Hard-as-a-rock chicken fingers embalmed in Tupperware, a linen blouse still swimming in Woolite and an almost expired train pass tucked discretely under the toaster oven —those were the first clues that it had all changed—overnight. It had all come to a harrowing halt even before the Subaru got gassed up for the Monday run, before the teen-applied midnight-blue liner and eggshell gloss on a sleep-deprived, dehydrated face and even before she stashed her Vegemite sandwich and air-popped side inside a bulging backpack.
And the Venetian blinds had gone half-mast even before the kittens shifted their weight, before they bounced down the oak stairway for an on-the-house, mackerel-scented meal.
“Where’s mom?” Lucinda asked, as her father filled the cat bowls with clear water. Standing dangerously close to the burner, he shoveled scrambled eggs onto paper plates.
“Did she already go to Zumba?”
“Zumba? What’s that?”
“Seriously, dad. Do you and mom ever talk?” Lucinda scraped a spoonful of egg onto a rice cake, took a small bite and threw the rest away in the trash.
“Is that all you’re eating?”
“Yes, father, that’s all I’m eating,” she laughed. “I told you we’re going on a field trip. We’ll have snacks on the bus.”
“Lu, I’ll chaperone.”
“I don’t know if you can. They had mom’s name on the list—”
“Lu, it will work out. Let’s go.”
Bruce Bozeman had always been an emotional driver and today was no different. Lucinda air punched his shoulder when he ran the first red light.
“When I get my license, I’m going to be super careful. Hint hint.”
“Mom said we could shop for my dress. Will you remind her?”
“What dress? You have enough clothes to sink a battleship.”
“Homecoming, duh. Hey, can you stop speeding?”
Bruce abruptly pulled over to the curb and checked for messages on his phone.
“We’re not going to be late, Lu. Just want to check—”
“You can’t wait until I’m at school? Do you care if I get a detention?” Lucinda leafed through her folders and pulled out a form. “You’d better sign the permission slip.”
After ten minutes of gridlock, they entered the school zone. Lucinda poked her head out of the window when she saw her friend’s mother by the school entrance.
“Mrs. Grazek? Are you going on the field trip?”
“Yes, but it turns out we have more than enough chaperones. Didn’t your mom get the text last night?”
“Well, dad. Looks like you’re off the hook,” Lucinda said. She grabbed the signed form and ran up the steps, pausing to do a quick selfie.
Already worlds away, Bruce dumped the contents of his entire wallet out on the Formica counter, plucked out a few bills and hailed the hefty server, whose cheap, paper hat dipped over one bloodshot eye.
“Over easy, buttered rye and coffee. Hot,” Bruce commanded without benefit of the menu. When he saw another walking, three-piece suit, he flashed Cliff Moss a disingenuous smile.
“Good of you to come, Cliff.”
“I love this place,” Cliff replied, gaping at the signed photographs of local hockey stars. “So this is ‘The Palace’”? Doesn’t look much like a palace, does it now, Bruce?”
“Not my game, Cliff, but they have the best corned beef hash in Chicago.”
“Good, I’ll try some of yours.”
“I didn’t order any,” Bruce laughed. “Just like to know I can have it if I want. That’s the joy of living in a big city. So how are things?”
“How are things?” Cliff responded, looking serious. “Bruce, it’s not like you to call me for such an early outing? How are things with you? We haven’t talked since you and Alise got back from Maui.”
Bruce gazed intently at the autographed, king-sized trophy on the pine ledge.
“Bruce? Earth to Bruce,” Cliff muttered, pointing eagerly to a photo of the Stanley Cup Skillet, a pan dripping with bacon fat, jalapenos, baby reds and Chihuahua, when the server grunted a reluctant greeting.
“We went to the Goat Surfing Dairy, where they sell that herbed cheese and never did get to the winery.”
“I heard Willie Nelson owns a club there. Did Alise get to meet him?”
The gleaming trophy suddenly looked antiquated and tarnished. “Look, I shouldn’t have bothered you. Let’s wrap it up. We’ll get together soon.”
“Are you nuts? We just ordered,” Cliff said, staring at the pile of abandoned business cards and receipts crowding his friend’s plate. Bruce tore a twenty out of his vest pocket and slid it under the empty mug.
Bruce drove to the dry cleaners and handed the cashier a receipt. “Your wife picks up your shirts, Mr. Bozeman,” she said, arching her eyebrows and coaxing a lock of dishwater blonde hair across her left cheek, “but it’s nice to finally meet you.”
Bruce checked his messages before glancing at the desk calendar, which featured glossies of the Greek Islands. Although his throat burned, he flipped the pages back so he could see the familiar, whitewashed houses of Mykonos, where he and his young fiancé had eloped despite their parents’ disapproval.
“Mr. Bozeman?” The cashier had already whipped her index finger through a series of neatly pressed garments that were smothered in plastic and hanging on a metal hook. She handed him a stapled, cardboard box.
“Oh,” he said, grabbing the box. With the tight string tugging at his fingers, he headed towards the door.
“Mr. Bozeman,” she said, sounding fatigued. “That will be—”
“Oh, God, sorry,” he said, pulling his credit card out of his wallet.
“Your wife pays cash,” she said curtly. “The sign says we need singles.”
“Look, I’m sorry again. I’m sorry. Sorry. Sorry. So just hold my shirts hostage a little longer and I will get you cash. Okay?”
Bruce saw that he had a text message. It was his mother-in-law hogging the screen. She always communicated in complete sentences, ending the message with her full name, as though he wouldn’t have recognized the paranoid woman, who had formed a gulch between her daughter and son-in-law for the last seventeen years.
