Chip asked me about my father once. He said it was important to know every little thing about each other, even the bad stuff. “Better start with the parents,” he said and then he told me about the time he saw his father shake his fist at his mother. So I told him about the trip I’d taken with Gene to the Six Flags in St. Louis, how he’d said, “It’s high time we did something fun,” as I climbed into the back seat of his Dodge Dart for the three-hour drive to Missouri. I was eleven years old at the time and had no idea what he was talking about. As far as I was concerned, life with my father was always fun.
At the amusement park, I wouldn’t go on any of the big rides. No roller coasters or Ferris Wheels for me. I stuck to the merry-go-round. Gene said that I was probably wise. I sat on a white painted horse that had bulging eyes and a flaming red tail. I wrapped my fingers around the sticky pole and tried to ignore all the squirmy kids around me, the ones who were propped up on their horses by their mothers. Gene lounged on one of the high-backed benches in front of me. He stuck out his tongue and crossed his eyes every time I looked at him.
That night, we stayed in a Ramada Inn that had a restaurant and an indoor swimming pool on the ground floor. There was a line to get into the restaurant. I told Gene that I didn’t mind waiting. “Kiddo,” he said, “you’re a doll.” Still, we stood in line for a long time. At one point, Gene left. He said that he’d be right back. I assumed that he was going to the Men’s room, the one by the elevators that we’d passed earlier that day. I also assumed that we were going to have a fun dinner together, like the times at home when he’d take me to the Ground Round where I’d eat as much popcorn and peanuts as I wanted and was allowed to throw the peanut shells on the floor. And, anyway, I was preoccupied with another girl in line who had fine, blond hair that stretched all the way down to the small of her back. Her hair looked like it had been brushed one hundred times already that day, and I was wondering what it would feel like to be as pretty as that girl.
It took me a while to realize that Gene had been gone too long. The line kept shuffling forward. Soon, even the girl with the long hair had been seated, and I was at the top of the line. The hostess asked me where my parents were. “Can’t seat you until all of your party’s here,” she said. I twirled around, hoping to see my father pop up out of the crowd. “Kiddo,” he’d shout, “I’m right here! I’ve been right here all along.” Instead, another family stepped forward: a man wearing a tight t-shirt that showed off his arm muscles, his wife and two kids behind him. The kids were quiet and the wife was looking down as if she saw something on the red and white diamond patterned carpet but the man brushed right by me, taking my spot in line. “We’re ready,” he said to the hostess. I didn’t object. What could I say? I was only a kid. I didn’t know where Gene was. I didn’t understand why he hadn’t come back yet. For a wild second, I even imagined that he’d never return. I’d have to go to the front desk clerk, ask to use the phone, call home. I thought I was going to throw up. Then I saw Gene, wading through the crowd. He reached out and touched the man’s arm.
“Come on. Don’t do this. Please,” my father said.
The man shook him off easily, pushed him back with his elbow.
“Get the fuck off me, you faggot,” he said. Then he followed the hostess into the dining room, his family right behind him. It was so brutal and quick that I thought, for a second, that I hadn’t heard him correctly. I looked up at my father, waiting for one of his jolly laughs, witty comebacks. But Gene didn’t say a word. He was pale-faced and the set of his mouth was grim. I felt real shame for the first time.
That was the last open table for a long time. When we were finally seated, we weren’t given menus right away and our water glasses weren’t filled and I didn’t get a napkin. But we didn’t complain to anyone about the service. In fact, we hardly spoke at all. After our dishes came—we’d both ordered spaghetti, slimy noodles covered in light red slop—I started to cry because Gene made the best spaghetti sauce, something he simmered on the stove top for hours, and this was nothing like that.
“The hell with this,” Gene said. He wadded up his paper napkin, tossed it on top of his plate. He stood up and helped me push back my chair and we ran out of the restaurant together. We went right past the man and his family seated at their table, and I even managed to kick the man’s chair on our way out.
