I see him – my father. I see him through badly drawn smiling faces and matchstick people on a canvas of condensation. I watch him poke and prod his lips until he hits the target with what he thinks is his second last cigarette. I watch him follow the young couple up the steps and through the doors of the Pilot's Diner. I watch him idle by the same door, only now it's closed, scratching his brain, wondering what to do next. Finally, I raise my hand and reluctantly summon him while I lower my head and lean into the menu. With any luck, the ol' buck will keep walking. I've no such luck when he folds awkwardly into the booth and slides along the leather. It's too soon to make eye contact, but that doesn't stop him when he leans in and grabs the part of my wrist where my watch should be.
'Joe ... Joe, what is this place?' he asks.
'It's a restaurant.' I say.
'A restaurant? What type of restaurant?'
'In America, they call 'em diners.'
'I don't like it,' he says. 'Far from America is our small town. Anyway, I think it looks out of place, don't you?'
'Tis no better or worse than some of the rubbish you signed off on.'
The Brooklyn Patty looks tasty, I think. Be nice with a side of – but I'm interrupted before I get to the Diner's overpriced section of loaded fries.
'D'ya know what your problem is?'
'I didn't know I had one.' I say.
'Ye know too much – ye want too much, and ye have too much.'
'I know, Dad. You keep telling me.'
I hand him a menu, and when he's not looking, I slip one cigarette into the box of John Players' he's already forgotten about.
'In my day, you worked hard with no complaints. A few pints – maybe a bet on Saturday afternoon. Sunday? Sure, Sunday was for you and your mother and a spin around the town.'
I press down on his menu, and we make eye contact.
'D'ya see anything you like?' I ask.
'Get me one of those burgers with, erm, you know, those things your mother always burns.'
'Yeah, onions. Look, don't tell her, but I won a little over three thousand pounds last Saturday afternoon in Percy's.'
'Is that right?' I ask.
'I'm barred now. Can you believe that? Percy said he'll personally see to it that I never see the light of day again if I darken his door. Keep that to yourself, you hear?'
While my father keeps one eye on me and his other eye on something he thinks he's looking for, I recall the Saturday he won the three thousand pounds and the car he bought a week later. Don't tell your mother, he said, and I got five pounds for my trouble. I didn't tell her then, and I can hardly tell her now, can I? Unless I learn to communicate with the dead.
'Where's herself?' he asks. 'And the kids?'
'Tell them to meet us here after – my treat.' And then he pats his breast pocket more than once. The gaps in and around Pilot's Diner begin to fill. Maybe that's why what happens next catches me off guard.
'Joe?' And then the hand on my shoulder. Sure, I must be black and blue at this point.
I turn my head enough not to be rude. I suppose I owe the ones that turned up that much.
'Sorry for your loss.'
'Thanks, Frank,' I say and decide not to shake his hand. I've shaken enough hands to last me a lifetime. Frank takes the hint and decides now is not the time.
'Enjoy your meal,' he says. And then he's gone in the direction of the till armed with his credit card. A wife, three teapots, three daughters in/law, and a flock of grandkids leaves me wondering if he ever tires of paying for everything.
'What does he mean – sorry for your loss? Who's loss?'
'Sandra – Dad. She passed away last week, remember?'
'What are you on about—passed away? A moment ago, you said she was swimming with the kids.'
'I know what I said, Dad, but ….'
'But – nothing. Tell herself and the kids to meet us here—my treat. And, Joe? ....'
I hardly lift my head. 'Keep them jokes to yourself.'
The young woman who had her back to us turns and presses against our table – pen and pad at the ready.
'Are you guys ready to order?'
Although the young woman is smiling, there's an air about her. It tells me she doesn't want to be here, that she'd rather be with her college friends in the city where big things can happen and small things disappear unnoticed through the cracks. Yet, I imagine the same young woman feels obliged to tog out for the local sports club every Sunday. Probably out of some twisted loyalty beat into her from a young age.
'I'll have the Brooklyn Patty with loaded fries and a coke. He'll have the same except with onions, plain fries, and a bottle of water. I'll unscrew the bottle cap if you don't mind.'
'Of course,' she says. 'No problem.'
I'm tempted to tell her something, to tell her about the rope around her she knows nothing about and how no matter where she goes or how far she gets, there's always someone or something ready at the opposite end to yank her back home. But instead, I hand her the two menus, and she moves along.
