Dawn Ronco says, “I am a seasoned corporate editor and longtime fiction writer. I published a short story collection in 2019 titled Limited Time Offer, which has consistently earned five-star reviews. Four of the stories in that anthology won first and second prizes in regional contests. My first novel, Unintended, comes out in April 2022 from Realization Press. I am well progressed in writing a second novel.”
Ham Pick Up, No Left Turn
by Dawn Ronco
You’d think we could make it two damn miles, but when I get into the left lane to turn onto Travers Street, I see an LED road sign flashing: HAM PICK-UP, NO LEFT TURN. “Jesus, really?” I bang on the steering wheel.
“People are getting their hams for Christmas,” my father says, unbothered, from the passenger seat of the pickup. He nods at the long line of cars coming at us from the opposite direction, their blinkers flashing toward the ham store at our left on the corner of Travers and Main. I’m sure he’s not in any hurry to get where we’re going. I don’t understand why we’re going at all. Or why he sold our house. He’s only 74—too young and able-bodied for an old folks’ home.
He leans forward to turn up the heat against the gray December day. “God, it’s sticky,” he says, making a face when he touches the temperature control. “Have you cleaned this thing even once since I gave it to ya, Rusty?” He motions toward the napkins and receipts scattered on the floor of the Tacoma, the coffee-streaked stack of Dunkin’ Donuts cups in the cup holder. What does he care? It’s my truck now.
PRE-ORDERS ONLY warn the orange signs staked along the ham store’s double-lane drive-through. Ham-filled cars stream from the other side of the building, exiting in a clog onto Travers Street—where I, the flashing sign tells me, am forbidden to turn.
I slow to a near stop behind a Civic that’s also in the left turn lane, and I see its driver throw up his hands. Traffic whizzes by us on the right.
I don’t need this. What I need is a couple of ibuprofen and a cold beer. After pulling a back muscle yesterday moving my own stuff to a sorry apartment, it was agony loading all my father’s shit this morning.
Behind me in the bed of the truck, ropes lash down his bureau, his frayed mattress, and the blue recliner my mother bought him forty years ago. His clothes, hangers and all, are packed in black trash bags along with jackets, slippers, and bed sheets. Small boxes hold his alarm clock, nail clippers, and the 1-800-PLUMBER tumbler he uses to take his arthritis meds. Faded dish towels wrap the plaque honoring his 25 years as a fireman and the framed picture of him and his buddies from their Vietnam days.
The Civic driver in front of me spots an opening, veers into the right lane, and takes off. I stay put. If I can’t turn left, I’ll have to drive up another mile and wind back through a maze of neighborhood streets to get onto Travers. No way.
One car after another exits the ham store, crossing Travers to get back onto Main.
Damn the sign! At the soonest break, I palm the wheel hard to the left and gun it.
“GOOD GOD, Rusty!” my father yells, curling toward the passenger door. Horns blare.
With a sudden crash, my Tacoma t-bones a Kia crossing from the ham store. The front of my hood buckles. My radiator hisses out the wet, hot-plastic smell of trouble.
An angry guy bursts from the Kia, his legs bare below cargo shorts, his black flip-flops slapping the pavement. He wears heavy-rimmed glasses, a stupid baby-blue university shirt, and a ponytail. “No left turn, asshole! NO LEFT TURN!”
The guy’s young wife screams at me from the passenger seat, cradling her golden foil-wrapped ham like a newborn baby.
I struggle from the pickup, my back killing me.
“What, you didn’t see me?” the guy demands, jabbing a finger toward my chest. “And you didn’t see the other dozen cars crossing in front of you, either?”
I look toward the ham store as if discovering the traffic for the first time, then throw back my shoulders. “Oh, so I can’t turn left because so many people need their hams?” I argue, looking at our wrecked vehicles.
The guy throws up his arms, heaves outrage. “Is that the problem here?”
His skinny wife emerges, ham-laden, shaking beneath her long, dark hair. She glances toward the ground beside me, where I see one of our boxes has bounced, spilling the veterans photo in a tangle of dish towels and glass shards.
“You know what? I’m not having any ham for Christmas,” I tell her husband. “And neither is my poor widowed father here.” I point back at Dad, who sits in the truck with forehead in hand. “He’s just given up his house, which was also my house. He’s giving up his independence, too, which is why he’s moving to an assisted living place down the street. This street. Where I’m not allowed to turn.”
“I’m fine and so is my wife, thanks for asking,” the guy says. “And no, there were no kids in the truck, in case you were wondering. Thank God we left our pit bull at home. Or else I would’ve sicced him on you, you twisted idiot.”
“Move off to the side!” one of the ham-store customers calls out his car window.
“Here,” the wife says, approaching my steaming truck with her golden ham raised. Her husband holds out a hand as if to stop her, eyeing me as if I have a gun and might shoot. But she presses forward and lays the gleaming ham on the unbuckled part of my truck hood like an offering upon an altar.
