Donnie never thought about what his father did. He knew his dad worked outside. And he knew he worked in the city. Sometimes his mother joked that his dad drove trucks that looked like yellow toys. All Donnie knew was that his dad came home dirty every night despite taking two showers a day—once before bed and again at 5 a.m., all while blasting news from an ancient transistor radio.
“You oughta ask your dad what he does sometime,” Donnie’s mother would say. “Show some interest. He works hard for you.”
“Why?” he asked. “He’s only interested in what I don’t do.”
Donnie’s mother sighed.
“Just like a man,” she said. “And still a boy.”
Donnie turned back to the TV. His mother turned back to her knitting. The sun was low through the window. His dad would be home soon and the night would change, his large square body taking up space in the two-bedroom ranch.
His dad never said hello when he came in. He greeted his family with a slap of his hat on his pant leg that released a cloud of thin white dust into the air. Sometimes that made his mom mad, sometimes it didn’t. A lot depended on whether she had spent the day sweeping and dusting, or whether they had parted on a good note. Either way, he came home loud, hungry and demanding answers from Donnie on how he was spending his time.
“Jesus Christ,” his dad would say. “Don’t you ever do anything around here?”
Donnie looked over his shoulder and away from the 19-inch TV stacked on top of a stereo receiver. When his dad slammed the door, the cat jumped from Donnie’s lap and hid beneath the couch.
“Hi Dad,” Donnie said. He turned back to the re-run of “Seinfeld,” knowing what his dad would say next.
“Looks like you’re sitting on your duff again,” he said. “Get up off your fat ass and help your mother.”
His father wiped his scuffed black boots on the mat. Growling, he waited for Donnie’s mother to take the metal lunch box he dangled from his index finger.
“How was your day?” She took the lunch box then his hat, his eyes still fixed on Donnie. Retreating to the kitchen, her worn pink scuffs slid across the plank floor, making lines like bicycles tires in the dust his dad had brought in.
“Didn’t you hear me? Get up.”
Donnie felt his father knot the neck of his T-shirt.
“OK. OK.” Donnie said. “I’m up.”
“Don’t talk back to your father,” his mother said. “Just get over here.”
Donnie slouched away. He smelled the cigarette smoke and sweat on his dad’s canvas jacket, mixed with the lingering scent of Fels-Naptha soap.
“Sorry Dad,” Donnie said.
His dad grunted.
“Just do something,” his dad said. “I don’t care what.”
His dad braced his back with two hands and stretched. Deep lines formed on his face beneath jagged shocks of dull red hair. Donnie loved his dad. He wanted to please him. But most of the time didn’t want to do more than simply follow the commands his father shouted.
Donnie grew up not thinking too hard about what he would do or where he would go after high school. He liked the city and the square blocks and the way the houses nudged up against each other so he only had to mow small strips of grass. No one in his family or very many people in the neighborhood had ever gone to college. While his mom mentioned it, or a friend’s dad bragged that his kid was going to play football at the U, most people lived quietly surrounded by poorly trimmed trees and factories, enjoying a Sunday pot roast or a supper of cabbage, sausage and beer.
“I can tell you this,” his dad would say at dinnertime. “No kid of mine is gonna live here and watch TV all day.”
His mother would push food around her plate and run the back of her hand over her forehead.
“Quit saying that to him,” she said. “He’s a good boy.”
His dad grimaced and washed down his food.
“He’s good but what the hell does he do?” His father loosened his belt. “When I was his age I was out hauling bricks and laying stone.”
Donnie looked at the dry skin that stretched over his dad’s hands. Bristly red hair swirled on his forearm, surrounding purple-colored moles like little hurricanes. His dad constantly flexed his fingers, sometimes slow, sometimes fast. Tonight, his fingers moved rapidly before stopping to tap the table.
“I’ll get a job Dad,” Donnie said. “Or maybe I’ll go to college.”
His dad’s eyes narrowed.
“College. Ooooo-KAY.” He picked his teeth with his fork. “How you plan to pay for that? With your good looks?”
Donnie ate faster, swallowing half chewed sausage.
“The boy told you,” his mother said. “He’ll get a job. Maybe he could work with the Yankowski boys, doing some yard work or working at the grocery.”