“Serena, is Alise there? I haven’t heard from her all day.”
“It’s not the first time. Don’t you lock the doors at night?” Bruce could imagine Serena’s thin lips sealed as tightly as a childproof bottle of aspirin.
“It would really help if you wouldn’t jump on me like this. Have you heard anything?”
“I don’t know what’s going on with Alise, but you’re some prize, Bruce,” she stammered. “Some prize. I was obligated to contact you because of my poor granddaughter—”
“Since you don’t have the slightest bit of faith in me, Serena, why even call?”
As Bruce disconnected the phone, he felt waves of heat rising up to his temples, but before he could slow his pulse, there was another call.
“Cramps? Yes, she gets them. Can’t she just lie down in the nurse’s office? Or can’t they give her some applesauce or something?”
Bruce’s hazard lights were still on. He had parked in front of a hydrant temporarily so that he could get his dry cleaning, but even when he saw a police car drive by, he couldn’t muster the strength to re-park his vehicle in a legal spot.
So he opened the car door, let himself in and collapsed in the front seat. After drifting off into a heavenly slumber for what seemed like an entire afternoon, he was awakened by Cliff’s staccato horn.
“Bruce, there’s a space at the end of the street. Park the car. How about we talk?”
Ignoring the request, Bruce walked outside to the crumbling curb and fixed his eyes on a small crew of construction workers. He found their sooty, orange belts strangely appealing against the cloudless, colorless sky.
He maneuvered the car as cautiously as a student driver, but when he pulled down on the gearshift to parallel park, he realized that his nerves were like firing pistons every time he shifted gears; it felt like barbed wire was digging into his palm. He walked over to Cliff’s car, smiling weakly and somewhat apologetically.
“Lu’s ill. I might have to pick her up.”
“What a shame. Gail said they had a field trip. Something about The Inca Trail.”
“I don’t know. Maybe they came back early?”
“Alise called my wife today. Why didn’t you say anything, Bruce?”
Bruce stared at the Pekingese peeing on the fire hydrant. “What do you want me to say, Cliff? I mean, it’s not the first time.”
“What will you tell Lu?” Cliff asked.
“Damn it, Cliff. Nothing’s final. She’s not a little girl.”
“Have you called her, Bruce? Have you asked her to come home?”
“Damn it, Cliff. She left me a pile of dirty dishes, a kid with PMS—”
“Have you called her, Bruce?” Cliff repeated.
Bruce shrugged and checked his messages:
“Daddy, dying. bad food. Pick me up. Do you remember me? Lu.”
“It’s Lu,” Bruce growled. “Got to go. Thanks for being a friend.”
Bruce has always been an emotional driver and today was no different. He was only aware of it now because Lucinda was calling him out.
“Dad,” Lucinda groaned. “Slow down.”
“What did the nurse say? Will you be okay?” asked the half-dad, half-prosecutor.
“Yeah, I guess.”
“How can you stomach that vegetarian stuff, Lu? Will you ever get off that kick?’
“I never even ate the sandwich, dad. We ate at the food court. So is mom taking me?”
Bruce swung the car over to the curb. A Jerry Lee Lewis hit was blaring from the outdoor speakers; a couple of light-hearted teens were jitterbugging in front of a car wash, which was adorned with synthetic sugar palms strung with tiny, neon lights.
“Your mom and I used to dance like that.”
“Right,” she said, rolling her eyes as she browsed a glamour magazine. “I’m thinking peach chiffon with spaghetti straps.”
“You know, Lucinda. She left.”
“Mom’s gone?” Lucinda blew hard against the window.
“Just promise me, no sequins,” Bruce said. “You’re way too elegant for that.”
“It’s not the first time,” Lucinda replied, squeezing her eyes shut, surprisingly oblivious to the soaring glissandos and curbside flirting.
“So downtown or to the mall?” Bruce asked, trying desperately to siphon up the awkward spaces between them, sadly realizing that he hadn’t taken Lucinda shopping since he’d purchased for her that first baby doll.
“They need a few dads,” she said. “I mean, not to spy or anything but to check the coats and—”
“Or maybe to Zumba?” Bruce asked, fishing his pocket comb from his vest pocket and fixing his hair.
“Dad, dad,” Lucinda giggled. “Don’t.” But Bruce was off, dancing spontaneously in front of the car wash, energized by hoots and applause from the other teens and a look of absolute dread and disdain from his only daughter.
Lisa Torem first discovered the resilience of the written word by reading cornflake boxes and comic books. Since then, and for the past decade, she has conducted music-related interviews with international rock and indie artists for Pennyblackmusic, where she also launched “Rock Salt Row,” a monthly column on which two writers expressed opposing views, and now runs Raging Pages, where she reviews or features a music book.
Lisa has also contributed to The Chicago Reader, Grateful Web, New City, Popmatters, Tomorrow’s Verse, and Windy City Times and co-wrote “Through The Eye of The Tiger.”
More recently, she was thrilled to see her poem, “Packrats” in the Literature Emitting Diode Anthology (Partial Press, 2015-2016). Last year, two separate essays were also published in 1888 Center’s “Routineology” (April 4, 2016) and “Why We Write” (February 2, 2016) columns. In addition, her nostalgic essay, “Winnemac Park” (“Place Where You Live”, March 4, 2016) graced the green-friendly pages of Orion Magazine.
The native Chicagoan was ecstatic to find an acceptance letter from 1888 Center for “She Left,” inspired by an old-school diner where servers still shove pencils behind their ears.