadows creeping across the outline of the tub that he had sprayed on the grass with white paint.
“How hard can it be? Here, hold the measuring tape.”
His father measured and Nick wrote it down. They came at it from all angles, his mother watching from the window, a smile on her face. “Your mother and I can sit out here and stare at the stars,” he went on.
“Dad, that will never happen.”
“Sure it will. I’ll buy your mother a new swimsuit, something sexy.”
“Dad, good lord, I’m never stepping in this thing.”
“We’ll hold hands and look at the moon.”
“Oh my God, gross.”
“I’ll start doing sit-ups again, like when I was in the army, a hundred a day.”
“You can switch to Busch Light,” Nick offered.
“Or I’ll quit all together.”
“Don’t get crazy, Dad.”
It was almost dark when his father started digging. Nick tried to talk him out of it. He was fast, and stronger than Nick remembered. When he severed the cable line, Mom screamed out from the kitchen, where her tiny television set had filled with static. When he hit the drainage pipe and cracked it, sewage leaking into the night air, Nick told him he was out. His father sat drinking beer at the edge of the pit, laughing, his hands covered in dirt.
Now it was a goldfish pond.
In the kitchen, his mother smiled. “See if your dad needs any help, I’m fine.” She washed her hands in the kitchen sink, smiling. The baked beans simmered on the stove, large chunks of bacon floating to the surface. A cleaved loaf of French bread was slathered in butter and minced garlic, ready for the oven. Several ears of corn soaked in a large pot, husks and threads littering the counter.
Nick stepped outside with a tray full of drinks, set it on the metal table, and plopped down in the chair. His father’s back was to him, and he stared out at the large oaks and maples that filled up the back yard, the dogwood in full bloom, white flowers drifting to the earth like snowflakes. His father lit another cigarette and wiped his brow. Nick had no words for him now, nothing of substance. They were all shallow, floating on the surface of so many things they never said and never would. They would make eye contact for a moment and then quickly look away, like when he showed up on the doorstep, in snow at Christmas, or for the 4th of July, sometimes with his wife and son in tow, sometimes alone. His mother was always there to greet him, a smile on her face, a hug and kiss. Most times his father didn’t even get up, stayed in his recliner peeling the foil off one Hershey’s kiss after another, lining them up in a grid on the arm of his chair. Nick made the effort to break that cloud of smoke, bent over and gave him a hug, his scratchy face brushing up against his own, a kiss on his cheek no matter how much he squirmed.
Nicky and the dog Max were wearing out. Lisa was getting tired too, her eyes constantly darting to Nick. She knew something was going on, but she wasn’t sure what. She was simply trying to give him enough space to talk to his father, something she pushed on him all of the time.
“Her name is Mei, you got that right,” his father said, poking the ribs with a fork. “I knew her since she was a little girl, working in her parents’ restaurant. She was just a cute little oriental girl. And then one day she grew up.”
Nick watched his father hitch up his pants, adjusting them. “What happened?” Nick asked.
“Nothing happened. When your mother and I were dating, and we would fight, I’d go there and sit, drink a Tsingtao and eat the spicy food your mother hated. It was my way of getting back at her. And having a beautiful young woman wait on me certainly helped me to pass the time.”
“But, nothing ever happened, right?”
“No, not really,” he said, looking up, and his eyes were cloudy and distant.
“What does that mean?”
“In my heart, Nick, that’s where I betrayed your mother. I hated her. And when I was sitting at the China Inn, Mei waiting on me, I wished your mother away. I wished you away, too.”
Nicky collapsed in the grass, the dog licking him. Their time was almost over.
“It happens, Dad. None of us are perfect.”
Nick was no saint. When he was eighteen, he found three coffee cans hidden in his parents’ bedroom closet. They were filled with coins, quarters mostly. There must have been hundreds of dollars in there, hundreds. It started out as a quick grab, money they wouldn’t give him to go out and see a movie, money he stole to buy beer. And then he couldn’t stop. He’d rather lie out and get a tan, chasing girls at the pool. He didn’t want to work. So he climbed onto the back of his old man and added more weight. He took those coins, the quarters, and replaced them with pennies. And in time, when he could no longer hide these crimes against his father, all of the cans disappeared. How could his father not see it? He never said a word. And that was even worse.
They retired to the screen porch for an early dinner, nobody speaking a word. Lisa sat at one end of the wrought iron couch, green floral designs on faded, white cushions. She pushed a stray strand of hair out of her face, her cheeks flushed from the heat. Next to her sat Nicky the third, his face already covered with barbeque sauce, gnawing away at the bones. Bookending the boy, Nick took a breath, his family gathered around him, the rituals from his childhood the same today as they were then, down to the tiny wooden corncob holders and the tall plastic glasses of iced tea. Nick’s mother sat in a rickety folding chair, the plastic fabric straps frayed at the edges, her eyes on the backyard and the oak trees creaking in the wind. Nick’s father sat down last on an old leather ottoman, his plate overflowing with ribs, his t-shirt soaked through with sweat, running his hand across his forehead. A cardinal shot by and landed on a nearby juniper bush, chirping once and moving on. When Nick’s father cleared his throat, everyone looked up.
“I’d like to say grace.”