Chip whistled when I finished my story. We were in bed together at my house. It was dark and I was resting my head on his bare shoulder.
“You don’t forget something like that,” he said. I waited for him to say more but he didn’t. I loved listening to his voice. He was a morning DJ for the Lite Rock music station in Rantoul. 109.9. Dr. Chipper, he was called although he hadn’t finished college. I’d listened to him every morning on my way to work for a year straight before finally meeting him. On the radio, he always sounded so close by, like he was in the car with me. You can tell me anything, he always seemed to be saying.
Chip and I planned on getting married in July, a ferociously humid time of year in central Illinois, but a good time for the radio station, which planned on re-broadcasting a few of Chip’s old shows while we went to Chicago for our honeymoon. Two days before the wedding, Gene called me. “Surprise,” he said and then he asked me to pick him up at the airport in the morning. He was coming in from New York. I didn’t know how to respond. I hadn’t spoken to him in years.
The county airport was small, just two runways planted in the middle of the cornfields. At baggage claim, I stared at the flashing red light that was fastened to the wall, the steady stream of suitcases being spit onto the carousel, and I thought of the last time I’d seen Gene, about five years earlier. He was living in San Francisco then and I was in the city for a week because I was dating some guy who had a conference there and he’d paid for my ticket. At Crissy Field, Gene and I sat on a bench and looked at the Golden Gate Bridge. He told me that this was his favorite spot in the city. Some days, he sat there for hours. He said that he was thinking of making some really big changes in his life. I got up, told him that I had to go. I didn’t want to hear about his plans. The only reason I’d met up with him in the first place was because my boyfriend was in meetings all day.
At the airport, Gene was the last passenger to pick up his luggage. On the down escalator, he gripped the rubber-coated rail for support. His face was puffy but the rest of him was thin. His blue blazer hung off him. His trousers were too baggy. He’d been a good-looking man—or at least that was what I’d always thought—and now his looks were gone.
“Hello there, kiddo,” he said.
“Dad, are you feeling OK?”
“Of course I am. It’s good to see you. Boy, is it ever.”
He made a move like he wanted to hug me and I took a step back.
“You don’t look well.”
“Long flight. That’s all.”
“You didn’t have to come, you know. How’d you even find out about it? When I told Chip about it, he couldn’t believe it. That’s my fiancé, by the way. Chip Carson.”
“A fine name.”
“Just to be clear. Tomorrow is my wedding day. I need it to be perfect. No funny stuff.”
Gene put his hand in a three-finger salute even though, as far as I knew, he’d never been a Boy Scout.
“I’ll be on my best behavior. Scout’s honor.”
There was a lightness to his voice that reminded me of what he used to be like, back when I was a kid and we were together all the time.
On the ride back from the airport, I gave him the briefest details about my life. I’d moved from Chicago to this town in central Illinois two years earlier. I told Gene that I’d wanted to get away from the hectic pace of the city but the truth was I’d been out of sorts, lonely. I’d met Chip six months before when he was working a Happy Hour event at a bar downtown. I’d gone there specifically to meet Chip but when I saw him, dwarfed by the tall speaker he was standing next to, I was disappointed by how short he was, the thinning hair on top of his head, the swollen gut that pillowed out his untucked shirt. “Some would say I’ve got a face for radio,” he said to me and there was something about him that I liked again. But I didn’t tell Gene any of that.
“Sounds like a whirlwind romance,” he said.
“Chip said if there’s one thing he knows now it’s not to wait around when things are right. He was married before. He has a five-year-old son named Grayson. It’s important for Grayson to have well-defined roles, that’s what Chip says. Look, I’ve been on my own for a long time. Chip is the best thing that ever happened to me.”
“I always thought you’d be a wonderful mother. You loved baby dolls when you were a kid.”
“Please don’t do that.”
