When Jerry pulled up to the apartment, there was already a car parked in the driveway. It was a new car, or at least a newer model, a re-worked throwback to the muscle cars of the 70’s. He knew it was none of the neighbors; they never parked in his spot. He’d bought a No Parking sign when they moved in, but it was never a problem, so he never hung it up. Jerry sat in his car wondering who could be so obnoxious. He waited for about a minute, when no one appeared, he pulled away to find somewhere else to park his car. He reached out and turned up the volume on the radio just in time to hear a string of ads as he continued circling his block searching for a parking spot.
After finding a spot and squeezing in, Jerry climbed out of his old Honda and walked toward the apartment building. As he got closer he saw the unfamiliar car still in the driveway. It looked out of place there, like a new penny in the dirt. It was the nicest thing on the block. The oil stains on the sidewalk under the car looked like they didn’t belong. The car was superior to the driveway. In fact, the small dirty six unit apartment building looked like it didn’t belong there, either. The car was shiny and new. It was masculine, powerful, youthful, everything the commercials promised it would be. It was not a model that Jerry could afford, and even if he could, it was not one he would buy.
As he walked toward the door, Jerry couldn’t help but peek into the muscle car. Around the rearview mirror hung a palm tree air freshener, in the back seat was a case of beer—American—and a suitcase. Otherwise, the car was spotless.
Jerry opened the heavy metal gate and walked up the stairs. He could hear laugher. The walk up the stairs winded him, like it did every night.
The laughing voices, he could now tell, were coming from inside his apartment. With the key in his hand, Jerry stood in front of the door listening. The voices sounded comfortable and relaxed. The social sounds of people having a good time. These sounds were so foreign to Jerry that hearing them come from inside his home filled him with a confusing dread. Laughter from his wife’s voice filled the air and he slid the key into the lock.
“Hello? Sarah?” he said, feeling a bit like stranger in his own home. The strong smell of cigarette smoke assaulted his nostrils. There was a warm and spicy note on top of the smoke, too. Had someone been baking?
“Hi, honey,” his wife called out, “you remember Eric. He came by to see Karen.” Jerry didn’t respond, so she added, “Isn’t that great?”
“Yeah …” said Jerry. A grin was frozen on his face. He wondered if it looked as fake as it felt, if it had melted into a sneer when he reached out to shake Eric’s hand.
“Jerry, what’s up?” said Eric, smiling, but not getting up from his chair. Eric grabbed Jerry’s hand and squeezed it hard. Jerry winced.
“What … ah … what brings you up here?” Up here, down here, Jerry had no idea where Eric had come from, or for that matter, where he had been the last eight years.
“I came by to see the kid. I thought Karen might like to get out to Six Flags or something. You know, a break from her life.” Eric was Karen’s natural father. Jerry came into Sarah and Karen’s life after Eric had abandoned them. Not long afterward, either. Eric’s name was still haunting phone messages and the mailbox when Jerry moved onto their tiny house in the Lakeview district. The house, long since re-rented, re-sold, and then torn down, had been a starting-out spot for Jerry and Sarah and an end for Sarah’s old life with Eric. The only history of their relationship Jerry knew was what Sarah had told him, an anguishing story of abuse and alcoholism.
“Her life?” Jerry was trying to understand what it was she needed “a break” from.
“Yeah,” Sarah interjected, “I was just telling Eric about Karen’s school and how she’s having a rough time there. We thought that a little break might be just what she needed.” Her words flowed fast and may have been slurred a little. Jerry noticed several beer cans piled atop the kitchen garbage. He also noticed Sarah’s use of the word "we." A parental decision had been made without him. Another parent had voted in his place, a parent with seniority in his family’s hierarchy.
Sarah went on, “Eric could take her, and maybe me, too. Eric’s been working near town here and he thought he might be able to see her more often.”
