The following day was difficult; my hangovers were getting worse, although I couldn’t remember having that much to drink. I spent twenty minutes searching for my car keys and when I found them, I remembered I had left the car at work. I slumped in the armchair and closed my eyes.
“What’s wrong with you?”
“Suzanne, where have you been?”
“I could ask the same of you. What time did you get in last night?”
“Come on, Dad. I went to bed at eleven and you still weren’t home.”
“I had a lot of things to sort out, we had to work late.” I could tell that she didn’t believe me but unlike David, Suzanne rarely argued with me.
She hardly ever complained, even when her mom was ill and she had to take over the running of the house. She just got on with it; I wasn’t sure what I would have done without her.
“Aren’t you going to work today?”
“Yeah, I felt a little rough, I’ll be better in a minute.”
“Would you like me to make you some coffee?” She sat next to me on the arm of the chair and put her arm around my neck for a hug. “I love you Daddy.”
“I love you too dear. Is everything okay?”
“Uh huh.” My wife used to call it parental intuition; I wasn’t sure if such a thing existed but I Knew my daughter well enough to know when something was bugging her.
“Do you wanna talk about it?”
“Talk about what?”
“Whatever it is you're worried about.”
“It’s nothing Dad, I’ll make you your coffee.”
“Forget the coffee, I should be going. We can talk tonight if you want.” I put my hand on her shoulder and looked her in the eye. She was the image of her mother, it was almost spooky.
“Are you okay, Dad?”
“Yeah I’m fine,” I said and kissed her on the forehead. “I’ll see you tonight.”
“I’m making meatballs. Why don’t you try to come home early tonight? I mean, without going for a drink first.”
“Oh come on, I have a few drinks….”
“Every day, Dad. We miss you when you're not here.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
It hurt me to see her upset and I knew she was hiding something but my job paid for everything and it was a big tab to cover. The summer break was proving expensive but some of that burden would be lifted if David could land the job at the mall. I was banking on Todd to make it happen.
It was a twenty-minute walk to the station but once there, taking the ‘T’ to work was easy. Only seven stops to Downtown Crossing, but I was still over an hour late and had to use the kids as an excuse when questioned by my supervisor.
“You need to work something out,” she said. “Don’t you have any family who can help you with the kids during the summer?” I hated being told what to do by a woman; I didn’t even like working alongside them. It was different in the army. There were no women telling me what to do then and none of them could have done my job either.
I was forced to swallow my pride and make amends for my tardiness by working an hour later on a busier than usual Thursday. Extra stress from an increased workload meant an obligatory trip to the bar and later that evening I was back on the ‘T’.
* * *
I called Suzanne before leaving the bar and she had some good news.
“I spoke with Todd earlier,” she said. “He’s found David a job. He said that you know all about it.”
“Excellent, that’s great news, is David there?”
“No, I haven’t seen him since this morning. We had words. You're gonna have to sit down and talk to him Dad.”
“I will, as soon as I get back.”
“No, not after you’ve been drinking.”
“But I’ve only had a few.”
“I’m serious, Dad. You need to be sober.”
She sounded upset and I didn’t like it but when I hung up there was another drink waiting for me on the bar. I promised myself that I would go home early the next day.
* * *
“Have you sold the car?” asked Jon. It took me a while to realize what he meant. I was in a rush to get ready and I didn’t want to be late again.
“No, of course not; it’s at work. I took the train last night.”
“Because you can’t drive when your hammered, dummy,” said David. I was surprised to see him at the breakfast table so early, he was usually still in bed when there was no school.
“I wasn’t hammered,” I said but Jon laughed as I downed a cup of coffee and put on my jacket.
“Todd called last night,” said David.
“I heard. That’s good news.”
“I have to go there this morning for an interview.”
It made sense. That was the reason why he was up so early. I knew Todd wouldn’t let me down.
“Just don’t be late, and look smart, wear a shirt. You can borrow one of my ties.”
“I’m not wearing a tie.”
Jon was laughing, he meant no harm but found the idea of his brother wearing a shirt and tie funny.
“Don’t laugh at me, jerk!” David pushed his brother on the arm spilling his drink.
