We ate out at a fast food place. I had a burger and Dad had a salad because he was trying to lose weight, but he still put dressing on it. He couldn’t stomach it any other way. When we walked out, we made sure to stuff ketchup packets in our pockets and napkins in our backpacks. For a treat, we grabbed handfuls of peppermints to put in the cupholder. We each unwrapped one as we turned onto College and went towards the hotel.
We listened to some music on cassette and Dad smoked out the window. The whole car smelled like smoke. And it all stuck around because we didn’t have leather seats. It was in the fibers of the seats and it stunk so bad we were pretty sure we couldn’t make a penny off the car anymore except for as scrap metal. Once or twice, Dad told me I could smoke if I wanted to. I always said no. He always looked sad when he offered them to me. He couldn’t not offer them to me because if he did he’d look like a hypocrite, but he never wanted me to say yes.
He was thinking something. He tossed his cigarette out the door and unwrapped another mint. “Hey,” he said, like he was getting into something, but then he just said, “you got any homework due tomorrow?”
I shrugged and put my head against the window. “Some book problems for math.”
“Oh yeah?” he asked. He was searching for something to say about it, but he couldn’t cook anything up. “You like math?”
“Sometimes,” I said. “We’re learning statistics now. I don’t know if I like statistics.”
Dad nodded. He was anxious. He bit his mint in half and ground it up into powder with his teeth. “I was thinking,” he said with his finger tugging at his ear, “I was thinking maybe about having some of my buddies come over tonight. You think that would be all right? I just don’t want to bother you if you have homework or anything.”
I didn’t want to say no. “That’s fine.”
He wasn’t done. “I was thinking we’ll probably drink, too,” he said. He licked his lips and tried to think of other things to do with his body so he didn’t have to focus on what he was saying. “So they might have to spend the night in the room. I uh — you’ve got your sleeping pack, though, so if they have to sleep on the beds, you’ll be OK, right?”
My back was still hurting from sleeping on the floor in my pack the past couple of weeks, but— “Yeah, sure, I’ll be ok.”
“OK,” Dad said. He took in a breath. He felt relieved. “That’s good. I’m always scared you don’t like my friends. I want you to like them, I think they’re good guys. Carla didn’t like them but — sorry, you probably don’t like it when I call her Carla.” He kept driving for a little ways until we got stopped at a traffic light and he couldn’t distract himself anymore. “The guys like you, too. They think you’re really smart.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“Don’t thank me. They’re the ones who think you’re smart,” Dad said. “I think you’re real stupid.” Dad wasn’t comfortable when he joked. It was like a suit that didn’t fit him just right and the folds were showing at the seams. I smiled anyway. I couldn’t fake a laugh, but I could smile. “Most of those guys don’t have kids, though. They’re jealous of me. Because I got a kid like you.”
I looked at the stereo and turned up the volume. “I like this song.”
The hotel room still didn’t feel like home. Dad had said it would start to at some point, but it never really did. I think it’s because I knew what a home was really like when I went back with Mom every week, so I knew what a real house was like to live in and what having a real room was like. It was easier for Dad because he stayed there every night. It just made more sense to him. He even called it home. I called it the hotel, which I think made him sad sometimes, but he never told me about it if it did.
There was a bag with his toiletries on the counter. Little hairs dotted the bottom of the sink and crusted over shaving cream was stained on the lips of the drawers. He went to the TV first and turned on something with the volume low. It was some reality show I didn’t know but all the people on the screen looked fake with huge pecs and plastic breasts. I put my bag down in the corner and started fishing out my statistics homework while Dad went to the phone and punched in a number.
“Hey,” he said. He was quiet, thinking it wouldn’t disturb me. “Yeah, Arthur said he’s ok with it. You can come on over. Yeah, you can spend the night too. Yeah, yeah I got a bed and a pullout on the couch too. I’ll go down to the lobby and wait for you, ok? I’ll see you soon.” He hung up the phone on the receiver and turned his head back to the television. He watched for a bit and then turned to me as I was putting in my earbuds. “Did you hear what I said on the phone?”
I had heard.
“Good, good,” Dad said. “Listen, I’m going to go down to the lobby to wait on Charley. I’m gonna get myself some coffee, I think. Is there anything you want?”
“I’ll be good,” I said. “I need to get some sleep after I finish this.”
“Yeah,” Dad said. “Of course.” He walked over to put his shoes on and futzed with his hair in the mirror. He was into the girl who was behind the desk in the lobby. She was too young for him, I thought, and I was fairly certain that Dad misread her hospitality as flirtation, but it kept him busy, so I didn’t say anything about it. When he was done fixing his loose hairs, he tossed the remote on the bed. “You can change it to whatever you want.”
He went out the door with a pep in his step that looked younger than he did. When the door shut, I clicked the television set off and crammed my earbuds down into their places, until an almighty godlike force couldn’t have dislodged them. I turned the volume all the way up, even when my phone warned me I was going over the recommend levels. I let the light get low enough that it hurt my eyes to look at the numbers in the textbook, but I didn’t get up to switch on the overheads.
