Katrina Johnston

Katrina Johnston is a recent Pushcart Prize nominee. Works of short fiction may be found online at several literary publications. Occasionally, Katrina breaks into print. She lives in Victoria, BC, Canada. Her favourite themes – well – everything.

 

Dunderhead

Mark Rawlins squinted under the fluorescent glare of the arrivals concourse. He paced his long steps north and south. Each time he pivot-turned he squealed the rubbery soles of his shoes. With only a few moments before the arrival of his father’s incoming flight, he thought about escape. Fleeing might solve all Mark’s problems, but desertion was a cowardly act and surely ill-advised. Mark wondered about another short-term solution – lying.

The airport terminal reeked of humanity and pine-based cleaning products. He craved a breath of freshness from the nighttime skies, just one last gasp. He would gaze into the placid universe to study the wraiths of his own exhalations and observe the wisps of sewer steam fading into blackness. He’d loiter beneath the peach halogens which rimmed the parking lots. He’d consider the moon, which was less-than full, and as the night progressed diminished from a dented honeydew to a mottled dime.

If Mark grew shivery cold outside because his jacket was thin, he might wrap his arms around his torso and huddle inside the snug interior of his 2009 Honda Civic. He’d fiddle with the radio until the static ebbed. But not tonight, he couldn’t.

His trusty Honda wasn’t there. Earlier, at four o’clock in the afternoon, he’d sold the car and mourned the loss.

Hannibal the Honda; his ride that once hypnotized along the centre lines of coastal highways and ventured beyond the cookie-cutter suburbs now escorted someone else’s journey. The car was likely parked street-side. Or it roosted in a dank garage.

Not enough time to traipse outside again, Mark sighed and resigned himself to waiting. Would his father be mad enough to spit?

The car buyer, a half-starved looking guy who claimed to be a fourth year engineering grad, had said he lived in some posh private residence beyond the student dorms. “Engineering. Yeah, that’s the greatest. The best of the best. We choose the finest, take all the popular classes,” the buyer said. “You first year?”

“Sort of,” Mark said, not wanting to shoot the breeze nor prolong the ritual of saying goodbye to the car.

Mark raked-in the total asking price in cold hard bills. The buyer didn’t haggle or debate. Mark stuffed the profits, tens and twenties mostly. And then Hannibal drove off.

The funds vaporized immediately, blown away to dust. Mark hoped his father kept enough cash on-hand to cover a taxi fare. He raised a pensive eyebrow to the arrival and departure screens and watched the updates scroll. AC 497 from Thunder Bay, Ontario remained unchanged. Arrival listed at 23:27.

Crazy hopes for force majeure evaporated. Nothing. Not even a measly terrorist attack. Of course his father wasn’t going to be delayed or cancelled or re-routed and he’d soon be asking questions. His Dad, God love him.

There he was!

“Dad!” Mark shouted and waved as a kid does – frantically. He watched the top of his father’s head bobbing amongst the first deplaning passengers. “Dad….” And then Mark shuffled forward, his mind rehearsing for the zillionth time.

“Dad, it’s so great to see you. How did Sudbury treat you? Wow, let me grab that bag for you. Have you got any other luggage to collect? Did you have a good time? Decent weather?”

“Mark! Pleasant surprise. I’m impressed that you came out here to meet the flight.” His father grinned a wide and toothy smile. “I’ve only got this sizable piece. Here. I travel smart. Having only the one carry-on allows me to bypass the waiting carousels.”

“Are you glad to be back? Have you got jet-lag? Was it a comfortable flight? Did you have a bumpy landing?”

Geoff Rawlins, age 62, handsome by anyone’s criteria, shrugged until his neck all but vanished inside his collar. His overcoat lay neatly draped over his bent right arm. Women hovered in close proximity. What else was new? Mark’s father was a catch, attracting the young and the old and the women in between.

Mark decided the flight must have been a tiresome journey because tonight his father looked gaunt and slightly forward-stooped.

“Son! So good to see you.”

They embraced with a one-armed effort, and then they slapped each other on the shoulder until by mutual agreement it was decided that the display was quite enough. Mark and his father headed toward the exit doors, the hefty suitcase writhing from Mark’s shoulder and banging his hip.

