Before he had even had a chance to wipe away the sleep-drool that steadily leaked its way down his nose and onto his chin, Jeffrey Dunn woke up one July morning thinking of those words, his Papa's words, the stink of life telling you who was who and what was what. Even before his eyes opened or his mouth opened. His pecker still a little bit hard with pee waiting to exit, please, pronto. Papa's voice had crawled inside of his head and pulled him straight out of sleep and into the faint daylight peeking through the blinds. Poking him awake. When he finally opened his eyes that voice seemed to fade away almost all at once, like the radio in the car always did when they passed under Gerry Cheevers Bridge on the way to St.Catharines. He waited a second for Papa's words to come back, they didn't, and besides, it didn't matter all that much. Papa was just downstairs, probably eating his Cheerios and his drinking his pretty gross raspberry juice and getting ready to go cut the grass and rake the gravel over at the ball diamond. Wasn't today the last day of the tournament between all those companies who did stuff that Jeffrey couldn't quite understand, but were important for some reason he could never figure out? So if he wanted to hear Papa's voice for real, well, it was right on there in the kitchen inside of the old man's throat. Jeffrey liked the voice of Papa that came out when he went to sleep better than the voice of Papa's that waited in his mouth, the voice that had dodge all those Cheerios and all that raspberry juice that came crashing down his pipes every morning, snow or shine. The thing was, Jeffrey always knew what Papa's voice had to say when it came and piped up when Jeffrey was asleep. Always stuff he'd said before, either that day or the day before. He never knew what stuff, angry or happy, kind or cruel, Papa would say in real life.
Jeffrey sat up and scratched his crotch and padded his way into the bathroom to take that long-awaited pee, mostly because he had to piss so hard it hurt, bu also because he suddenly realized that he was always curious about what Papa to had to say about, well, whatever, anything, and the sooner the pee was done, the sooner he could get dressed and get downstairs and hear what there was to be heard. Half of the time, or more than that, what Papa had to say didn't make sense to Jeffrey, and half the time, or more than that, it hurt, Papa's words did, but Jeffrey's friend Kendall at school didn't have a father at all, so words that sometimes hurt must be better than no words at all, ever. Besides, it wasn't a Band-Aid-being-ripped-off-all-in-one-go kind of hurt. More like a purple-nurple kind of deal. Hurt so good you kind of liked it, though Jeffrey wasn't about to admit to liking a purple-nurple, at least not out loud. Nipple tugs weren't supposed to be a good time.
By the time he'd taken his leak and had his shower and rushed down the stairs while still wiggling his way into the Spider-Man shirt and the blue-jean shorts that they'd bought down at Robinson's last winter for only five bucks a pair, fished deep out of one of them metal bins in the corner of the kids' clothes section, the bins that looked like cages for fish, or prisons for lobsters, what with all the bars running up the sides, but instead were actually used to hold the clothes that nobody seemed to want all that much, Papa was almost done his cereal. Drinking the milk right from the bowl. Flipping through the Sports section of last night's St.Catharines Standard, which they had delivered just before dinner each night by Kenny Crawford, a short fat kid with bright red hair and a bright red face. Bopping his leg under the table, keeping beat to music that Jeffrey couldn't hear, Papa was.
"Morning Papa," Jeffrey said.
"Is for you," Papa said.
Jeffrey had just settled into his own bowl of Fruit Loops and apple juice, not raspberry, ugh, never raspberry, apple all the way, and Papa was already getting that look he got whenever it was about time to head off to work. Rubbing his left cheek with his left hand and lightly rapping the kitchen table with his right fist, like he was waiting for somebody to open up a little door from underneath. Soon he would be gone, vamoose, and Jeffrey wouldn't get to talk to him until later tonight, six or seven o'clock, maybe later, maybe earlier, who knew, and he knew he ought to say something fast because Papa didn't like to talk all that much in the mornings on a work day, and here he was, already off to work, practically. Jeffrey spooned up some Froot Loops, two red, one green, one almost black, which was weird, now that he thought about it, and probably not normal, and he tried to think of a question he didn't know the answer to that would force Papa to stop and pause and think for a bit. He did this almost every morning, Jeffrey did, and often he couldn't come up with anything, but today he thought of a good one.
"Why's my name 'Jeffrey'?" he asked.
Papa lightly placed the paper on the table, as if he was setting a placemat for dinner, which Jeffrey had seen him do exactly once, which was why he remembered it so clearly. Placemats were not a common sight in this house, and Jeffrey had not even known what it was, that green, square felt rectangle, but that had been a special time, soon after Mum had left for good, and his Uncle Darrell, her brother, who he had never met before, had come for dinner, and Papa had said that placemats showed class at a time like this. Now he was treating the paper the same way, but Jeffrey couldn't see how this time, or that question, was all that special.
"Why's your name 'Jeffrey'?" Papa asked.
"Yeah," Jeffrey said. "I don't know why. Lot of names out there you could of picked."
Papa looked at the paper, not at his son.
"Because you don't want a name like 'Herman' growing up in this town," he said.
Jeffrey thought about that while he ate the last of the Fruit Loops, even the black one, the one he probably shouldn't have been eating, but he'd never heard of anybody dying from eating an odd Fruit Loop. Puking maybe, but not dying. Papa wasn't moving, which meant he was thinking, too. Time for more questions, Jeffrey thought.
"But your name's 'Herman'," Jeffrey said. "You did alright with that name in this town."
Papa smiled, and Jeffrey could see his yellow teeth, even the metal fillings way in the back, but there was nothing funny about that smile. A smile without any humour was a scary thing, Jeffrey realized.
"Herman's a name for a guy who drives a zamboni and cuts grass," Papa said, and stood up. He hitched up the belt of his jeans, and ran a hand through his thinning hair and looked down Jeffrey.
"I don't get it," Jeffrey said. "You do drive a zamboni and cut grass."
"You want to do that stuff?" Papa asked. "You want to make money that way?"
Jeffrey stirred his spoon in the last of his milk, making little tiny circles and bubbles that bobbed nowhere much at all.
"Not really," he said.
"Then that's why I called you Jeffrey," Papa said. "So you can have a name that ain't going to sound perfect on the side of a zamboni."
Then Papa did something that Jeffrey had never seen anybody do outside of a movie.
"Key's where it always is," Papa said.
He picked up his paper and headed out of the kitchen and out of the house before Jeffrey could say anything more. Not that he knew what he would say. Winks were supposed to be full of fun, just like a smile, but that wink was something else altogether.
Jeffrey sat at the kitchen table, heard the front door shut, and the shoes on the gravel, and the car pulling away, and the house and the day to come were once again his and his alone. Made him feel almost grown-up, it did. Or at least like a teenager. Also made him feel alone. Didn't hurt none, though. Not that much, anyways. Almost like a gobstopper stuck square in the throat for a second or two before it scooted free and went smooth down the proper pipe.
Besides, he was used to that lonely feeling, especially after he asked Papa especially hard questions. Kind of, in an odd little way, expected that feeling. The lonely one. Used to it so much, he wasn't sure what he would do if it wasn't there no more. Maybe good questions with strange answers made everyody feel lonely. He wasn't sure. Had never asked anybody that, because that would be a real weird question to ask, wouldn't it. He couldn't figure out how to ask most folks the kind of questions that he most wanted to ask. Maybe grown-ups knew how to do it. Jeffrey didn't. Loneliness like this, the kind that sat in your stomach like freshly chewed Doritos, was kind of sweet, he realized. It made him feel sick and satisfied at one and the same time. Like a tall, cold class of Country-Time Lemonade that he didn't want to finish.