Drive Like a Champion: Part III

The next day – Saturday – Dan sat at a table in Boudreaux’s Café with a cup of black coffee and a cheese Danish. It was lunchtime and he had thought about ordering a beer, then decided against it, wanting to project a good image. Not that he’d ever had a drinking problem, but he felt that a wayward dad trying to reunite with his daughter was best served ordering something non-alcoholic.
            Dan had planned to call Abby that morning, but to his delight, she actually called him first, having learned of his visit from her roommate. Boudreaux’s was three blocks from Abby’s apartment and had been Dan’s suggestion. He found it with a Google search on his phone and the French name sold him, making it seem sufficiently classy.
            They decided to meet at noon, but he arrived early and was on his second cup of coffee when she walked in, dressed casually in sandals and a long, loose-fitting skirt. He stood and hugged her tightly. He had the same feeling in his throat he’d had the night before when she first walked on stage, and he took a deep breath, trying to keep his eyes from tearing up.
            “It’s good to see you, sweetie.”
            She squeezed him back. “You too, Dad.”
            They sat down and picked up their menus.
            “This place any good?” he asked.
            “Definitely. Good choice.”
            Abby picked up her menu and Dan took a sip of coffee.
            “I saw your play last night.”
            “I know. Megan told me she gave you directions to Louie’s.”
            “I loved it. You were incredible.”
            “Better than Oklahoma,” he said, referring to the musical that he’d seen her perform in high school.
            “Now you’re just making stuff up,” she said, smiling.
            “Not at all. I found this one more entertaining. And you wrote it?”
            She nodded.
            “How do you even know how to do that?”
            “I’m just around the theater a lot. I guess I soak it all in. And I took a script-writing class in college.”
            Her cell phone buzzed on the table and she put it in her purse without looking at it. Dan wanted to besiege her with questions – about her life, her job, men – but he restrained himself, letting her pick out lunch. He watched her as she scanned the menu and was reminded of her reading as a kid, scrunched into the La-Z-Boy with her legs hanging over the armrest and a doorstop-sized Harry Potter book on her lap. When the waitress returned for their order, Dan wasn’t ready. He fumbled with the menu.
            “Think I’ll get the po’ boy. Don’t know about a side.” He paused for a moment to consider the list of options. “Debating baked beans or fries.”
            He waited for a suggestion from the waitress but none came. Her pen hovered above her pad, waiting.
            “Guess I’ll go with the fries.”
            She scribbled his order with no comment and Dan was sure she had him pegged as a bumpkin father visiting his cosmopolitan kid. Abby’s order was more concise.
            “Turkey wrap and Cesar salad. Dressing on the side.”
            The waitress left and Abby sipped her ice water. Dan’s questions burned inside him, wanting to all come out at once. He started with the most basic.
            “How’s work? Last I spoke with Mom, she said you were at the American Heart Association.”
            “Yep, been with them for a year or so. I’m a volunteer coordinator.”
            “Sounds like a good job.”
            “I like it, most days. Non-profits don’t pay much. I’m actually making about the same as I did waiting tables, but now I work more 9 to 5 hours, which frees me up to do stuff at the theater.”
            “Still in that same apartment, too.”
            “It’s a great location. Affordable by Manhattan standards.”
            “This is a safe neighborhood, right?”
            She laughed. “Dad, I’m practically in Greenwich Village.”
            “Honey, that doesn’t mean anything to me.”
            “Yes, it’s safe. But I’m still careful. I don’t walk around at 2 a.m. by myself.”
            “Glad to hear it.”
            Honestly, Dan felt that his daughter might be safer in the city than he was. Everything about him marked him as a rube outsider – his clothes, his accent, his meandering way of ordering po’ boys. But Abby, despite growing up in the same place he had, with many of the same influences, somehow fit in, as Dan knew she would anywhere she went. There was a worldliness about her that he lacked.
