by Joel Smades  Dad came out of the store only a couple minutes after he went in, and it was strange he didn’t have any plastic bags. Other people wheeled shopping carts out, their carts filled with plastic sacks stacked on top of each other, the boxes and cans inside them spilling out, but Dad came out as he went in, his eyes fixed on the automatic doors and nothing in his hands. Mom sat near. She smoked on the curb while I leaned against the painted cinder block wall, watching people go through the automatic doors to the produce section. The oranges inside looked delicious. I stayed by the cart corral while Mom and Dad conferred in quiet. Bored, I watched people go in and out. Two younger adults raced into the store as if the food would all be gone if they didn’t hurry. Then an old man went in after them, legs stiff, shuffling side-to-side like someone moving a mattress across a room. He picked up an orange and inspected its surface, then set it down, dissatisfied. Then he picked up another and shook his head again.

Mom took my hand and the three of us walked to the back of the store, along the loading area where a semi-rig rested, backed into a dock. Heat emitted from the diesel as it churned, making the air boil around us. Then a siamese cat sprung up onto the wall and I jumped, frightened. The mangy cat had one beautiful amber eye, brilliant like a star. It paused, glared cooley at me, then sauntered off, disinterested, its tail disappearing into dead weeds.

“Come here,” Dad said.

Dad lifted up a garbage bin lid and began to dig, on a mission. “Try to find a good one,” Mom said. Dad lifted his head out of the trash can and glared at her, his eyes saying, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, you think I’m an idiot?’ He told me to open the other lid, but I was too short. Every time I threw open the lid, it only hovered in the air for a moment, teasing me, then would fall back down to a painful, ear-grating crash. Dad looked at me, smiled, kissed my forehead, and opened the lid for me. “A-ha!” he yelled, submerging himself again.

He came up with a dusty white sign—some plastic thing with a phone number, saying, ‘WE BUY ANY HOUSE — CASH!!!!’

Dad pulled a thick permanent marker out of his pocket (from where he got it, I didn’t know), then he set the plastic sign down on the hot asphalt and began to write with great purpose. He scrawled the bold characters on, each letter its own battle, these carefully wrought bubbles, then filled them in with sharp lines, top-to-bottom, top-to-bottom, to ensure consistency. He sweat in the heat, his tongue out, touching his bottom lip like an artist’s tongue might when they draft the skeleton of a fine painting. “Your Dad was a painter once,” my Mom once told me over cereal in our old house. I never knew if his work was done on a canvas or on rich people’s houses. For some reason, I never thought to ask (but I always liked the idea of Dad in fancy galleries). Finally, Dad put the marker back in his pocket and looked at his sign. It said:FAMILY HUNGRY
GOD BLESS“It’s a little too nice,” Mom said.

Dad shrugged. Mom sighed as she did a lot in those days, but, knowing my father knew best, she trusted him, and I trusted him, too. I always admired Dad’s cool-headedness. He didn’t say much, but he had a plan wherever he went, despite me not always knowing what it was. When the money ran out, he’d always have a recourse, some scheme to get us back on our feet. At that point, we had been staying in our old Mercury van. Dad had to sell the house when he lost his last job, so we had no place to go, and no money to start over. Everything went to food and gas and cigarettes. “I won’t have us not eating,” Dad always said, sometimes looking in the rearview mirror at me when he said it. Most days, he’d drop me and Mom off at the park during the day, and he’d come back a couple hours later with a wad of singles and five dollar bills—even the occasional ten or twenty or random gift card. I never knew how he got the money. That day was the first time he decided to bring me and Mom to work.

When you’re a kid, you just go wherever your parents are going. Most of the time, you don’t seem to care either. You might put up a little fight, but, at the end of the day, you’re a bird on a hippo, and you don’t care or understand where the thing takes you. Mom says do this; Dad says do that. At the time, as only a second grader (going on third), I accepted it with the few faculties I had.

As we walked along the main road, I watched Dad’s long shadow float on top of the sidewalk behind him. Me and Mom had long shadows too. Everything had a long shadow, and I didn’t know why. The mystery of it excited me, and I almost asked Mom and Dad how a shadow got long, but they were arguing again about me not being signed up for school. “We don’t have a way to pay for it,” Dad muttered, walking faster. “He needs clothes, lunches. He doesn’t even have an address for the bus to get him at! That’s why we’re doing this. This is last ditch, Maddy.” — I never knew Mom’s real name was Maddy. Mom patted my curly, auburn hair, then ran her fingers through like a comb. It felt nice, despite me at first wanting to protest.

