Authors: Chris Lynch
To Elise Howard,
for tirelessly battling my attempts
to muck it all up.
“Are ya winnin'?”
That's my dad, wanting to know if I'm winning. He always wants to know if I'm winning.
There is no competition. No game, no contest, no prize as much as anybody can tell. It's just what he says, his way. His way of asking. How everything is, if everything is all right. It's his how ya doing, and how's life treating ya, I love you and how ya doing.
“I am, Dad,” I say. “I'm winnin'.”
And I am.
It is a few minutes past six a.m. and we have just finished breakfast because he got home around five and I was already up waiting for him, the eggs and sausages and the yogurt and berries all lined up and ready to roll because I knew he was coming because I always know when he's coming and it's time to roll with the breakfast. He texted me when he was leaving the station, like he always does, and I was already ready, like I always am. Like it has been since I was just a kid and before that even. Sub-kid, even. Now I'm post-kid and it's as good as ever. Didn't matter what shift he was on, what hour he was coming home, if it wasn't a school night, we were cooking and eating together when he came through that door.
We are done eating now. And having done, having stuffed up pretty good and patted puffed bellies and cleaned up and gotten the kitchen back to mother-approval-level tidy, this is when we would always stagger toward our beds to fall in and enjoy several of the most satisfying sleep hours you could ever know.
Except sometimes. Except like times like this, when breakfast is through but the old man somehow isn't, work and the long night not being quite enough to push him over into exhaustion. Almost like he's gaining energy instead of running out.
Dad wants to go for a walk, just the two of us, to walk off breakfast, before pretty much everybody else has even had theirs.
“Are ya winnin', Russ?”
“I'm winnin', Dad.”
“But are ya really winnin'?”
“I really am, Dad.”
He loves trees. We're headed for the trees. The sort of arboretum on the hill about a half mile from the house, part of the aggie college over the river. We always head for the trees.
“We should get a dog,” Dad says.
“Should we? Why should we do that?”
“What, you don't like dogs? Who doesn't like dogs? What kind of a person doesn't like dogs? I didn't raise no dog-hating kind of a kid.”
He likes to pretend to get outraged at things he knows damn well are not even true.
“I like dogs as much as the next guy,” I say.
“Not if the next guy is me, you don't. And if you look, I think you will notice that the next guy, right here next to you, is in fact me.”
“Then why don't we have a dog, dog-daddy?”
“That's what I was just asking you about, kid, before you started giving me all this lip about not wanting a dog.”
“I never said anythâ”
“Well, we can't be strolling around the neighborhood like this at the break of dawn, prowling-like. Neighbors'll talk. Think we're out looking for hookers or drugs or something.”
“Or, they'll maybe think you are a firefighter, which they all actually know and have known forever.”
“Well that's me. I was more thinking about you. I'm covered, but you're a teenager, so naturally they'll be thinking along the hookers-drugs line of thinking. Then I get tarred by association.”
He can go on like this for a very long time if you encourage him.
“I see your point there, Dad. I guess a dog's the only solution.”
“The only one. Nobody brings a dog along drugs-and-hookers scouting. Yup, a noble dog makes everything okay.”
“Well, okay then.”
“Well okay,” he says, spinning around, “let's go get us a noble shelter dog. We'll call him Sheltie.”
I grab his shoulder, direct him back toward the nearby trees of the hill.
“Yeah,” I say, “maybe in a few hours after the shelter actually opens. And after you've been to bed for a while.”
“Maybe that, then,” he says, laughing, putting his big arm over my shoulders and pulling me nicely, painfully tight.
It is not the first time we have discussed the dog thing around daybreak.
“Are ya winnin'?” he asks.
“I'm winnin', Dad.”
He's yanked a bit of whiplash into my neck, and I am due a few more hours sleep, but I am most definitely winnin' all the same.
My father didn't have any really close friends who didn't have mustaches. It wasn't a rule, it wasn't by design, it just was.
My father was a firefighter, the kind who have mustaches like 1890s baseball players, and all his good friends were that kind of firefighter too. I never quite figured out what the connection was between the look and the man, but the look meant something.
My father helped people a lot, because he was great at so many thingsâfixing the car, putting up Sheetrock, wiring a ceiling fan, transplanting a rosebush. He liked helping people, helping people was his thing, his profession at work and his hobby at home. People like being helped, I have noticed, and so my dad had a lot of admirers of one kind or another.
