Burgers and Bomb Pops
By Matthew Hurley
I thought inviting our new neighbors for dinner was a good idea. I thought it might get Dad out of the funk he’s been in ever since Mom died. Just because they’re from the Soviet Union, it doesn’t mean they’re the “fucking commies” he claims they are. I thought maybe after getting to know them he’d stop being such a prejudiced jerk.
But he hasn’t said a word since dinner started. He just stares at the peeling flowered wallpaper, a day’s worth of whiskers covering his face, his sour beer breath masking the scent of musk. And I’m pretty sure Michela would prefer eating frozen seal in Siberia to the meal I’ve prepared. I’m not a very good cook and I charred the burgers over a too-hot grill, leaving the middle mostly raw. Mr. Licheli is enjoying them, at least. He’s on his second already, devouring it hungrily, blood dripping down his chin.
When I told Dad about the dinner plans yesterday, his left eye twitched like a nervous butterfly. Just as it did the time I left my Atari in the middle of the family room floor and he tripped over it, nearly crashing through the coffee table. He told me not to expect help with dinner, maybe not to expect him at all. And now we’ve got this overcooked smorgasbord covering the table. I think the only reason he showed up was to make sure Mr. Licheli doesn’t steal anything. Or maybe to keep him from putting Marxist thoughts in my head.
Mr. Licheli is in my corner, even if his daughter wants nothing to do with me. When he bites into his corn on the cob, he smiles, yellow kernels stuck in his large, white teeth.
“This corn, it is delicious,” he says. He’s being kind. I left them in the water too long and now they’re soggy and rubbery. It’s not really my fault. I’ve never cooked corn on the cob before, and could have used some instruction.
He reaches across the table for the salt and bumps the trophy that looms as the centerpiece to our little feast, knocking it into the butter dish.
“Goddammit, Bobby,” Dad says, reanimating. “Haven’t I told you to keep your crap off the table?”
“It’s my soccer trophy,” I say, as though that explains its presence at dinner. It’s been here for three weeks. I’ve been waiting for Dad to notice it and acknowledge he has even a shred of interest in anything I do.
“What’s it for?” he asks. “Participation?”
“We won the league,” I tell him. “I scored 17 goals this season. Not that you saw any.”
His menacing glare serves as a warning. Michela watches with amused interest. She probably thinks I put the trophy there for her sake. I’ve done a lot of stupid things since they moved in to get her to notice me. A couple weeks ago I was showing off how strong my left foot was and put the ball through a garage window. She was not impressed. Neither was Dad.
“Well,” Dad says. “God knows we don’t need any more participation trophies. Don’t you think, Alex?” He challenges Mr. Licheli to disagree with him, but our neighbor just nods with a mouthful of hamburger.
Dad pulls at the butter dish and my trophy lands on the table with a small thud, spreading a greasy stain onto the American-themed table setting. I bought everything myself: the tablecloth and the matching paper plates and napkins all covered in stars and stripes. I serve Country Time lemonade in plastic cups adorned with long-dead presidents. A tribute to our great country and a welcome to our foreign guests. Dad’s Teddy Roosevelt cup sits unused. He prefers to drink his beer straight from the can.
“That’s how it starts, you know,” he continues. “You give everyone a medal just for taking part. Then it’s ‘from each according to ability, to each according to need.’ Next thing you know, we’re reciting Marx every night before bed. Am I right, Alex?” Dad claps Mr. Licheli on the shoulder before finishing off another beer. I’ve tried to keep track of how many he’s had, but I’m too focused on our guests. At least four.
Mr. Licheli isn’t taking the bait. Maybe he’s been in this situation before.
“It didn’t work in my country, Robert,” he says, waving toward some unseen land beyond the kitchen, past the row of cookie-cutter houses that line our street. “There always have to be, how you say, winners and losers. The powers that be.”
“Goddamn right,” Dad says, unaware who he’s agreeing with and eliciting a broad grin from Mr. Licheli. I can’t tell if it’s genuine pride or if he’s mocking Dad. Dad ignores him and gets another beer. He hasn’t offered one to Mr. Licheli yet, but my neighbor seems to favor the sugary drinks I’ve stirred up.
