I came home from school one afternoon and found Big John passed out on the couch.
This was a pretty familiar state to find him in ever since the accident at his job. He swept floors and cleaned toilets at a middle school in South Kingstown for the last twenty years. A couple weeks before, he and the other janitors were moving the bleachers in the gym to set up for a pep rally the following day. I’m not entirely sure of the details of the accident – Big John always seemed to tell me this story when he was shitfaced – but he ended up slipping a disc in his lower back. He collapsed to his knees in agony, every nerve in his body seemed to be on fire. The doctor at the hospital later told my father that he would be out of work for the next ten weeks.
I carefully shut the front door and gazed at Big John’s sleeping form. He sat on two huge pillows with his head thrown back, cords straining in his neck. His graying hair was an oily mess and his face remained unshaven. Bare feet propped up on the coffee table. The take out that I had ordered the previous night had not been thrown away. I took notice of the fact that he was still dressed in the same dirty T-shirt and sweatpants that he had been wearing for the past few days. This neglected living room – actually the whole house for that matter – had a terrible odor of stale cigarettes and spoiled food. I saw the empty beer bottles on the floor next to the couch.
It was time to get out of this depressing slump that we had been wallowing in for the last two weeks. I dropped my backpack on the armchair and went over to try and rouse my old man from a drunken sleep. His snoring was ear-splitting. “Come on, Big John. It’s time to get up. Come on now.”
I kept shaking his shoulder. He stirred a bit. Swore at me. I only shook him harder. “Come on...come on.”
His eyes opened slowly. I stepped back in order to give him some space to get himself together. He seemed a bit disoriented. I probably looked like the Grim Reaper standing there, a vision that he had dreamed up in a booze soaked slumber.
“Hey there, Davey.” His voice sounded a little hoarse. “How’s it going?”
“Dad, you need to get up now and take a shower. Come on. You are starting to smell like pig shit.”
He took a whiff of his grubby T-shirt. His face instantly distorted with disgust. “I think you’re right. Will you help me up? Go slow. Go real slow.”
I took one of his big hands in mine and held it. Tight. He closed his eyes, let out a deep breath, and cried out as he struggled to stand. I steadied him as he got to his feet. “You got this,” I told him.
My father stood before me. He seemed much older than his forty-seven years. Big John had turned ancient not only from physical pain, but mental exhaustion as well. I watched this decrepit old man make his way slowly down the hall towards the bathroom. After a few minutes, I heard the running of water from the shower.
I went in to our kitchen to try and find something to eat. My search for food went on at a nearly primordial level. I was starving.
It wasn’t good news. The fridge contained only a half empty bottle of milk that had expired over a month ago and a few basic condiments. Things weren’t any better in the cupboards. A stale box of cereal and some oatmeal. My stomach made alarming noises. All I wanted was something to eat while I zoned out watching Netflix for the rest of the night. Now even this seemed like a luxury that I couldn’t achieve in this lifetime.
I returned to the living room, defeated. I plopped down on our crappy sofa and turned the TV on. I don’t even know what I ended up watching. My mind had gone totally blank.
Big John came back into the room at some point. He had changed into a fresh shirt and a pair of blue jeans. His hair was still wet from the shower. “What do you say we get dinner going around here?”
For a moment, his back pain temporarily forgotten, Big John sounded like my father again. A little bit. I hated to burst his bubble. I stopped him before he even opened the fridge.
“Don’t bother,” I called out from my spot on the couch. “We don’t have anything to eat in this place.”
He stood in the middle of our kitchen. The mustard colored walls were in dire need of a new paint job. Our house had been falling apart little by little over time, but the process seemed to have sped up in the last three or four years since Mom had been gone. Wallpaper was peeling. The sinks constantly backed up with a foul, brownish liquid. Doors wouldn’t close. Windows were stuck. The basement always flooded after a rainstorm. Sometimes the toilet wouldn’t flush and the boiler acted up every winter. The house was ready for the wrecking ball.
“I got an idea,” said Big John after he had completed his own unsuccessful check of the fridge and all the cupboards. “Why don’t we go out to Peking Garden tonight?”
Downtown Greenfield was not much to look at. There was a real estate office, a 7-Eleven, and this used bookstore on the corner. The Peking Garden Chinese Restaurant sat between Levin’s Pharmacy and Vintage Audio. We parked around the side of the building and got out of the car. The lot was barely full. There had been a rain shower earlier that afternoon. The clouds had not cleared out; it looked like it could rain again at any moment. I thought the air smelled crisp and clean.
