Dale Smithson clasped his hands under his triple chin and licked his thin lips as he surveyed the food crowding his kitchen table. A bucket of chicken, two soft drinks, two double cheeseburgers, fries and onion rings surrounded a droopy two-tiered cake with off-white icing. It was decorated on the sides with neon-blue flowers and on the top with the outline of a semi-trailer. The smell of warm grease mingled with the smell of stale sweat, farts and putrefying food that permeated his father’s one-bedroom rancher.
“Happy birthday, Dad,” said Dale, huffing. The twerp of a cab driver who delivered the food had refused to bring it inside, despite the pelting rain. “No, no. I stay,” he stuttered, shivering in his thin t-shirt on the unsheltered porch. Ferrying his food the few steps from his front steps to his kitchen had winded Dale. He was 365 pounds the last time he stepped on a scale.
“Good thing your pension cheque came early. A present from the government, eh?” His voice was incongruously high, like a young girl’s. He spoke loudly to make himself heard over the looping music of a zombie shooting game paused on the wide-screen television that dominated the tiny living room.
His father, eyes closed, was propped precariously in his chair. Dale squinted to see the wrinkled face deep inside the cowl of his heavy green dressing gown. The house was stifling. Dale wore a t-shirt and plaid surfer shorts with a broken zipper stuck halfway down.
Dale scowled. “C’mon, it’s a special occasion. Don’t pout.” He pushed a cup closer. “I got ginger ale for you. Good for your digestion.”
The table squeaked under his weight as he leaned forward to grab the other cup.
“Here’s to Ronald Smithson.” He hoisted the wax cup. Cola dribbled over his pudgy hand. His shirt rode up. Tendrils of black hair congregating toward his belly button stood out against the paleness of his drooping stomach.
“I know you want whisky. Really, I get it. But you know what happens when we drink.” The phone rang as he sucked his straw.
“Her again! Can’t she just leave us alone?” He let it ring. He drank long and desperately, narrow lips pursed, fat, sallow cheeks and jowls jiggling as he slurped.
The answering machine picked up.
“Hello, this is Ronald. I’m not available at the moment. Please leave a message and I will get back to you as soon as possible,” said an old man’s quavering voice.
“Ms. Baker, again. Pension plan administrative services.” Her voice was brisk, unsympathetic. “You haven’t returned my calls, Mr. Smithson. In fact, according to our records, it’s been five years since your last contact with this office. We have no choice at his time, but to . . .”
Dale snatched the receiver.
“Sorry, sorry. I was in the shower. Can’t move as fast as I used to. I’m on disability, you know and I . . .”
He was cut off. He scowled and made a shooting gesture with his thumb and two fingers. He put the phone in his lap, Ms. Baker’s voice was tinny and small against the background of the video game soundtrack. Only snatches of her dialogue could be heard. “. . . can not be tolerated . . . ongoing issue . . . we have policies . . .” He snatched a wadded cloth from a pot encrusted with the mouldy remains of macaroni and cheese and waved it at the flies encircling his food. Except for a small space in front of the microwave, the kitchen counter and sink were invisible beneath dirty pots, dishes and empty food packages.
He picked up the phone again when she fell silent. “This is his son, Dale. Can’t I just give him a message? He won’t talk to you. He is . . .” He was cut off again.
His grip tightened on the phone. His voice rose. “No. I don’t mean just you. He won’t talk to anybody. He’s angry because I won’t give him whisky for his birthday. He won’t even talk to me.”
He covered the receiver again. “She insists, Dad,” he said in a loud whisper. He held the phone out. His father, features barely visible beneath his dressing gown’s monkish cowl, remained utterly quiet and motionless.
“Suit yourself. It’s your funeral,” he said.
“No. Like I said. He won’t talk,” he said to Ms. Baker. “Maybe if you call back tomorrow? He’s always cranky on his birthday.” His face flushed at her response.
“He can’t come down there. He’s eighty-two, you know!” His falsetto voice was shrill.
“She wants you to come to the office,” he whispered, covering the receiver again.
“I know someone was here last week. We must have just missed you. He was feeling strong so I bundled him up and took him to the park for a little while.
