A fiction piece by Muriel Mackie, sophomore Marketing Major
The father took them to Hooters again. His son slunk low in his chair, picking at the edges of the table. Lacquer collected underneath his fingernails.
Right after a basketball game too, the whole 8th grade team. A few younger siblings too, sisters, were included during the festivities, all crammed like sardines in the back of a truck too small to tote so many youngsters, packed and shuttled down the slushy, freezing highway to a certain respected establishment of high renown.
Entering the gleaming, neon building, Lucas’ head was a ticking clock face, nervously glancing about, never settling, always unsure of what to do or where to stand, glancing over at the sisters with a greasy feeling of concerned guilt, but the sisters, like most everyone else, didn’t seem to care. To them, the women were just women, fluorescent orange booty shorts and all, their bodies reminiscent of boring statues in museums, or mothers, or even themselves, nothing more. Lucas might have thought the same were it not for his father.
His father laughed constantly, and if he wasn’t laughing, he was silent. He didn’t laugh at home very often however because the rest of his family didn’t join in with as much vigor. They didn’t know how. He was laughing now, joking with another man (there was always someone he knew) before the waitress arrived, preferring to talk rather than corral so many gelding children as they shouted and rammed around and tracked snow everywhere and pushed each other into chairs. His father was laughing with the other man about the situation, the dragging of a whole junior basketball team and then some to Hooters “as a gag”. Everything was a gag. Lucas kept picking at the table. He might demolish the whole thing given enough time.
The food was good, the service fine. His father purposely ordered something with innuendo so he could make a joke. The waitress laughed, the same laugh as all the other waitresses. The father stuck one thick elbow into the thin ribs of the boy, Trent, sitting next to him, telling him to laugh. He did. One of the sisters asked what the joke meant. Now Trent laughed for real. Lucas’ father laughed for real too, but he always laughed for real. He never lied. He couldn’t.
Lucas began to relax when his father’s face was full of food, and started talking to the guys again, his friends:
“I think I’m going out for soccer!”
“I just watched a show about soccer.”
“Really? My older sister plays soccer.”
“My brother used to, now he works at Cummings.”
“Cool! My dad works there. He says—”
“Mine works there too!”
Lucas turned to face his father, falling silent. He was leaning forward, elbows on the table, greasy hands loosely holding a stained napkin. One side of his face was filled with food, like a chipmunk or wad of chewing tobacco, the other side pulled up past a stubbly chin. He was grinning.
The restaurant was loud, lots of clinking glasses, murmuring conversations, doors opening and closing, bringing with them gusts of bitterly cold, artificially salty January air that distracted and annoyed and made the restaurant even louder, yet Lucas heard his father’s baritone voice so clearly from across the oceans-long table:
“Trent here says you’ve got a little crush! That true?”
Of course it was. Everybody knew. She was here, right here, and everyone knew. Well, not the little kids and sisters, not officially anyway, but even they probably knew. Lucas felt the restaurant grow louder, heard the waitresses singing something a few tables over to an embarrassed patron, heard the scrape of silverware against porcelain plate, heard the cars outside barreling down the highway, heard his nails digging past lacquer and into pulp.
“Do. Not. Look. Don’t look over. Don’t look.” so spoke his mind’s mantra during those few fateful seconds hanging between hearing and responding. So, despite being keenly aware of his teammates' undisciplined eyes glancing over to where Valerie sat, each silently, loudly wondering if Lucas himself would blow his own cover, the respondent instead wrenched his head in the opposite direction and beheld Trent, who at least had the decency to blanch when fixed under Lucas’ bug-eyed stare. If ever there was a time when violence seemed reasonable, it was now, but Lucas was sitting at the other end of the table in a public place surrounded by teammates, all of whom were closely watching him attempt to strangle Trent sans physical contact.
Lucas’ mouth was dry, his mind blank, his body painfully underdeveloped or he would have simply thrown himself out the nearest window.
