By: Kelly Shire
In the awkward season of my family courting itself back into existence, I spend an afternoon alone with my dad. He’s back in town, and in my mom’s borrowed car, drives us south down the 605 freeway through a steady drizzle. Fiddling with the radio, he switches over to AM and dials in KMPC, a station with a playlist of standards and old pop songs by Bobby Goldsboro or Glen Campbell. I hope that “Honey” will come on, a song about a young wife who up and dies one day. “And honey, I miss you,” the husband repeats in the chorus, and though he tries to sing along, Dad’s voice cracks every time his brown eyes well with tears. My daddy is a sap, and I am beside him, my fingers tracing the crack in the vinyl bucket seat; the windows are rolled tight against the weather, except for a tiny crack where his cigarette smoke streams out.
We exit the freeway in Long Beach and after several miles of traffic, pull into a parking lot beside an old brick building, a bookstore. According to Dad, Acres of Books is the biggest used bookstore west of the Mississippi. We duck inside and I’m struck by its vastness, how the crammed stacks and long aisles recede into the dim rear of the store. Dad encourages me to browse on my own, and I halfheartedly look around for the occult section, but I’m overwhelmed, like in dreams where there’s only five minutes left to choose the perfect book before the library closes. I roam aimlessly past a blur of titles, my attention pulled to details inside the store and out its plate glass windows: the hint of mildew the rain draws out of the old books, the ceiling creaking from customers up on the second floor, the pneumatic gasp of RTD buses, the press of tall buildings. This part of Long Beach is more urban an area than I’m used to, even though I’ve lived most of my childhood twenty minutes east of downtown L.A.
Mostly, I’m excited by these hours alone with my dad, by this weekday break from the routines of eighth grade. I call myself a daddy’s girl, feel a lick of pleasure whenever I annoy my mom by taking his side when she or my grandparents mentions his name. Besides the rock stars I dream of dating, he is my favorite person in the world, and he’s finally back after nearly a year of being gone, of being somewhere out in the great unknown.
The first time my dad had left us without warning, my mom called the police, filed a missing person’s report, had his credit cards tracked for the brief time before they were canceled. We’d been living in Bakersfield for less than a year, where my mom, who’d previously worked an office job all my life, had stayed home taking care of my toddler sister. When Dad left, she was without a car or any money in the bank. Her only option was to move back to our native L.A. suburb, into the two spare bedrooms of her parents’ house. That first time, I’d finished out the fifth grade at the school in my grandparents’ neighborhood, but before sixth grade began in September, dad returned, my family reunited, and we moved into a spacious rental house on a tree-lined street in Orange County.
But then Dad had up and left us again without warning, and the second time was worse, because the shock was more familiar; I knew how it would go. Mom didn’t bother with calling the police. The only thing different was this time around, my grandma, not an animal lover, refused to let me bring my dog, a shaggy terrier mix, to again live in her backyard. On one of our last afternoons in Orange County, a man from the pound came to retrieve Heidi, hooking a short leash onto her collar and leading her away.
“My parents are separated,” I tell my new friends by explanation of why I live with my grandparents. And this is technically true, but also not quite. Didn’t a separation usually imply a mutually agreed-upon decision by both parties? Didn’t it imply some first step toward probable divorce? At least that’s what I understand from my collection of Judy Blume paperbacks. “My dad is sort of a gypsy, like a drifter,” I cheerily told a friend’s mom in the middle of her floral living room, and her eyebrows lifted into her bangs. I liked that version better, how those words reflected a bit of their glamour back onto me: daughter of a gypsy, a drifter’s girl.
Whatever the definition, I’d never really doubted my parents would get back together; it was only a matter of waiting for them to hash out the mysterious terms that kept their marriage chugging along. And waiting, of course, for my dad to return, return from the great unknown, another phrase I roll and relish on my tongue.
