I took the ramp hard, swerved back and forth over the rumble strip as we exited the highway. Onward, a New York City reservoir on my right, down a steep embankment, a graveyard of trees and jagged rocks, deep, dark waters filling tunnel-sized pipes. It was night’s darkest hour, as I pressed the pedal harder. Speed felt good, anger released through the pedal, groan of the engine, cylinders rolling under the hood while my wife and older son dozed. Faster, faster, as I eyed a break in the trees opening to the water. Then I slowed.
I knew I shouldn’t but blurted it out anyway, “Do you want to go to Cameron’s?”
I asked again, “Ronee? Brandon?”
“I guess,” Brandon responded.
“Justin’s favorite,” Ronee answered, shifting up in her seat.
I was familiar with every bend in the road and the brick shithouse-shaped Italian restaurant El Baci or Il Baccio at the first traffic light. It had been two years since my wife and I first drove past while searching for a new home. We observed the restaurant’s transformation as its owners refaced the entrance and blacktopped the parking lot. Past the light, I pulled into Cameron’s 24/7 Deli.
Inside, fluorescent lights bleached my eyes. The comforting scent of their Italian bread, soft like marshmallows, the snap of their sesame seeds, and twang of their mayonnaise. The woman working the counter stared at her phone and laughed. She always seemed to be working, regardless of the hour.
“How are you folks doing?” she asked as I walked by.
Not knowing how I could answer that question, I headed for the fridges, Pepsi, Coke, Snapple, and beer. The Budweiser Tall Boys caught my eye. I grabbed two.
“Dad, can I get a big bag of chips?” Brandon asked.
“Sure, whatever you want,” and wasn’t that my job as a father to keep my sons well fed and growing?
I looked at the menu board above the chips and the cold cut case. The odd names I’d read so many times now gave me pause. Sandwiches like the Cluck’en Russian my younger son, Justin, would order on the way back from radiation. The tiny bites and painful swallows, his throat torn daily like wallpaper from his new bedroom. The warmth of the sandwich, crackle of the foil in his hands was the best we could do as he battled bone cancer in his cervical spine. Only twelve, he thanked me whenever we stopped at Cameron’s, smiled as best he could, and believed as we did that he would make it.
Unsure if once we got home, I would ever leave the house again, I ordered. “We’ll have four, I’m sorry, three roast beef grinders, lettuce, tomato, light on the mayo, please.” I stepped away quickly, hoping the woman wouldn’t ask why we were out so late. I joined my wife at the newspaper rack, stared at the meaningless headlines and the date, August 3rd, Justin’s final breath taken only three hours earlier. The fluorescent fixture buzzed as the voice in my head repeated, grab the sandwiches, get home, stay home.
We arrived home twenty minutes later, and I handed Ronee my house keys.
“I’ll get the rest of the stuff,” I told her.
The moon’s powdery glow brushed the knee-high grass as I slung my laptop and go bag over my shoulder. The bags dropped on my forearm as I reached for the plastic Columbia Presbyterian Hospital bag. Silence broken as the hatch closed, my shoulders rounded, like a pre-historic man. I paused at the stairs, no longer knowing where to go or what to do. Tonight, tomorrow, forever. Forever, dark and deep. Like the reservoir, like the sky.
Towards the door, reminded of the wobbly pavers, peeling paint, and work ahead of me. I stopped at the door’s threshold, my feet teetering half in, half out. My mouth moved slightly, words silent as the night, “I’m so sorry, Justin.” I pursed my lips, the air sitting in my chest, stale and painful. I kneeled, dropped the bags, a thud, something broke.
“Honey, would you mind putting the grinders and plates out?” I asked.
“Already done. All we need is you,” Ronee responded.
I closed the door.
© Tom Cowen
[This piece was selected by Sara Crowley. Read Tom’s interview]