By Sabrina Tom
Just before the Fourth of July my father Vince called and asked to visit. The last time I saw him I was in New York working as a set designer. My trademark was overlapping red circles. That was before September 11th, when people wanted to be noticed. Now they stay behind the scenes.
Three years had passed. I was living in California, a few blocks off the Venice boardwalk. I sat at the kitchen table, erasing the names of people I'd lost contact with from my organizer. I always wrote in pencil. The phone rang.
"I'm coming to California tomorrow," Vince said. "I thought we could do something."
"Sure," I said. "Let's go to the beach."
"Denny's coming too," he said.
"Who's Denny?" I said.
"My driver," he said. "My eyes are weak these days."
The next day they showed up at my door. Vince had on dark sunglasses with gold rims. He kissed me on the forehead. I summoned up daughterly affection and offered a hug. Denny stood behind him, but when I stuck out my hand, he reluctantly stepped forward. He did not say hello. He wore a baseball cap which cast a shadow over his face. Still, I got a good enough look at him to guess that he was probably about the same age as me.
"Let's go to the mall," Vince said. "I'm hungry and Denny wants to buy a pair of pants."
"The ones with the army pattern."
"I guess that's the fashion these days."
We got into the rental, Denny in the driver's seat. I sat in the back but leaned forward so I could give directions. The radio was set to a classical music station. Mozart. A Little Night Music.
"Eine kleine schweine," Vince said, playing with the German. It meant this little piggy, and I was supposed to give a thumbs up and say, ging zum Markt.
"I played this on piano." Vince had bought me a Steinway for my fifth birthday.
"Really?" he said. He turned in his seat and smiled at me. I could see the wrinkles around the outer edges of his eyes. "I'd like to hear you play sometime."
"Okay," I said, even though I'd quit.
Denny pressed a button and pop music filled the car. He tapped his fingers on the steering wheel and wiggled his shoulders.
Nobody spoke again until we were on the third floor of the mall, in front of the Orange Julius at the entrance of the food court. Vince gave me some money and told me to get whatever I wanted. Then he put a hand on the small of Denny's back and guided him inside. They stopped at the Wok Express and ordered Chinese. From a few feet away, I watched Vince point to the noodles and fried rice and vegetables. I saw him mouth instructions: this one, that one, no, too much.
I got a slice of pizza and joined them at the table. Denny chewed slowly, with his mouth open, and stopped often to lick his teeth. Next to the napkin dispenser, on a piece of tissue, were four tiny rubber bands. Not the colored ones, hot pink, electric blue, candy apple green, blood red, which were popular among teenagers. Nothing that conspicuous. These were the old-fashioned clear kind, the same ones I had worn.
"His teeth really bother him," Vince said, picking up the rubber bands and putting them in his pocket.
"How long does he have to wear braces?" I could barely say the word. It belonged to another world. I pictured Vince helping Denny floss at night, using a special pick to get the food out from between the cracks. I imagined Denny sitting on the toilet, staring at the bathroom ceiling, as Vince tended to his mouth.
"Another year," he said. "Then he'll be perfect." Vince smiled, revealing his own teeth, which had never known orthodontics. They were jagged and brown, third world teeth.
Denny kept his eyes on the plate. He had been silent throughout lunch. I wondered if he knew, or cared, that we were talking about him.
I imagined more scenarios: Vince handing Denny a cup of mouthwash. Gargle. Spit. Vince taking a handkerchief out of his pocket to wipe Denny's mouth after a soupy meal, a bowl of Wheetabix, ice-cream. Vince pampering, fussing, making Denny presentable. He would only bring him out on certain occasions, introduce him to people who were too polite or too shocked to ask questions.
We finished eating and dumped the leftovers. We walked through the mall. Denny took the lead. I linked my arm through Vince's and, like a nurse, drew him along.
Denny found what he was looking for in the window of Structure, a men's clothing store. The pants had two deep front pockets and two more huge back pockets. They were the kind of pockets made for keeping important possessions. I wondered if he even owned a wallet. The pants were dark green and light green and brown.
