“So, what’s the story?” Charlie asked, peeling the foil back from his cheeseburger. He stared straight ahead, out the windshield of the car, and into the night that was punctuated with streetlamps rather than stars.
Junior didn’t touch his food. He stared ahead as well, not wanting to look at his father. He wasn’t ashamed — no, shame was long past. But he was conflicted. He spoke quietly and flatly. “You know, it’d be easier if you were an asshole about it.” He looked at his father, hoping to glean some insight into his thoughts.
Charlie took a bite and chewed slowly, his face remaining stoic, a bit of grease dripping into his thin blonde beard. When he swallowed and promptly took another bite, Junior knew he wasn’t going to get an answer to that.
“I don’t suppose you’d take ‘I can’t tell you’ as an answer,” Junior turned his gaze back outside to the parking lot and failed to suppress a deep sigh. He could see the vague outline of his own face in the translucent reflection. He looked tired and dead, his own golden beard thick and unkempt. He suddenly felt as though that specter in the window wasn’t him, but was haunting him, and he shifted his gaze to his hands as they idly wrung themselves out.
Charlie wiped his mouth with a napkin and spoke, simply and sternly. “Well, I might. Why can’t you tell me?” He took another bite.
Junior looked down at the brown paper bag beside him that contained his burger and a medium order of french fries. He could feel his stomach shriveling up at the thought of eating. “I can’t tell you that either.”
Charlie placed his foil-wrapped, half-eaten burger on the dashboard and reached for his own bag while he spoke. “Well, I suppose I can’t force you. And you can’t force me to bail you out next time.” Charlie let that hang in the air for a few seconds while he gingerly selected a few fries and popped them into his mouth. “Will there be a next time?”
Junior’s answer was almost immediate, and his head drooped as he said it. “I don’t know.”
“So, what, there’s no plan?” Charlie made an emphatic shrugging gesture, a red cardboard box stained with grease in one hand, and a long golden french fry in the other. He still had not looked at Junior since the 21-year-old had stepped through the police checkpoint.
Junior continued to wrestle with himself, silently. How much could he say? How could he possibly make his father understand?
“There is a plan,” he said at last. “I just don’t know all of it right now.”
At this, Charlie turned to look at Junior, an eyebrow raised. Junior met his gaze, though sheepishly, and remained silent in response to the unspoken question.
“Come on, son, don’t make me play twenty questions here,” Charlie sounded exasperated, emotion seeping into his voice for the first time.
Junior just looked back outside.
“Alright, I guess I will if I have to,” Charlie put his box of fries on the dashboard beside his burger, and sat thinking for a few long moments, his arms resting on the steering wheel. “I know you won’t lie to me, son, and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate that. I know you’d tell me if you could. But I’ve got to have something to go off of here.” Junior looked over and saw the beginnings of tears in his father’s eyes. “I need to have a reason to believe that I haven’t lost you.”
Junior felt cold hands around his throat. He wanted to speak but couldn’t. Every sentence that passed through his mind met with an impenetrable barrier of silence. In an insane moment, he was proud of how well he had trained himself. Eventually, a thought finally met with his approval and he allowed it to slip through. “I didn’t think they’d call you. I would have…” he stopped himself again. He had come close there, but he managed to catch himself. “I would have done things differently.”
It was all the apology he could offer while remaining honest. And he knew that his father would want that more than any lie — honesty.
This seemed to give Charlie some ground to stand upon. He sniffed and wiped his eyes. “Alright…” There was a long silence, and in it, Junior gradually realized how hungry he really was. Some of the tension in his gut seemed to have lifted, and he hesitantly reached for the bag beside him.
As Junior began to eat, Charlie spoke, knowing that his son wouldn’t — couldn’t — answer him, but needing to put it all in the air rather than holding it in his head. “So, either someone will know if you tell me, or what you tell me would make me angry. I don’t think you’d do something so bad you’d refuse to tell me, so it must be the first.”
Charlie glanced furtively at the car radio, then just as quickly uttered a brief, sheepish laugh. “I think a lot of you, son. For a second I thought you might have somehow become a real-life James Bond.” Charlie looked to Junior, wearing a sad smile, hoping to see some reaction. Now though, it was Junior’s turn to stare stoically into space.
“Alright,” whispered Charlie, turning back to the asphalt sprawl before them. “So you’re into something secret, at least from me, but you’re still unwilling to lie about it. I suppose that’s reassuring. It’s obviously dangerous — you’re going to be charged with instigating a riot, for God’s sake!” Charlie paused to take that fact in, then continued. “Can you tell me what it’s all for? What’s at the end of this mystery plan that you’re following?”
Junior stopped and lowered his almost finished burger, absently realizing how hungry he had been. His eyes fell, and his head shook slightly from side to side.
“Come on, son,” Charlie threw his hands up in a moment of frustration. “Just that! Just give me that and I can trust you! I need something.”
Junior just closed his eyes.
Charlie stared at his son for a long time, hoping that whatever part of him wanted to speak would win out. After a few long, drawn-out moments though, he gave up on that. He turned back and stared at the silvery logo at the center of the steering wheel, needing something meaningless and safe to focus his eyes on. Then, an idea occurred to him. Quietly, slowly, he asked, “if you could tell me… if you did tell me, what would I say?”
Junior’s eyes snapped open, and after an almost imperceptible moment, he released an involuntary, stunted chuckle. His smile was pained but genuinely happy. “I think you’d buy me dinner,” Junior held up the last bite of his burger, looking right into Charlie’s eyes now. “Then you’d drive me back to my place, and you’d never ask me about it again. You’d know that I’d tell you as soon as I could.”
Junior turned away, a faint smile still hanging on his lips. He popped the burger bite into his mouth and stared serenely out the window.
Charlie thought for a long time. After a few minutes, he felt his appetite return, and he continued to eat his midnight dinner. Junior absently munched on his fries beside him. Twenty minutes later, Charlie quickly packed all the trash into one bag, and uttered a resolute, “alright.”
“Alright?” asked Junior.
“Alright. I’m your father. I’ve known you for your entire life. I don’t like this, but whether I like it or not doesn’t matter. I can’t bring myself not to trust you. I think you’re telling me the truth, so I’ll do just what you said I would.” He shoved the key into the ignition, threw the car into drive, and began rolling towards the road.
Junior felt reassured at his father’s renewed energy.
They drove in silence to Junior’s apartment. As they pulled up to the curb, Junior blurted, “Oh! And when people ask you what happened, you’ve got to tell them we had a big fight.” He looked to his father as if he was a child again, proposing a game for them to play at the park later. His eyes were wide and tentatively excited, the context of the situation entirely forgotten.
Charlie smiled sadly as he brought the car to a stop. He leaned over the wheel and said, “alright, son. We had a big fight.”