            He found it hard to believe that he’d had a hand in making someone so independent and strong as to actually move to this place and make things happen the way she had. Four years later and she was still doing it, still grinding it out as an actress when most others would have packed it in and moved on. And she’d never asked for money from either parent, somehow managing to support herself while living in a place where it cost $40 to buy lunch for two.
            Dan knew he couldn’t have done that in his 20’s, and he even doubted if he could hack it in New York now. He marveled at his tiny daughter, half his age and size but so much smarter and stronger than himself, and he found strength in the knowledge that, for all his other failings, fatherhood was one thing he’d done right. Even if she wanted little to do with him now, he’d gotten her safely to adulthood. She could take care of herself, and he was the party who would suffer most from any rift between them.
            “How many plays have you written?” he asked.
            “A couple, but this is the first to get produced.”
            “How long have you been performing it?”
            “This is our third week. One more after this.”
            “And the mafia angle – where did you get that from?”
            “I don’t know. I’ve always been fascinated by the mob. I think it goes back to you watching the Godfather movies when I was a kid. You said I was too young to watch them, so of course I became fascinated with that stuff. Seemed like a good idea for a play, so I read a couple books to research it. ”
            “Well, it was a good idea. Ol’ Marlon Brando himself would want to be cast, if he were still around.”
            “Thanks, Dad.”
            “I’m not sure you’re right about it being your first play to be produced, though. What about the one with Moses and the Pharoah?”
            Her eyes went wide. “Oh my God! I can’t believe you remember that!”
            “Course I do. I videotaped the whole thing. Pulled out the tape and re-watched it a little while back.”
            When Abby was in fourth grade, her Sunday school class had put on a play at church about the Israelites’ escape from Egypt. She wrote the script for it, complete with melodramatic dialogue and a made up side-plot about the Pharaoh’s wife getting killed in one of the plagues. They laughed about this for ten minutes, remembering the goofy costumes the kids had worn and how half of them performed with script in hand because they couldn’t memorize the lines.
            “I’d love to watch that tape next time I’m down,” she said.
            “Definitely. It’ll take you back in time.”
            The food came and out they continued talking, Dan updating Abby on the goings-on of Harrisburg. He was evasive when she asked about the dealership, saying things were fine and quickly changing the subject, not having the heart to admit the truth. As much as she talked to her mother, she would find out soon enough. He steered the conversation back to safer territory – fond memories of Abby. They had a few more laughs, but the conversation wasn’t able to make it through the end of the meal. When Dan had a few bites of sandwich left, he ran out of things to say.
            For what felt like a long minute, they sat in silence. Dan tried to think of something else to bring up, another funny memory, but couldn’t. He swirled his fork in a spot of ketchup on his plate. It seemed that once the “how’s life?” questions were answered and the common pool of memories drained, they had little to say.
            They used to talk for hours – he’d drive up to Chapel Hill for a football game and spend entire days with her. Lunch on Franklin Street, then a slow walk across campus, making their way to the stadium. Never once on those visits did he feel at a loss for words. Their conversations flowed smoothly, meandering from the past to the present, the concrete to the abstract. They would laugh about high school boyfriends of Abby’s that he’d disliked, talk about her classes, debate the liberal bent her politics were taking.
            But now there was a distance between them, and the fact that they simply retreaded old experiences meant they would inevitably run out of things to talk about. The waitress walked by, and Dan asked for another cup of coffee, just to break the silence. He felt if they were quiet for too long, Abby’s next sentence would be something like, “Well, it was great catching up…”
            Hoping to avoid this, he started into another round of “how’s life?” questioning.
            “Got a boyfriend?”
            “Not at the moment.”
            “Good,” he said with a grin.
            “Dated a few guys up here, but no one serious.”
            “High standards, huh?”
            “Something like that.”
            “And how about your theater? You been involved with them ever since you moved up?”
            “Pretty much. That’s one of the reasons it’s hard to have a boyfriend – I spend all my weekends at Louie’s.”
            “You like the people there?”
            “They’re the best. I call them my New York family. We look out for each other.”
            The idea of Abby having another family stung Dan, but he tried to hide it.
            “And how’s that work, exactly? You guys putting on plays year-round? Do you get any time off?”
