by Dane Gebauer
Dad was crying. Sobbing, really. Back heaving, head in hands, big fat splashers leaving saline stains on the kitchen table. Mom dropped a clump of tissue into his lap. “Please, David, really,” she said. Dad sucked in some spit and looked up at me. Then he got on with the wig out. I was twelve, thirteen, something like that. The wig out had to do with the store: family business, little shop on a South Miami side street, he sold loafers to South American diplomats. The store wasn’t doing too hot. The chain stores and malls must have been killing him. But Dad wasn’t much of a businessman, either. To him it was still 1970. The shop was dusty, the inventory was outdated, he refused to set up a website. He thought the internet was just a fad. I hated him for crying like that, balling over a poorly run shoe store.
Mom wanted to sell the store. Dad didn’t. It was his store, basically. David’s. They sold the house instead. We moved into a smaller house in a different neighborhood. In the new neighborhood there were cats everywhere. They hunted lizards and pawed at the screen doors and sat in trees with their tails hanging off the branches. Dad loved the cats. He went out and bought cat food and after work he’d spread the cat food in a line across the driveway. Then he’d sit crosslegged on the pavement, light up a joint, and watch as twelve cats munched the cat food until it was all gone. Mom didn’t like the cats. She was allergic and made sure they never got in the house.
“It’s abnormal, the way you are with those cats,” she said.
“Come on,” Dad said. “They’re my little friends.”
A neighbor warned Dad about the cats. He lived across the street from us and had a truck on cinderblocks in his driveway that he was always fixing. There was an American flag in the back window of the cab. Everyone in the neighborhood called him Chief. He was your run of the mill white guy. Chief told Dad not to get too attached to the cats. I was out in the yard, picking up fallen palm fronds and rotting mangos, throwing them in a trash bag.
“They get squashed every now and then,” Chief said. He had on a safety-orange long sleeve shirt and gigantic cargo shorts. “Kids really fly down this street, so.”
Dad was wearing Gucci horse-bit loafers, no socks, and brown trousers that tapered to an end above the ankle. A little black cat was at his feet. Dad’s legs were skinny and white.
“I find it’s best to just leave them be.”
“Okay, Chief,” Dad said absently. “I’ll do that.” He was so high. Then he waved goodbye to his gnarly old neighbor even though the guy was still standing right in front of him. A complete non sequitur wave. I ran over and said thanks. Dad was in a forward fold letting the cat bat and lick his knuckles.
“Just be careful,” Chief said.
“Yes, sir,” I said.
* * *
My parents made just enough money at the shoe store to be able to send me to a fancyass private school in the Grove. Mom made sure that I was aware of the investment they were making in my education. “Twenty thousand dollars,” she said. “Twenty thousand dollars for a year of high school.”
Dad was looking down at his plate: mushy broccoli, brisket with brown sauce.
“Would you prefer the quality of his education be worse?”
“Eat your meat.”
Mom clenched her jaw. Her hair was pulled into a frizzy black and grey bun. “I used the same amount of sauce as always.”
“Just because it’s covered in sauce doesn’t mean it’s not dry.”
Whenever Mom cooked, Dad complained. If she made greens, he’d throw a fit. If the potatoes touched the chicken, he’d whine. Or if the beans mixed with the rice. “I just don’t like it when the foods overlap.” He was always removing this or that ingredient from a dish. It got to a point where Mom hardly cooked real meals. Dad had turned her into a toaster oven attendant who served him dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets and frozen tater tots. Then after dinner he’d go and OD on a jug of vanilla ice cream. Plain vanilla only, he didn’t like the other flavors.
“How is school, Cam?”
I told them. Math wasn’t going so well. I liked my elective, a class on the psychology of horror movies. I was reading Frankenstein in English.
“I read Frankenstein,” Dad said. “I used to read so much.”
“And now?” Mom said. “News, news, news, golf golf golf, news news news.”
Dad sucked on his fork and closed his eyes. His hairline was just starting to recede. He told me about all the heavy books he used to read. He’d read the Beats, he’d read Philip Roth, Huxley, Jack London, Faulkner. Some of the authors’ names I’d heard before, others I hadn’t. They sounded important. The problem was, Dad said, he couldn’t remember them anymore. Just the names of the authors remained, and maybe a title or two. But he’d read them, he’d definitely read them. He sounded idiotic to me. And sad. He’d read all those books and it’d amounted to nothing. “You smoke too much pot,” Mom said.
I told him what I thought: that there was no reason he couldn’t get back into reading again. Just like there was no reason he had to be so whiny about the food.
