Judy works in a hot diner all summer supporting her unemployed father, but when she spots Alan buying supplies for a bomb shelter, her life begins to open up. A coming of age story, filled with the dread of the McCarthy era.
The day outside is hazy and gray; the fan on the counter blows dust. Jell-O spins slowly in a glass case. The radio, always a notch too loud for my taste, is turned up even higher for news hour. British troops have left Egypt, the Army-McCarthy Hearings are in full swing and the man who invented the zipper has dropped dead.
“Can’t you see table six flagging you down?” Alan asks. “You think people like cold coffee?” Alan Mandlebaum. Always behind me ever since we were kids, always watching.
I pick up the coffeepot and move down the aisle of customers. The regulars are at the counter, talking about Roger Maris, as if they’d been the ones up to bat—as if they’d never left the Bronx for Los Angeles. Beside them are their wives: distracted, knitting, fat leather pocketbooks on their laps. And there’s my father, in a red vinyl booth near the back. His head is bent over his lunch, so all I can see are newspaper-stained fingers gripping a turkey melt, even though it’s Tuesday afternoon and he’s promised to go out and look for a job.
Home is a pale green duplex dropped onto a patch of dry lawn. My father and the guys are inside, squeezed into our tiny living room and scooping up fistfuls of pistachios from a bowl on the table.
“You heard about Murray Hirsch?” My father’s voice is low, but the way he speaks makes every word sound absolute. “They got him this morning, right in his own yard. Didn’t even let his wife take the kids inside.” The guys groan, setting empty beers on the table. My father eyes the bottles, my cue to bring in fresh ones from the icebox. If I stall a minute he’ll start to fidget and look around the room, so I’m in the kitchen before he can start.
On our kitchen table is a seashell-pink cloth, dotted with daisies. My mother made it years ago, before she got sick. I was five when she died, and a few years later I had the brains to fold up the tablecloth and stick it in a closet: it makes no sense to stare at another person’s things if they’re never going to come back. But when I removed the cloth it was somehow still there, and you could tell how old the table was without it, so I put it back on again.
“Judy,” Lou Mandlebaum says now, leaning in the doorway. “Hope all this business with Murray doesn’t make you nervous.” He winks. I’ve got a feeling Alan will look just like his father later in life, eyes round as fishbowls, elbows and knuckles overshadowing the rest of him. Lou and my father met years ago, before Lou took over Menick’s restaurant, even before we all moved out west. Both jailed for organizing cells at the textile plant where they worked, they were best friends by the time bail came through. My father and Lou love to moon over what a match Alan and I will make (In the same tenth-grade class! From the same ilk!); we’ve practically been engaged since birth. But you want to know what I see in a future with Alan? I see decade after decade living under Menick’s yellow lights in a housedress, flowered or checked, with rickrack along the hem, serving soup and saltines to old-timers still complaining about their backs and the heat and the lies of the press.
“We’re parched in here!” my father calls from the living room.
I pull the bottles from the icebox and hand them to Lou. “You hear that?” I say. “The king has spoken.”
That night, after the guys have gone home and the dinner dishes are washed and drying on the counter, the two men arrive. Their visits have become the most predictable thing in my life. Always outside on the concrete steps, wearing stiff brown suits. My father in the doorway, yelling that this is his house and they’re invading his privacy. Don’t they understand he has rights? He can cite them, do they want to hear? Then the whack of the front door and my father joins them on the lawn. The low hum of the men’s voices, my father’s rising higher, but still not loud enough for me to make out actual words. I can see it all through the bathroom window from where I stand tiptoed on the edge of the tub. Moonlight shines on the lawn, giving my father a bluish satiny glow that makes him look almost heroic.
