Mitchell Waldman’s fiction and poetry have appeared in numerous publications, including Alien Buddha Press, The MacGuffin, Fictive Dream, The Waterhouse Review, Crack the Spine, The Houston Literary Review, The Faircloth Review, Epiphany, Wilderness House Literary Magazine, The Battered Suitcase, and many other magazines and anthologies. He is also the author of the novel, A Face in the Moon, and the story collection, Petty Offenses and Crimes of the Heart, and serves as Fiction Editor for Blue Lake Review. A new story collection, Brothers, Fathers, and Other Strangers, is due out from Adelaide Books in September. (For more info, see his website at http://mitchwaldman.homestead.com).
I’m drinking a beer before going to the grocery store. Why? Because it seems like the thing to do. Even though it’s 9:00 in the morning.
I have to go to the grocery store because my parents are coming for a visit. Not sure why. Because they’re parents and they want to feel like they did a good job with me, even though I dropped out of college, am chronically unemployed, don’t have a girlfriend, and drink beer at 9:00 in the morning.
I’m going to the grocery store because I don’t want my parents to open up my refrigerator to see four of a six pack on the top shelf, a loaf of white bread and nothing else. (Some ice cream, which I shouldn’t eat, in the freezer, and a bag of green peas, not sure why, maybe because they’ve been in there since I moved in here—I don’t like green peas).
I’m drinking a beer before going to the grocery store because I used to work there as a bag boy, but couldn’t even do that right. Crushed an old lady’s eggs one too many times or something like that, never could get the hang of placing groceries in an organized manner in the bag, never could really get the hang of organizing anything by size, weight, or importance – an analogy to my life, I guess, if that’s what you call it. Wasn’t too good in English at school, either, although it was the science, the chemistry, really, that did me in, had me running for the doors.
FAILURE should be embossed on my forehead. Just what my parents are probably driving down here for, to see how their son, the twenty-one-year-old Failure is doing. Or what he’s doing.
I’m drinking beer at 9:00 in the morning because my ex-girlfriend Louisa works at the grocery store and it didn’t end well, to say the least. I didn’t mean to say those words but once said, I guess, I couldn’t take them back, at least not in Louisa’s mind. Even though take them back I did try, on numerous occasions, until I was a begging, slobbery mess.
Now she’s with Jed Smyth, the produce manager so…it doesn’t matter now anyway.
The good old IGA.
Just because there’s no food in the refrigerator, don’t think I don’t eat. Got some chips in the cupboard, as well as some Hostess cupcakes – you know the kind, the devil food cakes with the creamy centers and the hard brown chocolate with the little squiggly white stuff on top.
Yeah, it’s pathetic, I know.
I used to weigh over 300 pounds. Now I’m down to 275. So, that’s something I guess.
It’s not like my parents are coming to visit me because they’re great parents or anything. Don’t get me wrong on that because…they’re not. I was mostly invisible, felt that way, anyway, growing up. One of two boys. My younger brother, Anthony, the future war hero, got all the attention from my father in the midst of all this endless chaos, no, not just chaos, it was worse than that, far worse.
Fighting, terrible fights that often ended in mental and physical abuse and violence, my mother ending up on the wrong end of his anger more than once. And I did nothing, could do nothing to stop it. And I always felt guilty about it. But what could I do? I was a kid. And, afterwards, when I was older, I tried, I tried to convince her to leave, but it was no use. She had excuses for him and wouldn’t do it.
And then I left.
So, no, I don’t think I need to live up to their standards or anything.
But I do need food.
And a job, but that’s a whole different issue.
And Louisa, but…that ship has sailed as they say, somebody says, I don’t know, maybe sailors or something, it’s a stupid expression, whatever. Just forget I said that.
Sometimes when I was really depressed I used to go to a convenience store and buy a carton of donuts, then drive somewhere quiet out on the edge of town, open the window, stare out at the dark fields of corn, swaying like ghosts in the moonlight, listen to the crickets chirping, and eat each and every one of the donuts until I felt sick. Stupid, I know. But I’m over that now, I guess. Just drink beer at 9 in the morning to work up the nerve to go to the IGA.
I’m still all kinds of fucked up, I guess.
Sitting at the kitchen table, drinking the half of the cheap beer that still remains and checking out local jobs in the newspaper, but not seeing much of anything. If I could find something like professional donut or beer taster that would be great, but not finding much of any of that in WherethefuckamIanyway, Illinois, population 897, the place where I landed, just outside the orbit of the university, after I ejected from that experience.
I may have to move. Hope that’s not why my parents are coming to visit, to try to get me to move back up to Chicago, to do that again, that ship, no that train has come and gone (how’s that, better? I like trains better I think, anyway). No, that will never happen again.
I finish off the beer, get in my rusting Ford Focus and drive into town to the store.
When I walk in the door, Chuck, the store manager, is up front near the carts. He takes a quick look at me, then pretends he didn’t see me, and walks away.
