Your Father Needs a Favor

Eric Rasmussen

My father is famous for a lot of reasons. Most recently? He hit a Grammy-winning musician with his car. Dad tells the story better than I can, even though I’ve heard it from him a hundred times. It all started when Mom forgot to latch the screen door, which set off a chain of events that led to the incident. My parents still argue over who deserves the most blame. Mom knows to be careful, but she was carrying full bags of groceries, and she had asked Dad several times to come help. Whoever’s fault it was, while my parents unloaded cans of tuna and bags of noodles, their dirty white Japanese Spitz-Highland Terrier mix, Tika, pushed through the door. The dog yipped as she raced down the driveway, maybe out of excitement over her successful escape, or maybe as a belligerent f-you to my father, who keeps the animal on a literal and figurative short leash. Dad set down the tuna cans, sighed and shook his head. The dog escapes a lot.

Dad’s not as mobile as he used to be. He has an awful back, blown disks and arthritis, so he climbed in the car to commence the chase. Their neighborhood is nestled back in the woods behind the park. It’s the kind of place where deer come right up to the kitchen window and bears regularly tear down everyone’s bird feeders, the type of spot that relentlessly entices little dogs with its wild animal smells. Like every other time she escaped, Tika raced through the trees and bushes and yards, each whiff more interesting than the last, while Dad drove around the curvy roads with a bag of bacon-flavored dog snacks. “Tika, want a treat? Huh?” he shouted out the driver’s side window. “I have treats. Come, Tika. Come here.”

The treat thing doesn’t really work. Usually one of the neighbors sees Dad driving around, then spots the dog, grabs her, and waits for Dad to circle around again. Sometimes the Good Samaritan carries the canine back to my parents’, where Mom offers coffee or a soda, and they chat until Dad lurches up the garage steps and through the back door. “I couldn’t find her. I sure hope nothing happened,” he says, shaking his head like a funeral. Tika’s claws click on the tile as she runs up to Dad and jumps for the treats he carries. “You found your way home, I see,” says Dad, ignoring whichever neighbor sits in the kitchen. But they mostly understand. That’s just the way Ron is, surviving retirement the best he can.

On that particular morning, Tika evaded the people in stocking hats and gloves out raking leaves and draining their garden hoses for winter. They didn’t have much time left. Frost already decorated the neighborhood’s lawns. Dad wove through the neighborhood at ten to fifteen miles per hour, watching the undersides of bushes and trees for flashes of furry white motion, shouting for his dog the whole time.

And then he hit somebody.

Sorry. Not somebody. He hit Timothy Sterling, the most famous guy in the whole city, the guy whose songs play behind Chevy and Folgers commercials, who sells out arenas and figures at the top of all sorts of “Most Influential Young Artists” lists. Everyone in town knows him. He and I are the same age. We weren’t friends, but those of us who attended high school or played bar league volleyball with him before he got famous enjoy our own notoriety because of the connection. Everyone else has stories of running into him at the grocery store or the farmer’s market, of asking for autographs in between the gas pumps while waiting for their tanks to fill. Except for Dad. To Dad, Tim Sterling was just the guy who doesn’t look where the hell he’s going.

After the thump, Dad stopped the car and got out. He came around the front to where Tim sat on the ground. “Did I get you?” Dad asked.

“A little bit,” Tim said as he rubbed his thigh.

“You didn’t hear me coming? I was shouting my damn head off.”

Tim pointed at the headphones circling his neck.

Dad nodded. “You think those are such a good idea?”

“Not anymore.” Tim wiped his gloved hands on his jogging pants and lifted himself up using the hood of Dad’s Buick.

“Hold on, now,” said Dad. “I don’t want you getting hurt worse than you are, then trying to sue me for it.”

“It’s fine.” The musician tried putting weight on his right leg. “I turned at the last minute, so you only nailed me in the thigh.”

Dad pulled out his wallet and found a scrap of paper, then grabbed the pen he kept in his shirt pocket. “Either way, I’ll take your name, and you can take mine, and if anything comes up we’ll let the insurance companies deal with it.”

“Really, it’s fine…”

“Listen. I’m not losing my ass over this.” Dad tore the paper in half, wrote down his name and phone number, then handed both halves and the pen to his victim.

Tim paused for a moment before he started writing. “Please don’t give this number out.”

“Why would I do that?”

Tim returned his slip and the pen. Dad stuck his hand out for a shake. “You’re sure you’re all right?” Dad asked.

“I’ll be fine.”

“Good deal.” Dad put the pen back in his shirt, and zipped up his coat. “You haven’t seen a little white dog running around, have you?”

***

“Two things,” Mom said after I answered the phone. “First, we’re taking you out to dinner this week to celebrate your new job.”

“Really, Mom, you don’t have to…”

“And second, your father needs a favor.”

