My father was eating pizza across from me, sucking in cheese and smiling like we were family.
I was 11 and felt five; the fans overhead moved slow and uneven like drunks. If I was shorter I would have been swinging my feet.
—You’re good looking, my dad told me like he was surprised.
—Sure, sure. You look like your mother.
The pizza was extra good, pepperoni slid down the slice on an easy river of grease; I ate each red circle one by one.
The Italian guy behind the counter, taking money and making friends, had joked with me when we’d bought our food. I’d laughed extra hard because I was too damn nervous.
—So, what’s your first name? I asked him.
His face didn’t know how to deal with me.
—Your name is Louis?
—Louis J-. I blew out the name like bubbles, it made my lips numb.
—Do you like it?
He bit more slice, swallowed and asked me why.
—Why don’t you like it?
—I beat up a kid named Louis.
—On your own? He raised his shoulders like I was making him happy.
—No, I said. Me and my friends. We kicked his ass.
I waited to see if he was the kind of guy to blow his dick out if I cursed a little. My Mom was like that. He didn’t squawk.
—What did Louis do?
—I don’t know, I said. I had made the whole thing up, but didn’t want to tell him.
—You remember when I saw you a few years ago? he asked me.
—You never been to see me.
—That’s true, he said.
The front door kept opening and closing, jingling its bells. People were hungry, but I was not. I took another chew, drank some soda. Sprite.
—How old are you? I looked at his face, it was big and not too pretty, but something about him was nice. I could see someone trusting him.
—I’m almost 40. Thirty–nine and looking good.
This was my dad with the Yankee cap he’d bought for me, the one I didn’t want. The one he’d brought with us anyway after saying hello and good-bye to my mother.
—What do you do? I asked him.
—For a living?
—Well, when I was with your mother I was teaching.
—I could teach high school, grade school. Whatever.
—I did math a lot but really I taught biology.
I was impressed, duke sitting across from me, looking like a broke ass Al Pacino, had taught the subjects I’d be failing soon. It was not the craziest thing to see this white guy sitting with a black kid and that being Father and Son, for instance, we could have been hugging.
He leaned forward,—How do you think you’d do in one of my classes?
—I don’t know.
—Are you a good student?
He sat back, stretched his arms, crossed them.
He laughed; he sounded like a little girl, like me and my friends when we got joking.
—You still teaching? I asked him.
He shook his head. —No.
—Can I get another slice? I asked. He bought me one. I watched him at the counter, he was good at being social. He leaned forward when he spoke so it seemed like he was only talking to you.
When he sat he was quick with the answer to my next question.
—I’m a police officer.
Whatever words were planning to pop out next stuck up in my throat and made me cough.
Pops nodded, —Okay.
I whispered,—So you have your gun on you?
—Just don’t, he said. I’m a cop in Connecticut, not around here.
He lifted his arm and pointed over my shoulder, —There.
—How far from here?
—Maybe an hour.
—Is it nice?
Funny that this dude who had disappeared on me was enforcing laws in another state.
—You ride around in a car or what?
I was feeling less scared of my man; he had been huge when he’d shown up at our apartment amazingly, but he was not as universal as before.
The ovens were sweating out their heat; I kept my jacket on. My father slid his off and wiped that skull; this was an endurance test.
—Yeah, he said. I ride in a car and I have a partner.
—Your partner’s black?
—I was in a play, I told him.
—So you’re an actor?
—What play was it?
I started and stopped because my chin was begging for some napkins; I cleaned myself off then explained:
—A scene from Return of the Jedi.
—The Star Wars movies, right?
—You got it, I told him, pointed right at his face.
—So what did you do?
—I was Darth Vader.
—With the mask?
—Uh-huh. And I got my Mom to buy me a real good one. It was heavy and came apart like the real one. But it was hot.
—Did it look good?
—Of course it looked good. That mask was like 30 dollars!
—Thirty dollars? Pretty expensive.
—And your Mom didn’t mind getting it?
—Are you kidding? She went crazy!
—She was screaming, Thirty dollars! Thirty dollars! Grandma told her not to get it.
—Yeah, your grandmother doesn’t like spending that money.
He knew. I laughed. Then him.
—Sometimes, I said. Sometimes I ask her for some money to get a comic and she tells me to read the ones I have, but I’ve read them 10 times!
I leaned forward, the walls of the pizza place were hard to hate—Dave Winfìeld was signed, framed and posing, swinging on a nail. Next to him? Craig Nettles.
—Your mother and me were dating once, this was before you were born. Ah-duh, I thought.
—And man, I showed up to take your mother out for some dinner, but your grandmother wanted me to come in. You know, say hello, all that stuff. So I came in and she served me some tea. We drank that for a little while.
—Too much milk in the tea? I asked.
—Yup, that’s your Grandma. She loves dairy.