The uncomfortable silence that follows is interrupted by the phone ringing on the wall behind Dad’s head. He lets it ring and we all wait for the caller to give up. It’s something Mom made us promise: no answering the phone during dinner. Dad won’t spring for an answering machine, so we just have to wait it out. If they really want to talk to us, they’ll call back, he reasons.
I doubt it’s for me anyway. Besides, the only people I care about right now are in my kitchen, surrounded by faded brown cabinets and avocado-colored appliances. I really need this dinner to work. With Mom gone, Dad and I are nothing more than roommates. We eat dinner together, but that was just another thing Mom made us promise to do.
I’d rather eat in the family room watching MTV. Huey Lewis and Madonna offer more companionship than Dad ever does. Kids my age groan when their parents ask how their day was, what they did. I’m happy when Dad asks me to pass the salt.
“Do you know,” Michela says once the phone stops ringing. “Someday soon, everyone will have their own personal telephone that they can carry with them.”
I stifle a laugh. It sounds like something out of Star Trek and I want to ask if it will include a teleportation feature. But it’s the first thing she’s said all night and I don’t want to hurt her feelings. Dad’s not so kind.
“Bullshit,” he says. “You’d need a pack the size of a car trunk just for the battery.”
Mr. Licheli jumps to his daughter’s defense. “No, it’s true. I have seen them many times in the cars in the Soviet Union. Soon, you will be able to carry it around.”
“Well, it doesn’t matter if it fits in my pocket,” Dad says. “That phone on the wall rings too much as it is. Why would I want one with me all the time?”
Mr. Licheli doesn’t respond. Instead he busies himself picking corn kernels from his thick mustache. It matches his eyebrows—a trio of caterpillars eager to crawl off and begin their metamorphosis. He shares a knowing look with Michela that fills me with enormous envy.
She sets a half-eaten burger back on her plate and I notice a spot of ketchup at the corner of her mouth. I want to reach over, wipe it off, and brush my fingers along the soft skin of her cheek. But she’d probably slug me, so I offer her a napkin instead.
“Thanks,” she says, wiping her mouth.
“I saw you mowing your lawn the other day,” I say. “With that old manual thing.”
“Yeah, Dad won’t splurge on a new one. Even though he just bought a new 25” TV and VCR.”
“There is nothing wrong with our push mower,” Mr. Licheli says. “Those fancy motorized machines waste too much gasoline.”
“We have one,” I say. “I could do it for you.” Our own lawn hasn’t been mowed in almost three weeks and I wait for Dad to say something about it, but he remains silent. I’d be happy to do it, if he’d just ask.
“I don’t need any help,” she says, taking a bite of her French fries. “I like the exercise.”
“Maybe instead you can show her around school,” Mr. Licheli says. “You’ll be in the same grade.”
“Sure,” I say. She raises her eyebrows and mouths a pleading “stop”, but he dismisses her with a wave.
“She’s just missing her ex-boyfriend, Jeremy,” he says. Michela buries her head, wants to crawl under the table, I’m sure. “But he’s no good for her. An earring in his ear and a tattoo on his arm. Can you believe this?”
Despite her embarrassment, I feel better that it’s not me, but the whole situation she wants out of. Still, I doubt I’ll get her to forget Jeremy anytime soon with this food. I made the fries in our new microwave oven. It’s going to revolutionize your kitchen, they said; cut cooking time in half. But the fries came out uneven—burning hot on the outside, still cold in the middle—and taste like cardboard. No amount of salt can help them. She’s eating them one by one now, methodically chewing each several times before swallowing, as though by concentrating on her food everything else will go away.
When they first moved in, I thought maybe she’d want a friend to latch onto. It would make getting acquainted with a new school and meeting new people so much easier. A lot of the kids in my class feel the same way Dad does about the USSR. Without my help, they’re sure to ostracize her before even giving her a chance. She’ll spend her high school days as an outcast. But she doesn’t understand this, or doesn’t care.
The table goes quiet again and I search for something to talk about. If our neighbors leave now, Dad goes back to ignoring me, and so does Michela. They have to stay for dessert. I’ve got a freezer full of Bomb Pops—more red, white, and blue. I look to Mr. Licheli for help, but he’s munching on another ear of corn, oblivious to the awkward silence.
“Michela,” I say without thinking, as I often do. “I haven’t seen your mom around. Is she still in the Soviet Union?”
