Silent All These Years

by

Sarah Kolbasowski

 

I remember that his hands were always dirty.

Not dirty like orange-brown baseball fields or murky-brown puddles in the deep of the wooded path, but dirty like black, greased up monkey wrenches and navy blue cover-alls rolled under oil-leaking Fords and Vista Cruisers. This dirt didn’t come off with ivory soap and cloudy tap water. It took scrubbing and hard work, grating the gritty, mushy concoction that smelled like oranges over his palms and his fingers, always missing the crack between his nails and his shredded cuticles. They were the roughest, biggest hands I had ever seen.

It’s hard to keep a firm hold on memories from the first six years of your life. At thirty years old, I’ve often tried to kick myself in the ass for smoking so much pot in my lifetime and not being able to remember what he sounded like. When you can’t remember the tone of someone’s voice, it’s like watching a silent movie in your mind. You can recall, or imagine, what the person was saying, but no sound is coming out of his mouth. Sometimes, I walk around thinking about it and his mouth is moving in my mind, singing the words of some ballad John Lennon wrote thirty years ago, but the only voice I can hear coming out of lips is one of my tables asking for ketchup or someone else searching for their check. Even in my bed, silent in the almost-waking hours of the morning, before the birds have started chirping and the crickets have stopped, no sound comes out of him at all, and I have to pad into the living room to play that Lennon record, the smell of gritty, citrus soap swirling around my eyes.

I waited tables for fifteen years. Fifteen. Don’t get me wrong – I have a college degree. One whole degree in political science with a side of what-the-hell-can-you-do-with-a-degree-in-political-science. When I was twenty, I got a job at this steakhouse where I made a whole lot of money and decided to keep it even after I had graduated, hoping that maybe I could save up for a house before I entered the gruesome job market. It just took me much longer than I had first anticipated. And it caused all of the problems in the world, because that steakhouse ended up being where I saw him for the first time.

It’s not that there is anything wrong with waitresses, or that the food service industry is less of an industry than any other. I just don’t think I was cut out to take people’s shit. Some of the stories that I have told over the years have gotten gasps from my family, like the gasp that escaped my mother’s mouth when she found out that her old dentist had been arrested for taking a few "liberties" with his female patients, or the gasp that spewed forth from my brother after his girlfriend called him a selfish prick. Many people might think that it’s never okay to say, "What, are you stupid?" to their server, but it’s surprising how many people actually let this sentence leave their mouths. And it’s not like there is any remorse after the insult. This isn’t a fight you would have with your spouse, where immediately after the sentence left your mouth, you would know it was wrong to have said such a thing. If someone called his wife a "slow, inefficient girl," he would probably feel pretty bad afterwards. This didn’t ever seem to be the case with the trash that would saddle up to my booths and tables, requiring beer and service and a decorated sprinter with a smile plastered to her face like paper mache.

John used to laugh about this. He would tell me to stop complaining. This was my job. I should deal with it. He didn’t really understand because he was living off his trust fund. I refused to take money from him, aside from the occasional dinner or movie, and so I had to work and he didn’t. He had never worked for another person in his entire life, had never rushed seventy miles an hour down a highway for fear of being late and losing his job, had never held back tears of self-pity when some stranger called him stupid. John had never taken an order in all of his years on Earth. He just looked for the good in everyone, looked for the reason behind every action that a person could take.

"Baby, you know that you’re just taking out your underlying depression on these poor people. They’re just trying to enjoy an evening out."

My throat went dry as I considered all of the possibilities of whatever had begun streaming out of his mouth.

"Yeah, they’re just trying to enjoy an evening out and I’m trying to feed myself."

"You’ve become cynical, honey. You take the loss of your father and project it onto every man over forty at your tables. It’s something you really need to let go of."

