North Tampa is all acne and double chins, pit stains and varicose veins. I drive in circles around a strip mall lot anchored by a yellowing Winn Dixie. Sushi, Thai, Falafel, Subs, Poke bowls and Bubble tea, around I go unable to make a decision. With my father in the hospital I study each restaurant not for what sounds good. but for the underlying disease it will evoke in my own aging body. I go with the middle-eastern spot. It is almost empty. A bear-like man and his daughter in her school uniform are ordering at the counter. I wait behind them, still and dumb as a coat rack. The little girl is taking her time choosing each ingredient for her wrap with serious consideration. Me? I would eat the cold fries and greasy napkins off the lone dirty table.
I wear a sticker on my shirt with a grainy photo of myself, but it could easily be my father. He is on the fourth floor tower of the hospital, and also someplace far more difficult to find. Lost in his own mind after cracking his skull on a tile floor, he is lost in the continuous now. “Where is your car?” He asks. I answer that question over and over in a loop, unable to explain why we can’t walk out together and go home. “Bring me down in this chair to the first floor. Put a towel on the seat. They took my underwear.” Each time I tell him no I feel a little bit more like a piece of shit until I have to leave. Now I stand here, a giant pile of shit, and hungry. It is taking a long time, but I don’t care about anything.
It is my turn and I order. The restaurant is halal, and I take note that I did not step into a strip mall falafel shop, but a community. The man and his daughter speak a language I don’t know with the cook and the manager. I put that placid, friendly white guy face on I use in these settings to communicate I am benign. The bear-like man engages me, asking who is in the hospital. I tell him my father, and the words stick like chalk. He changes the subject. He owns a meat market in Ybor City. I ask his daughter if she works the cash register or is she a butcher? She smiles and says she does sit at the counter and help the customers check out.
Their food is ready and he settles up, wishing me the best for my father.
I pull out my wallet to pay and the proprietor waves my credit card away. “He paid for you. It is enough to make a coat rack cry.