Brief EncountersCanLitShort Fiction

31 Days of Stories 2021, Day 20: “Serving” by Eva Crocker

From Barrelling Forward

Barrelling Forward by Eva Crocker

The title of Eva Crocker’s 2017 debut collection brings to mind movement – rapid and uncontrolled (the “barrelling” half) but nonetheless making headway (the “forward” bit). It may come as a surprise, then, to encounter within the book’s pages a story that deals with the exact opposite: paralysis. But this is only one of several expectations Crocker subverts over the course of this taut, austere work of kitchen sink realism.

“Serving” operates in a point-counterpoint style of narration, told from the alternating first-person perspectives of Dave, a middle-aged man, and his seventeen-year-old son, Patrick. Dave is a server at a restaurant where he maintains a friendship with his coworker Marlene, though Dave professes it “isn’t that kind of a thing.” He claims devotion to his “saint” of a wife, Sharon, whom he swears he’ll “be happy with … for the rest of [his] natural-born life.” How much of that life is left to him is unclear; as the story opens, Dave is ruminating over a colonoscopy that will uncover a potentially malignant tumour.

Patrick, meanwhile, is embroiled in a relationship with girlfriend Kathy, which gets somewhat curtailed when the girl’s mother returns home unexpectedly and finds the two of them in bed together. On the home front, the teenager must negotiate the strained relationship between his parents, who, consciously or otherwise, use him to communicate between them.

The father-and-son parallel narration allows Crocker to compare and contrast their respective life situations; Patrick’s adolescent horniness and Kathy’s cock-blocking mother find a distorted reflection in Dave’s ease with Marlene, which is stymied by his marriage to a woman who has grown cold to him. The dual narration provides an ironic rejoinder to Dave’s assertion of his wife’s saintliness; “Sharon’s not going to leave me because we’re twelve years into a mortgage,” he muses at one point, lying in a hospital bed after collapsing at home.

Dave and Marlene share an intimacy not apparent in his relationship with his wife. The easy closeness between the two servers is not just physical – they stand with their hips unthinkingly touching while scraping dirty dishes and share a cigarette outside after closing – it is also emotional. It is Marlene (overheard by Patrick) to whom Dave confesses his health problems. He hides the procedure from his wife, who finds out about it via their son.

Dave and Sharon both work service jobs, the former at a restaurant, the latter at Pipers, the Newfoundland chain of discount department stores. The two share a sense of disillusionment at their situations; Sharon sends Patrick to pick his father up after his late shift because she is embroiled in watching Lethal Weapon 2 on the television and Dave complains about his coworkers, every one of whom he considers “a fucking imbecile.” The exception is Marlene, to whom Dave feels a connection. She “can’t stand the idea of having some twenty-year-old telling her how to do her job” and, like Dave, remains at the restaurant because she figures she is too old to start something new.

The idea of age and its concomitant trials is profound in Dave’s case. In one of the story’s central scenes, Patrick accompanies his father to a Deep Purple concert, where the sea of grey hair in the audience and the cast on the lead singer’s foot force Dave into a confrontation with his advancing years and intrinsic decline. His attempt to reclaim some youthful vigour by waving at some young girls and trying to get them interested in his son misfires badly, and Patrick’s own experience of the concert is one of deep embarrassment.

Patrick, meanwhile, is forced into the role of go-between where his parents are concerned. He picks up his father from work and visits him in the hospital while his mother remains in the car. “Your mother doesn’t like hospitals,” Dave tells his son, though he may be engaging in a conscious rationalization. In any case it is clear that this is not the (only) reason Sharon stays outside: Patrick has earlier overheard his mother telling a friend that she “just can’t look at [her husband] right now.” (So much of Patrick’s understanding comes from overhearing conversations not meant for him, including two successive scenes in which he eavesdrops on his mother while she is on the phone.)

Crocker teases out the thematic contours of her story through patterns of symbolism and metaphor. Death is pervasive throughout, most obviously in Dave’s tumour, though the story ends before he is offered a final prognosis. Elsewhere, the matter is treated more tangentially. Patrick and Kathy are left alone in the girl’s house when her parents leave for a funeral. Kathy’s room is in the basement, where a “small rectangular window … half-filled with grass and half-filled with sky” calls to mind an interred coffin before it is completely covered with earth. The image of burial chimes with Dave’s memory of being locked in a car’s trunk as a child, an experience that has scarred him for life.

This sense of claustrophobia unites father and son most closely. Neither is capable of breaking free of the traps their lives have set for them. On the one hand, Patrick is too young to be alone with his girlfriend in her home, whlle on the other he finds himself running interference between a father who may be mortally ill and a mother who has more or less checked out of her marriage. When Kathy accompanies Patrick to the movies, he is finally able to vocalize his concerns; “I think my dad might be really sick,” he says, but when Kathy presses him for more information, he clams up.

For his part, Dave bemoans the aches and strains he suffers as a result of his age and his physically strenuous job – “Each pang of pain … means the routine has crept right into your joints” – and he tells his son that it is stress that has landed him in the hospital. “This is the result of me wringing my guts out over whether some missus’s appetizer comes out on time, six days a week.The adrenaline from that place has rotted me from the inside out.” The language Dave uses here is significant: he lays the blame for his sickness on the stress of his job, though his description of how this affects him closely mirrors the way cancer operates. This kind of avoidance is contiguous with his motivation for not telling Sharon about it in the first place: “I don’t believe positive thinking cures cancer or anything like that,” he opines. “Just there’s a part of me that thinks saying it out loud is bad luck.”

The one thing Patrick seems to fear more than anything else is winding up in the same place as his father – not the hospital, but a life of drudgery and disappointment. In line for concessions prior to the movie, Kathy takes a call from a friend; her divided attention recalls Sharon’s disinterest in Dave and Patrick responds nastily, snapping at his girlfriend. The final moment in the story finds Dave in his hospital bed considering the claustrophobia of the room, which he compares to being locked in the trunk as a child. This, perhaps, is the story’s most dispiriting implication, the one that must strike a chord in his son: for people like Dave, the only escape from a stultifying, suffocating, static existence may be death.

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