I leaned against the passenger door of Dad’s red ’87 Monte Carlo, and I felt unsure of whether to catch my breath or inhale my cigarette. But the wind chaffed my smiling teeth, regardless. The music the car blasted around the Exxon station—the one dad retired from as a cashier—just shied off a ruse. So, Carl ran up to the car, shoved me aside, and jumped half-way inside it through the window.
Tonight, I learned Carl started driving the Monte Carlo for the past week, since—well; he took it for a ride that same night after he got the call about Dad—
He flipped the hydraulic lift switch on so that I couldn’t lean against it anymore. Then he said something about Dad’s Monte Carlo being a better dancer than me. Still, I already spent all my dancing energy away.
Despite the energy that “Blue Suede Shoes” gives us both, my smoker’s lungs failed to keep up with Carl’s jitterbug routine. He had a modern take on the jitterbug, Carl, one which included wearing a shiny-two-strips-of-bacon necklace and rapidly flicking his tongue up and down while alternatively tugging down on his earlobes. Like an idiot. He wore Dad’s embellished denim jacket over his own pearl turtleneck; it did not make him any the more flattering.
“Your refusal to dance to his favorite song on repeat shames him!” Carl said.
He kept going at it, panting between each stomp. You could tell the fading energy from how the tongue flicks kept getting slower, but the idiot kept going. That one-song cassette must have looped for four times now.
By the time Carl tired out, I smoked three cigarettes, thought about the new shipment of replica watches stockpiled in the walkway of my apartment all the way back in Chicago, and cursed the cicadas tymbals buzzing up the trees, which somehow distinguished their noise from the music’s. Cicadas did me in and out of the state.
Without offing the cassette, Carl grabbed the $3 Budweiser I got him from under the passenger seat and walked with it to the non-lit side of the pavement, to the side of the corner store. He asked for a cigarette and whether I wanted to drink, and I did want a drink.
The way the cashier inside did not bother with our music that roared outside, he must have understood Carl’s state better than I understood it, I thought. That and he didn’t even know about Dad. Maybe he liked Carl Perkins. That or he did not care. Few gas station customers this part of town—except Carl and his co-workers—bought anything, but what those fellas bought they bought at 5 p.m. when they clocked out from their pig pins and let the pigs back out home to their parents. Carl never described it that way—I always did.
“Wanna head back?” I asked.
I spoke all careful not to induce the both of us into addressing the elephant in the room (the elephant in the gas station? Ha!). And what he said broke my heart. Something rare!
“I told the students, in class, the day after the horrible night that I canceled the week’s classes because the funeral will take up my time,” Carl said, “and one of the ace students in class—plays the acoustic better than some of the so-called acoustic part timers we get around the place—shoved himself from a leaning back position with his chair against the wall into a slam of his booklet on the desk. Then, he said, ‘Awesome!’”
Dad loved us best he could, and he showed it in the quirky ways that mom did not like. How he showed it would have made us the butt of the boys’ jokes at school, if they knew. But mom? I figure she hated them enough to ditch us with the co-worker Dad hosted for drinks every weekend (why Carl and I don’t spoke of her much, and we never spoke of her the way you might speak of your mom). Mom still skipped town with Dad’s blessings. Supposedly, he got so hung up on her staying with him that, out of her ever-so-gracious kindness, she left him her thigh-short party dresses—the expensive ones—the ones Dad shopped for and bought her as surprise gifts. They resembled those loose dresses fancy hookers wore, and them hookers would cross their legs when they wore them at the bar as they waited for someone as hung up on the world as Dad, yet someone less moral, to buy them a dirty martini.
All that a buried past, Carl’s short story struck open a funny anecdote in my mind about mom and Dad. Me wanting to probe around the possibility of going back to Chicago with those dresses that mom left behind and sell them to the thrift stores up on Kedzie as vintage clothing, of sorts, this anecdote made for a great foot-in-the-door.
“Remember when mom would put on her makeup,” I said, “How Dad sat there and watched her, sometimes for hours a week?”
“Yeah.” He tucked head between extending arms and bent knees. His limbs converged at the cigarette butt and Budweiser bottleneck. “By the end,” Carl said, “Dad got enough experience watching her that he started putting on her makeup for her.”
“He enjoyed it too!” I said.
Then Carl let out a shriek and protested against the pain through sniffles.
Carl sobbed, and that cut the plan from the knees. I needed another segue. I thought to steal the dresses from Dad’s apartment when we both would visit it in the coming days and have that be that.
I patted Carl on the back, except I patted his waist-low curly hair resembling Dad’s hair if not for the length, curliness, and color. Dad grew his smooth brown hair only to his shoulders, maybe.
“Snowden paying you on leave?” I asked.
He lifted his head up to me. “Yes.”
“Did you tell them the truth of it, Carl?”
“Suicide. They know, George. Do you get off on forcing me to bring it up? You did not bother offering to share, if not half, just some of the funeral cost. Just showed up at my doorstep with a $3 Budweiser bottle and a fresh haircut? Rich for a lawyer who drinks morning coffee in suburbia and poops it downtown. No?”
