Everyone’s a Fool for Somebody
by David Haight
Sean approached Lemon’s house with a sense of unease. Maybe he forgot. Went out. Perhaps he had fallen. Aunt Barbra told him on the sly (although he wasn’t sure if it was a general secret or one to be kept only from him) that he had fallen in the shower and now wore an emergency response system around his neck. Sean didn’t want to believe that. His father wasn’t that old and it ran counter to his stubborn personality. He peered to the right and felt sick at the abandoned driveway.
As a teenager, he and Alex, his favorite cousin growing up would sneak into the house and spend the weekend getting drunk, watching game shows while Lemon was at his cabin preparing to but never fishing watching baseball games getting drunk. Sometime around two or three in the morning they would order pizza. At the approach of the always rusted out delivery car, its signaling headlights, and the ding-dong of the doorbell Sean would race to the entryway, inevitably slipping on the top step and bounce down the remaining stairs in a hail of expletives to the amusement of the delivery guy. On one occasion when it failed to arrive Sean called the next morning to be sternly corrected that the driver had attempted to deliver their pizza, had repeatedly called, pounded on the door, and finally peered through the large bay window to find Sean and Alex passed out on the living room floor. Sean repeated the gesture but through the long thin window that ran the length of the front door. It was dark inside. Its five shag covered stairs and black railing that guided you to the living room and kitchen were in deep afternoon shadow. Maybe he didn’t want to see him. He turned the knob: it was locked. He considered the garage door when Lemon appeared in the window leering out suspiciously, fear in his face. He cautiously opened the door.
“I didn’t recognize you.”
“I just grew this beard, mainly to piss Lisa off but I’m kind of taking to it.”
“Me too,” Lemon said pointing to the unkempt grey beard poking angrily out from his face. “But I don’t have anyone to piss off. I just got lazy.”
He refused to leave the safety of the doorframe as if he still didn’t believe his own eyes, as if Sean were a stranger of solicitor and not his son. Sean instinctively took a step back.
“Can you go get my trash bin?” he asked pointing towards the street.
There was a single black wood stump rotting at the end of the driveway. There used to be three on either side, in a triangular design, each connected by a large, thick decorative chain painted gold. When he would sleepover as a kid he would attempt to tightrope his way across them only to have Lemon bellow from the upstairs bedroom window to get off.
“Make sure it’s empty. Is it empty?” Lemon hollered squinting at Sean and the large green canister.
“Yes,” he hollered back.
“Are you sure? Completely empty? Because I didn’t see you lift the cover and look inside.”
He wheeled it back.
“Put it right here,” he said still holding the screen door open, indicating the brick between the front door and the garage. Sean did as requested and lifted up the lid allowing Lemon to confirm that the canister was indeed empty.
“I’m afraid I’ll slip on the ice,” he said, tugging at the garbage can uselessly with his left hand balancing on his legs which were as thin and stiff as uncooked spaghetti.
When Sean was a kid Lemon would visit him and his mother, set a paper bag on the kitchen counter, say a quick abracadabra, pull out a bottle of vodka and two-liter of Pepsi from the bag and fix exactly one drink. Once he had finished it, he would hold out the glass to Sean, “Get me a drink, huh Champ?” Returning with the replenished glass Lemon would proclaim, “Such a good boy,” with that big endearingly smug smile. There was always a request of some sorts: shovel my driveway, mow my lawn, fetch me my sunglasses, skip over to the dairy section and snatch a carton of milk, run me to the liquor store, requests that followed Sean into his adulthood. Sean hadn’t seen Lemon in five years but outside of the request just made there was no smile, no confirmation that he was a good boy, nothing. This grizzled person didn’t appear to be the same man.
“I got it,” Sean said, urging him back into the house.
Once inside (and to the surprise of Sean) Lemon closed and locked the door. In all the years he had lived there Lemon left the door unlocked and open even when he slept. No matter how many times he pointed this out to Lemon he refused to bolt the doors or even upgrade the flimsy locks that could be breached by a heavy sneeze. It was a boring contest of wills they had engaged in since he was a little boy. Eight years prior Sean stayed briefly with Lemon when his marriage hit a rough patch. There were many nights he awoke to the sounds of sirens and police officers commanding faceless men to the ground while he crouched at the large bay window peering senselessly into the shifting darkness. Had he not been so exhausted from arguing with his wife he never would have gotten a good night’s sleep. Once he slipped out the French doors in the back and tiptoed to the front hoping to witness a crime but instead ended back in the kitchen eating a bowl of cereal back up against the refrigerator. When he awoke the next morning, still against the refrigerator, the front door was miraculously unlocked and open. Lemon registered the consternation on Sean’s face.
“One night I was lying in bed and a white van pulled into my driveway. The next thing I know some guy is creeping up my stairs. Once he saw me he ran out the door. He must have thought I wasn’t home,” he said double checking the deadbolt before leading them up the stairs.
“Unbelievable,” Sean muttered to himself, noting the heavy deadbolt with disbelief.