“Talk about what I was like when I was younger. Act like you’re this expert on me. Look, I don’t even know why you’re here. When I told Mom, she was shocked. ‘Of all times to suddenly reappear,’ that’s what she said.”
“Oh, I couldn’t miss it. How is your mother?”
“She’s fine. She has a good life now.”
Gene looked out the window. We were driving past the town’s water tower.
“Last year, a high school kid climbed that tower. He was drunk and someone dared him to do it. He fell. Broke his back when he landed. But he wasn’t paralyzed. He claimed there was an angel floating with him as he went down. I don’t know why I’m telling you this.”
“It’s a lovely story. That’s why.”
“Lovely but completely made up. Chip had the boy on his radio show. He asked him to describe the angel. Like what did it look like? Did it have wings? And the boy started laughing. He didn’t know.”
“Maybe it was more of a feeling. That angel. Rather than something he could see.”
Gene rolled down the window. He stuck his arm out and wiggled his fingers. Then he rolled the window back up.
“I’m in New York now,” he said. “Upstate. I live next door to an apple orchard. Everything there smells sweet. Like apple pie. You would like it.”
“What happened to San Francisco?”
“Oh, you know. Things never quite work out the way you think they will.”
We were stuck behind a slow-moving pickup truck that had a mattress in its open bed. The mattress was tied down with thick ropes stretched across the top of it but, still, I pictured the worst. The ropes loosening. The mattress pitching off the truck, landing on top of my hood. What would I do? How would I swerve the car to get out of the way? This was what I’d always done. Tried to anticipate bad things. When I was younger, I’d devise escape routes in case of a house fire. I had it all figured out. I’d pop out the bedroom window screen, slip onto the roof, shimmy down a tree.
“Tell me the truth. Why are you here?” I asked after the truck pulled into a driveway and I was free to go faster.
“Isn’t it obvious? I’ve come to give you away.”
After St. Louis, Gene started staying away from home for long periods of time, disappearing for days, weeks. He borrowed a lot of money, first from friends and then from people we didn’t know and sometimes the phone would ring in the middle of the night and my mother would be afraid to answer it. She got a full-time job and changed the locks on the doors to the house. He was only allowed in once after that, just to get his things. He carried out one suitcase and a stack of records. He belonged to a classical music club in town and his records were important to him.
A few days after he left, I was at home by myself, sitting at the dining room table. I was supposed to be doing homework but, instead, I was doodling on the back of a school handout and blinking tears out of my eyes. The day was gray. It was snowing. The furnace hadn’t kicked on yet. I was cold, sad. At school, boys were making fun of my pointy nose, my flat chest. They called me a carpenter’s dream: flat as a board and ready to screw. That was what I was focusing on. Not on my parents’ marriage. Certainly not on my father.
Then I heard someone knock on the window. When I looked up, I saw Gene outside. He was waving at me. His smile was very broad. He didn’t stop smiling, even when I shook my head. My mother had been very clear about how to handle him. Whatever you do, don’t let your father back in.
I went to the front door and pulled it open. He was already standing on the welcome mat, slapping snow off the knees of his pants. How had he gotten there so fast?
“Hey,” I said.
“Hay is for horses,” he said and I put my hand over my mouth so he wouldn’t see me smile.
“I’m sorry, Dad. But you’re not allowed in. Mom says.”
“Oh, I know the rules. But I wanted to see you. Maybe we could take a walk or something.”
“It’s too cold for a walk.”
“Yes, you’re right. But now I’m here and I don’t have a car and it’s an awful long walk back to where I’m staying.”
“Where is that? I don’t even know.”
“I’m bunking with a friend of a friend. Until I get this all sorted out with your mother, of course.”
I could feel the cold swirling around my ankles. There was snow on top of Gene’s head. It made his dark hair look white, as if he was an old man.
“Dad, I’ve got to close the door.”
“If I could come in for five minutes, just to warm up, well, that would be something. That would really mean something to me.”
