The waiter was the last man to leave the restaurant. He was an unattractive man. Tall, slim, and vastly angular in his black and white uniform, he lived alone in an apartment now that his father had died. It was a small place, mostly decorated in green, but the waiter liked to go home after a long night working at the restaurant. He would walk, not ride, and would count the steps it took to move from one streetlight to the next. Forty-two was the number his long thighs liked, except when it rained, and then it seemed everything got shorter.
He had loved his father, he supposed. The waiter wasn’t sure, but he didn’t think it mattered either. His father was gone, up in the sky somewhere, or below in a ditch deeper. It didn’t matter who had loved him. His strip of life was done and the buses and bicycles drove on without him. The cigarette felt soft in his fingers and the waiter rolled it back and forth; he inhaled deeply and blew the smoke out. His father had never smoked. He said it interfered with riding the bicycle. But the waiter had stopped riding years before and so smok-ing seemed all right. And everyone had cars now. You didn’t need to pump your legs, the way the waiter’s father had, so smoke in the lungs interfered with nothing; it could feel good going down the way it did for the waiter.
His father had been thick and strong, and regardless of weather, liked to wear white vests with thick, cotton socks pulled up high on his calves. He said the socks held the calf hair in the most important of places and added stream-line to a serious man cycling. He was heavy and dirty and didn’t shave enough to be considered responsible. Even when the waiter was young, he could tell people in the neighborhood thought little of his father. He could tell by the way the ladies in the supermarket looked at him. They tried not to touch his skin and giggled when he passed by the cash register with coins falling out of his pocket and wearing his heavy, high socks. It upset the waiter, but his father didn’t seem to mind. When they left the supermarket after buying the weekly groceries he would tell the boy to hurry up and get on the bicycle; they had a long ride ahead.
The waiter’s father liked to bike when it rained. Even when the clouds were heavy and gray in the sky, the waiter’s father would suggest an outing to the countryside.
“But, Papa, look at the sky. Rain is on the way”
“Beautiful. More space on the roads that way.”
“But I’ll get wet and the rain stings my eyes.”
“Nonsense,” his father said, and waited for the boy to get back on the bicycle. “Did you pack the sandwiches?” his father asked, as they turned the wheels slowly with their black-booted feet.
“Yes, Papa. I made ham and cheese.”
“Good boy. Those are my favorites.”
The rides were never good when they rode in the city. The waiter’s father said no one respected bicycles anymore.
“They think engines are the gods now. These things that hum and choke like broken records; they are nothing. They’ll ruin this city,” he said, after an errant driver almost pushed them off the street.
But the young waiter liked the cars and the speed with which they moved. He thought the noise of the engines sounded like geese calling on the bluest of days and longed for the time when he could buy his first car. The bicycle rides did become pleasant when the roads opened up and the hills took the place of the buildings and the young waiter and his father could breathe the country air. Then the spokes would turn faster and the fresh wind would run through his hair.
“This is living,” his father said. “This is why men are born. To feel freedom and space from the joys of their feet.”
The boy couldn’t help but like it too. His father was strong and could move them at great speeds up and down the hills and through tunnels where neither the waiter nor the father could see.
“Put your head down,” his father cried, as they raced out the tunnels where soldiers had once marched. “The wind will take the water right out of your eyes.”
The boy listened and lowered his head as they came back out under the sun. The whip of the wind pushed his head back and the boy laughed in a way only simplicity could bring.
“Feels good, doesn’t it?”
“Yes, Papa,” and the young waiter and his father turned the spokes over with their feet until they reached the next town.
“Towns are better than cities,” his father said. “They rely on each other and keep it to themselves.”
His favorite town was a gray place an hour’s ride from their apartment in the city. They made excellent cheese. They made it in a factory right next to where the stream ran and sent it to local stores the moment it was packed and ready. They wrapped it in plastic, tightly, his father said. Stilton was his father’s favorite. His father especially liked the Stilton when the blue mold was apparent.
“Makes you not want to eat it, doesn’t it?” and the young waiter nodded.
“But it’s good,” the waiter’s father said, cutting a piece of cheese once they were sitting down at the cafe. “It is so good. Try it!” But the waiter refused. The mold and the waxy look were not good for the waiter. He still aspired for the beautiful then and he refused the Stilton cheese.
“Suit yourself,” his father said, and pressed the piece of cheese hard onto the cracker. The cracker broke and his father shoved all the broken pieces of cheese and cracker into his mouth. “Fantastic,” he chuckled. The young waiter turned away, embarrassed by the mess.