Lemon turned around at the top of the stairs and despite having to steady him with the wall a fire flashed in his eyes so intense Sean blanched. It recalled that summer day when he was fourteen. Lemon had lost his job and despite the fact that Sean was coming for his regularly scheduled weekend visit had begun drinking that morning and was drunk when his son arrived. Sean knew it the moment he laid eyes on him. His body moved like an over-oiled machine and his eyes were hollowed out. “Hey buddy, come on up, come on up,” he said greeting him in the kitchen doorway. Sean punched him as hard as he could. His fist catching him square in the chest. Lemon’s fist cocked itself tight into his armpit. Sean ran. He ran through the living room, out the French doors, through several back yards and walked the streets until he was certain Lemon had passed out and he sneaked up to the spare bedroom. It was astonishing that the broken down body of this broken down man had any heat left to rage.
“I told you for years to fix the locks. The neighborhood is dangerous. Hell, when I stayed here there were seven different times the cops were busting someone trying to break into someone’s house.”
“I guess I can see why,” he said, the old reds, as he used to call it, dying down quickly like a cheetah after a hard fast sprint unable to run any longer. “I never park in the driveway.”
“And the only light you ever have on is your bedroom light. The place looks abandoned.”
For the first time got a good look at his father. Besides the uncared for beard, his eyes were red, the lids heavy with, exhaustion or maybe a medical condition he was unaware of, there a large rash on the side of his neck and it appeared as though he hadn’t showered in months. He was certain if he gave him a good shake dead skin and dandruff would engulf the room like a snow globe. Then there was the walk, he shuffled like an old man. He wasn’t sure what had happened to him over the last five years but he seemed to have aged fifteen years since the last time he had seen him.
They reached the landing. There was a card table dropped in the middle of the living room buried in papers, faded and curling pictures and a cribbage board several of the colored pegs chewed down to half their size. Next to the whale of a television set were stacks of half-opened boxes of varying sizes bought (presumably) off of late night infomercials having migrated home to die.
“I need a cleaning lady, do you know one?” he asked with a chuckle, shuffling into the kitchen grabbing his wallet and keys from the kitchen table, where they were greeted with more junk, a foot of papers, a dead rose, two sets of dice, a rotting orange peel, a dissected clock, and a plate with a half-eaten unrecognizable meal.
Sean surveyed the room ignoring the reference to his mother and her house cleaning business which she gave up years earlier. The linoleum was cracked and peeling, there was a water stain threatening to annex the entire ceiling, dishes peered out of the kitchen sink, the faucet dripped and on the counter stood a row of six or seven glasses filled halfway with tobacco-brown water an avocado pierced at right angles by toothpicks split down the middle, tan reptilian tails curling up in dismay into the bottom of the glasses.
“Have you ever thought about moving?” he asked.
“What for?” he asked dismissing him with a wave of the hand. “I just had the roof fixed.”
“I didn’t notice anything,” he said looking up.
“I just did the backside,” he said. “The leak was on the backside.”
“They’ll do that?”
“They didn’t want to but I insisted,” he said and started digging through the pile of junk on the kitchen table. “I knew it would drive you crazy.” He handed him a wrinkled receipt.
“That’s truly the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen,” he said. “Why would you do that? If you ever want to sell this place you’re going to have to redo the whole thing.”
“You mean you’ll have to do it after I die.”
After a long indecipherable silence he said, “That’s not what I meant.”
For a moment everything threatened to go south.
“For doing nothing I sure have a lot of bills. I sat down the other day and sent out seven. Seven. Can you believe that?”
“That’s a lot,” he said surrendering. “Let’s go.”
They made their way cumbersomely back down the stairs towards the garage. Sean peered down the second set of steps into the basement. Although it was pitch black he could still make out darkness upon darkness like memories stacked upon one another and knew all of his grandmother’s things were still down there, unorganized, uncared for, like a great ship sunk at the bottom of the ocean. In the garage Sean found that Lemon’s once majestic Jaguar had decomposed and (as he would soon discover) barely operated past its rudimentary functions. There was an eyeliner of rust above each wheel, the bumper clung helplessly to the body of the car, gave an unhealthy roar when started, shaking terribly as if it had Parkinson’s and took all of Lemon’s powers of concentration to keep on the road. Why Sean was surprised is hard to figure but he was. It was the one luxury item Lemon consistently indulged in throughout his adult life. Sean was a junior in college on his way to finals, his car stalled (on an overpass no less) when he got the call from Lemon. “My third baby died, you up to get number four?” Looking up the street at the traffic beginning to back up, his nodded his head, “Can you pick me up?” He sprinted the three miles to school and he and Lemon cruised to the dealership, passing Sean’s stalled car on the overpass (which Lemon didn’t recognize). For a man who had been a proud Cadillac owner his entire adult life he was swayed rather easily to purchase the shiny tan Jaguar. They pulled into an American Legion.
“We’re not going to Mr. Mix’s?”
“The place turned,” he said shoving the car door open with immense effort. He stood seeming to reflect for a moment, perhaps about the intimations of time or the lifelong struggles he had had with his boy or alcohol but in the end it seemed he just needed to catch his breath.
