Sunday Stories: "A Father's Obligation" by Thomas Kreutzer
Several months ago, when he assumed the editorial responsibility for the The Truth About Cars, Jack Baruth made a the readers several promises. Among those promises was a commitment that this web site’s home page would be “100% work safe.” Anyone, he said, should be able to visit this website any time and not have their career put in danger. NSFW material could still be published, he promised, but it would always come with a warning and be kept behind a link.
This week, I found out first-hand that he meant what he said. Ladies and gentlemen, the following story begins with certain language that, if taken out of context by someone in your place of employment, might get some of you into trouble. Click the following Sunday Story link at your own peril.
I look forward to reading your thoughts on this work in the comment section. – TMK
The girl snapped her eyes shut and reflexively turned her face away from the stream of cock sauce an instant before it struck. Time dilated and James watched in slow motion as gooey mixture impacted the gentle curve of her cheek and then sprayed in every direction. The blast painted the side of her face, spattered up into her hair and dribbled down onto the front of her obviously expensive dress. The girl’s mother shrieked, her sister giggled and her father, an enormous stern-looking man, silently studied the boy who had just sullied his daughter. The man‘s expression showed nothing but James knew he was being judged. His entire unhappy life flashed before his eyes, replayed in its entirety from his ignoble beginning and culminating in the night’s events. From there, the future stretched without cheer or hope towards an oppressive black horizon.
They weren’t the kind of people who usually ate at the Pho-King. The Vietnamese noodle shop was one of those places that attracted business with a large neon sign that read “You’ll love our Pho-King soup!” and its usual customers were broke college kids and working class families on tight budgets. This family seemed above such silliness but, for whatever reason, on this night they had chosen the fluorescent lights and plastic place mats of the Pho-King over the many better restaurants in town. The other customers could only watch and wonder why.
The matriarch was a stunning Asian beauty who spoke in the gentle tones of exotically accented English. Impossibly petite, with flawless make up, impeccable clothes and expensive jewelry, she had the look of a trophy wife. The father was a broad shouldered Caucasian with salt-and-pepper hair who, despite his age, was impressively fit with massive biceps – “guns” the Frat guys would call them thought James. The man’s clothes were nowhere near as expensive as his wife’s but his attention to the fine details of his appearance, the Rolex watch on his wrist and the high powered European sedan that had quickly attracted James’ attention when it first rolled into the parking lot told the world he was a man of real means.
The couple’s two daughters were as different from one another as the two parents. The older girl, the one James had just hosed down with hot pepper sauce, favored her mother and was a small Asian American beauty with soft brown eyes, clear olive skin and long auburn hair that fell in long, naturally curly ringlets down to the middle of her back. The other girl, around sixteen years old and just as pretty as her mom and sister, favored her father. She was already a head taller than the other two women and had the hard, muscular look of an athlete. Telephone in hand, she giggled happily at her sister’s misfortune as she filmed the scene. “This is Pho-king hilarious!” she snorted.
Time reasserted itself and James, in a panic, seized a napkin and swiped at the girl’s face, carefully trying to sweep the mixture of red peppers and vinegar away from her eyes. Thank God she had quick reflexes he thought as he cursed his own carelessness. She could have really been hurt, he realized. Why on Earth had he decided the bottle needed to be shaken up before he added the pepper sauce to her plate? He had been trying to impress her, he knew, and a wave of shame swept over him.
He knew her, of course, her name was Sachi. They went to the same college and they often found themselves together in the classes. They had been paired countless times for group projects and made a good team. James was smart, maybe a little too nerdy according to some girls, but he was a popular choice for joint assignments as he usually did the lion’s share of the work. But Sachi wasn’t a free rider, he knew. Perhaps she wasn’t as cerebral as James liked to think he was, but she did her fair share and, he had to acknowledge, her contributions always made their projects better.
They had, over time, gained a mutual respect for one another’s abilities and an odd “Beauty and the Beast” sort of friendship had taken root. Not long after that, James found that his heart began beat faster whenever she was near. He wanted to be with her, but there were always papers to write, tests to study for and, of course, his own difficult work schedule in the way. He just didn’t have the time, at least that’s what he told himself, but the truth was that he had learned early in life that pretty girls like Sachi didn’t date nerds like him. To ask her out was to court rejection and so, he had taken a different course.
He had done his best to seem casual as he passed her the 50% off coupon and invited her to come and visit him at work. He never really thought she would actually follow through and when the girl arrived that very night with her whole family in tow, James had nearly lost his mind. That she had come at all meant something important, he knew, but exactly what he could not fathom. The uncertainty made him nervous and the added stress of facing her mother, father and sister had driven him towards panic. He had felt sick to his stomach when they had come in, but he did his best to rise to the occasion. Things had been going well until…
The father spoke sharply and his tone had the hint of a real threat to it. “Yuri, put that damn camera away. If this ends up on the internet you’ll be off-line and at home for a month.”
The girl filmed for a moment more, gave a heavy sigh and rolled her eyes before putting the phone away. The mother, meanwhile, dug through her purse and pulled out a small bag of wet wipes. Gently pushing the boy’s hands away from her daughter, she cleaned the girl’s face and then tried to blot away at the stain on the dress before it could set. The daughter objected and there was a brief exchange in a foreign language. A moment later, they both stood and headed towards the rest room, the mother still fussing over the girl like a hen over a baby chick.