“I can’t. Mom said.”
“Five minutes, I swear. Just long enough to get this chill out of my bones.”
He shivered. He wasn’t wearing a coat, just one of his navy blue blazers and a long, striped scarf wrapped around his neck. It was that detail—the lack of a coat—that made me step aside, let him in. Or at least that was what I told my mother later.
Those five minutes turned into an hour. He started a fire in the living room fireplace that burned brightly and crackled loudly and made the house smell like smoke. He found some records he’d left behind and played Schubert on the turntable. He made a tasty onion dip and served it with cut up carrots and celery sticks. He poured ginger ale into champagne flutes and we toasted each other. He told me that I was beautiful and when I rolled my eyes, he said, “Trust me. I know beauty when I see it.” He also, when I went to the bathroom—quite full from all that good onion dip and ginger ale—went upstairs and swiped some jewelry from the top of my mother’s bureau.
Afterwards (for almost an entire year actually), I’d insist to my mother and to anyone else who asked that I didn’t regret letting him in that day. He’d made me feel better, and I thought that was all that mattered.
During the rest of the drive from the airport, Gene was quiet. His head kept bobbing, his chin tucked low, and I thought he was fighting sleep. But when we got home—pulling into my driveway, next to Chip’s car, a butternut yellow 1972 Chevrolet Chevelle—he perked up. He jumped out of the car and walked around the Chevelle.
“I haven’t seen one of those in a good long time.”
Chip was meticulous about his car, washing it carefully every Saturday morning. I’d only seen him drive it once, as part of the town’s Fourth of July parade. Sometimes he’d slip a silver cover over it if he thought it was going to rain. He kept it at my house because his apartment complex only allotted him one parking space.
“Chip says it’s a good investment.”
“Bet it’s fun to drive.”
“It’s not meant for that. Chip says some day he’s going to sell it and make a lot of money.”
“Cars should be driven.”
“Not this one.”
Inside my house, I went down to the rec room in the basement to find Chip. I thought he’d be where he usually was: stretched out on the recliner, watching television. His apartment was dark and small so he preferred to be at my house. Sometimes he’d invite other DJs over to watch movies, smoke cigars. My favorite was Axel from 94.1 Classic Rock. Axel’s real name was Andy.
But that morning, the house was empty. I went back upstairs and apologized.
“Maybe it’s best that he’s not here right now. It gives us time to talk,” Gene said. “Why don’t we take a walk? By the time we get back, he’ll be back.”
“Are you sure? You seemed tired in the car.”
“I’m wide awake now.”
During our walk, I talked about my wedding. The ceremony was going to be held in a pavilion at the state park. One of Chip’s friends had gotten ordained online so that he could officiate. I’d visited other venues in town: the ballroom in the DoubleTree, the back lawn of the golf club, a room in the civic center. But they all seemed too formal or drab.
“The place has to be perfect. Tomorrow is going to be the best day of my life, after all. I’m almost 40 years old. I never thought I’d find someone like Chip. But I did. I can tell him anything. We’re so close. I don’t expect you to understand.”
“Oh, I know a thing or two about love,” Gene said.
I started walking faster. Even when he dragged a bit, struggled to keep up, I didn’t slow down. We went through the downtown area, past the high school’s football field, into neighborhoods that had big houses, wide streets. I walked without any real sense of where we were headed and before I knew it, we were on Lincoln, a shaded, brick paved street that had three family homes, lamp posts littered with lost dog flyers. That was when I stopped.
“We’ve got to turn around,” I said.
“If you say so.”
But he didn’t move. We were standing underneath a tall oak tree with branches that spread out halfway across the street and thick roots that bulged out of the ground and buckled the sidewalk. He put his hand on the tree trunk, and I was reminded of what he’d looked like in the airport, riding the escalator, holding onto the rail.
“No, really. We have to go.”
“What’s the rush?”