He did not wait for my response. Not like I had one, either. And yeah, Carl thought I worked in Chicago as a lawyer; that I left town to become one. Sure, everybody thought that—even I wanted to believe it at some point; much better than stealing your mother’s dresses which your now-dead Dad got hung up on and cherished.
Anyway, he got up and walked into the corner store. The bottle he did not even bother putting down straight, so it foamed out the beer, watering the ashen pavement with the few gulps left.
We both attended Snowden, Carl and I. Dad would came after school, down from the gas station to walk us home, and he sometimes got us beef jerky to munch on during the walk back. Sometimes he just shared gum.
At that point, I figured I’d drop asking Carl about taking the dresses mom left behind, for Dad, back with me. Decided to steal them before I left town. That way, I won’t upset him with my so-called materialism. So up on my feet I stood and kicked the bottle as a middle finger to the cicadas’ buzzing. And then for the American Spirit into the corner store I went.
Carl stood at the checkout; I stood behind him. A muffled Carl Perkins voice carried over from car to store. Maybe the cashier enjoyed the beat, I suppose.
Suddenly, Carl shrugged with laughter.
“Excuse me, young man,” he said in a vibrant, quaking voice. And I immediately guessed the follow-up question: “Would you happen to sell cucumbers?”
The cashier’s glasses slid down his nose, which slanted down altogether with his face.
“Nah, man,” the cashier said, “afraid we don’t.”
“Why, surely you must? You sell bananas.” I guessed this one as well. “What would an old lady like me do without cucumbers to ease her refluxes?”
“Hey man, I just work here. My shift ends in ten minutes—at two. So just spill your lame jokes to the cashier after me, please.”
Carl fell into mute giggles masked as shrugs. The cashier checked out his milk and banana. I bought my American Spirit, and the two of us scooted out of there.
On Dad’s last day as cashier, the last gas station customer he ever served, this rusty lady walked into the store with boot cut jeans and sunglasses racked up her head, and she swung her car keys around her index. She had a lush voice and asked Dad in a lush way if they sold cucumbers. She had her milk, but cucumbers as mighty effective with acid refluxes as nothing else, she insisted on them. Yet when Dad tried pointing her to the Pepto-Bismol she said, “Are you crazy?” Then she pointed at her face and said, “I’m Amish!”
Dad told that story, unsolicited, to everyone around him. He told it at dinner parties, cocktail parties, after church on Sundays, at game nights, etc.—at every gas station, he told the story to the cashiers who laughed at the question, to the ones who directed him to grocery stores, to ones who did not hear him the first time. He said the question made it his best day on the job. Said the lady made his last day that much more memorable. He always laughed off the funny from the “Amish!” punchline before he said it, so at best, he always left those who heard it before (i.e., everyone) irritated.
He told the story so many times I hated that he ever retired!
We each smoked half of our cigarettes by the time my brain filed away the story into its bottom shelf as I hoped it never crossed my mind again.
I felt somewhat sore that Carl did not get a kick out of asking the question—felt bad he did not get to share the story. He loved that story. Matter of fact, everyone but Carl hated that story. He always sat there waiting to hear the punchline like he’d never heard it before.
“I don’t suppose you’d also remember Dad’s guitar being funny?” I joked.
He shrugged. His lips pursed around the cigarette, and his shoulders protruded out in a twist toward it as well.
“Do you?” He whispered. He started laughing.
“Bugger always dreamed of playing the guitar for an audience at BB King,” I said, “But he bit the dust and never did. Yet he has you holding his dream. That ain’t nothing, Carl.”
Carl laughed louder now. Ironically, Blue Suede Shoes jumped in front of my ears again, as if battling his laughter for dominance over my attention.
“The only guitar I ever known him to play? Flicking that thinnest string to wake us up for school—what do they—”
“The high E string!” He roared with laughter now.
Strange, but I laughed as well. And we laughed together in this hysteric form of laughter where you laugh when others laugh, and they laugh more the more you laugh, and you—etc., etc.—Like seeing someone yawn. We did not break eye contact either—kept batting eyebrows at one another. By the end, my stomach pushed against the rest of my insides and my throat sored.
Then Carl stoicized his posture and expression, not his eyes. They glittered under the overhead lights of the gas station; all red. Stood like a mannequin, he did.
“I never played in BB King. Matter of fact, George, I never played guitar to an audience anywhere on Beale Street. I just teach kids who don’t want teaching.”
“Well, what I meant to say—the commitment you—”
“Do you even know how I found our Dad swinging, George? Of course, you wouldn’t know, brother. How many times did you visit from Chicago for you to know anything about any of us down here?” Carl asked.
“What do you mean ‘her’? Carl—I did not mean to—”
“He—She stood up there in the middle of the bedroom, swinging back and forth. Our Dad, George! I asked them not to pull him—her—down until I got there. Behind him, on the dresser, she... had many makeup accessories. On the mirror, in lipstick, she wrote: Today was my favorite DAY! Out! I free myself, wearing this DRESS I saved up for!”