by Philip Glennie
He glances at the clock and struggles to hold back frustrated tears. Despite the mild April day, the building’s heaters are still pumping at January levels. Sweat pours down his face and into the grimy stubble along his jaw. Beads trickle from his armpits, tickling his love handles. Less than an hour since the exam began, but he already needs to shit for the fifth time. There’s no one to blame but himself. He’s been on an all-coffee diet since exams started two weeks ago and it’s finally caught up to him. There weren’t any signs of trouble before he opened his booklet. But the moment his pencil hit the paper, his bowels started purring. There’s only so much brown java you can pour down your throat before it starts coming out the same on the other end.
He rises from his chair with a delicate clench. But leaving the gym isn’t as simple as getting up and going. There are proctors stationed at desks next to every exit, serving as bathroom escorts. As luck would have it, the nearest of them is a cute brunette he recognizes from the campus bar. She’s been reading a sci-fi novel. When she notices his approach, she closes the book and stands to open the door without expression.
Not a word passes between them as they walk to the bathroom. She moves more quickly than he does, and on several occasions has to stop and let him catch up. The first time he made this trip, she smiled and went about her job mechanically. When he came out for the third time, though, she stuck closer to him in the hallway. Now, she’s seen the ashy death in his face. All she offers is a pitying look when he re-emerges from the bathroom for the fifth time. He meets her with a brave, self-deprecating smile.
He manages to make it through the last half-hour of the exam with his ass in his chair. Running on empty, it seems.
Now he stands outside the O’Donnell residence building – a clinical brick fortress that he’s begrudgingly called home this past freshman year. Grey April has dampened the air and washed away most of the snow. A soft drizzle clings to his cheek. The smell of thawed horse manure wafts over campus from nearby farm country. He loses his balance for a moment, feeling nauseous with hunger and dehydration. A duffle bag stuffed with unfolded clothes lies on the concrete beside him.
A familiar grey car appears at the entrance of the O’Donnell parking lot. After a slight hesitation, it starts rolling toward him, settling at the curb. His father waves from the driver’s seat, throws the door open, and tries to get out before undoing his seatbelt.
“Hellooo Patrick!” he says. Despite his enthusiasm, the man’s unsure whether to hug or shake hands. Patrick gives no opening for either. His father goes to open the car’s trunk. Patrick tosses in his bag and climbs inside the car. Before he can settle into his seat, a sour stench punches him in the face.
“It stinks in here,” he says.
“Yup,” his dad answers. “I spilled some milk a few months back. What are the odds?”
“Did you wipe it up?”
The man lets out a little laugh. “It’s okay. I’ve gotten used to it.”
Patrick sighs and lets his head fall back. The Volvo’s headrest presses against the base of his skull. He doesn’t look back at O’Donnell Hall as they glide away from the curb.
His father lets loose a sneeze that threatens to blow out the car’s windows. Patrick winces at the sound. It carries the last traces of what the man used to sound like when he was really angry.
Two gas stations bookend the road ahead. They remind Patrick of the trips his family used to take when he was young. They’d travel across the bottom of New Brunswick and down into Northern Maine, back when the dollar exchange was juicy enough to lure Canadian shoppers southward. With those long rides came the inevitable tantrums he and his brothers would throw. He remembers having a fit in a Bangor gas station because his parents wouldn’t buy him a Milky Way. Falling to the dirty floor and spasming like the girl from The Exorcist. His mother just stood back and waited for him to exhaust himself like a little grease fire. At first, his father was willing to entertain the same approach. But as the minutes passed, he glanced at his wristwatch. A few minutes more and you could see his skin starting to burn.
“Patrick,” he finally snapped, “Get up from the floor right now and GET IN THE CAR.”
Patrick ignored him. The man grabbed him by his bicep and pinched as hard as he could. To anyone watching, he’d simply taken hold of his son’s arm. It was impossible to tell cries of pain from petulant whining as he dragged the boy outside.
“I love making this trip,” his father says from the driver’s seat. “It doesn’t seem that long at all – when you’re not tired.”
“When you’re not tired,” Patrick repeats. He drops his head against the passenger window and watches the onrushing shoulder of highway. He glances at the man whose happiness is unwavering now, the very essence of consistency—ever since his kids left for university.