John was a psychology major. Everything was about projection. Everything stemmed from your parents. He would have been Sigmund Freud if he had thought of it first. But I didn’t buy it. These men weren’t men. They were vultures. Trying to suck the meat off of every last t-bone in the establishment. Insulting their waitress with their leering eyes and demanding fingersnaps. I was tired of it.

John had only seen me cry over my father once. I didn’t necessarily want him to see me lose it because he would just analyze me to death. But that one night, I was very drunk and I had just taken down a blue hospital sign and ripped the bumper off of my car. And this car, the one with the dents all over it and the now-missing bumper and the hubcap-less tires, this was the car my grandfather had bought for me when it was brand new, sparkling new and gliding silently down the road. As the whiskey swirled around in my belly, I cried over the picture of my grandfather sitting on my bookshelf, wailing about how I had let him down, about how he was the only real father I had ever known. And then that reminded me of my father and how he was never there, he never bought me a car. And then that reminded me that I didn’t know who would walk me down the aisle at my wedding because my Gramps was having problems with his legs. And then that made me think of how Gramps would die someday just like my father. And then that made me realize how drunk and stupidly depressed I really was. And then that made me sob so hard that the next day, the space around my eyes was puffed out like dull red balloons lodged above and below my flattened eyelashes. John, for the first time ever, just moved over and hugged me, placing his hands on each side of my belly as I shuddered into his shoulder. We both got two hours of sleep that night and when I woke up that Sunday morning, I plastered makeup on my balloon eyes, kissed him on the forehead, lightly, so my lips hardly touched him but my breath made him shiver, and trudged off to a day of waiting tables.

Sundays at the restaurant were always the most dreaded day to work. We used to call them, "Rookie Sundays." People that have seemingly never been out to eat in their entire lives come out to dinner on Sundays. They don’t know how to speak to their servers and they do things like call the honey wheat bread that comes out with their salads, "chocolate bread" just because it’s brown. Obviously, I wasn’t exactly feeling myself on this particular Sunday. I felt terrible as I was driving to work, the sun scorching through my glasses, my stomach doing backflips in quick succession - which is probably what drove me to smoke a joint on the way – something I hadn’t done in over a year. As the joint got smaller and smaller, the sun got duller and the backflips changed to somersaults and I figured that this way, work would be more fun and I could just laugh at the families forcing themselves to be nice to one another at Sunday dinner. I just didn’t count on this being the day that I saw the dead come back to life.

I saw him walk through the door as I was standing up at the host stand, marveling at how calm I felt since I had finished that joint in the parking lot. His face was familiar but not, kind of like the face that you think might have been in one of your classes or the face that sort of looks like someone you had recently seen on television. He was with a woman. She had long, blonde hair and her belly was round like a can of beer. It reminded me of how my mother used to say that my father’s belly was as round as the whole world, cases upon cases of beer just sitting in his stomach, swooshing around like the sea right before a thunderstorm. The woman was pretty but there was just something about that belly that didn’t sit right with me. There was something about that man that looked so familiar.

I look back on it now and I don’t understand how I didn’t realize who he was right away. I suppose that my mind just wasn’t considering him as a possibility. He was dead, right? I had shaken the box of ashes on two occasions. I had cried over him for decades. Every man who was six foot three with a beard, a glint of music in his eye and dirt on his hands reminded me of him. I had the date that he had died memorized. But until that day, it had never occurred to me that I was too young to attend the funeral – that I had never really seen him, dead. That we had never scattered those ashes and that a gravestone or monument of some sort had never been erected in his honor. Until that day, I had silently grieved the loss of my father with every note of John Lennon’s voice, every peeled orange giving off smells of citrus wonder on a crowded train, every decision that I had made in my life had somehow rested on the fact that he was dead.

