Jack Macek drove toward the weekend as if it were a prison sentence. Friday traffic on I-94 careened past him at 75 or 80, but Jack slowed to 65. He’d made good time through Chicago and it didn’t matter if he arrived at his father’s house in Michigan later than planned. He had to prepare anyway. He told himself to forget about the unfinished letters of recommendation and unrevised lectures he’d left back home in Wisconsin. Forget about all the things he didn’t like giving up even for a short time: drinks with Rosa before dinner, morning walks with his dog, a Saturday bike ride. Above all, remain calm. Take deep breaths and be prepared to watch Fox News at high volume for the next two days. Prepare to listen to his father sing the praises of Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. Prepare to hear jokes he’d heard his father tell a thousand times. Try to forget the mostly bitter past he and his father shared. He could take his time, Jack told himself. He had to take his time.
He wondered what his father wanted to discuss. He’d said over the phone he had urgent business. They needed to talk face-to-face. Jack assumed it had something to do with the inheritance. He was an only child, and he always figured his father had substantial savings from a dry-cleaning business he’d run for more than fifty years. But he couldn’t be certain. They’d never talked about such things, and Jack couldn’t decide if his father’s smallish ranch-style home reflected his modest circumstances, or if old age had made him even more unwilling to part with his money than he’d been when Jack was young. “So many things I don’t know about the man,” he muttered to himself. “So many things.”
He smiled as he looked out at the countryside. Spring had come to northwestern Indiana after a harsh winter. Trees had shed their heavy winter browns and grays and now wore a delicate layer of green. Farmland crouched waiting for corn and soybean planting. Nearing the Michigan state line, Jack could feel drivers become more agitated, as if they’d taken amphetamines. Michigan’s speed limit on the Interstate was 70, but traffic now drifted into the mid-80s, anticipating the liberation that was to come a few miles ahead. Jack stuck with 65, and began to feel guilty. Each moment he dawdled, he took away from time with his father. A good son doesn’t do that. A good son accepts the eccentricities of the old man his father had become. No, he doesn’t just accept them, he embraces them. It’s just two days anyway. Surely he could stand the man for such a short time. Then he could get on with his life.
He reset his cruise control to 70 and felt better. Driving faster seemed to increase his resolve. He wouldn’t lose his temper. His father wouldn’t get the best of him like last time. Or the time before that. And it was only two days, after all. A comma in time.
He pulled into his father’s driveway at half past two in the afternoon. His father had always been a stickler about his lawn, and what Jack saw when he got out of his Camry shocked him. By this time of year, his father had normally given the lawn a thorough spring raking. But there were now small twigs and leaves from the previous fall littering the grass. The lawn looked thin and patchy, with alternating spots of sickly brown and overgrown green, like splotches of hair on a burn victim’s scalp. It was obvious his father hadn’t performed his yearly ritual: a late-autumn fertilization. “Give the lawn a good high-nitrogen application just before the snow flies,” he’d said for as long as Jack could remember, “and grass will sprout in the spring like a pretty little lass’s garden patch.”
Jack felt the northwest breeze on his face as he stood in the driveway. Thin white cirrus clouds chalked a brilliant blue sky. His father’s front drapes were closed and the shutters on the bedroom windows in front were drawn tight. Jack walked to the front door, turned the knob. Locked. He could hear the television blaring from inside. He tried the doorbell, which unleashed frantic yapping from his father’s ancient miniature black poodle, Margaret Thatcher. After a few seconds of non-stop clamor, Jack could hear his father approach from somewhere inside the house. His voice boomed. “That’s enough, now! Maggie! It’s those damned Jehovah’s Witnesses again. Calm down!”
Fumbling. When the door opened, Jack was speechless. It was hard to believe his father had aged so noticeably in just six months. Anton Macek looked like an apparition emerging from a wall of dark sound. His thick waves of white hair had thinned so much that his broad forehead looked even broader than before. The effect was heightened by the narrowness of his shoulders, which looked as if they could no longer support his head. His father blinked at the afternoon sunlight. He focused on his son, but Jack could see he didn’t recognize him. Jack waited a moment, thinking he’d give him time to adjust to the light and the tall bearded figure in black chinos standing in the door. But his father’s face remained frozen.
