Easy Street

by Steve Trumpeter

At parties, if I've had a few and the small talk turns to where we grew up and what our parents did, I'll sometimes dial up the southern accent and tell people, "The last thing my daddy ever gave me was a paper bag filled with his own shit." The line always gets a shocked laugh, but it's true, and my wife will have to put her hand on top of mine and deftly change the subject before I can sour the mood.

I was eleven the night I woke up to find my father, who I hadn't seen in three weeks, rummaging through my dresser. He was tall and thin, and though I couldn't make out his features in the dark, the curved bill of his Earnhardt cap and the matching mustache shaped his silhouette. He tossed a pair of shorts at me and whispered, "Get dressed, Bubba. Let's me and you have a little fun tonight."

And so it was that I found myself yawning in the front seat of my father's Camaro, the digital clock reading 1:15. "Where are we going?" I whined.

"Heading up to Easy Street," he said. "We're going to engage in a little class warfare."

To my father, Easy Street was anywhere nicer than where we lived, which wasn't a high hurdle to clear. But even at eleven, I could recognize how the further we drove, the nicer the houses became, with gas lamplights above their mailboxes and azalea bushes marking the boundaries of the yards instead of the chain-link fences that divvied up the lots in our neighborhood.

I can easily recall my father's manic energy as we barreled down deserted streets in the misty moonlight. He drummed along to the radio, and his intensity made me nervous. Empty fast food bags and dirty clothes littered the back seats. Even with the T-Tops open and the wind knotting my hair, I could smell the stale funk of my father permeating the car—a potpourri of Skoal Bandits, Old Spice and summer sweat—and I was pretty sure he'd been sleeping here. I asked him where he'd gone these past three weeks.

"Can you handle the truth?" he asked, turning down the radio as if he were going to whisper a secret.

I nodded, because I was pretty sure I already knew the truth.

"Government mission," he said. "Real hush-hush."

"Bullshit," I said. My father had taught me all the swear words and how to use them. Only the "F" word was forbidden, because that one was for real, and it's a word I don't use to this day. But bullshit was the first one he'd taught me, and it's what I was supposed to say whenever some peckerhead wasn't being straight with me.

"Did you lose your job?" I asked.

"I quit," he said.

"And that's why mom kicked you out?"

"Well, son," he said with a wink, "you don't paint no painting with just one color. I'll fill you in when you're older." But that was bullshit, too.

We turned into a neighborhood advertised as "Maple Hill," though the trees were all dogwoods and poplars, and the closest thing to a hill was the speed bump at the entrance. Dad turned onto a cul-de-sac and shut off the headlights, creeping past the driveways until he found the one he was looking for.

"Here's the thing about these rich-ass peckerheads," he said. "They've got it too easy. They take everything they can get their hands on, and they don't care who they're taking from. No one ever calls them out on their bullshit, so it's up to us."

His plan was stupid, even to an eleven-year old. I was to sneak up to the front porch, ring the doorbell, then run like hell back to the car to hide. I wasn't clear on the lesson we'd be delivering. It seemed like we'd just be a middle-of-the-night nuisance to someone who could put a stop to the prank by leaving the porch lights on, but I didn't want my daddy to call me a sissy, so with trembling knees and mousetrap nerves I crept across the lawn, convinced that each step would spring the trap. Floodlights would fill the yard, snarling dogs would race around the side of the house, and if they didn't tear me limb from limb, I'd spend the rest of my childhood in juvie. I rang the doorbell, and the deep chime echoing behind the doorway mesmerized me, disturbing that still night like a distant siren. It wasn't until I saw a light go on inside that I snapped out of it and turned to run.

I made it as far as the tree in the front yard before I heard the door open. The man on the porch called "Who's there?" and "Hello?" He didn't sound particularly annoyed, but instead, his voice was soft and pleading, full of concern, as if he thought someone caught out in this gloomy night might be in need of help, and I was struck with a pang of regret.

I peeked around the tree and immediately wished I hadn't, because I knew this man. He worked at the company where my mother answered the phones, and it was then that I noticed the mailbox bore the same "Fletcher" that was emblazoned on the sign outside her office. I had met him when his company rented out the left field bleachers at a Lookouts game. He bought me a baseball cap and kept telling my mom he'd "taken a shine to me," and he spent the afternoon putting on a big show about announcing to everyone that drinks were on him whenever the beer man came by our section. My mother made a stink about me thanking him for providing such an enjoyable afternoon, even though I had been bored out of my skull. She had been taking on some night shifts these past few weeks, and I'd often be asleep by the time she got home, but she said the overtime helped since no one else was putting food on the table.

