The Lucky Gas Station Parking Lot

By Zack Quaintance

August 25, 2015

I only saw my dad smoke crack once. It was New Year’s Eve, and I was seventeen. We were in his old silver Buick, just the two of us, parked at a gas station on the south side. Our year had been turbulent. I finally hit puberty that summer, and when I started senior year that fall, gone were locker room jokes like: You shave your legs? They’re so smooth! I’d grown to six feet tall that year—same as my dad. My parents had divorced in July. My mom filed for it herself, asking solely for my dad to leave our house by January. New year, no Dad was her mantra. My dad agreed to this. He was a drug addict. He’d been to rehab twice—once when I was in first grade and again when I was in seventh—and relapsed both times soon after. He lost his job managing an Olive Garden, while my mom finished grad school and found full-time work. By the end of the year, my mom was independent, and my dad was delivering pizzas a few nights a week and collecting tips from little league dads he once sat beside. Destined for exile, my dad started repeating a pair of anecdotes whenever he saw me: one about his future, the other about the death of a child.

The one about his future was simple. My dad had a dream in which he packed his things into his Buick—an acoustic guitar he played Cat Stevens’ songs on when I was small and some garbage bags made chunky by his clothes—and drove all night toward a green sign on a bright desert highway, white letters spelling TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES, NEW MEXICO. “Town’s real, Jake,” my dad would tell me, “and I swear it’s my destiny . . . there or Intercourse, Pennsylvania.”

The other story was about Baldy, a fellow addict my dad befriended in Chicago. Baldy had a six-year-old son, D’Angelo, who had leukemia. There were doctors, clinics, chemo, and, near the end, Make-A-Wish, the charity that brings to life the dreams of terminally ill children. D’Angelo loved pro wrestling, the fake kind, and he especially loved The Undertaker, a wrestler billed as an undead mortician who’d returned from the grave to collect the souls of the damned. After a victory, The Undertaker would choke and slam foes into a ringside coffin, shut the lid, and—Dad swore this was D’Angelo’s favorite part—stand on a turnbuckle as the lights dimmed and bells tolled, The Undertaker rolling his eyes back into his skull while cameras zoomed close, capturing only his trembling whites.

As the boy’s condition worsened, Make-A-Wish chauffeured Baldy and D’Angelo to the front row of a Monday night wrestling spectacular. Baldy asked my dad, who then asked me, to record the broadcast of his dying son’s dream, which I did. In the video, The Undertaker emerged from backstage, hoisted D’Angelo to his shoulders, and climbed into the ring. The entire arena roared as the child struck a strong-man pose, flexing his fearsome little arms, rolling his own eyes back into his skull. Dad said Baldy labeled the tape with thick black marker: BALDY’S BEST DAY. D’Angelo passed soon after.

I’d heard these stories so often that year it felt like the people within shadowed me and my dad on our last New Year’s Eve together as we drove into the city to score him crack.

That New Year’s Eve morning, nobody had seen my dad since Christmas—not me, not my mom, not my kid brother, Mat—but Dad’s disappearing was normal. After his second relapse, he often vanished, presumably to benders in Chicago. What was different that year was timing. December 31st held the one tradition my dad still honored: New Year’s Eve with his sister Lisa, her family, and our grandparents, who refused to visit our house because my mom once asked them to smoke outside. “Little lungs can’t handle poison,” Mom remembered saying. My dad typically returned on the 30th to rest for the following evening’s small talk, belated Christmas gift exchange, and countdown to midnight.

But that year he resurfaced late in the afternoon, just hours before the party as the sun set and the frigid air turned painful and dry. Mom was in pajamas paying bills at the dining room table. I was on a couch nearby, listlessly watching a small TV on top of a larger, non-functioning TV—the now-extinct kind with a wooden case and tubular screen.

Dad looked at Mom and asked, “You coming, or is it just me and the boys now?”

Mom hesitated. “You’re asking me what? To sit at a party, all smiles, while you lie to your parents and act like we’re fine? You’re nuts, Mark.” Dad gave no indication of hearing. Mom asked if I thought Dad was high (I did) and insisted I take his keys and drive. She gave me a grocery bag filled with gifts and said, “Tell Aunt Lisa these are from me.”

I went to my room to get dressed. Early in high school, amid the eternity I waited for puberty, I had a theory that clothes told stories. As boys and girls around me crackled with sexual urgency, I was stuck chubby and cherubic, a misplaced child, noting what my peers wore and guessing about their lives. When I finally grew, I began to use clothes to tell my own story. That night I wore a Spiderman tee and a Chicago Bulls jacket made from shiny black and red material that swished when I moved. I loved basketball and had even played on teams tutored by my dad, himself a starting point guard in high school.

