Renate Wildermuth, North Creek, NY
The Writing Contest for Young and Adult Writers
Runner Up in Category: Memoir Writing
Because his eyesight had always been as poor as his paychecks, my father never drove a car. He relied on my mother to take him back and forth to his job in the pantry of the Woodloch Pines Resort. Without a license he had learned patience. My mother, with three young kids to look after and a job of her own, had learned to drive really fast.
Sometimes if I had a doctor's appointment after elementary school, I'd be with her as she flew along those country roads straightening curves and leaving potholes gasping for breath. She was never on time picking him up at the end of his shift, but somehow he was never annoyed.
She'd pull up in front of Dad, sighing when she saw the bags and boxes surrounding him like beggars. They bulged with day-old bread, or cakes, or singed chicken thighs, or tubs of leftover ice cream and once in a while a chipped dish. "If you bring home one more box, I'll divorce you," Mom would say as she got out to open the trunk. She wasn't serious. My parents were like World War I pilots, flying without parachutes. Divorce was something they might joke about, even dream about on occasion, but bailing out just wasn't an option.
Dad would load up the trunk and spot my form in the back seat and smile. "Free at last, free at last," he'd say throwing his fist up in the air. His pants were a little short with black and white checks that turned gray in the distance. His shirts were never white again after one day on the job. When he opened the car door to get in, a familiar smell would squeeze in after him like another passenger. It was more a color than a smell. Not even a color really, just drab, like worn-out socks. It came from the eggs he scraped off breakfast plates, or the chemicals the big industrial dishwasher used. It came from the food in those bags and boxes, not even a day old, not stale, but not exactly fresh either. It smelled like routine.
Sometimes, he wouldn't be outside yet when we arrived. Mom would pull all the way into the lot, back to the service entrance, and I'd go in to get him. "You know where to go?" she'd ask, but I was out of the car already, moving past garbage cans taller than I was, past crates of bulk food and into the stainless steel of the big kitchen. And still farther back.
"Hey, Eddie! You've got a visitor," someone would yell, and there was Dad, looking like a stranger, and still kind of familiar, like a distant relative maybe. I recognized his stocky build, his barrel chest, the way his lips always pursed like he was considering what you had to say. But his face was pulled down, and he looked a little worried, lifting out trays of juice glasses as the machine spit them out fast, racing him to the finish, except there was never a finish.
He'd look up, a little wary at first. He'd squint and see me and turn all familiar again. It was like taking a black and white film and turning it Technicolor. But there was nothing fake about his smile. It made me feel like I was the best thing someone could have done for him that day.
"Hiya!" he'd say. Then he'd motion me over behind the machine after he had turned it off. "Look at these fish buckets. I ran 'em through the machine. Took the smell out. See-good as new." And he'd pick one up and turn it over so I could see how there was nothing wrong with them. But they still smelled a little like the fillets of sole they'd held, and Mom was going to kill him for bringing them home, but I just nodded, and watched him put them in a box.
Jimmie Bryan or one of the other managers would come over sometimes, saying, "Hey, Eddie, I got some good crumb cake for you." They'd stand inspecting it, heads bowed a little, nodding at the quality, even though the topping had gone on unevenly and it couldn't be given to guests, who were paying good money for it.
Then Dad would put on his jacket, hoist a box onto one shoulder, take a bag in the other hand, and we'd start walking out. We'd pass the waitresses and the waiters and Dad would touch them with a joke. "I'm goin' over the wall," he'd say, or if it was a Friday, "I got time off for good behavior." I'd watch the smiles flare on their faces, igniting their eyes like a clear blue flame. He was a lamplighter then, and I was his assistant.
Then we were out again in the ordinary light, and Mom was getting out of the car shaking the keys at Dad in an empty threat. But he was already sticking up for the crumb cake like it was a friend of his, a little rough around the edges but with a good heart. A friend with nowhere else to go.
She'd sigh, thinking of our freezer filled up with plastic containers of whipped cream, bags of shrimp that could only be used as cat food and boxes of mud pie where the layers had melted together. And there were all those stops to make. There was a widower whose trailer leaned a little like the Napoleons he liked so much. Or the woman with three kids whose house sagged a bit in the middle like the apple pie we'd drop off.
"It's either me or the crumb cake," Mom would say even as she was opening the trunk and taking a bag from Dad's hand. He'd pretend to think about her ultimatum; she'd pretend to be mad. Out of habit she'd tell him the box wasn't going to fit, and as usual Dad would make room.
Sometimes that meant filling up the whole backseat. Then Dad would insist I sit up front and he'd squeeze into the back, hugging a box like it was a plush armrest instead of plain old cardboard. Mom wasn't in such a hurry now. She'd drive slow enough to let the potholes catch their breath, while we chauffeured Dad home like he was the richest man in town.