“WHEN I was born, your grandmother unraveled all her sweaters and reknit them into rompers using chopsticks from the neighborhood takeout. Imagine the sacrifice she made for me. And now, in her honor, we, too, must sacrifice. Alastair, pay attention!”
Alastair, who continued to wear headphones despite the fact that his Walkman’s batteries had died just past Trenton, pretended not to hear. From the corner of his eye, he saw his father’s gaze lingering on him until Cedric could no longer drive without looking and turned back to the highway. They bounced in their gray vinyl seats as the Ryder truck hit a patch of asphalt that had erupted like a tiny volcano. Alastair’s grandmother was a Frenchwoman who had come to America poor and pregnant and eventually found lucrative work in translation. Though her early struggles remained compelling to Alastair, he didn’t see what this trip had to do with her.
Cedric, who’d become involved with a lot of social activists through his Unitarian church, had recently been tapped to deliver a truckload of yarn to Fort Bragg; from there it would be shipped to the Kosovar refugees at the Macedonian border. Cedric, as usual, had tapped Alastair to help him. Six months earlier, a family-court judge had ordered Alastair to spend every weekend with his father until he turned eighteen. He’d never been one of those kids who blamed himself for his parents’ breakup, though occasionally he wondered if his father blamed him; weekends with Cedric often felt like being sentenced to community service. High school, where Alastair was a freshman, now served as his down time.
It was a terrible thing to admit, but Alastair was dead sick of charity. In the last month alone, despite all his protests, he and Cedric had marched against police brutality (“But I rarely break the law”), picketed a new garbage dump (“But I recycle”), and attended a fundraiser for a battered-women’s shelter (“But most girls are stronger than me”). “Alastair,” Cedric had finally said one weekend, “does the following quote mean anything to you: ‘They came for the communists, and I was not a communist, so I did nothing’?”
“Yes,” Alastair said.
“Well? What does it mean?”
Alastair was sitting on a beige IKEA couch in Cedric’s bachelor apartment, arms out in front of him and crooked like a robot’s while his father strung a skein of yarn from his right hand to his left. The apartment seemed dingier to Alastair each time he visited, though he couldn’t lay his finger on what, exactly, needed cleaning. He feared his father planned to get away with never washing anything again. Even his jeans were developing a light brown sheen.
“I’m waiting,” Cedric said.
“It means something bad will eventually happen to me, and I’d better be nice if I expect to get help.”
“No,” Cedric said. “It means nothing bad will happen to you, so the least you can do is show the world that you know how lucky you are by lending your voice to a few causes.”
“But the world isn’t looking at me,” Alastair murmured, mesmerized by the winding of the soft ocher yarn.
“You’re a white male in a society that prizes that particular gender and color above any other. Not only is the world looking at you, it’s looking to you. Set a good example.”
“But then I’m just perpetuating the idea that I’m important. I think I should set a bad example so people will look to someone else.”
Cedric shook his head vehemently. “No matter what you do, they’re always looking.”
SO here they were, carting a truckload of yarn to North Carolina so the Kosovar refugees could knit themselves a bunch of clothes. Having given it a lot of careful thought, Alastair decided the whole idea was pretty rude. If he were a refugee, the last thing he’d want to do is knit himself a sweater. He’d be too depressed. He’d think, Those motherfucking Americans couldn’t even bother to send me a sweater already made. Here I am, crapping in the woods, and they want me to do arts and crafts.
He could have said no to his father, he supposed. And maybe he would someday soon. But for now, as much as he bucked against it, he pitied the man. And he thought of this pity as a stand-in for love; it had taken love’s place, the way professional seat-fillers took the places of movie stars who went to the restroom during award shows. Alastair’s love for his father was in the restroom. Pity had stepped in around the time of the divorce, when Cedric had suddenly developed a mania for charity. In the end, Alastair understood it was his father who was performing community service, to make up for what he had done.