I went downstairs and Dad joined me, sporting fresh clothes and cologne on top of his body odor and the stale cigarette smoke he’d dragged home from the city. He wore a t-shirt he’d appropriated from me as an unfunny joke: black, with scrawled red letters D.A.R.E.—standing for Drug Awareness Resistance Education. He also wore a ski jacket, likely shoplifted from Kohl’s.

“You look awful, Mark,” Mom said from the table.

* * *

My fifteen-year-old brother Mat came up from the basement in a denim coat and knit cap that he called a beanie and refused to remove. He had a thin, silver loop pierced through his lower lip. Dad pointed to the piercing like he’d never seen it before. “That make it hard to suck dick?”

“Wow, awesome question, Dad,” Mat said.

“Just playing, dude. Here, give your old man a kiss.” Mat winced as Dad tagged his cheek.

The three of us—sons, brothers, and father/fiend—trudged outside to the Buick. Dad asked Mat to sit in back with him so they could catch up. Dad immediately demanded, “Stop at a gas station, Jake. Need presents for your cousins. Mat’s giving me a twenty, right Mat?” I parked away from the pumps and the front of the store, near the air machine. Mat handed over a bill, and we watched Dad amble toward the gas station.

I decided to tell my brother something I had never said aloud. “Dad says he snorts heroin cause he’s scared of needles, like a little kid.”

Mat and I grew up knowing our dad was on drugs—knowing if he wasn’t home and if whoever answered the phone at Olive Garden said he wasn’t there, then he was high. We’d learned this young. Mom told us only that he’d done coke when she met him—It was the eighties, Jake!—but how could she have known he’d become a junky. I’d learned of the heroin when I was home alone, eating a sandwich and reading Uncanny X-Men. Dad came in, I asked what he was on, and he replied, “Heroin, kid, sometimes coke or crack.”

Dad returned with a stack of scratch-off lottery tickets.

“Two bingos, a slot machine, and three of some new one—rollercoasters. We got a nickel up there, kid? Radio on when I scratch, Jake—93 XRT, Chicago’s finest rock. Keep it in park. Radio on, car parked—good luck for bingos. What, you think you can ignore your old man now cause you finally got some hair on your ass?”

I said, “We’re late. We can’t sit in a gas station parking lot all night.”

“Kid, I’ve spent many a night in a gas station parking lot.”

I heard fervid scratching and a hard exhale. Then Mat: “What the hell, Dad. These are supposed to be gifts. And what are you doing, bro? Don’t listen to Dad. Just drive. Let’s get this party thing over with.”

“Yeah. Just drive. You’re making us late, Jake,” Dad said.

I drove toward Lisa’s. It was an hour drive and Dad was talking, which I took as a sign of a pleasant high, not too sedated, not yet panicked by comedown. At one point Dad rehashed a theory that his parents had given Lisa the money for her house, a theory that—like his anecdotes—I’d already heard. Dad said, “Hell of a thing bout Lisa’s big-ass house. You believe she bought that? Tell me how that makes any sense. I gotta imagine . . . .” I finished his thought, “Grandpa gave Lisa thousands of dollars for her house?”

“Yeah, exactly, I mean, she’s a secretary and her husband’s on workers’ comp. Gotta believe my parents helped. Thing is I’m pretty sure there’s a law says if you give one kid that much money, you gotta give the same amount to the other one, too.”

“That’s not a law, Dad,” I said (I’d checked online when I was younger).

Dad ignored me and began talking about Baldy’s Best Day again, this time with tangents, excessive repetition, and a particularly dull stretch in which he fell asleep. The ending, however, was new. Dad told us, “After the wrestling show—the one you taped, Jake—the wish guys gave Baldy five hundred bucks to buy his kid toys. Believe that?”

When we reached Lisa’s house, Dad transformed from a rambling marionette crumpled in the back of his own car to a sharp, wacky uncle that everyone loved. He overcorrected his posture and led us up the walk. He opened the door without knocking, and we entered Lisa’s cavernous living room where a Christmas tree twice the height of our own brushed the vaulted ceiling.  Lisa greeted us. Her kitchen was a page from an IKEA catalog. “Uncle Mark and the guys are here,” she announced.

