The game of Creative Watermelon is not a complicated one. It’s simply a matter of lying on your back on your father’s bed and staring up at the popcorn ceiling to see what kinds of shapes you find up there. It’s a lot like looking up at the clouds in the sky, only the ceiling never moves, and once you identify the shapes, they are there to stay.
“Dinosaur,” I say.
“Where?” says Dad.
“Right there,” I point. “There’s his tail, swooping down by the boat, there’s the spikes on his back and his head.”
“Spikes on his back, eh what?”
“He’s a stegosaurus,” I nod.
“So it’s a boy dinosaur?”
“How do you know?” He turns to me, whispers conspiratorially. “Can you see his pee-pee?”
I laugh hysterically. My dad said pee-pee.
“You know what I see?” says Dad.
He pauses dramatically, for effect. “A Cesna.”
Dad nods. “See?” He points. “Right there.”
“I see it.”
“It’s a 150F. Just like the one I used to have.”
“How do you know?” I whisper, turning to him conspiratorially. I find the deepest register my young voice can find, which isn’t very deep, and say, “Can you see his pee-pee?” I laugh. Boy do I laugh.
I realize Dad is not laughing. In fact, his look is one of stern disapproval.
“I just made that joke, Walton.”
My heart sinks. It’s not so much what he says as the look.
He reaches for the red plastic cup on the nightstand. The one that looks like what they put your soda in at Pizza Hut. The one in which all liquids seem the same dark shade regardless of their color. Who knew what might be in that cup?
I knew. The pinky finger was only used to stir what came from the bottles over the kitchen sink, not what came out of the fridge.
The ice clinks as it slides towards his lip with the last bit of liquid. Dad gets up from the bed, leaves the bedroom, repeats over his shoulder, “I just made that joke.”
I examine the dinosaur. Establish his exact contours. I wonder why we call it Creative Watermelon.
“Did we find a watermelon?” I ask as Dad returns empty-handed, patting his pockets, rummaging on the nightstand.
His eyes flit to me. “What?”
I hesitate. Everything has changed, I can feel it. I don’t understand. I try not to act like it’s changed. If anything, I pretend it’s better than it was just a few moments ago. I press on, business as usual.
“What happened to your Cesna? Why don’t you have it anymore?”
He swivels his head towards me, his eyes like battleship guns. “I sold it, Walton.”
“Why did you sell it?”
“Because we had you. Come with me, Walton. We’re leaving.”
“Come where?” I sit up in the bed. “Where are we going?”
“I’m kidnapping you.”
In the car, windows down, oncoming traffic whooshing by. It’s rare that I’m in the car going anywhere after dark. I’m usually in bed by now.
“Where are we going, Daddy?”
“I told you.”
“I mean really. Where are we really going?”
“I’m kidnapping you.”
“Daddy, stop. It’s not funny.”
“I’m not being funny. I’m serious.”
“Daddy. Stop it.”
He sinks his fingers into the open bag between his legs. “Potato chip?”
“No thank you,” he says.
I cross my arms, stare straight ahead.
He swivels his battleship guns towards me. “No thank you,” he says, crunching a chip.
I mumble no thank you.
The tires rhythmically putter over the road, beating time.
Dad looks over at me, puts on his wise old man voice, says, “What are your thoughts, my son?” This is his impersonation of a comedian named Jonathan Winters, whose records we’ve listened to over and over together, who does this rumbly, gravelly old man when he wants to sound old, or wise. This is my dad trying to lighten the mood.
“I don’t have any thoughts,” I mumble.
“Speak up, my son.”
“I said I don’t have any!”
“What is troubling you, my–?”
“I want to know where we are going! Why won’t you just tell me?”
Back to his normal voice: “I told you.”
“You said you’re kidnapping me!”
I scream in frustration, hit the seat with my fist, hit the door, shout “Where are we going?”
He laughs, and his laughter makes me furious.
Still laughing: “It’s a kidnapper’s secret.”
I start to cry. The part of me that thinks he’s kidding is beginning to lose out to the part of me that thinks he might be serious.
Tires putter. Dad chuckles.
“Why are you crying?”
“Because you won’t tell me where we’re going!”
“Don’t say it!”
We pull into the parking lot of a strip mall. All the stores are shuttered for the night but one. Windows run the length of the storefront, the fluorescent lights inside a soulless white. The sign up above reads King’s Liquor Beer Wine. Dad turns the ignition back and the engine dies. He pulls out the keys, hands in his lap, eyes on me, mine straight ahead.
I can see inside the store, down the aisles, nothing but bottles.
“Can I come in?” I mutter.
An exasperated chortle, as he shakes his head, as if it should be obvious.
No answer. Not yet. His face changes as he settles on a quiet, almost sinister tone. “Walton, they don’t allow children in there. And you’re wearing pajamas.”
I look down at my thin blue Star Wars top and matching shorts, arms still crossed. “I don’t care.”
He opens his door, steps out. From the trees, the croak of cicadas. “I’ll be right back,” he says, shuts the door. His leans down, face against the glass, taps the glass, his muffled voice says lock it.
A bell chimes as he opens the door, recedes inside the store, disappears down a long aisle flanked by bottles.
I crawl over and crunch the latch under the fat part of my fist, sinking the latch down inside the door. In the driver’s seat now, I grab the window crank on my door and roll down the window. Not a lot, just enough to hear the cicadas. The steering wheel is fat and dirty in my little hands, sticky in places. I imagine the cockpit of a Cesna. My feet don’t reach the pedals.
This is Part 8 in a series of “flash-memoir” posts that stand alone, more or less, but also link together to tell a longer story. Part 1 is here, and if you’re in the mood, might I suggest Parts 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7.