—So we finish and we’ve talked for a while and your Mom comes out ready to go, looking great as usual. Man, I’m telling you your Mom was the best looking black lady I ever saw. I mean she had those hips and . . . well, so your grandmother, she takes our cups and sits there, while I’m watching, she sits there draining out what’s left of the tea; then she collects the little grounds that are left at the bottom of the cup and drops them on a napkin. So I’m sitting there thinking, what is this? And your Mom tells me later that your grandmother reuses the grounds. She gets about three cups where us mortals would get one.
He was laughing and I was laughing because he had my grandmother down solid, seemed like he was going to pop into imitating the way she held her neck.
I stopped, but money was laughing so hard his balls had to be hurting. I was smiley for another minute, then I got mad.
—Stop laughing at my grandmother.
He was heaving; it wasn’t as funny as all that.
—I’m sorry Anthony. I’m sorry.
But he didn’t and I sat there in silence until he got rid of all the humor in his lungs.
—So you done with that pizza?
I was, but half the slice was there on my plate. I didn’t want to waste it, but I didn’t want any more. I killed what was left of the soda and told him I was ready to be out.
We got up, moved for the door; teenagers were cramped into a booth and smoking at each other. I was sad because I liked the smell of cooking cheese, but the right thing to do seemed to be to get going. Outside it was four in the afternoon, the sun and wind had come together, over me.
—You want to go home? my father asked.
I looked down the block, past the Korean market where the fruit was sitting out on green wooden stands; grandmothers were clawing at the produce. Two blocks away was my apartment building and a game of stick-ball or tag; I looked up at this guy, —I don’t have to go yet.
His face was plain but he nodded extra-happy; we walked together. Across the street was the place where I got my glasses made, where they welded those plastic framed tortures to my skull.
When we had gone about a block my father stopped.
He was looking down at me, there was a grin.
—Your mother ever tell you about me?
—No. I never ask.
He laughed the laugh of trying not to seem embarrassed.
—Aren’t there some pictures of me around or anything?
I stepped backwards until I was leaning against a building so we weren’t entertaining others in the middle of the sidewalk. He followed.
—There’s one picture of you, I said.
—Where is it?
—In a drawer.
—What’s the picture of? He kicked at the building with one foot.
—It’s when you and Mom got married.
—Oh yeah? Do I look nice in it?
—You both do, I told him, and they did.
There were things a son is supposed to ask his father, but I didn’t know what they were; his swinging shoe was coming closer and closer to a tidy pile of dog shit. I didn’t tell him even when he went right through it. He didn’t notice; I started to laugh.
I pointed, —You stepped in dog shit. Dog shit made me laugh—that was something.
—You want to see a movie? He was running the toe of his shoe against the building to try and clean it off; I always tore off leaves and used them to wipe it all away.
Cars were babbling from Kissena Boulevard to Franklin Avenue, their horns loud and angry; I liked the specific music of Flushing traffic, it told me I was home. Then, sounds like these existed only in the piece of city where us lived.
—I don’t want to see any movies, I told him. I didn’t want to be in the dark with this man because I was friendlier to everyone when a room was one big shadow—I felt comforted and sure when the lights were out.
—There’s a park nearby. Sometimes I play basketball there.
—I’m too old for basketball.
—Not to play it, but there’s benches there. We could sit down.
He followed me, stopped only once to run into a corner store; he came out with a brown bag. —Just something we need.
At the park the black iron gates were shut so I took my father around to the wonderful hole in the fence; I slid through easy, he took more time. Once inside, we passed kids making teams for basketball, the girls at the handball court.
The green benches had been repainted so they looked perfect and new; I stopped my dad from sitting, ran my hands gentle across the seats until I found one where very few splinters grew; the new paint was like camouflage, laid out like that to fool the eye. New benches were expensive.
The ground in the park was old and dying concrete; many offerings had been made to the gods of scraped flesh and broken teeth—eleven of them from me.
—You know where I grew up? he asked me.
He laughed. —Why would you say Greenland?
—No, no. Neither one.
—You know the names of those places but you don’t know where Connecticut is? He laughed some more.
—I only know about interesting places. Like Uganda.
—Connecticut is interesting. I gave him that look I had, the yeah-right look and he nodded wildly.
—Seriously. There’s a lot of interesting things about Connecticut.
—Name 14, I said.
He had been sitting up straight as he protested about his new home state, but then he sat back again, defeated.
—Sure. Why not? I could tell you 14 great things about Uganda.
He got in my face like these were the kinds of challenges that mattered.
It’s not Connecticut.
He smiled proudly, —I knew you couldn’t. If I hadn’t known better, I would have thought this was one of my friends, getting their chests puffed out when they proved someone else wrong or stupid; but this was my father and I couldn’t just laugh it off.
—The capitol of Uganda is Kampala. The flag has a white-crested crane on it and the chief mining product is copper.
My dad acted unimpressed but he was quiet for more than a minute.
—So where’d you learn all that?