Our cousins sat at a long table covered with red holiday cloth and blue cans of Pepsi. Grandma hugged us and boomed greetings in a melodic voice. She smelled of cigarettes. Grandpa waved from a room affixed to the kitchen, where he was reading a paperback and not smoking because of a cancer scare. Dad started machine-gunning small talk: “How’s work?” “Swear you girls got prettier.” “Because that’s just the kind of guy I am, I got you each a million bucks. But you gotta win it first. Who wants scratch-offs?”

I took a barstool at the counter, awkward and brooding. It occurred to me that my presence mirrored that of my mom, who’d been perpetually sidelined in spare folding chairs at New Year’s Eve. From the periphery, Mom had watched Dad’s family exchange thoughtful gifts until Lisa passed her a mushy parcel—every year the same mushy parcel: red Wal-Mart snow gloves and a black stocking cap.

I saw Dad rise from the table and steel himself, shaking his arms and shoulders like a swimmer bound for the pool, as he approached Grandpa. I followed him to the TV room where Grandpa sat with basketball on mute. We watched the game—Grandpa in a recliner, Dad and I on an adjacent couch with Dad on the edge of the cushion. My dad got quiet for a while. When he eventually spoke, his words contained a rare and tentative honesty.

“Pop, I won’t be around much longer.”

“Christ, not cancer?”

“No. Divorce.”

Grandpa made eye contact, first with Dad and next with me. He started talking and stopped, started, stopped. “Son, you’ll be okay. Game’s on.”

Dad shrank into the couch.

The party continued, stilted and slow, and soon we gathered around the tree. I brought in the gifts from Mom to Lisa. Lisa opened one: red Wal-Mart snow gloves and a black stocking cap. She tucked the rest away. As more gifts were given I noticed Dad was missing. I guessed that he was in the bathroom. If talking meant a pleasant high, the bathroom meant the other kind. The group was distracted when Dad returned. He motioned to Mat and me. Without saying bye, the three of us slunk out hours before midnight, and we headed for home.

In the car Dad leaned on the back window, hand over his long face, eyes ashen, silver hair unkempt. I saw him in the rearview mirror and became angry as I drove—not at him, but at Grandpa. I’d cast Dad as a villain who cost my mom more than I could fathom. I’d heard her wish aloud for his death and subsequent redemption of his life insurance policy. I envisioned the death of my father in the same way my classmates envisioned college admissions letters, frothy keg beers, and lithe coeds. But after watching Dad flail as he tried to open up to Grandpa, I felt, for the first time, confused and guilty. Maybe I’d never understood this man I’d been far too eager to blame.

In the car Dad talked like a memory, like a ghost in ether, “I loved you kids. Always a lot of love in our house. I made sure we had a lot of love in our house.” Then he unsheathed another ending to his Baldy story—one I’d never heard, set weeks after Baldy’s son D’Angelo had passed.

Baldy, who during his child’s sickness had gone from selling drugs to using them, lost the tape of his boy’s wish come true. Every time Baldy would get high after that, he would ask, “Seen my tape? Baldy’s Best Day? You seen it? Got-damn, I lost my best day.” Dad continued, “Never seen Baldy like that, crying, looking at the sky, ‘Seen my best day?’ And swear, that’s when I knew I had to leave. Closed my eyes, never guess what I saw: deserts, sobriety, Truth or Consequences, next exit.”

We pulled into our driveway and Mat got out.

“Two hours until midnight,” I said, idling.

Dad asked, “We got any Christmas money I could borrow?”

I pictured Dad on the road headed for Truth or Consequences. I burned with curiosity about the vices that had lured him away from my mom, who used to sob on the couch in the dark as I sat on the ground beside her, listening to passing cars and soft closing doors of unacquainted neighbors outside. Curious and vigilant, I would part the drapes and peer into the mortgaged suburban world beyond, lost in Dad’s waning charisma, longing for his return. I’d been stunted, staring at our past.

Any other year I would have given Dad money and gone inside, but not on the night I’d seen him with Grandpa, panicked and desperate. I realized my dad was serious about leaving, and before he left I had to go in search of my rival, Dad’s preference, the answer to the big question—his son or his drug?

I said, “Tell you what, I’ll go see Baldy with you.”

Dad got in front beside me and warmed his hands. “Fine. If that’s what you want, kid. Let’s go find Baldy.”

We careened down The Eisenhower toward the south side, Dad tapping his leg, clenching and unclenching his fists.

“Take that exit,” he said.

“This where Baldy is?” I asked.

“Just pull off. We got that money?”

We arrived at an open-air drug market—blight, liquor stores, few cars on the streets, and dope boys hawking chemical party favors. Dad leaned out the window, beckoned, and waved. A dealer spoke—cold, faceless, and obscured from my vantage in the driver’s seat. I cut my gaze down at the wheel, hands trembling; I heard only snarls.

