Making Your Way

By Kim Venkataraman

C-1ities force you to place inordinate trust in your fellow man, a risk I’m no longer foolish enough to take. Crammed together, stacked to impossible heights, you are at the mercy of one and all: their decency—or lack of it—their intentions, and even their common sense. Can you trust each day that a fire won’t be started, either intentionally or by an innocently forgotten cigarette? This is just one of the daily leaps of faith you must make in a city. It isn’t paranoia—it’s logic, pure and simple.

Paranoia is a word Gwen seems to like using these days. She also says my world is becoming too small, as if I am shrinking to Lilliputian size. Why is it that when you turn a certain age your children believe they can start telling you what they think, what they “know”? They become eager to give you advice, like you’re the child trying to make your way in the world. Maybe I shouldn’t have shared my opinion of cities with Gwen when she dropped off my groceries, but I had to when she asked me again about New York. Would I like to go with her and Hank to see Melody dance in the Macy’s parade? Dear God, I couldn’t imagine anything more pointless than attempting to spot one teen girl among hundreds—thousands probably—as they traipsed for miles through Manhattan on what was sure to be a freezing, snowy day. I saw Melody dance at last year’s recital and that was plenty. It was hard enough then to pick her out of the blur of look-alike sequined clones twenty feet away.

They say you lose your “filter” when you get old, blurting out every thought that occurs to you. But this certainly isn’t true—proven by the fact I didn’t say what I really thought about the parade. Instead, I explained how vulnerable you are in a city, information I thought she’d find helpful, if nothing else. But as she put away the groceries, stacking the single-serve dinners in the freezer and lining up cans of soup in the pantry, she didn’t even seem to hear me. I watched her put a new quart of milk in the fridge and remove the old one. She didn’t hesitate before pouring it down the sink and putting the container in the recycling bin she’d insisted I put in the hall closet.

“I could have finished that,” I said. What sense is there keeping old cardboard and throwing away milk?

Gwen didn’t respond. She used to argue with me about expiration dates, but she’d even stopped doing that, apparently preferring to do what she wanted. She was convinced, it seemed, that I was beyond reasoning with.

“Dad, Dad…did you hear me?”

“What? Yes.”

“We’re leaving on Tuesday, so I’ll bring your groceries by on Monday instead.”

“Yes, Gwen, I remember.”

“Okay, good. You’re sure you don’t want me to sign you up for the dinner at the senior center? I heard they do a really nice Thanksgiving meal, and you…”

“Really? Are we going to discuss this again?”

“Fine, but if…”

Thankfully, my heavy sigh silenced her. She’d been harping about finding me a place to eat on Thanksgiving, as if there were something so special about that particular Thursday, it would be a tragedy if I ate by myself. To humor her, I’d asked her to buy me a frozen turkey dinner, which I would eat whenever I damn well felt like it.

“And you’re sure you don’t want to come with us?” She didn’t look at me, focusing instead on folding the paper grocery bag and putting it under the sink. It was clear she was going through the motions. She could now tell Hank that she’d asked me “one last time” and that—as expected—I’d still refused to go to New York. How interesting that all of this asking and refusing was for something neither of us really wanted. Yet we performed the ritual out of some kind of obligation, like indifferent dancers performing for an invisible audience.

“Did Marta put the sheets in the dryer?”

“Yes, I think so.”

I had no idea whether she had. I never paid attention to what the cleaning lady did. She just made noise and dragged the vacuum around, trying to trip me with the cord. Gwen seemed to think she did a good job, but I’d decided that Marta’s main objective was to move everything out of place. Each week the canisters, the TV remote, even the towels in the bathroom were all shifted slightly. This meant that the relief I felt when Marta finally left every Wednesday was quickly replaced by the uneasy feeling that everything was slightly off. It was exhausting.

I know Sarah would have felt the same way. Not that there would have been a need for a housekeeper if she were still alive, but Sarah would have understood how disruptive all the small adjustments were. Sarah would have understood everything else too. The parade, New York, the damn lunch at the senior center. And most important, she could have helped me understand how—without any discussion—our daughter had placed herself in charge of me. As I was thinking about this, Gwen went into the laundry room.