It was probably thirty minutes or so before the door opened again. I was almost done with my problems. I was mad I hadn’t finished before they had gotten here. Now I was going to have to try and keep the numbers up in my head while they were drinking and holding cigarettes out the open window. When they walked in around the corner, I stood up so I could say hello. Charley always wanted to shake my hand and clap me on the back with his big, meaty fingers and ask me how school was going and ‘if there was a special lady in my life’.
Charley was a big guy, not fat, just really tall and he wore cargo pants that never fit him quite right so you could always see the outline of his genitals pressing against his slacks when he sat down. I wasn’t sure I liked Charley, but he liked me.
“Hey kiddo, how’s it going? Whoa hey, what’s it you’re working on there?” he said, having spotted my statistics homework. He turned his shoulder to my dad. “What did I say Jack? Ace in the hole, this kid. Look at that shit he’s working on. I couldn’t do that.”
“Yeah, I’m sure as hell proud of him,” Dad said. He always seemed like a better father in front of other people.
“Uh,” I said, “it’s statistics. For math.”
“Math,” Charley mouthed. He put his big hands up as if he were doing a magic trick to make a show of it when he said the word. “I was never very good at math. What about you, kid? Are you very good at math?”
“I’ve got an A,” I told him.
“Well shit,” Charley said. I couldn’t tell if he was actually impressed or if he was just seeming like it so that he wouldn’t feel so bad when he got trashed later and fell asleep on the bed I should’ve been sleeping in. “Hey look, Jack, Roger and Terry said they would be here in a few. They’re catching a cab from downtown, but if you want to get started right now, I don’t see why not. And I’ve been dry for twenty-four hours now, I’m itching for something to stimulate me, man.” He laughed and punched my dad playfully on the shoulder. “What you say we open a bottle?”
“I’m down,” my dad said. I didn’t like it when he talked like that. Like he was younger than he was. He was fat. And his hair was falling out. And he wore sweats and watched golf. He shouldn’t be ‘down’ for anything. I was distracted, so I didn’t hear the first part of what Dad said next. “ — how about you set up your sleeping back at the foot of my bed?”
I blinked. “Yeah. Sounds good. I just gotta finish one more problem.”
Dad tousled my hair in a way that made me feel small and like I didn’t matter at all. Charley got a kick out of it. He thought he was watching something affectionate: a father showing love for his son. I thought he was seeing something different.
“Proud of you, kid,” Dad said. He didn’t call me kid when we were alone. “Let us know if we’re getting too loud.”
It took me twice as long to finish up my last math problem. I kept on getting distracted because Charley laughed so loud and burped even louder. And even though they had the window open, the smell of their cigarettes was still hurting my head and when my head was hurting, it was hard to think about much else, especially statistics. When I was finished, I put on my headphones and slid into my sleeping bag. I turned the volume all the way up and even though the pressure of the pieces of plastic in my ears and the thrum of the music made my head hurt even worse, I didn’t turn them down because hearing them would be worse.
His other friends showed up too. They, like Charley, were loud and smelly, and not cleaned. They had stubble on the bottoms of their chins and not in the sort of way that made them look rugged or natural, just in the sort of way that made it look like they didn’t care enough to shave. Eventually, my ears got used to how loud my music was, and I could hear their voices over it. They were talking about fucking and fighting. They were talking about the women who had broken their hearts and screwed them over in court.
They were all telling each other how bad it had got.
They were all feeling sorry for themselves.
I don’t know why but something about it made me sadder than I had been in a long time. Not as sad as when Dad told me to pack my things in the car, we were going to a hotel. Not as sad as when he made me leave the posters on my wall. But pretty sad. It was something about the way my Dad looked like he wasn’t even an adult anymore. He looked stupid. He looked like he was stuck in this room forever, like he couldn’t get out of the smoke, like wherever he went, no matter how many showers he took, no matter how many times he brushed his teeth, he would never get rid of the smoke.
I was mad at him. I was mad at him for not holding on. I was mad at him for getting mad himself and for thinking about that girl behind the desk in the hotel lobby who was too young for him anyway. I was mad he was fat and his diet wasn’t going anywhere. I was mad he was giving up and he wasn’t even trying anymore. I was mad that he was letting me sleep in a bag while he and his friends bought an adult film to watch on the TV.
I let myself be mad.
It felt good.
For a bit.
But when the movie was over, when the television set went dark, and the room was still and all the blankets were thrown up because the beer had knocked them all straight up, then all that mad that I let up inside of me started to feel less good. It felt like wearing a sweaty shirt. Dad got up from the bed. He looked at all his friends sleeping where his son should have been. I don’t think he realized I was still awake, didn’t think he knew my eyes were open too and I was looking at the same room he was.
He went around the room and picked up beer cans and cigarette filters. He put them in a bag and walked down the hall with them. When he came back he was crying. I don’t know when he started, but he was crying now. It was a soft sort of crying, the sort of crying someone cries when they don’t want anybody else to hear. It was the sort of crying someone cries when they’re just tired and don’t know what to do to make it all better.
He sat down by the window.
He waited for the sun to come up.
Garrick Bateman is a recent high school graduate from Colorado. As far as he knows, he is the only person not to have seen The Office. The time he doesn’t spend writing is spent thinking about all the things he could be writing. Or watching rock climbing videos.