“Get the fuck out my face, muthafucka,” the dealer said.

“Dad?”

“Drive, Jake. Left up there. Okay, try that corner.”

“Think I’m dumb? You cops. One young, one old, both dumb as shit,” the next dealer said.

Dad told me, “We got money. That’s what matters. We’ll score, kid, don’t worry.”

A third dealer laughed at us and kicked the car so hard it tottered.

We eventually bought crack, not heroin, from a chunky-faced boy in a puffy coat. Dad seemed satisfied. He pointed to a street, and I parked alongside vacant row houses. Dad opened his glove box: no maps, no music, no manual—just a half dozen silk roses in glass tubes with stickered price tags reading $2.99. He took crack out of the baggie we’d bought, plucked a flower from a tube, and filled the empty space with drugs. He jammed a chunk of Brillo on top as a filter to keep scolding shards from shooting up the cylinder as he smoked and reaping excruciating pain on his lips. My dad, a model of American ingenuity.

“This is Rose in a Glass,” he said, hefting the pipe. “Know what they say? Well, what I say: Rose in a Glass is for smoking the shit that gets Superman high.” He lit up and exhaled vile fog, which smelled what I imagined a crate of Bic pens would smell like if drenched in chemicals and engulfed in flames.

“Can we find Baldy now?” I asked.

“Shit man, I don’t know how we would. Baldy hasn’t had a phone for a while. Hey, quit moping, kid. We got money. Let’s kick ass, get the year going. I know a gas station, luckiest place in the city.”

When we arrived Dad bounded out of the car, high, leaving me alone in the lucky gas station parking lot where I stared through the windshield into the Chicago night, at his life without us as he walked away. We had the same gait: heads leading, shoulders hunched, jaunty steps fired from the arches of narrow, white high-tops. Dad ran a hand through his hair as he walked, sliding it slowly down his pocked face. I did the same in the car, my skin smoother. A weathered man in a blue and orange Bears stocking cap sat by the building in a wheelchair, his eyes blank and colorless. Dad waved to him and turned to the clerk, tendering my remaining cash through a drawer for scratch-offs, bingos of course, and cigarettes.

Back in the car, Dad blew the silver debris off the tickets onto me, searching for his treasure beneath. He turned the radio to 93 XRT and moved the volume up, down, and up again, and then he fingered the dial without adjusting it. Dad’s eyes shined with encyclopedic knowledge of the music of his era. He put the tickets on the dash and reached again for his pipe.

“First time I tried heroin, kid, nothing in the world came close. It was like floating on a bed of titties.”

I pictured such a bed. I was exhausted. I looked at the scratch-offs on the dash.

I said, “Dad, double-check that ticket. I think it’s a winner.”

He gave it a quick glance. I was right. He slapped his thighs. “The lucky parking lot! There it is, kid. Two hundred bucks. I’ll get you paid before I head for Truth or Consequences. Pretty sure there’s a law says that we gotta split it, since you loaned me the money and all.”

In my dad’s lucky gas station parking lot the pumps had cracked screens and faded colors. The cashier was behind steel bars and a layer of bulletproof glass. The air smelled of gasoline and fried potato wedges. The old man in the wheelchair bellowed into the night as my dad swaggered past, clutching his victorious ticket.

Dad returned and theatrically opened his wallet, fumbled it, and spewed the contents: receipts, an old video rental card, and a tattered photograph—a portrait of little Mat and me with too much gel in our hair, smiling in collared shirts. The picture was taken before his second relapse. I’d forgotten that day. But the photo was everywhere my dad went, safe inside his frayed wallet.

“Baldy’s lost best day,” he said. He pinched the photo between his thumb and index finger. “Kills to watch him ask for it. Breaks your goddamned heart. Every time. I usually act like I gotta piss. I go in the bathroom and check my wallet. Got my best day right here.” He kissed the picture and put it alongside his New Mexico money, his springboard to a worn escapist fantasy, impossible to all but him.

The new year came and went. We missed it. We were the only ones left unmoving, parked beneath an orange light as other cars drove on through the city. Passersby probably saw us there—a young man a few months from high school graduation and his vibrant, animated father—and they probably thought, Shit, fool kid got that old man lost.

 

Zack Quaintance. Zack's journalism and essays on culture have appeared in half a dozen newspapers that most people don’t read anymore. A native of Chicago, he currently lives and writes in Austin, Texas, where he is at work on a collection of short stories. Follow him on Twitter:

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