We have a real treat this week. Author and teacher of creative writing at Georgetown University, David Ebenbach, shares a short story. His polished literary style and unique perspective cast fresh light on the sometimes less than obvious workings of father-son relationships.
Because I’m still out of work, I’m home when the car pulls up in the driveway. I’m not expecting anyone, here in the middle of the day on a Friday, but I shut off the television and go out to the porch and there’s my son standing up from his car, looking a little tired maybe. Now I’m wishing I had gotten around to shaving and showering or at least changing out of the old slacks and undershirt I’ve got on. Either way, though, I’ve been alone all morning long and it’s good to see him. He grabs an overnight bag, gives me a half wave. I wave back.
“What brings you around here, captain?” I say, smiling a big smile. He goes to school two solid hours away.
“Thought I’d come home for a visit. Just for the weekend,” he says. “Sorry I didn’t call first.” He shuts the creaky car door. He definitely has himself a beater.
“Well, we’ll see if we can find you a bed. How was the ride?” I say as he climbs the porch steps slowly. There’s a lot of road construction this time of year.
“No problems at all,” he says, and he shakes my hand. “The roads were wide open.” I am struck, as I often am, that at twenty years old my son is already a fine young man, the type to look you straight in the eye when he shakes your hand. His hair is a little shaggier than his older brother’s, not quite a fro but on its way, and he tends toward old t-shirts like the ratty blue one he’s wearing now, but there’s no denying he’s a fine young man.
“Come on in,” I say. “It’s just the two of us until your mother gets home. We’ll have a cup of coffee. You drink coffee now, I think.”
“I do,” he says, a smile small on his face.
“You shouldn’t pick that stuff up, buster,” I say. I’ve already had a lot of coffee today. “But we’ll get you a cup anyhow.” I clap him on the back and we go into the kitchen together, where he drops heavily into a chair by the table. “I hope you at least do milk and sugar,” I say.
“Sure,” he says. “It doesn’t matter a lot to me.”
That’s about all there is to say about that, so I start pulling cups from the cabinet, until he says, “How are you, Dad?” It’s a serious question, one that’s pretty constantly been in the air around me since I got laid off. People can’t see me without at least thinking that question to themselves. By now I’m pretty tired of it.
I shrug without looking over his way. “It’ll turn around. The world is always going to need a guy who can sell things.”
“Yeah,” he says.
I finish fixing our cups—mine is black—and sit down with him. “Classes okay?”
He nods. “Pretty okay.”
“You’re not playing hooky today, getting here by lunchtime, are you?” I give him the stern father look.
“They canceled my afternoon one,” he says. “That’s part of what gave me the idea to come. I guess I did skip the morning one, though.”
“You just couldn’t wait to see us, huh?” I say.
He smiles, but it’s not a big one. I’m not sure what to do with that, so I say, “Well, you just remember that if you need any help with your essays I’m happy to be of service.” I give him this line too often, but I still find it funny; I’m the last person on earth you’d ever want helping you on a philosophy paper—and my son is probably the first.
“You know it, Dad,” he says. Then, “How’s Mom?”
“Good. Doing just fine. Your brother, too. And what about the little lady?” I ask. “How’s she?” I like his girlfriend an awful lot. She’s stand-up, too.
“Um,” he says, looking off toward the kitchen window, and then the counters. “Is that new?”
He’s looking at the toaster oven. “Nope,” I say. “Just clean. I’m getting to be pretty good with a rag around here.”
“The place looks great,” he says.
Of course I’m getting suspicious now, and though most times I’d just let that go and try to keep things upbeat, this time for some reason I don’t. “Listen,” I say, “how is she?”
He looks me in the eyes and then down at the table. “I don’t know,” he says.
My suspicion starts to get loud. “What’s that mean?”
He sighs. “I wasn’t going to say anything until we were all together at dinner.” I know what he’s saying. The important conversations tend to go through my wife, his mother. Then he seems to decide something. “But she, well. It’s over, I guess. She dumped me. Two weeks ago.”
I sit back with my mouth open, my face hot. My son has been with his girlfriend since they were in high school. Maybe four years now. All of us have been pretty much just waiting for them to get done with college so they can have the wedding.
“You gotta be kidding me,” I say.
“I’m not. I wish I was.”
I should have known something was up; he hasn’t been calling much over the last couple of weeks, and here he is home by surprise, which he doesn’t often do. My wife’s been worried. I sit here kicking myself and thinking that it would be a better thing for everyone if his mother were home instead of me.
“Are you sure?” I say. “I mean, that it’s done?”