His dad snorted.
“I want to hear more about this big college plan,” he said. “Hell. The boy can’t even crack a book, what with all that crap he watches on the idiot box.”
Donnie crumbled his napkin onto his plate. He wiped the food from his face with his sleeve.
“I do things Dad,” he said. “And what’s wrong with TV? I mean, maybe I could study that at college. Lots of people do that, you know.”
His dad’s eyebrows became one. Donnie cleared his throat.
“OK then,” Donnie said. “Maybe I could go into sales. You know, maybe be like Robbie’s dad, Mr. Pytel. You know him. Down the street?”
His father flattened his hands and moved his fingers like a fan. He pressed down and began to stand up, the table rising on the opposite end.
“Harry.” His mother spread her arms to catch the sliding plates. “Stop.”
His father stepped away and the table resettled. He coughed into his fist, and then straightened a 25-year-old yellowed picture of the Polish-born Pope.
“Sales,” he smirked. “What the hell is that? Selling things that other people make? You should be making the things, using your two hands. Your brains.”
Donnie twisted a few strands of hair.
“Jesus Dad,” he said. “I can’t just walk into a factory or onto a construction crew like you did. I mean no one can do that anymore. It’s like, that’s dead.”
“Donnie,” his mother said. “Watch your mouth.”
His dad’s face turned red.
“Your mother’s right,” he shouted. “And no kid of mine is going to be like that Pytel bum. You may as well be stealing, selling people pieces of paper and betting on when they’re gonna die.”
His mother got up and began clearing the table.
“The rate you’re going Donnie and I will need that piece of paper,” she said. “The way you yell and scream you could drop dead.”
Donnie didn’t move. His father stepped forward and raised his hand, then stepped back.
“Jesus Christ Sophie,” he said. “You just gotta push me, don’t you?”
His dad flicked the rosary that dangled from a nail on the wall. His mother swirled dish soap into the sink and turned on the faucets.
“Just let the boy be,” she said as she dropped handfuls of silverware into the sudsy water. “He’ll do just fine.”
His parents argued for about an hour, their voices rising and falling before settling into silence. Afterward, his dad went to the bar and his mother came to his room. She sat on the edge of his bed and folded her hands on her lap. She touched the back of her head, trying to smooth her gray curly hair. Pursing her lips, she looked at the pictures of the Detroit Tigers on Donnie’s wall.
“You know your Dad would never strike me, don’t you?”
Donnie noticed a glaze to her brown eyes.
“Of course,” he said. “But sometimes he seems like it.”
His mother nodded.
“He just loves you,” she said. “He wants you to do well.”
Donnie put his earphones back on. His mother pulled them out.
“Mom,” he said. “Don’t.”
“You listen when we talk,” she said. “Your dad might not know much, but he works hard.”
“I know Mom,” he said. “It’s just, well. I get sick of hearing it.”
His mother smoothed the blanket and got up.
“Thank God he doesn’t hear you talk to me this way,” she said. “Get some rest now. You got school tomorrow.”
Her black shoes clicked. She turned out the light without saying goodnight. Donnie stared into the darkness and at the plastic Virgin Mary nightlight. He had pulled it out of his Christmas stocking the year before, while his father grunted that “The Mrs. Claus” should have left him St. Christopher instead.
“That boy needs some direction,” his dad had said.
Donnie remembered how his mother had snatched the nightlight from his hand and walked briskly toward his room, clenching it tight in her fist. That night when he went to bed, he had seen it, pressed into the socket just opposite his bed.
“Pray to Mary,” she had said. “The Blessed Mother will help you.”
Now, standing up, he peeled off his shirt, then his pants. Raising his arms, he turned side-to-side, casting his long naked shadow on the muslin drapes his mother had made when he was little.
He finished high school quietly, impressing a few teachers and falling invisible to others. He joined a couple clubs and took a computer graphics class, learning how to design a small wall calendar that he gave to his mother. Once, he even got an ‘A’ in history, liking the unit on immigration and Ellis Island and the period of time his teacher called ‘The Progressive Era.’
In his senior year, he came home with a letter that said he had gotten a small scholarship for doing well on a test that everyone took in school. He was surprised because he had guessed on about half the answers, liking the way the soft pencil sounded on the table when he filled in the ovals.