Cedric, a tailor, had carried on a three-year affair with his seamstress, Boots Newkirk. For Alastair, the story of his father and Boots was now inescapable, a terse narrative entered in his mother’s diary on 11-8-98. The day they were discovered, Boots sat at the edge of a rectangular sewing table — pants off, legs up and apart, blouse open — while Cedric stood and pushed himself into her through his unzipped fly. They looked at each other with something like hate as their bodies deflected violently at the groin. “I’m here,” Alastair’s mother, Renee, had said when it was over. And indeed she was, standing stock-still among a crowd of scantily clad mannequins, which Cedric had apparently configured to resemble an audience.
At the sound of his wife’s voice, Cedric withdrew from Boots, a sight Renee would never forget. “His penis!” she wrote. “His frothy penis!”
Renee edited dictionaries and thesauri. She knew many words, could describe things too aptly. Reading her description of his father’s infidelity inevitably drove Alastair to masturbate. He imagined his father as a porn star, a man who made love to women the same way he went to the bathroom. It was his father’s style that offended Alastair more than his infidelity. Only rapists made love through their clothes, Alastair was certain, though Boots herself had not behaved as if she were being raped. Whatever it was that Cedric had done to her, she had liked it. It was this — her impossible pleasure — that led Alastair to touch himself, despite his indignation. What could it mean, that there was joy in such things?
Neither of his parents knew that he knew. He had contemplated telling Boots’s sulky daughter Gemma, a sophomore at his school, but he changed his mind when she started calling him names after Cedric fired her mother. “Firer!” she yelled, which made Alastair think of arson, until he remembered the context. It was this that most horrified him about the whole business — his guilt by association — so he held his tongue. At night he dreamt of Gemma nude, legs spread, perched on the end of a long cafeteria table. He dreamt of standing before her and unzipping himself, as if she were a urinal, and he cried into his pillow when he awoke to the sticky proof of his depravity.
THEY pulled the Ryder truck off the highway just past Wilmington, Delaware, having agreed to eat dinner at Taco Bell. The restaurant was located along a strip of fast-food franchises, gas stations, and inexpensive chain hotels. Alastair found it challenging, the way the close proximity of the businesses caused their tall signs to obliterate one another at the boulevard’s edge. To find where you were going, you had to keep an eye out for your destination’s colors, which often seeped past whatever sign came before: the red and yellow of McDonald’s giving way to the red and white of Kentucky Fried Chicken, and so forth.
“Revolting,” Cedric said, looking from left to right. The interstate wind had left his coarse blond hair sticking straight up from his head.
“Don’t you like the colors?” Alastair asked.
“The colors?” Cedric said. “You look at a place like this and see color?”
“Yes,” Alastair said firmly.
Cedric laughed. “Well, that’s not what I see.”
Alastair knew his father was waiting for him to ask what he did see, so he said nothing.
“I see corporate hegemony,” Cedric said anyway.
“There,” Alastair said, pointing up ahead, “purple.”
The Ryder was too big for the drive-through, so they parked and went inside to eat. “You do realize they’ve got you exactly where they want you,” Cedric said, after they’d seated themselves by a small window looking out on the yellow truck.
“What?” Alastair said. He was watching the chubby teenagers behind the counter in their matching teal visors, dreaming of the day he could get a job himself. He wondered which position was most coveted: standing at the drive-through window wearing the authoritative headset, preparing the food in the back, or dealing with the customers at the front counter.
“ ‘Purple is for Taco Bell.’ See? You’ve been successfully brainwashed.”
Alastair took a bite of his Taco Supreme, causing a dollop of ground meat and sour cream to squeeze out the back end and drip onto the waxy wrapping paper.
“I tell you you’ve been brainwashed, and you have no response?”
“I like Taco Bell,” Alastair said, taking a sip of his Pepsi. “If I like Taco Bell, and I’m glad to be sitting here having dinner, why would I say something bad about it?”
“We’re here for convenience’s sake only,” Cedric said. “As travelers, we have no choice. Of course we can be critical.”