“Is it so odd to have just a single parent in America?” she asks reproachfully. “Where is your mother? I have not seen her either.”
Her interrogation stings. The last time I saw Mom, I barely recognized her. She was so thin and fragile, no hair, a network of tubes emanating from every part of her.
“My mom died last year,” I say. “She had cancer.”
Her face softens and I can see the regret in her eyes. She fingers the gold chain around her neck. There are letters I can’t read, something in Russian, I guess. When she speaks, she’s watching Dad.
“I’m sorry,” she says. Her bottom lip trembles and she swallows hard. “I guess we have something in common.”
Dad returns her gaze, appears to notice her for the first time and the hostility melts away. Maybe we can salvage this dinner after all. Mr. Licheli notices it too. I want the conversation to continue, to grow, to turn into some kind of long-lasting friendship.
Out of this sad beginning, I see a happy ending: our two families sitting in the backyard, Dad grilling burgers the way they should be cooked. He’s wearing his favorite Bermuda shorts, sandals with socks, and an apron that says “The Grill Master.” Mr. Licheli is similarly dressed, a larger, more ethnic version of him. Dad gets him a beer when he’s empty, and Michela and I play Frisbee. The newest addition to the family, a black lab named Mr. T, chases the disc back and forth, leaping just before one of us snatches it out of the air.
“Mr. Licheli,” I say, trying to lighten the mood and eager to learn more about our newfound friends. “Where were you before you came to our town? What brought you here?”
He smiles and leans back, puts his hands behind his head. He’s pleased at the change coming over the room.
“We were in Canada before. Since Michela was just a baby.” The t-shirt she’s wearing, Montreal spelled out in rainbow colors, should have given it away. “I was hired to do research. I work at the atomic lab, in your next town over.”
His words push a cold front back across the table. Dad clenches his jaw and his eye does the nervous butterfly thing again. Mr. Licheli senses the tension and stops talking. Of course, he doesn’t know that Dad used to work at the lab. He could fix everything from a burned-out fuse to the engine on the biggest turbine. He wasn’t paid well, and the scientists treated him like a janitor. They were brilliant men who spent their days trying to split atoms or researching the half-lives of nuclides. Dad was the first to be laid off when the budget was cut.
“And why,” Dad says, failing to conceal his renewed anger, “would a company with access to that kind of technology, uranium, and weaponry hire a fucking commie?”
“Dad!” I say, but Mr. Licheli holds a hand up, stopping my protests.
“Let me assure you,” he says, his voice even, breathing shallow. “That I am not a communist. I left that country under great duress. And, as you’ve learned, I lost my wife in the process.”
“Why should I believe you?”
“I promise you, Robert,” he says, patting his chest in a sort of pledge to America. “You and me, we are on the same side. I like Reagan too.”
“I never said I liked Reagan,” Dad says, though I know he voted for him, twice.
“No, but you didn’t have to. Everyone loves Reagan. Even in my country they love him. You watch too many movies, Robert. I am no Wolverines.”
“Actually,” I say. “The Wolverines were the good guys. We were the ones—” I trail off because no one is listening to me.
Mr. Licheli’s smile wanes as Dad fixes him with a malevolent scowl. I silently plead with Michela for help.
“Dad, please don’t,” she says. She knows what’s coming next, but doesn’t know how to stop it.
“Hush, sweetheart,” he says, still watching Dad. “Come. We will settle this like men.”
He puts an elbow on the table, arm pointed at the ceiling, palm open and inviting.
“What is this?” Dad asks. “Some kind of a joke?”
“We will wrestle,” Mr. Licheli says. “If I win, you will call me comrade from now on and we are good neighbors.”
“What do I get if I win?”
“You may call me fecking commie as much as it pleases you.”
“Not much of a bet,” Dad replies. “I call you that now.”
His words hang in the air. No one is sure what to do next. But I need to see this battle happen. It’s more emotion from Dad than I’ve seen at any time in the last year, and maybe this will somehow break him out of his slump.
“Then you can wrestle for this,” I say, setting my soccer trophy between them. “Not that it means anything to you,” I add in Dad’s direction.
He looks hurt, like I’ve betrayed him somehow. But the trophy has been sitting on our table for weeks. Maybe if he’s forced to earn it, it will mean something. Maybe he’ll come to one of my games in the fall. I cross my arms and wait. He takes a deep breath and puts his own elbow down.