I stood in my new apartment’s empty kitchen, across from the empty living room, down the hall from the mostly empty bedroom. Mom was probably sitting at the corner of the breakfast bar in the clothes she wore to church, Sunday paper open on the counter in front of her, eating toast while Dad had his eggs in the den.

I paused and waited for the prompt. I knew this would happen. From my college graduation, up until two weeks ago, I lived with Mom and Dad. For two years. As part of our unspoken tenant agreement, I had to do whatever tasks Dad asked of me. Now I moved out, but the work wasn’t going to stop. Clearing brush piles, hauling cinder blocks, all the crap Dad came up with because no one would be living in his house rent-free, goddammit, those things would be expected of me forever. And I couldn’t dare decline. Dad’s eyebrows would fall and his head would tilt, and he’d sigh. “How long did I let you live here? Two years? That’s a debt I expect you to work off.”

Mom wouldn’t volunteer what sort of “favor” Dad required this time. I had to ask. “What does he need?”

“Here’s the thing about your father,” she said, then stopped. I could hear her folding the paper, pushing her plate away. “I’m worried about him.” I pictured her leaning back in her chair to see around the corner of the kitchen, to make sure he wasn’t limping in, or hiding there eavesdropping. “Now that you’re gone, there’s not much for him to focus on. He doesn’t know what to do with himself.”

“Well, that’s too bad, but I’ve got a full-time job now, and I’ve already got too much to worry about without…”

“Hold on,” she said. “Relax.” She lowered her voice. “I just need you to come up with an excuse to have him over. Maybe a project you need help with. He needs to be needed.”

“It’s an apartment, Mom, it’s not my place. I can’t just make changes without…”

“It doesn’t have to be a big deal. I don’t know, put up a shelf. Change a light fixture.”

I didn’t even have furniture, much less an interior design plan. But that didn’t matter. “Alright. I’ll see what I can do.”

“The sooner the better,” she said, her voice growing louder. I could imagine her straightening up in her chair. “Now, what night are you thinking for dinner?”

***

We got to the restaurant early, so we wouldn’t have to wait in line, but it didn’t matter. At 5:35, three families already stood in front of us. Mom looked at her watch. Dad sighed.

“Should we go somewhere else?” he asked.

When I was kid, Dad was so famous we never had to wait in line anywhere. He joined the Army right after high school, but he came home early after a terrible jeep accident ruined his back and earned him an honorable discharge. The new fishing boat dealership out on the highway gave him a job, and one afternoon, the owner convinced him to pose next to the new models for the newspaper ad. In that first one, he gestured toward the boats in his wide 1970’s tie. In the second, he held a fishing rod and reclined in a captain’s chair in shorts and a tank top. In the third, he lay across the bow shirtless, and Mr. Summer, the new spokesperson for Greater Midwestern Motorsports, was born. For almost two decades he showed off his basic-training muscles in the paper, on billboards, on TV commercials, and in person, whenever he could. As the story goes, my Mom was one of many customers’ daughters who found excuses to touch Dad’s biceps while he explained outboard motor horsepower to their fathers.

I suspect both of my high school girlfriends dated me because of Mr. Summer. When Mr. Summer accompanied the family to the mall, everyone smiled and waved and asked for autographs. When we went out to eat, Mr. Summer always got to go to the front of the line. Sometimes we even got free desserts.

Not anymore.

“It’ll be about fifteen minutes,” said the hostess. “If you want to take a seat, I’ll come get you when your table’s ready.”

Dad plopped onto the corner of the bench, back straight, legs splayed at awkward angles, as close as he could come to comfort. Mom wedged in next to him.

“So,” said Dad, “you’re a working man now.”

“Yep,” I said.

“How’s it feel to finally have some responsibility?”

“Doesn’t feel that different.”

Mom sat forward, purse on her lap, hands on her purse. “So what do they have you doing all day?”

Dad crossed his arms while I explained the intricate and fascinating world of repair specialist coordination for a regional office technology retailer. Mom tried to listen, even though the details meant nothing to her.

“It just goes to show you how much the world has changed,” said Dad when I finished. “When I was at Greater Midwestern, we sold quality products that didn’t break down, so we didn’t need a whole damn department to deal with complaints.”

“Copiers aren’t boats, Dad. Lots of moving parts in a copier.”

“Show’s what you know about boats.”

Ten minutes of silence followed before the hostess approached us with her arm full of menus. “Your table’s ready, if you want to follow me.”

We slid into one of the booths, and then our waitress arrived, with lots of makeup and a too-short skirt. She was my age, maybe a little younger. Just Dad’s type, as if he ordered her off the specials board.

“What can I get you to drink?” she asked through a put-on smile.

“Thought you’d never ask,” said Dad. “My wife will have a white wine, and I’ll take whatever light beer you have on tap.”

