A first generation American must tell a hard truth to his father.
| Caesar spun a lone key around his finger, nerves comforted by the cold, steady touch of metal. His shoes dragged against the dirt and stones of the old storage lot. Caesar tilted his tattered hat over his eyes and buried the keychain deep in his pocket.
He should just leave, he didn’t have to tell him tonight. It was stupid of him to come, he already knew what his father would say. Under the brim of his hat, Caesar looked out at the rows of units. He had half-expected the old man to be standing under the lamp posts, staring back at him with that all-knowing glare. But his father wasn’t there. Caesar placed his hand in his pocket and held his keychain. He thought of leaving, knowing it’d be easier just to go, but he knew it wouldn’t be right. His father had taught him that much. Caesar loosened his grip, and dropped the key into his pocket, before walking into the maze of storage units.
Each unit was alike, with a fading greenish color, a dangling silver lock, and a beam of light that bounced against the metallic square doors. Caesar kicked a stone against a unit door. He hated those metal boxes, and everything in them. The same couldn’t be said for his father, whose eyes Caesar caught as the old man turned the corner from patrolling the lot.
“Hey, Dad. It’s me,” Caesar said approaching him, “how’s your shift going?”
“Nino, me asustaste,” the old man said. He motioned to Caesar’s hat which still covered his eyes.
“I frightened you?” Caesar asked, lifting his hat.
“Me asustaste,” the old man repeated, slower this time, enunciating each syllable for clarity.
“Dad c’mon, just speak English.”
“Si pero, tu sabes espanol tambien.”
“Please, let’s just speak English. I need to talk to you.”
“OK,” Caesar Sr. said while shrugging his broad shoulders. Caesar studied his father, as if he was seeing him for the first time. Caesar Sr. was barely half the size of the storage units he was meant to protect. A short man with a crooked, almost dented nose, like a boxer’s. Caesar Sr.’s arena didn’t have the same safeguards of a prizefighter. His opponents didn’t wear gloves, a trainer didn’t grace his corner, whispering advice into his ear. Caesar’s father was alone when he came to America, but he made it. And he had done more than survive, he had fought against all challengers and won. Caesar watched his father bend over slowly to check the locks, his knees rubbing against the gravel. And his chest swelled with anger. This wasn’t the victory his father had earned.
Caesar Sr. smiled as he got to his feet, “What is it you tell me, Caesar?”
Now that the moment had come, Caesar was nervous. He glanced at his father who tried to rub away the bags that hung under his eyes. It didn’t work, and as if by reflex, Caesar Sr. let out a pronounced yawn, extending his arms out to nearly touch the dust ridden doors.
“Why do you let them give you late shifts? It’s not fair. You’ve been here longer than anybody,” Caesar said.
“I don’t mind. It is good. Who pay for your mother’s groceries, your sister’s piano lessons, and all those car bills?”
“I said I was paying for the car.”
“I want to Caesar, I am your father, it is what I am supposed to do.”
“It doesn’t mean that you should have to take these shifts. You should get first pick. These graveyard shifts should be for --”
Caesar Sr. held up his hand, “I volunteer. Nobody likes them. If I take them, it’s more money for us, more miles you can put on that car.” Cracks formed in the corners of the old man’s eyes as he smiled.
“I wanted to tell you something,” Caesar said. He spoke so softly that his father leaned forward to hear him. As Caesar Sr. stepped into the light, Caesar was made to stare at the navy blue uniform he had grown to hate. Ironed and pressed. Shoes shined. Belt polished. Caesar had “lost” the same uniform on more than one occasion. And in each instance was made to wear his father’s which bore his name too, in cursive black letters, above the left breast pocket. On those days, Caesar avoided the sight of himself at all costs. Trips to the bathroom consisted of a b-line to the toilet and a prompt exit. He’d even keep from washing his hands, for fear that he’d catch a glimpse of himself in the mirror. What difference did it make? If he had to touch anything, it wasn’t his shit he’d be moving.
“What is it, son?”
Before Caesar could respond, they heard the clanking of metal coming from another aisle of units. Caesar Sr.’s eyes narrowed, and his face sharpened as he removed his flashlight from his belt. Slowly, they circled to the aisle where the metal clanking continued.
They stood staring down the long aisle. Caesar became uneasy, and pressed his feet down into the gravel, catapulting a pebble against the metal door of a unit. The old man jerked the flashlight in the direction of the clanging sound, but there was nothing there.
“That was just me. C’mon, let’s go talk in the trailer. I want to tell you -”
“Shh,” his father said. The scratching sound of metal had returned and they continued down the aisle, passing the cold, steel stare of identical units. It was dark in sections, as the lamp posts failed to work. The noise grew louder, and Caesar Sr. kept his son at arm’s length, approaching the unit by himself.
“Dad, don’t,” Caesar whispered.
Caesar Sr. ignored his son, his heavy boots grinding down on the gravel with each small step. Moving slowly in the darkness, he held his flashlight at his hip as he was getting closer and closer to the clanking metal. With the dexterity of a police officer reaching for his gun, the old man raised the flashlight from his side, shining it on the unit in question. There was nothing and no one.
