I remember my dad’s shirt, spattered in red.
The night’s events moments before are less clear now, some 30 years later.
Those were the chicken-strip days — I’ve named them so at this very moment, in honor of one of my favorite childhood meals. In the mid-1980s in Western North Carolina, Grandma’s Pancake Barn had the best strips. And I preferred them with ketchup.
Did Dad ask the waitress at the Pancake Barn — where our family was dining that night — for ketchup on my behalf or because he needed some? I don’t know. Who can recall.
I just remember her approaching our table with a shiny new bottle of Heinz in hand and giving it a shake.
A red geyser shot from the bottle as if Quentin Tarantino himself had scripted it for a film.
Don Livingston’s shirt: finito.
I don’t remember laughing, but I was a punk, so it’s likely. If I did, I’m sure Mom was trying not to. And I’m sure Dad’s face registered shock as he quickly accelerated through the gears of embarrassment, anger and ...
... something akin to, Well, go figure.
Dad’s always been able to laugh at himself, which is a good thing — events like this seem to befall him at restaurants. If there’s dirty silverware hiding, rolled up in a napkin, it’ll find its way to him. If an order gets lost in the bowels of a kitchen, it’ll be his. One time he found a roach lurking under a hamburger bun.
“If it’s gonna happen, it’s gonna happen to me,” he’s said on too many occasions, the words often accompanied by a soft smile he inherited from my Granddaddy Livingston, a quiet man who, to my knowledge, had better luck at restaurants.
Food mishaps aside, Dad’s often the butt of the joke in our family. Does he bring it on himself? Yes. It’s hard not to laugh at his ticks.
Before leaving the house, he’ll squint at the stove to make sure every burner is in the “OFF” position. “Off, off, off, off,” he’ll say.
Mom, my brother and I used to get a kick out of that. Now, I find myself doing it, and my wife smirking at me.
When Dad locks his car, he points the key fob at the vehicle and waits for the lights to flash and the horn to sound. He’ll take a few steps, look back and do it again.
I used to be a one-click, behind-the-back, walk-off car-locker — not these days.
“Son, we Americans like to get close,” he’ll say as he’s circling — and circling, and circling — a parking lot, looking for a space nearest the store. He knows that’s good for a laugh. He likely knows I say the same thing now, when I’m searching for one.
Dad likes to say, “Y’all aren’t always gonna have me around to pick on,” but I think he likes being the butt of the joke. I know he’s excited that I’m becoming his successor.
I’m honored: if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my father, it’s self-deprecation.
Which is why a few years ago — at a barbecue joint during my lunch break from my job at Clemson — I smiled and shifted gears to Well, go figure when a bottle of mustard sauce exploded all over my brand-new dress shirt.
I lived near campus at the time and was able to drive home, change clothes and salvage the garment with a quick wash.
When I got back to the office, I emailed Dad.
“Dad, you’re never gonna believe this, but I pulled one of your moves today,” I wrote. “I got barbecue sauce all over my new shirt.”
Dad replied minutes later.
There was no salutation in his message.
There was just one line.
“Glad to see s--t happens to you, too,” he wrote.
Happy Father’s Day, Dad.
You get the last laugh.