I get a cart and wheel into the store, avoiding Louisa’s station at the register. Anyway, she’s got her back turned, looking at something in her drawer, her long black hair flowing down her back.
I wheel into produce, the first section of the store, not my favorite section for sure, but I’ve got to make it look like I’m eating right, get fruit and vegetables and shit. (What am I fifteen? I mean, I eat what I eat, what are they going to do, ground me? Whatever. This perpetually returning to feeling like a kid when your parents are around is a bunch of shit. Maybe I should load up on Twinkies and chips and TV dinners and frozen pizzas and blueberry waffles with syrup, the big bottle of syrup, show them, whatever, I’m my own man, not living up to their shit).
I look at some apples, Delicious apples (though they call them that, they’re definitely not!), put a couple in a bag, then move on to broccoli (really, broccoli! Get real, Man. Sigh. Parents, a never-ending curse on their grown children).
All the while I’m keeping my eyes down, don’t want to encounter the glaring, gloating eyes of that pompous Smyth (he can’t even be a Smith like most normal people, he’s gotta be a “Smyth”, what the fuck). But this time, for a change, as I’m wheeling out of his territory, he comes out from the backroom and looks at me for a second with a blank expression, then wheels his cart of cantaloupes out and starts stacking them without a smirk or a “Hey, look what the cat dragged in,” or any of that. Just silently sorting and piling cantaloupes in their place.
I pick out a few other things – veggies, spaghetti, spaghetti sauce, cheese, then wheel over to the deli counter where Ted is behind the counter in his white apron.
“Hey, Max,” he says smiling, “what’s up?” Ted was a pal when we worked together in my short tenure there, we used to go out for beers sometimes after work. A good guy.
“So, what’s the big man need today?”
“I don’t know, bud. How about half a pound of corned beef, cut thin.”
“No problem, my man,” he says, standing there smiling wide at me.
“What?” I say. But he just keeps smiling at me.
“Dude, what is it? You get promoted?”
He waves me off. “Naw, nothing like that. I just thought you might be interested in knowing that….”
“Yeah, what, spit it out, Ted.”
“Louisa ain’t seeing Smyth no more.”
“What, I thought they were engaged or something.”
“Not no more.”
“I don’t know. Turns out he’s an asshole. Who woulda thought.”
“Yeah, who? You’re not shittin’ me, are ya’?”
“No, bro, no shit, I promise. Ricki told me. And you know how close she and Louisa are.” He bends down to get the corned beef from the case, pulls it out, and stands there bouncing it in his hand a little, like he’s weighing, considering it. “You really ought to talk to her. Give it a try. She might be receptive.”
“I don’t know,” I say, “after what went down between us….”
“Dude, grow a ball. She’s over all that. Ricki said….”
“Maybe,” I say.
Afterward, I walk down a couple aisles, throw a few more things in the cart, thinking about it, my stomach churning, the butterflies flying. After stalling long enough I grow one, as Ted says, take a deep breath, and wheel to Louisa’s register. She doesn’t see me at first. There’s an older woman checking out, then paying with her credit card.
I bring my cart up to the register and she looks at me, deadpan with her big brown eyes, says, “ “Hey, Max,” her smile shining like the sun’s first appearance on a long dreary winter day.
“Hey Louisa,” I say, smiling back at her, unsure of what exactly hers means.
When I get back to the apartment their car – the boat-like white Oldsmobile — is there, but they’re nowhere to be seen.
When, bags lodged against my chest, I turn the key and make my way inside, they’re sitting on the couch.
“Maxie,” my mother says, smiling with my father by her side, nodding, saying “Your landlord let us in.”
“How nice of him,” I mutter, thinking of old flatulent Fatella.
“What?” my father says, giving me a stern look.
“Nothing…nothing,” I say, depositing my bags on the kitchen counter.
My mother gets up and walks toward me, hugging me clumsily as I pull my groceries out of the bag. “How are you doing, Maxie?”
I put a can down and turn around. “Fine, I say, just fine,” I say, looking down at my little mother, who smiles up at me.
“So, to what do I owe this visit? Something that couldn’t be said over the phone?”
“Leave the groceries for a minute, Max,” my father says from the couch, lighting a cigarette, looking around for an ashtray. But I don’t smoke. He should know that.
“Sit,” he says again after I haven’t moved. I look at my mother. There’s something in her eyes I’ve seen before, too many times before after one of those nightmare nights I experienced so long ago, listening to her beg him. But it never mattered. He never stopped.
“Sit!” he barks this time. “And bring something, a little plate or something,” he says, “so I can do something with this.”
I stare at him for a moment, then grab a small chipped flowered plate and bring it to him, set it before him on the coffee table. Hating that I immediately feel like I’m a kid back in the middle of all this again. And angry, feeling like that helpless kid again, that I can do nothing to keep this man from manhandling my mother, remembering the small child I was, hiding behind a wall, hearing him wail on her, unable to do a thing to save her. And where was Anthony then, I wonder? I can’t remember him being there in those times at all.
