My dad comes into our house all happy. That means he’s had a great workout at the gym. He’s training for a triathlon. He’s always training for something. His hair is slicked back and he’s wearing jeans and one of his white t-shirts. He washes his t-shirts himself so they stay super white. When they come out of the wash they look small enough to fit me. But then they stretch to fit to him.
My dad tosses his gym bag on the kitchen table and says, “Hey gang, let’s go out for fast food.” He must have had a really good workout. We never go for fast food as a family. My dad eats special foods and makes special drinks to help him win races.
“I already have dinner in the oven,” my mom says.
It’s a chicken done the way my dad always wants, with the herbs and lemon slices on top. And there’s a huge salad ready in the fridge. I saw my mom making it. I helped her chop the red peppers.
“Can’t you be spontaneous for once?” my dad says to my mom. Then he looks at me, says, “Your mom is 40 going on 80.”
My mom flicks the oven off. Doesn’t take the chicken out or anything. She pulls her lipstick tube out of the front pocket of her jeans and rolls some pink on her lips. She smacks her lips, like she always does after lipstick, and says, “Let’s go.”
We didn’t have lemons this afternoon and my mom and me rushed out to the grocery store to get them so the chicken would have lemon slices on top. And we got everything ready right on time because my dad likes to eat as soon as he gets home. He gets real hungry from all that training.
My dad drives us to a burger place. When my mom and I go out for food we like noodles. At the burger place there’s a lineup of cars at the drive-thru. My dad pulls into the line, then, after a few seconds, gets all antsy and pulls out of it. He’s hungry and he hates lineups. We drive around the block once. Then he turns into the same burger place and into a parking spot.
“Just go in and get us some burgers and drinks. No fries,” he says. He jabs his thumb towards the back seat where I am, says, “Get her a small drink. Kids shouldn’t have those big drinks.”
There is a lineup to order inside too. My mom gets out of the car and walks into the hamburger place. I can see her through the glass doors. She talks with a grandma and a grandpa in front of her in the line. She laughs. She always laughs with people in lines, even if she is a little sad.
My dad is on his phone. He has his window down and one elbow pointing outside. He calls his gym friends. He is planning a big run tomorrow since it is Saturday. That means I get to hang out with my mom. When I wake up and walk into the kitchen she’ll give me a mug of warm milky tea and ask, “What should we do today?” And maybe we’ll go to the pet store and look at the fish in the tanks. I like the ones that look like tiny rainbows.
“Where the heck is your mom?” my dad asks. “How hard can it be to order a hamburger?”
I don’t answer. There’s not a lot of right answers with my dad.
Finally my mom comes out of the burger place. She’s in her pretty flower shirt. And her jeans and her flip flops. Her hair is kind of messy but good and she’s carrying a tray with three drinks – two regular and one small – and in the other hand she holds a paper bag with the burgers in it.
“Well that took forever,” my dad says.
“It’s busy,” my mom says.
My mom hands out the drinks and burgers. I put my burger on my lap and set my drink on the floor between my feet. It’s cold on my ankles, above my runners, but I keep holding it steady there because I don’t want it to tip over.
My dad backs the car out and turns onto the main road. At the first red light he rips open his burger wrapping and takes a bite. I see some ketchup blobs hit the steering wheel. My dad swears. He looks down at his white t-shirt and swears again.
“Did I ask for ketchup?” he says.
“No. The burger must come with it,” my mom says.
“Hand me a napkin,” he says.
“I didn’t get any,” my mom says.
“I guess I forgot napkins.”
“Who forgets napkins?”
“I guess I’m stupid,” my mom says.
I used to hate it when my mom said she was stupid. But now I’m bigger and I know that she doesn’t think she is stupid. She says it so my dad will shut up.
The light turns green and my dad steps on the gas. The car jerks forwards. He is mad. But he has shut up. My mom turns her head toward the passenger-side window. I see her reflection and it’s not sad at all. She puts her hand to her mouth to cover her smile. We know who’s stupid. And we know who loaded my dad’s burger with ketchup.---
Barb Howard has published a short story collection and three novels. Her work has won the Canadian Authors' Association Exporting Alberta Award, the Howard O'Hagan Award for Short Story and the Alberta Views short story contest. She lives in Calgary and is a writing mentor for The Shoe Project -- a literacy and performance workshop for immigrant women.