“Dad!”

“Yes?” I muttered.

“The laundry didn’t get switched—it smells musty!”

I could hear her opening and closing the cabinet and the washer. “I’ll run these through again, but Dad,” she said as she appeared in the doorway, “you have to put them in the dryer as soon as the washer finishes.” She looked at me sternly.

I considered answering, “Really? I had no idea that’s what I should do.” But looking at her pursed lips, I decided to let it go. “Aye, aye, Captain.” Better to avoid another lecture and get on with my day.

Gwen checked her watch. “I’ve got to run.” She glanced back at the laundry room as if the washer and dryer were children she was uncomfortable leaving in my care.

“All righty, then. Thanks for the groceries.”

“I’ll call you later.” She gave me a tight smile.

After lunch I paid some bills and got the newspaper from the mailbox. When the phone rang, I realized I must have dozed off reading in my chair.

“Hi there, Dad. I wanted to check that you’d put the clothes in the dryer.”

“Yes, Gwen, I have.” I forced myself to sound amused. “You know, you don’t have to check up on me every second. Your old man has managed quite well for almost eight decades. I even seem to remember running Harmon Lab’s largest division. Anyway,” I cleared my throat and continued before she had a chance to interrupt. “I’m right in the middle of reading an interesting article in The Journal, so…”

“Of course, Dad. I’ll let you get back to it. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

When I hung up, I continued to sit there, staring at the maple trees in the backyard, their bare branches bouncing on an invisible breeze. I lowered the chair’s footrest, pushed myself up, and walked to the damn laundry room.

***

The next day when Gwen called to remind me yet again about the groceries, I told her I might not be home when she came on Monday. I was taking the car for an oil change.

“Didn’t you just do that?”

“No, it’s been three months. And, Gwen, there’s nothing more important than proper automotive maintenance.”

“I know, but you hardly drive. You only have to take it in every three thousand miles.”

I raised my voice. “Oil life is a function of both mileage and time. Mileage and time. Both.”

“Okay, Dad. I just don’t want you to have to spend time doing that if it’s not really necessary. But it’s fine.”

This was another one of her contradictions. She wanted me to get out more, do things, go places. But when I did, she questioned whether what I was doing was the right thing. As it turned out, I was home when she came by on Monday. Surprisingly, I’d slept until almost nine o’clock and was just finishing my coffee when she came in. Without removing her coat she started putting the groceries away.

“I got you the potpie again. You said you liked that, didn’t you? And a few single-serve frozen veggies. Okay?”

I nodded.

“Okay, I’ve got to run.” She kissed my cheek. “Call Cheryl across the street if you need anything. I told her we were going to be in New York. And don’t forget to watch the parade on Thursday. We’re staying a few blocks away at the Marriott, but we’ll be out on the street watching!” She said this enthusiastically.

“Well, you enjoy that.”

“I’m sure we will.” She smiled. “We’ll miss you, but I understand that it’s a big trip. You just relax and enjoy it on TV. We’ll see you Friday.”

After she left, I thought about what she’d said. “Big trip”—the city wasn’t even three hours away. I used to drive there and back for meetings sometimes. Tuesday passed uneventfully, but when I woke up Wednesday morning, I envisioned my plan as if I’d been formulating it for days. Before eight o’clock, I’d packed a small bag and left the house. It was nice to be up and out, with a destination and a purpose. Sunlight was sharper on mornings like this, when folks in their shiny cars were hurrying to their next appointment or errand. Rushing meant you were busy, and being busy meant you were needed. It was a feeling I’d always liked.

It wasn’t long before I was heading down Route 41, a coffee and doughnut in hand. I didn’t need to stop for gas. I always kept the tank full—it was important to be prepared. But as I approached the first toll near Peterborough, I questioned my decision to get a large coffee, a pit stop was going to slow me down. For some crazy reason they’d made most of the lanes electronic pass only, which meant the cash-only lane was backed up with dozens of cars. Obviously I wasn’t the only person who hadn’t jumped on the high-tech bandwagon.

