Monday, June 6, 2011

A Prodigal

“You were right. I had no idea what I was throwing away. I wish I could’ve learned what I needed here, with you. But, I couldn’t. [No. That’s not true.] I wouldn’t.”
I had rehearsed the speech at least a hundred times since I boarded the train, each time, making subtle changes. It had to be perfect. I couldn’t let it go. The repetition kept me emotionally engaged. It was exhausting. But, I was afraid to stop feeling.
"I thought I was leaving because you were standing in the way of everything I wanted to be. I know now that I really left because of all the things I didn’t want to be. I was scared and lost and never considered that maybe you were too. I’m not looking for another chance. I just wanted to thank you for the one you gave me.”
The doors opened and I funneled out onto the platform. I was carried along by the current; the river of briefcases, cell phones, shopping bags, and backpacks. I climbed the stairway into the blinding light of day, like an actor making his entrance onto the brightly lit stage—a painted canvas skyline; cardboard delivery trucks; a soundtrack of ambient traffic noises; uncredited extras crowding the sidewalk. And, for a moment, I honestly felt like there was an audience I couldn’t quite make out, sitting somewhere beyond the lights. I fought to acclimate to my environment as I settled into my own determined pace. Rounding the corner, a familiar sight jarred me out of my daze. The small deli/convenience store/anything-else-we-can-manage-to-get-people-to-pay-good-money-for had once represented someone’s American dream. Now it was more of a monument to urban decline. I shoved against the glass door harder than I anticipated. Either that, or it was much lighter than I remembered. A cheap, electronic sensor triggered the weak simulation of a doorbell, announcing my arrival.

“Park? No way!”

Remo peered through the display case, then quickly popped up, wiped his hands on his pants, and lifted the hinged counter top. He took two steps toward me then stopped. He drew his head back. His eyes widened.

“Woah… what is with all the swagger? Looks like somebody's movin’ on up!” With Remo, there was never a real greeting. He simply dove into mid conversation.

“What? This old thrift?" I held open the panels of my jacket. "It’s laundry day.” I walked past him and straight toward the coffee dispensers against the wall. As always, the place smelled of hotdog relish and pine cleanser. I raised my voice a bit, but didn’t bother turning around. “I’m headed downtown to see my father.”

“Man, I didn’t know you had a father.”

“That’s because you’re an idiot.” I set the foam cup on the machine and pulled down the lever. “See, the way this whole parent thing works is that there’s a man and a woman and they…”

“Don’t be an ass, Park. So, your dad has a dress code? Who is this guy? Michael Bloomberg? You been holding out on me, man?”

“Son.” I turned and straightened my tie like I was Rodney Dangerfield. For some reason I instinctively lowered my voice into some sort of authoritarian stereotype. I sounded nothing like my father. “There are two kinds of people in this world. Leaders… and followers. Leaders look like leaders. Followers just look like everyone else.”

“Damn! I have no idea what that means, but you sure scared the hell outta me.”

“Huh!” The response was guttural: a half grin set by a single blast that was more forced air than pitch— the kind that makes your chest bounce. I turned to grab my coffee. There wasn’t enough cream or sugar in the world to make this sludge suitable for human consumption. “You have no idea.” I muttered under my breath.

“Downtown, eh? Business district? He puttin' you on the payroll, man? I didn’t even know J.P. Morgan was in the market for a ‘second rate bartender.’”

“Hey! That’s ‘Mr. Second Rate Bartender’ to you.” I plunked down a handful of change on the counter. I had no idea how much was there. It didn’t matter. I walked backward toward the door, taking a sip of my coffee and then casually raising it in the air in Remo’s general direction.

“That’s it? You coming back through later?


He kept talking, ignoring my answer. “I’m hangin’ at Eric’s when I get off.” I pretended to be interested as I pulled wide the door and stepped outside. “You should show, man. You know, you still owe him!” Remo called out as the door began to close.

Without looking back, I slipped into the constant stream of pedestrians. I could’ve taken the train all the way in, but I needed to work for this. I needed the muscles in my arms and legs to consume some of this raw energy being stored up in my chest.  In fact, I wasn’t sure the remaining seven blocks would even be enough.

Cabs and bikes turned to Town Cars and leather soled shoes. I closed my eyes and took a minute to slow my breath.

“I’m here to see my father.”

“Your name?” The wooden suit inside the lobby was too young for his job and somehow too old for his age.

“Parker Warren.” I did my best to sound self-assured, masking my overwhelming discomfort with the situation. For some reason, I felt compelled to reach out and shake his hand like I was here to broker a deal. A bit confused, he reluctantly countered the motion.

“No, sir. Your name.”

“Oh, sorry. I’m Parker Albert Warren III.”

“I see. My mistake, Mr. Warren. Would you like to sign in?”

Something about the exercise of stepping up to the desk and scribbling my name in the book further weakened my already waning resolve.

The man held out his arm with almost choreographed motion. “You can follow the signs down the hallway to the right and…”

“Thanks. I’m pretty sure I can find the way.”

I stopped a few feet from the open door and adjusted my jacket. This was it. I stepped across the threshold and into the musky aroma of wood oil and pipe tobacco. It was perfect. So familiar. So like him. How could that be? The large portrait stared blankly back at me from across the room. I used my foot to release the stop from the heavy wood door. It closed on its own; slowly, without a sound. I ran my hand across the high back of the brass-tacked, leather chair. I had never been here before, but somehow it felt like home. A huge spray of fresh white flowers crowned the hand-carved mahogany casket. I sat down, hand in palm, elbows resting casually on my knees. I lowered my head. For the life of me, I couldn’t remember a single word.