My dad, as a set of statements, can barely exist on paper. He walks the tightrope between fratboy humor and Leave it to Beaver dialogue. He still uses racial slurs but loved my black roommate. He equates recreational cannabis use with mainlining heroin under a bridge in Baltimore, but buys a fifth of Makers for me to drink as he drives me home from the airport. He can make a joke out of almost anything, turn around, and sop up any drops of optimism with a rag of realism. He can exist in two worlds at once because no spirit connects the two. There is no throughline, no God, no master plan.
For a while now my dad’s gut has been tugging at his jacket. Recently it has done this with a growing tenacity. This is not the unfair pressure of Western ideals; he has become medically obese. It’s added a few worry lines to mom’s forehead and given me a sense that his departure is only accelerating. My dad and, to a degree, my mom have become a soundboard of canned replies to my insistence for professional advice. My mom is more somber. “I know…” she starts before trailing off. “I had lettuce on my Big Mac,” my dad proudly replies with the same saccharine sincerity of a seven year old thatswears they just brushed their teeth.
There was, however, a time when all of that ground to a stop. I did’t worry about my father’s depressing lack of vision for the future or his entirely unsustainable lifestyle. There was a time when I didn’t even try to reverse his course. In fact, I egged it on.
Everything was perfect when we drove down to John’s Roast Pork in South Philly while I visited for Christmas this past December.
When we made that trip it was one of the few times my famously hyper rational family lived in the present.
“We’re going to shut the hell up and eat cheesesteaks and roast pork, god damn it.”
And that afternoon that is exactly what we did.
It’s about an hour each way, so the trip took commitment. This wasn’t some flippant Wawa run for iced tea and hoagies. We drove past Boathouse Row on the Schuylkill Expressway, wrapped along the river beyond the Museum of Art, and barreled around the cluster of sports stadiums (all worthy destinations in their own right).
We pulled off I-95 and slid onto Columbus Boulevard. The scenery shifted. Club Risqué and Show & Tel passed by on the right. A Walmart and Home Depot were squeezed together along the piers that line the Delaware River on the left. We hung a right onto Snyder Avenue and parked across the street from John’s in the Snyder Mall’s lot. It was a who’s who of yesteryear’s greatest chains: I-Hop, Payless Shoes, and Modell’s Sporting Goods all cling together across the street from a similarly tested, but ultimately triumphant, culinary delight.
My dad and I discussed our orders with my mom as we saddled up in line. You have to be quick here, lest you be berated by groans from the people behind you. It was small inside, about the size of a bedroom. It was steamy and the scent of grilled meat, spices, and spinach mixed together into an intoxicating stew. Newspaper clippings, accolades, and family portraits lined the walls. My dad ordered for himself and my mom, I followed. I looked over to see if the bathroom is still out of order. It was and always will be. The woman behind the counter eyed change, wearing a scrunchie straight out of Saved by the Bell. Ten minutes later our orders were ready and we walked them outside. We found a picnic bench not covered in bird shit and unraveled the foil wrapping. My dad and I looked at each other, then over to my mom, then back down at the sandwiches, and grin. I had stopped caring that I was probably shaving a week off my dad’s life. I liked seeing him happy.
Steam rose out of the toasted sesame roll where the sliced beef sat in a heap. Holding it together was gooey provolone cheese, liberally added to the sandwich, effectively meshing the meat together. Don’t dare ask for cheese whiz here or you’ll sent back up the Delaware to Pat’s with the tourists and the blue collars getting off their shifts. John’s doesn’t have time for that weak horseshit. Meanwhile, the beef’s spice, a family secret, ensnared us. No one spoke. We ate in silence, knowing we won’t get back here again anytime soon. And, deep down, that we probably shouldn’t.
Twenty minutes later we finished and slouched into the car seats, content. My dad and I talked about our jobs, girls, and old friends. We slipped back into the dreaded small talk, but not as quickly that time. He opened up a bit more. The discontent with his station was more apparent. The sun was still sitting high but he was already talking about going back to sleep. This wasn’t the “food coma” so cherished by those of us with vitality, this was routine.
And then he woke and poured some scotch and the cement continued to solidify and I knew we wouldn’t mention it. My dad proposed cheeseburgers for dinner, with a bit less optimism than last time, and my mom just smiled and reached for Cooking Light.
“That’s just your father being your father.”
“Your mother’s trying to kill me! You gotta get me outta here!”
I flew back to Boston the next morning and called my mom when I got back to my apartment. “I know…” she’ll start, before trailing off.