The line moved at a dismayingly slow pace, and all I could think about was how far it was to the next rest stop. At least I had the exact $1.50 ready in my hand. Most of the people in front of me took forever to pay—as if, after inching their way up to the toll, they were surprised to find why they were there. When I pulled up, I quickly put out my hand, but in my haste I knocked the partially open window. The coins fell to the ground, but I managed to hold onto the dollar bill.

“Just…sorry.” I searched hurriedly in my wallet for another dollar. I always had cash on me—another example of how it was important to be prepared.

“Here.” I shoved a five-dollar bill toward him. I pressed the button to close the window and began moving away, belated realizing he was holding out my change. I gave him a wave as I drove away. He could keep it as a tip—what’s overpaying a bit on a toll, as compared with the expense of a visit to New York City? That reminded me I hadn’t called the hotel, a thought that distracted me from needing to find a bathroom. Well, spontaneity added spice to an adventure, didn’t it? Of course, if I had relented to Gwen’s harping about getting a cell phone, it would have come in handy now, but this one instance hardly made a phone a necessity.

Just as I’d begun to scout the side of the road for a hospitable spot to pull over and hoof it to the woods to relieve myself, I saw a rest stop ahead. I pulled in at nearly top speed. The parking lot was enormous, and the gas station had at least a dozen pumps. It all seemed a bit excessive, although every parking spot was full. When I’d driven all the way up to the front entrance, I finally pulled into a handicap spot. I wasn’t sure I could make it if I had to make another pass through the parking lot.

I hustled out of the car and up the steps, not even bothering to bring my wallet. No time for dawdling—just a quick stop and I’d be back on the road. I expected I’d reach Manhattan by twelve-thirty or one, if the traffic wasn’t too bad, and I wanted to keep to that schedule. Of course, once I got there I’d have to track Gwen down, but that would be easy enough once I reached the hotel. As I left the men’s room, I noticed a row of pay phones and decided to get my wallet and call the hotel. I’d line up a room for myself, and I’d find out the cross street from the front desk. Feeling pleased with my efficiency, I went back to the car. Standing next to the Cadillac, I felt for the keys long after I’d determined they weren’t in any of my pockets. I could see my wallet tucked in the center console, and there were the keys—dangling in the ignition. I pulled on the door handle, silently wishing it would open. I even walked around to the passenger side to try that door, in case by some fluke it hadn’t locked. But no. I rested my hand on the car roof and tried to think. I suddenly felt as tired as if I’d been driving all day.

“Hi there. Everything all right?” The voice startled me and I realized I was rubbing my forehead.

“What’s that?” I forced a smile. “Yes, yes. Fine.” The man in front of me was holding his young daughter’s hand.

“You sure?” he asked.

“Right as rain.”

“Come, Daddy, I’m hungry.” The girl tugged on his hand.

“Okay, have a good day.”

I nodded as they headed toward the building, and tried to consider my options. Of course I had AAA, but my card was in my wallet. And I couldn’t make a call, anyway, without any money, right? The worst thing was that I was parked in a handicap spot. A red Cadillac might look as if it belonged there, but the handicap permit was glaringly absent. I wished my car were tucked anonymously somewhere back in the vast parking lot.

“Hello again. Are you sure you’re all set?” The man and his daughter were back. She was distractedly holding a hotdog and twisting back and forth, making her skirt swirl around her.

“Truth be told, I seem to have locked my keys in the car. And my darn wallet too.” I looked away.

“Happens to the best of us.” Before I knew it, he’d pulled out his phone and called AAA. “They’ll be here soon. Why don’t we go inside? We can wait in there.”

“Oh, there’s no need for you to wait…”

“Truth is, Julia’s hotdog is looking better and better to me. I could use something to eat before we get back on the road.”

He turned and gestured with his arms wide, as if his daughter and I were sheep he wanted to herd into the building. My damn knees had stiffened up in the time I’d been standing there, so I was forced to move slowly back up the stairs and inside. I had to admit, it felt good to sit down in the food court.