“Well look at that,” he father had muttered. “Little Donnie’s going to be a college boy after all.”
His mother put her hand over his at the dinner table.
“We’re proud of you,” she said as she put a second piece of cinnamon pastry on his plate. “You can go off and do some good.”
“He better,” his dad said. “No son of mine is going to be some bum salesman.”
Donnie applied to three colleges, two instate, the other in Florida, thinking it would be nice to go someplace warm. He got rejected from Florida, and got a no from the Catholic college his mother had picked. When he got a third letter, he opened it slowly, biting his lip when he saw he was accepted to the college just 90 miles away.
“I guess I gotta get some kind of forms filled out,” he said to his mother. “Something to do with getting financial aid or loans.”
His mother stroked his hair and told him not to worry.
“I got some money saved for you,” she said. “Your dad doesn’t know, but it will help.”
That day after school, before his dad got home, Donnie sat with his mother and filled out the forms. He printed neatly and clearly, making sure all the boxes were filled in and their others marked with a highlighter where his dad needed to sign.
“This will make it easy for him,” his mother said. “I will make him sign when he’s tired.”
Donnie watched his mother align the papers on the back desk. A wisp of her hair fell onto her forehead and she wet her fingers and smoothed it back. For a moment, she looked younger, almost like a teenager. He wanted to ask why she had never gone to school past 8th grade, but didn’t. She was smart. He knew it. His dad was too, but in a different angry way that blazed whenever he got tired or hungry.
His mother helped him pack when he was ready to go to college. His dad stood aside, pretending to ignore them. She made a list, checking off the boxes for slacks, shirts and sweaters, inserting sets of white socks and underwear into plastic bags before she checked off those boxes, too.
“You spoil that boy,” his father said as his mother packed things in an old steamer trunk that had been hers as a girl. “What does a boy need anyway? A few sets of clothes, some soap. Maybe a toothbrush.”
His mother didn’t answer as his father stood behind them.
“Go,” she said. “You’re of no help here.” She pressed one side of neatly folded clothes then the other, then tucked a pair of black dress shoes in between the stacks.
“You’ll need these for church,” she said. “And maybe for a dance.”
His dad growled.
“Kids don’t go to dances anymore,” he said. “They just go to the bar and whoop it up. And you may as well forget church.”
His mother didn’t raise her eyes.
“You’ll need this too,” she said as carefully laid the picture of the Polish Pope from the kitchen wall on his underclothes. “And don’t forget to say this every night.”
She dangled a rosary near his nose before she put it in another plastic sack and laid it atop the Pope’s portrait.
“For Christ Sakes,” his father said. “We’re gonna need that, not him. We’ll be praying every night for him to pass.”
“Get the hell out,” his mother said. “You’re no help at all.”
His father cracked his knuckles and ran his fingers through one side of his hair.
“You wait,” he said. “That boy’ll be happy to see me coming someday.”
His father rapped the wall as he stomped from the room.
“College,” his dad muttered over the hiss of a beer cap. “Sounds like a four-year vacation to me.”
It wasn’t long into his first semester that Donnie thought his dad was right. He never got much sleep living in the dorms, and he stayed up long hours listening to music and drinking beer. Lots of times when he should have been sleeping, Donnie wandered with large groups to parties, bars and cheap restaurants. Sometimes he ate nothing but tacos or fries or thin greasy hamburgers for days.
He took four courses like people said he should do, but often overslept or fell asleep in class when he stayed up too late. He tried to listen and take notes during lectures, and when he got home, he tried to read the books that were stacked at the end of his bed. No matter how much he worked, it was never enough. Feeling overwhelmed, he often sat on the window ledge, looking out over the tops of the trees at the sidewalks dotted with students.
How do they do it he thought. Why are they so different?
He imagined conversations with his mother and how she would reassure him, her soft hand brushing aside his hair, telling him he would feel better in the morning.
You’re a good boy she would say. Don’t you worry. You’ll get through.
He lit a mangled cigarette he found in his coat pocket and blew the smoke through the screen. His eyes watered and he coughed. Inhaling deeply, he watched two girls travel across an expanse of grass, their long hair covering half their faces as their skin reflected the sun. He wondered if they would like him, or if they would think him lazy and strange the way the bright-eyed girls had in high school.