At first, I just thought I was really high. Once it popped into my head that he did look an awful lot like that picture of my father in a red and black plaid shirt and dirty jeans, just twenty years older and beardless, I decided that my imagination was running away from me and asked my boss if I could take the table even though it wasn’t in my station, just to prove to myself that I was being crazy, stoned and sleep-deprived. With my head held high and the Visine still tearing down my face, I approached the table with the same fake, smiling demeanor that I approached every table with, as if I would rather be doing nothing else but waiting on these people. This time was different though. I felt as if an unanswered question was about to be asked, responded to and put away in a little gray box at the top of my mother’s closet, with the initials B.J. on the top. Once I had greeted the couple and gotten their appetizer orders, I would know that I was being stupid about the whole thing and I would finally be able to put my dead father behind me. I would get to my mother’s house as fast as I could, grabbing that gray box and shaking it with all of my strength, making sure that I heard teeth rattling around on the metal inside.

"Hello, how are you both today?" I trembled a little, staring intently at the man with his head down, peering at the menu with interest. I cocked my head to the side to get a good look at his profile and I was floored. It did look so much like him.

"Our soups of the day today are creamy baked potato and French onion, and our featured drink is the new sour apple martini. Can I get you both something to drink or an appetizer to start out?" It was perfect. The exact greeting that I gave to every single table. No name, no welcome to our restaurant – I wouldn’t treat this strange ghost of a man any differently than I would treat any other table that would plop their asses down in this crappy eating establishment on a Sunday afternoon. Then, he spoke. His eyes stayed averted to the menu, but he spoke.

"I’ll have a cup of the potato soup and a tall Miller Lite. My wife would like the same."

And at that moment, it all came flooding back. Suddenly, my memories weren’t silent movies anymore. Every picture of him, every song had a sound. This voice that had come out of this man, this was the voice of my father. I had never been so sure of anything else. I started to panic. Maybe I was so high that I was imagining things to make the outcome of my life seem more appealing, or to blame it all on someone else. Maybe he was some distant cousin or relative that just happened to sound just like my father. I couldn’t be sure anyway, I thought. I haven’t remembered his voice in years. I mean, if my father were still alive, why would he stay in the same area that I had grown up in? Why wouldn’t he high-tail it to the other side of the country with it’s earthquakes and beaches and unsuspecting people? Why would he EVER come into this restaurant? And why on earth would he still be alive, leaving his poor, 27 year old wife to raise three kids on her own?

I stumbled over my words, but somehow, I got out of there to the safe refuge of the kitchen. I think I said something lame like, "Sure thing, coming right up," as I ran to my best friend Tom without blinking an eye. Dragging him into the women’s bathroom, I began to unload everything that had just happened, and at the end of the story, I was holding out a picture of my dead father, giving it to Tom, begging him to bring their beers over and check for himself. Tom was skeptical.

"I know that you think this could be him, man, but I don’t know. Did your mom ever tell you anything about him being dishonest? Did he have any reason to run away? Really, do you know how crazy this all sounds?"

"I know that it sounds crazy Tommy, but I need you to do this for me. If you go over there and you truly think there’s only a slight resemblance, I’ll leave it alone. I promise. I just need a second opinion here. I’m freaking out. Please."

And then I was screaming. The entire restaurant was staring at me like I was the main attraction of the biggest freak show on earth. My hands flailed crazily, balled up into tight little fists pounding against the man’s chest. The man with the woman who wasn’t my mother. The man with the dirty, permanently blackened hands and the worry-lines around his crinkled eyes. The man with my father’s face, my father’s hands, my father’s citrusy, swirling scent.

"How could you do this to us?! Why are you here?! What about mother and what about me and what about all of the pain that your death has caused over the years?! I spent my entire life wondering who was going to walk me down the aisle at my wedding, wanting someone to shower love and sweet sixteens on me! No explanation you could ever have would be good enough. No amount of apologies or stories or life-changing experiences can undo the damage that you’ve

done to me by not being here!"

I punched and I cried and I screamed so loud that soon there were cop cars flashing in the parking lot and a plate of barbeque ribs on the floor and my boss was holding me tight by the elbows and Tommy was calling my mother.

