It was 33 days since Dad went into the camper this time. You could smell the rot from outside. He hadn’t emptied the sump pump or washed his dishes in weeks. Food grew moldy by the sink. Bill and I kept the windows shut on that side of the house, even as the days got hotter. We used industrial sized cans of pine spray, which hardly helped at all. We didn’t bug Dad or try to get him out. If we wanted to check on him, we aimed binoculars out the bathroom window. There wasn’t much to see. Mostly, he slept or stared at the wall. When I was younger, I would sneak in there while he was at work and rifle his things, or sit in his chair. I tried to focus on the wood paneling the way he did and think about sad things like getting my ass kicked, or global warming, or Mom. But I didn’t see what he saw—nothing that could keep me there, sitting on my ass for hours.
On the 33rd day, when we got home from school, the stink was worse than ever. In the kitchen, we found Dad by the fridge, fixing a sandwich.
“Where’ve you two been?” He asked. His voice was loud, his eyes bright. He was showered and dressed, ready to go.
“Get in the truck,” he said. “This family’s in need of some quality time.”
Bill threw his bag in the corner and headed back out. I capped Dad’s mayonnaise and started wiping down counters. Maybe I could stay behind this time, clean the kitchen, then study.
“Leave it,” Dad said, making for the truck.
I wrapped his uneaten sandwich and put it in the fridge. The sound of the motor turning over gave me hope, but then came two loud blasts of the horn.
“Move it or lose it!” Dad called and I dragged myself out there. I climbed in alongside my brother and Dad put her into gear.
I hated the truck. It didn’t smell like the camper, but there were no seat belts, just hacked up nubs where the straps used to be. And when you drove over 20, the cab roared with the engine sound. We had to use it for groceries and school, but mostly I tried to avoid it, riding my bike to work, and staying home on weekends. Bill didn’t seem to mind and always complained when I parked far from school so no one would see us.
The cab rattled as Dad plowed down Route 66 in fourth. He loved fourth gear. It was much louder than fifth and he could accelerate faster on the hills. Route 66 was almost all hills between us and Middletown, and I began to feel queasy. Bill seemed unfazed, leaning back with his feet on the dashboard, snapping his gum, and bobbing his head to the radio. It was a cassette player actually, a blue and white Fisher Price that Dad had mounted on the dash. It had a microphone you could detach if you wanted to sing along. I was glad that at least he hadn’t decided to do that. I stared out the window, trying to pick a spot on the horizon so I wouldn’t be sick.
He got off at Exit 15 and turned onto Main Street, passing Vechitto’s and Baskin-Robbins and the Golden Palace. They were all stops on our eating spree, but none of them had a free parking lot. He pulled into the lot by O’Rourke’s. I ignored the smell of ketchup and deep fry; for some reason, it was not on our route, never had been. There was an order to it: Vecchitto’s, Tony’s, The Home Run Deli, Baskin-Robbins, Sugar Shack, then the Golden Palace.
“If we’re not done then, we start again,” Dad would say. Eating was one of the things he did when he was happy, downing bowl after bowl of cereal until the box was empty, ordering a pile of pizzas, or making spaghetti in a huge pot that he’d set in the middle of the table still steaming and half full of water, telling Bill and I to “Dig in!” I’d done it when I was younger, hunkering over the pot with my dad and little brother, not thinking anything of it, but now I tried to avoid those family dinners when I could.
“Did I tell you guys about the time I ate 26 fair foods in one afternoon?” he asked as we made our way down South Street. He had.
“Two funnel cakes, three corndogs, French fries, five large sodas,” he began.
“I still think sodas don’t count,” Bill said.
“They fill your stomach worse than the food does,” Dad snapped. “Sodas should count double.” We hadn’t gone to the fair with him that time, had found him after school, laid out on the couch, fast asleep with his pants open.
“You should have seen it,” he said. “I broke all the records that day.”
Vechitto’s was a dingy one-room storefront that sold Italian ice, two flavors, in shitty paper cups. I had lemon and Bill had cherry. Dad got one of each. I paid and we started down towards Tony’s. I had $40 in my wallet—grocery money, just enough to get us through to the Golden Palace.
“I remember when that place opened,” Dad said, motioning back over his shoulder. “Your mother took me there on our third date. It was the hottest summer in history. We could hardly stand to be outside.”
I’d heard this one before, too. It was the story he told at the start of every eating spree.
“She only wore dresses, flowy ones. You could see right through them when the sun shone,” he said, real emotion in his voice. I moved ahead, not wanting to hear.
