Subtle Differences

Chad Pelley
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3rd-place winner of The Cuffer Prize 2008

Every day, Mom would hand Dad a cup of coffee as he stormed through the kitchen towards the garage door. He'd grab it from her - stuffing three thick fingers, not four, into the handle - take one huge gulp and, still moving, crash the black mug down onto the countertop. Then the coffee would splash up out of the cup and slap down onto the counter.

There were always rings of coffee on the countertop. Sticky, perfect circles. Sometimes they'd criss-cross to make eights, or infinity symbols. Mickey Mouse, a snowman. On the weeks Mom was too tired to clean the kitchen, they'd link up to make the Olympic rings. Maybe I spent more time looking into those rings, like a Rorschach test, than I did with my father.

And then he'd come home - always just as Mom was putting the supper on the table - all rundown looking. As if he'd just fought Mike Tyson and lost, or spent the day running from a pack of wolves. When he sat at the table to eat, he fell into that seat like it was a wheelchair. Like his legs gave out at 5:15 every weeknight.

His legs worked just fine by six though. He'd slip outside, quietly, tiptoeing almost, as if the whole world was an egg about to crack and he didn't want to be covered in yolk.

He'd slide into that picnic table, cup of black coffee in one hand, a book the size of the Bible in another, and binoculars around his neck. It was understood we were not to follow him.

At least he smiled and talked a bit more when he came back in. He'd at least ask for some dessert or help me with my Science and Math homework, because they weren't Mom's thing. English was.

But most days Dad was just the guy who slammed his coffee down in the mornings, ate supper in silence, and stared into the forest behind our house for hours on end - as if it were a wishing well and he was rich.

And then Grade 3 came along, and Career Week. On the first Thursday in April, Dad had to take me to work with him.

Brace yourself, kiddo.

I asked him where we'd be going and he said one of the lawyers' offices down on Duckworth Street.

One of them, he'd said. As if they were all the same to him.

I remember an elevator ding when we hit the fourth floor. I remember that door opening and hearing a man yelling into a phone using more curse words than nouns. Most adults stop swearing when they realize they are in the presence of a kid. Not him. I found it weird he didn't even wave to my father. On TV, everyone in a place of work was friends, the solidarity caught me offguard.

It meant the day wasn't going to be any fun.

I followed dad through a maze of grey-carpeted cubicles, and when he stopped walking, I banged face-first into his behind: Go ahead, step into my cage, son.

He opened the door to his office. His was smaller than the rest, I guess because he wasn't actually a lawyer. I never did figure what he was, and at the time, it seemed right not to ask him to explain. But now I know what God would feel like if we all had access to him: totally rundown. People found every way to yell and complain at the poor man. Mail, e-mail, over the phone, over-the-phone conference calls, in person. I think maybe there was one guy up in the ceiling vents yelling down at him: Damn you, Porter, it's your fault, just ... because!

It seemed like everything was his fault. It seemed like his job was to be the one to blame. One man, who looked strikingly similar to Johnny Cash, yelled at dad because his secretary messed something up. The guy's words came out coated in saliva. Clear dots formed on his tie, and then one huge blob came out; like a stick with a ball on both ends, a dumbbell, and nailed Dad right in the eye. He didn't even flinch. He didn't even blink. You'd think he should've blinked. I guess he was so used to it, maybe, or he was that rundown and numbed by his job that he could take spit in his eye and not blink. I found that pretty sad.

One thing was clear: They took their 10:30 coffee break quite seriously. It was like some invisible alarm clock had gone off at 10:20. Without a word from anyone, a lineup had formed in front of Dad's desk and they littered his tabletop with coins and scraps of paper detailing their coffee and snack orders. One guy wrote in all capital letters, and used three exclamation marks - CREAM NOT MIK!!! - as if Dad was stupid, even though he was the one who had spelled milk without an L. Dad wrote all the orders out on the back of one of those pink slips of paper used for phone messages.

"Put on yer jacket, kiddo. This is the best part of the day. Auntie Crae's frozen yogurt. Ever had it?"

So they got coffee, and he got a frozen yogurt.

"Coffee leaches calcium from your bones, Jacob. Anyone ever tell you that before?"

He got me a bakeapple frozen yogurt, just like his. I pretended all those seeds grinding against my teeth never bothered me, even though it felt like biting into beetles. It tasted OK, but I probably would've ordered blueberry. The kind of ice cream Mom usually bought me.

I remember walking up that semi-winding staircase that connects George Street and Duckworth. I asked him what made him want to be a "... whatever you are."

He was chewing the gritty frozen yogurt like bubble gum when he answered me. Every few steps he'd lay the tray of coffee down on top of something so he could take a scoop.

"That's not how it works for most people, kiddo. I'd have liked to have been a conservation biologist, the next Suzuki maybe. But one thing leads to another, and there are bills to be paid, and, well, someone's gotta raise you, right?"

He messed up my hair with his hands and smiled.

"We should finish these treats and toss out the containers before we head back in."

There was another stained-orange ice cream cup in that can, and I wondered if it was his from yesterday.

That night, after supper, I stood in the doorway, watching Dad watching the trees. He must've saw me there. He turned around, put a finger perpendicular to his lips to silence me, but flapped his other hand urgently as if to say, C'mere, but quickly, quietly.

I mimicked his eggshell walk. He handed me the binoculars, and waited until I'd seen the bird to fill me in, in case his voice scared it away.

White-winged Crossbill!

He snatched his binoculars back and handed me a book on birds opened to page 312. Family Fringilidae: The Finches and relatives. There was a picture of a White-winged Crossbill, with lines pointing to all of its distinguishing features. Bright red body. Black wings and tail. 2 bold & white wing bars. But still, the thing looked an awful lot like the bird on the next page, the Red Crossbill.

I closed the book, but he looked at me, and I didn't want to seem uninterested. I wasn't. So I pretended I was just checking out the front cover. It was glossy, and full of pictures of birds with his thumbprints all over them. I looked at the spine; the book was thick and had maybe 9,000 birds in it. That was a lot of reasons to sit and wait every night like Dad did. He scanned the trees with his binoculars like a sniper. He'd shift to the left when he heard a rustle in the trees, or glance up when he heard a whistle.

I let the book unfold in my laps. Family Laridae: The Gulls. I had no idea there were so many.

I thought a seagull was a seagull. Now I know the difference between the Ring-billed Gull, and the Herring Gull, and the Black-backed Gull, and the Icelandic Gull. Now I know life's not that simple.

St. John's-based Chad Pelley is an emerging writer, a member of the Writers' Alliance of Newfoundland and Labrador and a books columnist for Current magazine.


Judges' citation

"'Subtle Differences' builds power through the writer's use of concrete details that imply tracts of information about a father and son, and about their relationship. Seen through the child's eye during Career Week, the father's life is revealed as having layers of disappointment that may or may not be redeemed by other elements in the story, depending on the reader's feeling. The dad falls into his armchair after work, 'like it was a wheelchair.' He crunches the seeds in his bakeapple frozen yogurt like bubblegum while he tries to answer a question his son asks about his fundamental worth as a person. Detail reveals character, and these characters move a great distance, psychologically, within a short fictional space, and they make the reader feel something deep and complicated."

Organizations: Alliance of Newfoundland and Labrador, Current magazine

Geographic location: Duckworth Street, George Street, St. John's

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