Dad and I pull into a Denny’s. I like Denny’s. Their Moons Over My Hammy sandwich rocks and is, like, my favorite sandwich in the world – a massive assault of ham, egg, and cheese on grilled sourdough. My mouth starts to water even before we sit down.
I order straightaway as a curly, red-headed girl named Eileen seats us in a light blue vinyl booth. I add a large orange juice and Dad orders coffee. Just coffee. When my food arrives, Dad smiles and sizes up the waitress as she hips her way back to the kitchen.
“Good looking girl.”
I nod and start to devour my sandwich. Dad picks up and sawmills a couple of my fries.
“Always look for well-scrubbed girls like that, son. Girls who take care of themselves and work hard. Those girls typically take care of you.”
We say nothing for a bit. Dad pretends to read a paper table tent that describes assorted dessert offerings. Oreo Blender Blaster. Caramel Apple Crisp. He then stares out the window at the empty Reno sky and clears his throat.
My mouth is full. “Wot?”
“Rule number one.”
I swallow, “Aw, Dad…”
“Come on. Rule number one.”
“I know the rules, Dad. I’m eating here.”
Dad drums the table with his fingers, “Pop quiz, kid. Come on. Humor the old man.”
I put down my sandwich, take a slug of my OJ, and wipe my mouth with a napkin, “Fine. Rule number one. If I get caught, never, like ever, talk to the cops.”
“Good boy. Excellent.” Dad pats my hand, “Hey, do you kids, I mean you and your friends, still go around saying ‘excellent’ these days?”
I shrug. “Sometimes, yeah, I guess we do. Like, if we’re doing, like, a Mr. Burns imitation from The Simpsons,” I hunch my shoulders and patter my finger tips together, “Excellent, Smithers…”
Dad looks confused and then slurps his coffee. Dad only watches sports. Baseball mostly, sometimes the New York Giants games in the Fall because he grew up back east in New Jersey, but mostly Dad’s a radio guy. Sucks up NPR, C-SPAN and Pacifica like a dry sponge. Plus jazz. Always, always old school jazz. Coltrane. Gordon. Chet Baker. Jazz always sounds depressing to me, but Dad says real jazz is the only music that works like your brain.
“And why don’t we talk to the cops?”
I roll my eyes and recite from rote, “Because the cops are not our friends.”
“And because they won’t save me. Because,” I take a bit of my sandwich, “Because they’ll destroy us. You, me, and mom. They’ll try and say that they can’t help me unless I help them, but cops are always liars.”
“No matter what.”
“No matter what.”
“And no talk until the lawyer shows,” he adds.
“Totally. Can I freaking finish my sandwich now?”
“Go ahead,” Dad gestures wide with an open palm and smiles, “Anyway, I’m sure everything today will all go fine.”
I go back to scarfing up the last of my fries, “Always does.”
Without looking up I can feel Dad’s face change across the table, a bitter electricity that makes my scalp itch. Lightning fast, he grabs my right hand with his left and crushes in the nerve area between my forefinger and thumb. I look at his face. His eyes are ice.
“Don’t get cocky,” he whispers flatly.
“Sorry, Dad – ow! Sorry.”
He presses harder, “Cocky is careless.”
“I said I was sorry, jeez….let go!”
Dad lets go and I feel my skin flush with embarrassment and my heart races like crazy. A couple of tourists in a booth across the room turn their heads. Dad shoots them his jailhouse glare and they quickly mind their own business. Dad looks out the window at the buffed clean Reno sky again and I rub my aching hand.
“You get caught,” he says, “And you’ll know a world of hell from sorry.”
We drive away from the Denny’s parking lot and twenty minutes later we are parked in position, down the street from the Reno Hilton.
“I talked with your mother last night. She said she got you some new clothes for your first day back at school in August.”
“Cool. Mom knows what I like.”
“Yeah. Bunch of jeans. Those plain black t-shirts you always wear. Said something about lifting a pair of skate sneakers, going on and on about how she’s hoping that they’ll fit. Knowing you, your dogs probably have gone all Sasquatch again. Anyway, you best thank her.” Dad checks his mirrors. “So I’m thinking, since we’re ahead of schedule, we should make our way back in time to, I don’t know, maybe head to Baja for a few days before school starts. What do you think?”
“Yeah. You and your mother. What do you say? Punch across the border. Go fishing. Take the pop-up camper and do some desert camping. Been a while since we did that. You can bring your surfboard. Remember that spot we found near Erendira near the celery fields?”
“Summer swells kind of suck, Dad.”
“OK. Take one of my logs then.”
“There is no way I’m riding a log.”
“Look at you all bitchy. Maybe if you rode a longboard you wouldn’t spend so much time chasing the shorebreak.”
“They’re for kooks and old men.”
Dad chuckles and flips me the finger, “Kook this, dipshit.”
We both laugh harder.
I’m back from the Hilton in, like, fifty minutes flat. Dad tries to act all cool and nonchalant but it’s obvious he’s beaming with pride as he sifts through my haul, our three week spree now complete. I’m happy, too. I feel lighter somehow. All these careless tourists and greedy casino winners. Easy room safes.
