I cleaned up after work on Wednesday, shaved, and put on the only sport jacket I owned, which didn’t quite fit right. It hung on me like a loose robe, like I was a kid wearing his dad’s hand-me-downs. I had picked it up in a thrift shop, and it was the best I could find, but now I had this weird feeling and obsessive thought that the suit might have once belonged to the old wino who had lived and died in my apartment, as though he still inhabited the walls and by some gravitational influence I was tumbling into his old life-pattern, even to the point of going out and finding his old clothes.
I picked up a bottle of white wine, and red just in case, a little pint for later, and a loaf of fresh French bread, and I drove the old familiar road feeling more like a ghost than ever. The jumping nerves were firing in my stomach. I parked a little ways up the street and smoked a cigarette to calm down. I kept flipping through the radio stations, looking for the right song to propel me into the evening, but I couldn’t find one so I shut it off. Then the thought occurred to me, I can go in, or I can leave. It is a simple choice. And the effect of that choice on all of our lives might be infinitesimal. Then again, who knows the different pathways small acts travel through the fabric of other people’s lives, the choices not even considered yet made, the butterfly launching whole lifetimes of regret or even, perhaps, happiness? Now could be one of those moments. And I would never know. Not really. Or, the Big Moment might have occurred long ago, long before even this particular life, setting in motion things I just can’t see or change. And crazy possibilities hover just ahead, the unseen door waiting to open, weird dreams we inflate and fly into. How can I know but to go through as I am, pushed by some invisible force or imagining it just the same? Enough.
I climbed out of the car and strode up to the house, the yard I had once worked, though it looked better now (not a good sign for my return), and I knocked on the back door, forgetting the front because I had never used it when I lived here.
Carol answered the door, and I couldn’t say a word. “Hey, come in, come in,” she said and embraced me, and I felt the urge of an old life I could never re-inhabit. There were tears in her eyes and I felt my own eyes begin to burn, and we looked at each other for a long moment across an unbridgeable gulf of time. She didn’t look any older, though her red hair was cut short, just above the shoulders. She wore a light blue dress I had never seen before. She was beautiful. But I was acutely looking for something, evidence that she still knew my life, because she felt now like someone I had never seen before, which made me feel like I no longer existed.
“It’s all right, it’s all right,” I said, and I smiled. I went in, and the kitchen was full of the rich smell of a meal that could save a man’s life. I looked around at the pictures on the walls, the family, their family, and I straightened out the arms and the front of my uncomfortable jacket. The place was brighter, freshly painted, better again than I remembered. But I felt none of my old presence there.
“Come on,” she said, and she took my arm and led me into the living room.
They were all there, the whole family, dressed I could tell for company. Up close now I could really see them, the faces of my two children, and I was overcome by a wave of vertigo. I could barely stay afoot. I was shot back within myself, and I had a hard time pulling out of a close focus on their faces and playing my role, or finding my role, and hearing them and knowing how to act. And I was introduced like a stranger: “Here’s your father,” standing there like a partially materialized ghost.
“Hello, Stephen,” I said, shaking his hand like my own from a past I had yet to live. He was nervous with a terse smile and a narrow gaze, hanging back, trying to figure this stranger into his world. And I met my daughter, shaking hands with her. I was aware of the desire to hold her coming out of a self I thought long dead, but I knew I couldn’t do that. I wanted so much, but I was too far away now.
I shook hands with Don. He seemed like a nice man, though he dressed like my grandfather, wearing a golf shirt and belted shorts, white socks and leather sandals. But I felt no animosity towards him, feeling so dispossessed of my past that I knew my claim on this life had run out. We all sat down, waded through some awkward silences. Carol brought me a beer.
“So what kind of work are you doing?” Don asked me, trying in his way to head up his family, present himself, and this was the only question he could think to ask.
“Well, Don, I work in a place that does some parts manufacturing for planes. We’re out by the airport. It’s a nice little operation. I help manage the painting division.” I looked around the room at the unfamiliar furniture, a seascape painting with bad water, more photographs of the family at summer get-aways and birthday parties.
“Is this for commercial planes?”
“The parts? Are they for commercial planes?”
“No, small planes. Private. Some military.”
“Sort of,” I said. Stephen wouldn’t return my glance but kept his gaze firmly toward the window. I caught Melissa’s eyes a few times, and a brief little smile.
Another awkward silence. I drank half my beer, then stopped.
“Would you like to see some pictures?” Melissa said.
She got up and went out of the room.
“He doesn’t want to see those,” Stephen shouted after her. “All she draws are fish.”
