Midnight at the Oasis

Fiction
Melodie Starkey


It’s not that Dad tries to be a loser. He just doesn’t even seem to realize it. Like last summer: we went to Boston for our annual road trip. I wanted to see the aquarium and drive to Springfield to see the Basketball Hall of Fame. He took me to tour Emily Dickinson’s house. Maybe there are lots of fourteen-year-old boys who would consider this the high life. It gets worse: at Emily Dickinson’s house, the old lady tour guide showed us the original manuscripts of some stuff, and asked if anyone wanted to read a poem. Now I’m about 100% sure she meant, “Do you want to look at these and read them silently to yourself?” But not my dad. He picked one up and proceeded to give a dramatic public reading of it, complete with the hand turning gestures my sisters make so much fun of. The other people in the room just stared at him, including the guide lady.

I died.

I love him. Really. But since I usually only see him for those two weeks each year, he doesn’t have any sense that I’m actually a person, not the six-year-old he left standing in the driveway in his soccer uniform for the last game of the season because he “forgot” he was supposed to take me to the game instead of making plans to abandon us.

Anyway, this year I told him I didn’t want to go anywhere with him in the summer. I want to get on the basketball team this fall, so Mom signed me up for Summer Basketball Camp. That’s way more important to me than exploring a random distant town and scouring the AAA guide looking for places that don’t charge admission. He was pretty cool about it; he said he’d just come here for a week and visit his old buddies, and I could hang out in the hotel with him, then he’d drive me to the gym each morning. I’m okay with that. We did that when I was little, and it was fun, jumping on the beds and watching the Cartoon Network (Mom is a “no cable TV” person) and eating so many hotdogs at Portillo’s we both got sick. One time the tornado sirens went off, and instead of following the emergency instructions posted in the hall, he went out on the balcony to see if the funnel was visible. I had nightmares about tornadoes for a long time after that.

He picks me up on Sunday evening. The first thing I notice is that I’m suddenly as tall as he is. How is this possible? He has always been the tallest person in the world to me, except maybe Yao Ming or something. But it turns out he’s just 6’5″ like I am. The next thing I notice is he’s starting to look old. His hair is receding and thinning and turning grey at his temples. He has permanent lines around his eyes and drooping shoulders. I feel self-conscious about being careful not to slouch whenever I look at him. I’ve never noticed this trait before, but both of my big sisters, who have beautiful posture, have always scolded me, “You don’t want to look like Daddy, do you?”

I quickly get my stuff into his rental car to minimize the time he has to stand on the porch while Mom glares at him and tells him, “You do not drive with my son in the car when you’ve been drinking.” He doesn’t answer, because he does exactly that all of the time. Once we get on the road, he tries to tell me how great my stepsisters are, as though I would care in the least. Doesn’t ask me about my real sisters, even though they’re his real daughters. He knows how they are: angry. We load up on Portillo’s at the drive-thru, and retire to the hotel room.

He doesn’t ask me how I’m doing, or how was my first year of high school, or what I think my chances are of getting on the basketball team this year. Last year I got strep throat during tryouts and nearly passed out in the gym. I don’t ask him how things are going out in wonderful Santa Barbara, either. When he complains about the humidity, I want to say, “We live in Chicago because this is where you dumped us, remember?” I just nod agreement.

I’ve brought my PlayStation along, and my Guitar Hero, so we don’t have to worry about talking anyway. It’s the perfect toy for him, because he has off-and-on tried to start up rock bands. He tells me about a band he had in college when he met Mom. He never talks directly about her, won’t talk to me about their divorce. About how I got a half-sister eight months after he left. He says I’ll understand when I’m older. I think that one is pretty easy to figure out on my own.

After a couple of hours of watching him play Guitar Hero, I tell him I’m pretty tired and remind him I have to be at practice by 8:00. He says, “Okay, Sport.” He turns the game off, then takes the phone out on the balcony and is talking to his new wife when I fall asleep.

