Feeding the Piranha

There's only so much children can do for their parents

A Short Story

by Pamela Painter

OUR FATHER WAITS until we have picked up our duffels and left the San Diego airport to ask if we’ve had our teeth cleaned lately. “Josh?" he asks me. I say no, not lately. “Finny?" My sister says she thinks she has a cavity in one of her back teeth, either top right or bottom right. Her tongue visits the elected spots, probing for confirmation. Dad nods, satisfied that this will be a good visit. And doctor’s checkups? I disappoint him with my required physical for football this fall, but Finny’s shake of her head assures him that where our mother’s neglect is concerned, nothing has changed. Not that he’s about to pay for any of this. Finny and I exchange glances as we pull into his apartment complex. It’s all cement except for stunted palm trees in cracked clay pots and patches of bright-green grass, one per apartment, each with its own sprinkler whirring away. Nothing else moves. The pool is smaller than it sounded on the phone.

Dad throws our duffels and books into his empty extra bedroom, beside the sleeping bags he borrowed for us. I explore the tiny balcony baking in the California sun while Finny assesses the fridge. The balcony is three feet by six feet. A rusted hibachi sits on bricks at one end, like an abandoned altar. Back inside, Finny slams the door of the fridge. “Guess we better go shopping,” she says.

We gather in the living room, where Dad explains about his temporary lack of employment and how he didn’t want to ruin our first visit in a year by looking for a job. His time is ours. He spreads his arms expansively in a gesture I remember. “So, Josh, how much money did your mother give you?” he asks. We pool our money on the old oak table from the Chicago family room. I have fifty dollars. Finny has thirty. Dad has twelve dollars and nineteen cents. As the coins plunk down, the nineteen cents makes me feel guilty. But not guilty enough to mention the other fifty bucks in my back pocket or the twenty in Finny’s new Madonna purse.

The money on the table comes to $92.19. Dad scoops it all into his hand and puts it in the pocket of his jogging pants. We head off to our first meal, at Burger King—my favorite restaurant. There Dad catches us up on his latest jobs and why they didn’t work out.

“You have to be able to cut your losses,” he says. “Your mother’s probably still teaching. Stuck in the same rut.”

“Yeah,” Finny says, “she’ll never quit.”

Later we shop for eggs, milk, ketchup, hamburger, and bread.

“Your mother still making that fancy food?” he asks.

“I don’t eat it,”I tell him, rolling my eyes at the thought of the shrimp curry, the coq au vin, the cold pasta salads, that I’m gladly missing. “I eat cereal,” I say, and dump more ketchup on my fries.

Dad and I run three miles every morning while Finnystays in her sleeping bag and reads Playboys. They have great interviews, Dad says. Before we run, he stretches out in front of a mirror, seriously bending, pulling, reaching. I do what he does right behind him in the mirror.

He’s in better shape than I am—except for losing a little hair. He asks if Mom is still fat, and I say yes, that all her skirts have stretch waistbands. But, Finny says, expensive clothes hide it well. I add that her new husband probably doesn’t notice, because his nose is always in some book. Dad laughs; no books are cluttering up his house.

Dad arranges for courts every day that his old club has extras—usually at 6:00 in the morning or 11:00 at night. Dad plays Finny first, then me. “You keeping up with your tennis?” he asks. “Pretty much,” I say. Then I tell him about Mom’s refusal to send me to tennis camp last summer, even though it would have guaranteed me first place on the team. Finny says Mom held back because she had just bought a new computer. “Still got her priorities mixed up,” Dad says.

WE MEET THE girlfriends on different nights. Girlfriend Number One is closer to my age than his. She has great boobs and the sort of overhead smash that in a couple of years would get me into college. We play doubles and go out to Burger King. Then we go to her place for a sleepover. Dad packed our sleeping bags in the back of the car, just in case.

Girlfriend Number Two shows Finny how to make up her eyes with black eyeliner and colors like purple and plum and apricot. She puts lipstick on her with a pencil. The next day they go out to the Hacienda Mall to have Finny’s ears pierced. Finny comes back with two gold circles in each ear.

Girlfriend Number Three cooks real Chinese food and shows us how to use chopsticks. Her apartment complex has a trampoline next to the pool. We take turns jumping and falling and reclining and jumping up again. Working on our appetites, Dad says.

“We play hard and sleep late out here,” Dad says. “Your mom ever take time off?”

“Just for Scrabble or chess,” Finny says.

“But it’s no fun, ‘cause she doesn’t let anybody talk.”

Dad has an invitation to move in with any of the three. So which one will it be? he asks, later in the week, when we are back at his place, sitting beside the empty pool, which is being repainted. I vote for Number One and Finny votes for Number Two.