She came back in with a scatter of crayon drawings, all of fish. They were quite good. “These are wonderful,” I said. “I love them. You like fish, don’t you?”
“That’s my guardian spirit,” she said.
I looked through the pictures of green-sided salmon with white spots, all of them in motion, all of them drawn inside flowing blue lines of water.
“You can have one,” she said.
“You know,” I said. “My brother is an artist.”
“Yes. He would love these.”
“You can take one for him, too.”
“Okay,” I said, and I picked out two pictures, folded them carefully, and put them into my pocket.
“Say,” Stephen said, “Didn’t I see you the other day?”
“What was that?” I said.
“You were walking on the street. I was playing basketball. That was you, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah, actually, it was,” I said. I knew I couldn’t lie, and if I started now who knows where it would end.
“So you’ve been by the house,” Don said. What an expression of worry he had, and I saw him direct a cool look at Carol which was attached, I was sure, to a whole session of conversations they had had in which I figured prominently and not as the hero.
“You should have stopped,” Stephen said.
“Sure. I would have introduced you to my friends.”
Don laughed and so did Carol, a little, but it was a strange, nervous laughter. Then silence. Then Stephen said, “So what was prison like?”
“Stephen,” Carol said, “Give him a break.”
“No. No, that’s all right,” I said, and I could tell Don wasn’t too happy about the way the conversation was going. “It’s a good question.” And I looked at Stephen directly. “I’ll tell ya. It’s a terrible, terrible place. You never want to go there.”
“Believe me, I won’t,” Stephen said. And then, as if he couldn’t help himself, as though he’d had this thought a long time and finally found a way to let it out, he said, “I definitely don’t want to turn out like you.”
“Stephen!” Carol said sharply.
“No, that’s okay,” I said, “You’re right. You don’t want to follow my lead. You’re a smart kid. I can see that. And you know, Stephen, I made some bad choices, I admit that, and I know it hurt you guys—”
“It didn’t hurt me.” Stephen said. “Besides, it’s a little late to start preaching, don’t you think?”
“Woah,” Don broke in, and I heard him say quietly to Carol, so that I wouldn’t hear, though I did, “See.”
“Stephen,” Carol said, “What has gotten into you?”
“He’s right. He’s right,” I said. “He’s just being honest. And I respect that.”
“Don’t fucking try to defend me,” Stephen shouted, “say you respect me!” Then all hell broke loose. Melissa went to the couch and sat down and started rocking back and forth.
“That’s it, Stephen,” Carol said, “I can’t believe it.”
“Well what the hell is he doing here? He can’t come in and pretend to be our father.”
“He is your father.”
“He is not. He’s an ex-con who stopped being anybody’s father a long time ago.”
“Come on, Stephen,” Don put in. “He hasn’t done anything.” But I could tell he thought differently.
“I love the way you make my point for me, Don,” Stephen said, shooting a hard glare at him.
Melissa was crying. She didn’t make a sound, but I saw tears going down her cheeks as she sat on the couch across from me, her hands held tightly between her knees, her pictures next to her. And behind her, on the wall, was a family portrait of the four of them, looking every bit the perfect family. There were no signs at all that I ever existed except in the face of my son who now looked at me with the purest expression of hate.
I stood up. “Look, maybe I’d better go.” Don stood up, ready to show me the door.
“No wait,” Carol said, holding her hand up. Then she turned back to Stephen. “I want you in your room, now!”
“You heard me.”
And he stormed off. Carol turned back to me. “I’ll be back in a minute. I’m going to have a quick talk with him.” Then she left, and Don and I stood there awkwardly silent. What was there to say, now? Don tried, though. He said, “You know, it’s hard for him, a kid his age. He’s already becoming very independent. He doesn’t even want to listen to me. It’s just all the time you’ve been away, all the emotion he’s bottled up over the years. Would you like another beer?”
“Thanks, Don, but I really should go. I didn’t mean to disrupt—”
“No. No. Wait till Carol comes back.”
Melissa snuffled, and I looked down at her and said, “I’m really sorry, Melissa. I didn’t mean to…” a whole host of wrongs jammed up in my mind.
“It’s not your fault,” she said. “He’s an asshole. You didn’t do anything.” I knew she wasn’t supposed to swear, but who would scold her now? “Please,” she said, “Don’t go.”
“What about Stephen?” I said.
“He doesn’t mean it,” she said. “I know.” She looked at me, and her face held some secret.
“You really want me to stay?”
“Yes,” she said, and when I looked into her eyes I almost broke down, seeing there such a depth of sadness that all I had ever suffered or thought I had suffered seemed like fantasy and self-pity.
“All right,” I said. “I’ll stay.”