“And Hemingway,” he said. “I read a lot of Hemingway.”
* * *
Mom died a couple years after I finished college. I was working as a barista on the beach. I think that if my parents had been poorer I would’ve done better for myself. Not too poor, not poverty poor, but a little less money would’ve given me a lot more direction. Then I would’ve had an excuse to snag one of those money jobs. Like finance. A job in finance. I could’ve been managing assets, doling out private equity, analyzing futures at some hedge fund, and from the balcony of a cubist apartment I’d thank my parents for depriving me enough to make the unscrupulous pursuit of money the center of my very being. But then again, most of the kids I graduated from Blinton with are in finance now, and none of them had deprived childhoods.
It was melanoma. My understanding had always been that a melanoma diagnosis was a breeze, no big deal. I quit my job at the coffee shop. With Mom gone, I expected Dad’s life to become a shitshow. Mom had basically functioned as his help the last thirty years. Part of me wanted to let him crash and burn. A man in his mid sixties should be able to cook for himself, grocery shop for himself, wash and dry and press and fold his own clothes, remember to take his medicine, and take out the trash on Tuesdays and Fridays, right? He was a child. Mom was not entirely blameless. She’d allowed him to remain a child. After the funeral, Dad didn’t ask, but I ended up moving back into the house with him.
At no point did Dad seem particularly wrecked by our loss. His loss. Time to time he’d come home from work and say that the store wasn’t the same without her. And that was true. Mom spoke Spanish. She’d crack jokes with the customers’ wives. Dad didn’t speak a word of Spanish. “My brain just doesn’t get foreign languages,” he said. His regulars stopped showing up. All of a sudden, his clientele was different: he used to serve the locals, and now he was selling to New York sugar daddies who wanted something nicer than Steve Maddens to wear to the club. I helped out at the store. My main priorities were keeping the showroom dust free and well-lit. The back inventory room was a nightmare of cardboard shoe boxes. Dusting was easy. Keeping the store bright wasn’t. I didn’t remember it being so dark before. It was almost as if the alignment of the earth and sun were out of wack, so that the sunlight no longer slanted through the storefront window like it used to.
I didn’t have many friends. A lot of them had moved out of Miami, to New York, or LA. A few of the kids I’d gone to college with had stuck around, but over time each of them got sucked into their own world. Nico, for example, was a childhood buddy, a pretty good graffiti artist in high school. He’d been pulled deep into the NFT/crypto world. I texted him, asked what he was up to, if he wanted to get together sometime. He said he couldn’t, no time, he was working on a piece, he was creating a collection, the idea was to make it a free collection, the piece serving as a key into the ecosystem, the goal being to build it into a business (I didn’t know what it was), the funds being raised through the genesis collection which would go towards hiring an actual staff. That was that. Another friend went to Peru, did ayahuasca, started selling kundalini yoga training packages for three grand a pop. Another was doing slightly jingoistic political commentary on YouTube.
I was in my own world too, I guess, down south with Dad and the cats.
It was a three-bedroom, one-story house: my room, Mom and Dad’s, and a guest bedroom which Dad had turned into his office. There were boxes of papers in there, a desk with a computer and a TV, an old sign from the store announcing a sale. Dad would rip his big green bong, recline in his comfy desk chair, and bask in the glow of his dual screens, which blasted him with his nightly entertainment: gameshows, golf highlights, talking heads. I hated that bong of his. It reminded me of the cartoonishly big bongs I’d hit in high school.
Every now and then I’d try to talk to him.
“I miss Mom,” I said one night. I’d made cut up hot dogs and beans in a baking dish and thrown it in the oven. Dad liked hot dogs and beans, but he hadn’t touched it yet because it was too hot.
“Cam, let’s not talk about that, okay?” He massaged his temples with his pointer fingers.
“But I want to talk about it,” I said. “Who else am I supposed to talk about it with?”
Dad let his fork clatter on the plate.
“Well, I don’t want to,” he said. “It’s a major bringdown.”
“Very mature attitude, dude. Way to be well-adjusted, man.”
His face twisted into a pouty sneer. For a second I thought he was gonna swing at me. He didn’t, but I wished he had. Then I would’ve been able to hit him back. Instead he kept going with the whine routine.
“I don’t want to talk about Mom and death and cancer and hospitals. Cut it out, cut it out.”
“But we never talk about it. You completely fucking ignore the fact that she’s gone. It’s like it doesn’t matter to you as long as there’s someone making you your Bagel Bites.”
Dad put his knuckles on the table.
“I said I don’t want to talk about it.” He was working his way to one of his full-blown meltdowns. “I don’t want to focus on the NEGATIVE. What do we get from focusing on the NEGATIVE? Can’t we keep it POSITIVE?”
