customer appreciation

Posted in Uncategorized on June 24, 2008 by CR

Simone’s divorce celebration took us across the river into Illinois where we had dinner at a steak house that sits next to a small airport where students from our community college are able to get their pilot’s licenses. Dad talked of Fast Jack’s and how business might improve if we were to offer coupons to our regulars while Simone let me drink from her margaritas. Dad didn’t like this, but she insisted. “Oh, let him live a little, Roy.” By the end of dinner I was drunk enough to argue with him about his stupid coupon idea.

“The whole thing just makes us look so desperate, Dad,” I said. “It’ll be embarrassing.”

“I think people will appreciate the fact that they’re getting a free gallon of gasoline every ten times they come in,” he said, folding his napkin back into its original triangle shape. “I know I sure would.”

“But ten visits is a lot for only one gallon. Why not ten gallons?”
“Are you kidding me? We’re trying to make money, Sean, not give it away.”

“But a single gallon isn’t going to make a difference to anyone.”

“You don’t seem to comprehend customer appreciation, son. People appreciate getting something for free – whatever it is.” He looked over at Simone, wanting her to take his side on this. She was a million miles away though, staring out the window behind her to a plane making its way across the landing strip. The plane was veering left and right, it’s back rudder waving back and forth.

“Tell him, Simone,” I said. “Wouldn’t you feel stupid being told that once you come into a station ten times you get one free gallon? One? Wouldn’t that make you feel stupid?”

Dad said to her, “We’re only trying to reinforce a little loyalty here. I mean, there’s nothing wrong in applauding a little loyalty, am I right? A little devotion?”

Simone turned to face us. She was holding her empty margarita glass to her forehead and her eyes were shiny with tears about to spill down her face. “I don’t know,” she sighed. “I guess a little devotion never hurt anybody.”

Dad picked up his knife and fork and cut himself a piece of what was left of Simone’s steak. He leaned over and put his arm around her. I watched the food move over to the side of his jaw as he whispered something to her. Simone grabbed my hand then and squeezed. “Give us a minute, Sean?” I did as I was told. Leaving the table and making my across the steak house, I wondered what Dad might have said to her. I wondered if I couldn’t have said it any better.

Out in the parking lot, Dad’s truck was locked, so I leaned against it and stared across the road to the airport. All of the planes were parked for the night with their noses aimed at the sky. The only other person around was a man in an oil-stained jumpsuit sitting outside of one of the hangers, cleaning his fingernails with a pocketknife. A semi-truck passed by occasionally, stirring up a breeze. Sometimes the air smelled of fuel, sometimes of steak. Above, the moon sat like a stray eyelash in the sky.


Dad walked up to me with a couple of toothpicks. “Get off the Ram,” he said. “The rivets in your jeans will scratch the paint.”

I did as I was told. “How’s Simone? She still crying?”

“She’ll be okay.”

“Yeah, you think so?”

“I go by what they tell me, son.”

The two of us stood there and stared at the line of planes. I had been out of high school for two weeks, a virgin who’d only gotten as far as feeling up a fry-cook at Hardee’s in the backseat of her CRX on a cold January night of my junior year. I wasn’t able to get a date to the prom because Dad had dated so many single mothers in town that everyone at school assumed I only cared about one thing. Not that people were exactly wrong about me though. The way I saw it, Dad wasn’t different from anybody else. You had to take what you could get. Shit in one hand. Wish in the other. See which fills up first. That’s what Dad always said.

I put the toothpick in my mouth. It was coated in cinnamon. “What did you tell Simone?” I asked him. “I mean, what do you tell women when they get like that?”

Dad removed his toothpick, licked his lips. “The less the better,” he said. “But I guess tonight’s my fault. I never should’ve let her come out tonight.”

“She wanted to celebrate though,” I said.

He bent down and checked his Ram for any scratches the rivets of my jeans could’ve left behind. “I told her on the phone this afternoon that she should just take it easy and see how things go, but she wouldn’t listen. Said she’d be fine.”

“She is pretty,” I said. And she was. This one hadn’t wrinkled as she aged, but had freckled. I liked that. Her freckles made her seem warmer than the usual woman he’d bring home. She had this big head of frizzy red hair that looked like she had to attack it with a brush in order to keep in line and her eyes were as green as emeralds and blah-blah-blah whatever. This woman was attractive. A ten. And not a ten on Dad’s scale either, but on mine.

Dad unlocked the Ram and slid the key in the ignition so he could check the clock on the dash. “You think there’s more to my life than just women, son? I mean, your dad’s got more going on than just that, doesn’t he?”