“Now you give us something,” Ponytail says. “Your name, address and insurance information.”
He directs me to give it to his wife while he moves his bashed Kia to the side of the road. We’ll push the Tacoma aside, too, but in the meantime, there’s no left turn for anyone.
Sirens sound in the distance, thanks to some Good Ham Samaritan who called the police.
An hour or so later under a flurry of snow, Dad and I pull up to the body shop in the U-Haul truck we’ve just rented. I turn off the engine and sit for a second, the citation in my jacket pocket. My Tacoma sits broken in the crashed car lot in front of us, my father’s mattress still towering behind its cab.
“I’m not losing my independence,” my father says into the silence.
“Okay, whatever you want to believe.” He doesn’t know it, but when he gave me the address of his new place on Travers Street, I went for a visit.
“They don’t call ‘em ‘rest homes’ anymore, but that’s what I’d call it,” the woman told me last week when she toured me through the place, an extended ranch built in the 1960s. Her name was Hilda, I think. A printed scarf wrapped around her neck and trailed down over a long, knit vest, both nearly reaching her suede boots. Tufts of gray hair spurted from beneath a floppy straw hat. She had a round, ruddy face. I’d had no idea the house was a facility and couldn’t figure why my father would sign himself into such a place. So with Hilda, I posed as a nephew whose uncle could do for himself but shouldn’t be alone.
“No dementia, right?” she asked.
“No, he’s sharp as a tack,” I said, thinking of my dad.
“As long as they can walk, go to the toilet on their own, and pay the rent, I’ll take ‘em. I cook for ‘em, do their laundry, and keep the place clean. But I don’t expect to have a vacancy anytime soon.”
My father must have taken the last room. I knew the aged wooden floors would have appealed to him, the birdfeeders outside the kitchen window, and the spotted mutt who lay flopping its tail at the foot of a bony woman working a crossword in the living room. If the arthritis was going to get the best of him, he could do worse than that place.
But it hasn’t gotten the best of him. He’s gotten up and down the stairs just fine. And since Charlotte left me and Mom died, I was there to help him. So I don’t understand why he needed to sell the house.
I open the driver’s door of the U-Haul.
“No, wait,” Dad says, his fireman’s plaque and the loose, scratched photo of his veteran friends lying in his lap. “I’m not losing independence. I’m gaining independence. From you.”
“But you don’t even need my help! You were doing fine. If your arthritis got too bad, I could’ve helped you.”
“Then you would’ve been in my house permanently.”
OOMPH. The familiar sock in the stomach sets my heart pounding. Get a roommate so you can split rent until you get a more permanent job, my mother suggested when I turned 30. We could afford a decent place if more than one of us was working, Charlotte said, five years into our marriage. Then, I’m leaving for your own good, Rusty.
The heady smell of spray paint emanates from the body shop. A mangled car door drops with a crash onto a pile of metal.
“So this is your way of throwing me out, Dad? Putting yourself in a nursing home?”
“You are demented. I should’ve told her that.”
“The hippie lady who runs the nursing home. She says she doesn’t take people who have dementia.”
My father takes his hat off, slaps his hand to his forehead and bursts out laughing. “You’ve got it all wrong! But you’re just pissed off as usual, aren’t you Rusty? Somebody done you wrong and you’re gonna lash out. I’m claiming my independence from that.”
I slam the door as I get out of the truck and head for my pickup, my lower back screaming in pain.
The Tacoma doesn’t look totaled, but without collision coverage, the fix will cost plenty. My latest gig fixing sidewalks can’t cover it, but the house money can.
My father doesn’t even try to help as I begin moving his stuff into the back of the U-Haul. I can see his dumb face watching me in the side-view mirror when I try to get the mattress off the back of the truck. His mattress.
The forklift operator sees me struggling and comes over to help transfer the heavy stuff from one truck to the other. “Merry Christmas,” he says as a send-off. As if.
With the U-Haul truck full, we drive straight past the fucking NO LEFT TURN sign. We’ve barely gone a half-mile when my father says, “You can turn here.” I turn onto a street that curves through an older neighborhood. “Now right and then a quick left,” he says.
“You know all the back roads, huh?”
“I’ve been to this place quite a few times.”
Outside the sprawling ranch, Hilda stands awaiting our arrival wrapped in a fringed blanket. A necklace of colorful lights flashes from around her neck. As I park in the driveway, the cold breeze lifts the brim of her hat, revealing not just a welcoming smile but a look of absolute delight. My father practically springs from the truck and bolts toward her. She opens her arms, the blanket spreading like wings, and my father rushes into her embrace. Between kisses she tells him how very happy she is that he’s finally arrived.
WHAT? My mind and body stumble from the truck as Hilda and The Traitor make their way toward me.