My father joined the Party during the Depression, just another unemployed factory worker looking, as he’s told me a million times, for “a model that actually worked.” He’s been deep inside it since I was so young I can’t tell now what’s a real memory and what I’ve invented by staring at photographs too long, trying to fill in the parts the camera didn’t catch. Here’s what I do remember, real or imagined: Our apartment in the Bronx, always loud and always crowded, the other families from the building coming in and out so often I never knew who had a key. Snow-caked boots by our front door and our broken fireplace, its mantel cluttered with portraits of black-bearded, stern-eyed ancestors my father never talked about. Summer weekends upstate at the bungalow colony, Alan whining about the sun and the bugs and the lumpy mattresses, too afraid of the dock spiders to ever swim out past his knees. I remember women from the Party caring for my mother for years, coming in with baskets of clean laundry and empty cereal boxes for me to use as blocks. My father—no joke—patiently following Party women’s instructions: heating up a casserole in the oven, softly rapping on my mother’s door with a jelly jar of water. My mother in bed the entire time I knew her, long slim fingers like she should have played piano, her light hair spinning out elegantly against the bleached sheets.
The war ended when I was six and everyone I knew moved to California, replicating our east coast shtetl in stucco duplexes painted optimistic pastels, fenced in by manzanita bushes and baby palms. “Remember the Bronx?” my father loves to say to anyone who will listen. “Men shuffling from home to work and back to their dark, tiny apartments. So poor everyone used towels for curtains. And the winters!” Then he always laughs, crossing his suntanned arms with satisfaction.
Here’s how it’s been since we came out west: my father gets work, the FBI visits his job and leans on his boss, I walk home from school and find my father on the sofa in his undershirt and slippers in the middle of the day with the radio wailing through the walls, and all over again. I’m the only one working this summer, my tips and paychecks barely keeping us afloat. I know my father will get a job when school starts up again for me in the fall—finding one has never been the problem—but he’s spent the entire summer lazing around Menick’s or in meetings with the guys. He does everything but actually look for employment, though he’s always lecturing me on the importance of honest work and how much pride I should take in being blue-collar, especially with Trumbo and all the others still being talked about, as if he’s afraid everyone will think all the communists in L.A. have mansions and glossy cars and swimming cabanas. Whenever I ask why he cares what people think, he gets a funny look in his eyes and stands up straighter, like he’s about to deliver a speech, and says it sends the world the wrong message. But personally I think his rivalry with the Hollywood liberals is one-sided, the skinny schoolboy waging a silent war against the homecoming king who has no idea the kid exists, and sometimes after a double shift at Menick’s, I want to fling one of those laminated menus right at him and tell him I for one don’t need a lecture on the value of hard work.
My father’s forever telling me not to worry about his activities, that he and Lou have perfected the craft of organizing since their run-in with the cops so long ago, and I try my hardest to believe him. But lately our house has felt cramped with secrets, as though his politics will seep out the windows if we aren’t careful. He and Lou have been worried that someone’s setting them up. They go quiet when I’m around, but I know what they’re talking about: on the last two worker walkouts they organized, someone broke windows at the plant and destroyed the equipment. They’re certain there isn’t a fink in the group—they’ve known each other forever—but anyone who hates their politics could be vandalizing the property, then trying to pin the crime on them. My father thinks he’s so good at keeping things from me, but I can hear them murmuring and want to tell them not to worry—I know not to leak. The rules have been drilled into me since I was a girl: Never tell a soul what goes on in the living room meetings. Don’t forget that everyone can hear what you say on the party line, and that the phone is definitely tapped. Stay away from people, from boys, who aren’t involved in the movement—they can’t be trusted.
Before school let out for summer, the air-raid drills began in homeroom. If we saw a flash, my teacher said, and then the sky went blank and we heard a terrible noise, we were to crouch under our desks until we were told it was safe to come out. Then duck and cover, he said, sliding his chalky fingers into his pockets. Remember those words.
“What a load of malarkey,” was what my father said when I told him about the drills. He was always telling me the Russians were Ike’s enemy, not ours, and the authority in his voice made me know he was right.
What I didn’t tell him was that the drills had quickly become the part of school I liked most: the hushed, cramped feeling of crouching under my desk, the clack of my teacher’s wingtips as he paced the classroom, giving instructions. Now shut your eyes, he said, and keep your hands over your ears at all times. When I closed my eyes, I saw clots of light shaped like cherry pits and plums. After a minute my eyes settled into the darkness and I saw nothing at all.