“I told you,” Caesar said, projecting a confidence that escaped him just moments earlier.
His father flashed the light to neighbouring units. Still nothing. As he backpedaled toward his son, the sound returned. He beamed the flashlight against the fading green paint, yet Caesar Sr. was still unable to find the cause of the now irritating sound. Finally, he tilted the light down towards the handle of the unit and saw the perpetrator. A thin, grey cat with piercing yellow eyes. Its tail stood up in shock at the sight of father and son, before the frightened cat scampered away.
“There, mystery solved. Can we go back now?”
“You can wait for me in the trailer if you like, but work is work. And I’m working now.” Caesar Sr. reached into his pocket, and withdrew a ring of keys that’d put more than a few janitors to shame.
“What do you need your keys for?”
His father wasn’t listening. Caesar Sr. was flipping through his keys, his lips moved as each key slid past his fingertips. “Buchanan,” he said to himself. Things moved quickly now as he flipped through the bronze keys until he found the one he was looking for.
“Help me, Caesar.” The old man said, hunching over to open the lock.
“It was just a cat…”
“When will you learn?” With his eyes, Caesar Sr. urged his son forward to help him lift the metal door. The door rattled against the roof of the unit, and Caesar Sr. stood next to his son with his flashlight illuminating the space. Boxes lined the walls of the small storage compartment, with sleeves of clothing sticking out. Pieces of furniture and electronics were in the center, including several old armchairs, a wooden desk, and two flat screen televisions.
“What are you looking for?” Caesar asked, his frustration growing.
The flashlight moved swiftly across the unit, then it stopped. Frenzied by the light, a family of rats scurried across the floor, their claws scratching on the tile. Two of the smaller rats squealed as they scampered past pea sized droppings, into a hole in the corner of an empty box. Chasing after them was a larger rat that let out a piercing streak as it struggled to enter his home. Caesar imagined that his piercing shriek, his fierce struggle was that of a father who was suddenly faced with losing his children. Finally freeing himself the animal disappeared into the box, his cries along with him.
“Hijo de puta,” Caesar Sr. muttered under his breath.
“Look at all this shit they’ve got,” his son said, glancing over the TV’s and desk.
“Yes, and it could be ruined.”
Caesar Sr. stared at his son. He raised the wide keychain to eye level. “This is trust. This is my word. They did not have to give me their keys. Most do not. Go to any other property, managers and clients do not mix. But look.” The heavy ring of keys dangled in front of Caesar who rolled his eyes.
“Why do you even care? They throw away more stuff than we even have.”
Caesar Sr.’s brown eyes flashed then grew soft, his lips curled and he dropped the keys out of view and buried them in his pocket. “Go ahead then,” the old man said gesturing towards the T.V’s.
Caesar frowned, “What?”
“Dad… I didn’t - I just don’t know why you -”
“If there is things you want that I have not….” Caesar Sr. struggled to find the right word, his eyes darted from side to side, as if searching for the proper translation. “If I have not provided then take it,” Caesar Sr. finally mustered.
“I don’t want it…”
Caesar took a breath, then glancing at his father, retrieved his own keychain from his pocket. His chain held a single key and looked useless next to his father’s which held more than two dozen. “This --This is all I need,” Caesar said.
The words puzzled his father who squinted then frowned, showing the wrinkles of age that extended across his forehead.“What does it mean? What are you saying?”
“That’s what I came here to tell you… I’m not going to keep working here. I’m gonna go away for awhile, okay?
“What? Where?” His father said.
“No, no, Caesar. Mr. Bradford promised me with your degree you would get a better position. Good salary. Benefits. You are joking me, right?” Caesar Sr. smiled at his son, waiting for an assurance that it wasn’t true. That his son would stay by his side.
Caesar reflexively smiled too, but soon cast it away. It was no joke, he was leaving. Caesar noticed his father’s face sour as he came to understand the truth.
“Where? Where are you going then? And for how long? Maybe I can tell Mr. Bradford --”
“But why, son? Mr. Bradford, he’s a busy man and I asked him, I asked him for you.”
“I know you did.” Caesar’s voice trailed off. He didn’t want to hurt his father, but he was. He knew he was. “I’m not, I never said I’m leaving for good, but… how do I say this…” Caesar glanced at his father, who was hunched over as if a weight had been placed on his back; it seemed possible that with the slightest sound, he’d fall to his knees.
Reaching into his pocket, Caesar retrieved his keychain and the single key it held. “It’s like I was trying to tell you earlier. I’ve got a chance to -- to get out of here for awhile and this -- this is all I need for that. Just this.”
“What are you saying, Caesar? What does that mean?”
“Right now is the only time, I’ll have the freedom to - to just drive, to see the country, to photograph what I see, to write what I hear. And nothing’s weighing me down.” The words flew out of his mouth so fast that he surprised himself. He held up the silver, metal key. “This is all I need for that. Just the key to my car.”
Caesar Sr. said nothing. He had one hand nestled in his pocket, Caesar noticed. “What’re you holding on to?” Caesar asked, already knowing the answer.