He had to say something. How many seconds had passed? Five? Twenty? Didn’t matter—it had been too long. Oh if she didn’t know then she knew now. How could she not? He had to speak, to end this stupid, awful stand-off or he might never be able to show his face at school again, much less in front of Valerie.
Say something cool. Please, God, just let me say something cool. Just this once, please let me say something, anything cool.
His father laughed, and for once, Lucas could understand why. He would’ve laughed too at such a pitchy little plea. He wished he could look over at Valerie, see how she was reacting, but then his father would follow his eyes like a bloodhound and in a second, Lucas’ life would be unbearable. Trent you piece of shit.
“Ooooooh!” said the team while his father laughed, but only those on that end of the table. Those by Lucas remained relatively quiet, shifted uncomfortably in their seats, kicked their slightly dangling feet against distressed table legs. Trent looked down, picked at the table, then snapped his head up sharply as another meaty elbow found contact with his inches-thick chest.
“C’mon!” said Lucas’ father. “Don’t be like that! Nothing to be embarrassed about!” He laughed, delighted by the sound of his own voice, and the group dutifully laughed again, but the prolonged sight of Lucas sitting shell-shocked and alone at the end of the table seemed to have sobered them slightly, not that his father noticed. He was in the spotlight. Lucas was far away.
“So?” The Father said, leaning back, wiping his greasy face, reveling in the hilarity of the situation, with the low stakes of such a silly little event, with how funny it was that they were here, right now, at this stupid Hooters, his son looking close to vomiting over such a trivial matter.
Lucas’ fingers dug into the table, blood rushed through his ears, armpits exploded with sweat, ruining the shirt he thought might impress Valerie because he bought it with his own money. She was always talking about paying for things with your own money. She wore her hair in lots of long, thin braids most of the time. Sometimes her mom would tie in beads and shells, sometimes they were plain, but they were always very carefully put together, and usually featured pink. She liked pink. She didn’t care that her friends thought it was for kids. She was Alvin’s younger sister by a year, and Lucas wished he knew what she was doing right now. Was she trading incredulous glances with her friends? Laughing at him and his stupid, squeaky voice, a full octave higher than his father’s? Or was she turning her attention to that father in question, wondering what’s going to happen next? Wondering who he was talking about? Did she know? Did she care? Lucas hoped she cared.
For a moment, the sound of his father’s smug, mirthful voice didn’t quite pierce through the red fog of fear currently blinding Lucas, so he just stared, slightly boggled-eyed, at nothing in particular, waiting for the waitresses to join forces and bludgeon his dad to death. But when that didn’t happen, Lucas realized, along with the rest of the team, in a sudden, bewildering moment of clarity, that his dad wasn’t talking about Valerie. He was talking about the waitresses.
Lucas’ mind sputtered, belched exhaust, came to a sudden, shuddering halt. The waitresses? What? What did they have to do with anything? Desperately, he prayed for a moment of peace to sort through whatever just happened, but his dad was still talking, totally unaware of how uncomfortably quiet the table had become. Only the sisters, the younger ones at least, seemed unworried about whatever stupidity they’d found themselves in, quietly continuing their conversation about school or ponies or sports or whatever. Lucas envied them. Their ability to ignore the waitresses, his father—their ability to be in elementary school. The older ones mumbled quietly, trying to not be heard. Valerie’s voice was absent amidst the murmur. Was that good? Was that bad? Was his dad still speaking? Oh, God he was.
“C’mon boy, don’t be shy! Which is it? God knows I’ve had my eye on one or two!”
Trent, being defense rather than offense, failed to dodge yet another well-meaning jab to the ribs and choked on a piece of chicken. Good.
“Um…” stammered Lucas, unsure of what to do. Should he lie? What would Valerie thi—
“C’mon! I know you’ve been checking a few out! ‘Aint no shame in it!”
What’s happening dad, why are you doing this to me.