“I appreciate convenience,” Alastair said.
“Well,” Cedric said, “I guess you have a right to your opinion.”
“However ill informed.”
Back on the road again, Alastair replaced his nonworking headphones and bobbed his head occasionally to make it seem as if he were actually listening to music. Once, he even belted out a lyric from a song by a teenage boy group who sang about their deep need for women. He tried to sing it with the same passion and squinty eyes as the boys in the video, and he sensed his father looking at him, then quickly turning away. Cedric was chagrined, Alastair could tell: at his son’s nerve, his gusto, his appreciation of mediocre art. In fact, Alastair despised this music, too, but the idea that his father might think otherwise put him briefly over the moon.
Then his pity returned, along with a modicum of guilt. He just wished his father would stop hinting at how disgusted he would be if Alastair turned out to be common, as opposed to the hardy descendent of a French self-starter. Was it so terrible not to live in dire straits? Alastair stopped bobbing his head for a moment and gazed out the window at a sign for a Days Inn hotel. It must have risen three hundred feet in the air. Someone had managed to erect this, he thought. How was that not incredible?
“Could you please shut that thing off?” Cedric said. “I’m falling asleep over here.”
“Sorry,” Alastair said, pretending to press stop on his Walkman.
Cedric sighed and flipped up his visor. It was almost nine o’clock now, and the sun was long gone, along with most of the sunset’s orange residue. “Tell me how you feel about Kosovo,” he said.
Alastair shrugged. “I feel all right.”
“ ‘All right’?” Cedric said. “How can you say that?”
“I don’t know,” Alastair said, fingering the PLAY button on his Walkman. “I didn’t understand the question. I thought you were asking me if I was worried or something.”
“But you should be worried.”
“Dad, I have a test on Monday. I’m worried about that. I don’t know how to worry about politics like you, OK? Sorry.”
“You’re just lucky you don’t have to worry about politics — that your life doesn’t depend on it.”
Alastair looked down at his Walkman. “Fine.”
“What about sex?” Cedric said. “When I was your age I was at least worried about sex.”
“I’m too young for that,” Alastair said. “Plus, I don’t want to do it until I meet the right girl. I don’t believe in casual relations.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Cedric asked, raising his right hand to the top of the steering wheel such that his arm shielded him from Alastair.
“Having relations if you don’t love the person is bad for you,” Alastair said. “It’s bad for your psyche.”
“Your mother told you that?”
“No,” Alastair said. “I learned it in school.”
Cedric shook his head. “What are they teaching you over there? To be a prude? I’m not saying you should be having sex all the time, but it’s not dirty — I can tell you that. It’s not a dirty thing.”
“That’s not what they’re teaching me,” Alastair said.
“Sounds like it is.”
“Stop it, Dad! I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”
Cedric didn’t say anything. Alastair cursed himself for not buying batteries at the gas station when he’d had the chance. He should have known his father was incapable of maintaining silence.
“Well, here’s something they won’t teach you in school,” Cedric said.
Alastair sighed. “What?”
Cedric cleared his throat. “Alastair,” he said, “the vagina is like a self-cleaning oven. Did you know that?”
“What?” It was terrible to hear the word come out of his father’s mouth, not because Alastair was ashamed of the human body, but because he was ashamed of his father, whose involvement with the human body was sordid and piggy. The correct terminology only made what he’d said seem more vulgar.
“That’s right,” Cedric said, and for the first time since they’d left New York, he seemed at peace.
They sped past a woman holding a flashlight for a man changing a tire at the side of the road. “I didn’t know that,” Alastair said finally. He wasn’t sure why he was responding, except that he really hadn’t known, and — despite the fact that the information came from his father — he thought that it might be important.
Cedric nodded. “On TV, if you see commercials for perfume sprays for women to put in their vaginas, ignore them. Whenever it is that you decide to have sex, you must never, ever ask a woman to spray herself with these chemicals. It’s wrong.”
“All right,” Alastair said.
