Thomas Kearnes

Posted on July 2, 2012

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A Failed Story About My Father

It’s almost midnight and Canton is such a small-time, out-of-time shitkicker town, there’s only one store open close to the hotel. I trudge through the overgrown lawn bordering the hotel parking lot and make my way toward one of those stores that’s one-half gas station and one-half fast food place. This one is an Exxon and a Subway. My father says Subway’s gotten too expensive and the food isn’t nearly as good as it used to be, but I crave tuna salad. On the way back, I try to imagine what my father is going to say about the Subway. He doesn’t approve of a lot of things, and this is just one of them. But I bought him a Snickers in the Exxon half of the store, so maybe he’ll forget about the Subway.

I have a damn good attorney; that’s the reason we keep coming to Canton, once a month, every month. My attorney keeps finding ways to stall the prosecution, and I try to resist smiling each time the county’s attorney wipes her crimp-curled locks away from her face and flips through her stack of files to counter my attorney’s latest motion. I’m guilty, of course. Isn’t everyone? But like my father said, this is a game, a sleek, motorized game, and all that matters is who wins and what they get away with.

“Where did you get the Subway?” my father asks when I enter the hotel room.

“There’s a store on the highway next to the burger place.”

“I’ve never seen that.”

“It’s there.” I toss the Snickers bar on the bed beside him. “I got that for you.” He’s laid up against the pillow, on top of the bedspread reading a paperback Western. He goes through three or four a week. This one is called A Lawman’s Promise. I don’t see how Wal-Mart keeps enough in stock to satisfy him.

He takes the candy bar into his hand and turns it over, momentarily mystified by it. It’s understandable. I don’t do a lot of nice things for people. I don’t remember birthdays, I don’t say “bless you,” I never say I’ll call someone again when I know I won’t because I know that I won’t, and what good is false hope?

“Thank you, Jerry,” he says, and his voice goes so high and melodious, almost a plea, that my heart drops from my chest and into my stomach. I’m not supposed to be doing things like this, that’s what my mother said. My father puts his finger to his lips. “Better keep this hidden from Mom.”

I know he’s going to eat that Snickers so damn fast the very thought of hiding it from someone would be absurd. My father used to be fat when I was a kid. He was short and stumpy and in his policeman’s uniform looked like a Keystone Cop funny-fast-running toward his black, boxy patrol car, the other funny-fast-running officers at his heels. Then my father got cancer when I was in high school, and he became thin. He said after the chemotherapy everything tasted like cardboard and the pounds slipped from his frame. My mother was so happy she took a picture of my father holding his “fat pants” in front of him after he dropped to 160 pounds. But the food’s lack of flavor didn’t keep him out of the kitchen for long. Soon, he said if he ate enough, he could taste it again, just a trace of it. The pounds reappeared like department store fliers, and my mother put her camera away.

I sit on my bed and take my sandwich out of its wrapper. My father’s right. The food at Subway is getting shoddy. The toppings are haphazardly scattered, the mustard is thick at one end and missing at the other, and the tuna salad itself lacks a certain zing it once had. It’s hard to describe, not that I would ever try. I learned not to talk about food in my parents’ house. Sit down and eat. Throw away what you don’t want.

“How much did you pay for that?”

“Too much.” I take a bite and try to enjoy it, shove it around my teeth and gums.

“Their food’s gettin’ bloomin’ ridiculous.”

I nod and keep eating. I can’t finish it fast enough.

“I bet you paid eight or nine bucks for what?—a damn sandwich.”

“I saw the sign when I left. Gas went up again.”

“How much?”

“Four cents, I think.”

Whenever my father threatens to embark on one of his rants about this business trying to rob you or this politician trying to trick you, I bring up the gas prices. It’s a fail-safe conversation stopper.

My father unwraps the Snickers bar, just the one end. I don’t eat candy bars, but I wonder why he doesn’t just unwrap the whole thing and begin eating. Why is he giving his Snickers bar a slow-motion striptease?

I’m chewing, but I can still hear the soft, teasing smack of the caramel, the flaking of the chocolate, the crunch of the nuts. My father is enjoying his Snickers. He loves them so much, I just had to give him one. Never mind that I hate candy, can’t watch someone eating something sweet without wanting to retch. I believed as a child and believe today that sugar will bloat you, cripple you, kill you. My father just wants something sweet inside him, and I can’t even eat my sandwich, I feel so sick.

He finishes, wads the wrapper up, rises from the bed and throws it away in the tiny trashcan at the opposite end of the room.

“They have maids for that.”

“No sense not doing it yourself.”

“Why do you think we’re paying them?”

“You gotta learn to look after your own, Jerry.”

“I’m not going to finish this,” I say and begin to slip the sandwich back into the bag. I’ve gone to bed hungry before. It’s easy, you listen to your stomach and let it rumble you to sleep.

“Let me cut off a piece, then.” He takes out his pocketknife and slices a hunk from the sandwich. He hasn’t eaten or drank after me in over three years, ever since I got the disease. He pops the piece into his mouth and chews it thoughtfully. He shakes his head and looks at me. “I told you it’s not as good as before.”

My father reads his Western while I watch Bill Maher on the free HBO. He hates the cursing and the innuendos on these shows. I’ve never asked, but I bet he wishes life were like one of those paperbacks with the rugged horseman and the mountain landscape on the cover: simple, simple as a candy bar.

After Bill Maher, I turn out the light, and we go to bed. I don’t sleep, but it’s dark. My stomach makes a wet, loud noise. I’m starving.

“Jerry, was that you?”

I don’t answer. He doesn’t ask again.

***

Thomas Kearnes is a 35-year-old author from East Texas. He is an atheist and an Eagle Scout. His fiction has appeared in Ampersand, PANK, Storyglossia, Night Train, SmokeLong Quarterly, A cappella Zoo, Used Furntiure Review, Word Riot, Eclectica, wigleaf, JMWW Journal, Verbicide, Splinter Generation, 3 AM Magazine, Knee-Jerk, LITnIMAGE and numerous gay publications. He is a columnist for Flash Fiction Chronicles and a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee. He is currently marketing his short story collection “Pretend I’m Not Here” and developing a website for those interested in his work.

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