Breakfast

Monday, December 14th, 2015

 

            "Whacha doing there?"

            A chill shot through Ben's spine. He stood up straight slowly and put both hands on the roof of the Ford Galaxie as if he had a cop pointing the mouth of a pistol at his back. He heard slow, heavy footsteps coming up behind him. Fear and shame kept him from turning around.

            "Just going for a drive," he responded.

            "Really? Where you going?"

            "Uhh I haven't really decided yet."

            "I see..." The footsteps stopped right beside him. Ben felt the duffle bag brush up against his leg as it was lifted up. He could feel the presence behind him, and he was suddenly overcome by fear, shame, and betrayal. He sunk his head and looked through the window at the four other bags already loaded into the car knowing they were discovered by the person behind him. "Planning on being gone long?"

            "Don't know yet," Ben responded in a voice slowly breaking.

            "Oh." The voice behind him was calm and caring, but also carried with it a degree of sorrow that nearly brought Ben to the point of tears.

            "Yeah." He composed himself and turned around and through the persistent darkness of the early morning met his father's gaze. Two blue eyes shined like sapphires with elegance, sorrow and worry, and penetrated through the darkness. Ben's eyes reflected that sorrow, and the two stood in silence both holding back a stream of tears. It was no secret what he was trying to do.

            "Want some breakfast before you go?"

            "Yes, please."

            His father handed him the bag, and with trembling hands, he received it, placed it in with the others, and closed the door. The walk back up the gravel driveway was silent. Uncertainty penetrated Ben's mind, and with each step began to regret his decision. Was he really going to be let go? Will he have the courage--or lack thereof--to leave after breakfast? As they crossed beneath the car port, Ben focused on the door, and a sudden fear of what stood behind it struck him.

            "She isn't up yet," his father reassured him reaching toward the door. "I don't think it was a good idea to wake her."

            "Thank you," Ben replied. No man wants to see his mother cry, let alone be the cause of it.

            An aging labrador welcomed them as they crossed the threshold into the kitchen. As his father went straight to the refrigerator, Ben stooped down to return the friendly greeting. The panting and tail wagging stopped immediately, and the loving canine tilted his head with a look of concern in his eyes as he saw the sorrow on his shaggy, lanky friend's face.

            "Bacon and eggs?" his father asked turning on the stove.

            "Sounds great."

            "Want to put some coffee on?"

            "Sure."

            Ben stood up, and went to the cupboard to begin his part of a morning tradition that has existed in this household for twelve years. Every word, every movement repeated over and over again. Placing the filter and coffee grains into place, Ben looked over at the tall, wide shouldered man at the stove. His early morning breakfast companion since his first day of school. It brought back memories of the days begun with the rising sun shooting the first few rays from the horizon through the windows and screen doors, illuminating the sleepy trek of a young boy uncomfortably dressed in a starchy uniform branded with the name and crest of St. Jude's Catholic School to his designated chair at the kitchen table. His father would already be at his station, and they would exchange one prepubescent groggy "good morning" for a happy and far more masculine one before he was placed on coffee detail in that same happy, fully awake tone.

            "Toast, or Bagel?" Ben asked with the coffee brewing.

            "I'll take toast please."

            He always chose toast. But Ben always asked. And his father always liked his toast burnt. Ben found this out the first day on toaster duty. Both toaster rookie and Kindergartner, Ben managed to turn the soft white slices into dark black slabs. As disappointment began to come over him, his father reassured him the toast was cooked to perfection. And Ben watched smiling as his father enjoyed the scorched bread with his bacon and eggs. And his father gave a smile and a nod signaling a job well done.  

            But burnt toast always crumbled easily, and his father was always extra careful to keep his uniform clean. Ben had seen his father change uniforms over the years. Different color, different style, making sure Ben was always able to keep wearing his year after year. Out of all of them, Ben's favorite was an older one. Only seeing his father wear it in the black and white wedding pictures, it stood proudly hanging in his parents' closet. Serving as a perfect practice target for the Christmas season, Ben would spend Elementary days home alone sneaking into his parents' room to look at the wonder of his father's past. A crisp white belt wrapped around the middle and stood out from its background. The darkest blue with a thin bright red outlining the center, collar, shoulders, and cuffs. Big bronze buttons shown like stars, and Ben would sit and study each member of the constellation. Right above the wearer's heart sat three rows of badges of a variety of colors, and on each arm shone three stripes on a solid red background. And on the collar, belt buckle, and every button stood the insignia.