“I’m glad we had this talk,” Cedric said.
THEY began looking for a place to spend the night. Well-lit billboards lined the highway, advertising motels whose main selling point seemed to be that they were “American Owned.”
“Look at that,” Cedric said, pointing to one of the advertisements, which was peppered with patriotic red, white, and blue stars. “Do you know what that means, Alastair?”
“No,” he admitted.
“Well, I’ll tell you,” Cedric said. “It means racism. Plain and simple. It’s a coded message saying, ‘Rest assured, this is not an Indian-owned motel.’ Did you know that, Alastair? That Indians make an excellent living in this country running motels? They’re an extremely resourceful people.”
“Are the motels on reservations?”
Cedric shook his head. “Indians as in India.”
“And those signs are saying, ‘Come on in, racists, one and all! You can feel comfortable with us, because we don’t smell like spices or talk with a funny accent!’ ”
“Wow,” Alastair said, feeling strangely invigorated.
“That’s right,” Cedric said.
“Can we stay in one of those places?”
Cedric looked at him, surprised. His eye twitched, and his hands tightened on the steering wheel. A firm resolve seemed to come over him. “Yes,” he said, returning his gaze to the road. “Yes, we can.”
They pulled off the highway and followed the signs for the Thirteen Stars Motel. Besides proclaiming itself to be “American Owned,” the motel promised that its restaurant served “American Food” and that each room was held to “American Standards.” Alastair was thrilled. He’d never met a racist before, and now he was going to. Already he felt a mixture of fascination and compassion, as if he and his father were about to visit the zoo.
Cedric came to a halt at a red light beside a truck stop. Alastair stared at the pornographic silhouettes on the metallic mudflaps of an eighteen-wheeler in the parking lot. He wished his father would become incensed over these in the same way he had over the fast food and the vaginal sprays, but he said nothing. Alastair thought about saying something himself, but then he wasn’t sure. Were the flaps revolting? Or was it the truck driver who owned them? Or the company that made them? Alastair loved how the woman’s breasts were so large and round. He loved the bouncy outline of her hair, the joyful way she reclined on her ample bottom. She was shaped like Barbie, who, he’d once read, would walk like a dog and never menstruate if she existed in the real world. He could never, ever wish this on anyone. Yet there went the Walkman in his lap, rising slightly on top of the bulge of his pants.
The parking lot of the Thirteen Stars Motel was almost full, making it difficult to find a spot for the Ryder truck. “Look at this,” Cedric said as they circled the red-shingled, one-story brick buildings. “People are lining up to stay at this place.”
They parked around back, alongside a wire fence surrounding a small rectangular pool. “Can we go swimming?” Alastair asked, attracted by the glow of the underwater lamps.
“No,” Cedric said, cutting the engine. He unbuckled his seat belt and moved his neck from right to left, eliciting small cracking sounds from his spine.
“We have to get up early.”
“Listen to me, Alastair,” Cedric said, turning in his seat. “This isn’t a vacation. We’re not here to have fun.”
“Do we ever have fun?” Alastair muttered.
“Is that what you’re after? Fun?”
“No,” Alastair said glumly, even though it was.
“Because if you are, I mean, if that’s your thing, I guess we could go to an amusement park or something, if that’s how you want to spend your weekends.”
The thought of going to an amusement park with his father depressed Alastair beyond belief. “No,” he said. “That’s OK.”
They got out of the truck, Alastair carrying a backpack while Cedric transported his belongings in an old tote bag. It was a muggy April night, and Alastair held his breath as they passed by several air conditioners spewing noise and foul heat.
They reached the lobby only to find it locked. “Here,” Alastair said, pushing a doorbell below a plaque saying that all guests arriving after 10 p.m. had to be buzzed in. He peered through the glass at the empty office, noting the miniature U.S. flag in a base on the veneer counter, the portraits of inspirational weather on the wall, the ficus tree, the charity gumball machines, the tattered sectional couch.
