I am standing in my father’s kitchen. It’s the kitchen of my childhood, though the lime green cabinets from the 70’s have been stripped to their original wood finish and the orange and gold floral wallpaper has long since been replaced, yet the hutch still holds mom’s china and Waterford crystal goblets.
I’m making dinner for my father and realize that he has no spices. The cabinet that was once full of oregano, thyme and the like now holds a random assortment of cups from Durham Bulls games and bottles of medications. Dad’s pantry and fridge are sparsely stocked with the needs of a widower. Nuts. Cereal. Toaster waffles. Beer.
I catch a glimpse of him, sitting on a chair that once belonged to my maternal grandmother and he’s smiling up at me. “What?” I say and he shakes his head bashfully. “It’s just been so long since anyone has cooked for me,” he says. “This is real nice.”
I haven’t seen my father since Thanksgiving in 2019. When we hugged at the airport last night, I didn’t think he’d let go. I was gasping for air, when I realized I’d still not taken off my mask. I pulled away, peeled it off, then went back in for round two of what would become the regular hugs my dad was deprived of since the world turned upside down two Marches ago.
The next morning, Daddy and I head to Gypsy’s Shiny Diner, a favorite gathering place of his submarine veterans group. Francie, the waitress, is friendly and Dad chats her up like he does. “I went to high school with a girl named Francie, but we mostly called her Fran,” Dad says. Francie kindly acts like this is valuable information. Then she asks how long we’ve been married. Oh my god! Seriously! I know Covid hasn’t been kind to my neck and I have more gray hair than I used to, but does she really think I could be married to a 77 year-old Vietnam Veteran? Dad laughs and says “Awe naw, I’m her Father Bill! Not that I’m a priest or anything.” He winks. Is my dad flirting? I roll my eyes as she backpedals.
“You two just have such great rapportis all I meant,” says Francie.
Fine. I’ll take that.
“So what do you want to do today?” I ask my father.
“Well, there is this place I’ve been wanting to go,” he says, “It’s about an hour and a half away.”
“I’m game for anything,” I say, thinking we’ll either spend time talking in the air-conditioned house or on the way to something new in an air-conditioned car, I’ll opt for the new. And that’s how we ended up at Bill’s Hot Dogs in Washington, NC.
The line is long and I’m already sweating in the 90-degree heat with at least 150% humidity. Clearly Dad wasn’t the only one who’d read the review in Our State Magazine. When the screen door reveals room to step inside, a gush of even hotter air hits my face and I glimpse all the unmasked people lined up and glance at the menu on the wall. Naturally, nothing vegetarian. I tell Dad I’d wait outside. When he gets to the counter and places his order, the man behind him says, “Aren’t you going to get something for your wife?” For real? My father is wearing plaid and socks to his knees. Maybe I should get botox!
Dad eats his hotdogs and says they’re a little spicy for his taste. “Not sure it was worth the drive,” he says as we stroll along the Pamlico River. Suddenly a large man climbs out of an equivalently large pick-up truck, stopping us in our tracks, “Awe man!” he exclaims, “I had to do a double take! I thought for sure you was George W Bush!”
OK, now I’ve had it. DO I LOOK LIKE I MIGHT BE MARRIED TO GEORGE BUSH? Did this guy think I might be Laura?
On our drive home, as we pass corn, cotton and tobacco fields, Baptist and Pentecostal Churches and Family Dollar stores, I’m singing loudly to familiar 70’s songs, occasionally getting dad to jump in on the chorus. We’re definitely not in harmony on “I Will Survive” when dad’s Ford Focus begins to rumble and shake. His foot is all the way down on the gas and it barely rolls. I push the hazard button as we sputter along at 5mph for a few yards before the car conks out on the shoulder. The air is thick with heat as trucks fly past us offering a bit of exhaust-filled breeze and I fan myself with a Durham Bulls program stuck between the seats. We wait a bit and start the car again, sputtering up the next exit ramp only to see nothing but trees on either side.
