BROWN PAPER BAG
BY SEBASTIAN ZACH
|Ray gave me a piece of milky Chinese candy that left a raw taste in
my mouth. Ray was the manager of a furniture store. He had a special room
in the rear of the shop decorated with his own merchandise. A mismatched
border of couches and love seats lined all four walls. At the center of
the room was a long, rectangular, mirrored table. The rest were all Lazy
Boy armchairs, ottomans, parlor chairs, the largest collection of motel
lamps I'd ever seen. And they were all on.
We were there to pick up a brown paper bag. Ray was always fidgeting, constantly feathering his hair, eyes always everywhere. He laughed out loud because he was nervous: it was hard and harsh and only created more tension.
“Hey Ray, he can finally do it!”
“Well, go on then, get on with it,” look, laugh, check your shoulder, listen.
My father’s left hand stroked my head messing up my hair, his right tossed Ray a plastic baggy. Ray leaned forward and gave him the brown paper bag. I was waiting for their cue, nervously, I wanted nothing more than to impress them with what I could do.
“This is good shit, man,” said Ray, sucking his pinky.
“Go ahead son. All eyes on you,” my father says, checking the bag’s weight.
“OK, ready? Washington, Adams, Jefferson.”
As I recite what I've been practicing all week at school, I watch his hands count a stack of large bills that once were in the brown paper bag.
“It’s all there man,” says Ray, interrupting me, cutting a mess of lines on the center piece. He looks up happy, throwing me another piece of candy, then he ducks into the mirror, lets out an obnoxious cackle.
I kept going: “Polk, Zachary Taylor, Millord Fillmore.”
Ray gave me an encouraging smile. Reaching over, he handed me the mirror. I passed it to my father.
“Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, Garfield.”
In the corner of my eye, I see a straw in my father’s nose. I see Ray sweating, staring at a point beyond me, but following what I’m saying.
“So what's with all this Lincoln, Washington bullshit?”
Ray's still smiling but looks confused.
“I know all of the presidents in chronological order. I'm the first one in my class so far.”
I would practice each night before bed.
My father got up and whispered something in Ray's ear.
“You ready son? C'mon.”
He grabbed the bag and headed for the door. I thought he was angry at me, his movements were swift, calculated. Ray jumped to his feet, giving me a handful of candy and said: “Next time I want to hear what you had to say all over again, OK?” He tagged along like a lost lamb.
Next stop the boat launch.
Our new boat. I sanded the mast myself. Pete and Chaz were trying to refine my skills as a deck hand. We went down to the hull, a small, comfortable place. I loved being there. It was posh and hidden. The room had three dark leather couches built into the bulkheads. A small oval table divided the C-shaped couches. Behind the couches was the kitchen, all chrome, and in the pantry, there was always a loaf of bread from Mexico called “Bimbo Bread,” a large jar of Miracle Whip sandwich spread, and a quart of Jack Daniel's, always about half full. Chaz would help me down the hull’s steep staircase. My shifting weight would make the hula girl on his forearm dance. Pete and Chaz were like the other men that worked for my father, they were like uncles. At the bottom was Pete. He barely noticed me, greeting my father, gulping down a Miller High Life. I said hello with a punch in the arm, half meaning it. BAM!
The brown paper bag hit the table.
Chaz took out the money and counted it, dividing it accordingly.
“Hey, Chaz, remember when we all went to Mexico and everybody got seasick except me?” I asked. His hands scraped and divided. Then scraped again. The fine white dust held their attention, not me.
“Did you know that I can name all of the presidents in chronological order?”
Another nod of approval.
I stole glimpses at their faces. I named the presidents in order, receiving an occasional wink and nod, as the people I loved passed the mirror, ducking in then brushing their tongue where their upper lip meets the nasal passage.
The blade guided across their fractured expressions as kindly as I’d been caressed throughout childhood.
“ . . . Carter and Ronald Reagan, he's our president now.” I could name these guys in my sleep.
“So that means we can leave now, right? I need to call your mother, see if she needs anything from the store, for dinner.”
We got into the truck. It was red, a long bench seat crammed into the cab, a KFAT sticker on the rear window. We stopped at a pay phone. I watched him laugh at the receiver.
“We're going to Thrifty’s. You want some ice cream, right?”
“Can I have two scoops?” I asked, licking my upper lip.
I got two scoops, one pistachio and one rum raisin; those two seemed the most adult.
“Before we go to the store I have to drop by Suzy's, I'm just picking something up, so no need to tell your mother, right?”
“Ya, ya,” I said, licking the ice cream.
We pulled into the parking lot at Suzy’s place. She lived in an old-style apartment. It looked like a gigantic Victorian house. Her car was parked next to ours.
“I'll be right back, there won't be any problems, right?”
The sun was setting behind the complex. The blue sky smothered by orange and red. I threw rocks at the moon. Each stone was a president, shouting their names, throwing each one harder than the last. I named them all, four times, he still didn't show. I went back to the truck. The bench seat had a hidden compartment that always fascinated me. I hoped one day I’d find something dangerous stowed away. But all that was there was an old map, empty paper triangles, a packet of razors, a few rubber bands, plastic bags. Once I found a Penthouse laying right on top. When no one was around I looked at it, sometimes not even opening it, just sitting and staring at the cover, trying to guess what the girl was trying to say.
It was getting dark and I had named the names so often now that I was doing it backwards. I wanted to wash my sticky hands. I started to play a game. If I could name the presidents frontward and backwards three times, my dad would come back and we could go to the store and eat dinner with mom.
I did it once, then twice, then fell asleep.
I was dreaming that I was riding with my dad. He had been to the store. We were going home, the two of us were singing out the windows. Then I woke up. My head was on his lap. I looked up, as usual he was blank faced, swerving, a balmy hand on my ear. Every minute or so his palm connected a white triangle to his face. These intervals -- no matter how subtle -- would always wake me. It was a television rerun, scripted, he steering with one hand while the other hand took turns between me and his nose.
Father to son: I really love your mother. She means more to me than anything.
A car passes from the opposite direction, lighting up the father-to-son talk.
Father: You and your mother are everything to me.
Father swerves slightly, does a little more cocaine.
Son now pretending to sleep.
Father: Listen, whatever happens, you are my son, you are my life. God, I really love your mother.
Son: (Feeling obligated to speak) Yeah, me too.
Father: Everything I've worked for, son, I want you to have. I do it for you two, because I love you.
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