'Did I tell you I won three thousand pounds,' Dad says.
'Is that right?'
'It is, and I'm thinking of buying a new car – well, newish.'
'D'ya have anything in mind?' I ask.
'Can't go wrong with a Ford Escort. It'll go forever if you get a good 'un, and your mother likes them.'
In a way, he was right. After all, that brown Ford Escort may be over forty years old, but it's ticking over like a mouse’s heart. As for mam, she hated the thing – said the smell of the fumes made her nauseous.
A moment later, another young woman leaves a glass of coke and a water bottle on the table, not unlike a girl I went to school with.
'What is it, Dad?'
'What time d'ya want to leave Friday?'
'The airport! You said you'd get the bus, but it won't sit right with your mother if she doesn't wave you off.'
'Sounds good, Dad. I'll let you know.'
After he leans across the table and summons me closer with his finger, he whispers,
'Do and look, don't be nervous, you hear me? Australia may be the other side of the world, but you're not tied to it.'
Tied to it, sure I never made it out of the airport, did I? Mam complained of feeling nauseous the whole way up. That and a headache that forced her eyes closed. Dad's answer was to drive with the passenger window down to let in some air. My answer was to sit tight while I checked my bags in and looked for a box of Aspro in the airport shop. She was dead by the time I got back. I was watching the door, and if I'm honest, I was thinking about how different my life could have been if I had made it to Australia when he lit the cigarette, unaware until I heard:
'Sir ... it's illegal to smoke indoors.'
'Since 2004, Dad. Now put it out before they ask us to leave.'
‘2004? Sure, that's years away.'
'I'm sorry about this,' I say, and she quickly reads between the lines to the young woman's credit.
'Look, just make sure he puts it out? Otherwise, you guys are going to have to leave.'
'He's putting it out as we speak – aren't you, Dad?'
Before we draw any more stares, my father drops the cigarette into the bottled water as if he's doing us a favor.
'Happy?' he asks.
'Far from it. Here drink that,' I say, sliding the coke across the table.
I'm halfway through my Brooklyn Patty when Dad hears a song he recognizes coming from one of those fancy speakers above our heads.
He seems to be enjoying it, so I leave it to him.
'Something on your mind?' I ask.
'You were in a band, weren't ya? You and that Kearns lad.'
I fill my mouth.
'What were ye called at all? Lookers .... Lovers.'
'Lotus! We called ourselves Lotus!'
'That's right.' Dad says. 'Ye weren't half bad, were ye? Ye weren't great, but ye weren't bad.'
'I'm surprised you even remember,' I say.
'And what's that supposed to mean?'
'That was the night you pulled me aside – told me to stop wasting my time and get a proper job – a pensionable job!'
'It was your mother's idea.'
'The advice? Or to come to the gig?'
'A bit of both, I guess,' he says.
'Mam asked – begged – you to come to the show. She told you to offer some words of encouragement, didn't she? And not to destroy my confidence. I can tell you where I was standing when she asked if that helps?'
'Advice is what you needed, and advice is what you got.'
'More of a threat if you ask me – telling myself and Kearns that if any more people in the town saw us prancing around the stage, that word would spread not to employ us. What did that even mean, Dad?'
'You did okay, didn't you? I mean, you're on holiday more time than you're behind the walls of St Ignatius. You've got a house – a car and herself.'
'Sandra, Dad, her name is Sandra, and I told you she passed away last week.'
'Did I tell you I won three thousand pounds?' Dad says.
'Is that right?' I say as I push the remains of my Brooklyn Patty to one side and slide from the booth.
'Where are you going?' Dad asks.
'The bathroom, but I want you to do something for me.'
I pull a perfectly working wristwatch from my pocket and hand it to him.
'I have a watch,' he says.
'It's not for you – it's mine. It's broken, and I want you to see if you can fix it while I'm gone.'
I watch for the fourth time in a month as Dad brings my wristwatch to his ear and shakes it. I've learned the hard way that an unoccupied man tends to wander.
'Tis probably the battery,' he says as he looks for a way to pop the silver plate inscribed with my wedding date.
I place my hand on his shoulder and squeeze, careful not to hurt him.
'Thanks, Dad,' I say.
'Sure, I haven't even fixed it.'
'Alright, Dad, I'll leave you to it. I won’t be long.'
'What is it, Dad?'
'Did I tell you I won three thousand pounds?'