“I know it was raining! I told you! I bundled him up!” he screeched. He slammed the table. The bucket of chicken jumped. The table jiggled. His dad’s head fell forward. There were only a few strands of white hair on his shrunken head. Cheekbones strained against desiccated skin. Pulled-back lips gave him a perpetual leer. In the middle of the forehead, just above the nose, withered flesh pulled back from a six-inch gash that penetrated skin and bone. There was a smaller hole in the cheek and bigger hole, like an exit wound, on the temple. Deep gashes scarred the stretched-thin skin of his caved-in chest and one blanched rib was visible through a hole in his side.
Dale covered the receiver, closed his eyes and took two deep breaths.
“He doesn’t like visitors,” he said, his voice calmer. “You can see in your file what happened the last time when you sent that poor girl over. The police took his gun away, you don’t have to worry about that.” He shook his head at his dad, pointed at the hallway closet and mouthed the words, ‘No, they didn’t.’
“Can’t you just send us a form, like always?”
“He hates doctors worst of all. I get him everything he needs.”
“Okay, okay. I’ll ask him. Geez! Yes, yes, I’ll turn the TV down too.” He didn’t move though.
“Dad, she wants to talk to you,” he shouted. “She just wants to ask you a couple of questions,” he added in a loud whisper. “Quit being so childish.”
He held the phone out again. The music blared. He held it there for almost a minute while he stuffed fries into his mouth.
When he spoke to her again, he was still chewing and his words were almost unintelligible. “You see . . . won’t talk . . . said a word all morning . . . not going to give him no booze. Dumped it all down the crapper a year ago.” He swallowed noisily.
“Me? Yes, well that’s right. But I don’t drink no more either. We’ve been sober since his last birthday.” He took another long suck on his straw and burped.
“What does it say about me?
“I was aggressive? What does that mean, aggressive? Inappropriate behaviour? C’mon, that was five years ago. That stupid bit . . . I mean that girl came at a bad time. I was under a lot of stress. I was drinking too in those days. It was a joke what I said about her blouse. I’m sorry I frightened her.
“The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree? What do you mean by that?”
Once again he made the shooting motion.
“I told you. He won’t talk to you. He can go for days without talking when he gets into one of his moods.” His voice was loud again. He mouthed the words ‘fuck off’ at the receiver.
“You don’t have to do that. We don’t need the police. Let me talk to him again.
“I said I would talk to him!” Red-faced, teeth clenched, he shook the receiver like he was strangling a small animal. His beady eyes were black with rage.
Almost immediately, he brought himself back under control. “Sorry. Sorry. Didn’t mean to shout,” he said, chuckling as if his temper was an amusing eccentricity.
“I said I was sorry. No need to get the police involved again. I’ll make him listen. Please, I said I was sorry.”
He stuck the receiver on top of the chicken bucket. “She insists. She’s going to send the police if she doesn’t speak to you personally.” He shrugged as if he just didn’t care anymore. He pretended to read the advertising on the onion ring packaging. The frenzied buzz of the flies crawling over each other on the food could be heard even over the music. Their fat, wriggling bodies were an iridescent black against the golden hue of the reconstituted fries.
“She’s not going to wait much longer!” He picked at his toe nails, rooted in his right nostril and pretended to be interested in the movement on flies on the ceiling.
“Have it your own way then,” he said finally.
He took three deep breaths, cleared his throat and closed his eyes.
“Hello?’” His voice had changed. It was an old man’s voice, frail and anxious. The same voice as on the recording.
“Yes. That is my son. He takes care of me.” His voice, barely more than a whisper, was filled with exhaustion. As if he was using all his strength to simply answer the questions.
“No. Thank you. My son does everything for me. I don’t need anything.
“Pardon. Can you speak up please? . . . No. No. I couldn’t do that. I hardly ever go out anymore. Maybe in the summer. When it warms up. I’ll get my son to drive me. Would that be okay?”
After he hung up, Dale drained his father’s cup.
“Thanks for nothing, Dad,” he said, reaching for the onion rings. “She’s coming herself this afternoon. How do you think that’s going to go?”
Dale chewed open-mouthed, chins jiggling. He swallowed in huge gulps as if desperate to get rid of one mouthful so he could start on another. He slowed down only slightly when he got to the chicken, scarfing two breasts, a thigh and two wings before giving up.