Before his dad’s mouth could open again to spew forth another tirade of insanity and good humor, Lucas took evasive action:
“HER!” he shouted, louder than he meant to, pointing at the first waitress passing by. She was tall, at least 5 ’11, with long brown hair and light brown skin, legs shining beneath skimpy, bright orange shorts, hoisting two full platters of food over her shoulders, a gleaming smile plastered to her well-kempt face. Alvin rolled his eyes.
His father laughed again, big and bawdy and attention-seeking. Lucas wondered if the man ever truly thought anything was funny, or if he just laughed.
“Good eye son! Very good eye! Let’s call her over!”
But he was ignored completely, those few fervent, pleading words caught in the riptide, drown in the ocean. Trent looked away, shoved his face full of baked potato.
“Hey! Can we get a waitress over here?” the father called. He had to shout multiple times to be heard over the dinner rush, by which point the whole team was either pretending to not exist or pretending to find this as amusing as their ride did. When finally, a waitress did appear, bright smile unable to conceal a furrow of exhaustion and distaste, it was someone else, an exceptionally thin blonde with about a dozen piercings up both ears. This would not do. Valerie scratched her head.
Slumped in his chair, a motionless Lucas stared wide-eyed at the floor, watching little rivulets of pollution-filled water make oily puddles beneath his sneakers. Passively, like a man in a coma, he listened to his father call, with great pomp and circumstance, the correct waitress over, slip a twenty into her unmanicured, wiry hand (she must play volleyball or something), and laugh louder than he’d ever laughed before as she agreed to take “Just one!” photo with a sullen 13-year-old boy whose red face might have been confused for embarrassment but was anger. Pure, complete anger. Bridled, but crackling.
The dinner went by quickly after that, and Lucas looked at Valerie. He knew his dad wouldn’t be watching anymore. She laughed with her friend, kicked Alvin underneath the table, didn’t look over once.
When the dinner was eaten and the bill paid, they all crawled like clowns into the truck again, girls in front, boys in back, and were dropped off, one by one, until only Lucas and his father remained.
The car was silent— only the radio seemed to be enjoying itself. Lucas looked at his father through the rear-view mirror, at his thin, wobbly neck and thick shoulders, at his barreled chest sunken in from weight-loss, at the brown polo now stained with grease. At his eyes, crinkled slightly, as though a joke was lying on the tip of his tongue, ready for launch, waiting for a better audience.
“Mom smokes.” Lucas said.
The truck swerved slightly as Lucas’ father jumped at the sudden sound of his son’s voice. Lucas had never seen his dad look off-guard, didn’t expect it to involve so much eye-bugging, but he didn’t let it stop him. Right now, nothing could.
“She’s probably going to die first. Between the two of you I mean.”
A deep, leaden silence hit the car, so oppressive even the radio stopped having fun and switched to an obnoxiously loud commercial about auto parts. Promptly, Lucas’ dad snapped shut the sound with a sharp thwap!
“What on earth do you—” he began, sounding flammable, but Lucas cut him off:
“When she dies, I won’t have any reason to talk to you. One day, when mom’s dead, I won’t visit you. Because I’m not your friend.”
It was the harshest thing a 13-year-old could say, and even as his father’s face and neck turned red and blotchy and angry words burst crested the surface, accompanying the duo for the rest of the ride home, Lucas knew he meant it.
Staring out the window, idly hearing his father’s screeching through a long, echoing tunnel, Lucas imagined Valerie running alongside the car, dodging trees and fence posts, bounding past boulders with deer-like agility, grim but elated, staring straight ahead, only momentarily breaking concentration to turn and wave, grinning, exhilarated, face streaked with sweat. She was wearing a bright orange pair of shorts as a bandana, keeping meticulously arranged braids out of her face as she vaulted over plasticades and oncoming cars, legs pumping beneath her, never losing track, never stumbling. Beside him, Everett watched exhaust fly from tailpipes, caught in the highway’s slipstream, spinning out into oblivion. He watched his own flying spit mingle with the hazy image of a woman far too old to be wearing shorts like that, quietly chuckling in the middle of the road, unafraid of the cars streaming about her, deaf to Everett’s thunderous shouts, gray breath billowing.