I was a little drunk from Simone’s margaritas, but instead of telling him what I felt was true, I turned on her. “It’s not like you’re the guy who divorced her,” I said. “It’s not like you’re the bad guy here.”

He smiled. “Exactly! I’m the good guy here! Look around us, son. I don’t see anyone else helping her pick up the pieces, do you? I don’t see anyone else around taking her out to eat. You think she realizes this though? Hell No! You know what she just said to me before I came out here. She said, ‘Man was God’s first draft but that woman was the final product.’ Now if that’s not someone hanging by a thread then I don’t know what is . . .”

The door to the steak house opened and the two of us turned to watch Simone make her way across the parking lot. Whatever we had been talking about was quickly forgotten. “Listen,” Dad said, slipping me a ten-dollar bill. “Go to the movies or something. This emotional rollercoaster Simone’s on has its rewards, know what I mean?”

More cash made its way into my pocket due to a new woman in our lives than from what I ever made working at Fast Jack’s. Once I learned how it worked, I’d try to get as much as I could get.

By the time Simone was upon us, I turned to Dad and asked him if I could have some money for the movies. He didn’t think twice. Smiling over at Simone’s puffy eyes and fresh coat of make-up, he brought out his wallet and forked over a twenty-dollar bill. “Don’t spend it all in one place,” he told me.

nice legs, when do they open?

Posted in Uncategorized on June 7, 2008 by CR

It was always weird seeing Billie again. Not long after Dad and I had brought her back home from Thebes, we only saw her maybe once or twice a year. We knew she wasn’t living in Bicknell, but it’s not like she ever seemed to be living that far from us either. I’d be in the drive-thru at Long John Silvers and wonder if the girl in the car in front of me was her or not. Or, I’d be in Kroger’s and think I’d hear her voice in the next aisle.

One time, she came home late one night crying with the news that Stevie Ray Vaughn had just died in a plane crash. She explained how she had met Stevie once at a Blues festival. Dad waited until she was finished with her story, then got out his wallet and set the money on the kitchen counter and went back to bed. She spent the rest of the night on the couch, but was gone before either Dad and I woke up the next morning. I think Dad always kept a hundred dollar bill secretly folded away in his wallet for whenever she showed up. I could never tell if he gave the money to her as a gift or as a way to get her out of the house because as soon as she got that hundred it wasn’t long before she was out the door and out of our lives for another six months.

It’s not that I didn’t mind Billie showing up out of the blue. Dad and I never said it, but I think we were both relieved when she showed her face – just so we knew she was still alive. But what bugged us was how much space she took up when she was around. She didn’t live there anymore and her old bedroom had been slowly emptied with each of her visits to the point that there were only a mattress on the floor and an old Pat Benatar poster on the walls, but whenever she showed up it was like she had the run of the place all over again. After an hour of her being there, whether it was winter or summer, rain or shine, I’d have to escape to the woods just so I could breathe. Dad would start washing his car, inside and out. I think he preferred the sound of the Dust-Buster than whatever Billie had to say.

After Billie went into the liquor store, I looked in on the Mustang she had flown in on. Behind the steering wheel was this scrawny little bald guy with a full beard. Eyes closed, head thrown back, mouth open, the only thing that made him different from a dead body was that he would occasionally flick the ashes from his cigarette out the window.

Billie came out with four cases of Bud Light in her arms, a brown paper bag wrapped around a bottle, and the unlit cigarette in her mouth. I took the cases from her and followed her to the back of the Mustang. Opening its trunk, she flipped open the lid of a big red cooler inside. The cooler was full of water, some ice cubes floating around, a carton of orange juice and a slice of bologna sealed inside a sandwich bag. Behind the cooler were a rifle case and some logs. She screwed the cap off the bottle in the brown paper sack and drained it into the carton of orange juice.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Malibu,” she said, tossing the sack and bottle into the trunk and drinking straight from the carton.

She offered me a drink and I put my nose to the mouth of the carton. It smelled like sun tan lotion. “No thanks,” I said.

“Suit yourself.” She took another swig. “That’s eight bucks by the way for the half-case I got you.”

I looked around for the green bottles. “They didn’t have any Molson?”

“Nope.”

Bullshit. She had just bought me what she was buying.

“Come on,” I said. “I asked you to buy me Molson.”

“I don’t have change for this,” she said, pocketing the twenty I had held out to her.

“There’s a liquor store right there. Go in and break it.”

“No can do,” she said. “The guy in there won’t open his register unless you buy something.”

More bullshit.

The bald dead-looking guy in the driver’s seat opened his eyes and watched me in his side-mirror while Billie and I stood there at the open trunk of the Mustang, facing one another with all of that Bud Light between us. She let her swoop of hair cover her leaky pupil again. “I’ll pay you back the next time I see you,” she said, and started breaking open the cases and tossing the cans into the cooler.

