A nine-year-old boy, I wanted a sirloin steak at a neighborhood restaurant, an Italian place on 4th Avenue in Dayton, Kentucky. The week before, I’d heard some guy at the next table ask for that, a leisure-suit man with a cement block of hair accompanied by a woman who beneath her mullet was a dead-ringer for the blonde who sang with Abba. At my order, my parents and grandparents laughed in surprise. Spaghetti and meatballs (made with pork and veal) was the popular dish, everyone wanted that. After we got home, I threw up the steak. My parents theorized it was always safest to order the specialty.
Years later, decades in fact, I went into the same restaurant to get a takeaway for my grandparents. Out in the dining room, I spotted my father at a table for two with a woman who wasn’t my mother. He and I glared at one another. I guessed it didn’t matter, it was only how our lives were turning out. I brought those orders of spaghetti to my grandparents, who of course wanted to reimburse me. Schoolteachers didn’t make anything; everyone had said that when I told them what I wanted to be. My grandfather had gone to work at the age of twelve, shining shoes, and at nineteen he married my grandmother, then went straight into her family’s beer distributorship business. My grandfather didn’t want his son to work as hard as he had to, so while still in his mid-20s, my father was made a junior executive. He did not put in long hours.
I wound up teaching at good old Dayton High, where we all had gone. Married. Eventually, inevitably, unhappily. Right before she left, my wife reminded me “Dayton” meant “ditch settlement.”
At this point, I feel compelled to mention that as one heads along the bend of the river, 4th Avenue turns into a highway named for the fabled American pioneer, Mary Ingles.
My grandfather, who I felt silently regretted spoiling his own son, would chide me about the lack of shine on my shoes. He’d tell me to get his kit from the closet and talk to me about how to apply the paste.
The woman who’d been with my father visited me at school the next day, tapped on the open door to my office, then closed it behind her. Introduced herself, Sandra Middleton. Call her Sandy. My father must’ve told Sandy where I worked, how much depth I had, how little I made. She said, I just want to make it clear, I’m not in love with him. He says he needs me, but I’m breaking it off. Must’ve been out of my mind … us going out in public like that … will he man up and tell your mother?
I said, Someone will. I frowned at the stacks of papers on my desk. I blurted out, What do I have to look forward to? Sandy appeared to be between my father’s age and my own, a fair woman with hair like David Coverdale.
She said, Hey, I’m just trying to do the right thing now. A minute after she left my office, I went jogging up the hallway. In the parking lot, she was about to climb into her Wagoneer.
Wait! I said. Of course, the lot was chock full of AWOL students. (Go Astros.)
She waved me off, said, Forget it. Like father, like son. She whammed the door shut. But then the driver’s side window slid down and her face reappeared. Feel bad for your folks, she said, and the window steadily went up again. After she pulled out, I glanced around to see if anyone had heard. I went up the sidewalk, in the direction of my office.
That the new principal? one wiseacre yelled.
Years later, decades, my father and I were taking a drive together and he had the idea to hit the Italian place, get a to-go order for my mother.
By this time, my sweet mother was afflicted with early onset dementia. She’d grown quiet, her hair had turned as white as soap, and she’d lost a lot of her strength. Then she’d taken a fall and had to be sent to a rehabilitation clinic.
He was retired, his wardrobe down to sweatpants, polos, ball caps. He wanted to surprise her, see if the food might conjure a spark. Said he’d cut up the meatballs. We took stools at the counter and Micah the barkeeper, who’d claimed he’d once dated Patricia Neal, placed beers in front of us, then went off to the kitchen to let them know about our order.
I said, Goddamnit, why did you bring Sandy Middleton here? He remained profile to me, eyes blinking.
This is my place, he said, his voice quiet.
I wanted to nail him for something. What were you doing, letting a nine-year-old kid order a sirloin steak? But he’d have an answer all cocked and loaded. I wanted you to have whatever you wanted. As farcical as it seemed, I knew that not to be untrue.
My father and I stayed quiet, and we sipped our beers. The monotony ended when the waiter brought Micah the to-go box with my mother’s spaghetti. My father and I reached for our wallets, but he insisted on paying. The bill was $10 and change, then he held out a single for the tip. Micah did well to look appreciative. I flashed back to the days when our family had a big table together and how, at the end of the meal, each of the adults would kick in a $5 or $10 bill. Whoever attended to the whole family always got a terrific tip; the waiters and waitresses probably argued about who would get to serve us next time. Why the whole staff always smiled when they saw us coming.
