He slipped quickly out of a red dream and came awake wondering where he was. He lifted his head with sudden panic and focused his eyes on the darkness in front of him, searching for something familiar, something tangible to grasp. He saw the gray drapes, slightly luminous from the light outside. The motel. He was still at that cheap motel. He turned his head and saw his son sleeping in the other bed. He fell back into the pillow and tried to remember his dream. All that remained was the fractured image of a tapir in a bathtub. It was Gloria’s bathroom. And of course it was. They had lived with Gloria for over a year. Her bathroom was safe, friendly. And now it was gone. Probably forever.
If he kept thinking about Gloria he’d never get back to sleep. It was too quiet in the room. He was accustomed to the sounds of constant traffic, Gloria watching TV until dawn. Now he could hear Tommy breathing. There was a faint buzz in the air and he focused on that. He lay in the dark, listening, trying to push his fear into the far margins of his mind.
And eventually, he slept.
When he opened his eyes again he saw it was daylight. The clock on the nightstand announced: 9:25. He was late to start the day. He sat up and stretched. The other bed was empty and a spark of concern flared until he noticed the hiss of the shower. Tommy was up, in the bathroom. Of course he was. He wouldn’t run away again. He held onto this belief like scripture.
Tommy came out of the bathroom clean and dressed in torn jeans, his Blood Feast t-shirt — the letters red and dripping — and a Boston Red Sox baseball cap on his wet head. Worn backwards, of course.
“Good morning kiddo.”
“Feel like getting some breakfast?”
Tommy answered with a shrug.
“Okay then. Let me get cleaned-up and then we’ll hit the closest diner.”
This got no response. Tommy was still pissed-off and unhappy. So was he but as the adult in this situation, it was his job to project optimism. Try to make the tragedy less tragic. Keep spirits high. He climbed out of bed and walked toward the bathroom. “I’ll be out in ten,” he told his son, who was sitting on the bed reading a comic book. Ignoring him.
Okay then. He went into the bathroom.
When he left the bathroom he found Tommy still sitting on the bed but he’d tossed the comic book aside and was staring at the wall. Thinking, brooding. Struggling.
“Ready to go?” he asked.
Tommy’s gaze was dark and still fixed on the wall when he said, “Yeah.”
“Okay, saddle up!”
Tommy rolled off the bed. For a second it looked like he was going to flop bodily to the floor but he caught himself, landed on his feet in a crouch and then straightened. The movement was smooth and graceful, as if rehearsed. Then he returned to his usual bad-posture slouch.
It was January in New Hampshire. They both wore coats. The sky looked like pollution. Light snow dusted everything with white. Their mouths released vaporous trails as they crossed the slush-covered parking lot.
Almost everything they owned was in a self-storage unit off Highway 105. Everything else was in the back of his green 1990 Chevy pickup. He swept the snow off the windshield with his bare hand. Tommy wore gloves but didn’t volunteer to help. They climbed into the truck.
“I think I saw a place yesterday that looked pretty good.” He pulled into the street. They were aimed north.
“Can’t we just go to McDonald’s?” asked Tommy.
“Nah. That crap’s no good for you. All processed and laced with chemical preservatives. Hormones and whatnot…”
“It’s a proven fact that cow meat contains hormones. It’s causing boys to grow breasts. You don’t want to start wearing a bra at thirteen.”
Tommy merely shrugged. “Whatever.”
They drove in silence for ten minutes, finally feeling the heater warming up the cab. The warm air carried the foul aroma of failure and fear and hopelessness. He was relieved when he finally saw the sign: Korine’s Kitchen. “Here we go!” he said, hoping he sounded genuinely excited and not manic and in denial. They were in a tough spot and he felt that acutely. Putting forth an eager, optimistic front was becoming burdensome and hard to maintain. It was like trying to smile with razor blades hidden in your cheeks. He just couldn’t allow Tommy to see the blood leaking from the corners of his mouth.
Yet it was obvious Tommy wasn’t buying the cheerful routine. He had never felt more disconnected from his son. Even when Tommy lived with his biological mom, Elaine, outside of Baltimore. Elaine was awarded custody and he got weekends but they lived in fucking Maryland. Travelling that distance was a problem. He worked in New Hampshire (and on weekends) and a sizable chunk of his paycheck went to support a child he never got to see. The exorbitant fine he’d had to pay further sapped his finances. Luckily, his on again/off again girlfriend Gloria agreed to let them live with her until they got back on their feet. But they didn’t and Tommy didn’t get along with Gloria and Jesus, it turned into a very bad scene and Gloria’s patience was worn so thin it was transparent. And then it was nonexistent. She kicked them out.