Chip’s ex-wife, Maria, lived on this street. Although I wasn’t sure of her exact address since Chip always picked up Grayson for their weekend visits by himself, I knew it was somewhere on Lincoln. I hadn’t met her yet and it wasn’t something I was looking forward to. She sounded wild, dramatic. Throughout their marriage, she would scream at Chip and throw things at him when she didn’t get her way and then weep uncontrollably, begging for his forgiveness. He finally had enough when she cheated on him with one of his station managers. “She shattered my heart. Brought me to my knees,” he’d said about it. I always felt prim, stiff whenever he talked about her.
“Look,” I said sharply to my father, “I just want to go home.”
He patted the tree. I had the feeling he was trying to pretend like he wasn’t using it for support.
“Look at this. Old beauty. Where I live, I walk around the orchard some mornings when the fog hasn’t lifted yet and these old gnarled trees just spring up before me. They are ugly and twisted but by God, they’re sturdy too, sturdier than most of the things I’ve come up against in my life. Ah, kid, I want to tell you about it.”
“No, please don’t. Not now.”
“Listen, I know—“
“No. Did you hear me? I don’t want to be doing this. OK? I need to pick up the boutonnieres for the groomsmen. I need to get the white folding chairs from the rental store. That’s what I have to do. Not this.”
I closed my eyes. I didn’t want to see it anymore—the red, tight skin on his face, his slack lips hanging open as he took sips of breath.
“Hey there! No.”
When I opened my eyes, everything had changed. Gene had stepped away from the tree and was waving his arms at a little boy riding a plastic Big Wheel trike, zooming down the sidewalk towards us. It was Grayson, Chip’s boy, pedaling fast, careening towards us, with a solemn and determined look on his face, as if he had plans to just go right through us, until the sidewalk spilled out onto the street.
“Slow down there, buddy,” Gene shouted but Grayson kept going until something—a pebble, a twig?—caught his back wheel. He wobbled for a moment, trying to straighten out, but it was too late. Before I could do anything to stop him, he crashed into the tree that my father had just been admiring.
“Grayson? Are you OK?”
I expected broken teeth, a mouth full of blood, skin left shredded on the sidewalk. Instead, only one small scrape bubbled up on his knee, blood seeping out in little red tears. I tried to help him up but he wriggled away from me. He was wearing pajama shorts with starships on them and a red cape that had twisted around his neck.
“I guess,” he said. He usually didn’t talk directly to me, always looking at Chip first before answering any of my questions.
“What are you doing out here by yourself?”
“Mommy’s tired. So is Daddy.”
“Daddy? Where’s your father?”
Grayson straddled his Big Wheel, pulled on its handles until it was upright again. Then he pointed at Gene.
“This is my father.”
“I know about you,” Grayson said.
“It’s nice to meet you, young man,” Gene said.
“My dad says you’re a faggot.”
“Grayson, wait. You can’t—“
I was in a panic. This was not something that anyone in my family ever discussed. My mother was always vague about it. “Your father has certain issues,” she’d said once only after she’d had too much wine at dinner. When I was in high school and college, I’d listen to my friends make casually cruel, throwaway jokes about AIDS and Rock Hudson and Freddie Mercury and I’d laugh along, feeling ashamed only afterwards.
“What’s gay?” Grayson asked, staring at my father.
Gene squatted so that he was eye-level with the boy.
“Gay means happy. Carefree. Full of joy.”
“Then it’s a good word,” Grayson said, a question in his voice.
“Can be, sure,” Gene said.
“There you are, you silly! We’ve been looking all over for you.”
I recognized Chip’s voice immediately. Warm and deep, just like he sounded on the radio. He was running down the sidewalk with another woman beside him. She was barefoot and wearing a slip dress that showed off her smooth, olive-tinted skin, her long neck. Her curly, voluptuously thick hair bounced as she ran. Something lurched in my chest when I understood this was Chip’s ex-wife.