“So, how are you my boy?” his father said. “Tell me all about university. What’s new?”

“Mom is still at Auntie Juni’s in Tofino,” Mark said.

“I know all about poor Aunt Juni. Gruesome details. Another week, your mother said, maybe even longer.”

“I guess Auntie Juni’s operation went okay and with no complications,” Mark said.

“Yes, your mother composed a long and cryptic letter before I left, trying so hard to explain the physiology of her sister’s uh… plumbing.” Geoff slipped into his overcoat. “She thinks I’m too obtuse to understand.” Mark’s father snickered. “Maybe she’s right.” He buttoned the coat tightly around his neck as they exited the glassed-in doorways. “I care. Really I do, and I told your mother, but she sure does ramble on.” His father’s voice sounded weak and thready.

The dark cathedral of night engulfed them. “Women,” his father continued, “are always worrying.” He tossed a green peppermint into his mouth and offered the bag of candies to Mark. “You must be studying for your first set of exams.”

Mark inhaled the night. “No thanks Dad, he said. “Hey, do you want to grab a midnight snack before we leave the airport? Long and weary flight for you. I don’t recall if there’s much open this late. I checked once or twice. We could find a place.”

“Fairly decent meal on the plane. I’m holding on for now. Home; that’s where I want to be.”

“Uh, Dad….”

“Son?”

“We need to grab a taxi.”

“Your car on the fritz?”

“Look at all these stars.” Mark pointed to the sky. “Crystals and sequins. Orion. Or is that Cassiopeia? Right there. I always mix up my constellations.”

The taxi driver gestured like he was a grand chauffeur. Mark slid along the cool vinyl of the back seat and pulled the luggage after him. Geoff bent inside, slammed the door. They sat rigid, upright with the bag between. “So what now?” His father looked ghostly in the dark.

“First tell me about your trip to Sudbury, Dad. You get the contract? Nice hotel?”

“We stayed at an Econo Lodge. Rather, I stayed there, waited. The others carried on. I was not invited to go further. No perks, no frills.” Geoff rested his hands upon his knees. “Directly home driver, thanks.” And he leaned forward to advise the cabbie to take MacDonald Avenue. “More direct than Chambers,” Geoff said, clarifying the address again before he settled back.

Father and son stared out the windows at the bright new flakes of snow frosting the ebony pavement. “So what’s up? “Geoff said.

“Dad….”  Mark took a deep breath.“Dad….”

“What?”

“You know how you’re always saying that you want the best for me….” Mark started again. “See, like this…. And I’m grateful, Dad. Really, I am. You’ve always encouraged me to make my own choices and re-evaluate as needed. And I did. I mean I’ve made a difficult decision. I dropped out. The whole shooting match, Dad, uh, uh… I’ve found something better.”

It was so damn easy to articulate the words in solitary rehearsal, but now with his father sitting right beside him Mark stuttered, half expecting his Dad would reach over and clout him on the side of his head, although Geoff had never struck his son or anyone before, not even in the craziest of tempers.

But his shouting rants were legendary. His Dad could cuss the freckles off your nose. He’d get all bloated, florid-faced and he’d spew loud harangues to heaven, awakening the sleeping cats on the neighbors porches. He swore vehemently, using ugly disjointed phrases. Mark remembered the words from his childhood: “dumb, stupid, useless.” His Dad would agonize about it later and then he’d apologize, trying to make it better. But Mark held onto the belittling words like jagged shards of pain.

“What do you mean, you’ve dropped out?” Geoff said.

“I’ve dropped out of university.”

“What?”

“I’ve withdrawn from the engineering courses. Left the faculty.”

“Mark. You’re nothing but a dunderhead.”

And Mark looked over at his Dad in astonishment. His father wasn’t screaming fireworks. In fact, he sounded rather ordinary. Strange. His reference using the word ‘dunderhead?’ Now, where had he found that epithet?

Mark started in again. “I’ve got great plans Dad. See. Really neat. I’m registered at Haverbrook Arts. That’s the culinary institute. I’ll be a chef. They’ve got this terrific accredited course. Two years to a diploma. I’m sure this is the best for me. I paid the first year entrance fees, all of it earlier today. I’m qualified and I’m accepted.”