“There’s no one here,” Cedric said. “How can there be no one here?”
Alastair pushed the buzzer again. He thought he saw television light emanating from an open doorway in the back.
“Unbelievable,” Cedric said, shifting his tote bag from one shoulder to the other.
Just then, a tall, thin man emerged from the back room, pushing his dark, wavy hair aside with one hand. He wore a short-sleeved shirt that buttoned down the front and carried a folded newspaper tucked beneath his arm. His skin was a deep brown, and he kept his eyes trained on Alastair and Cedric as he approached the check-in counter.
“What?” Cedric said, as if the Indian man himself were a question.
Apparently satisfied that Cedric and Alastair weren’t criminals, the man buzzed them in. Alastair listened for the tumble of the lock, then pulled the door open and held it for his father, who’d suddenly become slow on the uptake. “C’mon, Dad,” Alastair said.
“Yes,” Cedric said, “coming,” and he followed Alastair inside.
“Do you need a room?” the man asked immediately. A sign on the wall behind him said Mr. Patel was the night manager on duty.
Alastair approached the counter, assuming Cedric would take a position beside him, but instead his father pulled up short, as if he were only there to ask directions.
“Good evening,” Mr. Patel said now, perhaps thinking they hadn’t heard his initial question. “Do you need a room?”
Alastair turned around and looked at his father, whose gaze was fixed on an empty gun rack hanging behind the counter. “Yes, please,” Alastair said, turning back to Mr. Patel. “We’d like a room.”
“For how many nights?” Mr. Patel asked, his melodious accent reminding Alastair of his favorite restaurants in New York.
“Just tonight,” Alastair said.
Mr. Patel quickly scanned his ledger. “I have only one left,” he said, “and it has a double bed. Is this acceptable?”
Alastair nodded. “Yes.”
Mr. Patel closed the ledger and passed him a registration card. “Fill this out please,” he said.
Alastair looked at the card, which asked for his home address and telephone number.
“Do you need a pen?” Mr. Patel asked him, pulling one from his trouser pocket.
“Thanks,” Alastair said. It was warm in his hand.
“Sir, is there a problem?”
Mr. Patel was addressing Cedric, who had taken a couple of steps back into the center of the room and now stood with his hands on his hips.
“No,” Cedric said. “Certainly not.”
“OK, because you are behaving strangely,” Mr. Patel said.
“It’s just that we saw a sign on the highway saying this was an ‘American Owned’ motel, with ‘American Standards,’ ” Cedric said. “I’m just a little surprised.”
Mr. Patel laughed ruefully. “Oh, yes, sir, I am an American. Shall I show you my passport?”
Cedric looked at him, startled. “No, no! That’s not what I mean. I’m not unhappy, I just —”
“Would you like to rent a room or not, sir?” Mr. Patel said. “I have one room for you, a very nice room. Otherwise, you can push off down the road and find the more standard type of room which you describe. It is your choice absolutely in this free country.”
Alastair, who had been focusing intently on filling out the registration card, recapped the pen and slid it and the card across the counter. “Here you go,” he said, trying to sound cheery.
“We definitely want that room,” Cedric said.
“I am an American, sir,” Mr. Patel said, pulling a key from a drawer inside the counter. “An American and a small-business owner. I assure you, my highway sign represents me accurately.”
“We support you in your endeavors, sir,” Cedric told him.
Mr. Patel, his eye on Cedric, made a fist around the key, as if he might yet call upon his reserved right not to serve them.
“Are we all set?” Alastair asked hopefully.
The Indian man paused, then slowly offered Cedric the key on his open palm, a demand that his skin be touched.
THE room wasn’t clean. The bed was only haphazardly made, and beneath the scratchy, quilted spread, the sheets were stained and rumpled. There was a grayish spot on the middle of the fitted sheet, just at the point where a prostrate body would be likely to leak.
“Jesus,” Cedric said.
“What’s that?” Alastair said, pointing to the spot on the sheets. He reached to touch it.
