8 September 2008 | Vol. 8, No. 3
I'd been sent to Florida by my brother and my mother with a wad of cash and a mission to set my dad back on the straight and narrow. He met me at the airport like he'd promised, but he hadn't even taken me to his house yet, and already I felt like we were neck deep in his new life. When he moved down to Florida with his new wife, my dad remained willing to crowd the frame of group photos at weddings and christenings. Not just our family either, but his new wife's, too. And by the time she died, he'd been with her longer than he was with my mom. He was like some model of level-headed stability. But when my stepmother died, he went off the rails: drunken phone calls, talk about selling the house to buy a Winnebago, to invest, to move someplace off the map, to raise llamas. And now, he was working in short stories.
"It's a job," my dad said, sitting behind the wheel of his ninety-four Volvo. If I tried, I could remember when this car was new. He reached behind him and pulled a duffel bag out of the back seat. "That's all. Why are you making such a big deal of it."
"Because it's dangerous," I said, and followed him out of the car. I'd worked short stories; that's why I'd been sent, because I know the lay of the land. But I was past all that; I worked in a novel now. I was just a supporting character, a kid from the wrong side of the tracks that delayed the inevitable happy ending when the good girl married the prep school boy, but I was good at it. I had a way of stroking behind her ear, of holding on when she came apart in my arms that I know meant steady work in flashbacks and erotic reveries. At least I was once good at it; lately, though, I'd been nervous, distracted, it felt like, and fixated on this image of my dad put there by my meddling mom and brother, all humped shoulders and tatty tissues in cardigan pockets. It made it hard to work, and other people were noticing. So I'd come down, to reassure myself that he was doing all right.
He double-parked us on a side street south of downtown and stepped out of the car, waiting for me to follow. He looked both ways, and then pulled a stocking cap over his face and walked down the alley that ran behind the pharmacy. In another heartbeat, he was gone from the streetlamp's circle of light, and I had to sprint to keep up. "You're not a stick-up man. I know you," I said.
"You don't know anything," he said. "You think you do, because your mother and your brother have filled your head with nonsense, but they don't know anything either." My dad dropped the bag at my feet and then bent over and pulled the zipper back. He pulled out a crowbar, dull with orangey-brown patches. "And this isn't a stick-up. It's B & E. I'm not even carrying a gun."
I didn't know what else to do, so I got out of the way and let my dad at the door. His hands shook under the light that hung over the back door of the pharmacy and he hesitated before he decided where to put the crowbar's buck teeth. He didn't used to be like this, a risk-taker. But he and my step-mom had been in a car accident; my dad wasn't wearing a seat belt and was thrown from the car into a flower patch that cushioned his fall. The restraint of the shoulder belt shook my stepmother so hard it snapped her neck. When she died, she shit her Capri pants. Ever since then, my dad acted like nothing he did mattered, that it would all turn out the same way whatever he did. My brother warned me, "Don't let him talk you into anything. You've got a good thing going." I got the impression sometimes that he knew the girl I was with in the novel, that maybe they'd once been an item. He acted sometimes like I had the job because of him. "Don't blow it," he warned me. The pharmacy's metal back door held for a second, and then it popped with a loud clang, like my nephew hitting a pot with a metal spoon. But no one seemed to hear anything; no one came running and there was no alarm. "Are you coming?" my dad asked, standing in the doorway and looking back at me.
"Of course," I said. He had a computer printout of what he was supposed to get and one of those skinny flashlights. The light it cast bobbed across the floor as I scrambled after him. The next room was what we were looking for: a couple rows of bolted together metal shelves, each shelf with maybe a dozen angled trays lined up to face us. My dad kept flipping the flashlight back and forth, from the list to the tray in front of him, looking at what he was sent to get and what the labels on trays told him he was seeing.
"Hold it in your teeth," I said, "the flashlight." I had my own copy of the list, made on the public Xerox machine in this very pharmacy earlier today when we were scoping the place out. The flashlight was mine, too, and I flicked it back and forth with my tongue so its beam swabbed the paper in front of me. It's not like I was some upstanding citizen myself. I'd done some light lifting in my day, liberating TVs and DVD players from house parties me and my friends crashed, taking iPods and GPS systems from parked cars outside of rock shows. But I wanted to be past all that, and wasn't sure how I ended up here when I just wanted to drink a beer and maybe try to get my dad to act his age.
"I've got Valium. What've you got over there?" he asked.
"Nothing but antibiotics," I said, and slid down the shelf to look at the next bank of trays. "Steady cold busting so far." A place like this probably didn't have any kind of security at all, or else we'd have already seen it. "Bingo," I said around my flashlight. Xanax. I popped one in my mouth and swallowed it dry, and then dropped two handfuls in the bag. And then the fluorescent lights overhead flickered to life.
"Now that's not so smart," I said. "Someone's bound to see that from the street." My dad was so impatient, I thought, and then someone behind me said "Stop right there."
I didn't stop, though; I turned because it was the natural thing to do, and there was some young guy, probably my age, wearing a powder blue lab coat and holding a shotgun so that its stock was wedged in below his ribcage. He didn't know what he was doing, but I wasn't sure that helped me any. I looked to one side, and my dad was literally frozen, one hand deep in a tray of pills and holding open a half-full baggie with the other.
"We can come to some sort of arrangement," I said, and reached behind me to pull out my wallet. Mom and my brother had given me some money, to buy off dad, to take care of myself, to fly us both back home if it came to that, whatever was needed, and this seemed like the right time to use it. "My dad gets a little crazy when he gets off his meds and we couldn't find a place that was open." I moved my hands slowly till I had the wallet in front of me. "But we're willing to pay for anything we take." I flipped the billfold open and over, shook it so that the money fell out, along with my library card.
"Stop talking," the kid holding the gun said. I could see the panic in his eyes. The blue turtleneck he wore under his lab coat only partially concealed his tattoo. I had one, too, from when I was drunk and thought I was in love. This guy and me, we were the same, trying to save ourselves after playing a couple bad hands. We're the same, I tried to tell him telepathically. "I'm calling the cops," he said. "Don't move."
"He made me do it," my dad said to the kid, looking up at him from where he was standing. "You've got to save me from him." I looked over at my dad and almost didn't recognize him, the way he'd humped his shoulders, this bow-legged bend in his knees. He looked just how my mother and brother warned me he might look. He was playing a role, and I could see, the way the kid held the phone steady without dialing it, the way he waved the gun like a dowsing rod from my dad to me that he wanted to believe it, too. Who didn't? After all, this man in front of me had been playing the role of my father my entire life, and he was good enough at it that I never thought to question if it was just a part for him, what he did while he waited for something better to come along.
About the author:
Matt Dube teaches creative writing and literature at William Woods University. All appearances to the contrary, "Rental" is as close to a true story as he's ever written. His work appears or has appeared in Pindeldyboz online edition, Rainbow Curve, and elsewhere.