James stared out the car window, drawing shapes on the condensation collecting inside.
“Doin’ okay there, sport?” his father, in the driver’s seat next to him, asked. He liked to call James “sport” or “pal.” Even “kiddo.” It didn’t matter that James was twenty-seven and had lived alone for the better part of ten years.
“Yeah, Dad. Doing okay,” James said, hovering between sarcasm and honesty.
“Wanna talk about it?” his dad offered.
James focused on the fish he was drawing, adding squiggles for water and sharp angles for scales.
“Yeah. No. Not now, at least.”
His father nodded, understanding. Flicking the directional downwards, James’s father made a right turn. A horn blared from behind their car.
“Where are we going?” James looked up from his window masterpiece.
“Remember when you and I would go out for the afternoon and run by Checkers on the way home? And your mom never found out because I wouldn’t let us leave until you finished everything? Hah! She would’ve been pissed to see a milkshake cup in the trash.” His father smiled a half-smile.
“And you want to go again now?” James questioned him.
“Yes,” his father answered, pulling into and parking in an empty parking lot.
James opened his door and stood up, stretching. Looking at the sky, he squinted. It always seemed to rain on the day funerals were held. Never a tree-snapping thunderstorm, but a dreary pitter-patter of rain.
They walked up to the order window and stood in the bright white light of the food display board.
“Number seven with a vanilla milkshake?” James’s father asked, smiling slightly as if it were an old joke.
“C’mon Dad, you know I’m vegan now.”
“That’s right.” His dad turned to the order window and waited patiently for a server to come. He didn’t wait long.
“Welcome to Checkers, what do you want?” The lady asked, after opening the window.
“One number seven with a chocolate milkshake,” James’s father ordered.
“One number seven with a chocolate milkshake. Will that be all?” the lady asked.
James’s father looked to James, and James waved away his chance to order.
“That’ll be all, then.” James’s father handed over his card. After a few beats, she handed it back with a receipt.
“Your food will be out shortly,” she said, and closed the window.
James and his father stood in silence under the awning, watching as cars did their stop-and-go dance through the drive-thru.
Finally, the window opened and a young man with acne pushed the food towards them, closing the window without a word.
“Should we sit out here?” James’s father asked.
“It’s raining,” James pointed out.
“They have umbrellas,” his father responded.
“And this is an eight-hundred dollar jacket.” James flicked his lapels.
His father shrugged and stood there with his white paper food bag getting increasingly more transparent.
James shook his head and walked back to the car with his father in tow.
Once they were situated comfortably inside, James’s father opened his paper bag and reached down, pulling out a fry.
“Are you going to eat here? In the parking lot?” James questioned him, despite the fact he was cleary eating in the parking lot.
“We don’t get to talk anymore, kiddo. I think we should talk,” his father replied, ignoring James’s question.
“Fine. What do you want to talk about?” James asked.
“Am I wrong in thinking that we used to be close?” James’s father asked.
James paused, then sighed. “No, Dad. Before I moved out, we were close.”
“Then what happened between us? Because for the life of me, I can’t figure out what it was,” James’s father asked, putting the bag of food on the dashboard.
“Can I ask you a question?” James changed the topic.
“When did you stop loving my mom?”
James’s father looked at James with a face that bordered the line between shock and curiosity. “What makes you say I stopped loving her?”
“Dad?” James asked.
“Can you not treat me like a child? Believe it or not, I did grow up somewhere between turning fifteen and turning twenty-five.”
“Fair enough, James. You want this to be a man-to-man talk?”
“No. I want it to be a father-to-son talk.”
James’s father turned away, nodding a few times. “I have never stopped loving your mother. However, you’re right in a way. We were no longer in love with each other.”
“How?” James asked. “People don’t just fall out of love.”
“Don’t they? People fall in love pretty easily. Sometimes it only takes a few minutes or the cost of a drink. Sometimes it’s a more drawn-out affair. But in the end, falling in love usually happens suddenly, and without any warning.”
“So you just fell out of love with Mom?”
James’s father rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands. “We were moving in different directions. It sounds like such a joke, doesn’t it?” James’s father smiled at James but James didn’t return the gesture. There were tears in James’s eyes.
“It happened years ago.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” James asked.
“You were stressed enough,” James’s father answered simply.
“And you guys didn’t get a divorce? Go your separate ways, or whatever?”
“We couldn’t. We just found out she was sick.”
“And now she’s dead. Is that why you didn’t cry at the funeral? Because you’re finally free?”
“Is that what you think?” James’s father snapped. “You think I’m happy that I just buried your mother?”
“Well, you don’t seem too beaten up at the fact.” James tried to lash out but he started to realize he just took a step in the wrong direction.
“How old are you, James? Twenty-seven?” his father asked, all traces of patience gone. “What do you know of the world? Do you know the last time I heard from you before I called you a week ago telling you that your mother died? A year ago. You called me to ask for money, money that your mother needed.”
“Then why even give it to me?” James interrupted. “If Mom needed it so badly, why would you lend me the money?”
“Your mother wanted me to. She believed in what you were doing, even if I didn’t.”
“And now you blame me for it?”
“Jesus Christ! Do you ever listen? I have never once blamed you for asking for money. And after everything your mother did for you, you didn’t even visit. Not once that I can remember.”
“I know you don’t, Dad.” James sounded defeated.
“So where were you when she would spit and swear because she knew her sentences didn’t make sense? Where were you to help her bathe, and to dress her?” James’s father spat out every word. “And where were you when she forgot where she was? Or who I was?” he whispered. “Where were you?”
“I’m sorry, Dad,” James said.
“Me too, James. Me too.” James’s father took a deep breath. “You know, she was looking for you at the end. She asked for her little Jamison. I didn’t have the heart to tell her the truth. She thought you were in the kitchen. Or the living room. That you just stepped out. At the end, I think she knew. I think she knew you were gone.”
James’s father opened the car door and walked over to the trashcan, without bothering to hunch over to protect himself from the rain. With a contemptuous toss, he threw away his number seven (minus one fry) and chocolate milkshake.
James sat in the car, wiping away the fish and water. They would go back to their home in Mastic Beach, and James would go upstairs to bed. And when he woke up, his father would be at the kitchen table crying over his youngest son who didn’t live there anymore. And James would tell him, “I live upstairs Dad. I moved back in two years ago to take care of you and mom.”
And when the day after tomorrow came, he would repeat it all over again.