“Don’t touch me fag!” I was surprised by Jon’s mumbled reply and by the unusually violent response from David who lashed out at him, punching Jon hard.
“WHAT DID YOU CALL ME?”
The boys rarely fought but when they did it was usually serious and that morning they really flew at one another. The two-year age gap which had always worked in David’s favour was becoming less advantageous now that Jon was catching him in height and build and they both managed to land a few hefty punches before I was able to pull them apart. I sent a disgruntled Jon to his room with a bloodied lip before dealing with David.
“You shouldn’t have hit him.”
“He called me names.”
“SO? Who cares? It doesn’t give you the right to go around hitting him.”
“He deserved it,” he said rubbing his eye. “The little brat punched me in the face.”
“I saw it.” His younger brother had slugged him pretty good; although it was usually the other way around. “It’s about time, he hit you back,” I said but I was asking for trouble.
“Why do you always take his side?”
“Shut up, David, I’m not taking sides. Let me take a look at it.” I walked over and prodded the red mark above his eye.
“You better put some ice on it. I don’t want you showing up at for your interview with a black eye.”
I rarely got that close to David anymore and I was making him nervous but there was something else that got my attention. Another mark on the nape of his neck that was partially hidden by the top of his vest. I knew Jon wasn’t responsible for this one, but someone had to be.
“What’s so funny?” He glared at me as I chuckled.
“Then why are you laughing?”
“What’s up with everyone this morning?” asked Suzanne. She looked tired and irritable. “Why is everyone fighting?”
“It’s David and Jon,” said Bobby. “And David’s got a black eye.” He laughed which brought a predictable response from his older brother. I ushered Bobby into the living room and switched on the television for him, then cornered Suzanne while David was in the basement getting some ice.
“Has David got a girlfriend?” She looked worried, like it was some kind of a secret. “I don’t mind.”
“I don’t think so. You're gonna have to ask him. What made you say that?”
“He has a hickey the size of a walnut on his neck.” I laughed and expected her to do the same but she looked concerned and I wondered if he had sworn her to secrecy.
“It’s none of my business what he does. I’m not his mother.”
“I’m not angry, Suzy. I think it’s a good thing. It may help him to get his act together.”
She didn’t share my enthusiasm and I knew why. It was a man thing; something only guys understood.
David was sixteen, a good-looking kid, surrounded by cute girls. He could afford to play the field a little, break a few hearts, and get some valuable notches on his belt. It would do him good and get rid of some of that pent up anger left over from the loss of his mother.
“You need to talk to him, Dad. He’s….” Our conversation was cut short when David walked back in. He must have known we were talking about him and looked suspiciously at us.
I nodded. “I’ll be home early today. I promise. Did you hear that, David?” He was looking in the mirror as I passed him in the hallway, holding a makeshift ice pack over his eye. I lifted it to take another peek and then shook my head. “I’ll be home early, we can talk.”
“About that hickey you’ve got on your neck.” I gave him a knowing smile as he lifted the neck of his t-shirt and stared in the mirror.
“You got all day to come up with a good excuse, kid. You don’t get those from fighting.” He didn’t say anything as his eyes followed me out of the door. “Just make sure you get that job.”
* * *
I was late again but my supervisor was off and my workload decreased accordingly. I had every reason to be in a good mood and when I met Todd downtown for lunch, we both had news about David. I let him go first.
“He got the job,” said Todd and he must have seen the look of relief on my face.
“So he got there on time?”
“And he made a good impression…was he dressed smart?”
Todd laughed. “Yeah, he made a good impression. They’re pretty laid back in there but I spoke with the manager afterward and he told me that he did well. They want him to start on Monday.”
I was ninety-nine percent sure that Todd would make it happen but it was still nice to get official confirmation. It was more good news and I was starting to think that maybe we had turned the corner, at least as far as David was concerned.
“So what’s your news?” asked Todd.
“David has a girlfriend.” I was excited and had been itching to share it with my brother but like Suzanne, he was a little apprehensive.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m absolutely certain.”
“Well, good for him,” he said. “What’s her name?”
“Oh, I don’t know that yet, he’s still at the denial stage.”
“Denial stage? So he didn’t tell you this himself then?”
“Not exactly, but it’s not difficult to work out.”