“What do you mean?” Sean asked over the top of the car.
“Can’t we just go in?” he barked.
They took a seat at the small bar. The place was nearly empty. There was a thin old man on the far side of the bar reading the newspaper and at one of the tables a couple in their forties was eating eggs and bacon, sipping on bloody Mary’s chatting quietly. Country music was playing softly at a low hum and several televisions were playing the same baseball game which the bartender and the couple were keeping tabs on. The bartender recognized Lemon immediately and drew a beer at which Lemon nodded affectionately.
“All right, let’s hear it.”
“I don’t drink vodka anymore,” he said definitively, saying nothing else so the force of his statement could be felt. As was always the case this message wasn’t for Sean but his mother. Somehow, through the combination of memory, time and wish-fulfillment Lemon had decided it was his drinking that had ended their relationship. In reality the reasons were many and complex but it safely absolved him of most of its responsibility. In the years (and decades) since they had parted she had wisely (through Sean of course) reaffirmed this belief as a way of hedging her bets. It was the one thing she knew he couldn’t quit.
“Good for you,” he said eyeing his father. Even if he was telling the truth, which Sean had no reason to doubt she would never be a part of his life? He wasn’t sure if he should find it pathetic or strangely enduring his father’s faith in true love.
“It was tearing my stomach up,” he added, unsure if stopping for health reasons or stopping exclusively for her was the right play. He searched his sons face and eyes but he gave nothing away. “I didn’t want to stop, mind you,” Lemon started, taking a pull from his beer.
Sean smirked, “You’re losing credibility.”
“My point still counts,” he said. Sensing his son didn’t believe him he continued on. “You know my giving up vodka is a sincere attempt to mend fences not just another promise I can’t keep?”
“I know dad,” he said.
“It’s not easy.”
“You don’t really need to do that.”
“Like hell I don’t. That’s all I ever heard was how I drank too much, how I embarrassed her. She always brings up that dinner at your place like it’s the end all-be-all of the world.”
“You sat on the floor in the middle of her dinner party and refused to get up.”
“Eh. You guys never could joke around,” he said irritated by the memory.
“And what exactly was the joke? It doesn’t matter. What you’re trying to do is noble but unnecessary.” Nothing Sean was saying was coming across the way he intended. There was a look of confusion and helplessness in Lemon’s eyes as if he had invested all of his life’s savings in a stock that was worthless, that he was being evicted, that his entire family had died in some horrible fashion. People are more transparent than we like to admit. They don’t lie. Not really. They just aren’t capable. People present themselves for who they are, with every word, gesture, even with what they don’t say and yet we repeatedly, stubbornly refuse to recognize them, as his mother had refused to recognize Lemon for thirty-odd years. “What I mean is you are who you are and that’s fine.”
There was an awkward silence.
“Aren’t you going to have a drink?” he snarled, attempting unsuccessfully to stare his son down.
“So, order already.”
There was a second more protracted silence.
Sean shifted on his stool and leaned close to his father. “I can’t start my car if I have anything to drink.”
As adults, drinking had become an essential part of their relationship, which Sean didn’t mind. He enjoyed drinking with Lemon. They had little in common and alcohol made it easier for them to pretend they weren’t two individuals who had no business being in the same room together much less go through the motions of a father-son relationship. It allowed them to talk, or at least argue and Sean and Lemon loved to argue: about religion, politics, race, women, music, movies. You could name any topic and be certain they would have opposing viewpoints. It was the fuel that drove most of their interactions, away or more accurately around the resentments they hadn’t the courage to speak about and was now dominated by the great unspoken subject: lost time.
“Ah, you too? Get him a Coke,” he said signaling the bartender, unfazed. Lemon, for all his faults was not a judgmental man or thrown by the lapses of other people’s judgments. As a brash young man Sean had dismissed this as simple self-absorption but as he had gotten older and grown to dislike socializing he appreciated what a rare gift this was. “I got picked up after leaving Mr. Mix’s a few years back. It was only a matter of time. It’s astonishing I’ve only had one. But I was pissed,” he said with a snort.
“That couldn’t have been pretty.”
“No more or less than usual when that much booze is involved,” Lemon said a smile easing across his face.
“What did you say?”
“Nothing,” he said. “Nothing that didn’t need to be said. I’m in the back of the squad car, trying to get my bearings, and let me just add that I found it unnecessary to have the handcuffs so damn tight. They hurt and I made sure to tell the prick. But nothing. He just kept driving. I asked where we were going, still nothing.”
“You didn’t know you were going to jail?”
“Finally I leaned forward, my face against the grate and told the son of a bitch that he should spend his time arresting real criminals and I spit at him.”
“I’m sure that went over well,” he said popping an ice cube into his mouth.
“Cops do not have a sense of humor,” he said with authority. “Well, you probably know that.”
“No, they don’t,” Sean said readjusting himself on the stool. “I went a little apeshit when I got tagged.”
“You? Mr. Congeniality?”
“Oh, I was sour. And you’re totally right by the way-” he said. Lemon pointed to himself playfully. “I hate to admit this especially to you but I was saying every vile thing that popped into my head.”
