My mother won the staring contest. Winning against my old man as he hobbled off to board a bus without knowing who my mother was when my mother was around. Now my Janelle’s around. I haven’t told Janelle about him because I know what she’s going to say. She’ll say, “Your old man’s crazy.” And I know what I’m going to say. I’ll say, “That’s impossible. They don’t even know what he has yet. They’re still trying to dream up a term for the worm in his head.”
Then my old man checks himself out of the nuthouse. He never asks to stay with Janelle and me. He knows I know he might do something. That’s the thing. The crazy don’t know nobody needs them anymore. Laid off after being fired before being unemployable, my old man knows. So I’ll tell Janelle she’s wrong once I find out where he lives. But I don’t tell her. I find him stacking rocks into figurines on the boardwalk by the lake. I find him sleeping in stairwells. When Janelle finds out I’ve taken him in, I know what she’ll say. She’ll say, “Cole. You’re the oldest babysitter in the world. The oldest babysitter babysitting the oldest baby in the world.”
For a minute he gets it together. He polishes cars at the car wash. He sleeps on our living room couch. Mornings we’ll sit in the kitchen and I’ll go, “Here old man,” and pour him a cup of Chocomel chocolate milk. Janelle will sit across him and go, “Please pass the salt,” and he’ll go, “Only if you have some Chocomel with me.” And he’ll look at me and go, “Call me dad.” But old man is the best I can do. So that’s what I keep calling him. Then one night at work, he has a gun stuck in his face, lets two masked men empty the register, is fired by the car wash owner surveying the incident and is barred from every other car wash job as a result of the reported robbery. So now anytime anyone asks him to do anything, my old man’ll go, “What for? Whatever I do people ride me and when people ride me I never get better, so what for? Forget it,” he’ll go, “forget being good.” And now my old man doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t even move. He’s morphed into a vegetable. He’s a potato. He’s a carrot. He’s a shred of onion. “I’m telling you,” Janelle goes, “he’s just going to ruin you like he did your mother.” “Janelle,” I go. “It’s going to be different this time.”
My old man goes in again and every time is supposed to be his last. Then I check him out of the wing for the neurologically damned and install him in the passenger seat. “Take me home,” he goes. Janelle’s at home, too. For a month she’s saved up and bought this tangerine sundress. Janelle’s at home, arms crossed, fingers crossed, waiting for my call.
In the kitchen I pour the Chocomel and float it to the living room. My old man fidgets with the sundress to sew up a loose thread. He tries to put himself to work. He tries to be useful. “Stop,” Janelle goes. He keeps tugging. He leaps up and knocks the Chocomel out of my hand. It spills into the fibres of the dress. “That’s it,” Janelle goes, “it’s either him or me.” But I don’t get a chance to decide. She’s cramming her underthings into a carryon and my old man runs down the street in his brown pock marked ass.
They call me from another clinic in another area code and say I should move there. “Your father’s listed you as the only contact,” they go. And I go, “Thanks,” then hang up. I ignore that wound for the next three days. I don’t want to talk. I’m trying not to think about him or Janelle. I’m trying not to think. But I can’t because I can’t decide what to do or how. I think about hauling over to that area code. I don’t know if I should go or I should stay.
Janelle makes me want to stay.
Then my old man dies. His heart couldn’t take it anymore. It refused. It just stopped beating. If he would’ve, I know what he would’ve said. He would’ve said, “I could’ve been me in another life.”
I remember the day we went out with my mother and she wanted him to hold her hand and he held it. You had to see the light in someone’s eyes to trust them and she couldn’t see it in his. If she could’ve, I know what she could’ve said. She could’ve said, “Your father’s given up on himself,” knowing then that she was ready to leave him for good. Knowing what happens when you can’t trust anyone. You’re not safe or strong. You’re not free. You’re just alone.
“Please,” Janelle goes, “I’m sorry.” She cradles a Chocomel carton at my front door. She’s all pathetic and pretty and perfect. I close the door on her and remember why my old man held his wife’s hand anyway which was for her and that’s the only reason why. So that’s what I decide to remember. And this is what I tell myself. I tell myself, this is the real him. This is my dad.
Educated at Harvard, Penn Javdan‘s fiction has appeared or will appear in Whiskey Paper, Gravel Magazine, The JJ Outré Review, and Freedom Fiction.