Donnie cut back to two classes during his second semester, telling his parents he was just having a rough start. He came home more on weekends and began looking up old high school friends. One friend was working at a gas station, another at an office supply store. His friend Robbie an entry-level office job downtown and told him about all the people working in a district where no one used to go.
“Some billionaire moved his company into the old GM headquarters,” he said. “And he’s made all these jobs for people like us to sell mortgages and shit.”
Donnie listened about how “the billionaire” was buying up abandoned and burned out skyscrapers and transforming them into offices. He also heard about how a lot of people were moving into fixed up lofts and apartments and how some people his age were starting little businesses and restaurants.
“You oughta check it out,” Robbie said. “Lemme know and I’ll talk to someone down there. You could probably get some kind-of job doing something.”
Donnie nodded. He wondered if maybe that was the way to go, that maybe it would be better than going to school. But when he came close to telling his mom he wanted to drop out, he always stopped, especially when she assured him he was doing fine.
“I’m proud of you,” she would say at the dinner table. “This family will have a college graduate yet.”
His dad would just grumble.
“Graduate, smadge-u-it,” he said. “I still say you should get on our crew. We’re gonna need some bums like you to haul things after we knock down more of those down-town rat-traps.”
His father didn’t look up from his plate as he sawed his roast beef into squares.
“The boy doesn’t want that,” his mother said. “He wants to build a future, not tear things down.”
Donnie’s dad swallowed.
“Oh that’s smart,” he said. “Sounds like we got two college smarties now.”
His mother dotted the corners of her mouth.
“Go to your room now Donnie,” she said. “You’ll be going soon anyway.”
Donnie started to push back his chair then stopped.
“No wait,” he said. “I think Dad’s right. I mean, maybe I should get a job.”
His mom set down her knife and fork. His dad continued to chew.
“What’s the hurry?” his dad said. “You’ve been leeching off us and living on your good looks up to now.”
Donnie leaned back and stared at the ceiling. He tapped his feet. He knew what he wanted to say but couldn’t. He could feel his mom’s stares as he looked away, watching his dad sop up meat juice with a crust of bread.
“Dad,” he started. “Robbie told me there’s some jobs downtown, ones that I could do . . . office stuff, I mean.”
His dad crumbled his napkin.
“Well ain’t that something,” he said. “Donnie’s gonna be a sec-a-tary.”
Donnie felt his shoulders relax as he sighed.
“Not really, but I mean, thanks Dad. It sounds like, well, just like a lot of opportunity going on.”
His dad stood up and stared at the wall, running his finger over the nail hole where the picture of the Pope used to be. He coughed without covering his mouth, then pulled out a grayed handkerchief and blew his nose.
“I want my picture back,” he said. “That Pope. They don’t make ‘em like him anymore. He was for the workingman. Something you’ll never be.”
Donnie felt tense. His shoulder blades ached so he arched his back. He began to say something but didn’t.
“Don’t say nothing,” his dad said. “I’m going to bed now. Some of us gotta be men and work for a living.”
He dropped out of school and got a job working in the office complex his dad said looked like shiny toilet paper tubes. When his mom started crying every night, and his dad started blaming him for his mother’s misery, Donnie knew he had to move out. His friend Robbie said he could stay with him, at least until he started making some money.
“I feel like it’s kind-of my fault,” Robbie said. “I mean, me getting you that job at all.”
“It’s not,” Donnie said. “They’re just weird about me working for some reason.”
“That is weird,” Robbie said. “I mean, most people’d be happy.”
Donnie bit his lip.
“Yeah . . . well, anyway, it’ll just be for a while,” he said. “Just ’til I get my own place.”
“No problem,” Robbie said. “You can crash here as long as you need.”
Robbie gave him a musty pillow and an old wool blanket and told him he could sleep on the couch. He stored all his stuff in the chest his mom had given him for school, and shoved it in the space between the wall and the couch. He had repacked most everything he had taken to college, but left the picture of the Pope at home on the kitchen table. Not wanting to hurt his mother’s feelings, he kept the rosary, tacking it to the top inside of the chest so he saw it every time he reached for a clean shirt.