—You read a comic book about Uganda?
—Yeah, I said and rolled my eyes.
—Okay, maybe I did a book report.
He pointed at me, —See I knew you were a good student.
—I am not, I protested.
—Bad students don’t do book reports and remember the information two weeks later.
—Two months, I said, angry he’d short-changed me.
—Proves my point even more. The smile on his face seemed too wide for his lips, but there it was—pride. Like he had something to do with it.
—Okay, maybe I’m a good student. I’m just not that smart.
He rubbed his hands through his messy straight hair.
—Maybe that’s what I got from you. We both were quiet and tense; above us the skies were doing their noise-making.
—So you never told me where you were from.
He began talking over the distant hum of our isolation:
—I was born in Syracuse.
—Upstate. About six hours, maybe five if you’ve got a quick bus driver.
—You lived on a farm?
—No, he laughed. Syracuse is a city. Just like New York, but smaller.
I had at least one stupid thing to say, but I decided to let the old guy talk.
—You get beat up a lot? he asked me.
I had never thought about it before; his asking me was the first time I realized that people live with the idea of getting beat up instead of doing the beating.
—I used to get beat up all the time. I mean I would get my ass kicked. Big time.
—Who were you pissing off?
—Oh, everybody. Everyone that might beat me up, they did. My father used to tell me to find a way to deal with it, my mother taught me how to fight.
—Did it help?
The sounds of traffic began to echo in the air.
—So did you run away from home or something? Get out of Syracuse?
—No. He tapped his hands on his knees—he was half a beat off whatever he was trying to get at.
—You smoke? he asked me.
—Okay. Well, that’s what I did for a while. Smoked, drank.
—Did it help?
—Yes. People stopped beating me up because I wasn’t in school so much anymore.
I laughed. —I hope you never told this story to your students.
—No. Just you. And your mother.
—What did she say when you told her?
—She said, Buy me another drink and tell me again.
—My mother doesn’t drink. We looked at each other for the first time since we’d sat down. —You’re right, he said. I was only joking.
—So how’d you become a teacher?
—I don’t know. Sooner or later you grow up. I wanted to laugh, but then he’d think he said something right.
—What’s in the bag? I pointed between his feet.
—Well, I figured we might not see each other for a while.
He reached into the bag, pulled out a six pack of beer.
—I thought you should be able to say you had a drink with your Dad at least once.
I looked at the cool white cans with their bright red lettering; I thought I understood what sentiment my father was trying for. I appreciated it.
The sky was the oily grey of shark fins now, people were heading indoors.
The handball court was empty; the kids playing basketball had grabbed up their shirts and balls, were filing out through the broken spot in the fence. Someone had left a pair of sneakers under a backboard. The toes curled upwards—they were old shoes but their bright blue skin stood out like life on a desolate planet.
He handed me a beer and asked if I’d ever had any.
—I’ve had some here and there, I told him. I swallowed.
—Chug that beer down, my father said.
I looked at him and he was smiling, finished off his first.
—You drink that fast and we’ll be done with these beers in five minutes, I said.
He reached down, patted the bag; —I bought two six packs. I nodded, drank some more. I hated the taste of beer like I hated giving relatives hugs, but I was used to both.
I was going to ask him some other things, history things—about him and my Mom and me; I didn’t.
Me, him, we sat still.
I finished my beer and tapped his leg. My father gave me the next one; I popped the top myself.
He was so laid back it seemed as though his body had melted into the bench, I looked the same. He smiled as he drank; like always I grimaced as I forced myself to swallow.
He reached out to touch my shoulder or my face but hesitated when he got close, let his hand fall back to his lap; I pretended that drinking beer had left me oblivious.
—You’re going to get sick in this bad weather, I told him.
—But if I get sick I miss school, there’s nothing bad about that.
He leaned close to me, —Nothing wrong with missing a little work either.
He had finished two beers and was halfway through his third; I had killed one and was almost done with the next.
—You think your Mom might be around later?
The hand rose again, like to touch me but it was on himself, running his hair neat,
—I’m not leaving for two more days. You think your mother might want some dinner?
Then, like it happens, bad skies got better; sunlight started making things nice, nice, nice.
Right away people showed up on the streets again; kids were on their way back to the park. My father checked his watch; I reached down and got two more—handed him one and I popped the other. We had done all the drinking we were going to do.
His laugh came out like a shout. I asked why.
—You know, one time, when I was still with your mother?
I kept shut because I had never known that era.
—I remember we did it once, finished, and she wanted to go again. Right there. Didn’t even have time to wipe the juice off.
I shrugged, it was all the move I could manage.
—It’s getting late, he said.
It wasn’t. His face was all lit up, call it glee.
—We should get back to your Mom. He stretched his arms like he could reach her from here.
—Victor D. LaValle’s short story collection slapboxing with jesus is forthcoming from Vintage in the fall of 1999. He is currently working on a novel.