When we stopped at the intersection, Mom and Dad were silent. Dad fumed, but part of me knew that meant he cared a lot about me. He crossed his arms and mumbled curses at the crosswalk—words I hadn’t heard before—then he pressed the ‘WALK’ button three more times and made a quick about-face to the orange hand across the street telling us ‘DON’T WALK.’ Dad took a breath, calming himself and looked outward, his face, sure and proud, chiseled like a Michelangelo. Then the traffic light turned green and he jerked his head at us, gesturing, ‘Come on,’ and we followed. “A bit further,” he said, pointing. “That corner, there. There’s a Walmart here—a lot of traffic and a lot of people stopping at the light. It’s not the main light, so people have to wait a while for a green.”

STONEHENGE — the street sign said, looming above as we approached.

And, sure as Dad had suggested, a line of cars was waiting to turn out. Across the black mat of fresh pavement on the main road, a Mexican restaurant sat on the opposite corner, beckoning me. The aroma of beans and stewing beef arose out of the chimney exhaust, and images of myself eating tacos and chips and salsa drifted through my hungry head.

“Alright,” Dad said, smiling. “Sit here, Will.” Mom sat next to me, and, oddly, she stopped smiling. It confused me. Mom almost always smiled—even when she worried. She smiled more than my old friend, Cameron, back in school. But, thinking about him, I tried to stop thinking about him. I missed him too much. He was my best friend in the world and I hadn’t seen him since I left school the Summer after second grade. I wondered if he felt the same about me not being there. I wondered if he had a new friend now, someone who had a house, someone who could go to school. Even if I did see him again, what would I do? We had been apart so long, maybe things were different now? Maybe Cameron would like different things than I?

“Can I go back to school soon, Mommy?” I asked.

“That’s what Daddy’s working on, Willy,” Mom said, fanning her face with a chunk of cardboard she found in the gravel.

On the corner, Dad looked at people in their cars; most of them kept their eyes forward, trying to keep them off him. I didn’t know why they were ignoring him. It was rude. I didn’t even know why Dad was standing there. Then a man about Dad’s age looked at him, his eyes filled with fury. He hated Dad—it was obvious. Then he shook his head and peeled out of the right turn. Mom sighed, watching him. I looked at her, but she only looked back at me a moment, then back at Dad. He paced, nudging his sign out from his chest as if its white shimmer didn’t shine enough to see. Then a rusty Lincoln Town Car stopped at the turn—one of those cars that elderly people like for comfort, rather than appearance. The old lady inside was about my grandma’s age, sitting there, both her hands on the wheel, sad, looking at me, and I didn’t know why. Mom and Dad didn’t even exist to her, like she had horse blinders on, blocking those cloudy eyes. She drove off, and I thought about how I had never seen someone so focused on one thing.

Behind her, a Jetta pulled up. This girl was driving, college-aged, with three Greek letters stuck on her rear windshield. She lowered her electric window and dug through her purse. That’s a cool window, I thought. She leaned toward Dad’s side of the window and handed him a couple dollars.

“Thank you,” Dad said, “so much.

A connection happened in my mind as I watched Dad pocket the money. I finally understood where he got it all. He went out with a sign and people just gave it to him. It all made sense, now. After the Jetta girl handed Dad a couple dollars, the driver behind her did too. Dad thanked them, and he turned to Mom and said, “Guilty, that one.” Mom nodded, but strangely, her cheery disposition remained absent. “Let’s go across,” Dad said. “It’s too hard for them to reach over, and a lot of people just make the right turn on red.” Mom stood up and took my hand to cross the narrow street. Nodding, I began to walk, then looked up and saw the orange hand, saying ‘DON’T WALK!’ Scared, I turned, tripping on my Mom’s shoe and hurled toward the asphalt. But Mom caught me before I face-planted, and I swung back to my feet like a flying acrobat. Dad laughed.

“It’s okay,” he said, as I still hesitantly watched the ominous orange hand telling us to not go. “There’s no cars coming, see?”