“Patrick, I know you’re upset. But you’re just tired.”
That’s what his mother used to tell him whenever he got really agitated about something, especially his father. He hated how much it cheapened his emotions.
His headache is overwhelming. They’re approaching the exit to New Glasgow.
“Do you mind if we get off here, Dad? I need something to eat.”
“Aaaab-solutely,” his dad sings in reply. He doesn’t mention the sandwiches and bananas stashed in the back seat.
Patrick frowns at his father’s face in the rear-view mirror. He opens his mouth to speak, then doesn’t. Maybe he’s not so angry with the man. Maybe it’s just one of his bad moods. Maybe he should wait to see if he starts feeling better. He might break the old man’s heart if he says what’s really on his mind.
They settle into the parking lot of an A&W they’ve passed dozens if not hundreds of times. The two of them step into the wet April air. Patrick almost loses his balance.
“Go ahead and order whatever you like,” his father says as they enter the orange building. Patrick orders a Teen Burger with onion rings instead of fries, figuring there must be at least 1,400 calories in the meal. His dad orders nothing and follows him to a table in the farthest corner.
Once seated, Patrick raises an onion ring to his mouth, pausing over its heady aroma. He knows that if he takes this greasy drug, he won’t have the anger he needs to confront his father. He’ll never say how he truly feels, and his dad will just go on living in absent-minded euphoria. But what’s the point of it all, anyway? He sinks his teeth into the crispy ring. Within seconds, he feels the pressure inside his head dissipating. The will to say something is dissipating with it. Almost gone now.
The old man stares back at him with glittering eyes.
“You know… you could be a dick sometimes when I was a kid.”
His father looks around. No one’s paying any attention to them. His eyes fill with hot tears. “I know, Patrick. I’ve always regretted it, and I’ll regret it for the rest of my life.”
Patrick hesitates at how easily his father has conceded the point. The man’s crying takes him off guard, but not enough to stop him just yet. “Then why didn’t you ever bring it up?” he demands.
His father lowers his eyes. “I guess I just never worked myself up to it.”
Patrick wants to ask the old man if he ever would’ve brought it up on his own. But he already knows the answer. He still wants his father to do what’s right, even if it’s hard. Then he thinks about how easy it would’ve been to say nothing just now. If they hadn’t made this stop, hadn’t eaten this exact meal, hadn’t sat at this corner table—would he have said anything? If not today, would he ever have brought it up? He realizes he’s feeling something other than resentment now, something deeper. It’s fear—fear over how something so important could depend on such insignificant things.
“Are you sorry?” he asks.
His father lifts his glasses and dabs his eyes with a napkin so thin that light passes through it. “Yes, Patrick. I’m sorry. I’ve always been sorry and I’ll always be sorry.”
Patrick can’t help himself. He resents the old man’s blubbering. His father should be comforting him. It takes every ounce of strength to reach across the table and lay his hand over his father’s.
“We’ve talked about it now,” he says. “And you’ve said you’re sorry. That’s good.”
Fresh tears pour down his father’s cheeks. A little girl at the nearest table has noticed and is staring at him.
“C’mon Dad. Let’s go.”
They head back outside. His father pats his pockets for his keys.
“Are you alright to drive?” Patrick asks.
“Ugh.” His father palms his eyes. “I am. But thank you.”
They get inside the car. Patrick stares out the window at the restaurant, thinking of how many times he’s driven past this place and thought nothing of it.
“This place is important now,” he says aloud.
His father glances over at him, then out the passenger window. “You’re right,” he says. “Because you did a brave thing. I’m grateful.”
The word grateful causes something to unclench behind Patrick’s eyes. He can feel the softening spread down through his neck, shoulders, and chest. It could also be the calories from the meal kicking in, but he feels his energy returning as the car drifts back on to the highway. He glances over at his father, who’s blinking away the last bit of puffiness around his eyes.
“This is a nice stretch of road,” he says.
His father blinks and nods vigorously. “It really is, isn’t it?”
* * *
Philip Glennie was born in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada. He is the author of two novel and currently lives in London, Ontario.