And after all of that, he swore that he wasn’t my father. His round belly wife convinced him not to press charges, feeling sorry that I had lost my father, probably thinking about how her kids would feel if he were dead. And as I wiped the mascara off of my cheeks and John came running from his Toyota after getting Tommy’s frantic phone call, and the cops began to pull away, cautiously, one by one, the man got into his car and reached for his sunglasses, trying to cover the small, prominent tear sliding deftly down his face.

Later that week, I snuck into my boss’ office to snoop around and see if the man had paid with a credit card, so I could get his name off of the slip. I hadn’t gotten fired for my behavior, but my boss had given me a nice sit-down. He was as loyal to me as I was to him, unfortunately, he had no idea how much I really hated my job. It wasn’t his fault. I just hated the idea of being at someone’s beck and all, let alone an entire restaurant of people. I knew that my boss was out at table 23 trying to explain to some man that not everything on our menu comes with a salad, and from the crazy, cheap look on the man’s face, I knew it could take awhile, so I swiped his keys from the back counter and headed for the office.

I felt like an ass rooting through the credit card records like a madwoman. Everything in me was telling me to stop, or to at least have Tommy keep lookout. John would have a fit if he knew what I was doing. My mother would kill me.

My mother.

Angelina Salvino was a strong woman. Her triumph in raising three decently normal children by herself hung out quietly in the back of my mind at all times, a little man on a chair with reading glasses and a small light that he turned on when I was having a particularly hard day, making me smile at the thought of my mother, late-twenties, three kids and a job as the counter woman at the local pharmacy. I hadn’t told her about the incident at work with the man and the woman with the big round belly. She was still sane, after all, even considering everything that she had sacrificed to create the most well-adjusted children possible – free time, sleep, romance, drinking, thinking about anything but us. She would absolutely kill me if she thought I was going crazy myself, which was exactly what she would think. Immediately.

So I rooted. I searched and pushed things aside and squinted at the hundreds of little white slips with little black type until I found the exact amount of the check on the exact date with a Visa. And the name was Brian Jones.

It wasn’t the initials "BJ" that freaked me out so much. It was more the fact that I was ransacking my boss’ office like a regular criminal just to scare myself even more that sent me running out of the office to find Tom. He would be my partner in crime. I knew he would.

After I had convinced Tommy that it was in his best interest to bring me to every house of every Brian Jones in the town and its surrounding areas, ("I promise, I’ll owe you two Mets games and a Saturday night shift and my eternal gratitude") we decided to live out my mission at exactly 11:35 AM the next day. John would be at his mother’s house playing tennis like the little rich boy he could sometimes be. And for some odd reason, Tommy and I were both off on a Saturday.

On the way to the first house, my stomach was just inconsolable. I could feel my acid reflux slowly eating away at my esophagus, the sweat of my palms soaking little spots into my jeans. We had chosen the only Brian Jones in Manville because that’s where the steakhouse was. As I wiped my hands on the sides of the Civic’s seat, I turned to Tommy.

"I know you think I’m crazy, but thank you."

"You know I’d do anything for you, kid, but just remember, I’m calling it quits after four hours. If we go longer than that, we might be labeled as certifiably insane."

"I know. Four hours is more than I had even hoped for. Hey, maybe the first house we go to will be his. I mean, who would drive from far away to eat at our shitty restaurant?"

"Yeah right. What are the chances we’d ever find him at all, let alone at the first house we rolled up to?"

"Well, if it happens. It’s a sign. I’m telling you."

The first house was a normal, two-story suburban house with flower planters on the windowsills and cracked, dull red paint. The swing set in the backyard was rusted in polka dots and the dog chained to the chain link fence looked tired, old and full of drool. Tommy rang the doorbell as I cowered behind him.