Sunrise found two visitors in the dining area for the free continental breakfast at Sleep Inn. A woman, college aged, white. An older man, black, in royal blue suspenders reading a wrinkled newspaper that looked to have been from weeks ago. The woman did not attend college. On a paper plate in front of her were two halves of a bagel, toasted, salted, buttered. From her table, she noticed the grimy collar of his shirt. The pale-yellow stains along the shoulders. Yes, the man had an odor. Across the lobby, behind the registration counter, sat an apparently disinterested clerk, perhaps at the end of a shift.
In her room, before dawn, she’d taken a shower and following that stood dripping in front of the bathroom mirror. She’d escaped. Though in the middle of the night she’d had a dream where the whole earth had overheated, and it turned out all the people and the animals and the trees and buildings were only made of wax. She considered her image in the bathroom mirror and wanted to scream. And then she wanted to do it to see if anyone would want to know why.
She decided she liked the man in the suspenders, because no matter his story, here he was, whatever had already happened, whatever he’d gone through. He wanted to sit down for breakfast, organize his thoughts and get his day off on the right foot. She finished her bagel halves, her cup of coffee. Strolling past his table, she said, “Good morning.”
After her, he said, “Yes, it is.” She heard the rustling of paper, a page turning.
In the lobby, she walked across the purple parachute-sized rug that said Sleep Inn Inc. She held her hand above the service bell on the counter until the clerk noticed her. “Check-out time?” she said.
“Is that firm and fast?”
“I wouldn’t use those words.” She peered at the clerk. Early thirties, olive-skinned, bushy dark hair, eyeglasses.
“Well, I’m going to take a walk,” she said. “I might check out, but I might stay. I’ll let you know. Good morning.”
At the entrance, the glass doors slid open, and she stepped out into the morning sunlight. And what was his story, the clerk? Married, two jobs, a baby on the way? He adored his wife; she could tell as much. He wasn’t unloved, he just wished he were somewhere else. At the corner of Fallsway and Fayette, adjacent to a St. Vincent de Paul church, she happened upon a small park. In the park were picnic tables and patchy weeds. A wrought-iron gate stood open, and the picnic tables were occupied by disheveled, worn, black men. One younger man stood at brick gate post, pulling at a chain wrapped around it, this even though the gate stood open. He yelled at the chain and yanked at it with all his might, objecting, she felt, to the idea of chains in general, which she could not fault. She crossed Fayette and then could hear drums. Her ultimate destination for the morning: Phillip’s Restaurant in the harbor. An old friend, Ava, from high school was a hostess and might help bring her on. She’d emailed Ava already, and Ava had replied, Always. Welcome. Anytime.
And then it hit her, what was happening with the man in the royal blue suspenders, she understood. He was one of the men from the park by the church and for whatever reason, the night clerk allowed him to take a continental breakfast. As she headed for the sound of the drums, she developed a theory that the manager, in order to prove to himself he wasn’t just some shill working for a huge conglomerate, went against a policy that said only guests could partake in the free breakfast. His kindness held inside it an act of defiance. His act of defiance was a cloak for his kindness.
Under a highway overpass, two percussionists thumped sky blue nylon drumsticks on upside-down plastic buckets. Beyond them were a cluster of vendor tents, a farmer’s market. Obviously popular. Handmade notebooks, scarves, jewelry, pastries. Fruit. A continual thunder sounded from the cars rocking along the interstate above. She tried on a couple of scarves, one scarlet, the other gold, and the vendor who had a gorgeous scarf draped over her shoulders said she looked beautiful in each. She thanked the woman offering the scarves and wound up at a fruit stand, where she purchased a bag of perfectly soft pears for $6. The paper bag had twine handles and she carried it at her side. One of the pears would be for Ava. And then on the walk back to the motel, she would bring the bag to the park next to St. Vincent’s, place it on a picnic table. She’d keep a single pear, take that to the Sleep Inn. If the clerk were still around, she’d present it to him. If he’d left, she’d give it to whoever was working at the desk and say this was for the fellow who had the night shift. She’d say, Tell him it’s from me. He’ll figure out why.
Andy Plattner has forthcoming stories in Swing and Tampa Review. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia, and has taught fiction writing at Emory, Southern Mississippi, Univ. of Tampa, Clayton State, and Kennesaw State.