“Cooking school! Cooking! However did you come upon this stellar plan?”

“Dad, I’ve always been into food and cooking. Remember, for you and Mom? Remember when Mom needed to bake all those fancy breads and cakes for her cousin’s wedding? And, I’m always going to restaurants and searching for advice, begging for it, asking about new ways to use herbs and curries and spices. And, I’ve got all the basic tools already, that wicked set of Belcor knives, the crockery and the mixers – the works.”

“Cooking is not a reliable profession.”

“Sure it is Dad. It’s a fine vocation. I’ll be strolling easy street with the right training and credentials. I want to learn about presentation, serving and restaurant management – the whole package.”

“And what about the university tuition that we’ve already forked over? Wasn’t chicken scratch you know. What about you’re plans to be an engineer?”

“I never really wanted engineering. You did.”

“I would have liked….”

“I know Dad, really I do. And I’m so very sorry that I missed the refund deadline also. Last month. Whoops. Won’t ask you or Mom for another red cent, not ever. And someday I’ll pay you back with interest. I’ve paid for culinary arts from my own.”

“What funds do you possess?”

“Sold the car.”

“Mark you’re a nothing but a double….” His father seemed to be searching for a hidden inspiration, and Mark wished the back seat of the taxi wasn’t so deep in shadow. He wanted to gauge how red his father’s face was turning. He wanted to see if steam was actually shooting from the ears.

But Geoff was hesitating longer yet, carefully articulating a few choice words, modulating his tone and volume, speaking evenly, calmly. “You’ve always had your head-in-the-stars. A total space-case,” he said. “You’re a double dunderhead! Now you’ve got no transportation! How do you expect to travel around?”

“The bus is pretty good.”

“And your residence? The student housing?”

“I was hoping I could move back in with you and Mom for a semester or two. You’re closer to the institute.”

“So that’s the grand old plan? And you expect me and your Mom to look after you?”

“No Dad. I’m the chief cook and bottle washer. Remember. I’ll do that. I’ll work for you.”

“Hummm?”

They drove along in silence while the nighttime slid past. When the cabbie pulled up and grandly helped them step outside, Mark asked his father again. “So how was the trip to Sudbury, really?”

“Sudbury?” his father said, handing the driver a crumpled bill. “I stayed on in Thunder Bay. I didn’t get to go to the big show. They didn’t want me at the planning symposium. Took the big-time management. The company recently came out with some bright new credential policies. Only the architects and the lead engineers. They said I was nothing but a maintenance contractor.”

“Dad, I’m sorry.”

“That engineering department thinks they’re special. That guy, Lyle Stubbing, he’s nothing but a snob, a know-it-all. I doubt that he can figure out where to put the heating ducts or the lighting fixtures or anything practical. He’s into architecture without the nuts and bolts of practicality.”

“So you’re not really offended that I’m not going to be an engineer like that guy?”

“Well, I’m not fussed-out proud you’re not. I wanted you to have a solid profession with a university degree to back it up. Cooking school, damn it. Yeah, I might have guessed you’d go for that – someday, sometime. Cooking. God knows I’m crazy starving right now. I could eat a cow.”

“If Mom has left us the right supplies, I could do a Spanish omelet.”

“Would you really?”

“No problem, no sweat.”

Inside the house, Geoff flung his overcoat in an untidy heap and lowered himself to the worn and sagging couch. “Mark,” he shouted, but his son had already bee-lined for the kitchen. “Bring us a beer will ya?”

“Dad, we’re lucky, I mean crazy horse-shoe lucky.” Mark stood in door frame. “Mom’s our saviour. She’s left good supplies. We’ve got a half a dozen eggs, potatoes and onions. All the spices.”

“Dunderhead,” Geoff said quietly, but Mark was already back inside the kitchen peeling russet potatoes, whisking eggs. His father stretched out upon the couch. Mark didn’t hear the gentle snores, nor did he see the way his father folded his arms over his proud and handsome chest.

And just before he’d fallen asleep his father murmured to himself in a sigh of true contentment: “Chef Dunderhead.”

© 2019 Katrina Johnston