“Well that was good. Except for the fries. Tasted like recycled cardboard!” He leaned on his left butt cheek and farted. “There. How’s that for recycling?” He guffawed loudly. Too loudly. As if trying to pretend that the conversation hadn’t worried him. “We won’t let that bitch ruin your birthday dinner, right dad?” His dad didn’t answer. Dale frowned, scratched his armpit and for many seconds stared vacantly at the paused video game. Finally, he shook his head.
“Well, no sense worrying, right? How ‘bout a piece of cake? It’s vanilla. You like vanilla. See the truck on top? Just like that old truck you used to drive. C’mon. Just a small piece.”
His father remained silent and motionless.
“You know, I went to a lot of trouble arranging this party for you. And what do I get in return? This kind of attitude!
He slammed his fist on the table. The cake and chicken bucket jumped. A plastic fork slid to the floor. “I know you’re not sleeping. Every year I try to do something special and you ruin it! He grabbed an orange-stained butter knife from the counter. His gripped it with white knuckles and a shaking hand and stared, panting, eyes bulging.
Finally, his grip eased. His shoulders sagged. He put the knife back on the counter.
“If you want to sleep so much, I’m putting you back to bed. I was going to let you watch,” he nodded at the television screen. “I’m almost at the thirteenth level. Shoot them, they come back to life. Shoot them point blank, they keep on coming. You need the machine gun. Right between the eyes. Brains splatter everywhere.”
He rose with a groan, waddled around the table and picked up his father. His face was red from exertion.
“You’re going to kill me one of these days, you old buzzard.”
His father’s right arm dangled. Brown skin clung like shrunken leather to the bony hand.
Dale looked down at the head resting on his shoulder.
“I’m sorry Dad. Lost my temper, again. Gottta be careful. Heart’s not in such good shape anymore. She was right. We are so much alike. Don’t worry. I’ll take care of you, no matter what.” He kissed his forehead. “But who’s going to take care of me?” He sighed. “That’s what I’ve been wondering. Mom’s gone. Sis too.” His glance flicked upwards to the heavens or maybe to the crawl space above the ceiling. “Just me and you left now. And what would you do, I wonder, if something ever happened to me? I can’t live forever.” He picked a fry wedged in the bottom of it cardboard wrapper and stuffed it absentmindedly into his mouth as navigated the narrow space between table and wall.
“Too bad they aren’t sending the blonde girl again. She was pretty, wasn’t she? I think she liked us. The lady coming this afternoon sounds like a real bitch. You’re not gonna like her.”
A queen-sized bed and an old army trunk filled the small bedroom. He stepped around the scattered magazines with pictures of leering women cupping impossibly large breasts. The trunk was empty except for a small hatchet wrapped in a rust-stained t-shirt. Dale lay his father inside.
“Oops almost forgot,” Dale said. He returned to the kitchen and came back with the cake, placing it on top of his father’s body.
“Maybe next year,” he said, gently closing the lid.
On the way through the kitchen, he grabbed a two-litre pop and returned to his easy chair. Less than half an hour later, he had almost passed the thirteenth level. His fat fingers danced with surprising dexterity as grey-skinned zombies with festering wounds came at him from all sides. The floor creaked behind him. He ignored it. He held the controller high, thumbs and fingers both working as a never-ending stream of monsters dissolved in gore under his machine-gun sights. Finally, the bloody words ‘level passed’ dripped over a bullet-riddled skull. Only then did he relax and look over at the rocking chair.
“I knew you wouldn’t be able to resist, he said.
His father didn’t answer, but the chair creaked with the invariability of a ticking clock as he rocked and his eyes, deep inside the hood, glowered as he waited for his son to begin the next level.
“You’re so predicable,” said Dale, thumbs once again busy. The screen was littered with corpses when the door bell rang. He didn’t hear it at first. It rang again. He paused the game and looked over at his father. There was a sharp rap at the door.
“I suppose you want me to get that,” he said.
Raymond Walker lives in Vancouver Canada. His short story, The Civilized World, recently appeared in Descant Magazine. Another story, The Gullible Wife, appeared in a previous edition of Spinetingler.