The morning after the FBI guys visit, I’m outside Menick’s when I see a boy leaving the hardware store next door, balancing boxes in one arm and paper sacks in the other. He must be my age, though he’s almost as tall as my father, his light brown hair slicked back and clean. When he steps onto the sidewalk, the top box falls from his arms. Nails plink on the concrete and roll into the gutter.
“Here,” I say, bending down beside him. “Let me give you a hand.”
“Thanks,” he says. I scoop up the nails and spill them into his open palms. For just a moment, the boy’s gaze wanders down to my legs, skirt sliding above my bare knees as I squat on the hot pavement. Our eyes meet. He blushes. I smile, making no attempt to pull the skirt over my thighs. I don’t know where that flash of boldness came from, but I can tell he likes it. He stands up and continues down the street. At the corner he turns around and looks at me once more, and at that second I can sense a tiny bit of my life beginning to happen.
There’s a new woman tossing her amber curls around my father’s booth, brushing herself up against the Formica, overwhelming the table with the carnationy smell of a beauty parlor. I cough, uncapping my pen to take their order.
“You know what I want.” My father’s voice has a dreamy edge. “And she’ll have the meatloaf and a Coca-Cola.”
“Light on the ice,” the woman calls out after I’ve almost reached the kitchen. I turn around and see her cross her legs, stretching out forever like the boulevards downtown. She is wearing, of all things, pants.
“She’s sweet,” she whispers to my father, loud enough for all of Menick’s to hear.
“What’s her story?” I ask Alan, soon as I’m out of earshot.
“No, the other woman in my father’s booth. Yeah, Gladys.”
“My pop says she was a big deal organizer back east but that she moved here after her divorce.” Alan says the word divorce the same way we talk about the black neighborhoods below Robertson: reverentially, excitedly, but a place we wouldn’t dare wander after dinner. “But more important, he says she’s a nice lady, that she’s …” He pauses, eyes flicking nervously around the restaurant, then whispers, like a complete dramatic, “That she’s committed to the cause.”
A week passes and nothing changes. Gladys continues to sit in my father’s booth, inching closer to him, ordering plates of meatloaf. I’ve never seen a woman like her: wearing pants like it’s no one’s business but her own, but with enough rouge smeared on her cheeks to remind us all she’s female. “You’ve been spacey lately,” Alan says today, moving a rag across the counter in quick strokes. “What’s with you?” He looks up at me, waiting for me to lift my arms so he can wipe that spot as well. I don’t. Gladys catches my eye from across the room and smiles, but I look away. I raise one hand off the counter and the print of lines looks almost permanent, but then Alan pushes the rag right over it. The remnant of my handprint blurs into the wetness and then slowly disappears. The fan still blows dust.
I’m serving up a short stack when the boy walks past the windows. I take off my apron, grab my purse and run outside. “Hey,” I call.
He turns around. His arms are filled with more paper sacks from the hardware store.
“You don’t go to Marshall High with me, do you?” I ask.
He shakes his head. “Hoover.”
I should have guessed, with his seersucker shirt and Bass Weejuns. I wonder if he’ll excuse himself—everyone knows half the Marshall kids’ parents are in the Party, and this past winter three Hoover boys chased Alan home after school, shouting Pink-o Jew, Pink-o Jew, then beat him to the ground and stuffed fistfuls of dirt in his mouth, right from his own garden. He wouldn’t go to school for a week after that. I had to bring his homework every afternoon, and a tray of juice and toast, as if he were sick, rather than simply terrified of whatever was hovering outside. But this boy continues to stand here, like he has no intention of walking away. “Don’t you have a hardware store over by you?”
“I like it here better.” He looks down the avenue at Leo the druggist locking up for lunch; the cluster of wives outside the bakery, staring up at the clouds and clutching their hats in the breeze.
“Listen,” I say. “I’ve got my own opinion, but like what you like.” I eye the sacks. “What are you building?”
“You really want to know?”
I cock my hip. “I asked, didn’t I?”
“A fallout shelter.”
“No kidding,” I say. “Can I take a look?” And in the exact moment it takes him to shift the bags from one hand and back to the other, as if considering every one of my words, I’m already leading him down the street, as if I know the way. After a few blocks, the lawns and houses begin to expand. Wooden fences appear, protecting swing sets and rosebushes. Even the smell here is different: like newly mown lawn, laced with honeysuckle. The boy’s house is at the end of a cul-de-sac and has a red fence, dark red like the booths at Menick’s. He unlatches it and leads me into the backyard.