“Where to today?” the owner of the café asked, with a clean, wooden tray pressed up against his chest.
“There is a town to the east we’ve never been to before. They call it St. Petersburg. Do you know it?”
The owner nodded. “It is fantastic,” he said, “but far. I marvel at your legs, old man.” The owner refused payment when the young waiter and his father left. “It is just a pleasure to have you in my store when you come. Take some cheese for the trip. I can see how much you like it.”
They rode then that afternoon especially hard. The waiter wasn’t sure whether it was the offering of the free food or the coming gray clouds that made his father ride so hard and well that day, but they reached the town of St. Petersburg in less than an hour.
“There,” his father said. “We made it in excellent time.”
The small town stood still waiting for them. The clouds had moved in and a gray weight hung over the town as the waiter and his father rode the silver and orange bicycle up the hill. The street was cobbled and lush bushes lined the road. The boy wanted to stop and catch his breath before taking the last hill but his father said no.
“There will be plenty of time to rest once we’re sitting down. We have to finish the ride now.” It began to rain as they leveled up the hill; the waiter could feel it in his eyes and dripping down his ears.
“I love it!” his father said, turning to look at his son whose head was kept down. “You should feel it, my boy, running down your face. It’s like a gift from God on your skin.”
The young waiter didn’t think so. The rain stung his skin. It felt like hard rain, dirty rain, rain that shouldn’t come from the sky. “I don’t like it, Papa. I want to get inside.”
His father obliged and ground his thick calves against the pedals and brought his son in out of the rain. They sat down at the first café and the young waiter could tell it wasn’t good. Horror lounged in the air and a tall man with a beaked nose came out from behind a curtain. He had food stains on his shirt and wiped his big hands against an apron tied around his waist.
“You just missed the rain,” the tall man said, holding his frame well.
“We got some of it.” The waiter’s father grinned, showing his yellow teeth and the gaps that stood between them.
“Are you going to eat?”
“I like cheese,” his father said.
“No cheese here. My wife cooks sauces, sticky things. That’s what we do here.”
“Sauces!” his father cried. “What kind? The boy’s grandmother was a good cook. She cooked Italian.”
“It’s not Italian,” the man said, with his beaked nose bearing down on them. “It’s sauces. I don’t know what she does, but they’re good. Try one,” he said. “Your boy might like it as well.”
His father agreed and sat back, slightly disgusted. “What store doesn’t car-ry cheese?” he asked, tapping his heavy feet against the gray slated floor. “The man from the other store said it’s fantastic. How can it be fantastic without any cheese?” His father stretched out his arms and turned to look at his bicycle. “She’s a beauty, isn’t she?” and the young waiter agreed. It was silver and shin-ing and the light caught the spokes still wet from the rain.
‘Papa, why do you like bicycles so much?”
“Because God is touching me when I ride and I need his help.”
“But why, Papa? Why do you need his help?”
“Because without him I am alone.”
“But you have me,” the young waiter said, his thick brown hair settled well on his head.
“Not forever,” his father replied.
This puzzled the boy, but then the sauces came and the waiter’s father thanked the owner.
“You’ll see,” the man said. “She cooks good food.”
And she did. The sauces were fine and thin. One was red and the other was white. The waiter couldn’t tell what was in his and neither could his father but they scooped the sauce up quickly and put it in their mouths.
‘Papa, it’s so good.”
“Yes, my boy. It is. It is so good.” His father scooped another helping into his mouth. “This is better than anything your grandmother made.” When the bowls stood empty and his father had paid the owner, they left the café feeling good, like happy men with sacks on their backs moving to a new field. The beating only came later, once the clouds filled with rain had left the sky.
