COMING DOWN THE THIRD FLOOR STAIRS, I hear Mom call to me from inside her bedroom. I have been looking for ways to make up with her, so I quickly poke my head into the room and find her sitting on the edge of the bed.
“Listen,” she says to me with no preamble. “I got no money for your school clothes this year.”
I look at her confused. Lack of money is always a complaint, but this comment seems uncomfortably targeted towards me.
“I’m buying for all the others,” Mom says. “You get your dad to take care of you.”
“Dad?” I ask, panic in my voice. I have been avoiding Dad since my failed attempt to steal the car radio from his van, but that’s not what alarms me. More troubling is my dependence on Mom to buy school clothes for me that won’t make the other kids laugh. I have a limited sense of fashion, but Dad is much worse. He wears plaid shorts with dark loafers and black socks. I try my best to get out of this, but Mom won’t budge.
“Do I even need new clothes?” I ask. “Maybe I’m good this year. I think I’m good.”
“Timmy,” Mom says. Hearing the exasperation in her voice, I grow nervous, realizing that any opportunity for cozying up is melting away. “What’s wrong with you?” she asks.
I don’t know how to tell Mom that Dad doesn’t want me anymore, so I stay focused on the clothes.
“Where would we shop?” I ask. My voice sounds desperate and whiny, even to me.
“Just go to the mall,” Mom says. “You’ll figure it out.” She is still irritated, but her voice seems a little less harsh than when I first came in the room. Although I never discuss my feelings about Dad with her, somehow Mom seems to realize that something between Dad and me has changed. I don’t know it yet, but this conversation marks the end of Mom’s withdrawal from me. I am still tasked with getting school clothes from Dad this fall, but from here on out, Mom forgives me for spending so much of the early summer driving around in the Gremlin with Dad.
Coming down from my room one afternoon, I see Dad heading out the front door and holler for him to hold up. I race out to the front porch.
“Mom says you should get me school clothes,” I say, looking past him toward the Zoo. All the porches are deserted and a driving wind pushes little tornados of dead leaves and litter up and down the street.
Dad coolly looks me over, saying nothing.
I tentatively look into his face, but then quickly look away. “Mom says,” I repeat.
“Sure,” Dad says. “No problem.”
I’m not exactly sure why I can’t look into his face. Partly I am still hurt and a little angry because he has pulled away from me. Partly I am ashamed about wrecking the dashboard and radio in his new van. But mostly I am just dreading school clothes shopping with Dad: He stands before me wearing a tan parka over his suit and tie. The parka is made from some sort of synthetic fabric so that whenever he moves, it makes loud swishing noises. Dad loves his parka. He bought it last year, offering to buy another just like it for anyone who wanted one. Although it can get very cold in the dead of Pennsylvania winter, no one took him up on it. “Good to ten below zero,” Dad liked to say. “And lots of pockets!” Sometimes Dad would take five minutes searching his coat pockets for keys or change.
We make a date for later that week.
When the appointed day comes, Dad shows up and I climb into his van. As I pull the passenger door shut, I notice the sad looking state of his radio. He has managed to reattach the play and fast forward buttons, but the volume and tuning knobs remain askew. I don’t know if I should act surprised about the attempted theft or compliment him on upgrading from an 8-Track. I decide my best bet is to just ignore it completely.
“You know what happened to that radio?” Dad asks.
“No idea,” I say. Cranking down my window, I quickly look outside. Dad puts the van in gear and pulls out. I can hear him mutter “No idea” as we pull from the curb.
“What,” I say, trying to sound as innocent as possible. Reaching to the dash, I flip on the radio and the knob comes off in my hand.
“Forget about it,” Dad says. Shaking his head, he sighs, and we’re on our way.
At the mall Dad asks me where I want to shop and I am filled with dread: J.C. Penny’s, Murphy Mart, Wanamaker’s, I have no idea. I wander over to Chess King, a boutique clothing store, and finger the racks.
“Here?” Dad asks, his voice sounding tense.
There are black lights on the walls and posters of men riding motorcycles. I become fascinated with a leather bomber jacket, chained to a rack at the front of the store.
“Look at this,” I say, tugging the sleeve of the coat out, so Dad can see.
Reaching down, Dad flips the price tag around. “Look at this,” he says.
Until this very minute, I hadn’t even thought about buying a leather jacket, so I am not terribly disappointed Dad has balked at the price. I stroll out of the store and try to decide where we ought to go for clothes. Sensing my indecision, Dad asks me what I want.
“Jeans,” I say. “Levis.”
This is very important. If you go with a brand name, you can never go wrong.
“Okay,” Dad says. “We’ll get a pair of jeans and a few pair of slacks.”
“Slacks?” I look at Dad horrified. “Slacks?” I repeat the word louder, my voice rising to an uncomfortable warble. I know we’re talking about pants, but this word conjures up images of polyester and plaid for me, so I am on guard.
“Slacks, son. Slacks.”
Dad is looking at me as if I’ve lost my mind. I grow even more appalled when he offers to get me some loafers, too. “For kicking around,” he says with a shrug.
“Dad,” I say. “I just want some jeans and sneakers.”
My voice sounds too emphatic, but I can’t help myself. “And I’m not gonna be kicking around in anything,” I say. “I’m hanging out.” There is a beat of silence. “In jeans. And sneakers.”
When Dad discovers that I want multiple pairs of the same kind of jeans, he closes his eyes and looks up to heaven. He says he’ll buy me one pair of jeans, but only if I’ll take two pairs of slacks and Mom can buy me the shoes. Dad says this is his final offer: take it or not. I choose to leave it and we ride home in an awful silence.
I race to my room thinking evil thoughts about my father. Later that week, Mom asks me what happened with Dad, and I almost cry when I tell her.
“He wanted me to wear slacks,” I say. “To school.”
Mom chuckles, probably tickled by my earnest disapproval of slacks, and I realize we are back on good terms again. Then she surprises me by sticking up for Dad.
“He don’t know nothing about clothes,” Mom says. And then she promises to take me shopping.
The next weekend Dad shows up at the house and asks me to ride with him to the mall. When I ask what for, he offers to buy the leather bomber jacket we saw the week before. I am so astonished I barely breathe as we drive to the mall. For the rest of high school this is my uniform: leather bomber jacket, blue jeans, and high top leather sneakers. When we get home from the mall with my new leather jacket, I am so overwhelmed with my good fortune all I want to do is race up to my room and lie down.
Dad asks, “Are we good?”
He is standing there in his parka coat, the fuzzy hood askew on his shoulder. I have already forgiven him for trying to make me wear slacks. I had not expected him to make this purchase. With school having started, I rarely think about our car trips this summer, and especially not now that Mom and I have reconciled.
“We’re good,” I say.
And for the most part, we are.