“Yeah you were,” Lemon said egging him on as if they were both sitting, hands tight behind their backs in the back of that squad car in the middle of the night.
“I hope you get cancer. I hope your wife gets raped, hope your kids get molested. You name it. Monstrous behavior really. But I wanted a reaction for Christ sake. This bastard didn’t even blink. He couldn’t even bother to make eye contact in the rearview mirror.”
“Back at the station before I had spiraled into a pit of shame, they were about to retest me when I noticed that the officer’s uniform was buttoned incorrectly,” he said running his finger up and down the center of his shirt. “You cops are all fucking stupid. You go through the academy and are in charge of protecting the public and you still don’t even know how to button your own god damn shirt. I feel safe. He tests me. I fail, again. He leaves the room and I sit there for however long but when he comes back in his shirt was buttoned correctly.”
“Bam!” Lemon exclaimed.
“I let him know that I got to him. Oh, he pretended like it was nothing. But it felt like a victory.”
“It was a victory, “Lemon said, and pushed the empty glass towards the bartender and ordered another. “They’re not priests, with a calling, although don’t get me started on those perverts. They’re just schoolyard bullies. They love the power of that badge; pushing people around, telling them what to do. Think about it, think about every cop you’ve ever known, they’ve all been assholes, the guys that never got laid in high school. Those bastards don’t give a rat’s ass about right and wrong. He didn’t care that you were drunk or breaking the law.”
“They’re keeping the roads safe. Either one of us could have killed someone.”
“You can’t possibly be that naïve?”
“How am I being naïve drunk drivers kill thousands of people?”
“Sure, drunk drivers do kill people, and that pisses people off so you use that as leverage to pass strict-ass laws which generates millions of dollars. As a result the government can toss out all kinds of statistics about how they are protecting the public and use all that cash for whatever they want. Once the public’s anger is satisfied they never ask where the money goes and I guarantee they bring in more than they need. If it saves lives that’s icing on the cake, the shit they put in public service announcements to make bored housewives, religious types, and liberals like you feel better about the privilege you determined to feel shitty about.”
Sean dragged a bowl of pretzels his direction and tossed a couple in his mouth. “You’ve put way too much thought into this. I have to worry about shit that actually happens, shit a little closer to home, my home,” he said refusing to take the bait. “You want to talk about money? My kid’s braces had to wait a year because of that DUI. We couldn’t take a vacation. You want to see a woman learn to hate? Change her lifestyle or deny her child every little thing, because that’s what Sam suddenly became, her kid, like I was a benefactor and not the kid’s father.” After a moment he added, “I didn’t even think his teeth looked that bad.”
Lemon shrugged. “Once a woman gets something in her head it’s nearly impossible to change it no matter how ridiculous the proposition.”
“Braces aren’t ridiculous,” Sean protested. Then resigned, “But I get the gist of what you’re saying.”
“I don’t miss that,” he said, with a knowing shake of the head that Sean was immediately annoyed by.
“Oh, being accountable to someone else’s whims.”
“When was the last time that was an issue?” he asked too harshly.
“I guess you don’t remember getting up at the crack ass of dawn to go fishing, getting the gear in the boat, finding our spot only to have grandma start ringing that infernal cowbell from the end of the dock, around nine o’clock just as the fish would start hitting? You could hear that thing all the way over in the bay. It didn’t matter that we told her the night before not to make us breakfast, that we didn’t know how long we’re going to be out? She had made up her mind and nothing was going to stop her from making that breakfast.”
“You were so pissed,” he started with enthusiasm. “We’d begrudgingly pack up our gear and head back to shore.”
“And there she’d be standing at the end of the dock as happy as a pig in shit.”
“She never had any idea why you would get so mad. She really thought she was just being helpful, doing her part.”
“That’s what she wanted you to think, that’s for sure.”
“Come on,” Sean said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “She didn’t fish or drink. She wanted to be a part of something.”
“You always saw the sweet old lady she wanted you to see. She knew what she was doing, bursting into tears the moment I lost my cool: I made you two this beautiful breakfast, you never appreciate me, the whole nine yards, all so I appeared monstrous to you and mom.”
Sean thought for a moment. “She marched into the kitchen and came out with a plate of bacon.”
“The proof of her selflessness,” Lemon said wryly. “The tears already gone if they were ever there to begin with.”
“Which you unceremoniously smacked out of her hand. You ran up the deck,” he said starting to chuckle, the distance of years turning their drama into nonsensical farce, “through the cabin, out the back door and up the driveway screaming, ‘You’re driving me nuts! Literally driving me nuts!’”
“Even from beyond the grave she has the power to make me look like the giant asshole. That was part of her twisted genius. Ah, that’s giving her too much credit,” he said taking a swig of beer.
“I think it’s much simpler than all that.” Lemon raised a curious eyebrow. “Don’t you think she was pissed that Pop left everything to you?” he asked choosing his words carefully.
