My dad’s wallet is empty except for the ten dollars I tuck inside when he’s not looking. It’s babysitting money from my last job. Three dollars an hour plus a dollar tip. It feels like a fortune after having our power turned off. Something to stave off the debt collectors and angry phone calls about our car payment. You listen to me, motherfucker, I’d heard someone say to my dad over the phone once. I was sitting breathless and sweaty on the small stepladder permanently installed in the kitchen, my tiny palm cupped over the receiver while my dad paced on his bedroom phone upstairs, silently chewing his nails. The cord was extra long on our kitchen phone but I stayed close to the dial—as though to wander away from it would let loose the angry man’s voice into the rest of our house like an evil spirit.
Twenty five years later, my dad’s wallet is still empty. I meet him for Christmas at a Denny’s in Savannah, GA where he’s taken up residence at a Days Inn. I don’t ask how he’s paying for the room and don’t think he’d tell me anyway. Credit card theft, possibly. Or some generous former friend from years gone by charmed into a loan. I get a room there for two days and pay for all his meals. Grand slams, baked potatoes, a sirloin steak.He tells me about the money he has coming and shows me folders covered in handwritten scrawl. His fingernails are long and as unkempt as an unmowed lawn. The waitresses all whisper to me whenever he’s using the bathroom. He talked about you NON-STOP until you got here, they say or, All the way from California to visit him! I don’t tell them how it took years for me to find him. How it will take years to find him again after I leave. How spending time with him is like spending time with an animal chased up a tree.
I give generous tips to the waitresses. Hand sign the receipts after they return my plastic credit card. Then I leave all my cash at the front desk of the Days Inn. Put it towards my dad’s room. I don’t tell him about it but hug him goodbye as a form of currency, knowing his grip will haunt me like a ghost.
Jessica Ripka is a writer and audio producer currently working in film in Los Angeles. A Tin House Fellow and Transom Story Workshop alum, she is currently working on a memoir.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Roadsidepictures