“Mom, I ordered something in the mail,” I said. “Please don’t open it when it comes.”
She looked at me skeptically, her eyes narrowing.
“It’s a gift for you, for Mother’s Day,” I added.
She took a deep breath and let it out in a long exhale.
“This isn’t like the time you ordered me a hunting knife for my birthday, is it?” she asked.
“No, not like that at all,” I said, trying my best to give her an expression of surprised offense.
She nodded her head slowly with closed eyes.
Earlier that week I’d found my father’s stash of “gentlemen’s” magazines. I was fascinated by the images and even more by the mail-order ads scattered throughout. What was this world where plastic, rubber and metal could be transformed into such works of functional art, I wondered. We’d grown up in a household where we were taught to admire the human form. And here in those pages I was seeing another level — something that had been hinted at but that never came fully into focus until I studied the glossy images and intriguing advertisements.
Once when I was younger I’d been with my father and my uncle on a trip to Benicia. There we strolled down the streets while they pointed out where they’d grown up or hung out as teenagers. I felt like I was a part of a club — older and one of the guys.
“That’s where your grandparents owned one of their restaurants,” my uncle said, pointing out an abandoned building along Main Street.
“She made the best chicken-fried steak on the planet,” he said.
My dad nodded in enthusiastic agreement, adding, “She also made the best biscuits and gravy.”
Both of them laughed and talked as we walked. They pointed out the old store where they’d bought toys when they were kids, the cafe where my mother did her homework, the high school field where my dad had played as a football quarterback. I had never known he’d been on a football team, let alone that he was the quarterback. It was always a wonderful surprise to find out something about my parents that I hadn’t known before. It was like a plot twist in the pages of a good book or being shocked by the ending of a movie.
“You were a quarterback?” I asked as I sipped my drink.
We’d stopped for Coke floats at a tiny cafe.
“Your dad was not just ‘a’ quarterback — he was ‘the’ quarterback of the decade,” my uncle said, and then he slurped the foam loudly from the top of his drink.
My dad smiled.
“Maybe not ‘the’ quarterback but, yeah, I played football and got to throw the ball around,” he said.
I tried to imagine him leading his team, the crowd cheering while he threw the winning pass.
“Don’t you play football, too, Timmy?” my uncle asked.
“Yes, but I’m not that good and mostly I just sit on the bench,” I said.
“That’s not true — Tim’s a very good receiver,” Dad said, reaching over and squeezing my shoulder. “He just needs to put on a little more weight and he’ll be right up there with the rest of them.”
We sat and they talked, my uncle occasionally bursting out with laughter as he pounded his hand on the metal table where we sat. The tinny thud of his hand echoed loudly, and the other patrons glanced over quickly and then went back to their own business.
The breeze from the nearby bay was cool, bringing with it the smell of bay mud and hedge flower. Families and young people passed by, all seeming to enjoy what was likely one of the last warm days of summer.
We heard them before we saw them. Coming down the street were four young women, probably in their early 20s, each wearing short jean cutoffs and earth-colored tube tops. They talked and laughed loudly, holding hands, seemingly oblivious to the world around them.
“Hey, what do we have coming toward us,” my uncle said as he elbowed my father.
He looked at the women and then at me.
“Do you like what you see?” he said to me.
I nodded quickly and looked down into my glass.
“Hey, ladies, nice legs,” my uncle shouted at them.
One of the young women giggled and glanced playfully at our table, blowing a kiss in our direction. Two others lowered their heads and gathered their friends tightly around them. The fourth, a woman with striking green eyes and short-cropped black hair, turned and glared at us before silently mouthing words that I couldn’t quite make out.
After they’d passed I turned to my uncle.
“Why did you say that?” I asked.
“Oh, they like it,” he said.
I nodded and then looked back down. Brown Coke bubbles had formed as the vanilla ice cream melted.
One day years later when I arrived home from school my mother held out a package that had been delivered earlier that day. It was partially opened. What happened next is another story.
Originally published in the St. Helena Star, December 2018