            “Normally we have two seasons. We’ll do a summer play and a winter play, and we spend the time in between doing all the prep work – rehearsals, set building. But things are up in the air right now. I don’t know if you saw the letter in the program, but we’re kind of in financial trouble.”
            “Yeah, I think I saw that.” Acting like he’d hardly noticed.
            “We’re considering adding a play this fall, just to help make ends meet.”
            “Sounds like a lot more work.”
            “Yeah, and not everyone’s on board with the idea. But it’s better than going under.”
            This last sentence came out with a trace of belligerence, and Dan got the impression that she’d said it before, perhaps in an argument with her fellow thespians who weren’t “on board.” Abby’s grit was something else Dan loved about his daughter, another trait that became more evident as she aged. Despite her avant-garde sensibilities, underneath she was a bulldog, as ambitious in her own medium as he’d ever been as an athlete or a businessman. Probably more so. She was not in New York to put on the trappings of the artistic lifestyle, sipping lattes and combing thrift stores to stay on top of fashion trends. She worked long hours and sacrificed her personal life, and Dan pitied any of her colleagues who didn’t share this sense of mission. The thought of this actually made him grin, imagining some beleaguered young actor running into his buzz saw of a daughter.
            “What’s funny?” she asked. Not angrily, but with a bemused smile herself.
            “Nothing, honey. I’m just thinking of you. Just proud of how hard you work.”
            “What you’re doing right now – no way I could have done that at your age. I wouldn’t have lasted a month in New York.”
            “You owned a car dealership when you were my age, Dad.”
            “Not true. I was a manager then; didn’t get the dealership ‘til later. But even that’s not as impressive as it sounds. Football paved the way for a lot of it. I didn’t exactly pull myself up by the bootstraps like you’re doing.”
            Abby smiled at the compliment, and the waitress refilled Dan’s coffee.
            “Be right back,” Abby said, getting up to use the restroom.
            Dan was glad for the break in conversation. He’d been meaning to get around to an apology and needed a few minutes of silence to mentally prepare. There was a brief moment earlier, when their conversation was going well, that Dan thought maybe he wouldn’t have to say anything, that they could simply pick up where they’d left off. That feeling was fleeting, however. The overall impression he got was that things were different between them. It was as if, conversationally, they were tiptoeing around a huge pit, and he knew they needed to jump in for things to get better. He’d had a longish monologue planned, but scrapped it, deciding it would sound too rehearsed. He would just go with his gut.
            Abby came back to the table and sat down.
            “Don’t know about you, but I’m getting a dessert,” he said. “Want one?”
            “I’m full, thanks.”
            Dan perused the dessert menu and ordered a strawberry cheesecake, asking that an extra plate be brought out with it.
            “In case you change your mind, you can help with mine.”
            The waitress cleared their table and refilled Abby’s water. Dan gripped his coffee cup with both hands, unconsciously drumming a beat on it.
            “Honey, I’m sorry it took me so long to get up here.”
            “It’s OK.” Her tone was light, as though he had apologized for being five minutes late.
            “No, really. I’ve been thinking about you a lot, but I also wanted to give you space, you know?”
            “I know, Dad. I appreciate all the cards. You’d be proud. I bought a cordless drill with the last one.”
            “That’s my girl.”
            He took a sip of coffee and watched the hostess seat an elderly Jewish couple at the table next to them.
            “I know you were mad at me for a while,” he said, “but I’d love if we could start over. Go back to how things used to be.”
            She gave him a curious look, opened her mouth to respond, then paused, seeming to weigh her words carefully.
            “Dad, it’s great to see you, and I’m glad we’re reconnecting, but I’m still mad.”
            “It’s going to be a long time before I’m not mad. If ever.”
            “Listen Abby, I’ll apologize again. I was wrong. I messed up a really good thing – with you and with your mother.”
            Abby went on as though she hadn’t heard him.