The door opened and fire came out of the sky, islands sank like anchors, the little girl inside of me curled up and died. He was standing there, at the ugly cracked brown door with a dirty white t-shirt on, yellow stains dripping from the armpits like butter. He saw me there and startled for a minute, buckling his belt and squinting toward me just slightly enough for me to be able to tell.

"Please, don’t slam the door, sir. " I had decided to take the polite route. "I really just came by to apologize for my behavior and maybe ask you a few innocent questions?"

He stammered. His eyes announced to us like megaphones that he was searching his mind for an excuse to get me out of there. I could see his facial expressions changing with every twist of his thought process. The silence was tearing my stomach to little pieces of anticipation. Tommy looked as if he would run at any second. After all, he was a good half foot shorter than this towering man with the big dirty hands. Finally, Mr. Brian Jones spoke. I tried to contain myself as John Lennon turned on his little reading light in the back of my mind and I thought of my sweet mother at every word that left his mouth.

"I don’t know if I can help you, young lady. I have absolutely no idea what you were ranting about the other day. But I’ll listen if you got somethin’ to say." He resigned himself and sat down on the used-to-be-white patio chair on the porch. Tommy moved away. My cell phone started buzzing in my pocket; probably John calling to tell me he’d schooled his dad in tennis three times. I ignored it.

"Well, I was just wondering if you’d ever met a man named Billy Jenkins, or if you’re related to him in any way. He died about twenty five years ago."

He looked at me calmly, but I couldn’t help thinking that I saw him shudder visibly right before he turned to me.

"I didn’t even grow up around here. I wish I could be of some help. This all has to be a case of me looking just like some other guy and I’m sorry, but I can’t help that."

Just then, I heard a shrill voice shoot through the house from the upstairs, through the door on onto Mr. Brian Jones’ ears.

"Brriiiiiiiaaaaaaan! Why is that girl here? She made us feel bad enough the other day! Tell her to leave!"

He turned to us and looked almost truly sorry. "Sorry kids, but the wife’s not happy right now. You really shook her up the other day. You better get outta here. Wish I could help you."

I didn’t believe him. I just knew that he had to be lying. But I didn’t get a chance to question him further. As soon as I opened my mouth, round-belly woman came downstairs, threw the door open with the strength of Achilles and began screaming, her hair frizzed and flying around her head like guitar strings.

"I didn’t press charges. I was calm, collected, respectable even. I decided that it wasn’t worth it to have you in our lives in any way, and I let it go. But you had to come here! You had to snoop and sneak and come here! You’ll ruin our lives. I won’t let you ruin our lives! You didn’t need him! You never needed him, you’ll never need him like I do! You stupid little bitch I swear I’ll kill you!"

And then it was all blue. And John Lennon was sitting on a cloud playing a twelve string Ovation guitar. I had no hands and no body at all but I could hear, I could see. I thought I was in a coma.

Really, I was dead.

Round belly woman had a handgun behind her back the whole time. Apparently, she had saved Mr. Brian Jones from a car wreck about twenty-six years before. He didn’t even know who he was. So she told him to pick a name and they would start a life together. The bitch didn’t even think that maybe he had kids, maybe he had a wife, maybe she was just crazy. Obviously. I mean, she did shoot me.

After I died, Tommy told my mother what had happened. And my sister. And my brother. And a few months later, after round-belly was in jail, they were all introduced to my father for the first time. He admitted that he had no memory of them at all. But he had helped to pay for my funeral, along with my mother, and poor poor John, shuffling his feet through the graveyard like a boy who’d lost his best friend.

Now I exist. I exist and I see and I hear. Right this second, John is frowning over a paper on Pavlov, my mother is smiling as she shows pictures to a confused but laughing man who used to be the love of her life, the two of them sitting in her black and white kitchen like old friends, and Tommy is getting cheese fries for table eleven. I know because I can see everything now. I can watch and observe but I can never talk to any of them. I have no voice. I’m as silent as my childhood memories of the man with the scruffy beard and the orange soap. But I can hear everything now. I can even hear my father.