“He didn’t do it for me for Christ sake. I’m sure it killed him to do it. It was to protect us in case anything happened to her. Not that she ever saw it that way. She wanted things her way and if she was denied she forced your hand until it went her way. There was no reason why breakfast couldn’t wait until ten or eleven. Or why the cabin needed to be in her name. Not at her age. Christ if something happened to her we’d lose the cabin.” Lemon sat with that crooked smile. Sean looked into his lap. “That was the last of the bacon, too.” He signaled the bartender who brought him another beer.
“It’s weird after all that give and take now she’s just gone.”
“No doubt giving God a run for his money,” Lemon said downing half his beer. “The first thing I thought when Shady Glenn called and told me she had passed was who is going to sing Amazing Grace for her at her grave?”
“As everyone is walking away,” Sean said with a shy chuckle.
“Isn’t that strange? Everyone hated when she did that.”
“No one ever knew what to do. People were half-way to their fucking cars and here this strange woman starts singing in that high off-key falsetto.”
“And you couldn’t blow her off. I mean that song and the occasion. To leave would be insulting.”
“But everyone turned around and trudged back to the grave.”
“See what did I just say? She forced your hand every damn time?” Lemon said. “I think she envisioned everyone joining her-“
“but no one wanted to and no one did.”
“Aunt Beth was always forced to put her arm around her and lead her away as she went on with her crying without tears routine.” He stared at his knees. “How many times did that idiot do that?” Lemon said warmly. “I know she did it at Aunt Shirley’s and Beth’s, maybe Michael’s which as I recall you were late for.”
“I was. I was at Sloane’s house and couldn’t break away.”
“Bullshit. Your mother was holding you hostage. Don’t play innocent with me. I know her ways. She was finding excuses for you to stay at her house so you’d miss the funeral. Fixing a faucet or some nonsense right? You don’t need to answer.”
There was a momentary silence and breaking of the momentum of their conversation.
“I thought pulling out Amazing Grace at her funeral but I couldn’t muster up the courage and no one would have thought it was funny.”
“You should have done it.”
They were silent. It’s too bad that Lemon wasn’t at her bedside when she died. He would have been disgusted but satisfied when her last words were, “I had a happy family life,” even when all evidence pointed to the contrary.
“We went to that bar in Garfield after her funeral, remember, that tiny one at the edge of town, and that group of college kids came in to get supplies for their ice fishing expedition?” Sean asked.
“How many of them were there? Four? Four,” he said with conviction. “How could I forget? They each ordered a case of beer and a bottle of whiskey. They were shit canned when they came in the god damned place.”
“The one guy pissed his pants while they were waiting. Just stood their ordering while a steady stream of piss flowed down his leg like it was the most normal thing in the world.”
“And they still served him, all of them,” Lemon said dryly. “A lesson for you,” he shot to the bartender.
“I can’t imagine how they got their shit onto the ice,” Sean said with amazement. “Or how they must have felt the next day.”
“Like a nuclear bomb had been dropped on them, that’s how.”
“I liked doing that with you,” Sean began cautiously. “Fishing. I know I wasn’t the most athletic child something I know disappointed you.”
“Ancient history,” Lemon said feeling his son trying to pry open the lid to the past.
“Fishing fit my personality, you know? It was slow and meditative. The blue sky and water and the green of the trees. I thought the rush of a northern hitting my line was like making contact with a baseball. And you were a great coach, no seriously, you told me when to open up the reel, when to give the fish line to run, when start reeling it slowly back and once at the side of the boat lifting it gently so as not to slip the hook from its lip as you got the net beneath it.”
“I remember I lost that lure I brought you from Hawaii,” Lemon said. Sean sighed. “That really pissed me off. I made a big stink about not letting you tie it on yourself. I thought I tied it on so well and then phew off it goes one hundred miles off into the sunset. You sat there will that frozen smile on your face trying not to be disappointed.”
“But I was,” he said letting out a huge laugh that Lemon joined him in.
“You know what I hated the most about the DUI?”
“The money,” Sean said pointedly, continuing to laugh.
“Paying the money was one thing but the loss of my license really hurt.”
Sean let out a cackle. Lemon’s face puckered in confusion.
“You drive a three mile radius from your house.”
Lemon reflected. “I’m not gonna walk! I had Jeff tell the state I worked for him so I could drive. That way I could get groceries and run errands. Stop by here,” he said with a nod lifting his glass.
“That was quite a risk,” Sean said feeling legitimately concerned. He nearly added, “you could have called me,” but knew that at the time he would have greeted Lemon with scorn using his son as a patsy for his inability to help him. What kind of example are you modeling to your grandson? He would have asked knowing full well Sam never needed to know. And what grown man needed having his grandson’s well-being thrown in his face at one of his lowest moments? Anyway you have Jeff, he would have added ruefully.
Jeff was a middle-aged mailman Lemon had met at Mr. Mix’s several years back. As best as Sean could ascertain, Jeff (like Lemon) had alienated most of his family and all of his friends; had no hobbies outside of drinking and had decided that was the last train he would ever take; they soon became inseparable. He had always been suspicious of Jeff’s motives (for no actual reason than the domination of his father’s time something he never acquired the skill) but the resentment he felt towards Lemon trumped it and road blocked any desire he had to investigate his suspicions further. Sitting with his father now he realized it was loneliness, not family or love or loyalty that was the strongest glue between people.