I picked up my half-case, put it under my arm, and watched her fill the cooler. I could’ve helped her. There were a lot of cans and she was determined to get all three-and-a-half cases in that one cooler. But I figured she had already lied to me twice, let her pack her own cooler.

“You need ice,” I said.

“Tell me something I don’t know,” she said, and closed the trunk.

I watched her move around to the passenger side of the Mustang, get in, grab a lighter from the dash and light her cigarette. The guy she was with must’ve asked her about me because she just shrugged her shoulders and nodded toward me as if to say no, it’s okay. Whatever that could’ve meant. He was still staring at me in his side-mirror and I stared back, not caring how tough or dead he seemed to be. He sat up and started the engine. Billie closed her door and the Mustang backed out with the guy flicking his fingers goodbye to me from the top of the steering wheel. Billie called out to me, “Good seeing you!” I didn’t say anything. I stepped into the empty parking space and watched the Mustang pull out onto the highway. Its bumper sticker read Nice Legs, When Do They Open?

mountain blend

Posted in Uncategorized on May 24, 2008 by CR

Dad followed them inside, but instantly stepped back out.  “Damn girls, you got a cat in there?” he said.  I heard the closing of a door and peeked inside.   Strewn across the floor were a couple of sleeping bags, flattened beer cans and a rain soaked phonebook lying face down in a corner.  The only piece of furniture was a cushion-less sofa covered with a bed sheet.  In front of the sofa, acting as a table, was a large speaker-case.  On top of it were a spoon, a box of generic Sudafed and a hot plate.  Sitting on the hot plate was a Folger’s coffee can.  Mountain Blend.  The place didn’t smell like cat as much as it did unflushed pee.  “This is what your sister ran away to?” Dad asked me.

the produce department

Posted in Uncategorized on May 22, 2008 by CR

I steered the cart into the soda and chips aisle and grabbed a six-pack of root beer and a family size bag of Lays – swimming pool food.  I couldn’t think of anything else I wanted.  Eventually, I found myself in front of the greeting cards.  I was looking at a get-well card that read: I thought the only sick thing about you was your love life when Dad came up behind me and said, “This is all you want?  Soda and chips?  I thought you would’ve had a full cart by now.”

I turned and faced him.  He didn’t look any more tan than he had when he dropped me off, but there was this funny odor coming off him.  I leaned in for a sniff.  It was the opposite of Cathy Pater’s smell.  This smell was chemical.

“It’s this special oil they give you,” he said, smiling down at his forearms.  “Helps you tan faster.  It’s all natural.”  He took control of the cart.  “Okay, let’s fill this thing up, huh?”

Steering us into the produce department, he directed me to place a couple of watermelon halves under the cart.  He picked up a plastic container in the shape of a lemon and showed it to me.  “Can you think of anything we might need this for?” he asked.  I nodded that I didn’t.  He dropped it in the cart anyway.  In the meat department, he selected, very carefully, a half-dozen cube steaks.  He got a box of hamburger patties and a huge “family size” bottle of Bar-B-Q sauce.  As we stood over the various cuts of pork chop I asked him, “Is Billie okay, Dad?  I mean, what has she been doing all this time?”

“With or without bone?” he asked me, not taking his eyes off the pork chops. “Because the bone gives it more flavor, you know?”

“Dad?”

“Give me a minute here, son.  I’m trying to feed the family.”

Strolling into the bakery department he struck up a conversation with a girl behind the counter.  She was a young black girl around Billie’s age.  Her hair was tucked inside of a pink hairnet.  Her hands were coated white with flour.  Dad read her nametag like he’d known her for years.  “How are you, Laura?  I’m Roy.  And I was thinking of sandwiches.  A little turkey, a little bacon, some mayo?  Tomatoes?”

“I’m sorry,” she said.  “But this is the bakery department?  We don’t make sandwiches.”

“You have bread, don’t you?” Dad said.  “Sandwiches are made with bread.”

She motioned to the display case between them.  “Yes, but as you can see.  We have cakes and donuts . . . some cookies and some danish.”

Dad pulled our cart back to show her what we had gotten so far.  “Laura,” he said. “What do you think would go well with all of this stuff?  What are we missing here?  I feel we have everything but it here, know what I mean?”

She peered over the display case.  Her lips moved like she was counting.  “You don’t have anything for dessert,” she said.  “We have a nice variety of cakes and pies.”

Dad looked at me.  “Does Billie like cake?”

“Everybody likes cake,” the girl said.