            His father hardly mentioned where and how he received such honors, so Ben was left to his Social Studies classes to learn about The Marines, Islands like the Solomons, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa, and the battles that were fought there. And with the rise of knowledge came the rise of pride and esteem, but also a rise of confusion.

            "Perfect timing." His father said in reaction to the toaster popping, "Bacon and eggs are ready." Ben retrieved the toast and placed it on his father's plate.

            "I'll go get the coffee."

            The cabinet above the coffee maker was filled with a collection of coffee mugs. Each with its own unique style or themed to its place of origin.

            "Let's see..." Ben relayed to his father scanning the front rows, "do you want, 'Lake Erie,' 'Manasquan,' 'New York Rangers'.."

            "Give me the Rangers," he replied proudly.

            "You got it."

            Ben retrieved the fading mug, and chose the 'Lake Erie' one for himself. They both took their coffee black. At least now they did. Ben's share of the bacon and eggs was originally complimented by apple juice, but fourth and fifth grades were spent becoming ever more curious about trying the other beverage. Despite the few changes of uniform he saw his father go through, his morning attitude remained the same, and Ben grew envious of his father's ability. This envy, combined with a recent knowledge of coffee's affect and a ten year old's impulsiveness resulted in a burnt tongue, and the release of a squeal and face expressing the highest levels of both pain and disgust. And as Ben now filled the mugs, he smiled remembering his stupidity, his father's deep hardy laugh, and the compassionate retrieval of the usual ice cold apple juice.

            But since that point, the appearance of apple juice became fewer compared to that of coffee. And the increase in familiarity lead to smarter handling, and the gradual decrease in added creamer and sugar. The process ended with Ben waking up late and hearing his father shout in a commanding voice that he was going to be late for school. An anxious jolt of energy rushed Ben through his morning preparations, and out the door with his father right on his heels with the car keys. Having no time, he quickly poured a cup of the coffee his father was forced to make. It was left black. That was the first breakfast Ben missed.

            As Ben now carried the two filled coffee mugs over to the table to join his father, a surge of regret was growing in intensity. A regret for all the mornings his chair sat empty. Since that first absence, Ben had gone through two growth spurts, and two graduations. His uniform had changed in size, color, and branding, and his backpack had more than doubled in weight. And all the while his morning attendance continued to decline, as late nights, groups of friends, and poor organization shifted priorities to favor the extra time in bed or early departures from home to either hang out with friends or complete any disregarded homework assignments with the father left smiling, understanding, taken for granted.

            Now his nineteen-year-long evolution had resulted in the tall, pale, lanky boy that sat in the chair next to his father. Denim pants and a flannel shirt covered a thin, bony body, and long wavy hair outlined a sharp face with a scraggly beard and sad blue eyes. Here sat the recipient of letters from five different colleges arguing why they didn't want him through the statement of supposed insufficiencies. Sitting at five for five, he and his family had been playing the proverbial waiting game since he first held the diploma in his hands.

            And now the game was over. It sat crumpled on the counter. The parchment's color resembled that of rotting flesh, and the ink appeared to be the color of dried blood rather than black. The Great Seal was stamped in the top right corner, making clear who was delivering this summons. He was as vulnerable as an infant gazelle on the open plains, and they picked him out like a cheetah on the prowl. It was the summons for his mandatory transmogrification into one of the faceless green men, rifle bearing, to be packed into transports and shipped off to a far off jungle to fight a war that has sent so many home faceless, limbless, lifeless. It sat there haunting him. No matter if he turned around, Ben felt its ever dooming presence. The sudden remembrance of its existence alone was enough to make him run back down the drive, jump in the Galaxie and drive as fast as he could.

            Without having there be a single word said, Ben knew his father understood. Yet the peaceful exterior gave off a sense of relaxation putting Ben at ease and comfort in such a familiar moment. Ben dug in, and savored each forkful of yolk-drenched egg whites, each crunch of bacon, and each slow sip of coffee, making sure to commit his last father-son breakfast to memory.

            "How is it?" he asked taking a bite of bacon.

            "Delicious as always."