He nods, staring down into his coffee. He hasn’t had a sip of it. “The last couple of weeks I’ve been trying to talk her out of it, and we’ve been talking and talking, and then just a couple of days ago, she said.” He stops, and closes his mouth. After a minute, still looking down, he gets going again. “She said she can’t talk to me anymore. That it’s too hard.”
“Whoa,” I say. What else can you say to something like this? And as I sit there in shock, a sudden drop falls from my son’s face to the table, shatters. It’s like a bomb exploding on the table. It blows the breath out of me, and everything is shrapnel.
For a long moment we sit not saying anything, my son gathering himself and me gathering myself. I know I’ve got to do something.
“Listen,” I say. “Let’s go out and get some lunch.”
He gives a smile that’s mostly a grimace. “I’m not all that hungry.”
Now I see that the boy is definitely skinnier than he ought to be. I wonder if he’s been eating. “It’s lunch time, partner,” I say, pushing myself to standing. “It’s time for lunch. We’re all hungry.”
After a minute he stands, too, and shrugs. He goes upstairs to put his bag in his room while I change into newer slacks and a button down-shirt, and then we head out to the garage, where the light is still burned out, to my car. Probably we’re going to sell it soon, unless I do somehow land a job, but for now we have it, and I can drive my son where we need to go. As I back up around my son’s car I decide it’s going to be the giant buffet place.
The roads are wide open on the way to the restaurant, too, the sun bright and broad all around. I feel a little like a housecat that begs and begs to get out of the house and then freezes when it does get out because the world turns out to be so damn big all around. Except I don’t freeze—I keep going. My son and I don’t say much aside from me telling him that he can mess with the radio if he wants, and him saying he’s fine with the old R & B I’ve got on already, even though I know he can’t stand the stuff. I push the pedal down; I’m on a mission for my son. We get there in maybe ten minutes.
“This place?” he says when we pull into the parking spot. We’ve been here before, but not for quite some time. “I’m really not all that hungry.”
“Sometimes eating something gets a person hungry to eat,” I say.
I feel good about this plan. My son and I don’t have the kind of relationship where I can sit him down and tell him something important from the heart. We just don’t. But we can sit at a table together and feed ourselves, and there’s got to be some comfort in doing that.
The hostess is a middle-aged woman, big and blond, practically Swedish, nothing like my son’s girlfriend, which is good. We get led to our table, and the hostess tells us that our server will be right with us, and we wait, not talking, until she is. Another older woman, brown hair but still nothing like my son’s girlfriend. She wants to know if she can bring us any particular drinks, and I think it’d be nice if they served beer, but they don’t, so we get a couple of waters and I get another coffee and she points back toward the room where all the food is. “Have at it, gentlemen,” she says. “Just use a new plate whenever you go back.”
I’ll admit that I get a charge out of that gentlemen. “Let’s have at it,” I say.
My son shrugs, and I can tell he doesn’t know why he’s here, and he’s just a little bit bothered about it. I say, “Scalloped potatoes, boss. Meatloaf. Pie.”
“I’m not eating a lot of meat these days,” he says, but he’s up and moving, and that’s what matters.
The room is a big one, with two rows of food and food around the walls, too, and another station for desserts. The tale they tell is that there are forty things to eat here, and though I think that’s counting each of the salad dressings as a thing to eat, still it’s got to be pretty close to forty.
“You got a plan of attack?” I say. “Can I leave you to it?”
He says I can and we each take plates to the places that capture our attention most. There are breaded shrimp here, and there are the mashed potatoes and the gravy, and the green beans with ham in them, and the cabbage and the roast chicken pieces, the baked beans and fish and salad stuff, and I make a plate that’s mounded up like a bowler hat. I also make a second one with some vegetarian things that I think my son will like, and when I get back to the table where he’s sitting with a dish dotted with bites of food, I put the second plate between us like a quiet suggestion. He doesn’t notice, is too busy poking at his own food.
We both eat quietly for a while—or I eat and my son jabs at some broccoli. Then my son breaks the silence, saying, “So we’re really not going to talk about any of this? We’re not going to talk about you losing your job or me losing—” He stops again, turns his face down to the plate. It’s the kind of moment that asks you to be a little bit better than you usually are. I set my fork down.
“Listen—can you do your old broken-down father a favor?” I say.
He looks up, his eyes wet, wondering.
“When you were a baby,” I say, “it was all about train sounds, getting you to take a spoonful of food. Then it was all about putting something sweet on the vegetables, or arranging everything on the plate to look like a face. I had my ways, let me tell you. It was always tough getting you to eat, brother, but I had my ways.”
He sits there waiting. Kids do like to hear about how they were when they were little.
“But now you’re a full-grown man. I can’t make you eat anymore,” I say. “But I can ask you to.”
“You want me to eat, as a favor?”