“I see,” he sighed and looked at the menu. “So what is it that gave him away?”
“He has a hickey on his neck and he sure as hell didn’t put it there himself.”
It was a worried face that peered over the menu at me and I shook my head.
“Fuck it, Todd. Why do you have to be so judgemental all the time. He’s not doing anything wrong. Nothing that we didn’t do. It’ll do him some good to…mess around a bit. It’s what he needs.”
“Make a man of him, you mean?” said Todd but I ignored his sarcasm.
“Yes, that’s exactly what I mean. Sometimes you can be a real prude, you know that?”
“I’m not a prude.”
“Yes, you are.”
“I am not. You don’t know what you're talking about.”
“I know my kids, Todd. And I know that this’ll do him good.”
“I’m sorry, Jeff. I don’t mean to bring you down. I’m not saying that it won’t be good for him. But maybe you should wait for him to tell you, before you go announcing it to the world. That’s not being negative, it’s just being sensible.”
I knew Todd meant well; he was a realist. There’s no way he would call it until it was certain. I needed people like that around me to keep me tied to reality sometimes. Even if it did bring the mood down somewhat.
“I know you're right Todd. I’m not trying embarrass the kid, I’m just happy for him. I want him to be happy and I haven’t seen a lot of that in him lately.”
“Well a little extra money in his pocket should make him happy and you owe me a steak dinner don’t forget.”
* * *
With no supervisor to keep track of me, I sidled off at three to look for my station wagon. It was on the third floor, where I had left it two days previous and it looked as if someone had scuffed the rear fender. Parking that monster wasn’t easy in the modern multi-stories, but with four kids it was a necessary tool. Although I couldn’t remember the last time we had all been out in it together. Not since Kate died.
I arrived home at a little after four, narrowly missing my next-door neighbor as I swung the car into the driveway. He looked surprised to see me home so early and wanted to chat. The fence needed fixing and he needed my help over the weekend.
Fred had led an interesting life and he never missed an opportunity to tell someone about it. He was in Dallas a few years back when Kennedy was shot and fought in World War Two, landing on Omaha Beach. Now, he spent most of his time worrying about being robbed but I didn’t have the time to talk about the fence.
“I’ll take a look at it after I get changed.”
The chances of him seeing me again that day were slim at best and I forgot about Fred the second I opened the door to a wall of noise.
Disco music. I hated it with a passion. That high pitched squeal went right through me. How could any man sing like that?
I was met in the hallway by the dog.
“Hello Barney, where’s that stupid son of mine? David, DAVID!” There was no answer, but he wouldn’t have been able to hear me above that dreadful din. “What’s he playing at?”
There was nobody downstairs and the kitchen was a mess. Suzanne had mentioned something about taking Bobby to her friend’s house for the day, but I had no idea where Jon was.
I couldn’t think straight with that squeaky voice bombarding my eardrums. It was giving me a headache and I was fast losing my temper.
“DAVID!” This time he must have heard me because the music suddenly cut out as I marched upstairs to his room.
I heard him whispering as I walked up to his door. “It’s my dad!” His voice sounded panicked and there was a commotion. He wasn’t alone and I could hear them scurrying around the room. Then there was a loud thud, like something was knocked over.
There was no lock on his bedroom door and he must have known that I would never barge in uninvited but I had obviously interrupted something and I wanted to know what. I knocked on the door.
“David…is everything alright in there?”
“Err…yes Dad, fine…thank you.”
He must have been up to something; he was never that polite.
My first thoughts were drugs, every parent’s nightmare. I should have seen the signs. He was probably trying to hide them from me. Him and whoever was with him.
I had my hand on the door handle and was about to walk in when I had a moment of clarity. I remembered the hickey from that morning and it began to add up. Everyone was out and even though I told him that I would be home early, he probably didn’t expect me to keep to my word. I didn’t usually.
It was obvious what I had interrupted and maybe I should have been angry. Most parents probably would have been but I felt a little guilty. I should have realised what was going on. It made perfect sense.
I was in two minds about what to do. He was sixteen, old enough to be doing stuff like that but I didn’t want him doing it in my house.