The day he started his job, Donnie wore his only dark pair of slacks and a white polo shirt. He polished his shoes with old hand lotion he found under the sink, and put extra conditioner in his hair so it laid sideways in a part.
He parked the car in a huge parking ramp spray painted with graffiti. A tubular walkway connected to the office building, and he strode across, trying not to make eye contact with the people swinging briefcases or rushing with hot coffee in one hand.
He stepped into a mezzanine with purple-swirled carpet and got on the first elevator that dinged. He pressed the button for the 30th floor and the doors clapped shut. Gripping a chrome handrail, he watched out the window as the ground outside slipped away. A six-lane street stretched before him as he ascended with the skyscrapers on the other side. He had never noticed the ornate carvings and mosaics on the facades and the way some of the windows caught the light. Looking down, he watched people in dark clothes meander on the sidewalks, their heads down, white bags dangling from either hand.
As the elevator climbed, Donnie surveyed the grid of city blocks lined with worn buildings and rubble. In the distance, he saw the tips of yellow cranes and cables, then a wrecking ball, breaking like a black star against the clouds.
“Your father, he’s knocking down lots of buildings these days,” his mother had told him. “Pray to God his lungs don’t get filled with that as-bedz-us dust.”
Pressing his fingertips to the glass, Donnie saw the wrecking ball hit the side of a building. Bricks fell like sheets, sending puffs of dark pink dust into the sky. The crane turned and the ball dangled on a thick silver coil right as the elevator dinged. Pulling back, Donnie wiped his greasy fingertips from the glass, creating a glisten of blue and purple smears. Smoothing down his hair, he turned from the clouds of dust and entered the brightly lit room filled with cubicles, people and the filtered noise of lights and computers.
His job was surprising and different and not at all what he could explain to his mother over the phone.
“Are the people nice?” she would ask.
He would say yes.
“And the food. Do you get things to eat?”
He told her yes, that there was a cafeteria downstairs, with sandwiches and salads and a juice bar and yogurt.
“Do you like it?” she then asked. “The job, I mean.”
He paused and said he did, telling her how they worked in small groups and talked about how they would change the city and make things better just because they were young.
“How does that work?” she asked. “You must do something else.”
He told her he did, and that while it might not sound like a lot, he was doing something big.
“At least that’s what they tell me,” he said. “I work with a bunch of people in Customer Service and we run this restaurant—it’s sort-of like a park that the big boss put in—right outside the front door.”
His mother coughed and cleared her throat.
“Anyway,” he said, “They set up tables and chairs and umbrellas and have tables with built in checker and chess boards. The big boss even had some beach sand hauled in and we spread it all out so it’s like being by a lake or something. Lots of people come and sit and we give ’em drinks with these cool little stir-sticks that have funky sayings like fortune cookies. It’s kind-of fun.”
Donnie’s face grew hot and his ears turned red. His mother took two short breaths then grew silent.
“Mom? You there?”
He heard a clatter and a thump then his father’s booming voice.
“What’s this I’m hearing?” his father said. “Sounds like you’re some type of cabana boy.”
Donnie felt hotter.
“No Dad. It’s not that,” he said. “I’m in Customer Service. We’re doing things to make downtown better.”
“Sounds like you’re a frickin’ cabana boy to me,” his dad said. “That’s even worse than selling that life insurance crap.”
Donnie wiped his forehead.
“Dad. That’s not it,” he said.
“Just shut up,” his dad said. “You broke your mother’s heart, being such a bum.”
His father came to see him on the day the cranes stopped moving and angled like sculptures against the sky. Going up in the elevator, Donnie saw the lines of trucks and workmen, their yellow construction hats like scattered candies on a dirty floor.
“Looks like they’re about done,” a man next to him said. “It’ll be weird not to see that dilapidated department store anymore.”
“Sure will,” said a woman. “It’s a shame it couldn’t be saved.”
Donnie didn’t know whether to agree or disagree so he stared out the window. From up high, the city looked different, the treetops full and green, shading the thin ribbons of roads speckled with cars. He wondered where his dad was, thinking he might be standing by a truck or hauling tools or manning a machine that peppered him with the dust he brought home everyday. Closing his eyes, he pictured his dad drinking coffee and slapping the back of a friend, or maybe peeing in a pop bottle when the porta johns were too full.