“I’m just playing.”
“Liar,” Sean threw back.
“No, it was those classes they make you attend. Did you have to do that? Yeah, it’s pretty much required now days. Christ. Those sob stories nearly killed me. Kids clean and sober killed by a drunk driver. Still,” he went on with very sober eyes, “it takes a lot of money from hard working people like you and me. It still is a legal product, isn’t it Jimmy?” he asked the bartender.
“Sure is Lemon,” he called back over his shoulder.
“That’s what really pisses me off. This is a capitalist society. So Jimmy here, in order to make his business successful should in theory serve me as much as he can, right? And yet, and yet, I am penalized for doing just that. I get it, I get it, I could injure someone.”
“You could always call a cab.”
“I’m just, what did you say, sour. I’m sour about it. They really do fuck you over,” he barked. “Assholes and bullies. Although I’m surprised you got behind the wheel seeing as you always bust my ass about it.”
“I wasn’t drinking and driving just to do it,” he snapped back. Calming down he continued, admitting, “I was angry. I had my own shit going on.”
“Like?” Lemon said picking up the fresh beer that had been set in front of him.
“A few weeks before I went to track for the first and to date only time,” he said with finality. “I drive by it all the time on the way to work without even noticing it and then one day I felt a thrill. It looked like the Coliseum but fresh and new, banners hanging across it, flags growing from the top. I should have left the minute I walked in because the spell is immediately broken. It’s drafty and dirty, the floor is covered in half-smoked cigarette butts, spilled beer and the place is crawling with desperately unhappy men cursing their fate and scowling at anyone who has the luck to win a few dollars.”
“And who go to the bar afterwards?” Lemon asked.
Sean nodded. “But I had a plan. I wasn’t like these guys. I wouldn’t play it down to zero. I wouldn’t chase the loss. Once I won I would leave, I would come home the victor. And all of our problems, financial and otherwise would disappear into thin air,” he said wiggling his fingers. “Because we all know how money solves every problem.” He threw him a sarcastic frown.
“No,” he echoed. “I lost. I lost fast and I kept on losing. I felt like those assholes I’m behind every day at the gas station buying lottery tickets, holding up the line. You don’t know how many times I’ve shouldered up to one, ‘Why don’t you give me that cash, it’s the same difference?’ or I’ll ask them ‘You ever win?’ They always say yes. ‘As much as you’ve spent?’ At that point they usually tell me to mind my own business or to fuck off.”
“I was no different. Six hours later I was pulling into the 1200 Club and my adventure came to a sudden, dull end. I sat there until closing and finally went home, slunk up to the spare bedroom locked the door where I stayed for three days. I missed work, the whole thing. Lisa didn’t have any clue what was going on but when she finally figured it out.”
“And they always do,” Lemon said
“Any sympathy for my missing work, the depression soared out the window.”
“If you need any money.”
“What?” he asked horrified. “No, no. That’s not why I’m here. Let’s get things straight Lemon, I’ve never asked you for anything much less money and I’m not about to start now.”
“Calm down cowboy,” Lemon said calmly, a thin smile perched on his face. “I know. I didn’t think that was why you were here. All you ever have to do, all you’ve ever had to do is ask. Just know that going forward.” Lemon chuckled then held up his hands for forgiveness at his son’s flash of anger.
“How did you get a DUI if you were locked in your spare bedroom for three days?”
“When Lisa finally discovered how much money I lost she jimmied her way into the bedroom, it must have been six or seven in the morning and just unloaded on me. Told me I was jeopardizing our family and Sam’s future, not my future of course, throwing in resentments that had built up for years which I’ll spare you. Needless to say she was so pissed she kicked me out and by kick me out I mean she chased me down the street. I didn’t have shoes on. I didn’t have car keys. I was lucky I had my wallet. I went straight to the bar and got as drunk as I have ever been.”
“I’m still not following. How did you get a DUI if you weren’t driving? How did you get into the bar?”
Sean shook his head. “I go to leave and I don’t know what time it was but it was getting dark. Now I’m sick of feeling guilty and I’m pissed. I’m the bread winner, it’s my money to do with whatever I see fit. There’s no way in hell, I tell myself, that I’m walking home and I sure as shit ain’t calling Lisa. So I walk a few blocks to the library and steal a bike and that’s how I get picked up.”
“And the shoes?”
“I got the shoes from a shoe store in a strip mall on the way. Of course they wouldn’t let me in – no shoes, no service. I had to give money to this little black kid to pick me out shoes which of course were a size too small. The story of my life lately.”
Lemon chuckled to himself. “You’re nothing if not original. Always have been.”
The bartender dropped off another Coke. Sean was feeling bloated by all the soda and would have loved to share a drink with his old man. He tried to calculate how much a taxi would cost from the bar to Lemon’s and back home again but the thought of trying to explain it all to his wife and then the annoyance she would have shown at having to give him a ride to his car the next day exhausted him before he could even come up with a number so he dropped it.
