We're at the general store near the base of the mountain ordering a new wheel for Da's chair. He's needed a new one for a while now. In fact, he's needed a whole new chair. The one he's got was a throwaway when we found it. I can only afford to replace it a piece at a time, though. Da says he don't mind, but I can see the grimace on his face every time he rides over a bump in the house.
He insisted on coming down to the store with me. Says he needed to get out of the house. Says he don't want to be a shut-in. I'm glad for the company, and it's good to see him out. His face ain't so ashen when he's outside. The air seems to do him good.
Once we got into the store he took off on his own. He don't need me pushing him. Get my da on a flat service and it's like he's in the drag races. You'd hardly notice the oxygen tank strapped to the back of his chair. Makes me smile to see him shooting this way then that, as giddy as a kid, chatting as best he can with other customers, many of them people we've known our whole lives. And they're all glad to see him too. Surprised he's still alive, but glad to see him. I let him be and order the wheel and some other things we need for the house - a new hinge for the front door, a new shower nozzle. I also get some groceries and then splurge on some black licorice for Da. That's his favorite candy.
I hear Da whooping it up with someone, not letting them get a single word in between his chatting and his coughing. I turn around and my heart is in my throat. It's none other than Nick, standing there all polite-like and hearing what Da has to say about anything and everything. The shock of seeing Nick nearly makes me drop my bag of groceries. I've gone all prickly cold and my knees are shaking like I'm naked out in a winter storm.
Oh Jesus! Don't look at me! Don't look at me, please.
But he is. He's staring right at me again with those gem stone eyes and he's smiling. It's a shy smile, kind of scared and unsure, but it's a smile, sure enough. And what am I doing? What the hell am I doing while he's smiling at me? I'm standing here like a dummy five feet away from my own da and too green and stumped to do anything else. I can't even smile. I bet I look ridiculous to him. I can't even remember if I combed my hair this morning. I want to drop the bag right now and run my hands through it to make sure it's lying flat.
"Ain't you gonna say hi to the man?"
Thank God for my da. It's like he reached out and shook me out of my stupor with a big ol' "Get a hold of yourself." I start walking towards them, all awkward and mechanical, and I even eek out a constipated grin. It's the best I can do. I think I'm gonna say something to Nick, to at last introduce myself. All I have to do is reach out my hand, right? But, goddammit, some nervous devil takes me over and instead of talking with Nick I'm telling my da how we better get back home. How Auntie Bev is expecting us. How we don't have time to dally.
I hate myself.
In the truck, on the ride home, Da is silent. We don't have time to dally? Why not? That's all I've been wanting to do these last few weeks. To dally. With Nick. I am furious with myself. I could have said something. I wanted to say something. So, why didn't I? My head is a big empty chasm walled of stone, and all I hear are mocking echoes. My heart is flesh and blood, though. I'm certain of that now more than ever.
"I like him," says Da as he chews on his licorice.
"Huh?" My grip tightens on the steering wheel.
"Your friend. Nick." Da's staring straight ahead. "I like him."
"We're not really friends, Da. I hardly know him."
"You should have him over for dinner some night." He's nodding like a decision has been made. "I like him. Do you like him?"
I get it now. "Yeah, Da. I like him a lot."
"Good. Everybody needs someone they can...like. We all deserve a friend. We'll have him over some night. Does that sound right to you?"
"Okay then. Thanks for the licorice."
And I can't help but grin. I don't think my da saw, though. He loves his licorice.