My father didn’t like kiddie movies, but he, having been informed by our mother that he needed to bond with the boys, would take us out on occasion. He took a two-week vacation from the post office every summer and tried out the fatherly thing with Bob and me.
One day he took us to see a matinee at a revival theater in Chicago. The movie was Easy Rider, and someone had thought to bring a little reefer along to make the experience more authentic. “It’s like smell-a-vision in here,” my father noted, sucking on a wet stub of a cigar.
“I hardly think this is a movie for a child,” my brother said—referring, of course, to me. Bob was ten.
The three of us were resplendent in lurid polyester.
“That was weird. Right?” my father noted as we left the theater. A man dressed like a banker who’d rolled in a garbage heap and had been hacked at with a pen knife asked my father for change outside. My father reached into his pocket and came up with a nickel, a dime and some lint. “Here you go, fella.”
The man looked in his hand, shrugged and moved on to the next set of people. I was worried that he was starving, felt an ache in my stomach that I was sure belonged to him. So I reached into my own pocket and found the dollar that Vernon had given me to keep my mouth shut about Easy Rider—we were to tell Mom that we’d seen Million Dollar Duck instead—and chased the man down. “Please take this!” I shouted at him, and gave him the dollar.
My father grabbed me and tried to snatch the dollar away from the beggar, but the beggar was quick and trotted away.
“You can’t do that,” my father said.
“I think he was hungry,” I said. “I know it.”
“He wasn’t going to spend that on food,” my father said, taking a knee and staring me in the eye. “If you wanted to kill the guy, all you’d have to do is give him twenty bucks. He’d be dead in less than a day from alcohol poisoning. That dollar is going to buy him booze, that’s all.”
“Why’d you give him money?”
“It was easier than telling him no,” my father said.
Bob made this exasperated sound like, Puh.
“Jesus God, quit judging me,” my father snapped.
The neighborhood we were walking around in was the neighborhood where my father delivered the mail. “If I was wearing my uniform, everyone would recognize me,” my father said. “I’m like a celebrity around here. But walking around in my civvies, I’m like anyone else.”
“Context,” my brother said.
“There he goes,” my father said. “Whipping out them nickel words.”
We walked through the filthy neighborhood and entered a musty beer-and-a-shot place that also served food. Bozo’s Circus was playing on the TV bolted to the wall, and all the old drunks were betting on the kids tossing balls into buckets. Under the TV was a handmade sign that said, DON’T CHANGE THE CHANNEL.
We sat down at a table that was seemingly reserved for him. My father lit an El Producto, blew out the kitchen match that he lit it with and tossed the match to the floor, which was covered over in bar detritus. I looked up and, through the cigar fog, saw that the acoustic ceiling tiles had been painted black with a can of spray paint. Plenty of drips, runs and errors.
“Angie,” my father said to the tired waitress, “these are my boys.”
Angie, a faded cheerleader whose cheer was mostly gone, did a double take and said, “Vernon!”
“That’s me,” he said.
“Probably,” my father said.
“And these are your boys?”
“You’re all caught up,” my father said.
She came back with two Cokes and two Manhattans. He reached down into one of his drinks with an index and middle finger and plucked out the Maraschino cherry. “You want it?” he asked me, and dropped it into my outstretched palm.
“No thanks,” my brother said, aggrieved. He swiveled his head around, looking at the people in there and not disguising his disgust at all.
I chewed on the boozy cherry.
My father blew a lazy smoke ring toward the ceiling. He set down his cigar atop the foil ashtray on the table. “So what do you think?” my father asked, sitting back and lacing his hands behind his head.
Before we could answer, the drunks at the bar interrupted with loud booing of a small child on TV. Bozo, who was doing a pretty good impression of one of the bar guys, said, “Tough luck, kid,” and shoved the little loser out of the frame.
“I ought to drive down there and push that little shit into traffic,” one of the bar guys said.
“Shut the fuck up and pay, Mike,” another of the bar guys said. Mike shoved some money across the bar. The other guy snatched it up, folded it, and shoved it in his shirt pocket.
“You could at least buy everyone a round,” another bar guy said.
“What a wonderful place,” my brother said. “I feel my horizons expanding already.”
“Three hot dogs!” my father yelled at Angie. “And drag ‘em through the garden.”
“I have to go to the bathroom,” I said, getting up.
“Right there,” my father said, thumbing.
I walked through the bathroom door, which had once been painted (possibly white) but only had a few spots where that was still in evidence. A shadow of the E that once spelled out GENTS was still there, along with the rest of the letters. The door may have been mercilessly stabbed a long time ago, but the stabbing marks had worn down to smoothish. The hinges screamed. There was a large man in there, his left forearm leaning on the Sun-Times sports page, which had been thumb-tacked to the wall above his head, his forehead leaning on the forearm, his right hand held onto the fire hose in his pants, which was pissing furiously onto a pink urinal cake in the bottom of the scarred chest-high-to-floor porcelain urinal. He wore unpolished brown boots, and some sort of dark blue uniform. He was singing in falsetto about how he had a pair of brand new roller skates. I tried entering the commode area, but someone shouted from the stall, “Occupied, mi amigo!” So I stood and watched this man piss, and piss. He finished up finally and went over to the mirror to study his acne-scarred face. He saw me in the mirror and smiled. “You’re Vernon’s kid, right?”
“Right,” I said.
“You the fag scientist, or the fag actor?”
“The fag actor,” I said.
“Ha, ha,” the guy went, without mirth. He banged out of the bathroom. He had neither flushed the toilet nor washed his hands.
I realized that my father must have carried evidence of his progeny in his wallet and bragged on us. I felt a little sparkle of life in my chest.
The man in the stall sang out in effort and produced a series of wet, guttural farts. I went as quickly as possible, flushed, washing my hands up to my elbows and wiping them with the continuous off-white towel roll in a metal canister bolted to the wall, and returned to our table, where the horror that is a Chicago hot dog awaited me.