He got up and walked away from the table. Then he came back to retrieve his plate of beans. He went into his office and slammed the door.
* * *
We got a few cold days that year, down in the fifties and forties. I loved those cool days and nights. You could shut off the AC and open the windows. That didn’t happen very often.
Dad came home from work wearing a puffer jacket, a scarf, a knit cap, mittens. He shut the door behind him, rubbed his hands together, and went, “BRRRRRRR,” like he’d just come in from the tundra. He was in South Miami. It was 52 degrees Fahrenheit. He put his bag down and took off his cold weather gear.
“It’s freezing out there,” he called.
“It’s nice,” I said. “Not so hot.” I closed the cupboard and opened a package of hamburger helper. Dad came into the kitchen. Then he froze mid-stride and let out a little scream. A little scream like a hysterical woman in a movie from the 1940s, just before she faints.
“THE WINDOWS ARE OPEN.”
Dad ran over and slammed the kitchen window shut. I was getting mad. I wanted to call him a bitch, but I used the word “baby” instead. He wasn’t paying any attention to me. He flew out of the kitchen and went around the house shutting the windows with melodramatic flair.
A few minutes later he was under a blanket on the couch with a portable heater at his feet. The portable heater was a little black square that started smelling like burnt hair when it was plugged in. I made the hamburger helper. Around midnight Dad came out of his room in his pajamas. He was moaning. It was too hot. He couldn’t sleep. I walked down the hall and turned the AC on to high.
The next morning was still cold. Dad had gone out and started the car an hour before he had to leave. He wanted to let the car warm up. When he went to leave, the car wouldn’t start. He hadn’t turned the car all the way on. The engine hadn’t been running. The battery had died.
“Do you know how to jump start a car?”
“No,” I said.
Dad wanted me to go ask Chief for help. I was embarrassed to go over there but I did it anyway. I knocked on Chief’s door. He came to the door drinking coffee out of a to-go mug with a picture of a helicopter on it. I explained the situation.
Chief chuckled. “Yep, I’ll be right over.”
I thanked him. He asked me if he should bring his car over. I stared at him.
“You need a car with a working battery to jump start a car with a dead battery,” he said.
“Oh, right,” I said. “Yes, please.”
Chief drove his truck across the street and parked it a few feet in front of Dad’s old red Jetta. He got out of his truck holding red and black jumper cables. He was wearing his usual huge cargo shorts, and his t-shirt had the same logo as his to-go coffee mug, the helicopter with the rappelling commandos.
“Hey Dave,” Chief said. “Cold?”
Dad was wearing his scarf so it wrapped around his neck, his chin, his mouth. His knit cap had a fuzzy little ball on top of it. “I don’t know how you’re out here in shorts,” Dad said. “Just looking at you makes me cold.”
Chief narrated as he went about jump starting the car. He emphasized that the positive lead should connect to the positive terminal. He held up the red cable clamp. “This is your positive lead,” he said. “This red one here. Positive goes to positive.” I was trying to learn his words. I looked over at Dad. He was letting his teeth chatter and thumbing his phone. When the car started, we said thanks. Chief unclamped the leads with a warning about hydrogen gas, sparks, and which lead to unclamp first. He gave me the cables. “You keep these,” he said. “For next time. I got a bunch of em.”
Chief backed the truck across the street into his driveway.
“You weren’t even paying attention,” I said.
Dad looked around like I might’ve been talking to someone else.
“Was I supposed to be?”
“Yes,” I said. “He was trying to teach us something useful.” I felt like I was dealing with a crazy person. Like I had no right to be angry at this man who was so clearly insane. That feeling lasted until he crossed his arms over his chest and started rubbing his sides like he was fending off hypothermia.
“Of course I don’t know how to jump start a car,” I said. “Of course I’m living at home and have no idea what I’m doing. I have you for a father. You smoke pot, don’t take care of yourself, you can’t control your emotions, you can’t fix a car, you can’t run the store. You’re fucking incompetent. You can’t even deal with a little cold.”
Dad squeezed his eyes closed. He was trying to shut out all the nastiness, all the mean talk. The Jetta was rumbling. He got in the driver’s seat and before he closed the door he said, “Well Cam, if you ever have kids, you can be a perfect role model and show them how to jump start a car.” He pulled the door shut and put the car in reverse. Backing into the street he nearly clipped the mailbox.
* * *
That night I walked back from Publix and Dad’s car was in the driveway. I opened the door and he was at the kitchen table, his head in his hands, sobbing.