“Don’t touch it!”
“It’s nothing,” Alastair said. “It’s not wet.”
“This place is terrible.”
“It’s not that bad,” Alastair said, which was true. It was mostly just an old room, with scuffed baseboards, matted brown carpet, and blue-green walls. Alastair narrowed his eyes and tried to take in just the colors, which were pleasing.
Cedric walked into the bathroom and turned on the light. While he was gone, Alastair leaned down and sniffed the stain on the sheet. It had a human smell, and he quickly pulled away. Then, unable to resist, he sniffed it again. He didn’t have the experience to confirm that this was a female secretion, but his innate attraction to it led him to make an educated guess. This was it, he thought. The stuff Boots Newkirk had deposited on his father’s penis. The froth.
“Good God!” Cedric cried from the bathroom.
“What?” Alastair said, moving into the doorway.
His father stood above the toilet, holding the lid up with a hand swathed in toilet tissue. “Look at this.”
Alastair peered into the bowl, which was misted on all sides with a fine spray of shit. “Uh-oh,” he said.
“This room hasn’t been cleaned at all,” Cedric said, letting the plastic lid drop. He held his hand over the trash basket — which already contained crumpled toilet paper — and shook it free of the tissue.
Alastair shrugged. “Have the manager come and clean it.”
“No,” Cedric said, pushing past Alastair and into the room. “We can’t.”
“Why not?” Alastair asked, though he might have been sad, actually, to lose the stained sheet.
“Because,” Cedric said, “that man is noble. Don’t you see what he’s doing? Weren’t you paying attention in there? He’s fighting the system using its own tactics. He’s a genius. He’s prevailing! And I’m going to ask him to come in here and clean a toilet? I don’t think so.”
“So we’ll go to another motel,” Alastair said.
Cedric shook his head. “Absolutely not.”
Alastair sighed, folded the bedspread back over the dirty sheets, and sat down.
“Get up from there,” Cedric said.
Alastair didn’t move.
“No. Wait. You’re right. We’ll just sleep on top of the bedspread. That doesn’t look too bad. Then, in the morning, we can stop at McDonald’s or something to use the restroom.”
“You should let the manager clean this place up,” Alastair said. “It’s his job. I’m sure he’d want to do it.”
“He can clean it tomorrow, after we leave.”
“Then he’ll think it’s our mess,” Alastair pointed out.
“So?” Cedric said. “We’ll be gone. What’ll it matter?”
“I didn’t make this mess.”
“We’re not calling him,” Cedric said.
They spent an hour watching television side by side on the bed, its spread pulled up over the pillows to protect them from lice. Cedric insisted on flipping from one news channel to another, all of which broadcast images of the sad Kosovar refugees, who would soon be receiving boxes and boxes of yarn from the United States.
Later, when they’d turned the television off and the streetlamp outside illuminated the room, Alastair asked, “Isn’t it rude to give the Kosovars yarn?”
They were lying on their backs, hands clasped beneath their heads. “Why?” Cedric said.
“They’re suffering now. They need clothes now. We should just give them sweaters.”
“There’s little more gratifying than making one’s own clothes, Alastair.”
Alastair thought of his French immigrant grandmother, heroically overcoming her poverty, knitting rompers for her baby boy.
“Trust me,” Cedric said. “They’ll be happy to get that yarn.”
“If I got it, I wouldn’t be happy.”
“Why not?” Cedric asked.
“I’d think the Americans could do better.”
“Really?” For the first time since Alastair could remember, his father sounded sincerely confused.
“We’re a rich country,” Alastair reminded him.
“I don’t want to do any more charity, Dad.”
Cedric was quiet for a moment. “All right.”
“And I don’t want to visit you every weekend.”
“Jesus,” Cedric said. He removed his hands from behind his head and rolled over onto his side, his t-shirt twisting snugly around him. Alastair did the same, only instead of turning away, he faced his father’s back, trying to imagine the tiny, knitted rompers that had once stretched across it.