Riding with my father - the original Old Black Man - requires a certain relaxation of the rules of time and space. He is, among other things, 85 ... and driving a very small car. Between the whine of a tiny four cylinder engine in its efforts to accelerate onto a highway, or out of the path of an oncoming truck, and my father's tendency to move slowly, I find myself resorting to a childhood habit - pressing my nose as closely into a book as humanly possible.
In retrospect, I was a nerd who needed his books in order to get through a given day - two or three or more at times, some read simultaneously ... others just resting in my little bag, waiting their turn. And while that was true then, books now provide a different kind of solace. They keep me from grabbing the door handle, or otherwise demanding to take the wheel.
A month ago, when I was dressed to the nines and on the verge of vomiting, my father drove me to school so that I could take the LSAT - the (five hours) exam one takes when one is foolish enough to want to go to law school. I arrived five minutes late, and thus I didn't take the test. I am not planning on repeating that mistake - so, by hook or crook, I will be on time this Saturday.
But back to the subject of the long road home with the Old Black Man, my father gave me one of his classic tours Friday - down 37 to 90, to New Braunfels Ave., past side streets where I once bought crack, and the HEB where he used to work - three decades ago. We drove by the Driver's License office where I failed my driving test three times, down Military - past the Chuck E. Cheese where I had six birthday parties, and where I once peed on a man in a giant rat suit. He asked if I remembered each place, and I said - with a mix of surly and sad - that indeed I did. We drove past Southeast Baptist Hospital, where my mother died - 20 years ago ...
But the tour did not end there; for one reason, or several perhaps, my father started talking about Shoney's. We were just back in from the magical history tour, and my father brought it up while I was making breakfast - a microwavable assemblage of left-overs and some eggs. He said, "How long it been since you been out to Shoney?" And I duly maintained the cool, calm, collected voice that said "I don't want to go there ... but ah hell, this is parental bonding, right?" And so I said, "Would you like to go tonight? It has been a while."
Shoney's is the bane of my dietary existence - worse, somehow, than the Burger King menu my father brings home every day, a restaurant that does not serve wine or beer, a restaurant with a plush bear as its mascot that specializes in seafood buffets. Everything's fried, and the place stinks of mediocrity and the old ... not unlike Luby's, but with flavor and fat the levels of which could stop a heart at twenty paces. Assuming, that is, that anyone who eats at Shoney's could actually make it twenty paces. The seating is arranged, I noticed - once again - such that one need only walk about 18 steps - at most - to get to the fried shrimp, gumbo, cornbread or heavily ham-hocked green beans.
It is comfort food, from which I take little comfort. I think it has more to do with the lack of wine, or maybe just the lack of conversation. My father and I do not speak, except to note that the fried fish is good or bad, that the shrimp is plentiful, and to inquire if one of us is going to make another go 'round at the buffet.
We go to Shoney's once or twice every few months. It was much more often a few years ago - when we didn't get along nearly as well, but there was a lot more money to go around.
Things changed after my mother died - a thing I find myself coming back to tonight, again and again. Maybe it's that I just lost the Czarina, but then that doesn't really seem to cover it. We drove past Southeast Baptist, where my mother had the final stroke - the last of four. And then we sat at Shoney's, in a small two-seater booth, and I could not help recall that meal 20+ years ago.
My parents celebrated their 42nd wedding anniversary at Shoney's, in 1988 - on New Year's Eve. And then, three hours later, my mother was gone. She didn't die, mind you, but instead had a stroke - the first of the aforementioned four. But she was gone that night - screaming and pissing herself and lost and gone.
But I don't think about that every time we dine there. Instead, I focus on the fact that I am with the Old Black Man, and that it's a nice thing we do together - part of a complex and sometimes ugly family history.
But then, aren't all family histories complex and sometimes ugly? Couldn't we just go to IHOP once in a while?