            “Jesus. I can’t believe you think everything’s okay just because a few years have passed. I mean, there was Mom, taking care of me, working her ass off at home and at the bank, married 23 years – for what? To end up middle-aged and alone. So I’m mad on her behalf. And I’ll stay mad until she finds a good man and is happy again.”
            Abby paused for a moment to let this sink in. Dan recognized her tone and steeled himself for what was to come, knowing that – like her mother – Abby could switch from friendly to incensed with little in the way of build-up.
            “I’m mad for myself too, you know. You wrecked my childhood memories. We did lots of great family stuff, but knowing what I know now, it all seems fake.”
            “We had good times. Nothing fake about that.”
            “But it’s different now. Take our Disney trip – probably my all-time favorite vacation. When I used to remember it, it was the parade and the buffet in the hotel and all the rides. But now, I realize it had to be torture for you. You just spent the whole week waiting to get back to your girl on the side – whoever she happened to be at the time. I’m sure she was more fun than a boring wife and whiny little kid.”
            “That’s not true,” Dan said. Abby was right in assuming that he’d had a woman waiting for him back at home, but wrong about him hating the trip. He wished for a more eloquent response, but was unable to think of one.
            “It’s like that for all my family memories,” she went on. “If I see an old family picture, I don’t feel nostalgic or happy. I just feel awful for Mom. I think it’s so hard for me to deal with because I had a great childhood. It’s not like I was a miserable kid and what happened was just one more terrible thing. I mean, damn, you were Mr. Husband-of-the-Year, always spending money on Mom, taking her on cruises, sitting next to her in church every Sunday. And the whole time, you were cheating on her.”
            “It wasn’t the whole time.” Dan felt stupid after saying this, as if he wanted credit for being a partially faithful husband. He let Abby continue.
            “This is one of the reasons I don’t have a boyfriend. How am I supposed to trust a guy? No matter how sweet he is, I’ll never fully know him. We might get married and have kids and a great life together, but I won’t be able to relax. Not fully. Mom was relaxed, thought she had a perfect marriage, and look where it got her.”
            Abby paused, struggling to maintain composure. She hadn’t raised her voice, but it was starting to waver. Dan sat quietly now, no more rebuttals, ready to let her finish. The waitress approached and put a towering mound of cheesecake in the middle of the table, along with an extra plate. Mechanically, Dan picked up a fork and cut it, giving half to Abby. He pulled his plate in front of him and took a bite, barely tasting it. His vision blurred and he looked down at the table, waiting for the moment to pass, hoping she wouldn’t say anything until he’d had time to gather himself. His eyelids felt wobbly, on the verge of spilling over. He took a couple deep breaths and the tears receded.
            For the next few minutes they ate in silence, Abby surprising Dan by cleaning her plate.
            “I thought you didn’t want dessert.”
            “I didn’t. Now I’ve gotta go to the gym.” She half-smiled.
            “Always the healthy one. Surprised you didn’t get on my case about ordering dessert, like you used to.”
            “Maybe next time.”
            He took another bite and washed it down with a sip of coffee.
            “How long you in town for?” she asked.
            “Probably heading back today.”
            He knew this might come across as strange, but it also felt right. He’d seen her play, bought her lunch, got to apologize in person. Better to not overstay his welcome.
            “So soon?”
            “Yeah, duty calls.”
            If she had asked for elaboration at this point, what business was so pressing as to require him driving back on a Saturday, Dan was prepared to lie. He’d already admitted to being a reckless husband, she could learn about his reckless business practices later. She didn’t ask, though.
            “Well, thanks for coming up.”
            “Any time.”
            “We’ll have to do this again.”
            “Absolutely,” he said. “And I’d like to see you next time you’re back home.”
            “Probably won’t be ‘til Christmas, but we’ll get together.”
            He flagged down the waitress for the bill. When it was paid, he bear-hugged Abby again and they said goodbye.
He boarded the PATH train at the 9th Street station for the ride back to Jersey City. He was still jittery from their conversation – the acid in his stomach rumbling and eating away at his insides – and the rhythmic motion of the train soothed him. He leaned his head back against the glass and watched the view through the window opposite him, the churning blackness of the tunnel’s guts interspersed by flashes of yellow light bulbs.