            The two raised their glasses to toast the meal and the day, and took a sip. Beyond the continuous meal audio, the breakfast script had ended for the last time. Ben placed his mug back on the table as tears began leaking from his eyes. Wiping the tears away, he looked over at his father. There sat a tall broad man build like a brick wall. But the man in his middle age showed what it took to get the uniform Ben spent days gazing at. The sapphire eyes that saw the war zones and were used to navigate through the constant confetti of earth, blood, and flesh; that saw the life drain out of his friends through holes carved by shrapnel and lead; that saw both sides transmogrify themselves from humans to hateful, blood thirsty animals. The ears that were constantly assaulted by the never ending ensemble of guns, cannons, and bombs, and the choir of blood curdling screams and cries for God, Corpsman, and Mommy, with the Lieutenant's orders and the enemy's battle cries falling into rhythmic syncopation. The hands that were made rough and calloused from scaling the coral battle grounds; from helping Corpsman lift dozens of bleeding, crying bodies behind the front. The hands that were painted bright red serving as his friends' deathbed. The hands that cradled a rifle, and whose fingers decided the fate of countless men. The mouth that muttered prayer after prayer; that joined in the choir of cries for God, Corpsman, and Mommy; that reassured his wounded brothers of their return home, constantly fighting with the acceptance of death no matter the necessary degree of pointless denial. And the mind and legs to get him moving fast, and intelligently through it all to make it home alive, to marry the girl of his dreams, and to have the son sitting next to him.

            Finishing his eggs, Ben then lowered the plate to the Labrador patiently waiting at his side, and he began efficiently cleaning the plate of any remaining yolk, egg, and bacon.

            "So I hear Canada's beautiful this time of year," his father stated breaking the silence. A look of surprise struck Ben's face as he brought the plate back up onto the table. 

            "I think I heard something like that too," he replied.

            "Well, if I were you," his father said standing up and collecting the plates. "I think that's were I'd be going." He placed the dished in the sink and turned back to his shocked son. "What?"

            "Well I just.."

            "You just what?"

            Ben had far too much love and respect to voice his darkest fears of that morning's events, so he remained silent.

            "Ben, I'll be damned if the government forces my son to go thousands of miles away to die for no reason."

            Ben was over come with a surge of relief.

            "Hell, I was actually going to send you off this morning, but you beat me to it."

            "I'm glad you caught me."

            "Yeah, me too. I just wish you were honest with me."

            "Well I thought..."

            "Ben. There's nothing shameful about saving your ass.  You gotta do what you gotta do. There's no dishonor in that."

            "Okay," Ben replied reassured with himself.

            "Do you know the way?"

            "Yeah," Ben replied standing up. "I'm just going to take the highway up to the Falls and cross over."

            "Good idea. We're only about an hour and a half away from there."

            "Yeah."

            "Here, let me check the oil for you." Ben's father then bee-lined out the door to the car. Ben stooped back down, gave a good bye to the still very perplexed Labrador, and followed his father outside. When Ben reached the car, the hood was already up, with his father underneath. The sun was still no where to be seen.

            "Alright you're good," he said closing the hood.

            "Thanks."

            "You need any money?" he said reaching into his back pocket.

            "Oh no, Pop, I'm good."

            "Oh you can never have too much." Ben's father pulled out $100 from his wallet, and placed it in Ben's hands.

            "Pop, I can't take this."

            "Take it," he said in a sterner voice. "And don't come back until this stupid shit's over with."

            "Thank you so much," Ben replied giving his father a big hug.

            "It's no problem, anything for my son." The two remained in an embrace for a few moments, neither of them wanting to release.

            "I love you Son."

            "I love you too Pop." The two released and looked at each other extremely misty eyed, but at peace.

            "Drive save, and your mother and I will be up to visit soon. You have our number, so call us."

            "Will do, Pop." Father and Son embraced one last time, and then Ben got into the car, backed out of the driveway, and drove off.

            Ben was at peace throughout the drive. A large silly grin was pasted on his face as memories of breakfast with his father montaged in his mind. Mornings spent laughing over the funnies, talking about the Rangers and planning their trip to the Garden, Ben learning how to make eggs over easy(and missing the pan in his attempted flip). The memories kept running, and the radio remained silent as the sun finally began to rise. Rising higher into the sky, the sun revealed the cloud of mist produced by the Falls. Finally turning on the radio, Ben came in on the end of a Bob Dylan song which was immediately followed by the DJ reminding all of his listeners about the Apollo 11 Moon Landing that night. Ben decided he needed to find a TV or place to stay by 8:00 that night--whichever came first. Moments later, Ben found himself on the bridge over the River. He counted ten more cars that stood between him and freedom. But sitting in line, his mind returned to the image of his small house in the darkness with his father waving goodbye from the car port, remembering where he could always find the world's greatest breakfast.