“Sixteen or thirty ounces?”

“What the hell, let’s do thirty.”

“Good choice,” said the waitress. She looked at me, and I flipped the menu over to find the drink options.

“We’re celebrating,” Dad said, while everyone waited. “My kid here just got his first job.”

“Not my first job,” I said. “I’ve had jobs before. It’s my first full-time job.”

“Congratulations,” said the waitress, somewhere between genuine and genuine enough to earn a good tip.

“Thanks.” I smiled, and nodded. “I’ll just have a water.”

“Like hell,” said Dad. “Get a beer. It’s a special occasion.” We made eye contact for a moment, and he won. I looked back down for the beer options. Dad took advantage of the pause, and angled himself towards the waitress. I knew he would bring it up at some point, but I didn’t expect it so soon. “So,” he said, pointing at the signed celebrity photos that dotted the wall, “you get a lot of famous people in here?”

“No,” she said. “Not too many. Most of those pictures are fake. Corporate sends them to us.”

“How about Tim Sterling? You ever see him come through here?”

The woman’s eyes opened wide. “Not in the restaurant, but that’s so funny you mention him, because I just ran into him downtown two weeks ago. We got our picture taken together. He was so wasted.”

“You know,” Dad said, leaning forward, “I hit him with my car.”

“Oh my god!”

“He was jogging, came out of nowhere. I didn’t hurt him, no big injuries or anything, but he gave me his phone number. I could just call him up whenever I want.”

“How crazy!” The hostess tilted her head and jutted out her hip. “Was he nice?”

“Real nice. Seemed like a really good guy.”

“That’s hilarious.”

Dad leaned back in the booth. The attention of an attractive woman, the tiny reiteration of his celebrity status, would sustain him for the day, far more than whatever ridiculous burger he would order. He turned back towards me. “What do you think there, pal?” he asked. “You figure it out?”

“I’ll take the stout.”

“Fabulous,” she said. “Sixteen, thirty…”

“Sixteen is fine.”

She smiled and turned to leave, and Dad couldn’t help but stare at her backside as she walked away. Mom pretended not to notice, a skill she had perfected over the decades. While Dad’s attention was elsewhere, Mom made eye contact with me, and nodded slightly. It was my turn.

“Hey Dad,” I said, summoning all my customer service training. “I was wondering if you could do me a favor.”

“What do you need?” he asked.

“I want to put up a few shelves in my bedroom. Do you think you could come over sometime and give me a hand?”

He sighed and looked at the ceiling, as if he needed to figure out when he could fit me into his jam-packed schedule. “I suppose I better, if you want them straight.” He shifted again in his seat, as he would the entire meal. “But that’s the kind of thing you should probably be able to do on your own.”

“I know,” I said. “I’m working on it.”

***

Three nights later, I celebrated my new job properly, at my apartment with friends. A half dozen people came over, and we all sat around on plastic patio furniture in the living room and tried to figure out how adults hang out with each other. I filled the fridge with beers, but this time we didn’t feel compelled to drink them all as fast as we could. We talked and laughed and ordered pizza, and my friends helped point out everything my new life lacked.

“Hey man, do you have any napkins?” one of them asked.

“No,” I said.

“Where’s your pizza cutter?” asked another.

“Don’t have one.”

“Can I get a little salt?”

“Yeah, hold on,” I said. I pulled open a few drawers and tried a few cupboards before admitting what I already knew.

“I don’t have any salt.”

“This is bachelor living, man,” said my best friend Ian. He held his bottle up for a toast. “In about three days, you’ll wish you were back home.”

“I doubt it,” I said. The pizza was greasy, the beer was cold. What more could I want? “No, I’m pretty happy here.”

After an hour, the beer helped everyone relax and the gathering resembled all those nights in the dorms, or at the house I shared with Ian during senior year. The music provided enough cover for everyone to retreat into private conversations. I found my strings of lights and hung them around the room with tape, then turned the overhead fluorescents off. Ian found Jenga in one of the boxes stacked in the corner, and the evening coasted along, until someone knocked loud on the front door.

Our instincts said “cops” but that was ridiculous, so I set my beer on the counter and stood up and opened the door and found Dad, tool bag over his shoulder and three shelving kit boxes in his arms.

“Is this a good time?” he asked, straining to see past my shoulder.

“I’m really sorry,” I said, “but I’ve got people over.”

He sighed. “Well, I’m here now. Take it or leave it.”

I stared at him for a moment, then stepped aside. “For sure. Come on in.”

He lurched through the kitchen to the living room, where everyone looked up.

“Hey everyone, this is my Dad.”

And suddenly, like Clark Kent from a phone booth, Dad became Mr. Summer again. He stood up straighter. His voice got smoother. “Looks like a nice little party.” He clapped Ian on the back. “I know you. Ian, right?”