When he picks me up Monday, we take the train into Chicago and visit the Shedd Aquarium. Because exercise is good, we walk from Union Station to the aquarium in the heat. He manages to convince the woman he qualifies for an educator’s discount since he teaches composition at a junior college in California. I pretend that I’m fascinated with the dolphins and belugas so we can sit in the cool room while my legs try to recover from running suicide drills all morning and following that with this hike, which is about three miles. When it’s time to leave, I tell him I can’t walk back. He tells me I’m being a baby. I hail a cab. I’d like to just leave him there, but I don’t say anything when he gets in. At the station I pay the driver and give him a large tip, as Mom has always taught us to do.

Back in Aurora, he pulls up to Portillo’s without asking me. I suggest, “What about Taco Bell?” He starts to scowl, but I point out, “It’s just the other end of the parking lot, and it’s way cheaper.”

“Sure, Sport. Whatever you want.”

That night we play Grand Theft Auto, which I’ve brought two controllers for, so we can play together. He drinks a six pack of Sam Adams, and ends up falling asleep in his chair. I watch TV for awhile, then take the phone out on the balcony to tell Mom I’m doing fine. She says she misses me because the kitchen is staying clean. Then she says she loves me, and calls me Shorty, which always makes me smile. I really want to go home.

Tuesday morning I have a hard time getting him up. “C’mon, Dad! I can’t be late!”

He sends me down to get the “free” breakfast. It’s coffee and cookies. Nothing else. I bring him some, then say, “Can we drive by McDonald’s or something?”

“Why? Can’t you eat breakfast here?”

I glare at him. He acts like he doesn’t notice. Fortunately, there’s a McDonald’s across the street from the school. I run over there when he drops me off and get orange juice and a McMuffin.

After practice, I stand in the vestibule and watch for his car. We are having a full-blown Midwest summer storm—thunder, wind, gallons of rain, occasional bursts of hail. Eventually everyone is gone except me. I duck my head and trudge home in the downpour. I don’t know if I should be worried or angry. This is too much like before. Should I call Mom at work? I decide not to, and fill the bathtub for a good soak, which is a coping trick the talk doctor Mom took me to after the divorce helped me come up with (seemed better than falling face first on the floor crying). Then I lie down for a nap.

The doorbell ringing over and over wakes me up. It is 3:30. I glance out my window—his rental car is in the driveway. I take my time going down the stairs to open the door, looking at him without speaking.

“Hey Sport! I’m glad you got home okay. Sorry I’m late. I was downtown with some of the guys, you know, and the traffic is pure hell in this weather. You eat lunch yet?”

“It’s after 3:00.”

“Yeah. I’m really sorry. C’mon. We can get pizza, okay? Richard says they’ve opened a Giordano’s out this way. You know where it is?”

He looks so pathetic, standing there with the rain flattening his hair to his forehead and drenching his Eddie Bauer slacks. “I gotta get a jacket.” I shut the door, leaving him out there, and go up to my room. I sit on the bed for awhile. He could be telling the truth. I know what the traffic out of Chicago is like on a good day. But he knew my practice was four hours long—what was he going into Chicago for in the first place? At least he could have told me. I wouldn’t have minded so much walking home to wait for him if I’d just known. I sigh and get my White Sox windbreaker out of the closet, then head back downstairs. He’s sitting in the car waiting. As I get in, I see an empty beer bottle on the floor in the back seat.

“Quite some weather!” he says jovially.

“Yeah.”

“So, you know where this place is?”

“There’s one in Oswego. That’s real close. Go out Ogden. By the Target store.”

I don’t say much during dinner, but he doesn’t seem to notice, chatting about California baseball players that I don’t care the least about, and a couple of times saying things like, “Do you think your Cubbies will turn the trick this year?” even though I am sitting across from him in a White Sox coat. He drinks a couple of beers with his pizza, and flirts with the waitress until suddenly we have a waiter instead.