I sit in an armchair across from the two of them, both sitting now on my worn green couch.
My mother looks over at my father and starts talking. “We needed to tell you….”
“We have something important to tell you,” he says cutting my mother off, like he always does.
She shuts her mouth, looks down at her hands, neatly folded in her lap.
“It’s not easy to tell you this,” he says, flicking his ash onto the plate in front of him. Always confident, cocky. “And your mother didn’t want to tell you, but….”
He looks at me hard, that hard look I’d endured for so many years, while he doted on Anthony. I never knew why, what I’d done to deserve such disdain from him.
“It’s about us, about you, about who we are. To each other.”
“What,” I say, “what do you mean?”
“What your father is trying to say is….”
He grabs her hand, squeezes it hard, and she stops. There’s a look on her face, a grimace, one that’s almost permanently placed there now, these days, after all these years.
“I’m not your biological father. There, I said it. And now you know.”
“What? I don’t understand. What are you saying?”
“Here’s your sign, genius. I’m not our father. There was another man before me who left a seed in your mother. A bad seed who became…you.” There’s that anger, that burning anger in his eyes now, that sums up all those years between us, that explains it all, it seems.
I don’t know how to react, whether to scream or cry. He’s kidding, right? This is just another one of his cruel jokes.
“That’s not true, why are you saying this?”
“Oh, it’s true, buddy boy. Nothing’s more true,” he says with half a grin, flicking his ash all over the damned place.
And I let it soak in, silent. It’s like the rug has been pulled out from under me, my whole belief in who I am has been wrong, has been a lie. Even though I should be relieved that I don’t carry this man’s DNA. But still, he is the only father I’ve ever known. Talk about confusing. I don’t know what to feel.
I stare at them both, numb, like I’m not even there. They, both of them, look like strangers to me now. I watch them talk, watch their mouths move, watch my mother looking sadly at me, my now not-father, stepfather flicking his ashes, flexing his muscled arms as he does so – he is an avid weight lifter – and hear nothing, just want them to go, to leave.
After an excruciating hour or so (during which they refuse to tell me who my real father is) they ask if I want to go out to dinner, my mother smiling like nothing has just happened. And I tell them I’m not feeling well. I just want them to leave.
My mother is crying, hugging me, saying over and over, “I’m so, so sorry, Maxie,” and he – I don’t know what to call him now – patting me hard on the shoulder, telling me to be a man, buck up. It’s life, we all have to deal with life.
And when they leave, when I hear their car doors shut, and the car pull away, I sit there in silence, my mind still in a spin, wondering what just happened. I want to cry, but don’t. There’s a hole inside now and I feel more lost than ever. Remembering my brother’s glory at baseball, football, my father smiling as he watched Anthony in the stands, praising him, while I stood in the background, not good at sports. And the darkroom he built for Anthony, and the things he showed him about fixing things around the house, climbing on the roof with him, taking such care guiding him, while I lay in my room, reading, listening to music. Invisible.
I take a walk outside, something I rarely do, looking at all the drapes and shades shut in my apartment building, thinking how few of these people I really know, and those I come across — like the landlord, Fatella, or the old man in 2A who always has a smile on his face and says “Good day,” when I see him — who do I really know here at all?
Down the street I walk, a chilly wind brushing against me, making the leaves of the trees shudder. A lone car, an old gold Cadillac, whishes by and I wonder who it is. For all I know, he could be my father, anyone could be, how would I ever know?
Walking by the houses of all these strangers, gazing in the windows to see televisions glowing, kids wrestling in their living room, a young woman in a window, smoking, staring out her front window as if looking for a place to go, an old man sitting on his porch, rocking in his chair, eyeing me suspiciously as he sips a Budweiser. All strangers, every one a stranger. And walking down the street, a street full of houses packed with people I will never know.
When I get to the church on the corner I stop, almost feel like walking in, pleading my case to someone, but to whom? Who is there to believe, to believe in anymore? I stand there looking up at the stained glass, at the big oak doors, take a step up, but then stop, close my eyes, and turn around, head back to my little slot in the world.
When I get back to my apartment, I throw the keys on the kitchen counter, go to the fridge, open a beer, and take a long swallow. I stare at the white phone on the counter, then pick it up and dial, listening to the staccato bursts, but no answer. Either she’s not home or she’s not answering.
I stand there, looking down at the white counter, not knowing what to do. Then I go to my bookshelf. Between the Hemingways, the Kerouacs, and my battered copy of Catcher in the Rye, is an old atlas. I take it down from the shelf.
I get another beer from the fridge, sit down in my living room chair, its stuffing starting to fall out the sides, open up the atlas to a random page, and stick my finger in it to find my new home, the place that I will go to, where no one knows me, where no one cares about the past, a place where I can hide, become a new person, and start my new life.