Minutes later, a long procession of cars were trying to turn left. A tinted window rolled down and a hand popped out with a five dollar bill. Dad thanked the man, the sincerity of his thanks more sincere than the other two times he got money. Then another car gave him money, and Dad thanked them, too. Then another, and Dad thanked them. I stood up in amazement, watching a long series of cars handing him money, one after another. Whenever a window opened, my heart leaped from my chest, erupting like a fountainhead. There were one-dollar bills and five-dollar bills and more ones and a couple tens and even a twenty! All the while, Dad nodded, thanking each person as they drove off. I grinned ear to ear, watching Dad try to keep up with all the wadded bills he was stuffing into his pocket. After I stood up, Mom grabbed me by my shirt and told me nicely to ‘sit down and don’t be so cheerful.’

“Yes, Mommy,” I said, sitting down. Sad I disappointed her, I looked off at the restaurant across the street and back to my dad. He was the tallest person I ever knew, and so strong. He was so strong, no one could out-wrestling him. One time, at my Uncle Roger’s house (the uncle we call “Flex,” because of his muscles), Uncle Roger and Dad were drinking beers in the backyard and they started arguing. Everyone in the house ran out to the back and found Dad and Uncle Roger wrestling on the grass by the empty fire pit. “Stop!” Mom said, keeping a distance. “Stop it!” Grandpa held Uncle Joe back with his outstretched arm, telling him, “Get back! Get back!” Uncle Roger, being the oldest and strongest, thought he’d easily beat my dad, but Dad managed to grab his arm and twisted it into a special grip, turned him around, then, on top of him, told my uncle, “Are we done? Are we done?” Everyone in my family watched in awe. Dad was half Uncle Roger’s size. After, in the living room, Mom was gathering our things in a hurry, and I heard my Grandpa whisper to Grandma, “I still can’t believe Daniel did that.” Dad yanked us out of the house and we never saw the family again.

The traffic stop was quiet, and even the busy main road had calmed down. A long period went by where no one gave Dad any more money. Being a kid, I wondered if everyone had run out of money after giving him so much. But I remembered that these were different people, so that didn’t make any sense.

My stomach rumbled bad, so I asked Mom, “Can we eat soon, Mommy?”

She smiled, nodding, and she ran her fingers through my hair again. A car drove up to Dad and the window rolled down. A delicate hand came out with a five-dollar bill. Dad took the money, smiled, and thanked the driver inside as she tipped her cowboy hat and drove off.

Not far from Dad, there was this man on the sidewalk marching toward him. He had a blond goatee, touched with white, and his ocean-blue eyes were set in a grim stare. Taller than Dad, he moved quickly, his arms swaying purposefully. Then he stopped, eye to eye with Dad, about to yell at him. He had Walmart clothes on, so I thought he didn’t want us standing around, not buying anything. But we were far from the store.

Looking down and speaking to my Dad, the man pointed at me and said, “You’re disgusting! Using your boy to buy sympathy! What the hell’s your problem? You subject this boy—your son—to this? Teaching him to panhandle? What the hell is your problem?—an adult? Don’t you care about his future? You’d teach your boy, laziness is how you get ahead? You’re a monster! You make me sick! At least have the decency to leave him somewhere; hide your indignity from him! God!”With knotted hands, the man stormed off, looking back at me as he went and stopped at the crosswalk, waiting for the ‘DON’T WALK’ to become ‘WALK.’ The traffic light turned, and he crossed to eat at the Mexican restaurant. He went inside and I turned back to Dad. He was on his corner, his hands on his face, head dipped, shoulders low, and the sidewalk beneath him was wet. At first, I thought it was rain. Dad sniffled and wiped his eyes and gestured at us to follow him, making his first steps across the empty street. While we walked, Mom had us keep a distance to “give him room.” And like a good soldier given an order, I followed her command, not even processing what she had said. My mind was somewhere else, paralyzed amidst the noise of the passing cars, my eyes on dad, watching him shuffle ahead of us, the vigor in his bones waned, and I didn’t know if it was a trick of my eyes, or if nothing had changed at all, but something must have changed in that short time, because Dad’s shadow was different at the coming of mid-day.     About the Author:Christopher FosterUpon graduating from high school, Joel Smades developed a love for learning and literature, and soon found his dream in storytelling. He now devotes his time to writing and spending time with his wife and three children.