Cueing from the decor of the restaurant, he decides to fill me in on the history of the Chicago fire and the World’s Fair. I finally offer, “Did you know that Grant Park is built on top of all the rubble from the fire that they pushed into the lake?”

He frowns. “Where’d you hear that?”

“At school. It’s a park because it can’t support anything real heavy like a building—it’ll sink.”

“Fascinating.” He’s quiet while he mulls it over. I know where this is going; he is going to write a poem about it. When he’s not teaching composition, he’s a poet. Once he wrote a poem about seeing his own reflection in the handle of the bathroom door while sitting on the toilet. Mom tells my sisters to avoid those poetic types like the plague. My sisters tell her they are smarter than she was.

When we get back in the car, I say, “Dad, how ’bout you just drop me home tonight. You can pick me up after practice tomorrow, okay?”

“Your mother put you up to this?” he snarls.

“No. I just thought…”

“I paid a fortune to come out here to see you. You’re stayin’ with me. Understood?”

“Sure. That’s okay.”

“Damn right.” He screeches out of the parking lot.

I clutch the grip on the door so tight my knuckles feel like popping, but don’t dare speak as he weaves in and out of traffic in the rain. I need a cop. Please send a cop. They’re all over the place when nobody needs them; where are they now?

We reach the hotel. He doesn’t speak as he leads me to the room and opens the door. He lies across his bed and covers his face with his arm, so I get out the GamePro magazine I brought along and start reading it. After a while he goes into the bathroom for a long time. I don’t hear the water running. Must be studying himself in the doorknob. Then he comes out and leaves. I really don’t want to be here. I look at the clock—6:20. If he’s not back by 7:00, I’m calling Mom.

He’s only gone about fifteen minutes, and comes back in with a two-liter bottle of Dr. Pepper, a package of Chips Ahoy, and a king size bag of Doritos. “I realized we forgot dessert!” he bubbles.

“Excellent!” I reply, reaching for the Dr. Pepper.

*

“Wake up! Hey!”

I crack my eyes open, then groan. The room is mostly dark, the only light coming from the open bathroom door. “Time’s it?”

“Let’s take a road trip. Remember how we used to go on road trips? Remember how fun that was?”

“Dad, I gotta go to camp in the morning. Go to sleep!”

“Stop actin’ like such a wimp. Get up. It stopped raining.”

“I don’t want to…”

“Let’s hit the road!”

I feel real close to crying as I slip my jeans on and step into my Adidas. One thing for sure: if I survive this visit, never again. I don’t even have to stand my ground there, because Mom will be all over him like hounds on a rabbit.

In the car I stay silent and alert, watching his driving in case I need to grab the wheel all of a sudden. He heads first toward Chicago, but after the toll plaza turns north on the Tri-State and starts toward Milwaukee instead. Toward the airport. Maybe he’ll take the rental car back and leave and just abandon me at the airport. I’d be okay with that. There is practically no traffic except occasional semis spraying up water from the soaked pavement like lawn sprinklers.

Then I see the sign and have a brilliant idea. “Dad, can we stop at the oasis? I gotta take a leak. Too much Dr. Pepper, you know?”

“Hm. Okay. I should probably get gas.”

Yes! After what seems like forever, we see the oasis ahead, spanning the desolate Interstate with its bright promises of comfort and junk food inside. Dad starts humming, then laughs.

“What?” I ask.

In a high voice he starts singing, “Midnight at the Oasis / Send your camel to bed / Shadows paintin’ our faces / Traces of romance in our heads…”

I grin in spite of myself, and breathe a huge sigh of relief as he pulls up to the gas pumps, telling me to get him a coffee while I’m inside. Yeah, I’ll get right on that. As soon as I’m in the door, I run up to the payphones.

She picks it up on the second ring, although it is nearly 3:00 a.m.

“Hello?”

“Mom?”

“What’s wrong? Where are you? This is a Chicago number.”

“I’m at the Oasis. The O’Hare Oasis. Can you come get me?”

“Of course. Where…?”

“I got out of the car. I want to go home.” I sob suddenly.