After eating an “organic” muffin and drinking “single source” coffee in the break room, Donnie went back down to the patio. Two of his co-workers were already there, wiping off brushed aluminum picnic tables and angling colored umbrellas against the sun. He carefully polished a few glasses with a soft dishcloth, and aligned stacks of flatware in tray. When he was through, Donnie walked across the three-inch layer of beach sand to water a perimeter of potted plants. Two older men in dark jackets had already taken their seats nearby, curled over a checkerboard, moving the pieces with dry, bony hands.
The day was warm and clear and he watched the wind push the clouds behind the building. Dots formed on the back of his eyelids and he heard pigeons strutting between tables. For a moment, he felt at peace. He wondered if many people felt that way and for how long. Then he heard the voice and the feeling disappeared.
“Damn birds,” the voice boomed. “This sure is like some sort of dirty beach isn’t it?”
His father was there, his thick fore arms resting on the table that seemed to balance on his muscular thighs.
“Hey Dad,” Donnie said. He smoothed his apron and pressed an errant wisp of hair back in place. “You on break?”
“No. I’m here working on my suntan,” he said. “What’s it look like?”
Donnie laid down a napkin. His father fixed on his every move while Donnie looked down, anticipating the next cough, the next throat clearing, or the next burst of sarcasm.
“Got coffee?” his dad said.
“Yeah,” Donnie said. “You want a latte? Any flavoring?”
His dad blew his nose into his sleeve.
“No,” he said. “None of that fancy crap. Just plain black.”
“Oh. Yeah, yeah,” he said. “We can do that.”
“All right then,” his dad said. “That’s all.”
Donnie didn’t move.
“Well, go get it,” his dad said. “And bring back a checkerboard. Let’s play like those guys over there. I got a minute.”
Donnie smiled. His dad smiled back but quickly glowered. Walking toward the coffee pot, Donnie heard his shoes squeak on the clean sand. Setting two cups on a tray, he watched the rays of sun bounce from mirrored windows and onto his hands.
Ann Kammerer lives in East Lansing, Michigan, where she works as a copy and feature writer for small business and higher education. Her short fiction has appeared in several regional publications and magazines, and has been awarded top honors in fiction writing contests run by the Chicago-based Crow Woods Publishing and Toledo/Ann Arbor’s Current Magazine.
5 Questions with Ann Kammerer:
TD: Tell us a little about this story. Where did the idea come from?
AK: In my freelance life, I interview a lot of recent college graduates who are starting careers or their own businesses. Many of those people are the first in their family to go to college. Most of them say their parents are proud that they went to college and are exploring new ways to live. Others tell me their parents are confused or disappointed, particularly if they set out on a path that seems in soft or abstract skills. The Beach was loosely based on a conversation I had with a young professional from Detroit. It was fascinating to hear that he was working alongside developers and entrepreneurs who are redefining the city’s core, while his father was a first-generation Eastern European who was tearing down buildings in once vibrant neighborhoods.
TD: Who is your greatest writing influence?
AK: My greatest influences for stories come from the people I interact with every day—be it on a writing assignment, a trip to the store, or a casual conversation in the hall at my daughter’s school. People are much more than what you see on the surface. There’s so much complexity that it’s sometimes overwhelming. Everyone has a story to tell. Sometimes it’s just a matter of asking, then listening, and then taking what you hear to reimagine a character or storyline.
TD: What is your favorite place to write and why?
AK: I like breaking away from my home office and sitting at my kitchen table. My dog is often nearby, soaking up the heat from the floor vent. Our back room looks out onto a small lot with a ton of older trees—which attracts woodpeckers, songbirds and an occasional cat that I wish the neighbor would bell. It’s peaceful, relaxing, private and, of course, it’s home.
TD: Favorite word?
AK: My favorite word would have to be ‘eclectic’—particularly on those occasions when I can use it in a news story about a collector, an artist, or a unique person with a rich and varied life.
TD: Do you have a favorite reading ritual?
AK: My favorite reading ritual is lying side-by-side with my husband being inspired by what he reads. He’s passed along some great collections of short stories after he falls asleep.