For the first time in his life he’d felt resentment toward his son. It was an ugly feeling that he was unable to suppress or force into the margins. It was front and center. He felt hopeless. He’d found it difficult to survive on what was left of his weekly stipend. He was also attending court-ordered AA meetings and found no solace there. The support was meaningless. Sad gray people with sad gray stories. The meetings were more depressing than alcohol.
He parked the truck and they climbed out, neither speaking or looking at each other. They entered Korine’s Kitchen and were greeted by a pocket of warm breakfast smells. A few customers sat scattered in the dining area, finishing coffee, dropping the surrender napkin on plates smeared with yolk. “Pretty slow,” he said. “Where do you want to sit?”
“I don’t care. Wherever.”
“How about by the window?”
They sat at a table overlooking the dismal parking lot. It had stopped snowing. And then a waitress was there and she said, “Good morning,” and handed them menus and pointed out a list of specials written across a whiteboard hanging above the desolate counter. “Can I get you some coffee or something to drink?” she asked without cheer.
“I’ll take a coffee, thanks. Tommy?”
Her right arm was a dark sleeve of tattoos — images winding from her wrist to her shoulder. He recognized a couple of them; the coiled Don’t Tread on Me snake, Bela Lugosi’s shining eyes in Dracula (1931). Black roses. Calligraphic snippets of sayings and poems. He liked tattoos as long as they were on other people. He had a brief flash of a possible future: Tommy turning eighteen and getting his first tattoo. He would not be cool with that. He pictured a portrait of Jeffrey Dahmer on his son’s bicep. The kid was transgressive without a point. Shock for the sake of shock. Everything was ugly in his world. For the first time he could clearly see the kind of adult he was growing into. And he didn’t like it. He didn’t like his own son.
And he was a little afraid of him.
Once, he was snooping around on the computer and was surprised to find Tommy’s recent history. He was expecting porn. What he found was a website full of atrocities. Torture and murder by ISIS terrorists and Mexican drug cartels. Suicide, self-harm, cruelty to children and animals. In a way it was pornography. A pornography of death and despair.
He realized he wasn’t reading the menu. Or reading it without comprehension. “You know what you want?” he asked Tommy.
“Cereal? Are you serious?”
“We’re sitting in a nice diner on a cold, snowy day. Wouldn’t you rather get a hot meal?”
“No. I want corn flakes.”
His first impulse was to continue the argument but he held himself back and addressed the matter with a terse, final, “Suit yourself.” Did Tommy make his stupid choices just to piss him off?
The waitress with the colorful arm returned with their drinks. “You guys ready to order?”
“I’ll have the eggs benedict florentine with home fries.” He was suddenly ravenous.
“Corn flakes,” Tommy told her.
She scribbled into a pad then collected their menus and walked away to place the orders.
He looked out the window then looked at Tommy. “Anything on your mind, Tommy?”
“No, I’m not. Why?”
“In case you didn’t notice, we’re homeless. That’s what’s on my mind right now. I’m a little distracted by our plight.”
“It’s not like we’re out on the street. I can afford the motel until we find a new place. Everything’s under control. Just have to be patient.”
“What about school? I’m supposed to be there, y’know. Like, right now. If I get held back, I’m gonna commit war crimes.”
“Once we get settled you’ll go to a new school. You can make up for the lost time. Make new friends and so on.”
“Easy for you to say.”
He almost said, No it’s not. This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But he just smiled at his son. “There’s still money coming in. We’re not so bad off.”
The waitress brought their meals. A bowl of cold cereal. Jesus. It was pathetic to witness.
Tommy poured sugar over the cereal, creating a thick pasty glaze on the flakes. His father looked at his plate. The portions were huge.
“You working tonight?” Tommy wanted to know.
“Yeah. Four o’clock till midnight.” He was a sous chef at a high-end steakhouse. “So you’ll have to figure out how to entertain yourself. Thank god for HBO, huh? Maybe you can find a superhero movie to watch.”
Tommy shrugged, took a bite of his now-soggy cereal.
They ate in silence for a while, then he said, “You want to go house hunting with me or go back to the motel?”
Tommy shrugged. “Motel I guess.”
“I don’t blame you. It’s crappy out.” Actually, he felt relieved. Dragging a surly, unpleasant kid around would slow the task and make it miserable. He could cover more ground alone.
The waitress gave them the bill and cleared their dishes. They exited the diner.
They drove back to the motel, each locked in thought. Another snow flurry fell, dusting the street with little whirlwinds and curling drifts. They pulled into the lot of the Sunset Motel. He stopped at their door. Number 13. “Okay, kiddo. Here you go.” He handed Tommy the key.
“Don’t get into trouble.”
Tommy climbed out of the truck.
His father sat and watched to make sure Tommy got safely inside. The door closed.
It was the last time he would see his son.