“Hotdog and coffee good?” He didn’t wait for a response before heading to the counter.

I realized the little girl was watching me. She stared, her hotdog sitting on the table in front of her.

I nodded. “So, you’re Julia.”

“Yes. We’re going to New York.”

“Right. Me too.”

“The city. New York City.”

“Right. Me too.”

She continued looking at me, swinging her legs back and forth. I wondered if I should remind her to eat.

“Here we go.” He was back with hotdogs and coffee for both of us.

“Thank you very much.” I wasn’t hungry but felt I should take a bite. I was glad I did—I’d forgotten how good hotdogs could be. Regular ones, not the low-sodium, low-fat, low-taste impostors that Gwen bought for me.

“I’m Jay Peters, and this is Julia.”

“Pleased to meet you. I really appreciate…everything.”

“Don’t mention it.”

“Daddy, he’s going to New York City too!”

“Really? That’s great. Seeing family for Thanksgiving?” he asked.

“Actually, I’m going to see my granddaughter dance in the Macy’s parade. I’m meeting up with my daughter and her husband at the Marriott.”

“Wow, that’s great.”

I nodded. It was great. No one could say that my world was getting smaller. I looked down and realized I’d polished off the entire hotdog. I wiped my face with a napkin. “That was good. Just what I needed, fuel for the road.”

“Mm hmm. So which Marriott? Midtown or East Side? And I guess there’s the Marquis too.”

I took a sip of my coffee. Of course there was more than one Marriott. I should have realized. I took a deep breath. I’d just have to make a few more phone calls. Not a problem.

“It’s the, uh, Midtown.”

“Right, makes sense. It’s close to the parade route.”

“That’s right.” I looked back at the doors. I wouldn’t be able to see when the tow truck arrived.

As if he knew what I was thinking, he said, “They have my number. The driver will text when he’s here.”

“Right, right.” I picked up my coffee again. “I guess I feel a bit foolish about this whole thing…”

“Don’t give it a thought,” Jay said, smiling. “We’ve all done it. They say we’re only as old as we feel, maybe we’re also only as foolish as we think we are.”

As I considered how to respond, he looked down at his phone.

“The truck’s here,” he said. “We’ll walk out with you.”

It only took the tow truck driver a few seconds to jimmy open the door. I tried to reimburse Jay for the food when I thanked him for his help, but he wouldn’t let me.

“Bye!” Julia hollered as she skipped away, holding her father’s hand. “Have fun in New York City!”

“You too,” I called after her.

I realized, after they’d all left, that no one had mentioned I was in a handicapped spot. That was one thing to be thankful for. I sat with the car running for a few minutes, thinking about what Jay had said. How old did I feel? My joints might sometimes make me feel as old as Methuselah, but really, inside I felt the same. The same as I always had. Often when I looked in the mirror, I was surprised to see an old man with a lumpy, red face and bushy eyebrows staring back at me.

I backed out and followed the exit signs around the building. What did age matter if I could head off to New York on the spur of the moment? Clearly I could be spontaneous and put caution—even logic—aside to support my family. The crowds and the annoyances be damned. I pulled up to the stop sign at the exit and remembered once again that I hadn’t called the hotel. And as quickly as my eagerness had arrived, it was gone. I could continue on, find one of the apparent dozen Marriotts in Manhattan. Hell, I could pull up to the first hotel I saw and track Gwen and Hank down once I’d checked in. I could meet up with them and watch the parade. I really could do it.

The car behind me honked and I pulled out. Up ahead was the exit to return to the highway, and straight on was an overpass to cross and reverse direction. Yes, I thought to myself, I could do it. I certainly could. Somehow, knowing that made all the difference, and just before taking the exit, I turned off my blinker and continued straight.

——————–

Kim Venkataraman grew up in Maine. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Forge, The MacGuffin, Redivider, Spout Magazine, Nassau Review, Willow Review and exactly five other literary magazines. She is currently finishing a novel based on her grandfather’s experience of being orphaned at the start of the Depression.


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