Nearly the entire yard has been consumed by a hole in the ground. “Some guys with a backhoe came last month to make the hole,” the boy says, “and then me and my dad got to work. Every day we’ve been mixing mortar and setting the cinderblocks, and yesterday we bought the floorboards.” He lights a lantern and we climb down a ladder. Inside it’s empty except for pipes and sheets of metal leaning against the blocks, and it doesn’t smell musty like I would have thought, but dank and earthy. “I know it doesn’t look like much,” the boy says. “But when we’re done building the inside, we’ll put in fold-up bunks and paint the walls some color my mother picks out.”
“Won’t it be creepy staying here for days, not even seeing the sun?” I ask.
“Well,” the boy says, “it’s better than dying.”
“You in there?” calls a voice from above.
I look up at the sky and see a dark cutout shape of a woman peering down at us.
“Thank God you got more supplies,” the woman says as I follow the boy up the ladder. Her voice has a perkiness that makes me nervous. She’s wearing a pale blue sweater set and her hair is cut into a harsh pageboy, clipped right below the ears. “Aren’t you going to introduce me to your friend?”
I realize I never told the boy my name, and have no idea who he is. “I’m Judy,” I say, sticking out my hand.
“Glad you came for a visit,” she says, but her stiff smile makes me want to run home and iron all my clothes. “I wish you were seeing the shelter when it’s finished, though, I know now it looks just like a gaping hole. I’ll be honest, the best thing about it is more storage space. You know Hal can’t throw anything out? He still has board games he never plays, swim trunks that no longer fit—”
“So I say to Hal, fine, take all those things out here so my house stops looking like a junk shop,” and before she can say anything else, Hal leads me out to the sidewalk. No one’s ever accused me of shyness, but with this boy, I can’t put a sentence together. Hal looks happy and confused and a little afraid of me, as if he isn’t sure how, or even when, I appeared.
“Hal?” his mother calls from inside.
“I should go.” I can already predict what his mother thinks of me, a girl willing to crawl into the unfinished shelter of a boy she barely knows.
“Let me walk you home,” he says, and I reach for his arm.
I imagine us strolling through the streets as the lawns shrink and fade, up the steps of my duplex where the FBI men may be lurking, my father’s voice echoing down the block. “No,” I say, and it’s only when I let go of Hal that I see the pale dots my fingers made against his sunburned skin. “But don’t worry, I’ll see you soon enough.”
I unlock the door to a dark, silent house. On the kitchen table are a bowl of pistachio shells and an ashtray of stubbed-out cigars: no note from my father about where he went, nothing. For a moment I wonder if he’s in more trouble than he’s letting on, and I have no idea what to do. Then he walks inside with the newspaper tucked under his arm.
“Where were you?” I say.
“I should ask you the same thing, cutting out of work today.” He flicks on the radio and sits down. “Any uninvited guests tonight?”
“I didn’t see them.”
“Not even across the street?”
I glance at my father to see if I should be nervous, but his eyes are on the paper. “Should I be worried or are you just talking?”
“Worry about those fools?” He taps the sofa. “Relax a minute.”
I take a seat, watching my father’s eyes dart across the page. The radio, for once, is comforting: loud enough to absorb our silence but too quiet for my father to make out actual words and yell back at the news, wagging a finger in the air. Then he sets down the paper and walks into the kitchen. I hear the icebox open and close, and when he reappears he just stands in the doorway, cradling his beer, turning it around in his hands like he’s forgotten what to do with it. Then he says softly, “You’ve been acting funny. This about Gladys?”
This is so unlike him that I know Gladys is on the sidelines, nudging him to ask, and I can’t help it: I wonder if a new woman could be good for us. How comforting to have things back in order like when my mother was sick and the Party women took charge: dinner foil-wrapped and ready to slide into the oven, the sounds of a bridge game and neighborhood gossip rising and falling in the background as I drifted to sleep.
“Do you love her?” I blurt.
“No,” he says. “But I like her.”