That’s one thing I miss about my homeland. The vivid color green in the lush tree-lined freeways, and the day lilies and crepe myrtles blooming along Exit ramps. I can’t really take them in at this moment, though, as we coast back onto the freeway, the car shaking like an old Kenmore on the spin cycle, and then it dies again. Fuel isn’t the issue. We have a quarter tank of gas. We wait a little while, both of our faces covered in a dewy sheen, and Dad starts her up again, inching forward to the next ramp where a gas station beckons 300 yards to the left and we sputter to the shaded canopy over the pumps. Thankfully, we don’t need gas. This Speedway has none. Turns out, the gas company has a shortage of drivers and resupply is infrequent in the tiny town of Farmville, population 4,000.
“We need to call AAA,” I tell my dad, whose hand is shaking like his car as he fumbles for his wallet. “I have a card,” I say, “I can do it.” Dad gives me his phone and it is then that I discover he doesn’t have a phone icon. Turns out he only recently upgraded from his flip phone to an iphone 7, and he’d spent the last few weeks wondering what the big deal is about these newfangled phones since you can only call people in your contact list. “Dad! Didn’t you think it weird that you can’t even call 911?”
I use my phone to call the AutoClub and pass it to my father. When he can’t describe where we are, I take it back. “We’re on Route 258 across from the Bojangles,” I say on speakerphone. “Thank you Mrs. Lowe,” says the dispatcher. Dad laughs and I don’t bother clarifying. They should have someone to help us within the hour.
My phone is dying and I go into the convenience store, grateful that we made it to a place with AC, a bathroom and, hopefully a charger I can borrow. The guys behind the counter share one and I stand at the outlet near the door, sandwiched between the lotto kiosk and a rack selling Army patches and condoms, and watch as bearded men come in for beer and teenage girls grab blue raspberry and bubblegum slushies. No one is wearing a mask, and if the Trump flags flying at the trailer park behind the gas station are any indication, it is doubtful many of them are vaccinated either.
We lean on the car chatting about our childhood memories and dad's favorite episodes of NCIS, relishing in the occasional breeze. AAA texts that their truck is delayed. Dad’s friend from church is on his way to pick us up.
An hour goes by and there is still no sign of AAA or dad’s friend. I call the friend’s house and his wife answers. “Awe honey, Derward is own his way. He took him a shower and ate his dinner mighty fast. I suspect he should be thar any time now.”
Derward lives about an hour and fifteen minutes from where we are, but he is 86 years old and it turns out, he’s lost. There is apparently another Speedway across from a Bojangles in Farmville and that is where Derward is. I try sending him a pin of our location, but it doesn’t go through. An hour later Derward pulls into our Speedway just after the tow truck arrives. Derward steps into the convenience store to grab him a snack before we hit the road.
And then I am sitting in the backseat of Derward’s truck, heading back to Raleigh and listening as these two old men shout over Christian music on the radio. Derward’s voice is garbled like he’s got a mouth full of marbles and into that, he throws a handful of his snack of peanut M&Ms. Dad’s voice is raised because he hasn’t been wearing his hearing aids. “They get caught in my mask,” he explained. Dad tells his friend that folks keep thinking I’m his wife. “Well you’re a spry feller Bill, you could have you a young wife if you wanted.”
Ten hours after we’d left for breakfast at the Shiny Diner, we are back in my father’s kitchen. Though he’d wanted to go to the Bojangles across from the Speedway for dinner, I’d thought it a last resort. After bacon and eggs for breakfast and two hotdogs for lunch, fried chicken and biscuits didn’t seem a good choice for dinner. “Let me make us a salad, dad,” I say. And he sits down in that chair was was my grandmother’s. “I want you to stay healthy so that when I’m 80 and you’re 101 people will still think we’re married.” If we both manage to make it that long, I don’t imagine I’d mind.
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As told at Story Salon LIVE AT LAST on October 6. 2021.