“Dad, it’s me. Jack.”
“Well damn. What brings you to these parts, boy?”
“I told you I was coming for the weekend. Don’t you remember?”
“Sure, I knew that, boy. I remembered just fine.”
“Well then, here I am.”
Jack laughed and held his arms out. Anton responded in kind, his thin old man’s arms seemingly hanging on for life. He held the hug for a long time, then pushed away and looked at Jack. Anton’s bloodshot eyes were glassy.
After they’d exchanged a few pleasantries and Jack had brought his small duffel bag inside, he went to use the spare bathroom, which issued directly off the bedroom he slept in when he visited. As he entered the room, he put his hand over his mouth and nose. What was that foul stench? He walked to the bathroom, turned on the light. Littered across the wall-to-wall carpet were at least two dozen smallish mounds of dog-shit. Jake grimaced in disgust. He’d have to clean the mess up quickly if he was going to use the room for the weekend. He turned on the overhead fan and walked to the hallway closet, where he hoped to find cleaning supplies. He could hear the television blasting from the family room.
He was reassured to see that the housekeeper Odelia kept a good supply of paper towels, rug cleaner, and disinfectant, but he was also perplexed she hadn’t cleaned up after the dog. He thought she came around twice weekly, but there was no way diminutive Margaret could have produced all this shit in just a few days. It took him over a half hour to clean up the mess and remove stains. As he washed his hands in the sink, he noticed that one of three lights over the mirror was out. He made a mental note to replace it later, but again he wondered what was up with usually reliable Odelia.
Once he was in the family room, he had the impression his father hadn’t noticed his long absence. Jack sat in one of the twin easy chairs that stood about ten feet from the large-screen TV. His father smiled at him from the other chair. Between them stood an end table piled high with magazines and newspapers.
“Dad, what happened to Odelia?” His father cupped his ear and frowned.
“Can I turn the set down, Dad?” Jack shouted. “I can’t hear myself think.”
Anton frowned again, and shook his head. “We got the top of the hour coming.” His voice was more a screech than a shout. “You want to catch the latest news, don’t you, boy?”
“Sure,” Jack called back from across the end table. Making a megaphone of his hands, he tried again, this time more loudly. “Where’s Odelia?”
“Had to get rid of her,” his father responded. “She was stealing me blind.”
Jack’s face twisted into a look of puzzlement. “Odelia stealing? She’s been with you for more than twenty years. Odelia’s more honest than you or I.”
“Here it is. Right now,” said Anton excitedly, as the Fox News update began. He pointed an arthritic finger toward the screen. With his other hand he picked up the remote control and turned up the sound so loud it made Jack wince.
Jack surveyed the place from his chair as the booming newscast occupied his father. The general chaos of the house reflected the announcer’s litany of wars, terrorist attacks, natural disasters, and political scandals. Jack could see empty coffee cups and dirty glasses on the end table, on the cabinet next to the fireplace, and on the floor next to his father’s chair. He looked back at the kitchen, directly behind the chairs, where the counter was piled with encrusted dishes, an empty Fruit Loops box, junk mail, dirty silverware. Jack walked around the kitchen counter, and opened the cabinet under the sink. Just as he’d expected: the wastebasket overflowed with partially eaten TV dinners, candy bar wrappers, an empty tin of Spam, an empty can of Goya Hot Vienna Sausages, a crumpled bag of Doritos Spicy Sweet Chili Flavored Tortilla Chips, and a half-gnawed strip of beef jerky, among other things.
He walked back to the family room, where the news had almost ended. His father looked up at him with a blank expression.
“Have you gone to the Senior Café lately?”
“What’s that, boy?”
“Senior Café!” Jack’s throat already felt raw from yelling.