James stammered an apology but no one seemed be listening. He turned his attention to the mess on the table and had almost finished cleaning when the manager arrived. “Looks like you’ll be paying for this family’s dinner tonight.” He said ominously. James nodded without looking up, it was better that way. A day’s lost wages would be a burden, he knew, but it was fair. He’d probably get asked to pay for Sachi’s dry cleaning, too. Damn, would there ever be a time when money wasn’t an issue?
After cleaning up the mess, James took a 15 minute break and exited the kitchen via the back door. He needed to decompress and the parking lot was the only real option. He liked cars and for some reason being around them always made him feel calmer. Behind the wheel of his Mustang the world made sense. He wasn’t the world’s greatest driver, he knew, but when he was in the driver‘s seat, he could go anywhere his heart desired. He looked at his car and wished he could slip into it now and slink away but he had a meal to pay for and he needed the hours. Escape was impossible but, at the very least, Sachi and her family would be gone when he got back. Of course, he would still have to face her at school on Monday. He shivered at the thought.
The curvaceous shape of the expensive sedan on the far side of the parking lot caught the boy’s eye and, awestruck, James wandered towards it without thinking. Sleek and powerful, the car hunkered in its space like a predator waiting to pounce. It was beautiful, thought James, more art than machine. He stopped at a respectful distance as he admired the car’s lines in the in the unnatural brightness of the streetlights. He would never own anything like it, he realized suddenly. Even after he had graduated, a teacher’s salary would never pay for something like this. He hadn’t guessed that Sachi’s parents had this kind of wealth and, feeling suddenly foolish, he hung his head.
For a big man, Sachi’s father was surprisingly stealthy and James was startled by the man’s sudden presence at his side. The two men stood together silently, both eyeing the grand car while they each searched for the words that would bridge the gap between them. As the silence stretched out, James reached down deep and found the courage to speak. “Nice car.” he squeaked.
The man smiled and looked at the youth. “Thanks.” he answered. “When I was young, I couldn’t have imagined that one day I might own something like that.” He gestured towards the car with his chin. “Sometimes, life takes you places you never thought you could go. You just have to keep getting back up every time you fall down.”
James had been expecting a rebuke and was surprised at the man’s gentle tone. He searched for something else to say but Sachi’s father continued, “Your boss wouldn’t let us pay our bill.” he said seriously. “Is he really going to make you pay for our dinner out of your own pocket?”
James nodded. “Yes.” he answered. “But it’s OK. I ruined your dinner, and Sachi’s dress and, well,” his voice broke, “everything.”
“The entire bill came to about $50.” said the man. “There were times in my life when that much money was a day or two of hard work. That’s a high price to pay for what was obviously an accident.” The big man fished out his wallet, withdrew a $100 bill and offered it to the boy.
James gaped at the money, too afraid to take it. The older man responded to the boy’s silence by stuffing it into the pocket of the younger man’s apron. “My daughter says good things about you.” he continued. “That you’re smart, funny and that you want to be a high school teacher when you graduate from college.”
James was dumbfounded. Sachi talked about him? To her parents? It was too much to believe.
“Looks to me like you’re earnest and hard working too.” the man added. “Those are qualities that I find a many young men lack these days.” Sachi’s father paused and, for the second time that night, James felt he was being judged.
The expression on Sachi’s father’s face softened ever so slightly. “You know,” he said at last, “lots of boys call our house asking to speak to our daughters but Sachi has good sense when it comes to people and most of them don’t get very far. Tonight, when she insisted that we spend our family Friday here, I knew it was important.” He shook his head. “Not my kind of food to be honest, but a father has an obligation to help their children get what they want in life.”
Before James had time to think about what the words might have meant the door to the restaurant opened and the three women came out in a group, Sachi’s mom still fussing over her eldest daughter while the younger girl tittered and laughed at her big sister’s distress. Sachi saw the two men standing together and broke from the others as her mother and sister went to the car. She approached the men furtively, sidling up to her father and taking him by the hand. “Daddy,” she asked in the sly little voice she used when she wanted something. “You’re not hassling James, are you?”
“Well,” replied her father with the hint of humor in his voice, “he did assault my daughter, did he not?”
“It was just a silly accident.” she argued playfully. She looked at James, her face radiant and the boy suddenly flushed deep red in response. Was it possible to see someone blush under the streetlights?
“We were just talking about cars.” replied the big man as he shot the boy a wink.
“You’re always talking about cars, daddy.” she teased. Her tone brightened suddenly, “Did I tell you that James promised me a ride in his Mustang?”
A ride? Had he really promised her a ride? The boy’s mind raced but he was finding it difficult to think. Something was happening but he wasn’t quite sure what.
The big man hugged his daughter with one arm and put his other hand on James’ shoulder. “That’s great.” he answered. “I’m looking forward to talking with him some more when he comes to pick you up. It’ll be nice to have someone around who appreciates fast cars for a change.”
The big man guided the two kids together, placed his daughter’s hand in the boy’s and muttered something about starting the car as he turned to go. But the words were lost to the night. Sachi’s touch was electric and for the second time that night James’ entire life flashed before his eyes. Only this time, when the vision had ended, cheer and hope and begun to bloom and, out on the distant horizon, the sun was rising.
Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast, he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.
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Thank you Thomas . -Nate
I learned a valuable lesson a long time ago. If you're planning to eat out at a restaurant that serves anything covered in thick sauce- make sure that whatever you wear is dark-colored and machine-washable. And advise your guests to do the same. Sirracha and white polyester, or chocolate and yellow silk, DON'T MIX. Ask me how I know :( . Fortunately neither mishap was my fault and I'm still friends with both ladies to this day .