When Mr. Fletcher finally went back inside, I padded back to the car, my cheeks burning. My father offered me a high five, but I left him hanging until I saw the porch lights go out, and only then gave his palm a sullen, soft slap, because I no longer trusted him. He shook his head and spat, then patted my shoulder like I'd just lost a ball game. "Wait here," he said, and disappeared behind a row of bushes across the street while I waited by the car wishing we could go home.

When I dwell on that night, my impressions are shaped by thirty years of hindsight. I think of those memories like the ink blots psychiatrists seem so fond of, open to shifting interpretations and swayed by my mood. The events are unchanged, the images crystal clear, but the feelings they evoke have evolved. Whatever degree of naiveté I might assign that boy at the time, I'm sure that I thought I knew right from wrong. And while I certainly had no foundation to comprehend the ebb and flow of a marriage and the pull of the tides that had driven my parents apart, I knew there was plenty of wrong to go around: my mother's late nights, my father's shiftlessness, Mr. Fletcher's avarice, and even me because of the secrets I harbored that I hadn't yet puzzled out. My father had brought me to that place as a test, and a half-assed high five was all he needed to know I'd failed.

He was gone for a few minutes, and when he returned, he was holding a McDonald's bag between two fingers, the top folded over. He set it down between us and dropped a box of matches in my hand. "Time to take it up a notch," he said, just as the smell hit me. "I call this phase number two."

"Do we have to do this?" I asked.

"You want to let these Easy Street assholes think they can kick a guy when he's down, take the only thing he has left? You're learning a life lesson tonight, son."

"I want to go home," I said. "I'm tired."

"You're going to finish this," he said. "Just take this bag to the porch, light it up, and ding-dong-ditch. Then we'll be done."

So again I crept to the front door, holding the paper bag as far from my body as I could. I put it right on the welcome mat and got the match lit on the first try, but it didn't matter, because the door flew open before I could set the bag ablaze. I winced under the sudden flood of light that soaked the porch, and when my eyes finally focused, it took me a moment to piece together how my mother could be standing behind Mr. Fletcher in a bathrobe, her eyes welling up. The match burned itself out just as I heard the rev of my father's Camaro fire up, then fade into the distance, and that would be the last I saw of him until yesterday, when he showed up at my front door to tell me he was dying.

Any time I hear the phrase Easy Street, I conjure up in my head a good-sized house with a garage at the end of a cul-de-sac somewhere. There'll be a tidy lawn with the occasional tuft of overgrown grass poking out around the tree trunks where the lawnmower blade can't reach. A two-car garage cluttered such that the minivan fits, but the sporty four-door has to park in the driveway. A manageable mortgage, precocious children, a healthy 401k.

I had acquired all of these things by the time my father reappeared yesterday, and though he said he was impressed, it's easy for me to see them through his sunken eyes, as if my success has come easy at the expense of guys like him. He's riding out an aggressive bout of cancer, trying to settle his debts as he faces up to the unflattering bullet points of his legacy. I've agreed to let him stay with us for a few days while he can still get around okay, so the kids have a chance to meet their grandfather before he crawls back to wherever he's been living to die alone.

One night while he's here I'm going to wake him up in the wee hours and we'll go for a ride. My sports car is German, and it's got a sunroof rather than T-Tops, but he'll appreciate the way it pins him back in the seat when I step on the pedal. I'll probably tell him off for the decades of shame he saddled me with on that night—thirty years ago now—and I may stoop to deploying the metaphor that never fails to delight my therapist: how I spent years feeling like the flaming bag of shit that he left on the doorstep to be stomped on by the man his wife turned to when she needed a change. But I'll also tell him that I know what he meant when he said there were lots of colors in a painting.

We won't drive out past the McMansions of my suburb, but instead, I'm going take him out to the farm fields where the county roads run gunshot-straight. I'm going to point the car due west and show him the empty roads I like to drive late at night when I'm pondering my own escape. The real Easy Street, never-ending, where the horizon focuses to a single gleaming point way off in the distance, just over the gentle hills, a new life beckoning.

BIO: Steve Trumpeter teaches fiction writing at StoryStudio Chicago and co-hosts Fictlicious, a quarterly flash-fiction live lit series. His work has appeared in Sycamore Review, The Chicago Reader, Jabberwock Review, Gulf Stream and others. Check out more of his work at www.stevetrumpeter.com.