He craned his neck when I came in. His eyes were little red buttons set deep into the folds of his face. He was bald, skinny except for his hanging gut, and I’d just gone to the grocery store to get him his fix of ice cream sandwiches and nacho cheese dusted potato chips. Weirdly, a sense of relief came over me when I saw that he was crying. Maybe he was thinking about what I’d said that morning. I’d been cruel but maybe it’d been necessary. Or he was thinking about Mom. Maybe the moment had finally come when the seventy year old man starts to deal with the adult human emotion: grief. Your wife of forty years died. The mother of your child, your son’s mother, my mother. She’s gone. You acted like a spoiled brat, a preteen tyrant, for a good chunk of those forty years. You complained and smoked pot and ate shit and didn’t learn Spanish even though you had a Spanish-speaking wife and lived in Miami, Florida your entire life. But better late than never. I won’t hold it against you. You’re seventy years old but you can still grow up.
I put my hand on his shoulder. He’d sweated through the linen.
“What’s going on, Dad?”
He snuffled. I went over to the countertop, ripped off a piece of paper towel, handed it to him. I got a can of his diet soda from the refrigerator and placed it on the table. My hand went back on his shoulder.
“What, Dad? What’d you see?”
A picture of Mom on his phone? A petulant-ass text he’d sent her? An old friend of hers at the store, who spoke about her lovingly?
He got the shakes out of his voice. “There was a cat on the street.”
I removed my hand from his shoulder.
“The little black one with the blue eyes. His legs were totally crushed and his eyes were still open.” The shaking took hold of him again. The sobs came in heavy screams. He propped his elbows on the table and covered his face with his hands.
“I didn’t see a cat out there.”
“I called Animal Services. They came and got him. ” More wailing.
The realization caught up with me: the tears weren’t for Mom. He wasn’t going through some delay-fuse reckoning. Nothing had changed. The tears were for a feral cat, squashed on the side of the road. He hadn’t cried like that for Mom. He hadn’t cried at all when Mom died. For his store, waterworks. For a cat, he was weeping. For Mom, nothing.
“I’m sorry Dad, but…”
I couldn’t get anything else out. I couldn’t hang a lifetime’s worth of anger on a clause that started with the word but.
“When I saw him like that, with his little blue eyes looking at me, I wanted to kill myself. I wanted to blow my brains out.”
I stepped away from him. He wasn’t really talking to me anyway.
* * *
I moved out a little while after that. I found a place on the beach for cheap. I went back to working at the cafe. A few shifts a week, I made iced matchas with oat milk for girls with big asses. I started a master’s in psychology. I dropped the program after a semester, out four grand. I quit the coffee job a second time because I found a better paying gig taking care of a blind Dominican man who lived in Allapattah. I read him his mail, drove him to the pharmacy, tidied up his house. Eventually he moved in with the rest of his family and didn’t need me anymore. I went to Berlin.
If my life were a painting, it’d be a bunch of squiggles, totally abstract. You’d have to squint at it to try to see in it a form or underlying logic.
When I was out of money I came back to Miami. I moved back into the cheap place on the beach. When I was really out of money I went to see Dad.
He was selling the store. After all the years of Mom wanting to sell and Dad holding us hostage with his sob shows. After forcing us to sell the house to keep the store afloat so we had to move into the shittier house with the cats. At last he had gotten hip. I didn’t think he deserved that much credit for coming to the obvious conclusion that David’s Shoes was more trouble than it was worth.
“You don’t want to take it over, do you?”
We were eating at a place off Bird Road we’d been going to since I was a kid. I hadn’t seen him in a year and three months. A year and three months wasn’t long enough to forget how brutal it was to go out with him. He’d had a problem with the chair, too low, the table, wobbly, the red wine, too cold, and the burger was to come no lettuce, no tomato, no onion, no pickle, just well done patty atop a sauceless bun.
“Then please don’t criticize my business decisions. Thank you.”
Our food came. Dad inspected his plate. Everything seemed to be in order. He chomped into his burger. Chewed. Then he frowned and spit the meat back onto the plate.
“Oh for fuck’s sake.”
“They used the sauce.”
I flipped the bun over.
“There’s no sauce. Look. No sauce.”
“I know they used the sauce.”
“What do you care?” he said. “I’ll send it back.”
“Please god no,” I said. “You’re acting like a child.”
“I like what I like and I don’t like what I don’t like. What’s the problem, man?”
I groaned again.
“The problem is that it’s childish. Bitching and whining when you don’t get what you want is childish.”
Dad snorted. “You’re lecturing me about being a child, but you just asked me if you can move back into your old room.”
He seemed satisfied with himself.
“Just please don’t say anything to the waiter,” I begged. “Please don’t. She’s had enough.”
“Come on,” he said. “They love me here.”
He extended his arm and summoned the waiter. She came over. She was wearing black leggings and black sneakers with huge cushy soles. She spoke English with an accent.
“Any problem, sir?”
Dad had his fingers interlaced and was scrutinizing his burger. He looked up at the waiter.
“I just want to make sure that the burger was made without the sauce,” he said.
“Yes,” she said, “I said to the chefs. No sauce.”
Dad pursed his lips.
“Okay, but I think I still taste the sauce a bit.”
I buried my face in my hands.
“If you want, I can take it back.”
“That’d be great, if you don’t mind.”
I looked at Dad from between my fingers. “You’re really gonna make them make it again?”
“It’s no problem,” the woman said. She reached down and grabbed the plate.
Dad said, “See? It’s no problem. It’s groovy, babe.”
I spoke to the waiter in Spanish and said sorry for bothering her so much. My dad can be a little crazy. She smiled and put her hand on Dad’s shoulder. She replied in English.
“It’s really no problem,” she said. “I remember you guys used to come here lots. I’ll be right back.”
* * *
I moved back in with Dad, into my old room with all the middle and high school memorabilia taped to the walls. We had a big sale at the store, one of those everything-must-go jobs. Everything didn’t go. A lot of girls in tasseled jackets and art deco sunglasses came in, hunting vintage. They scoped out the leather boots and wingtips but didn’t buy anything. We gave a lot of the inventory away, then cleaned out the store.
Dad didn’t have much to do anymore. He stayed in the house most of the day, in his office. Smoking weed. Coming out occasionally for a snack while the TV glowed in the background. Dad spent his days like I spent my days when I faked sick in high school and got to stay home while he and Mom were at the shop: under a blanket, high, with something mindless on the tube.
I took care of the house and submitted resumes to online job postings.
The one hobby Dad still had was the cats. He fed the cats daily. He had names for his favorites. They’d line up at the front door in the morning. He’d let them in and they’d lounge on the rug while he ate his Rice Krispies.
I didn’t mind the cats. But they ran away whenever I tried to pet them. They weren’t squeamish with Dad. He could pick them up and scratch their bellies.
Dad had bought a big yellow A-frame sidewalk sign that said SLOW DOWN—THIS IS OUR NEIGHBORHOOD. He put it on the street in front of our driveway. He’d also bought three others that said CHILDREN AT PLAY—SLOW and staked them into the ground at the edge of our yard. The garbagemen complained about the A-frame sign in the street. They said they had to get out of the truck to move it in order to use the arm that grabbed the trash bins and catapulted them into the hopper. So Dad had to move the sidewalk sign onto the uneven grass where it wouldn’t be as effective. The signs he’d staked into the ground stayed where they were.
Then it happened. I was up early taking hits of Red Bull. Dad was still asleep. I knew it’d happened from the sound. I heard what was probably a blacked-out Dodge Charger rip down the street. The roar stopped and I heard the car idling. Morning radio was blasting out the car windows. After a few seconds the sound of the engine tore back to full volume and the morning radio disappeared. I walked outside.
The cat was down the road a ways, closer to the neighbor’s driveway than it was to ours. But Dad still would have seen it. I glanced back: the light in his room was off, the shutters shut. If he’d been up and heard, he would’ve known right away, too.
The sun was coming up. It was the middle of summer. The neighbors had made heaps of old sofas and stained mattresses at the end of their driveways. I went up to the cat slowly. It was a splotch of orange fur. Its body was half torn, half scrambled into the concrete. The tail was untouched and fluffy. I recognized it. It was one of Dad’s regulars. Loopy. The bugs were screaming in my ears.
I ran to the house and grabbed a shovel from the garage. I went back to the cat and carefully scraped it up, making sure to not leave anything on the pavement. I looked around. At one end of the street there was a four way intersection with a traffic light. The other way, the street came to an end. Then there was a patch of grass, a wall of bamboo, and just behind the bamboo, a massive terraced wall bordering the interstate. I ran down the street. I pushed the bamboo apart with the edge of the shovel and threw the cat into the bushes. I ran back and stashed the shovel in the garage.
The house was cool and quiet, the AC humming. I latched the front door behind me. Dad wasn’t up yet. I knew he wouldn’t be for a while.
Dane Gebauer is a writer and teacher living in Miami, FL. He received his MFA in fiction from Columbia University, and when he’s not teaching, he’s working on a series of Miami-centric short stories.