Admirers, as opposed to up-close-and-personals. The guys at the Hothouseâwhich is what they called their fire stationâwere a pure team. They were a team, my dad and his comrades with their uniform mustaches. What these guys had was a whole nother thing, inside itself, outside everything else.
DJ was my friend before I even knew what to do with him. I have no pre-DJ memories. I am five months older than he is but nothing ever happened to me before I became aware of him right there beside me, and so in a reality more real than real reality DJ and I came into existence at the same exact time. He lives directly across the street from me. His father was a firefighter just like my father, with a mustache just like my father's. The first time we drew thick Magic Marker mustaches on ourselves that I can remember was when we were about three, though there may well have been incidents even before that one. I can tell you that we did it quite a few times over the years, and while our mothers were not that keen about it, our fathers could not have been prouder.
Here's how deep it went. I am named Russell, after DJ's father. DJ is named David James, after my father, though you'd only ever call him DJ.
If you called him anything which, mostly, I haven't for a couple of years now. It was no big thing. In truth, it wasn't even a little thing, as far as I can recall. We just drifted apart. That's what people say, isn't it, when they don't know what the hell went wrong? We just
, even though I can go right to my bedroom window and if I squint hard enough I can still see right into his front window so really we haven't drifted anywhere.
We chose different high schools. I don't know why we did that. Maybe we got tired of living in each other's pocket all the time. Maybe we got tired of firefighter dads who were best friends and moms who were best friends and friends who were neighbors who were classmates who were best friends.
Maybe. I don't remember feeling that way, but, maybe. We never talked about it.
If I see DJ, I always say hi, so it isn't like that.
We are still right here.
Except we are not.
But then, just like that, we are, again. In that very unfunny funny way of things, DJ and I have
back together, on one level that we never would have wished on anybody, not even each other. Nobody wants to drift this way.
It has been three weeks. I have never eaten so well in my life. Ham used to be my favorite food but I believe if I see another baked ham now I'll throw it right out the window into the street and let the dogs all get it. I had my picture taken with the mayor. Nice man, smelled kind of sour. I didn't smile. The house has been full of people all this time, family, neighbors, politicians, sports guys, policemen, firemen, firemen, firemen, total strangers, all kinds of religious types. They come and visit, “pay respects,” drop off food, nod a lot, hug my mother, a lot of them wind up crying. Then they sweep, in bunches, across the street over to DJ's house and do a lot more of it all over again, sometimes passing identical groups of folks coming back the other way like an exchange of war prisoners across a border nobody recognizes.
“Pay respects.” That's a phrase I am having to get myself acquainted with.
My dad and the rest of them seemed to be always fighting with the city for a better deal and the city seemed to be always fighting back and one time I remember the firefighters' chant was “Pay
Respect.” And this mayor, the one right here with the sour smell like he just climbed out of a pickle barrel to pay his respects to my mother and me is the very guy I watched on the news saying “We cannot
any more respect for this firefighters' union.”
“I wanted to be sure to come by,” he says, solemn as Sunday, “to tell you how much I respected your husband, and what he did for this city.”
Right? And I am watching this man, this mayor, give my mother this big bear hug, and I am thinking, How does this happen? How do we get here? How is it that this big fat phony is draped squeezing all over my mother whose husband protector isn't here to keep it from happening?
Until he turns to me. He extends his big meaty paw, which turns out to be also clammy and further evidence of my pickle-barrel theory, and he forces one of those mayor-shakes, a hard and grippy thing that hurts because it caught me off guard. When he's got me, shaking-shaking, he uses it to yank me close, to give me handshakeâhugâbackslapâsmell-my-neck so that all my senses are woozing at once and I am right on the verge of breaking away aggressively except he's in my ear too, isn't he?
“Your father was one tough sonofabitch, Russell. He was Beast.”
And like that, he pushes me away again, still shaking my hand, looking hard at me.
I shake him back, only harder, and I look into him, only softer because I am welling up because of course I am but that doesn't mean all the right things aren't also going on inside of me because they are. I feel like a shit for thinking the mayor a phony but it almost doesn't matter because I almost don't remember feeling that way already.