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.
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.