We walked the nine blocks past the college campus with its old buildings and sprawling green. The students were out, laying in the grass, reading thick textbooks or napping in the sun. When we got in sight of Tony’s, Dad picked up the pace, passing me so that he was the first in the door. He called out to the kid behind the counter like he knew the guy.
“Three slices of Hawaiian,” he said, “and three large sodas.”
“I don’t like pineapple,” said Bill.
“Then don’t order any. Those are for me.”
“It’s cheaper if you get a whole pie at once,” said the guy behind the counter.
“No time,” said Dad.
Bill and I got a slice each, which the guy heated up for us. Dad had finished his first before I had three bites and began shaking Parmesan and hot pepper on his next.
“Grab the drinks and let’s get moving,” he said and we hustled out the door behind him. The deli was a good ways off and Dad didn’t like too much lag time between foods.
I balanced my soda in the crook of my arm and used two hands to aim the pizza into my mouth. Not only were the slices more expensive, but they’d been sitting in the display case for a while so the cheese had gone rubbery. I drank some soda to wash it down.
A group of college girls came towards us, walking in a pack and talking all at once about philosophy or politics, I assumed. I picked up my pace and held my food at my side, hoping they would think I was alone, not associate me with Dad and Bill. They looked sophisticated, with rope sandals and book bags hanging from their shoulders. One of them, a brunette with wire-rimmed glasses, wore a parka with a set of oars crossed on the chest. I’d seen the crew team practicing before, at the end of an eating spree when we went out on the old railroad bridge to nurse our swollen stomachs and drop stones in the water. Their long boats were like daggers slicing past, eight pony-tailed girls moving in sync, one calling commands from the back. I tried to imagine the life that went with that, the boathouses and cocktail parties and secret societies. I must have looked pathetic to them, with my cheap haircut and faded jeans. I wished I’d had time to change before we headed out.
I ducked my head when they got close.
“Frankie,” Dad called. “Slow up. Your old man doesn’t have the knees.”
I walked faster and kept on until I got beyond the college to a neighborhood more like our own. The houses were set apart at regular intervals and fewer people were out on the street. I paused by a low cement wall to wait for Dad and Bill.
He was short of breath by the time they caught up, his face flushed. I started walking as soon as they reached me.
A church stood on the corner, just before the deli, its steeple bright in the late day sun. I remember as a kid seeing it at dusk, up against an orange sky, looming and holy. Now, in the afternoon light, I could see the paint peeling off the sides. Dirt gathered on the windowsills and I walked quickly by.
A bell rang when we entered the deli. I ordered light—a BLT, no coke. I knew Dad would get a foot-long, and I wanted to make sure we had enough money to get to Baskin Robin’s at least. After that, we might not be able to afford more than a doughnut each at the Sugar Shack, and an egg roll or two at the Golden Palace, but at least we’d make it through. It was important to hit all the stops, I couldn’t explain why. We’d never missed.
That’s when he saw the jar of eggs.
“Are those pickled?” He asked the guy.
“No, just boiled.”
“I’ll take a dozen,” Dad said. The guy looked at him funny, but did what he said, fishing eggs out of the jar and loading them into a Styrofoam container.
“No, wait. Make it 15,” said Dad.
The guy was already fiddling with the container, trying to get them all to fit. You could tell that he’d never sold so many at once before.
“Just put them in a bag, guy,” said Dad. “I’ll eat while I go.”
This had never happened. Dad always got the foot-long, either meatball or Italian. Sometimes he got chips too, but never eggs.
“When I was in the merchant marines,” Dad said, “I didn’t eat once in the whole first week I was on ship.”
“You weren’t in the marines,” I said.
“The merchant marines,” said Dad. “And I sure as hell was. We went up the Panama Canal. I was your age, maybe.”
“Sixteen?” Bill asked.
“Well, 20, 22. Right around there.”
I paid for the eggs and didn’t get anything for Bill or me. Dad didn’t even notice.
“I was seasick for a few days, and then I just didn’t feel like eating. I guess I lost a couple pounds and figured I’d stick to it, stay on the diet to look good for the ladies when we got to port.” He peeled an egg and shoved it whole into his mouth as he went out the door.
“When we reached the Canal, it was hot as hell, bright sun in the middle of winter, and I got hungry just like this.” He peeled another egg, dropping the shells on the sidewalk as we went.
“We were waiting for the locks all day, just sitting there while the water churned up like we were in some big soup pot or something. I went to mess and grabbed myself a boiled egg, ate the thing in one bite. Boom. Then I got another.”
He popped the egg in his mouth and began peeling the next one.
