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170 Degrees

by Jack Phillips Lowe

part 1 of 2

I shouldn’t leave the door open like this, Tom told himself. He could feel brisk November breezing past his ears, hear dried oak leaves skittering in off the porch. But it’s not every day that you find one of your greatest childhood fears staring you in the face.

“Hawh!” it cackled. “Hello yourself! Are you going to invite me in or just stand there heating the whole world?”

Tom chewed the idea thoroughly and then stepped aside. “Sure, Pop. Come on in.”

From first through eighth grade, Tom feared two things above any others. And, he recalled, he feared these things because he had to face them nearly every day after school.

The first thing was Fearless Leader. Yes, from “Bullwinkle,” the guy with the eye patch and the cigarette holder. When Tom would arrive home, his big sister, Martha — who owned the TV from three until five o’clock — was always tuned to the moose. Whenever Martha allowed Tom to sit and watch, which wasn’t often, Fearless Leader always seemed to be there.

“Honey?” Tom’s wife, Annie, came out of the den. “Who is it?”

“Oh. Uh, you’ll never guess,” Tom stammered, still reeling at the sight of the man before him. “This is...”

“Annie?” said Tom’s father, reading off an index card he pulled from his coat. “My daughter-in-law, at last! Come here and let me look at you.” He dropped his suitcase on the floor. “Just call me Pop.”

The very sight of Boris and Natasha’s boss gave Tom the creeps. The sharp, hatchet-carved features. The scarred cheek. The unblinking, fishlike eye. A Fearless Leader episode always meant a sleepless night for young Tom.

“Say, Tom, where’s little...” Pop checked the card. “Victor? How old is he now?”

“He’s five,” said Tom, coldly, “and he’s upstairs in his room.”

Tom and his father stood mute for a long moment, with Annie glancing back and forth, anxiously, between them.

“I’ll go up and get him,” Annie said, faux cheerful. “I’m sure he’ll love meeting you. Tom? Why don’t you invite your son’s only living grandparent into the den?

Tom recognized the sound. It was Annie’s “cut-the-crap” tone. Failure to comply meant a lonely night on the couch. So he pointed to the den and led Pop into it.

The second thing that had frightened Tom was Fearless Leader. Also known as “Pop.” Tom used to marvel at the resemblance between the two. The same hacked-out features. No eye patch or cigarette holder, but a sure enough cheek scar... Pop’s, he claimed, from a North Korean bullet.

“Nice place you got here, Thomas,” said Pop, settling into an easy-chair. “A cozy little house. Your mother and I never owned a house. Never could pull the money together.”

“You could never give a job a chance,” Tom said, perching across the room on a stool. “Or hold on to money that long.”

Pop ran his fingers through his close-cropped hair. Tom noted that the last time he’d seen his father, Pop’s hair had been black and wavy. Now, white had gathered on Pop’s head like snow on the roof of a condemned building.

“Pretty nippy out there. I forgot how cold it gets in these parts. I’ve been out West too long. I remember when I used to go see the Bears at Wrigley Field...”

“Reagan,” Tom said, leaning forward and resting his forearms on his knees.

Pop squinted and gave the inevitable reply. “What?”

“The last time you saw any of us, Ronald Reagan was president. You promised to stay in contact. Do you know how long that’s been?”

“Look, son, I figured you’d feel this way, and you’re entitled. As a father, I was no Robert Young. I left you and your sister high and dry, I admit it. So let’s not stoke dead coals.”

Tom gave his best sarcastic laugh. “All right, whatever you say. You drop in for the first time since 1988 and we’ll just pick up where we left off. We won’t discuss how you skipped town with that dental hygienist, and then divorced Ma long-distance. We’ll just forget it all.”

Tom watched Pop lean forward and assume a position that reflected his own. Coincidence or an offensive move by the mind-game master? Tom wasn’t sure.

“I knew it. Here comes the drama. You’re still an Academy Award-winning performer.”

“Ah, there’s the attitude I remember,” Tom said, rubbing his palms together. “You’re quite a ham yourself. Let’s hit the highlights: the vanishing act and the savings account that vanished with you. Not to mention Ma’s funeral, for which you were likewise a no-show.”

“You’re completely in the dark.”