“Oh, Baby. I’ll be there as soon as I can. Are you in a safe place?”

“Yeah. I’m at the end by the McDonald’s.”

“Okay. I’ll be right there. Don’t leave.”

“Okay.” After hanging up, I go in the bathroom and just sit in a stall for a long time. The walls are steel, but not shiny, so you can’t see yourself reflected in them. Probably for the better. The air has an artificial sweet smell to it. I want to be home. I want to be in my bed with the sound of the fan blowing and my cat occasionally strolling over my head, trying to get my attention.

“Hey, Sport, you okay?” His call echoes in the long room.

“My stomach hurts.”

“Want me to get you a Sprite or something?”

“No.”

“Okay. I’m going to get a coffee. Be right outside.”

“‘Kay.”

I sit awhile longer, until I think I can stay calm. Then I wash my face and dry it on my T-shirt. Out in the Oasis, Dad is sitting in one of the massage chairs, sipping a large coffee. The chair is buzzing its magic. He smiles and says, “You ever tried one of these?”

I shake my head, then sit in the chair next to him.

“Want some change? Give it a try?”

“Better not. Might make me puke.”

“Good call.”

We don’t speak as he finishes his massage. The Oasis is bright but library quiet, the employees behind the various food counters not speaking as they tend to their cleaning tasks. When the chair goes silent, he says, “Ready to hit the road?”

“I’m not going.”

He smiles a little. “Not going? Decided to take up residence here, huh?”

“I need to go home.”

“Hey, Sport. We’ll go back. Just out for a little adventure, you know? Where’s your sense of adventure? You’re a teenager!”

And you are not. I just don’t answer.

“Just for the day. We’ll poke around up in Wisconsin for the day. We’ll be back in plenty of time for you to go to camp tomorrow. Remember when I took you guys to the Dells? That was fun! Riding the Ducks…”

“I was four years old.”

“All the more reason to go again!”

I don’t answer.

He stands up. “C’mon, Stick in the Mud. Let’s go.”

“No. I’m staying here.”

He sits down again. I clench my fists under my thighs to make them stop shaking. It’s not like I’m a little kid he can physically drag out of here. Not only am I as tall as him, but I’ve noticed that I’m actually far more muscular than he is. I guess that’s the difference between playing basketball and writing poems. Would I hit him if I had to?

Yes.

If I think about it too long, I just might hit him anyway.

After shifting his jaw a few times, he says, “What are you going to do if I leave?”

“Same thing I’m going to do if you stay. I’m waiting for Mom. She’s coming to get me.”

He bounces back up, his face squinting with anger. “What?”

“I called her to come get me. I need a parent who thinks about keeping me safe.”

“Fine!” He turns and throws his coffee toward the garbage can, missing and spraying the wall, then storms out. I watch to see if he’ll really leave. He doesn’t even hesitate—whips the car back, and peals out, fishtailing on the wet road.

I close my eyes and lean back in the soft chair. I have no sense of time passing, but suddenly fingers are smoothing my tangled hair, and I hear, “Shorty? You okay?”

“Mom.”

She sits down next to me. “What happened?”

With a shudder, I start to explain, “He doesn’t mean to be a loser. He doesn’t even seem to realize it…”
pencil

Melodie Starkey’s young adult novel, View from the Closet Doorway, won the 2008 SouthWest Writers Conference award in its genre. Another novel, Sunflowers, was a quarterfinalist for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award in 2009. Her short fiction has appeared in several literary magazines, including South Carolina Review, The Pikestaff Forum, Skylark, Porcupine Literary Review, The Charleston Post & Courier, New Works Review, and an anthology of Southern writers titled Inheritance. She was a recipient of the 1993 South Carolina Fiction Writer’s Project award, and received a 1999 writing grant from the Illinois Arts Council for a novel in progress. Currently she is a technical trainer at a Chicago-based law firm. She has three fledgling children and too many cats. E-mail: melodie.starkey[at]kirkland.com