I sat back down, and Don brought me another beer. I could barely drink it. Then Carol came back in. And I felt so bad because she looked so distressed, but Melissa had put a hold on me so deep, even sitting across the room, I couldn’t move.
“Well,” Carol said, “I think we should eat. The food’s about ready.”
“What about Stephen?” Don asked.
“He’ll come out when he’s ready.”
And so we sat down to an enormous meal of baked chicken and fresh steamed broccoli and sautéed apples and wild rice. Don opened one of the bottles of wine I had brought and lit a dining candle, and then I recognized the linen tablecloth and napkins Carol had received from her parents for our wedding. I looked at her, and she smiled. I wondered if Don knew. The food was delicious, but I had to force myself to eat. My stomach was a rock-hard knot.
“So,” Carol finally said, “How’s your family? How’s your brother, Joe, doing? You mentioned him, earlier. That got me wondering. I can’t remember the last time I saw him. Way before the kids were born…”
I said, “Well, I haven’t seen him for a while. He’s living somewhere in the valley, but he doesn’t have a phone and we haven’t really stayed in contact much.”
“Why doesn’t he have a phone?” Melissa asked. “Everybody has a phone.”
“Well,” I said, taking a big drink of wine. My face felt hot. “My brother’s a strange character. He has a hard time in cities and crowded places. He’s a little…unusual, I guess you could say. He’s always had a strange way of seeing things, but he’s good at heart. Although, there was one time…do you want to hear? I’ll tell you a story about him from when we were kids.”
“Yeah, I do,” she said.
So I went on, “I was a bit younger than you are now, and I suppose this is kind of a cautionary tale, too, now that I think about it. Anyway…and so we were playing up in the attic of our house, and Joe found my father’s rifle and it was loaded…and he pointed it at me, right, and pulled the trigger. Click! But it didn’t fire. It was in perfect working condition and it was loaded, but it didn’t fire. Strangest thing. And he said he knew it wouldn’t fire, that he just wanted to scare me. He said he kept it from firing because he was magic. What do you think about that?”
“Wow,” said Melissa, “Weren’t you scared?”
“It didn’t even seem real at the time,” I said. “Kind of like a dream.”
Don didn’t look too pleased with my story, and he and Carol looked at each other for a moment with a whole host of meanings and those previous conversations passing between them even though they didn’t say anything, then Carol asked me, “And your father? How’s he doing?”
“He’s still up north,” I said. “I don’t hear much from him, either. Did he ever check in on you guys? I asked him to check in on you.”
“No,” Carol said, smiling a little. “No, he didn’t.”
We ate for a while in silence. I drank some more wine, and now I could eat a little more, but I had no appetite. I heard music coming from Stephen’s room, and I found myself wondering what his room looked like since my memory of it was of a little boy’s room full of stuffed animals and legos and cars and posters of dinosaurs.
Melissa just watched me, smiling at me. I asked her questions about her friends and her drawings. She gave me short, nervous answers. “What grade are you in?” I asked.
“What’s your teacher’s name?”
“Is she a good teacher?”
“I guess so.”
Then she asked me, “What are the people at your work like?”
“Well,” I said, “There’s one fellow named Raphael, and he’s seven feet tall and he sings arias.”
Don cut in, “It’s a kind of opera music.”
“Right,” I said. “Opera.” I stopped. What could I really tell her about myself, about my life? I took another drink of wine. I nodded. “Seven feet tall, and he sings opera.”
Stephen never came out, and I said my goodbyes and got out quick and drove west to the docks and parked and breathed and took out my pint bottle and had a guzzle and looked at the dimming sky and shook my head and laughed.
I sat in my car for a while, smoking, thinking. Going back had been a mistake. I took out Melissa’s drawings and looked at them for a moment and then put them in the glove box. I watched the lights of the freighters as they moved in the distant black. Stars twitched overhead. I drank the last of the little pint I had bought and tossed it in the back seat. I couldn’t see myself going back to work. I couldn’t see myself going back to my apartment. I suddenly remembered that I had missed my check-in with the parole officer, which put the paranoia on me, stunning me into a new awareness of my surroundings as I scanned for police cruisers. I got up and collected the bottles from the back seat and carried them over to the trash can. They made quite a clatter as I dropped them in. I looked around. A few people were standing over by the food stand, but nobody seemed to notice me. Now it was night. A streetlamp nearby glowed with a little halo of light projected on the ground beneath it. I went over to it, stepping into the halo of light. I reached into my pocket and found Thane’s card. I turned it over in my hand. Then, I called. He answered. I said, “Hello, Thane? Yeah, it’s me, Tom. Yeah. I’m in.”