“They kicked me out, those bastards! One of the old gals said I felt her up. Hell, I was just playing with the old lady. She looked like she hadn’t had a thrill for a while. I told ‘em I’d come back with a gun and shoot up the place next time. Senior Café my ass!”
“Jeez, Dad. Those were good, nutritious meals for you—and at only three bucks. It looks like you’ve been eating crap.”
“I eat what I want,” said Anton, stabbing the air with his finger. “Hasn’t killed me in ninety-two years. The once-overs I get from the ladies tell me I’m on the money.”
Anton Macek went to Johanssen’s Fish Fry every Friday night. There’d been no exception to this rule for more than forty years, except for Christmas Eve and the funeral of Jack’s mother ten years ago. They sat at a table at the front window of the restaurant, where Anton liked to comment on women he saw in the parking lot.
Johannsen’s was the most popular restaurant in St. Joseph, a small town on Lake Michigan forty-five minutes north of South Bend. The place jumped with chatter. Families sat at most of the tables. Country music played from the loudspeakers while at the bar elderly regulars guffawed at their own jokes. They each greeted Anton warmly when he walked in.
Within a few minutes two heaping baskets of fried perch, French fries, and coleslaw arrived. Just as Jack expected, Anton went into his routine with the server, who was young, blond, and attractive in a country-music way. Her nametag read Charlotte.
“I know the fish is going to taste even better now that I’ve seen you, honey,” he said.
“Oh, Mr. Macek, how sweet. But back in the kitchen they tell me a girl has to watch out for you.”
“Well, I’ve been known to be successful with the ladies. They say around here I could charm the panties off a menopausal nun.”
“Jesus, Dad,” said Jack, shaking his head.
“You are a lady-killer, Mr. Macek,” said Charlotte without missing a beat.
The back-and-forth went on for a few minutes, until Charlotte had to get back to work. Jack chided himself for being embarrassed. He was no prude, and he’d seen and heard it all before from his father. But as Anton got older, his sexual banter seemed more obscene than mildly amusing.
“Boy, there’s something I wanted to tell you. Something that requires our immediate attention.”
Depending on his mood and circumstance, Jack felt varying degrees of irritation whenever Anton called him ‘boy.’ Prickly heat now rose up the back of his neck. Why the hell couldn’t Anton Macek call his fifty-eight-year-old son ‘son’? Or ‘Jack’ for that matter?
“What is it that requires our attention?”
“You’ve got to make a phone call. ASAP.”
Jack waited for the next shoe to drop, but his father said nothing as he stared over Jack’s shoulder into the middle distance. Jack turned around to see what had drawn his attention, but nothing stood out. Tables full of mostly overweight families, knotty pine paneling, deer antlers on the wall, an exit sign, a yellow arrow pointing to the restrooms, a faded color photograph of a sailboat on Lake Michigan.
“Dad? You said I have to make a telephone call. To whom?”
Anton looked directly at his son. “Steven Halperin. Remember him?”
Jack nodded. “Of course. My music instructor in high school. I think it was his first year teaching. I heard he lost an eye in a car accident some years ago. Wears an eye patch now, right? Why do I need to call him? I haven’t talked with the man for decades.”
Anton raised his hand as if to make an important announcement. “You need to call him so he can officially invite you to emcee the variety show.”
“What variety show?”
“The Alumni Variety Show,” responded Anton expansively.
“I didn’t know there was going to be an alumni variety show.” Jack held his beer glass up, catching Charlotte’s attention. He’d risk having his father make more lascivious remarks to the young server to get a refill.
“For the fortieth anniversary of your graduating class, boy,” said Anton, eyeing Charlotte’s slender arm as she removed Jack’s empty beer glass from the table.
“Man, to be sixty years younger,” said Anton, leaning toward Jack. “Do you think her nipples are the wide ones or those narrow little nubs? I like the latter but I’ve always been ecumenical.”
“Not so loud, okay, Dad? What’s this about a variety show?”
“Halperin says you’re the man to emcee it.” Again he raised his hand. “Because you emceed the senior variety show. You were the star, he said, and people still talk about it.”