“But what do we do about Number Three?” Dad asks. “No doubt your mother would have some well-chosen words on the subject. Does she still talk most of the time with her hands on her hips?” We both picture it and say yes.

Our grandmother calls, from a little town north of L.A. Finny figures out that we last saw her eight or nine years ago. I remember Skippy, her dog, a dachshund with scabby hair who wouldn’t stop playing fetch. I remember the musical toilet seat that played “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain When She Comes.”

Our grandmother tells Dad that she and Grandpap won’t be able to make it down from the mountains to see us this time, but to say hello for them. We’ll all get together at a big reunion next time for sure. He passes this along to us. To her he says, “The kids, they are sooooo biggo. Mucho biggo.” To us he says, “Your grandmother wants to know if you get the letters and cards she sends or does your mother throw them away?”

“I don’t remember getting anything,” Finny says. “What’s the name of the town they live in?”

BEFORE LONG WE HAVE TO PACK. FINNY SEARCHES the car for our plane rickets while I throw my clothes in a duffel, sniffing to decide what to wear home. We have run out of clean clothes. A few things.I can’t find. I Dad watches us pack. “Can’t your mother buy you enough clothes to get through a week?” Dad asks. He has an unending supply of jogging pants and tennis shorts.

“Mom makes us do laundry instead,”I say. “She goes nuts on Clorox and Spray ‘n Wash and Bounce.”

“You name it and we learn to use it,”Finny says.

We stop at Burger King on the way to the airport. I order double fries, to get the baseball cards, and pie. “Hold it on the apple pie,” Dad says. “We’re almost out of money.” Finny keeps checking her makeup in her new Madonna compact. She’s not so good with the lipstick pencil yet. I’m wearing a T-shirt from the Del Mar Tennis Club.

At the airport Dad talks the woman at the security gate into letting him walk his only kids to the boarding area. She laughs us through. Dad’s face is red, his voice husky. He asks if we missed our mother and we say no. He asks, Do you ever miss me? and we say yes.

IN BOSTON IT’S RAINING, AND THE FOG MAKES OUR plane late. We get a cab home. Mom is making curried shrimp and banana raita for dinner. She hugs us, and here it comes. “Did you miss me?” she asks. We say yes. She wipes Finny’s lipstick off her cheek and steps back. “What happened to your eyes?" she asks Finny. “You look like a raccoon.”My stepfather glances up from his book and says hello. He says hello again, and then goes back to where his finger marks his place.

Mom follows us to our bedrooms to collect the dirty clothes she is sure we came home with. “So how’s your father doing?” she asks. Finny tells her Dad is almost bald and wears jogging suits absolutely everywhere. “He still wears his Princeton ring,” I say. “He lost the old one at the beach last year and had to order another from Balfour’s.”

“So, what did you do in sunny California?" Mom asks, hands on her hips.

“There isn’t a book in the house,”Finny says. “Just his old Playboys.”

“Went running, played a lot of tennis at cheap times like six A.M.,” I say.

“Did you see your grandparents?” Mom asks.

“They were too busy,” Finny says, “as usual. They’re probably pissed we don’t cash their piddling five-dollar Christmas and birthday checks, but I knew she was on the phone because Dad was talking baby talk.”

Mom giggles as if remembering. “Any wedding plans?” she asks.

I say he seems to have more than one girlfriend. “One’s only a few years older than me.”

“I,” Mom says.

“The other girlfriends are closer to your age,” I tell her. “He takes turns seeing them. It’s Dad who calls them girls.”

Mom says, “Well, nothing’s changed.”

My sister peers in the mirror at her earlobes and asks Mom to check them out. She’s sure the holes are unevenly punched; one looks red and yucky. Mom gets close. “Jesus, you had a surgical procedure done at the mall,”Mom says.

Later Mom ladles out shrimp curry while I pour cereal into a bowl.

“Does your father have a job?” she asks.

“Yeah, jogging’s hard work,” Finny says. She counts up the meals at Burger King, describes the fridge—empty except for ketchup. She tells Mom that once again we had to contribute our money to expenses, because once again Dad doesn’t have a job.

“But we didn’t give him all the money this time,” Finny says. “If I can walk dogs, he can get a job.”

“Fat chance,” I say. I tell Mom I didn’t even ask him about sending me to tennis camp. I was afraid he’d suggest I leave my extra racquet there for him to use. Mom is putting two and two together with the past twenty years.

“Do you think we’ll be able to count on any money for college?” she asks.

“Not a chance,” my sister says, “but the next time we go out there, we’ll steal his car.”

I tell Mom, by then he probably won’t have a car.