The Denny's Where We Say Goodbye
A Childhood Ritual on Highway 101
Last week, on our way down Highway 101 after a visit to the family ranch, Victoria and I drove past the Denny’s in King City. As always, I waved.
For nearly a decade after they divorced, my parents used that King City Denny’s as the “hand-off” site at the beginning and end of my summer visits with Daddy. My parents separated in 1973, when I was six, and my brother three. Before the divorce was even final, we moved with mama from Santa Barbara to Carmel, the town where she had vacationed as a child. Papa, who was a tenured professor at UCSB, stayed in the city where my brother and I had been born.
If you don’t know Central California, let me point out that King City is not halfway between Santa Barbara and Carmel. Google Maps tells me that the Denny’s in that dusty farming town lies 67 miles south of mama’s house, and 173 miles north of the adobe on Santa Barbara’s Westside where daddy died in 2006, and where my stepmother still lives. If they had wanted to meet exactly halfway, they could have arranged handoffs at the equally serviceable Denny’s in Paso Robles.
They never did.
My father liked to drive. My mother didn’t. Perhaps that was the reason they chose King City, or perhaps as the non-custodial parent, daddy felt that he ought to be the one to make the greater effort. Perhaps picking the restaurant that was an hour closer to our mom’s was his way of acknowledging that his ex-wife carried most of the burden of raising their children.
When mama drives us to King City, we tend to meet daddy at noon; when daddy drives us, we meet our mother around 2:00. It will be lunch either way, and since cell phones won’t exist for another decade, plans cannot easily be altered if one car is late or stuck in traffic. The meeting time is set the night before, and whichever parent gets there first drinks coffee and waits. Both my parents tends towards the punctual and the gracious; this means that neither is ever really tardy, and any small lateness is quickly forgiven.
Mom always gets a patty melt. Dad asks what the soup is, as the Denny’s of that era usually has at least two each day. If he likes what’s on offer (lentil, perhaps), he has that and several coffees. If he doesn’t (something disappointing like tortilla soup), he has a tuna sandwich. Pip and I each eat burgers, and are permitted milkshakes. My brother and I fight over the right to sit next to the parent to whom we will shortly be saying goodbye, and sometimes, to keep peace, we switch seats halfway through the meal.
We always sit in the smoking section. Mama has her Vantages, and later her Merits; daddy has his Camels. Neither has a lighter, so they ask the waitress for matches when they first sit down. One day, daddy lights mama’s cigarette, cupping his free hand around the flame. “There’s no wind in here, Hubert,” mama laughs. Daddy smiles, and mutters something about old habits.
People haven’t been allowed to smoke in California restaurants in over 30 years. In 2013, I traveled to Ukraine, and one day ate a quick lunch in Lviv by myself. (I had sushi, and it was strangely good.) Everyone around me smoked as if it were 1977, and I found myself tearing up – not because my eyes were irritated, but because eating lunch through a tobacco haze took me back to the King City Denny’s, and the taste of a vanilla milkshake seasoned by Vantage and Camel.
There’s an old cemetery across the street from the Denny’s. I’m a quick eater, and my brother and my parents are slower. By the time I’m nine, it becomes tradition for me to excuse myself, and go walk alone among the graves while everyone else finishes lunch. It’s not that I’m bored. It’s that I cannot stand the intensity of being with both parents together, because it makes me long for what I can’t have. Instead, I read the inscriptions, and calculate the ages at which people died.
One day, I discover the gravestone of five members of a family who died the same day. I memorize the death date, and go to the Carmel library to look up old newspaper records on microfiche. After some searching, I find that the family perished in a light plane crash in the Santa Lucia mountains, just west of King City. On a subsequent visit, I show the gravestone to my father and brother, and Pip, who is perhaps eight, starts to cry, demanding to know if they all were killed instantly or suffered slowly. Daddy, who is taking us home with him this day, gets cross that I’ve begun our time together on such a ghoulish note.
Eventually, we are deemed old enough to travel on our own. By the time I am 12 and Pip nine, we are put on Greyhound to go between Santa Barbara and Carmel. (I cannot imagine putting Heloise and David on a six-hour bus ride by themselves, though they are those same ages. Parental anxiety is so much greater than it once was.) Whoever picks us up at the bus station calls the other parent as soon as we are safely home. I like the bus rides, and the spending money that I use to buy lunches for my brother and myself when we stop in San Luis Obispo. Pip buries himself in a book, and I strike up conversations with men in the smoking section in the back of the bus.
As happy as I am to be riding Greyhound, I miss our twice-summerly family Denny’s outings, and I miss them desperately.
Sometime in the late-1990s, between wives two and three, I stop by that same Denny’s by myself, hoping to feel the old nostalgia. I’m in marathon training, and on a strict diet, but I want to wallow. I order a cheeseburger with extra pickles and a vanilla milkshake, but as good as it tastes, I don’t feel anything. Frustrated, I buy a pack of Parliaments at the Chevron next door, walk across the street to the graveyard, and between the nicotine high and the wandering amongst the dead, manage to feel just enough to give myself the catharsis of a half-decent cry.
Heloise and David have grown up with parents who live 15 miles apart, not 240. I’m with my kids several days a week. Eira, Victoria, the children and I take road trips to Carmel and the family ranch together two or three times a year; we are often in restaurants together. There is no equivalent hand-off spot in their young lives, and that is probably a good thing.
The King City Denny’s was wrapped up in goodbyes. If daddy were picking us up, we wouldn’t see mom again for two or three weeks – and as a boy very dependent on his mother, it made me anxious to separate from her. On the return hand-off, we knew we wouldn’t see dad again for at least some two months, and his next visit to Carmel. Whichever direction the car pointed, every mile to and from King City was wrapped up in imminent loss. One brief hour to pretend that we would all leave together, one brief hour before another wrenching farewell.
As I grew older, I learned how lucky my brother and I were. Our parents were so civil, so friendly, so warm with one another. I had a good friend in junior high whose parents swapped him and his sister in the Safeway parking lot every Sunday afternoon, the children scrambling out of one car and into another while their parents sat and stared icily ahead, hands on steering wheels, unable even to look at each other. My friend was lucky in another sense, though -- he had no illusions that his parents might get back together.
Even now, I can remember the smile on my father’s face as he lit my mother’s cigarettes. Even now, I can taste that sweet vanilla shake. Even now, I can remember what it was like to be a boy, already filled with memories of losses endured and dread of another about to happen, watching his parents and pretending as hard as he can that the goodbye will never come.