Dad slaps my knee and hands me my iPod. I scroll through the cue, stick in my ear buds, and crank up some Slightly Stoopid. I flip through Guns & Ammo as we leave Reno in the wind.
We drive west for an hour or so until we reach our final motel of the trip — a low-slung brick place close to the onramp. Our room is set up with a cheap kitchenette, cable TV, and a high rectangular back window above the kitchenette’s sink. Smells metallic and slightly of cigarettes and curry. Dad backs our ride into the slot facing out towards the highway just in case. There’s a pool, but it’s been filled in with dirty sand and topped with a rusty swing set and slide.
We splurge and order some barbecue chicken wings and a veggie pizza from a carryout down the street and split a liter of ginger ale. Dad tints his drink with a pint of Wild Turkey form the liquor mart and we watch the free HBO — a movie where Clive Owen kicks all sorts of ass with this mega-stacked hottie that I think was in The Matrix movies.
Dad pats his paunch and adjusts his pillows, “I figure two more trips next year, tops. Then a break.”
“These trips. You might have to miss some school, but they’ve lots of potential, you know? Solid prospects. Enough to, I don’t know, maybe put the second hurdle in reach.”
“I can get my homework from my teachers.”
“Well, first… there’s the Super Bowl.”
I pop up and squeeze the mute button on the remote, “Really!? The Super Bowl?! No way! No friggin’ way — that’s awesome!”
Dad holds up a hand like he’s blessing a congregation and grins at the TV, “I know. I think they’re having it in Phoenix again, and that’s not so far from us down in Imperial Beach. But before that, I really think we should spend some money and drive around Arizona and shake down some of the Indian casinos. Lot of them are kind of lax in security is what I hear. Maybe some of the blue hairs might get careless on their way back to their motels and RVs. And …um….”
“Well, I was thinking. Maybe, if you keep your grades up, we could take Mom along and set up a short con or two that you can cut your teeth on. Work on your acting skills.”
“For real. Mom and I think you’re ready. But just small stuff though. Smart and small.”
“But you’ve got to promise you’ll not drop your grade point average. Not even a point.”
“I promise. God. The Super Bowl! I’m so stoked.”
“Me too, son,” Dad says absently as he frowns at his empty pint of Turkey, “Me too.”
Just after midnight there’s a knock at our motel room’s door.
Dad rockets to his feet.
There’s never been a knock at our door.
Reflexes fire and motions drilled into me since I was eight take over. I quickly unzip one of our duffle bags and hand Dad his guns. Behind me in the milky darkness I hear Dad’s thumbs click off the safeties as I run to the bathroom with an aluminum baseball bat I carry in my bag. I suddenly feel like I’ve a fever of a hundred and eight and I’m going to throw up all the ginger ale, chicken wings and pizza I ate. Across from me, Dad has taken cover in an alcove where you’re supposed to hang your clothes. The hangers behind him sway and click together like dull, tuneless chimes.
Dad calls out, “Who’s there?”
A woman’s voice.
“Dale? Dale, honey? It’s Roxanne. Let me in, honey.”
Dad glares at me and then his eyes dart to the high back kitchenette window. He motions to me and I get up and kneel on the counter to take a cautious peek. I do. The window is about two and a half feet wide by three and half feet long. There’s nothing outside but a barely illuminated vacant lot flagged with loose trash, a garbage dumpster, and a humming highway in the distance. Doesn’t mean no one isn’t hiding just out of my line of sight, but that’s all I can see. I catch Dad’s eye and sum up this assessment with a hopeless shrug of my shoulders.
Dad clenches his teeth and motions for me to get back in the bathroom. I do what he asks but I peer around the corner. Dad steadies his right forearm against the frayed edge of the alcove, aiming his H&K low at the door and with his left arm he covers the back window with his Beretta. Both guns are .45s.
Dad calls out, “Lady, you got the wrong room!”
More sharp raps on the door.
“Dale? Come on, Dale. I know you’re in there. I’m sorry, OK? Please, honey. Come on…open up. I’m real sorry.”
Dad’s head counters left, then right, then left again. He centers his aim on the door.
“WRONG ROOM, LADY!”
Louder bangs and a frenzy of kicking pounds.
“Dale! Open this fucking door right now!”
“Oh shit. Oh. Ohmygod! I’m sorry. I’m so sorry! Wrong room! Shit! Sorry!”
Then the muffled sounds of light heels clicking the concrete and fading away.
After a moment Dad lowers his guns and slowly crosses to the door. He tries to back belt the Beretta but realizes he’s in his boxer shorts. He sets the Beretta down on the credenza within easy reach and then snaps the lock and jerks the door open. Warm night air rolls in and softens the room’s air conditioned odors. He then relocks and chains us in.
Dad grunts wearily and snorts back some snot. “Clear,” he says.
I step fully out of the bathroom, shaking.
Dad plops heavily on his bed, head bowed, the H&K draped between his knees and pointed at the green industrial carpet. I let out a long breath and lean my baseball bat up against the wall. My legs feel like rubber.
“You OK, Dad?” I ask.
Dad doesn’t even bother to look over at me. His shadowy profile tilts up at the water stained ceiling like he’s looking for a spider or praying. Dad clicks his tongue as he slowly, and with great care, resets the safety on the gun.
“College better be worth it,” Dad says.