It wasn’t any five-star joint inside, you can be sure of that. Dimly lit. Walls painted burgundy. These cheap watercolor reproductions of lighthouses, birds, and lush meadows hung all over the place. I saw that it was the usual crowd that you would expect to find at a little establishment like this during any random night of the week. The cliental here consisted mostly of senior citizens whose arthritic hands shook when they held their chopsticks or drank their tea and frazzled parents with young children who were not in the mood to cook or the stoned college students with a sudden hankering for Chicken Pâté and fried rice. We got a booth at the back of the dining area. Out of sight. A small oriental woman named Celeste took our order. Big John wanted egg foo young, while I settled for General Tso’s.
We didn’t do much talking over dinner. Big John and I had always been a bit standoffish with each other ever since I was a real little kid. This had only gotten worse after Mom’s death. We were trying to work on that. We were trying to get to know each other.
I demolished the food on my plate. I guess I was hungrier than I thought, even though I wasn’t sure if that was possible. Big John only picked at his omelet. He kept watching me for some reason, like he was trying to gauge my reaction to a situation that he hadn’t vocalized yet. I was getting a lot better at reading his drawn face. “Big John, you have that look again.”
He snickered at this observation. “What are you talking about?”
I was all business. “Dad, you can tell me. Something has been bugging you for a while.”
He let out a deep sigh, wincing at the pain from the back-brace that he had to wear. “Lately a lot of things have been bugging me.”
I had taken to shredding my napkin into confetti. “What things?”
He took out a folded sheet of paper from his pocket and placed it between us on the table.
“That notice is from the bank,” said Big John, as if this was supposed to mean something to me. “We have to be out of the house by July.”
I took the paper. Read it. I got the gist pretty quick.
“I’m not going to fight it, Davey,” he told me. “I can’t afford the mortgage payments on that house with my salary. We just barely covered it when your mother was alive.”
I wasn’t sure how to handle this news. I suddenly felt very dizzy.
“We’re going to be okay, buddy,” said Big John. It sounded like a throw away remark, a futile attempt at reassurance.
I handed the notice back to him. Celeste came over to our table a couple minutes later and left the bill. Big John began to take some money out of his wallet.
“I’m getting a job this summer.”
We were making for the front exit, passing several dimly lit tables.
“Davey, you don’t have to do that.”
“I want to. All the kids I know have summer jobs anyway. One of us needs to be making some money at least.”
Big John ran his hand through my hair, a simple gesture of affection he hadn’t shown to me since I was probably around five. “I hate to break this to you, kid, but your little summer job won’t even put a dent in that mortgage.”
“Money is money, right?”
Big John held the door for the people coming inside. I was lost in my own miserable thoughts that I didn’t hear the kid say hello to me. “Hey, David.”
It took me a minute to recognize him.
Sam Wendall. He was with this pretty lady who looked like she was about Big John’s age. Both had their coats on and they were soaked. The rain had started up again. The woman brushed her wet hair out of her face and smiled at Big John and me. I only wanted to get out the restaurant. I wanted to go back to the car. My response was cold. “Hi.”
“It’s really coming down outside,” said Sam.
“This a friend of yours, Davey?” Big John seized upon any moment he could to learn more about my social life.
“We’re in the same History class,” I said, realizing a quick dash across the parking lot was looking less and less likely. Fantastic.
“I’m Sam Wendell.” He extended a hand to Big John and my father took it. “This is my mom,” he said, indicating the woman who stood beside him.
“Hello. I’m Christine. It’s nice to meet you guys.”
A change had instantly come over Big John’s face. He was in awe at the sight of this beautiful woman who had come out of the rain with her son. Our financial situation was temporarily forgotten. “I’m John McKinney. Are you both new to Greenfield? I haven’t seen you guys around here before.”
Sam unzipped his coat. “We’ve been here since the end of January. We’re living with my Grandma Ruth.”
“I actually grew up here with my mother,” said Christine. “Her name is Ruth Jennings. She lives over on River Street.”
Big John turned the name over and over in his head. “Did she used to do the books for a lot of the businesses here in town?”
“That was her.”
“Wow. Small world, I guess.”
“Have you lived here for a while?” Sam’s mother asked.
“Born and bred.” Big John always took great pride in his small-town upbringing.
All this small talk was excruciating. I was relieved when I saw one of the hosts come up to us. He was dressed all in black and looked like he had been doing this job for decades. “Can I help you, folks?”
Christine brightened at the host and put a hand on Sam’s shoulder. “Just the two of us tonight.”
“Try the egg foo young,” said Big John. “That’s my personal favorite.”
Christine smiled back at my father as the greeter led them to their table. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
“Bye, David,” said Sam.
They were soon gone from sight.
I didn’t wait for Big John to say s...