“I don’t know,” Dad said.  “I mean, I just don’t know.”  He gave the display case a soft kick like he was checking the air pressure of a tire.  “Okay, that’s a no on the cake then, Laura.  How about some donuts?  How are the donuts here?  Pretty good?”

The phone rang and the girl turned to pick it up.  A black phone, its receiver was fingerprinted with flour.  Dad peered over the display case like he wanted to see what kind of shoes she was wearing.  “That’s what I’m talking about,” he said.  “Not too dark, not too light.  A nice milky coffee.  Here son take a look for yourself.”

I was too short to see over the case so I crouched down and looked past the donut trays.  Before I could begin to wonder what he was talking about, she had hung up the phone.  “What’s he liking down there?” she asked Dad.  “The tiger-tails?”

I stood up to her snapping a pair of silver tongs in my direction.  “You look like a tiger-tailer,” she said to me.  “How many would you like?”

Besides for Swan’s mom, this girl was the first face to smile back at me in ten days that either wasn’t on a television screen or in the page of magazine.  All I could say was, “Yes, I’m a tiger-tailer . . .”

“Say, Laura?” Dad said.  “I was wondering if you could do me a favor.”

Her smile turned to him.  “What’s that?” she said.

He rested his right forearm on top of the display case.  “It’ll just take a second of you time.  If you could put your arm up to mine, I would like to check something.”

“Dad?”

“Hold on, son.  Laura?  Could you just put your arm up here?  There you go.  That’s it.”

The two of them inspected their forearms together though I could see that she didn’t know why.

“What’s that smell?” she asked him.

“That’s me,” Dad said.  “Don’t worry.  It’s all natural.  You know that Lincoln Tanning Center on the corner of Main and Rogers?  Great place.  Real nice people there.  You ever been there, Laura?”

The girl stepped back, taking her arm with her.  “Why would I go to a tanning center?” she said.

“Exactly,” Dad said and pointed down to his forearm that was still lying across the display case.  “Did you know that lack of sunlight is one of the leading factors of depression?  Did you know that?  Because I didn’t know that . . . ”

She stood back, arms crossed.  She didn’t seem upset or insulted.  Like anyone else talking to Dad for the first time, she only wondered if he was serious or not.

“You’ve got a really nice tonal value there,” Dad told her.  “I mean it.  People are lining up to get what you’ve got.”

“Is he for real?” she asked me.

I nodded that he was.

“Sure, I’m for real, Laura,” he said.  “And thanks for doing that for me.  It tells me a lot.  Thanks so much.”

“What does it tell you?”

“That I need to get serious about my tan if I’m going to get anywhere near your tonal value.  You see, I’ve been out of commission for the last few days – over a week actually.  It got me thinking though.  And one more favor before the donuts.  Could I ask you a question?”

“Sure,” she said.  “But how about a dozen tiger-tails and a dozen cherry?”

“That’s fine, Laura,” he said, with a wave of his hand.  “But this question I have is about my daughter.  She’s what I wanted to ask you about.  She’s nineteen and, well, this is the deal.  My daughter has been paying me rent to sleep in her own room.  It’s not much, the rent.  In fact, what she pays hardly makes a quarter of my car payment.  But what I’m getting at here is . . .”

“I don’t get it,” she said, handing over the first box of donuts.  “Why would you make your own daughter pay rent?”

Dad ran his hands through his hair, bringing it back into a ponytail and then letting it go.  “She tried to leave when she first graduated from high school,” he said.  “She came back.  She got this job working out in the fields.  Back breaking work.  Then out of the blue she tells me she’s paying rent now.  So it was all her idea, see?  I’ve been playing along.  You know how kids go through phases.  You play their games.  Now, my question to you is this.  Do you think I made a mistake in doing this?  Did I do the wrong thing?”

That’s my dad to a tee.  Open up to total strangers but won’t crack the door an inch to the people closest to him.

“I still can’t imagine someone wanting to pay rent when they don’t have to,” she said.

I stepped up, took the second box of donuts and placed it on top of the other box.

Dad looked up from studying his forearms again.  “Yeah, I guess . . . I mean, if I didn’t butt into her life every once in a while then she’d say I was guilty of not caring about her.”  He put his hands on the display case and leaned in closer.  “It sure is nice talking with someone about this stuff.”

The phone rang again and she answered.  “Bakery Department.  Jamilla speaking.”

“Jamilla?” Dad said.  He knocked on the display case.  “Hey, Laura . . .”

She put the phone to her shoulder.  “Yes?”

“I thought your name was Laura.”

“Oh, I just grabbed the first smock I saw this morning.  You guys have a nice day, okay?”

