Waterproof and Green
I’d been kicked out of school a second time, and my parents refused to take me in. They said I was on my own now; they washed their hands of me. I packed up what possessions from my dorm room fit into my Penn State duffel bag, bused home from the depot for the last time, and was standing on the front step of our house when they informed me of their decision: I wasn’t allowed inside. I was banned, and furthermore -they said- this was not a hasty decision, made in the heat of anger. This was final. I was disowned for good.
I had been camping in their backyard for two weeks without managing to get inside the house, when I began to think they might be serious.
Periodically, I would wake in the wet, dewy morning to the lazy hum of the neighbor’s automatic sprinklers, to find that my mother had secretly deposited a gift for me on the lawn: usually toothpaste, sometimes vitamins. Occasionally a Nutri-Grain bar fell out of a window when I walked past the house, going to or from the park. She wouldn’t let me inside; my father wouldn’t allow it. Even when Dad was at work, I’d come around to the back steps and plead with her to let me in, and her head would appear out of an upstairs window: Go. Get. A JOB, she would say. I slept in an old green sleeping bag I’d had with me in my dorm room, spread out over the knotty board floor of our old tool shed. They couldn’t lock me out of the tool shed; first of all, it didn’t have a lock, and second of all, it didn’t have a door. Occasionally my dad sent my brother over on his way to school, to bang on the roof with a rake, but that was the most he could do, and afterwards I just fell back asleep again. All in all, it was an okay arrangement. I guess I would have stayed, but one day I opened my eyes to the sight of a black and white, furry apparition with a big, bushy tail, nosing around through my Nutri-Grain stash.
I followed my dad to work.
My dad manages a burger joint called “Wham, Bam. Ham.” It gets about as much business as it sounds like. They only need one man to operate both the front counter and the drive-through, and that man is my dad. My brother and I used to sneak up to the drive-through window in elementary school and (why not admit it?) every subsequent level of school, too. He would smuggle us free burgers on flat little rectangular buns, squares of half-melted yellow cheese dripping over the side and perspiring on the waxy wrapper. They were called weebie-burgers. My dad would pretty much always give us a weebie-burger apiece, no matter how many times we came by, provided Gus wasn’t around. Gus is the owner of Wham-Bam Ham. Gus is mean. My fear of Gus has increased with age. Today, I crawled on my hands and knees through the empty drive-through, keeping one shoulder as close as possible to the scuffed brick wall, specifically to avoid Gus. When I got to the window, I raised my head slowly.
“Dad,” I hissed. “Hey, Dad!”
My dad was busy watering down the ketchup and mustard containers.
“Justin,” he said. His thick eyebrows drew together and an angry line creased his forehead. “I told you to get lost.”
He handed me a burger out of habit.
“I know,” I said, “I’m gonna leave town first thing this morning. But first, I thought I’d give you one more chance to tell me you want me to stay. I am your first-born son, after all. Isn’t that worth something? ”
I took it from the way he growled slowly, deep in his throat, then spat into the mustard jar, that maybe in his opinion it wasn’t.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll leave, then. But first, I’d like to discuss my financial situation. I could use a loan.”
“You don’t look that bad off,” he grumbled, examining me.
“Are you kidding?” I said. “I haven’t showered in a week. These are the same clothes I wore home from the bus depot.”
“Whatcha been eating?”
“Mom gave me toothpaste.” For dramatic effect, I chose not to disclose any Nutri-Grain bar-related information.
My dad leaned down low across the counter, and looked me right in the eye.
“You want me to give you a loan so you can buy what?” he said. “Food?”
“Er, hey Dad, you’ve got a customer,” I said.
My dad turned and looked at the man standing inside, on the other side of the orange counter. His head was framed by a little rainstorm of floating paper hot dogs, pinned to the ceiling. My dad nodded at him, then turned back to me.
“Okay Justin,” he said. “You need food, huh?” He plunked the mustard jar down on the counter. He bent over. Both his knees cracked as he grabbed an extra large Wham-Bam Ham bag from under the counter, and snapped it open like a whip. Running it along the hot plate, he swept all the lukewarm weebie-burgers off the sweaty metal tray, into the bag. He folded the top. He handed it to me.
“Here’s food,” he said. “Take it. And take a hike.”
My father closed the drive-through window.
“Right, hi,” I could hear the customer saying through the glass, “I’d like to order two weebie burgers, to go?”
“We’re all out,” said my dad.