“I thought of you when Obama was elected,” Sean said with a smile, expecting a fight. Lemon had always been casually racist. All through his teen years whenever Sean started dating a new girl Lemon’s favorite joke was to say, in front of as many people as possible was, “No, seriously, she’s really attractive for a colored girl.”
“Dad,” Sean would cry.
“You can bring her over anytime.” Sean would always wait for it. “Just make sure it’s dark out.”
“I voted for him the second time,” Lemon said.
Sean leaned back in his chair. “You’re fucking with me, right?” He turned to the bartender. “He’s fucking with me right? You guys planned this.”
The bartender shook his head.
“You’re the only person I told. You can’t tell anybody.”
“Why did you vote for him?” Sean asked.
“Well that Romney was horrible. Obama said a few things, I can’t remember now that I really liked. He seems like he cares about people. I don’t know. He seems like a president. On everything else,” he said holding up a fake ballot, “I voted Republican.”
There was so little about this man Sean recognized.
“How’s your boy?” he now asked.
“Sam’s doing well,” he said.
He nodded. Then he nodded to the bartender to bring him another beer.
“You’d love him. He’s not like me at all,” he said expecting a laugh. “He’s a natural athlete. He’s a little on the smaller side but demanded he be allowed to play football. I was a nervous wreck that first night-”
“How’s mom?” Lemon asked.
Sean sighed. Not only because of the flippant way in which he dismissed his only grandchild but because he knew he had a hand in it. He had resented Lemon for so long, kept him at arm’s length for most of his (and Sam’s) life, what other result did he expect? He gave him next to nothing but demanded extraordinary measures from him. And when those extraordinary measures weren’t forthcoming (how could they be?) it only compounded his anger and disappointment. It wasn’t fair and was designed to fail. He also felt his father had no use for him other than a means to his mother. It was the only question that mattered, that ever mattered to Lemon. It had just been a question of when.
“Is she married?”
Sean laughed involuntarily. “No. She’s not interested in that at all. (Because of you he thought unfairly.) She’s busy with her dog park friends.”
Lemon made a face. “Who?”
He was sure Lemon didn’t even know what a dog park was. “They are friends she made walking her dog. They go out for wine, go to museums. She’s busier than I am.” His father’s face was blank. “It’s a designated area just for people to bring their dogs. They can let them off their leashes-”
“Because if she was I would be pissed off. I’ve been asking her to marry me for 35 years.” He downed the rest of his beer. “Think of that.”
That was typical of Lemon to simplify something that was utterly complex. Sean let it go. It seemed that Lemon and his mother calcified their relationship in opposite ways: Lemon had romanticized it, she had demonized it. Watching him sitting on the bar stool stooped over, hair on the verge of falling out he hadn’t the heart to contradict him. Even a few years ago he would have railed at him, pointing out that it was his son, sitting with him, reaching out for a connection while she had moved on definitively, but he couldn’t. She was the only happy memory he had left in him.
“Take it easy.”
“I’m just saying. She’s the best woman in the world.”
“I know she is.”
“You tell her that,” he said unable to make eye contact with his only son.
That sense of hopelessness that he had always carried around with him in regards to Lemon was starting to resurface.
“What time is it?” Lemon asked, animated.
“Jeff is going to come over later and help me figure out how to use this cordless phone I bought.”
“Cordless phone? I didn’t even know they sold those anymore.”
“If you can stay you could talk to him.”
“Why would I need to talk to Jeff?”
Lemon shrugged. “He’s my best friend. I told him that,” he said and added without any self-pity, “He’s my only friend.”
“I know,” he motioned for the check. The bartender didn’t notice. He motioned again. He handed him a credit card.
“I gave him the cabin.”
Sean was hoping the topic of the cabin’s ownership wouldn’t come up. He could handle being put in the middle of his parents, by both of them. They had been doing that his entire life. He was equipped for that, he was an expert. But when it came to the cabin he was lost. Lemon had acquired the cabin in 1966 before he was born. He had spent his summers up there water skiing and fishing. As he got older he had always assumed he would inherit it or once he made his way in the world, became successful, somewhere in the back recesses of his heart waited for that call from Lemon to go in on it with him. One day the cabin would pass from father to son and from him to his own son, Sam. His mother told him he was crazy, that Lemon would never do that. First, she would say, you were raised by me. Second, you have my last name, not his. And third, he will keep that cabin from you despite me. He never believed it. Now it turned out his mother was right all along. He hated her too.
Behind the bar a thin older woman was tying her apron around her substantial waist.
“Sally, come over here,” Lemon said, motioning to her.
“Hey Lemon who’s this handsome young thing?” she asked in that overly flirty way that never seems out of place in a bar in the middle of the day.
“This is my son Sean.”
He shook her hand. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“I’ve heard a lot about you.”