The three men kicked his father’s face first and then turned on his ab-domen. The tallest man liked to punch and his friend preferred to kick. The third man was the shortest and spat as he punched. He also laughed, which was difficult for the young waiter to watch because his father wasn’t laughing; there was only blood coming from his mouth. Bright, healthy colored blood and it splashed all over the ground and covered his father’s face. The young waiter didn’t move as he watched. He couldn’t. Not because of fear, because he was afraid, but because he didn’t know what to do. He was sure he would be killed if he tried to help his father. And the bright sight of the blood flowing from his father’s body mesmerized him the way a big ride might. The way a merry-go-round with flashing colors might stop a child walking and make their mouth hang wide open. It was almost like that for the young waiter, watching his father get smashed in the head. But there were no rides to take and no money to be paid. There were no clowns to pat him on the head or dare him to pull a red nose. There was no music playing except for the quiet gasps of his bloodied father. And the waiter watched on as they kicked his father harder and tore his vest and he wondered when a vendor might come and tell him the game was over. That he had won a stuffed animal for playing such a difficult game. That the flashing lights would pop out any minute and everyone would laugh. That his father would wipe off the red paint and tell him to hop on the bicycle, heavy rain was coming. But his father did not get up. He continued to lie on the black gravel road even after the three men left. Then the young waiter crawled over to his father and begged him to get up. He remembered the screaming face of a woman as she dialed a number into the telephone and he wondered if his father was dead. He wasn’t, but the waiter overheard the doctors later saying how close it had been.
When the waiter’s father woke from the beating he wasn’t the same. He didn’t care for cheese anymore or bicycle rides and spent most of his days on the green sofa pressed up against the window in the apartment they had in the city. It was strange that his father didn’t like cheese anymore and it bothered the waiter every time he brought cheese home. Even the Stilton did nothing. When it was waxy and covered in mold his father would push the block away and spit at his son for giving him something horrible.
“Would you feed this to a dog? A dog would starve before he ate this and you expect me to eat it?”
“It used to be your favorite, Papa.”
“I can’t believe it.”
“It’s true. You loved it. We would ride for miles just to get the best cheese and this kind was your favorite. It’s Stilton, Papa. The best there is.”
“It sounds like a tall bridge or a building somewhere in the city. I won’t eat it.”
“And you used to bike, Papa. On that bicycle I showed you downstairs. You were beautiful on that machine, but now you kick it when you walk by. You should have seen yourself on those hills. You were a king, a truly graceful king. And I loved rising with you, Papa, on the back seat of the bicycle behind your strong legs. I would ride, too, but there was really no need. Your legs took us everywhere we needed to go. They crunched the road with their strength, and the road listened and sent you on your way, to the hills and the cheese, and the rain that you loved. It was my favorite time with you, Papa. But now you just sit there, right there on this green sofa and it makes me sick. You are not my Papa, lying there like an animal half-killed.”
“You failed me, boy.”
“No, Papa. Don’t say that.”
“In front of the spokes on the wet, stone ground you did nothing. Not an arm lifted or a word said. You crouched my boy, beneath the bicycle for your own protection.”
The young waiter stared at his father, a dog behind a cage for too many years.
“Did you see the blood? Did you see how red it was?” his father spat. “Flashing, bright red on the street. It poured, my boy, out of my veins and onto the street, coloring the road with my red rain. All of my power, all of my hills, were taken from me that day. My grinding calves and my obedient pedals left me, abandoned me, ran from me, and I am left here on this couch with nothing. With no power, no grace, and I wonder where God is? Did he travel with the blood too? Did he leave me on the cobbled streets just like my red blood did? Running like a torrent on the dark streets, finding lanes and cracks to travel. It cannot be, because I am certain he loves me. But I sit here on this couch, and he doesn’t call me. He doesn’t bring the whispers of the spring or the damning of the fall to lure me out. He leaves the staleness of the room in my nostrils as a reminder of my empty core. Nothing calls me, and so I wonder where God is.”
“I am here, Papa.”
“But where is my God?”
“I don’t know, Papa.”
“Where is my God? Why doesn’t he come to me? There is nothing in the air. Nothing that I can find. I can feel the couch up against my thighs and see the closed window beside me, but the smells have gone. How can it be?”
“Let’s go back,” the boy pleaded. “Maybe if we go it will bring them back. Maybe everything that is lost will come back if we just make the trip.”
“To the town. To St. Petersburg. To the place where you say you lost everything.”
His father laughed and coughed and it was disgusting. Phlegm blocked his airways and the cough was thick.
“No, I will wait here.”
“I am so sorry, Papa.”
“I know, boy. It wasn’t your fault. It must have been God’s wish I be taken that day.”
“Then I spit on him.”
“Don’t spit on him. He is God and he sits on my shoulders. For good or bad, he rests on my shoulders, somewhere. I am sure of it. And now, I want to go to sleep,” his father said, patting the young waiter’s hand. “And, boy, I know it was like a circus for you that day.”
The young waiter sat next to his father on the green couch and watched him fall asleep. His white vest was not clean and his shorts were wrinkled but his cotton socks remained high on his calves.