            Leaving so soon wasn’t in his original plans, and he felt a little strange, but he convinced himself it was a nice gesture – even a noble one – driving twenty-four hours round-trip just to see her for lunch. Abby’s anger had caught him off guard in the moment, but it really wasn’t that surprising, as justified as it was. He was actually relieved to get her furious monologue out of the way, knowing those feelings would have come out eventually.
            What he couldn’t shake was the end of the conversation. He meant it when he said he planned on going back home, but he’d also expected her to put up more of a fight, maybe ask him to stick around and see her play once more.
            She hadn’t though, and beneath her good manners Dan sensed ambivalence, the suggestion that it had been nice to see him, but now it was time to run along. There was more finality in his departure than he was comfortable with, as if he were an old teacher or coach, someone with whom it was pleasant to reminisce, but that’s all. He worried this would be the new character of their relationship, that they would get together for food, laugh about the past, and then he would graciously get out of her hair for another six months to a year, when they would replay the same stale act again.
            A Hispanic family got on at the Newport stop – mom, dad, and two school-aged boys. One of the kids sat in the seat next to Dan, video game in his hands, headphones in his ears. Seeing that no empty seats remained, Dan stood so the mother could have his. She didn’t notice the gesture and remained standing.
            Dan’s stop was next, but he didn’t get off. He watched as the doors opened and remained where he was, gripping the metal pole, unable to take that step out the door because he knew where it would lead – back to his hotel room, then to 95 South, then to Harrisburg, with its promise of an empty house and more aimless, days of unemployment. He pictured himself there tomorrow, drinking a few cold ones on his putting green, nothing different than it had been before.
            Dan stayed on the train until its route terminated at Journal Square and the car emptied. He took a seat by the window, and in a few minutes it was moving again, heading back into the city.
Dan was in front of Louie’s by 3:00. Two twenty-something-year-old men slouched in metal chairs out front, smoking and drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon.
            “Can I buy a ticket for the show tonight?”
            “Ain’t gonna sell out,” said one. “You can get one at the door.”
            His smoking partner smacked him on the arm, then turned to Dan. “I apologize for my colleague. Not much of a business mind in that one. Be right back.”
            He returned shortly with the same metal box Dan had purchased a ticket from the night before, opened to reveal stacks of ones and fives.
            “Ten dollars.”
            “And you guys putting this on tomorrow too, right?”
            “How many shows next week?”
            “Four, then we’re done. That’s the last week.”
            Dan leafed through his wallet and pulled out sixty dollars. “OK. Six tickets.”
            “Damn! We need to get a frequent customer card or something. Give you a free play.”
            He took out a roll of perforated red tickets and tore off six. “We’ll see you at eight o’clock tonight. Thanks for the business.”
            “You bet.”
            Dan walked over to Park Avenue and headed north, happy to have another afternoon to kill in the city. Times Square was his eventual destination, though he was open to detours. He stopped for a snack in a coffee shop and when he was through eating, called Randy. He left a message thanking him for the offer, but declining the job. He wished him good luck with the new ad campaign.
            Dan hadn’t written off the auto business entirely, but he also knew that he’d filmed his last commercial. He had some applications out that he was hopeful about, and he would be sending more soon. Most were for sales manager-type positions, some in North Carolina, some in South Carolina. He even thought about looking for something in New York City, just to keep his options open.
            Back on the street he continued north, sweating heavily, mopping his face with a handful of napkins. He didn’t want to take the subway though, enjoying the city and the opportunity to exercise his creaky knees. He fingered his ring as he walked, caressed for the millionth time the diamonds and engraved lettering. He kept his eyes open for pawnshops, wondering how much it would fetch. Surely not ten grand, but it would be a start.
Crash's Composure
Evan Howell is a North Carolina-based writer who has published fiction in Muscle & Blood, Swill, Relief, and Write This.
Photography by Kathleen Babarsky and Eleanor Leonne Bennett.