After Acres of Books, we stop at a handful of the thrift stores Dad likes browsing through, looking for both old treasures and practical items he can use. Like the bookstore, the stores are musty and close, the walls lined with mismatched dinnerware and appliances, the center racks jammed with acrylic sweaters and faded jeans. The gray-haired ladies behind the register have the radio tuned to the same scratchy AM station that Dad likes. I remain empty-handed; there is still nothing I want to buy.
On the freeway north to pick up my mom from work, it’s raining harder. Dad and I don’t talk much. We’re both quiet types, content to stroll long bookstore aisles alone. This is how I’ve missed him most in the year he’s been away: how we are so alike, how I can sit beside him and be enough. In contrast, when my mother drives, she fills the car with talk, her words, fingers pushing and prodding, trying to mold my opinions and behaviors into more pleasing shapes. Living back at home with her parents, she needs me to be her ally, but often I resist.
With the daytime headlights making prisms on the windshield, I exhale into the smoky car. On this familiar freeway, lanes slick from rain, the frequent stops and starts as rush hour traffic increases, I am safe. Dad is an expert driver. In the years before all this trouble, he’d driven our family up and down the length of the state on frequent road trips, finding unpaved back roads, navigating the switchbacks of the steep Tioga Pass into Yosemite, pushing deep into the night up endless Interstate 5, past the inky black fields of olive and almond and orange trees.
Dad worked as a bartender for most of my life, and for all those years, he’d kept from drifting across freeway lanes, returning home from work late at night, after too many hours or too many drinks behind the bar. The only accidents he’s ever had are fender benders—our secondhand cars each bearing a collection of dimples and scrapes from encounters with parked cars and narrow driveways, blemishes that my parents call “kisses.” Looks like you’ve kissed the car again, my mom will crack when a new ding appears overnight.
Dad had always been a bartender, and something of a drinker too, but something had shifted, something about leaving the smoky nightlife of bartending for the daytime work of a solar salesman in Bakersfield, something about attempting a new career and way of life a hundred miles away from the near-constant presence of my mom’s close Mexican-American family. But his plans had failed to take, and in that failure my dad spun and spun, a top unwound and bouncing east across the country, across interstates 10 and 40, bouncing back to us again when he’d wound down.
Now he’s back, but without a permanent address, he bumps around the area, sometimes playing bachelor at his dad’s house, also separated from his second wife. Sometimes he stays in chain motels with numbers in their names. For a few days, he lived outdoors, at a wilderness park beside the freeway. This offered another occasion for sarcasm and dark jokes, our family bonding over how things were just fine, life bearable as long as there was a joke to be made. My sensitive, broody self struggled to be quick, to fire off one-liners that didn’t cut too close to the quick, and to stifle any adolescent rebellion: why were my bad grades and attitude such a problem, when Dad could tell lie after lie, appear and disappear, without apology or explanation? Wherever he’d gone when he’d left our family wasn’t meant to be my concern. This is how it went; he left and came back without explanation or apology, and we let him.
Exiting the freeway into my grandparents’ neighborhood, I dread returning to these streets I’ve known my entire life. I’m sick of living in their house, cowed by my grandma’s furies and capricious rules. No doubt my grandparents, retired and having already raised five children, are tired of us too and eager for us to move out. Even so, Dad isn’t a welcome suitor. The tone of the sympathy from my mom’s extended family is different these days, grimmer and more impatient. If they want to be alone, my parents meet up at their old haunts, the restaurants and bars where dad often knows the waitresses from his old bartending gigs. But this doesn’t happen very often; my grandma easily tips into anger if she has to babysit me and my sister when my mom goes out after work.
More often, we meet up as a family. After picking Mom up at her office, Dad will drive to a nearby park and, after shooing my sister and I off to play, my parents settle into a shady patch of grass. At thirteen, I’m not interested in the equipment, but push four-year-old Katie on the swings while glancing over my shoulder to spy on my parents. They never look deep in conversation—Dad might be napping, or browsing the classifieds. Mom would be in her work slacks and stockinged feet, her navy pumps kicked aside. Lately Dad borrows Mom’s car, taking her to work and then picking her up; this was their arrangement today, on our rainy trip to Long Beach.