Denny went in back to try them on. I walked around the store, pretending to be interested in the items on the rack, but the place wasn't very big and I got bored after my third time around. Vince positioned himself in front of the mirror, waiting for Denny. I stood next to him, then stepped out of the way.
Denny came out of the dressing room. The bottom of his pants dragged along the floor. They were at least three inches too long. Vince bent down, one knee planted on the ground. He folded the hem and made a one-inch cuff.
"The other way," Denny said. Vince groaned, but he unfolded the cuffs as instructed. Then he tucked the hems inside. Now they were just the right length, hitting at the heels. He grabbed the bottom of each pant leg and gave it a good yank. Satisfied, he told Denny to move around a bit. Denny squatted and stood up again. The hems stayed put.
Next he went to work on the waist. "You're wearing these too low," he said. He stood behind Denny, stuck a finger through two belt loops above the back pockets, and pulled them up. He held them there for Denny to inspect. The waistline was above his belly button. "Isn't that better?"
Denny wiggled away from him. He shot him a don't-touch-me look. The pants slid back down around his hips.
"At least get a belt," he said. He turned to me. "Would you find Denny a belt, please?"
It was the first time anyone had spoken to me since we entered the store. I walked over to the belt rack and surveyed my options. I chose two, one black and one brown. I brought them over to Vince, but by then he had already signed the credit card receipt and thanked the saleswoman behind the counter. She asked if he would like to be on the mailing list. He didn't respond, his back turned to her. He handed Denny the plastic bag.
"Thank you," Denny said.
"You're welcome," Vince said, and squeezed his shoulder.
We piled back into the car and I asked them to take me home. I looked out the window and watched the sun fall behind the ocean, the sky getting progressively darker as we drove down the street. Ahead of us, a row of streetlights flickered and blinked and turned on just as we passed them. It was as if our presence had ignited them and I felt a certain protectiveness over this exquisite action.
"This is my favorite time of day," I said, because it was—when the hard lines soften, when the difference between a man walking down the street and oblivion is a step into the shadow.
"I wish we were back in Kauai," Denny said. "It was prettier there."
"It was a wonderful trip," Vince said.
"No way." I spat out my words. It wasn't much of a retort, but it was all I could think of.
We passed a black sedan, which shimmered in the dusky light like an opal. Vince spoke to me through the rearview mirror. He was still wearing his sunglasses. "Didn't you used to sing in the chorus?"
He started up a King James song. After the first refrain, he replaced the words with doo-be-doos. He threw his head back and pretended to blow the trumpet, his fingers pumping imaginary keys. Denny rolled his eyes and told him to stop.
I sank into the cushion, knowing that in a matter of minutes we'd pull up in front of my house and I'd say goodbye to Vince from the back seat of the rental. I knew he'd ask me if I were free the next day and I would tell him I was busy. What I didn't know was that he would hear the edge in my voice, that he was still my father enough to sense that something was wrong, but not my father enough to ask. I knew he wouldn't call for another few years. I knew I needed some time to decide what I really thought of him. And for this reason, I resolved to enjoy the ride. I even expected to forgive him.
I rolled down the window and stuck my head out, inhaling the salty breeze, the smell of barbecue. I looked up at the silhouettes of palm trees, the open-air balconies, the two stars in the sky. This was beauty as I saw it on a summer night in my twenty-seventh year—urban, distilled, full of invention and endurance. This place would last long after my small life ended, long after Vince and Denny went back to their hotel room, powdered, and gawked at each other in the bathroom mirror. I heard a pop, followed by a sequence of more pops. I thought the engine was giving out. Then other explosions, these overhead, louder and fuller, until the sky became an inferno of primary colors. And I was briefly, wildly happy. Who wouldn't be? Whose heart is so hardened that it can't enjoy a fireworks show, who doesn't want to feel like a kid again?