White Center


My father drove in silence. We were off familiar roads, now. What houses there were stood back inside deep black groves. It felt like the country, even though we had just left the city. Everything was dark except for those occasional house lights that shone like coyote eyes in the trees.

We were going to see one of my father’s friends. I really never thought of my father as having friends. He had golf buddies and drinking buddies. He said he would teach me to golf “next year.” There would be a lot of next years. For now I was a caddy, walking the course with his work friends, his golfing and drinking buddies. They were a tight group that had little to say but swore a lot. They smoked and hacked and had their individual twitches and ticks. It didn’t seem much like a sport the way they played it. They tossed cigarettes on the side of the fairway to make a shot and picked them up again and kept on walking, and they all looked like candidates for heart attacks.

“She’s got a son your age,” he said.

“What’s his name?” I asked.

He was silent for a few moments. Then he said, “I don’t know.”

The apartment building was on a cul de sac. But there were no other homes around. Three forlorn lights lit up the upper walkway. I could see the glow of the television sets behind the curtains of every window. One street light illuminated the street with a gloomy yellow light.

My father pulled up, his headlights strafing the lower rooms. He came to a stop and turned off the engine. He turned to me and smiled and said, “Well, here we are!”

Yep, we’re there all right. A fine mist was floating around. It looked silver as it entered the light of that one streetlamp. The ground glowed black.

I followed him up to one of the doors. Her apartment was on the lower floor. There were two little brass numbers, 11. It seemed odd that 11 was on the first floor. Were there underground rooms? There was also a little brass knocker, but my father just put a hand on the doorknob and pushed open the door. “Hey, there,” he called out. He had been there before.

It was kind of a dump, but I made no judgments in my mind, really. It smelled like fish. The brown couch was velour and it was crushed smooth on the arms and the center of the seat cushions. A TV was going. Jeopardy was on, and Alex Trebec was asking some impossible questions with that smug look, like he didn’t have all the answers written in front of him.

She was cooking something. I could smell hamburger and onions. She came out from the kitchen, which was just a separate space to the right side of the living room. “Hey, sweetheart,” she said, and she threw her arms around my father’s neck and wrapped herself around him and gave him a big kiss and dropped her head on his shoulder. She stayed that way a long time.

When she finally pulled away, she looked over at me. She smiled mechanically. I knew the difference. I knew what this was about. “And you!” she said. “I’ve heard all about you!” And she came over to me and put her arms around me and pushed her body against mine as though I had no personal space. Her rose perfume was strong. Her hair was white, bleach white, and it fell across my face. I’d heard my mother refer to this kind of hair as bleach bottle blond.

What had she heard? I couldn’t imagine my father talking to anyone about me or my sister. Not unless he could get something out of it. When she pulled back, I saw her face. From a distance she would have been pretty. Up close, her make-up was thick as putty. Her smile was a fracture in the mask.

“Hello,” I said.

“So you’re in the….sixth grade?”

“Yeah.”

She looked over at my father and said, “He’s the splitting image.” That’s exactly what she said.

Her teeth were big and yellow.

“Hey,” she said, still holding me by the shoulders. “Go say hi to Zack, my son. He’s been looking forward to seeing you all day! He doesn’t have any friends out here…”

She pointed to the hallway, the only other way to go in that space but out. My father smiled, nodding, waving me back down the hallway. And looking at him, I just thought, who are you?

I went down the hallway. The walls were white. The ceiling lights were bright, glaring. I went into Zack’s room. There wasn’t much to see. It looked like they had just moved in. The walls were bare. He had no furniture except for a bed. He had a few clothes in the closet and a few toys on the floor, legos and plastic cars and a little plastic pirate ship, but that was about it.

“Hey,” I said.

“Hey.” He was sitting on the floor, his back against the bed. It was the most dismal thing I had ever seen. We didn’t say a word to each other after that. I sat down and pushed a matchbox car around for a while. We were like a couple of inmates, waiting for a prison meal.

During dinner, neither Zack nor I spoke. My father and his girlfriend kept up a conversation, or rather she did. She talked a mile a minute. She mostly talked about men she had dated. She told stories about people like most people would tell, but they were all about men she had dated. One was a guy who loved horse racing. She was living in Florida when she knew him. Another was a garbage inspector who did sample analysis at the transfer station. If she mentioned Zack’s father, I couldn’t tell. My father just nodded and grinned like an old wolf.

After dinner we watched television. Well, Zack and I did. My father took off his leather jacket and got down under the kitchen sink. He was fixing the garbage disposal.

“You are such a lifesaver,” she said, stacking dishes into the sink. In fact, the sink was full of dishes from a couple of past meals, and she didn’t look like she had any intention of cleaning up right then. She sipped wine and ran her fingers through my father’s hair when he came up from under the sink and gave him this half-closed eyes look and grinned and said, “I’ll make it worth it. Do you think I can make it worth it?”

She didn’t think I heard, of course. But she was already drunk.

After the kitchen sink, my father got up and headed back towards the bedrooms. “Gonna fix a light switch,” he said as he went down the hallway. She stood for a moment at the back of the couch, wine glass in her hand.

“Whatcha boys watchin’?”

Zack sat there like a stone. I looked up at her, but she had already looked away, and I knew she wouldn’t hear me if I spoke. It looked like Zack was used to this routine, his face fixed in the glow of the screen. Then, she just drifted down the hallway, catching herself once by reaching out to the wall. She went into the bedroom and closed the door and they were gone for a while.

Driving home in the dark, my father draped his hand over the steering wheel so that it hung over at the wrist. He turned on the radio to a late night blues station. That’s about all he listened to. I wasn’t sure exactly what roads we had taken to get out to his friend’s place, but I knew we weren’t going back the way we had come. We were heading down a two-lane highway in nearly pitch black darkness. Occasionally we passed through an intersection with a gas station or a Mexican grocery. We were pretty far out of town. A half-moon cut through a cloud. My father drove right through a red light, but I kept quiet on this ride. He seemed happy and he was humming along with the music and once in a while he slapped me on the chest with the back of his hand. “A good night, huh? You’re not tired, are you?”

“No.”

“Yeah, me neither. Mind if we just drive for a while?”

“No.”

“I like driving at night, sometimes, when the roads are clear. No one out here. You can feel the dark. Can you feel the dark?”

I nodded.

We pulled off next to a field near the airport. The land looked familiar, meaning I sort of knew where we were. Red guidelines hung down over the highway, leading up to the runway. My father stopped the car and just sat there for a moment. I could hear the engine ticking. What was he waiting for? But he just sat there with his eyes closed and his head moving a little with the music. I thought he might be waiting for a plane to come. Maybe he was, because eventually a plane did come howling down over us so loud we couldn’t hear the radio. I could see its underbelly as it passed over us, big, silver white with lights blinking on the wingtips. And just then, my father opened the door and jumped out and shouted back at me, “Come on!”

I froze for a moment as he ran out in front of the car. It looked like he was chasing the plane. And then he kept on running. I got out of the car and started to follow him, but I couldn’t see him. He was way up ahead.

“Dad!” I shouted. I ran across the uneven ground, my knees buckling as I hit the low spots.

“Dad!”

But like I said, he was way out ahead of me. He couldn’t hear me, so I stopped there in the middle of the field. Looking back I could barely make out the car and the road. Looking ahead, I saw nothing at all.

“Dad!” I shouted again. And then I just stood there waiting.


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