“But do you think you could? Someday, I mean.”
He stares at me, as if genuinely registering my presence for the first time. “You want to know the truth?”
I nod and he sits back down and says, “Sometimes we’ll be out together, eating a meal or something, and I’ll be watching her mouth move and hear nothing she’s saying and feel like the saddest man in the restaurant. Sometimes I wonder if I was wired to love only your mother. But then I keep thinking, okay. Now’s the time for me to be back in my life.”
I’ve never heard him talk this way to anyone—certainly not to me—and part of me knows to let everything fall silent before the mood turns dangerously dark. I can already tell I’m wandering into mapless territory, where I can so easily step over some invisible border and start a whole new war, just like that. But I have too many questions. “Was Mom your first?” I say. “Love, I mean.”
He shakes his head. “But after her, the others seemed like rehearsals.”
“She was pretty, wasn’t she?”
He looks up, startled. “You don’t remember?”
I’ve spent my whole life trying to remember, I want to say.
Instead I say: “I was five.”
“You were five,” he says, as if it’s only now occurring to him. “No,” he says, slowly. “She wasn’t very pretty. Sometimes, at certain angles, she looked a little crazy. Like all her features, her long nose and pointy chin, had no business being together on one face. But then she’d look at you head-on and dazzle you.” He smiles, as if he can see something on the wall beyond me, some bright and endless reel of images, that will always—always—be invisible to me. “She had such a presence at the meetings. She knew how to be the most powerful person in the group by saying so little. You’d be talking to a room packed with people and she’d just stare at you, and all at once you’d feel drunk and oafish and full of hot air, even when you’d had nothing to drink.”
And then the question that’s been knocking around inside me for years comes tumbling out: “Do you ever think it isn’t worth it?”
We’ve been talking so openly, but suddenly even saying the question feels too risky, as if someone might really be listening. “You know,” I say. “Have you ever thought, for just a second, of giving all this up and being—like everybody else?”
“We are like everybody else,” my father says quickly. “Everyone who matters.”
For a moment he doesn’t say anything. “You have to understand,” he says. “The Party was our life, your mother’s and mine. And after she died, the idea of getting out of bed and making coffee and going on with my day seemed … impossible. But everyone, they stepped in. The Party women caring for you, Lou and Alan coming by every single day, taking you to school, to the park on weekends. Everybody, all of them, they helped you with your homework, they taught you to read. I couldn’t do any of that myself.” He takes a slow sip of beer. “You can’t question the Party,” he says. “The moment you do—you fall apart.”
He’s sitting there, his feet tapping the floor to a sharp, even beat and his head squished against the cushions. I have this eerie and comforting feeling of seeing him at ten, twenty, thirty, shifting nervously on all the sofas in every apartment he’s lived in. All at once I feel his pain, his life, lean against my heart.
He clears his throat. “It’s probably past your bedtime.”
“Pop,” I say. “I don’t have a bedtime.”
But we both stand up and he puts his hands on my shoulders, steering me down the hall. “Let’s you and me pretend, just for tonight,” he says, “that I remembered to give you one. Okay?”
“Okay,” I whisper. And there’s a moment before I go into my room that his hands stay on my shoulders, just resting there: the heaviest, warmest coat.
I’m wiping down tables the next morning when my father and Lou saunter through the restaurant doors. They seem all business, snagging their booth in the back without stopping to chat with the guys at the counter. “Hey,” I say.
My father doesn’t look up. So I walk over and say, “The usual?”
“Sure,” he says. “Whatever.”
And then he waves me away and turns back to Lou. They’re so focused on each other that it’s like I really am just a waitress to him, some flimsy, forgettable girl in a grease-stained apron with a too-hot pot of coffee. They just keep leaning in and whispering, and suddenly I’m so hurt I can taste it. I’m standing there, feeling like a bigger fool by the second for believing one real talk with my father means another will follow—and then I set the pot down right on their table, untie my apron and push through the glass doors.