“My freedom,” his father said. Caesar Sr. removed his set of keys which clanged against one another as they came into view. Rusted, dirty, and forgotten, they barely fit across his father’s outstretched hand. “This is my freedom. And your mother’s, your sister’s, and yours.”
“I know,” Caesar said, again, so quietly that his father strained to hear. “I know it is, I know how much you’ve sacrificed, I just, I don’t want to have to carry so many keys, you know?”
A silence came over them. Father and son stood facing one another. All was quiet except for the sound of cars that whizzed past, the sound of mothers and fathers returning home to their children. In the distance, they heard the honks of those who could not return soon enough. A gust of wind rattled the storage units and Caesar Sr. took that as a sign. He reached for the handle of the opened unit, but couldn’t manage to grab a hold of it. Too proud to ask for his son’s help, he continued to reach for the handle, his legs outstretched, his fingers grasping at the handle. Caesar noticed and held his father’s rough, calloused hand in his own, both men now reached forward and pulled the door closed. Caesar smiled at his father but the old man looked away.
The door rattled, and the old man took out his small notebook, jotting down the unit number. Caesar tried to make eye contact with his father but it was no use.
Caesar Sr. turned his head away from his boy. Lights from the passing cars shined through the barbed wire fence and streamed across his face.
“Better to write it down so we don’t forget, right?” Caesar said.
While closing his notepad Caesar Sr. said, “Do not tell your mother, I will tell her. It is better that way. Better for you.” Caesar Sr. turned his head, and his face fell out of the light of the passing cars.
Caesar yelled after him, “I’m not you, you know.”
Caesar Sr. refused to turn around; he continued walking, the aches and pains of his body were calling him now. Caesar knew his father had worked too hard to turn back, and that it was only right to follow him now. He hurried down the long aisle of storage units, hustling after his father, who seemed to have hastened his step as he heard the crunch of gravel behind him. Finally, Caesar overcame his father, and took him by the arm.
“Please, just let me explain. This isn’t easy for me, you know. I didn’t even, I thought about not even showing up here and telling you. I thought about just leaving a note, trying to put into words things I can’t even say. I couldn’t even get a single word down before setting my pen back down. I guess, what I’m trying to say is… I need a chance to try something different. I’m not you. And I don’t think I should have to be. ”
“You can not run from responsibilities, your family needs you.”
“No, no you don’t. Not yet.” Caesar was shaking, pacing from side to side, he finally come to a stop when he held the single key in his hand. Nerves calmed once more by the cold metal.“I need to get out of this town, I need to figure out something - something about myself, before I don’t have a chance.”
“But that’s a luxury son,” Caesar Sr, said.
“Maybe to you!” Caesar cried. “You’ve made it so that I have a choice. And maybe I won’t find anything...then I’ll be right back here beside you, if you’ll let me. And I’ll do it. I will. Not as good as you, but I will. But maybe I do discover something - something I really love, something that’ll get me through the tough days. It’s possible? It’s not too late?” Caesar said with doting eyes. In that moment, if his father had said no, Caesar would have accepted a fate alongside his old man.
“Encontré a tu madre, ¿no?”
“Mom?” Caesar said, his face flushed.
“I found your mother, right?” Caesar Sr. said, smiling at his son.
Caesar watched as his father reached into his pocket and took out the ring of keys. Slowly, Caesar Sr. slid off a single, golden bronze key. “One more for you,” the old man said, handing over a single key to Caesar.
Caesar glanced at it, it looked familiar. “Is this our house key?”
“I know you lost yours…. So here. One more key. That won’t hold you down, will it?
Caesar smiled in a way, that made him almost indistinguishable from his father. His eyes grew wet, and he took off his hat. Caesar leaned forward and gave his father a firm kiss on the cheek.
“No, never, no this is fine,” he said while putting the key on his chain.
“Good. Don’t lose it.”
They stood there, for a moment, until Caesar broke the silence. “I’m not leaving tonight, you know? We won’t leave until tomorrow, I think.”
His father nodded. “Going with friends, right?”
“OK. I am tired. Would you bring your car around front? I will meet you there. Then we go home.”
“Sure.” Caesar said. He turned and started walking down the long aisle, before looking back at his father who sat on the ground, rubbing his knees. Caesar noticed his father staring up at the crescent moon shining over them without its accompanying stars. He remembered how much his father disliked nights like this one, believing that the moon had been abandoned by those he loved.
Caesar continued down the long aisle as a gust of wind, whipped through the crisp night air, rattling against the metal doors. As he reached the end of the maze, the night became still again. He stood in place, staring at his car through the chain link fence. He knew he wouldn’t miss the storage lot. And yet, there was something that kept him from leaving. Caesar glanced over his shoulder towards the units, when he heard a low, pained groan. The sound carried through the air like a slow-moving cloud and settled over him. He tried to shake it, but it was no use. It hovered over him, forcing him to turn back, knowing that if he didn’t; its shadow would surround him forever. He continued towards the units, when the sound finally stopped. Replaced by a muffled whisper which cried out in the stillness, “I miss my boy, I already miss my son.”