“I doubt that’s true,” said Jack, after gulping half his pale ale. He wiped foam from his moustache. “I flubbed a lot of lines. I was scared to death. It felt like I raced through most of my introductions and jokes. I threw up after it was done. It’s one of my worst high school memories.”
“But you’ve been a teacher all these years, so the lines will be a breeze for you now.”
“I’m a professor, Dad. A professor.”
“Halperin says that when people hear you’re going to come back for an encore performance, they’ll be knocking down doors to be on the program. It’ll be a big deal. You on the same stage forty years later. Think of what the Palladium will do with it.”
“I don’t think so.”
“I told Stevie Wonder—that’s what I call Halperin because of the patch over his eye—that you’d do it. He just wants to hear it from the horse’s mouth.”
“You volunteered me without asking?”
“I figured it would be a feather in your cap, boy, an exclamation point on your career.”
“Dad, I’ve published dozens of books and articles. I’ve given talks and papers all over the world. Why do I need to emcee a variety show in my hometown? I don’t know anyone here any longer except you and maybe a few of your old buddies. I wouldn’t know what to do if they put me in front of an audience and had me tell jokes and introduce—what? What would I introduce? Trick dogs? Re-heated adolescent jokes? Magic skits with grandkids of some alum I don’t remember?”
“I told Stevie Wonder your emceeing the show was on my bucket list. To see you up on that stage. A crowning moment for you and me. Before I die, you on that stage, the star. Told him to move heaven and hell to make it happen.”
“My God. This was the urgent business you said you had to take up with me?”
Jack drained his glass and raised it again. Charlotte responded immediately.
“Now, calm down, boy,” said Anton, who’d taken only a few bites of his meal. Jack eyed the pile of crispy perch in front of his father. Was the old fool going to eat that or go home and eat more junk food?
He stared at Anton, who smiled impishly from across the table. Maybe he hadn’t understood how angry Jack felt. It was time to stop beating around the bush. This time, he’d make his father understand.
“Why is this on your so-called bucket list?” Jack’s voice rose in volume. “Because you missed the main event? Because you were either working or out with another woman? While Mom went to all my concerts and my baseball games and the senior variety show and parent-teacher conferences? And you couldn’t be bothered. Is that why? You want to give history a makeover and say: I saw my son’s variety show when he was the star. What the hell is that, Dad? There’s no re-doing the past. What’s done is done.”
Charlotte came over to deliver a third ale. She smiled brightly at Anton, looked at Jack with a concerned frown, then walked away without a word.
“That you told Halperin I’d do this reflects how little you really know me. You think I’d get a thrill fronting a local-yokel variety show. You never understood, Dad. Never once. Not me. Not Mom. Not anyone.”
Anton looked around the room, seemingly unmoved by Jack’s angry outburst.
Jack leaned in toward Anton and through gritted teeth said, “And Stevie Wonder doesn’t wear an eye patch.”
They ate in silence. Anton picked at his meal while Jack attacked his fish and fries and slaw and washed it all down with more ale. Anton insisted on paying. As he left a generous tip, he said nothing to Charlotte, not a single joke or off-color remark, which Jack took as a good sign. Maybe he’d finally penetrated his father’s thick skull and the man was mulling over his son’s acid-sharp words. Better late than never.
Not a word passed between father and son as they made their way home. Anton had insisted on getting behind the wheel, and Jack was happy to oblige now that he had several beers under his belt. Jack hated to drive at night anyway; his night vision was unreliable, and whenever he and Rosa went out to see friends in the evening, Rosa drove home. His father appeared to handle nighttime driving with ease. His ninety-two-year-old eyesight was unfailing, and his reaction times seemed normal.
Back in the house, Jack made directly to his bedroom. He’d said enough for one night. Let the old man digest his little speech. He made sure to close the bedroom door so that Margaret wouldn’t have access to the bathroom. If the dog had to go out in the middle of the night, his father could worry about it.
He called Rosa.
“Isn’t it crazy?” said Jack. “His bucket list, of all things. He seems more erratic than usual. He really is slipping.”