“Running out again?” Alan’s behind me on the street, so close I can see a rim of sweat above his lip. In the sunlight he looks athletic, like the sweat came from a tennis match rather than working in a restaurant with a broken fan. But I’m already walking down the avenue too fast to answer, past the hardware store and the druggist and the bakery, my sandals loud on the pocked sidewalk. I know the last thing my father will do is tie on that apron, and yes, I know it’s wrong to make Alan take over my shift, but I keep walking. I turn up one block and the next, smelling everything at once: charcoal and hamburgers, eucalyptus trees, exhaust wafting out from the mechanic’s. I cross a boulevard, toward the larger houses set away from the road. Then down a side street, up another and past an intersection, until I’m standing in front of his door.
“Hey,” Hal says, opening it after my first knock. His face is pink, like he just scrubbed it. Behind him there’s a television flashing and a brown plaid recliner. I can’t make out the person in it, just a man’s arm, Hal’s father’s arm, reaching for a sandwich on the tray beside him. There’s a western on the screen, and beyond that, lemon-colored walls and thick carpet and the distant sound of a vacuum, humming away in a room I can’t see.
Then Hal steps toward me and closes the door on everything. “It’s good to see you,” he says, leading me out back. “You’ve got to see what we’ve done.” He lights the lantern and we climb inside.
The rest of the cinderblocks have been set along the sides of the shelter and the boards have been hammered down to create a floor. Canned food, candles and jugs of water rest against the wall. “We did a lot in a day, didn’t we?” Hal says, a hint of pride in his voice. “It’ll be finished by the weekend.”
“What’s the rush?” I say. “You’re really that worried?”
He pokes a finger through the buttonhole in his shirt. “My mom wants it done. She and my dad have been fighting and I heard him say he’d prefer to sleep in here. That was what he said, prefer. Like he was throwing her words right back at her.”
He looks up, and I’m afraid he might cry. He’s still going on about his parents, about their fights carrying all the way down the hall to his bedroom and how lately he’s been wanting to store his dishes in there so he can eat under the covers rather than facing the two of them together in the kitchen, and suddenly it’s like everything once fuzzy and glorious is coming glaringly into focus and there Hal is: some regular kid with regular problems, a goofy boy with a peeling nose and mayonnaise on his breath and half-moons of dirt beneath his nails. Even the shelter’s losing its luster, and I can see now what shoddy work they’ve been doing, the floorboards raised and uneven, the paint his mother chose a harsh and terrible green, like overripe avocados. I know that if I let him keep talking, this whole fantasy will topple over before it’s even had a chance to rise. So I rest a hand on his knee and feel the thick fabric of his shorts. “I’m glad I stopped by,” I say.
And then we’re kissing, hands snaking up his polo and my blouse, roaming across shoulders and backs and hip bones. Our shirts peel off effortlessly, as if more experienced people have entered the shelter and are doing all the work. Hal is bony and muscled, with faint freckles scattered across his chest. The lantern goes off and darkness fills the shelter. When the lights come back on again, his lips are even closer to mine.
“What do you want me to do?” he asks.
“I don’t know. I’ve never done this before.”
“Oh God,” he says. “Neither have I.”
“Well,” I say, not having a clue, “I think we’re supposed to start like this.” I pull him onto the floorboards and reach for his zipper. Hal rolls on top of me, pushes up my skirt. I stare at the food stacked beside me: tomato soup, tuna fish, cans and cans of Spam. I know what I’m about to do could taint me forever, and yes, I know I’m supposed to wait until I’m married and much, much older, but I can’t think of a single real reason to stop.
He touches my face, looks at me. “We don’t have to do this if it’s going to hurt so much.”
“I don’t feel anything,” I say. “I don’t even think you’re in there.” I tell myself to focus entirely on the Spam. “Try again,” I whisper.
He does, but before he even gets the smallest bit inside, his whole body shudders. He closes his eyes, and a second later he opens them so wide I can’t help but think of Alan Mandlebaum. “Oh,” he says, the word rolling off his tongue in three long syllables. And then I guess we’re done.
“Jeez,” he says, leaning back on the boards. He reaches for my hand, and for a minute we lie there silently. Then he sits up. “My dad could come out here any second,” he says. “Let’s go somewhere. Anywhere. My treat.”
