Column: The swing-shift kiss

Editor’s note: This short essay was published in the book “This I Believe — On Love.” It’s republished here in celebration of Valentine’s Day this week.


My mother and father kiss, she inside the house, he outside; their lips touch through the door’s opening. The kiss is sweet and sincere, something to look forward to, though it marks the moment of his leaving and her staying, the tearing of their togetherness, the inseparables separated.

Sprawled on the living room floor, I take a time-out from my spirited reenactments of wrestling matches televised from Evansville. I scrawl names of wrestlers on slips of paper—Jackie Fargo, Jerry Lawler, Tojo Yamamoto—and blindly draw them from Tupperware. I become the names drawn, acting out their parts in make-believe, bloody bouts; slamming into imaginary turnbuckles; elbow-smashing air; head-locking a pillow. The wrestling, my restlessness, pauses for their doorway kiss.

My father is a swing-shift man, so the time the kiss occurs varies. One week he works 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., so the kiss happens at 7:15 a.m. The next week he works 4 p.m. to midnight; at 3:15 p.m., they kiss. I can only imagine the following week’s midnight shift (12 a.m. to 8 a.m.) kiss. Perhaps, at 11:15 p.m. he brushes back her hair and targets her sleeping forehead.

The house smells of fried eggs and Folgers, a swing-shift man’s fuel and farewell scent. His face on a badge is clipped to his shirt pocket that holds his safety glasses. His short-sleeved, button-down shirt is tucked into his jeans. He leans inside toward my tip-toed mother. I spy this day-shift kiss, this connection of reassurance.

He straightens from the pucker. He holds a black lunch box, which holds an egg sandwich, six wheat and cheese crackers, and black coffee in a checkerboard-colored plastic thermos. He wears steel-toed boots, the bottoms a mix of machine shop grime and metal shavings. His boots aren’t allowed on her carpet. My mother wears fuzzy socks, so worn in back from her household laps that you can see the pink of heels, rosebuds of a dutiful housewife.

“Call me,” she says, like clockwork. There are bridge tickets to buy, a river to cross. An aluminum plant awaits him.

I’m 49 now, yet I replay the kiss often. Though it lasted barely an eye-blink in real time, it is a timeless kiss. My parents still maintain a solid marriage —it has been 51 years now. It’s a tough act to follow. I’ve made missteps in the minefields of love, but the reassurance represented by this remembered kiss always returns. I still believe in that kiss. I still try.

“I’ll call,” he says. At the end of the driveway, he stops his pickup. He looks for her in the rearview mirror, sees her reflection and waves. The back of his right hand waves slowly, right-to-left, left-to-right, like windshield wipers on low, and she reacts with a full-armed wave, the kind one expects at parades. He drives away.

The sliding door closes, my bouts begin.

Scott Saalman’s columns appear twice a month in The Herald. He suggests you celebrate Valentine’s Day early by taking your better half to the Will Read and Sing For Tri-Cap benefit show at KlubHaus 61 tonight (Feb. 13). The show begins at 7 with drinks and appetizers available starting at 6:15. Admission is a $10 donation to Tri-Cap.

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