“Then pull the drapes, why don’t you?”

“Every dime in that account I earned, so I took it. She got you kids, the car, everything else. By the time I left, your mother and I were strangers...”

“Christ, I think I need to brush my teeth! Didn’t I see this once on All My Children?”

“Tom, I don’t need to tell you. When we weren’t fighting, we were ignoring each other in lieu of fighting. What kind of life is that?”

“Maybe if you’d treated her with some more respect...”

“Hey! Like the man said, don’t judge me until you’ve walked in my shoes. You’re married now; you might just get the chance.”

“No chance. I live my life as a mirror opposite of yours. Annie and I communicate, we give and take. We’d never do to Vic what you did to Martha and me.”

“What I did? I asked for a quick and bloodless divorce. Your mother promised to battle me every inch. Rather than fight a war, I walked away. It could’ve been much worse, believe me.”

“You couldn’t spare an hour for Ma’s wake or at least send flowers? How about a yearly postcard for us kids?”

“She hated me, her whole family hated me! Use your head. Was I supposed to show up and make a difficult situation even harder?”

Tom used his fingers to mimic a flapping mouth.

“There’s your mother’s blood in you. A smart-ass streak a mile long, just like hers. You know, loving you was never easy, but I tried. My birthday and Christmas cards all came back ‘Return to Sender,’ and she kept changing the phone number. She even threatened me with a restraining warrant. After a couple years, I figured it was best to leave you kids to your own lives. But that was yesterday. Please, Tommy, let’s not do this.”

Tom rose and walked over to Pop’s chair. “Okay then, let’s not. But let’s answer one question. Why are you here?”

“To see you, of course.”

“Liar.” Tom felt like every nerve in his body was firing. He was an adult in his own home. But there, confronting Fearless Leader, all he wanted to do was run upstairs and hide under the bed.

“No, seriously. In spite of everything, I honestly wanted to touch base with you. You’re my son.”

“You’re slipping, Pop. First, you say loving me wasn’t easy, now you’re claiming you flew cross-country for this touching encounter. You know, I phoned Martha two days ago. To get here, you had to pass over Denver. Martha never mentioned you at all, and she would have. If you wanted to visit me, why wouldn’t you want to visit your daughter?”

Pop swatted the air with his hand, as if chasing a fly. “Martha’s holed up in that convent out there. I didn’t think they’d let me in to see her, so I let her be. I still can’t believe she’s a nun. By her freshman year of high school, she had 101 boyfriends.”

“And you scared them all away. None lived up to your standards. Tell me, what’s on that little card you keep looking at? How do you know all this stuff about us?”

Pop held up the card. “A friend of mine’s nephew is a computer whiz. I had him ogle you on the Internet.”

“That’s ‘Google,’ and I’m not surprised. For a second, I thought you’d been keeping tabs on us.”

Pop got up and removed his coat. He rolled up his sleeve and carefully peeled away a square-shaped bandage.

“Let me guess. You had our names tattooed on your arm as a token of your everlasting love.”

Pop shook his finger at Tom. “When you were a kid, I would’ve cracked you in the mouth for saying something like that.”

“You did, and if you didn’t have a reason, you made one up. Try that now and you’ll be unpleasantly surprised. And no, I don’t care how old you are.”

Pop held out his arm. “Cut it out. Want to know why I’m here? Look.”

Tom moved in closer to see. On Pop’s left arm, about an inch past the bend, was an ugly black mole. It was roughly the size of a pea, raised like a mosquito bite, and rimmed with dried blood.

“Thanks for sharing, Pop. We had dinner not an hour ago and I’m about to lose mine.”

Pop replaced the bandage and rolled his sleeve down. “That’s skin cancer. Melanoma. It’s run through me.”

Tom burst out laughing. “I get it! But I would’ve expected more originality from you!”

“What do you mean?”

“I’ve seen The Royal Tenenbaums. Good flick, one of Hackman’s best.”

“I tell you I have skin cancer and that’s your answer? What kind of son are you?”

“The kind that can smell a scam a mile away. You show up with a sob story and then hit me up for a loan.”

“Wrong, wrong, wrong! It’s true. I wish it was a scam.”

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2010 by Jack Phillips Lowe

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