“It sounds like it means a lot to him, Jack.”
“But can you imagine me up in front of those people, telling inane jokes? Even if I agreed to do it, they’d see in five minutes I was a pointy-headed intellectual who didn’t speak their language. I would probably let slip a satirical remark about something political and they’d tar and feather me.”
“I really can’t imagine your doing it. But do you think Anton’s heart is set on this?”
“What are you saying? I should give it a try?”
“No, but…I don’t know. It’s up to you. But it could be a little thing that brings your dad and you together one last time. A small gesture with big consequences. While he’s still aware of things.”
“But all on his terms. Right down to the fact he’s already told Steve Halperin I’d do it.”
“As usual, he’s gone one step too far.”
“Two or three steps.” He paused and sighed. “I’ve got to get to bed, Rosie. I’m a little drunk, a lot angry, and I wish you were here next to me.”
“I wish you were here too…oh, before I forget, can you be on the road Sunday by, say, noon? So you can get home in time to help with the dinner. We have the Markowitzes over for a little cookout.”
“Of course. Let me know if I can pick something up on the way into town,” said Jack.
He lay in bed for another forty-five minutes, his mind plowing a single field. Rosa sounded like she thought he should agree to be master of ceremonies. Or had she? He could reel off the reasons for not doing it. He was no longer the person he’d been as a senior in high school. He’d purposely made himself into someone else. He’d been a lousy emcee then and he’d make an even lousier emcee now. He was a scholar, not a backslapping, joke-telling bumpkin. And did his father really have a bucket list?
He drifted into sleep. He woke up once, agitated and sweaty, at two, and realized he’d been reliving the jokes he blew at the variety show forty years before. Even more disconcerting was seeing his mother sitting by herself in the front row of the auditorium. She looked abandoned and vulnerable, and Jack felt a searing pang of sadness that his father wasn’t there beside her.
As he slipped into his bathrobe at seven, he heard scratching at the bedroom door. When he opened it, a black object darted past him toward the bathroom. He followed it, turned on the light, and saw Margaret squatting on the floor. He shook his head in disbelief. How could so much shit come from such a small body?
He walked down the hallway to fetch cleaning supplies, only to feel a soft squish under his right foot. He looked at his foot and curled his lips in disgust. Not only was his foot filthy but there were messes strewn up and down the hallway, where a veritable shit-fest had occurred. It stunk like a Texas cattle truck, and Jack feared that last night’s dinner was about to make an uninvited appearance.
He could hear Anton snoring from behind his closed door. Jack resisted the urge to pound on the door and rouse him.
After twenty minutes of frenzied, profanity-laced cleaning, he took a long shower.
Feeling calmer, he walked to the kitchen, where his father sat in yellowed underwear and watched a portable TV on the counter. A morning news show, complete with happy chatter and misinformed commentary, was on full volume.
“Margaret shat all over the place,” Jack shouted.
Jack turned down the volume control. “Margaret shat in the spare bathroom and hallway,” he shouted.
“You don’t have to yell, boy. My hearing’s fine. You’re gonna have to look into one of those hearing aids for old fogies.”
“Did you know she’s been doing her business in the spare bathroom?” asked Jack, now in a normal voice.
“Well, I guess Maggie needs her privacy like everyone else, huh?”
Jack felt his throat tighten. He took in a deep breath and let out a long sigh.
His father turned the volume up again and sat, absorbed in the show. Jack had decided in the shower that constant activity was his only hope. So he started with breakfast. He fixed a massive amount of scrambled eggs and toast, Anton’s favorite. He slathered the toast with butter and grape jam and plopped a bottle of Tabasco sauce on the counter.
“Dad,” he said, as his father doused his eggs with pepper sauce. “I’m going to call Odelia and have her come back on a regular basis. Also, I’ll give Senior Café a buzz to apologize for you, in case you want to have some decent food for a change. Okay?”
“You know, boy, that brunette, the chatty co-host, she’s been wearing shorter skirts.” Anton pointed toward the screen. “Their ratings must be hurting, huh? Not that I mind seeing nice gams first thing in the morning.”
