After my father died, I had no one to fall back on. Cliff sat in his room, playing the same chords on the guitar over and over and over. He wanted to be there for me, he just didn’t know how. And how could he have known he was playing the riff from the song my dad sang to me in the car that one time, when we got hot chocolate in the middle of summer? It’s true, I hadn’t seen my dad in over a year, but he’d always been around, and now I couldn’t count on anything.
I call in sick to work and Tammy’s being a real bitch.
“You’re supposed to give more notice,” she says.
“My dad’s dead. What’s wrong with you?” I reply.
“I’m sorry, but didn’t he die last week?” I want to hang up on her, but I don’t cause I can’t really lose my job right now.
“Yes,” I say, and then I pause to make her squirm. “It’s the service dummy.”
“Can you at least tell me how long you’ll be gone?”
“A week.” Then I say goodbye to Cliff, who stands and gives me a hug, but says nothing. We haven’t been dating long. He is my first friend in this city.
My car is practically brand new. My mother got it for me, and besides the dent in the front bumper, you’d never be able to tell it’s already two years old. I wonder if she knows about Dad. I ready myself for the two-hour drive south to a place I never lived – I’m not sure whether it’s technically a suburb, or even if my dad has a house or an apartment.. whether there will be cornfields or blocks of factories and strip malls. Maybe both.
I stop about a half way there at a gas station. Did my dad ever stop here on his way to visit me? That is to say, when he planned to visit me and then changed his mind and went to the casino instead? Maybe he stood at this very pump deciding whether this gas would take him to Chicago, or Hammond, Indiana. I know he loved me, he told me so all the time, but then again, I couldn’t make him money like a casino did. I can make his favorite dish, a gooey spinach lasagna with extra tomato sauce, but making money has never been my strong suit.
I should just turn back around. It’s what he would have done. We aren’t good at dealing with things, my dad and I. That’s why we have my mom. The first person I call when I need to figure something out. A little further on down the list is my dad. I’d be on the same place on my dad’s list. I’m still standing at the pump, staring at the green goo left behind by the last car, long after the gas has finished pumping.
“Excuse me. You’re done, right?”
“Huh?” I look up to see a pickup, my least favorite kind of car sitting behind me and a guy with a flannel shirt hanging out the window.
“You’re done. This isn’t a parking lot,” he says. It’s so cliché I don’t know how to respond without another cliché. Is this what my dad’s life had become? If I find a pickup outside his house and a closet full of repressed lumberjack shirts inside, I’ll know it was his time. We’re city folk, and that’s just giving up.
But for some reason, this is the push I needed. I return the nozzle to its place and point the car further south. I think of Cliff and his songs in the key of maudlin. He hasn’t even lost a grandparent. Still, he looks so cute when he has nothing to say. Which is most of the time. We should move in together. Maybe I’ll get pregnant. Tammy would love that.
I’m pulling into Gibson City, which, for the record, is not a city, no matter what they call it. Did he move all the way here just to live in a sorry approximation of Chicago? I haven’t lived in Chicago long, but the way my parents talked about it, I couldn’t believe they’d ever move. It was my dad’s idea to move when I was born, and boy was that a mistake. We never forgave him. After the divorce, mom moved back, and dad retreated further south.
Then it dawns on me. I have nothing to do for the next week. Will anyone else be here or will it just be me, in a room, with his casket? I’ve been looking forward to a reason to take off work, but a week alone here might be worse than pouring coffee and making small talk with affected writers and stay at home moms. I don’t need another chance to rehash all our past conversations and the things I never got to say to him. This is the year I have decided not to cry. How could my father have died at a time like this? It is spring and there are white and pink bulbs on the tree and it’s the perfect weather for lying in the grass, guessing where the planes are going.
I find myself scouting out the bars as I go, wondering where my dad would go. I could be a drunk for a week. I think I’ve got a free pass to be any way I want. My dad would approve. If I’m alone, maybe his ghost will sit and have a drink with me. I’d love to hear his explanation on why squirrels are different colors in different parts of the country.
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