“This is my son, Russell junior,” he tells Hilda. “I think you may have met.”
“I didn’t know he was your son,” she says, sliding me a weighty glance.
“So, I guess fraternization is allowed?” I quip, with disgust. I have no idea what’s going on.
Hilda laughs. Her hand rests on my father’s belly, an alarming gesture previously allowed only to my mother. “Russell isn’t one of my boarders.” She winks. “He’s my main squeeze. And my new unofficial handyman.”
“But I don’t do ladders,” my father ribs, eyes sparkling, stupid in love.
“C’mon, Russ,” Hilda says to him, nodding toward the truck. “Let’s get this thing unloaded.”
I unlatch the back and have barely pulled out the metal ramp when Hilda climbs up and grabs herself a box. She hands it down to my father, who jaunts toward the house.
The bony lady I’d seen working a crossword holds the door open for him. Then a large, open-mouthed man appears in the doorway behind her.
“Frank, come help us get the big stuff off this truck,” my father orders the man. Frank lumbers out, and before I can offer any help, he and Hilda pull the mattress out of the truck and head toward the house.
My father has returned. “You help Frank get that recliner down, Rusty. It’s too heavy for Hilda.” He slides another box off the truck.
Of course it’s too heavy for Hilda, for God’s sake.
Despite whatever is the matter with Frank’s left leg and eye, he’s strong as an elephant. By the time he hefts the recliner from his end, there’s barely any weight for me to bear. We carry it into the house, which smells of apple pie. Frank directs us to the first bedroom on the left.
My dad comes in with the bedrails, and we start assembling the bed.
“Since I have my own room, we’re not technically sleeping together, are we Hilly?” he calls to Hilda, who’s in his ensuite bathroom loading combs and dental floss into a drawer. His laugh comes out like a teenage giggle.
“Who gives a damn? We’re grownups,” Hilda proclaims, then leaves the room in a swirl of paisley skirt.
We flip the mattress up onto the frame and ease on the bottom sheet. Dad snaps open the top sheet and settles it onto the bed with Army precision, adds the blanket, tucks his square corners.
“Dad, what the HELL is going on here? I thought you—”
“Well, you got it wrong. I met her on Match-dot-com. She just happens to run an old folks’ home.”
“But how dare I not comply with your plan to live in my house and then inherit it when I croak?”
My heart slams. “So this is your way of cutting me out of your will? How fatherly of you.”
He gives me the hopeless stare I’ve seen so many times before, the one that focuses dully on something just over my shoulder. I saw it when my report card told him I’d be in sixth grade for a second time. And when I refused his suggestion to enlist in the Army to learn discipline. And when I told him Charlotte had left me. I hate that stare.
“I’m not doing anything to you, Rusty. I’m doing something for myself. Taking charge of my life. Living to the fullest while I still can. You just go on with your hissy fits and your accusations. I don’t need your permission or your approval.” His eyes focus on mine now, challenging me.
“Okay, fine. I’m taking the truck back now. Maybe ‘Hilly’ can take you back to what used to be our house so you can get your car.”
“I’d be happy to,” says Hilda, who has reappeared in the doorway. I want to slap her for taking him away. I want to slap Charlotte for abandoning me. I want to slap my mother for dying on me.
“Oh!” my father says with frisky snap of his fingers. “I almost forgot. I need to get something from the truck before you go.” He disappears out the door, leaving Hilda and me silently staring at each other in his new bedroom.
I’d dump out the trash bags and start putting clothes in his closet, but I don’t want to give him the satisfaction. To shame me, Hilda opens one of them and lifts out shirts on their hangers, gives them a shake, and hooks each hanger over the closet rail, one annoying chink after another.
I stand the 25-year plaque on the dresser against the wall. I flatten an empty box. My father lives here now.
When Hilda exits to the kitchen, I follow her. The misfit household has gathered around the big island when my father comes back, carrying the goddamn golden ham. “Christmas dinner for the gang,” he says, offering it cheerfully to Hilda.
“Russell, my God! This is… Fifty-eight bucks’ worth of ham! Thank you! I’ll save the turkey for another occasion.”
“You need to thank Rusty,” my father says coolly, without looking at me.
“Thank you, Rusty,” says Bony Lady as she takes a pie out of the oven and places it on the island. Frank leans down for a whiff and swoons.
“It’ll go great with the Waldorf salad,” Hilda says, not thanking me.
I hang around for another couple of minutes, waiting for them to invite me for Christmas dinner. But they start talking about taking a ride to see Christmas lights tonight.
“Don’t you have to get that truck back to the rental place?” my Dad asks, and they all look at me.
Under the darkening sky, a dusting of snow has collected on the windshield of the U-Haul. I feel the tiny flakes fall and melt on the back of my neck. At least they could have invited me to dinner. If not for me, they wouldn’t have the ham.
Copyright 2022 by Dawn Ronco