Work? In all her stories and complaints about Eric, Sarah had never mentioned him having a job. Quite the opposite. She always said that Eric would rather sit in a prison cell than work for a living. Jerry had never met Eric. He assumed that this was true. Seeing him close up, he began to question the picture Sarah had painted of him.
After all the years of having a tidy, capsulated picture of Eric, having him pigeon-holed as a dead-beat dad, here he was—live and in-the-flesh—sitting across from Jerry, destroying that picture. Eric was good-looking and tanned. He seemed both relaxed and well rested, a look that Jerry could never cultivate. When Eric smiled, he showed off perfect white teeth. There was an undeniable charisma. His presence was the only thing in the room. It diminished Jerry, made him feel like a schoolboy again.
“Jerry, you wanna beer?” Eric said. He got up and went to the kitchen, pulling open the fridge door like it was his own. Jerry wanted to say “no”, he wanted to say “no” to everything that Eric was going to ask. He wanted badly to say “no” the very idea of Eric.
“Uh … sure,” said Jerry.
Eric reached into the refrigerator and pulled out a can of American beer for Jerry. Jerry nodded thank you. He hated American beer. As soon as he cracked it, Eric lifted his half full beer and said, “Here’s to Karen.”
Jerry lifted up his beer, even though he thought his stepdaughter was a strange thing to toast to. Why would they toast to Karen? Jerry looked back down at the garbage and tried to count the empty beer cans. How long had Eric been here?
“So, Jerry, how’s life down at the plant?”
“Plant? I don’t work at a plant; I work at a place that screens T-shirts.”
“Yeah, well, plant, factory, whatever. Splittin’ hairs when it comes to names, job’s a job, right?”
“Right,” said Jerry. He knew Eric wasn’t listening to what he was saying. When he spoke, Eric looked Sarah in the eye, not Jerry. An uncomfortable silence filled the air.
“So, Eric, what do you do for a living nowadays?” asked Jerry.
Eric gave Jerry a patronizing look and used a tone reserved for talking to someone who couldn’t grasp the answer.
“I’m doing some work with some fellas just down the peninsula. It’s going quite well.”
Before Jerry could ask him to clarify his answer, the dog began to yelp. There was the loud crash of the gate closing downstairs.
“That must be Karen, she’s gonna be so excited,” said Sarah
They sat looking at each other, listening to Karen’s footsteps coming up the stairs. Sarah and Eric both had tight expectant grins on their faces. Jerry’s face was slack and pale. The front door creaked open.
“Hello-o?” said Karen. She was fifteen years old and had only recently begun taking the bus home from school. Karen usually beat Jerry home by a couple of hours.
“It’s a little late to be getting home isn’t it?” Jerry asked, but his question was downed out by greetings.
“Karen,” cried Sarah, “look who’s here. Do you remember Eric, your father? Of course you do.”
Eric took over. “Oh my god, what a beauty! My little girl is all grown up. You look beautiful, so mature.”
Jerry felt marginalized, invisible. He stood in the middle of the room wanting to disagree. No, she’s not grown up. No, she’s not mature, she’s only fifteen for Christ’s sakes, and, no, she does not remember this a-hole that was just referred to as her father. I’m her damn father. But he didn’t say anything; he just stood there with the same painful look on his face that he was trying to force into a smile.
“Hang on a sec, I brought you something.” Eric reached into his leather jacket and handed Karen a CD shrink-wrapped in cellophane. “It’s the new Mirror Ball Tramps CD.”
“Oh my god,” Karen’s tone instantly changed, “this isn’t even out yet!”
“Their road manager is a good friend of mine, if you want to see ‘em, we’re in.” Eric was smiling at her with those white teeth.
“Are you serious? Yes, I wanna go. When?” Karen was smiling back at him now, too. She had forgotten that one of these men was her father, Jerry wondered which one.
“Whenever, I’ll make some calls.” Eric’s answer was ambiguous, but apparently good enough for Karen, who grinned with excitement and retreated to her room with her new CD.
