At eight I close and lock the doors and turn off the lights to my cafe. I am my own boss these days, which has its perks. It was probably a little before eight, actually, but I was tired and there weren’t any customers to kick out, hadn’t been for an hour or so, so I just locked up the register and turned the light switches off. The floor needs sweeping and the bathroom probably needs restocking and routine dictates I should take inventory tonight, instead of when I come in tomorrow, but it’s also been a long day, one of many these days, and nothing sounds better than directly pocketing the entire tip jar and going on my way.
When I was little I would wait up every night for my father to get home from the hospital. He was a surgeon of some kind; I would always forget and he would tell me “neonatal” and spell it out for me, and I would repeat it to myself over and over, so I wouldn’t forget, but I always would anyway. He worked late most nights in the O.R. with emergencies and I would always try to stay up to see him when he got home, but I never made it the whole way, I always fell asleep before he got back. Sometimes he would come in my room anyway when he got home and fix the covers and push my hair out of my eyes in my sleep, and sometimes it would wake me up, but I would just lie there, pretending I didn’t know he was in the room, pretending I was still asleep. I don’t know why I used to do that.
I get my keys ready in my hand inside my coat pocket as I cross the blacktopped parking lot to my seafoam green Pontiac. The lot lights are off even though it’s already pitch black outside and I need to press the lock button on my keys to make my lights flash so I can find my car, but my finger slips and I accidentally hit the panic button and my car alarm goes off and all of the red and white lights flash like fireworks. An elderly couple walking by gives me a death glare for disturbing their peace. I apologize to them and make a mental note to get a new paint job, as in the newfound light I can see that I hate seafoam green and the paint is starting to chip and flake off from all the acid rain in this city.
On the nights when he didn’t work late my dad would come home at a reasonable hour and just hold me. He would put The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, his favorite album, on the record player, or he would turn on the news and put it on mute, and he would just sit in the living room, holding me for a long time, until he would kiss my forehead and stand up and begin to make dinner for the two of us. Once or twice he fell asleep in his chair listening to the record and he wouldn’t make dinner that night. My stomach would growl and start to hurt but I would just bury my face harder into his chest and try to fall asleep too.
The light posts on the roadside stream past at eighty miles per and cast long kaleidoscope shadows on the road. It feels a bit like slow motion when I power through them and the drive home on the freeway makes me feel like I’m in an optical illusion. The Savannah lights are still blindingly bright in the rearview mirror, but they dim the longer I drive away from the city, the sky getting darker, the underbrush thicker, the roads smaller and quieter and curvier as I make my way back home. Twenty minutes later I pull up to my small townhouse that I can only differentiate by the electric candles I keep in the windows, a Pennsylvania tradition and a humble slice of home I brought down south with me that falls on deaf Southern ears. I pull up to the curb because the garage door opener is still broken and my neighbor Clyde still hasn’t come over to look at it even though he’s a handyman and knows how helpless I am at anything that needs a fixer-upper. I turn the ignition off and notice the post-it on my dashboard telling me I needed to pick up a birthday cake for my eight year old’s party tomorrow at his mother’s house. I look at the clock and decide it’s already too late to drive back into town; everything will already be closed for the night. I sigh and curse myself, wondering if he’ll finally feel like speaking to me again tomorrow. This isn’t the first time I’ve forgotten a birthday cake, and it certainly isn’t the first time he’s stopped speaking to me.
The night my dad died was a night indistinguishable from any other, really. I had tried to stay awake for him but fell asleep like usual. He came into my room anyway, fixed the covers, pushed my brown hair out of my eyes in my sleep, kissed me on the forehead, his lips lingering on my skin a little longer than they usually did, quickly smoothed the covers a second time, and left like always. When I woke up in the morning he hadn’t made breakfast yet, he was still in his bed, but he wasn’t breathing, hadn’t been for hours. He had taken too many of his sleeping pills and didn’t wake up. Years later I found out that the last person my father operated on that night was my step-brother from my mother’s second marriage. The three-year-old had a cardiac arrhythmia and my father didn’t save him.
I open my front door and slip my shoes off with the heels of my feet. I throw my keys on the table and see the red blinking light on my phone that lets me know I have an unchecked voicemail. It turns out to be a missed call from my wife reminding me about my son’s birthday party tomorrow and about the cake, which I already forgot to get tonight. She sounds exhausted on the phone, but still has enough strength to berate me just a little bit. I open up the fridge and pull out the frozen dinner I cooked for myself this morning and begin to thaw it on the counter. I make a mental note to skip work tomorrow and drive to that nice bakery in town, Marjorie’s, and pick up the best cake anybody’s ever seen, a split chocolate-and-vanilla cake with his name spelled out in brown and orange sugar-free icing, his favorite colors that don’t match anything and always remind me of halloween. Tomorrow I’ll show up to the birthday party and sneak in the back door and surprise the guests with all of the candles on the cake already lit, my booming voice already ringing out “Happy birthday to you.” My son’s face will light up and he’ll blow all the candles out in one breath and he’ll hug me and bury his face in my chest and won’t ever let go.