“Well, what kind of way is that to show customer appreciation?”

“Well, what kind of father charges his daughter to rent?”

Dad pulled a slip of paper from his wallet and waved it at her.  It was the first postal money order Billie had given to him when she first told him she wanted to be treated as a tenant instead of a daughter.  “I haven’t cashed a single one of these fuckers yet!” he hollered.  “What kind of person do you think I am anyway?”

“Sir, do you want me to call security?”

“Sure, do that.  Call security!  And when they get over here I’ll tell them that all I wanted was a couple of sandwiches to feed my family but instead all I got was a liar in the bakery department!  Come on, son!”

Dad stormed off as I pushed the cart behind him.  Once he had walked up and down a couple of aisles and didn’t seem as upset anymore he began to randomly pluck items from the shelves and drop them into the cart.  Canned yams.  Canned pears.  A can of something called Spotted Dick.  He didn’t stop until we had a mountain of food in our cart and he was face to face with a single lobster sitting at the bottom of a large glass tank.

The lobster’s claws were strapped shut with rubber bands and the walls of the tank were bristle-marked by the brush that had last cleaned it.  A sign nearby read:  Don’t Bother the Lobsters.  Dad put his hands to the glass and stared into the tank.  He started kneading the tanning oil deeper into his arms, and told me, “Your sister’s pregnant by the way.”

family values

Posted in Uncategorized on May 22, 2008 by CR

The first thing we did after Billie had called to tell us she was “fine and dandy” and needed to be picked up was stop in at the dry cleaners.  Dad made a whole affair out of it.  For ten minutes he stood there explaining to the lady behind the counter how the company that made Armor-All, Dad’s dashboard cleaner of choice, should inform its customers that the cleaner also ate through men’s slacks. “High-end Cotton blends are especially sensitive to Armor-All,” he said. “People don’t order slacks from International Male just to see them turn to Swiss cheese, do they?” The lady behind the counter didn’t know if he was kidding or serious. When she tried to give him a coupon, he waved it away. “No, it’s okay,” he said. “It’s not your fault. It’s Armor-All’s. I just thought you should know is all . . .”

running water

Posted in Uncategorized on May 22, 2008 by CR

Swan’s mom brought dinner over a few times. Lasagna and salad. Tuna casserole. Meatloaf. She would sit with us at the dining room table and watch us eat her food. She’d tell us about her day, about her job as the athletic director at the YMCA. It was nice to hear about life outside of the house. She asked us to come over for a swim in her above-ground pool sometime, but Dad said we better not. “How about Sean then?” she said. Dad told her that he needed me at home to answer the phone if the police were to call while he was in the shower or something.

Dad was in the shower a lot. He’d take his first shower in the morning, then his second around lunchtime, then again before he’d go to bed. I’d wake up in the middle of the night sometimes and hear the water running. I’d lie there in bed and listen. If I listened long enough, I’d hear him crying. But I could never be sure. I’d take my blankets and pillows downstairs and try to find a movie, fall asleep on the couch.

still just a kid

Posted in Uncategorized on May 22, 2008 by CR

This is the description Dad gave to the sheriff’s department when he finally got through to someone on the phone.  “Pretty girl.  Built.  Brown hair.  Feathered.  Real good tan.  No scars.  No tattoos . . . well, none that I know of.  Her left pupil is kind of funny.  Makes her look a little foreign, I guess.  Got a mouth on her, too.  Not afraid to bite the hand that feeds her, know what I mean, officer?  Real pretty girl though.”

Dad came up to my room after making the call.  He sat down at the end of my bed where I was looking through a BMX catalog my buddy Swan had picked up at the Schwinn shop in town.  Like me, Swan was hoping for a new bike, too.

“I hope you know how serious this is that your sister has disappeared,” Dad said.  “Louisville isn’t exactly next door.  It’s a good four hours away.  Plus, who the hell does she know there?  Who’s there to watch over her?  Nobody, that’s who.  Shit.  Your sister thinks she’s all grown up but she’s not.  She’s still just a kid . . .”  This was real worry I was seeing in Dad’s eyes.  Not the kind of worry I saw with him standing in K-mart watching the price of his favorite mousse go up again.

“Come on,” he said, standing me up.  “There’s nothing we can do about it now.  You hungry?”  He led me downstairs and put me in front of the television.  “Find us a movie,” he said.  “We’ll eat our turkey pot-pies in here tonight . . .”

I flipped through the channels until I found Cleopatra starring Elizabeth Taylor.  Cleopatra’s library was on fire and she was begging the Romans to do something about it.  The Romans didn’t care though.  They had their own problems and just looked at her like she was crazy.