“That was easy,” said Eric, shooting a wink across the kitchen at Sarah. Was Jerry not supposed to see the wink? Was the wink meant for him to see? He was right in-between them both. The beer was making his stomach feel empty.
The conversation returned to where it was before Jerry had come home. There was no talk of beatings or abandonment; there was no talk of missing child support. No complaints of missed birthdays, Christmases, report cards, anything. The only memories they were now sharing were good ones. They talked about friends they shared that Jerry didn’t know. They talked about places that Jerry had never been. They talked excitedly over top one another and Jerry never got a word in. He sat, acting like he was listening, but letting his mind drift as far away as possible.
After two more beers, Eric got up to go to the bathroom. It was then Jerry noticed how tall he was, much taller than Jerry, he seemed to fill the whole kitchen. It was as though he was too big for their tiny apartment. He was larger than life and couldn’t be contained by the hum-drum constraints of Jerry’s tiny apartment and life.
When they heard bathroom door shut, Jerry saw his chance to voice his opinion, to say, what the fuck is going on here?
“Sarah …” was as far as he got.
“Don’t start now, Jerry. You’ve been complaining for years how Eric was never here to help out, now he’s here and you’re ready to jump down his throat.”
“I’ve been complaining? You’re the one who’s painted this fucker as the devil. And what does ‘help out’ mean, anyway?”
Before she could answer him, the bathroom door opened and Eric came out extolling a satisfied, “Aaahh.”
Jerry tried to continue with the momentum he’d built up while Eric was in the bathroom.
“Eric, what kind of work did you say you were doin’ down the peninsula?”
“Work again, Jerr? C’mon, let’s talk about something a little less boring. I mean, work is work, am I right?”
Sarah shot Jerry a look, admonishing him for slowing down the conversation, and they moved on from there.
“Do you ever hear from Little Ricky?” Sarah asked Eric.
Jerry tuned back out. He could hear the muffled sounds of the Mirror Ball Tramps coming from Karen’s room. Normally, he would tell her to turn it down, but right now the steady thump helped drown out the sound of the conversation in the kitchen as his wife’s voice peaked and crested with excitement. Between Sarah’s giggles and Karen’s noise, Jerry felt a heavy pull on his chest. He tried to sigh, but the mere effort of drawing a breath was too much labor for him. He was exhausted and could not even bring himself to yawn. He took another sip of his beer, it was flat now. He set it down and didn’t say anything.
“Jerry. Jerry … Jerry.”
He didn’t even recognize his wife’s voice.
“Jerry, we’re gonna go for ice cream. Eric’s gonna take us in his new Charger.”
It wasn’t an invitation.
“Are you sure?” said Jerry, looking again at the empties piled high atop the kitchen garbage.
Sarah smirked, “Of course, he’s fine, he can handle it.” She didn’t say “unlike you,” she didn’t have to. She would never let him get behind the wheel even after one beer. Before Jerry could ask Karen if she wanted to go, she was in the living room pulling on her jacket.
“Bye, Daddy,” she said from across the room.
“Okay then, Jerr,” said Eric as he held open the front door for Sarah.
“Bye, Hon. Love ya,” was all Sarah said. She didn’t wait for a response. Eric pulled the door shut. Jerry could hear them laugh and chuckle down the stairs until he heard the metal gate slam shut.
Jerry stood at the window and watched them get into the sleek new car. A memory floated up. Jerry thought about that old white station wagon they used to have. Brown with mud and perpetually full of garbage, the car would burp blue smoke until they were safely out on the open road. In a way, he missed the car that took them on so many camping trips and Sunday drives. Sarah always told him it wasn’t the car that made the man. She said the same thing about clothes, and money, too. She always knew just what to say.
Jerry watched now as the car he could never afford, and would never buy if he could, pull out of the driveway with his family. It was dark now and he stood like a sentinel and watched the taillights disappear down the street. All that was in front of his house now was an empty driveway with a large oil stain—his oil stain. He thought about it; he was a terrible procrastinator. He should have put up that No Parking sign weeks ago.