Dad came home early, pissed off as usual, ranting about “garbage leads” and the Cadillac he was promised by Mitch and Murray. He stands in my doorway, spots a Hubba Bubba wrapper on the floor and grabs it.
“What’s this bullshit doing here, Ricky?” he asks, inspecting the wrapper like a tick he just pulled off his leg.
I shrug and stare at my Algebra textbook, figuring if I ignore him long enough, he’ll get bored and find something else to rage about.
“I said, what is this bullshit doing here?”
“It’s a wrapper from some gum, I guess.”
“You guess? You guess?” He rips off his blazer, slides fingers through pomaded hair. He’s not letting this go. “I’m talking to you.” He stomps through dirty laundry on the floor and trips over the wires of my Atari. “Goddamn jagoff toys–” Yanking my collar, he pulls me close and whispers. “Me and you, we’re taking a trip down to Puerto Rico Food and Liquors, baby,” he says, pulling me to my feet. “Hubba Bubba. Hubba Bubba, my ass.”
“I’m in the middle of homework,” I say. “There’s a big test tomorrow.” The test part is a lie, but I’m hoping it will be enough to postpone our bodega trip until the weekend.
“Homework? You can’t do homework if you don’t know what the shot is.”
The sun is setting as we walk down West Augusta, pavement cooling after a record-breaking June day. Dad tells me my choice of gum is a disgrace. “Men – real men – don’t chew pink gum,” he says, bobbing and weaving between exhausted pedestrians. “I bet you blow bubbles too.”
I blush, admitting that sometimes, yes, I do blow bubbles. “Not big ones…little ones.”
“You’re breaking my heart.” He looks up at the sky, shakes his fists. “Christ, my son blows little bubbles.”
Dad kicks open the door of Puerto Rico Food and Liquors, plowing toward the candy rack. He grabs a faded yellow pack of Juicy Fruit, the brand my friends call “old fart gum.” It’s like Dad can read my mind. “Juicy Fruit may not be sexy,” he says. “But it’s an American classic. It’s the gum you want in your pocket when you drop dead.”
I realize we’re all going to die one day, but I barely ever think about it. The only time I worry about life and death, heaven and hell, is after Dad brings it up during one of our outings. He loves to talk to me about mortality, and morality.
We sit on a bench beside the Humboldt Park courts and watch some high school kids play a pick-up game, always taking three steps before a layup. “Look at that nonsense,” Dad says. “How ‘bout they just hold it like a football and charge the net from half court?” He hands me a brittle stick of Juicy Fruit and throws the wrapper on the ground. The stick cracks in half before I put it in my mouth. “Chomp down hard,” he says. “Don’t chew it like a sissy, and after every third bite say, ‘Fuck you.’”
“Who am I saying ‘Fuck you’ to?” I ask.
“All the people trying to screw you over, muscle you, take your leads.”
“No one is trying to screw me over,” I say. “I don’t have any leads, I’m in eighth grade.”
He sighs and pulls my Cubs hat down over my eyes. “What am I gonna do with you, huh? You’re so much like your mother.”
I chew the chalky stick, swearing up a storm. The gum loses flavor in seconds, and I finally spit it into my hand. “It’s gray and looks like a slug.”
“Life is gray and looks like a slug, kid.” He slaps me on the shoulder. “No more pink stuff, no more bubbles. Got it?”
“Good. Let’s hoof it home, I gotta take a monster dump.”
Overhead floodlights brighten the court. The faces of players running up and down are no longer featureless. Big smiles accompany trash-talk and chest bumps after scoring. Chain nets jingle like sleigh bells while we chew more Juicy Fruit, saying “Fuck you” to all the people trying to take our leads.
Brendan Sheehan lives in New Jersey and enjoys writing in restaurants. His work is published or is forthcoming in Columbia Journal, Pithead Chapel, HAD and X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine.