Finishing off the last slug of Mountain Dew, Chop crushed the can and killed the engine. The tired Honda grunted and hacked before settling down. He let out a wet belch and then turned to Justin.
“Hey, my dad’s a little different, so be cool okay?
“Yeah, I know.”
“It’s just that…whatever, wait here.”
Justin watched Chop lumber down the driveway to the basement apartment of a small ranch-style house, the tumbleweed brick speckled and stained from the Virginia red clay. He tugged at his pants before knocking, the screen door banging behind him as he walked inside. Justin sat in the car, a trickle of sweat fell from his arm pit and tickled his ribs.
They were on the way to a cookout, a last call for summer party when Chop got the call, explaining that it would only take fifteen minutes to run pops to the store. Justin kept an eye on the door,eager to catch a glimpse of the man who'd flat-lined in a prison cell, his skull fractured and bloody on the concrete floor.
A Green Day song faded to an end as a mower droned in the distance. He checked his phone, deciphering text messages under the splash of colors spilling on the cracked screen, He had to take calls on speaker phone, with still 3 months to go before he could upgrade.
The winding locust accompanied the muggy August evening, still sweltering as triple digit temperatures had lingered all week. A concerned voice on the radio suggested drinking water, staying indoors, and swimming. Two shirtless boys whizzed by on their bikes, their faces flushed and their arms at their sides.
Hearing the metal clap of the screen door, Justin turned to find Chop hovering near a rail-thin man limping towards the car. The man’s muddled eyes wobbled with each step, his black tank top revealing small brown arms covered with bedraggled tattoos
“Justin, get in the back man.” Chop nodded towards the rear of the car. Justin shook off his stare and opened the door, stuffing his phone into his pockets as he stepped out. Chop’s dad didn’t seem to notice.
“Dad, this is Justin.”
“How are ya?”
The man’s voice was slow and raspy, worn. He stuffed a cigarette in his mouth in an effort to free up his hand, which felt like a leaf when Justin shook it.
Chop rarely spoke of his father, spilling a few secrets during a drunken conversation at beach week. Pulled a bid for manslaughter....killed a man with a bar stool while Chop was asleep on his mother’s breast...took on three prison guards in the pen.. A cheerless pride had crept into Chop’s voice that night, as though he wasn't sure whether he should be ashamed or proud.
In the backseat, Justin sat with his feet propped up on soda bottles, dirty tennis shoes, and a shiny Western Civics textbook, He studied the back of the man’s head, bobbing and nodding in the stillness of the parked car. It was unclear whether he was a ragged 40, a worn 50, or a weathered 60. His silver hair yielded to a purple scar that whittled down to his jaw line from behind his ear. He tried to imagine him killing a man or lying near death on the prison floor. It was cool and sad at the same time.
“We can just go to the Food Lion, is fine.”
The horizon smoldered orange as the heat loosened its hold on another scorching August afternoon. Pulling into Food Lion, the parking lot was abuzz with activity, people discussing the heat while enjoying the seductive glow of dusk. Chop’s dad brandished a wrinkled list, a small bubble of spit glistened on his bottom lip..
“You need me to go in with you?” Chop leaned in as he spoke, the man shook his head.
“No thank you, I’ll be right back.”
He pushed the car door open, discarding the cigarette as he hobbled past the shining cars, each thumping louder than the last. Chop’s eyes followed his father until vanished into the store, and then turned back towards Justin.
“He’s pretty messed up, huh?”
“How long has he been that way.”
“Since jail. I was 11 when he was released.” He said, nodding towards the door. “So I’ve never known him, just what you met there.”
Justin shook his head, unsure of what to say. His own father had always embarrassed him. The standing ovations at elementary school functions, the constant slathering of sunscreen at the beach, and who could forget the Bustin’ Justin sign at the basketball game? He had heard about that one for months. He repositioned his legs as Chop lit a cigarette and continued.
“The funny thing is, he gave me the name Chop when I was a baby. That’s what my mom said anyway.”
“Do you see him a lot now?”
Chop exhaled a stream of smoke out of the window. “Na, I didn't even know he still had my number. My mom hasn't spoken to him in over 6 years. That’s why I dragged you with me. Sorry man.”
“No, it’s cool, we've got all night. Jenny will wait for me.”
Chop started the car as his dad ambled out of the store, his arms all veins and ink, straining with the three plastic bags in tow. Chop stepped out and took the bags, helping his dad into the passenger seat.
The ride back was silent; the streetlights flickered to life as the sky grew dark. The air was still heavy and thick, Chop looked over at his dad.
“Did they have those smelly pork rinds you like?”
His dad nodded. They pulled over at the house and he began to collect his things, Chop started to get out.
“That’s okay son. You've done enough for me today.” He reached in his pocket, his trembling hand surfacing with a five dollar bill. He held it out towards his son.
“Here, take this for your gas. What was your name again?”
Chop flinched at the question, reeling for a breath as Justin sat in the back, his mouth agape.
“Thank you Daniel, I appreciate the ride.”
Chop cleared his throat, recovering. “No problem, you hang on to that.”
The haggard man shut the door and shuffled into the dark. Justin reclaimed his place in the front seat and they whirled down the road in silence. He caught a glimpse of Chop’s face in the shadows, detached and blank as the car jerked with anger. Justin stared out the window as they swooshed past the parked cars in the night, thankful that his dad had never been so cool.