“I was about five in by the time I even bothered to chew. Still, I was starving. You could have played my ribs like a glockenspiel.”
I wondered if he’d ever really done it, been a merchant marine, left town, left the country, and traveled all that way.
“Thirteen. I ate 13 eggs that time,” he said. “This’ll be a new record.”
We made it to the ice cream place before he’d finished half and Dad kept going, past Baskin-Robbins and down Main Street. I wanted to remind him of the order, but it seemed stupid. This was his game. Why should I care? I fell behind, crunching the eggshells in his wake.
“The body knows what it needs,” he said.
There was an empty stoop on the front of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society, and Dad plopped down. Bill and I hovered nearby. He looked like a hobo, our dad, sitting on the steps shoving eggs in his mouth.
There used to be more homeless people in Middletown, before they cleaned it up. We had a ritual about it, when we were still kids, a thing that led up to the eating spree. There were these tasks we’d accomplish, and the eating was a reward. He called it “Bridges, Bats, and Bums.” Not baseball bats, the other kind, flitter mice. We would walk out on the railroad bridge, and throw rocks so that the bats came swooping down thinking they were bugs. I always worried they might catch one, crunch it in their teeth, but I was more scared of the bridge then, that one of the trestles would break, and we’d fall through. The bums thing was freaky too, even though there wasn’t much to it. We would just talk to them, “interact,” Dad said, “get a feel for how the other half lives.” Still, I was always afraid they’d grab me or something and I hated the smell, like rotten potatoes or dried blood. Dad would strike up these conversations and have them tell us stories about the war.
“Don’t tell your mother,” he’d say after. “This is guy stuff.” That was before she left.
“Ten,” Dad said, shoving another egg in his mouth. He’d slowed way down by now, taking bites instead of eating them whole, chewing methodically, and swallowing hard as if he needed water.
I picked up a pebble and launched it into the air. It wasn’t dark yet, but I figured it was worth a try. It flew over the road, and up onto the roof of a building on the other side. I threw another. It went wide of the first building, and bounced down the roof of another.
“Eleven,” said Dad as he peeled.
I threw my pebbles one at a time, waiting for the bats to swoop. They should have been waking up for the evening, sending out tentative sound waves in search of dinner.
Bill threw a couple. No bats appeared.
“I heard that if you wrap the rocks in tinfoil, the bats get confused and bump into them,” Bill said.
“We’ll bring some next time,” said Dad, his mouth full. He had eggshell under his fingernails and bits of yolk sticking to the corners of his mouth. The bag was open beside him, four eggs left, perfect and white.
“Don’t they get hurt?” I asked.
“Only one way to find out,” Dad said picking up another egg.
I reached over and grabbed one. It had a good weight to it, even and round. Bill stopped to watch.
“Why don’t we do Bridges anymore?” I asked.
“You guys are too old for that,” Dad said. “It’s kid’s stuff.”
I drew back and hurled the egg up onto the rooftop in a slow and perfect arc.
“Shit,” Bill said. Dad watched, but didn’t say anything. I tried to gauge his face for a reaction—anger, fear—but I couldn’t read him.
I grabbed another egg, his number 14, the record breaker.
“There used to be something to it,” I said, “a point. Now there’s just this. It’s not a reward if we don’t do anything first.”
Dad hefted himself off the stoop.
“Give me that,” he said, and I feared for a moment that he was going to grab me, rip the egg from my hand. Instead, he waited, palm open.
I gave it back.
“It’s all just fun and games, Frankie,” he said, rolling the egg in his hand. “You’re old enough to know that.” His tone was kind but credulous, as if he’d caught me waiting by the chimney for Santa Claus.
He looked up to where I’d thrown the egg, drew his arm back, and flung his up and over the rooftops. It went much further than mine had gone, sailing past the buildings altogether, landing who-knew-where on the other side.
And I looked at my father and saw him as he was, his stance sure, his build solid. The look in his eyes was wide open.
“There’ll be a chance for breaking records next time,” he said, and took up the last egg. “Now watch my form.”
He leaned back and launched that one even higher than the last in a soaring arc that, on its way up, seemed like it might just go forever.
Mika Taylor lives in Willimantic, Connecticut (a.k.a. Romantic Willimantic, a.k.a. Heroin Town USA, a.k.a. Thread City, a.k.a. Vulture Town) with her writer husband, PR Griffis, and Petunia von Scampers, their crime-solving dog. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Southern Review, Guernica, Hobart, The Kenyon Review Online, Black Warrior Review, and Diagram.
Photo by PR Griffis.