I nod. “I tell you what. Why don’t you just finish what’s on your plate and what’s on this other plate I brought you. More if you want, but at least that. And then a dessert. That’s all I want. That’s all your old man wants.”
“That’s all you want,” he says, and he’s smiling a little for real.
“Okay,” he says, and he takes his first real bite—those scalloped potatoes, which are just excellent here. I take my own bite—meatloaf in a whole lake of gravy—and it occurs to me that all I’ve really had all day is coffee. Coffee and a piece of dry toast, standing over the sink looking out at nothing in our side yard. It feels good to eat, and especially in respectable pants and a clean shirt.
Again we don’t talk much—a little sports, a little bit about the neighbors. There’s always stuff you can talk about that doesn’t itself matter all that much. Thank God for that. I don’t bring up anything about school, anything that goes anywhere near his girlfriend, though I’m thinking a lot about it. Such a great young woman—I wonder what got into her. But then the truth is that things just don’t always work out. I’m remembering my first serious girl, too, the one before I met my wife. I don’t let any of this show on my face, but I’m thinking a lot about it. Every once in a while I say something like, “Stay in the game, now,” when I notice him slowing down with his food, and he gets back in there.
When he gets done with his second modest plate, in step with me finishing my first enormous one, I smile and say, “So, what’s it going to be? Bearing in mind all those desserts, you think you’ve got any more space for a little more lunch first?”
He looks me straight in the eye, doing a kind of Clint Eastwood squint. “I’ll stop when you stop, Dad,” he says.
I am the happiest man in creation as we get up to fill up another plate each, and I’m still that way when we plunk them down on the table and get back to work.
When mine is clean I lean back and say, “If I don’t shift into dessert now you’re going to have to haul me out on a stretcher.”
“Me, too,” my son says, chewing a last bite. “It’s good stuff, though.”
“Yes, it is,” I say.
We finish the meal off with some pie—key lime for me and apple for him. Apple a la mode. When this boy does his father a favor, he does it all the way. We just sit across the table from each other, chewing and smiling sometimes. His still has some sadness in it, but it’s not the only thing in there, and anyway I’m not expecting that to go away for a while. I’m just expecting him to eat in the meantime.
Naturally he offers to chip in—this is a kid who’s always had a job, who bought his own car and is helping put himself through college—but I wave him off. It’s a more expensive place than you’d think, but you don’t count pennies on a day like this. You grab the bill and you pay it. You leave a big tip.
I drive home more slowly than I did on the way to the restaurant, each of us quietly thinking our own thoughts in the wake of a fine and massive meal. The roads have stayed clear, the world large on all sides. We get back after maybe fifteen minutes, and I pull around my son’s car and into the garage. Neither of us gets out when I turn the engine off, when the garage door is closed behind us. We just sit in the darkness for a little while, the only light coming from a couple small high windows.
“You know,” I say, “I was pretty serious with a girl when I was in school. Before I met your mother.”
I can see in the corner of my eye—I’m looking out the windshield at the shadows of the rake and snow shovel—him turning to look at me. “You never told me that.”
“Oh, yeah,” I say. “I mean, I was just crazy about her. Just crazy about her. And she dumped me, too.”
He sits there, waiting.
“Listen,” I say, turning toward him. “I’m not going to tell you everything’s okay—everybody keeps telling me that about being out of work. But there was one thing I learned when I met your mother. Now, I love your mother top to bottom, and I would have under any circumstances, but.”
I stop. He’s watching me closely. I sigh. In the dark you can say some things. “What I’m saying is that I know you never would have asked for this to happen. But the thing is that now, for the first time, now that you’ve had this thing happen to you, because your heart’s broken, I can tell you—it’s only now that you’re really going to be able to go on and love somebody for real,” I say. “Like the person you’re going to marry,” I say to him. He’s got tears on his face. I put my hand on his shoulder. “Like a child.”
My son grabs me then, hugs me with real ferocity. We stay hugging, and he does cry, and we do that for a long time, as long as we want to. Then we get out of the car and I clap my son on the back and we walk together into the kitchen.
“I think I need to sleep some of this food off,” he says, laughing a little, wiping his face with his hands.
“Feel free,” I say. “Your mother will be home in a few hours. I’ll get you up by then.”
“Sounds good,” he says. “Thanks, Dad.”
We shake on it, both of us saying a lot of things with our hands, and he heads up the stairs. I pour myself a glass of water from the tap and sit for a minute at the kitchen table. In a minute I’m going to get up and take a shower, shave, make myself look on the outside like the man I’m feeling like inside just now.
“Hungry to Eat,” a short story from Into the Wilderness (www.amazon.com/dp/093184665X), first appeared on Literary Mama (www.literarymama.com). You can indulge in more of David at his personal website, davidebenbach.com.