Dad works as a mechanic now and keeps in good shape hauling around engine parts all day, but he’s dwarfed by this giant of a man. He’s giving up six inches and probably 50 pounds. His hand is a child’s next to the oversized mitt of Mr. Licheli. This won’t last long.
It’s quieter than it’s been all night as they stare one another down. For the first time I can hear the faint sound of MTV playing in the family room. Kajagoogoo’s “Too Shy” makes an odd soundtrack for this contest. I look at Michela to see if she hears it, too, but she’s watching the two of them with equal fascination and horror.
She reaches back and takes the band out of her ponytail, letting her hair fly in all directions. Just as quickly, she pulls it together and ties it back up, as though she’s preparing for her own fight. Resting her arms on the table, she leans forward and lets out a long sigh as if to say, let’s get this over with.
When the match starts, their arms don’t move, but Dad’s whole body tenses up and he’s putting everything he can into it. Mr. Licheli is relaxed and amused, the corners of his mouth turned up slightly. He takes a sip of his lemonade with his free hand, his bicep barely flexed. I imagine how often he did this when he was back in the Soviet Union. This was his parlor trick: challenging anyone who was willing at parties or in the bar late night. Toying with them until he got bored, then finishing them off and buying a shot of Stolichnaya as a peace offering.
“Has he ever lost?” I whisper to Michela, as though they can’t hear me. She shakes her head and fingers her necklace again.
“What does it say?” I ask, nodding toward her neck. “Is it Russian?”
“No, we’re form Georgia. It says, Tavisupleba. It means freedom. It belonged to my mother.”
The clock on the stove tells me a minute has passed, and Mr. Licheli is surprised by Dad’s resilience. He won’t go down that easily, won’t be embarrassed in his own home. He’s sweating, but I notice a tiny drop escape Mr. Licheli’s forehead as well. It slides along his temple and down the side of his face. I keep quiet, a silent audience cheering Dad on in my head. Mr. Licheli furrows his brow.
“I underestimated you, Robert,” he says, trying to sound cool.
“I don’t like to lose,” Dad replies. “Especially to fucking commies.”
It’s the wrong thing to say. Mr. Licheli takes a deep breath, his broad chest swelling up, and he sucks his cheeks in like he’s bitten into a lemon. He tightens his grip and pushes down on Dad’s arm, leaving it inches from the table. Dad is in trouble. But before he finishes him off, Dad reaches his free arm out for leverage and bumps the trophy. He watches it fall, his ears burning red, almost purple. I think he’s going to scream at me again.
Instead, he turns his attention back to the match and within moments he’s regained his composure and is battling back. His face is calm, betraying whatever thoughts are going through his head. He had the same expression when he brought Mom home after her diagnosis. The determination that said he was in charge and he was going to make sure they got through it. He had no control over the situation then.
I’m ripped from the trance of the fight when I smell something burning. I’m afraid I left the grill on and spent all the propane. But when I stand up to check on it, I realize it’s coming from the oven. I put garlic bread in before we sat down and forgot about it. Now smoke is pouring out and the bread is a flaking black mass of charcoal. As I fan the smoke out of my eyes, Mr. Licheli speaks up behind me.
“It seems we have reached a stalemate,” he says. “You have proven yourself a worthy opponent, Robert.” Their arms are still locked together, both of them unwilling to let go.
“Are you saying we should call it a draw?” Dad asks.
“I don’t want to be rude. Your son has made all of this delicious food.”
I slam the oven door closed and turn on the fan. “And we have dessert! Bomb Pops!”
They relax their grip. I see Dad mouth the words “thank you” and pretend not to notice. He stretches his arm out and flexes his fingers. Michela smiles at her dad, showing off a perfect row of large, white teeth that match his. Mr. Licheli sits back once more, satisfied with this outcome and eagerly awaiting the next course.
I rescue the dessert from the freezer and hand the popsicles around the table. Dad grabs two beers from the fridge and passes one to Mr. Licheli.
As I begin to clear the plate, he puts a hand on my shoulder and stops me. “Don’t worry about those,” he says. “I’ll take care of clean up.”
He unwraps his Bomp Pop, and then reaches for the trophy, still lying on its side. He sets it upright between the salt and pepper shakers and wipes the spot of butter off its head.