I’ve heard nothing about you. Does he buy you drinks at the end of your shift? Tell you how my mother left him? Screwed him over? Does he tell you the kind of father he was? The lack of financial and emotional support he gave? No, I’m sure not. That’s not what guys like Lemon do. They put a great face on their lives and the choices they’ve made all while sitting alone, in a shitty bar in the middle of the afternoon. For a brief moment he felt like calling Lemon out. But he knew better. For every lie or half-truth he had indulged in, with this waitress, his drinking buddies, Jeff, himself, his mother had done the exact same. It took him most of his life to figure that out. The moral high ground, if it existed was just another part of the mythology we all create in order to survive. In the end everyone is consistently the hero of their own story.
“Hope to see you again,” she said and sauntered away. Lemon watched the heavy swaying of her hips.
“You called me at eight. Jeff calls at ten.”
“When you called me, I thought something was wrong. That mom had died. I had already started putting my pants on. Jeff always calls at ten.”
It was last Sunday when Sean called, breaking their five year silence. He hadn’t planned on calling that morning, although the desire to see his father had been burgeoning every year. He couldn’t get through a day without his mind circling back to his father. He told no one, at least not anymore. If the subject was broached his mother withered in choleric silence or set herself ablaze if she had consumed too much wine. His wife was no better. Having been raised by two reasonably blithe parents she couldn’t comprehend the immense vacuum left by Lemon and got tired of hearing about it. Sure, he had a Bible’s worth of complaints: he was financially negligible, selfish, self-absorbed and casually cruel. But he was also witty, charming, loyal, and didn’t give a rat’s ass what anyone thought about him. His wife was the inadvertent reason he called. They had woken up, hung over and in the shadow of a late night argument neither remembered. Her brother called cancelling dinner plans she had been looking forward to all week. When Sean balked she bellowed, “What about your father?” and stormed outside for some air. Fuck this, he said to the empty room, opened his phone and dialed his father’s number. He was barely aware of what he was doing when he heard the familiar sound of his father’s voice.
They paid and drove back to his dilapidated house. He walked Lemon in and was grateful Lemon had forgotten about Jeff. Sean slowly removed the cordless phone out of the box like something of great and inestimable value and plugged it in demonstrating how it worked and explaining that it would have to charge overnight before it could be used.
“And I can walk anywhere around the house?” he asked only-half joking.
Sean told him he could and probably out into the yard. He hung it up.
“That light means it’s charging.”
“Aw, that’s great. I’m becoming pretty modern,” he said with a chuckle.
“We should have lunch again?” Sean managed to say.
“My schedule is open,” Lemon said.
Lemon felt small in his arms. He wanted to assure him that they were friends. He hated the idea of his father with one friend. Now you have two, he wished to say, but didn’t. Not because it was sentimental or because of any residual disappointments but because as much as his bulging, angry heart wanted it to be, it just wasn’t true. Like so many things in Sean’s life, friendship with Lemon would have to be earned. He would have to cut loose the past and all the sour feelings that came from not having the father son relationship he wanted. It might require more strength than he had. Feeling his father’s thin, frail body in his arms it would be slow and might never happen. Maybe they didn’t have it in them. But he had to try.
Lemon watched from the window as Sean got into his car and rolled down the driveway. They each gave a single wave, then Lemon made his way to his bedroom and Sean home.
Sean was stunned and furious with himself when a couple of days later, over coffee with his mother when she told him with disgusted glee, that Lemon had been calling again.
“He leaves long idiotic messages,” she spat.
“Who can tell? I can’t understand half of what he’s muttering on about. Remember this, remember that. There’s still time. Something about a cantaloupe he has in his refrigerator for me. Nonsense. Utter nonsense.”
Once when he was a little boy he had to go to the airport with Lemon and they were running late, they needed to run to make it to the gate on time. So they ran, through the airport, Lemon with his tan raincoat towering above his son, the essence of confidence and cool. “We’re just like O.J. Simpson in those car commercials.” Sean nodded, the coolest kid in the world. It didn’t matter that he had no idea who O.J. Simpson was.
“Just ignore him.”
“I can’t believe I ever loved that man. He wore that green sweater to every family function for years. I would buy him sweaters, expensive sweaters for Christmas, birthdays. He never got the hint. It smelled. It was embarrassing. Remember when I threw away that sliver of broken mirror when I cleaned his house? I thought he was going to murder me. You don’t throw away people’s prized possessions. Prized possessions. That man makes no sense.”
“He thought you were dead.”
“The day I called him. He thought you were dead and was panicked.”
Anna was silenced, in a sick, demented way. The color drained from her face. She stood up and left her immaculately, if moderately decorated kitchen.
Jeff had the cabin. Lemon was calling his mother. And like always Sean was neither thought about nor included but left out in the cold, a worthless fool when it came to Lemon.
David Haight was born in Minneapolis and educated at Hamline University where he received a degree in English and later an MFA in Writing where he was distinguished by the Quay W. Grigg award for Excellence in Literary Study. He published the novel Overdrive in 2006, Me and Mrs. Jones in 2012 and his newest book, Lemon, a collection of short stories, will be published in August. He lives in the Twin Cities with his wife Lynn.