Gene stood up and put his hand on top of Grayson’s head. “Your boy here ran into a tree,” he said.
“Gray-bay, how many times have we told you? You can’t just run off like that,” Chip said and then he looked at me. “Maria’s just down the street. Grayson slipped out of the house while we weren’t looking.”
“Maria?” I said to the woman. “It’s nice to meet you.”
She shook my hand. Her fingernails were long and tickled my palms.
“Congratulations on your big day.”
There was a hint of laughter in her voice. I turned to Chip.
“But what are you doing here?”
“This is all my fault,” Maria said. She was smiling.
“This is awkward but I can explain,” Chip said and then he paused. I felt slow, dim-witted.
“I don’t understand. My father’s here. I thought you were going to be at my house to greet him.”
“Gene. So nice to meet you.”
Chip extended his hand but my father didn’t take it.
“Well, I’ll be a son of a gun,” my father said, and he stepped close to Chip and whispered something in his ear and Chip looked down and hastily pulled up the zipper on his pants.
The rest of it was a blur. Chip saying that he was sorry, Maria continuing to smile, Chip explaining that he hadn’t meant for anything to happen, Maria telling me that it couldn’t be helped. “There’s always been something between us,” she said. My father preoccupied Grayson by leading him down the street, showing him leaves he plucked from the trees, pebbles he picked up from the sidewalk. “How could you tell Grayson about St. Louis?” I asked Chip at one point and he looked confused.
When my father and I finally returned home, I collapsed on the couch in the living room. My phone kept buzzing with texts from Chip until I turned it off. Then I heard my father outside, whistling. He was standing in front of Chip’s car in the driveway.
“This is a great car,” Gene said. “Despite its owner. We should do something. Just sticking around here isn’t good.”
“Dad, listen, what Grayson said—. I told Chip about—well, St. Louis. But I thought he’d keep it to himself. We were sharing stories, that’s all.”
“You know. The time we went to Six Flags.”
“What about it?”
“Please don’t tell me you don’t remember.”
“I remember that you wouldn’t get off the merry-go-round. Such a worrier. Even back then. Always expecting the worst.”
“Well, the worst has happened now. I don’t know what to do anymore.”
He put his hand in the front pocket of his trousers and pulled out a key chain. It took me a while to recognize it: Chip’s spare car key. Where had he found it?
“Here’s something,” he said.
The Chevelle’s passenger side door creaked as he opened it for me. I got in, touched the smooth leather seat, and watched my father jog around the front of the car to get to the driver’s side. He rolled his seat back so he could have more legroom. He backed out of the driveway quickly, expertly, like he’d been driving that car forever. He turned left and right and then left again, never asking for directions, until we were out of town, on a long stretch of road with cornfields on either side. The corn was tall, eight feet high. I felt boxed in. He shifted into high gear. The top was down and my hair flew in my face. He grinned at me and winked as we flew in between the corn, lifting in our seats a little with each bump in the road. I felt very light. I hoped we could stay in that car for a long time. But right as we were coming up to the water tower, the one that the boy had fallen from, the boy who’d believed in an angel, the engine began to sputter. Spurts of black smoke burst from the tailpipe. Gene put his foot on the brake pedal and downshifted, but he couldn’t control the car’s violent jerks, our slide across the road. I braced my arms on the dashboard. I thought we were going to run right into the fields. I looked to my father for help. He was gripping the steering wheel tightly and leaning forward but he appeared calm, completely focused as he steered into the skid.
Catherine Uroff’s short fiction has appeared (or is forthcoming) in a variety of literary journals, including Sou’wester, Hobart, Prairie Schooner, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Bellevue Literary Review, and The Roanoke Review. She won the 2018 Prairie Schooner Glenna Luschei Award and was a finalist for American Short Fiction’s Short Story Contest and the Snake Nation Press Serena McDonald Kennedy Award.