I look around the shelter, taking in the wood floor, the lantern and piles of food. I’m thinking I could stay here a very long time, hidden and protected from the world. I could help Hal and his father repaint the walls an orange so bright and beautiful they’d forget about the dark. Hal and I could play board games and flip through the photographs in Life magazine, and when his father went into the house for more jugs of water, we could take off our clothes and try again so maybe the next time I’d feel something. But Hal has already zipped up his pants and is wiping the wet spot off my skirt with his hankie, and I think of my father inside Menick’s and know what I have to do.
“Alright,” I say. “I know a nice place.”
Hal’s mesmerized the moment we step inside, the way I must have looked the first time I saw television. Everything seems to fascinate him: the regulars at the counter, still talking about baseball; jar after jar of olives; even the glass dish of mints on the counter, chalky and dry as detergent.
“It’s just the two of us,” I tell Alan at the counter. “And I want a booth.” Alan leads us to one in the back. He slaps down two menus, avoiding my gaze. But I notice his hands are quivering. “Two Coke floats,” I say as he shuffles off.
From my father’s booth I hear Gladys’ deep laugh, the clink of ice in an empty glass. I wait for my father to look up and see me with Hal. He’ll pause for a moment: forkful of pie held midair, newspaper lowered and eyebrows raised. Then he’ll walk over to my booth, rest his hands on the table and before he can say a word he’ll take one look at me and know it’s too late: the doors of my life have already swung wide open, and there’s nothing he can do to kick them closed.
My father stands up and makes his way down the row of tables and booths in my direction. He’s walking swiftly, shoes squeaking against the linoleum, his shoulders erect and proud. In his fist is his crumpled napkin. When he reaches my booth, he moves right past, not even shooting me a sideways look. He stops at Lou Mandlebaum’s table, where he whispers something into Lou’s ear. Lou mumbles something back as they walk outside, and it’s then I see the cops waiting under the blinking Menick’s sign.
Right away the two officers approach my father and Lou. I can’t hear a word anyone’s saying, but it’s obvious my father’s yelling the loudest. He’s waving his hands in the air as if he’s capable of pushing things around in the sky, while the cops keep their hands at their sides. At first glance the officers look alike, but then I notice one is almost handsome with a black crew cut; the other less handsome but kinder-looking, with a mustache and shiny pink lips like a woman’s. I wonder if either man has a daughter and a duplex and a restaurant they eat at every afternoon. The man with the crew cut walks over to a squad car parked out front. He fishes for keys inside his pants pockets and unlocks the backseat. The man with the nice lips takes my father and Lou by the elbow and leads them to the car, but they whip their arms out of his grip. The man leans so close to them that his breath must be hot on their faces, and whatever he says makes my father stop talking altogether. The cop handcuffs them both and pushes them into the backseat.
The car pulls away from the curb, and here I am, same girl as always, except for the boy I barely know beside me. Hal is fiddling with the saltshaker, asking me what in the world is happening outside, as if I have any control. There is the squad car, making its way down the wide gray avenue. I try to picture my father in the back but it’s impossible: all I know for certain is that the last thing on his mind is what I’ve been doing with the boy in my booth. The car stops, makes a right at the light and then it is gone. There is Gladys, rallying everyone around the booth that is now hers.
There is Alan, setting the half-made Coke floats on the counter. He’s walking toward Gladys, motioning for me to join him so we can make a plan for what to do next. It occurs to me that Alan’s the only other person who understands exactly how it feels to watch his father get cuffed and thrown into the back of a squad car, the only other person who will be waiting for a call from jail tonight. I know I have no choice but to leave Hal in the booth and join Alan: some choices are made for you and that’s that. I wish I could say Alan looks different to me at this moment, but he looks the way I’ve always seen him, the way I know I always will: nervous and sweaty, bewildered and pale. There is the glass case of Jell-O, going around in circles, like not a thing has changed. There is the radio, turned up for news hour. The Eisenhowers had the White House staff up to their country house today, and Fantastique, a tricot fabric made of DuPont polyester yarn, has just hit department stores nationwide. It’s fast-drying and wrinkle-resistant, the radio announcer says, so forget about the laundry and enjoy your day outside.
This short story is taken from the collection The UnAmericans by Molly Antopol, available now from 4th Estate.