Ian nodded.

“Oh sure, I’ve met lots of you.” He smiled. “My son here apparently can’t handle hanging a few shelves, so I had to come rescue him.”

“That’s so nice,” one of the girls said.

“Save me a beer,” said Dad, then waved and walked to bedroom. I followed. I had no choice.

Dad set his tool bag down, and dropped the boxes on the mattress lying on the floor. “Where do you want them?”

“How long is this going to take?” I asked.

“I don’t know. An hour.”

“Because I’ve got people over.”

Dad pulled a tape measure out the bag and hooked it to his belt. He found a battery pack and clipped it into his drill. He had to hold himself up with one hand on the wall while he bent over. Before he stood back up, he wavered for a second, like he might not make it, and had it been anyone else, I would have helped him up.

 “You don’t need to stand with me. I can do this,” he said.

“I thought this was something we were supposed to do together.”

“It’s not a two-man job, believe me. It’s about as simple as it gets.” He looked up at me, and I didn’t know if I had gotten taller or he had gotten shorter or if we had never stood close like this, because Dad had never looked up at me. “I’m here now, I’ll take care of it. Go sit with your friends.”

“Are you sure…”

“I’m not going to tell you what to do. You wanted shelves, I brought shelves, but if it’s going to be a big damn deal, I’ll just leave.”

“No,” I said. “If you’re sure, I’ll be out in the other room.” I couldn’t read what he actually wanted. Even if I could, I probably couldn’t give it to him. “Thanks.”

Dad waved me off, and I left the room.

There’s one story about my Dad that I can tell better than he can, probably because he doesn’t even remember. For three Halloweens in a row, ages seven, eight, and nine, I went as a mini-version of Mr. Summer. Mom said it was too cold to go trick-or-treating bare-chested, so we got those t-shirts with airbrushed, muscled torsos. I wore smaller versions of his big straw hat and his big mirrored sunglasses, his white, cuffed pants and his woven leather shoes. At that age, parents were still cool, and I loved going with him, except for one thing. He brought his own pillowcase and got candy too. I never understood that. No other dad did that. All the moms at all the houses we visited recognized him and commented on how cute we looked, and they dropped more pieces into his bag than they did into mine. When we got home, we emptied our hauls onto the table. Dad’s pile was always bigger than mine.

In the hallway I paused. To my right I could see the dim glow of the living room and hear the quiet voices of my friends. Maybe we would keep listening to music, or maybe we would put on a movie. Maybe one of them brought some pot. The couples would probably leave soon, but Ian would stick around until late. And to my left I could see Dad, except now that he thought I had left, I saw something I had never seen before. He turned to grab one of the boxes off the mattress, but he stopped. He put both hands on his lower back, and tried to stretch, but he stopped halfway. His face wrenched in agony. I could only see his profile, but he wore an expression that revealed how much he actually suffered. I knew he had a bad back. Maybe I never understood how bad. He leaned back and half-fell onto the bed, and put his head in his hands. After a few breaths, he grabbed one of the boxes and opened the flap on the side.

He needed me. But I needed something else.

“You’re not going to help him?” Ian asked when I returned to the living room.

“No,” I said. “He’s fine.” I grabbed my beer and finished half of it in one swallow. “He said he wants to do it himself.”

Forty-five minutes later, Dad emerged from the bedroom with empty shelving unit boxes and his tool bag and a full-disappointment frown. “All done,” he said. “Easier than I thought.” He pointed at me. “I bet even you could have handled it.”

Ian stood up from his green plastic chair. “I’ll get you a beer. You can have my chair.”

“Don’t worry about it,” said Dad. “I don’t want to interrupt. I’ll just get going.”

You’re so lucky. That’s what everyone always told me. Your Dad’s so awesome.

I turned to the group. “I don’t know if I ever told you guys, but do you remember those Mr. Summer boat commercials from when we were kids? That was Dad.”

They all sat forward. “No way!” one said.

“I thought I recognized you,” said one of the girls.

I didn’t look at Dad. I didn’t need to.

“But his most recent claim to fame is he hit Tim Sterling with his car.”

“Holy shit,” said one of the guys. “Why?”

The tool bag hit the floor, and Dad set the boxes on the counter. “It wasn’t like that,” said Dad. “My wife didn’t latch screen door, even though I always remind her to. We’ve got a little dog, Tika, and I swear she can sense when the door’s open…”

Ian handed Dad a beer, but he didn’t stop talking, he wouldn’t stop talking.

#

Eric Rasmussen teaches high school English in Western Wisconsin. He is pursuing an MFA from Augsburg College, and his work is featured or upcoming in The Chariton Review, Souvenir Lit Journal, Mulberry Fork Review, Hapax, and Volume One Magazine. Whenever he sees a shooting star, he panics and wishes for something he already has.