After cleanup, Jack made his phone calls. He’d decided not to worry about his father’s approval. He needed extra care, and his caregivers would have to understand they might get a little static from the old man. It was way too early to think about a rest home, and Jack doubted his father would agree to leave his house anyway. “The only way I’ll leave this place is horizontally,” Anton had huffed the last time Jack brought up the subject.
It took almost a half hour to smooth things over with Odelia, who was rightly insulted by Anton’s accusations. He called Senior Café, apologized, and told them his father was determined to be on his best behavior. They said they’d discuss re-admitting him to the program.
He went out into the front yard, where he would spend a few hours tidying up the lawn and garden beds, then look into a lawn service. As he worked outside, Lenny Adamic, an old neighbor, stopped to chat. Jack made the happy discovery that Lenny had a teenage grandson living with him who needed part-time work. Jack agreed to pay the grandson each time he came over to mow the lawn. For a little extra, he’d also let Margaret out several times a day.
Pleased he’d accomplished so much in a few hours, Jack went inside. He found his father asleep in his easy chair in front of a high-volume Fox News broadcast discussing secret links between Oprah Winfrey and al-Qaeda. He sunk into the easy chair and switched off the television. The silence tasted like honey on toast.
“So, you’re going to do the emcee bit, right, boy?”
Anton’s voice startled Jack, who’d been absorbed in a book for the half hour his father slept.
“Yes. Do I need to call Steve Halperin right now?”
“He’s been out of town on vacation, but he said he’d be back late tonight.”
“I’ll call him tomorrow then.”
“That’s great, boy. See? I knew I could get you on board. Your old man knows you through and through, huh? You can’t resist the bright lights and big stage.”
“Maybe I can find an Emceeing for Dummies, or something like that,” said Jack laughing.
“Aw, you won’t need any help, boy. Just do like you did back in the day.”
On went the television set. Fox News had turned to a panel discussion on President Obama’s birth certificate.
While still on the Interstate in Michigan, Jack decided to call Halperin. He normally never talked on his cell in the car but it had been too early to call before leaving that morning, and if he waited too long now, he would have second thoughts. He punched in the number and hoped no one would answer.
When Halperin answered after two rings, he sounded as loquacious as ever, just as Jack remembered him. They said their hellos, and Jack told him he was willing to be the emcee. Several seconds of silence followed and Jack thought his call had been dropped.
“You didn’t know?” said Halperin finally.
“I had to cancel. Not enough interest. I’d told everyone it was a sure thing you’d be the emcee, thinking this was a can’t-miss way to get people on board. But you know how it is, especially for an August event. Families, vacations, jobs.”
Jack smiled broadly but his initial relief soon gave way to disappointment. He’d wrestled with the decision, only to find that all his emotional energy had been for nothing. Should he feel hurt? Maybe he wasn’t the draw everyone expected him to be.
“My dad’ll be heartbroken.”
“Anton? No way, I told him it was off before I left town. He took it in stride. Your dad’s a tough old buzzard.”
“So he forgot?”
Another brief silence. “I don’t know what to say, Jack, but I doubt it. Your dad’s been slipping a little lately, it’s true, but he’s still pretty sharp when he needs to be. I don’t think he’d forget something like this.”
“Listen, Jack, sorry this didn’t work out. It would’ve been a really good event. I appreciate your willingness to do it. Unfortunately we’re a no-go.”
Through the windshield Jack watched Chicago stream by, then northern Illinois and the Wisconsin state line. He promised himself he wouldn’t brood about the matter, wouldn’t think about sins of omission or commission. He was going back home, back where he wanted to be, that was all that mattered. He pondered whether to listen to an audio book or switch on the radio. He chose the radio. He needed background music and pointless chatter, nothing too involving. But the music riveted his attention. It was an old Stevie Wonder song. He’d danced to it in high school, memorized the lyrics. Jack sang the words: “We’ve got to search each other’s minds. We’ve got to read between the lines.”
Rudy Koshar asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work