But like the earlier novelty of the afternoon, tonight will be different. Tonight, my dad will come in and stay for dinner, because my grandparents are gone, on one of their bi-annual trips to Las Vegas. My mom is relaxed, changed out of her office clothes into jeans; my sister is playing with her toys, spread out in the middle of the living room carpet.
On this rainy Friday night when we are all together and my grandparents hundreds of miles away, there is a palpable sense of the illicit, of the cats being away, my parents like teenagers caught sitting too close on the couch. My mom is breaking unspoken rules by inviting her husband inside; is surely breaking another by giving him free rein in her mother’s tidy kitchen. Dad is the cook in our family, and he’s making dinner, prepping the teriyaki steaks he’ll sear medium rare beneath the broiler. I love his steaks, so different from the gray planks of meat my grandma serves at her table, so well-done that I chew and chew until my mouth is full of mealy strings. Between letting the steaks marinate for a bit and slicing up the button mushrooms he’ll sauté in butter, Dad switches off the TV and goes over to the stereo console to put on some music. Many of my parents’ albums are mixed in with my grandparents’, so he flips past Vincente Fernandez and Tom Jones albums before finding the one he wants. Crouching before the low turntable to cue up the music, his knees let out the same crack of complaint they always do in that familiar stance. This is a sound of home.
I am nowhere in the living room, cannot pin my location to the couch or doorway. Rather than a body, I am all eyes and ears, my hungry gut all butterflies despite the aromas from the kitchen. Distracted by worry, I’m convinced we’ll be caught, found here by my grandparents returning early from their trip. I strain to hear their car in the driveway, expect a jangle of keys at the door, sounds that will bring this day, this evening, crashing apart into an angry scene.
Music fills the room, slick production pop so different from the scratchy AM oldies in the car. My dad has picked a Barbara Streisand album; on the jacket, against a white background, she and Barry Gibb embrace, staring into the camera. They are like golden, bronzed lions, both with tumbling locks of sandy hair, Barry sporting a trim, graying beard not unlike Dad’s. Their voices entwine into a duet, singing how they have “Nothing! Nothing! To be guilty of!” Of course my dad picked this album—this is my parents’ song in this era, in the early 1980s, in their early forties, after two daughters, two sudden separations, too many bounced checks to tally.
On this evening, my parents’ marriage is at its prime. They trade glances, bump hips in the galley kitchen, laugh and pour more glasses of red wine. They are getting back together, working out their terms. Dad puts his glass down, sings a line of the song, all Broadway jazz hands: “Pulses racing darling, how grand we are!”
I understand that I’m witness here, not participant, am in fact a bit of my buzzkill with my fussy need to stand guard at the picture window, peeking out the heavy drapes. My parents believe they have nothing to be guilty of, are acting accordingly. My mom sets the sautéed mushrooms onto my grandma’s dining room table, the rich flavors of wine and butter pooling together on the plate.
My parents will not reunite immediately after tonight; months will pass before our family eventually moves together to a spacious apartment with a view of green hills. Eventually my sister and I will each have our own bedrooms, but before that happens, there will be still more drama, more scenes, late nights driving around with my parents, and afternoons dragging my feet from junior high back to my grandparents’ house.
Tonight though, I finally make myself scarce. After dinner, a long, lingering meal of second servings and funny anecdotes around the table, I take my sister by the hand and retreat to her bedroom. There’s a small TV on the dresser, and we lie on our mom’s bed together, watching sitcoms until she falls asleep. Outside the door are the sounds of dishes scraped, water running, another album on the stereo, laughter. My parents are utterly themselves tonight, like every night, and though I often wish they could be different, I cannot imagine them any other way. How grand they are.
Kelly Shire’s writing has appeared in Full Grown People, Hippocampus, Angels Flight/Literary West, the 2014 Seal Press anthology “SPENT: Exploring Our Complicated Relationship to Shopping” and is forthcoming in Compose. A native of Southern California, she holds an MFA from Cal State Long Beach and lives in the Inland Empire region with her family.