“David, look…I err, I’ve gotta go to the store…there’s something that I needed to get for dinner, which I forgot. I’ll be back in about half-an-hour, okay?” I hoped that I wasn’t being too obvious but obvious enough for him to take advantage of my generous offer and get her out while I was gone.
I thought it was a smart move on my part and congratulated myself on my diplomacy. It saved us both from an embarrassing situation and solved the problem at the same time. I didn’t want to punish him for something I wanted him to be doing and this way, I wouldn’t have to. I couldn’t be mad about something I didn’t know about, even if I did know about it and even if he knew I knew about it.
It made perfect sense to me; I was in Vietnam, everything made sense compared to that.
It looked as if Fred had been waiting for me when I left the house but I didn’t have time to waste talking about a fence. I was too busy helping my son’s girlfriend to escape.
“I gotta run out, Fred. I’ll be back soon and I’ll take a look at that fence for you.” I was already rolling back off the drive as he was talking to me. I smiled at him and turned up the music.
I just hoped David would appreciate what I was doing for him. Other parents may not have been so understanding. They probably wouldn’t have found it very funny either but I was laughing all the way to the plaza.
At last, I could see some of me in the boy. I was beginning to wonder if he was even mine. I almost caught him with his pants down but I was actually quite proud of him. Not that long ago it was me. David had it a lot easier than I did. Society was a little more liberal and understanding about those things than they were in the fifties when I was a teenager.
I had always moved with the times and I was sure that Kate would have been proud of the way I handled what would have been a testing situation for any parent. That responsibility would have fallen mostly on her shoulders and she would have told me all about it in the evening. I had to handle everything on my own now and I looked at this little episode as a personal victory and a snub for all those who said I would fail.
Maybe I wasn’t cut out to be a single parent but I was willing to learn. And it had to be easier than flushing out the Vietcong, if nowhere near as satisfying.
I decided to celebrate my parental prowess with a reward of my own. If David was allowed to have fun then so was I, only my fun was a little more adult than his. Five years more adult to be exact, so while my son was busy pushing his girl out of the door, I went to the liquor store.
* * *
I was gone for thirty-six minutes in all; plenty of time for him to get her out and clean up any evidence. I even managed to get a quick look at her as I drove back. A young girl about his age, on her own, walking from the direction of our house. She glanced at my car as I passed her and then quickly looked away when we made eye-contact. I would have placed a bet on it.
From what I could see, she wasn’t bad looking either. But looks didn’t matter much. It wasn’t as if he was going to settle down and start a family with her. She would probably be gone by the end of the summer, replaced by someone else. He could afford to take his time; I was thinking maybe twenty-five would be a good age for him to marry but not before then. That would give him nine years to find the perfect partner. I had it all planned; I was looking forward to having grandchildren.
“It looks from here like some kind of animal’s made that hole, Fred.” He was struggling with an old push reel lawnmower and dripping sweat as he stopped and walked over to stand by my car.
“It’s kids,” he said panting. “I’ve seen them going through there at night. I’ve tried putting chicken wire over it but they still get through. Keep your doors locked.”
“You need to take it easy, Fred. You shouldn’t be cutting the grass in this heat, you’ll give yourself a heart attack.”
“I got no choice, there’s no one but me here.”
I felt sorry for poor old Fred, he must have been well into his seventies and was still cutting the same old grass he had been cutting since he was a kid. He had lived in that house almost his entire life and he would probably die there too. Maybe today if he carried on pushing that relic of a lawnmower.
I was half his age and I owed the guy plenty of favours so I took off my jacket.
“I’m not gonna stand here and watch you kill yourself, Fred. You should be taking it easy at your time of life. Let me handle this for you, okay?”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course. I’ll get David out here to do it for you. If he’s got any energy left.” I chuckled as I pushed open the front door.
The house was a lot cleaner when I came home for the second time. David had picked up the dishes and put them in the sink and the music was quieter. If it had been like that the first time, then I wouldn’t have even gone upstairs. He could have worked his way through the Karma Sutra with that girl and I wouldn’t have suspected a thing. I had my own secrets to take care of and I was a lot more adept at concealing them than he was.
The study was not much bigger than a broom cupboard, with a large oak panelled desk taking up most of the space, but it was my sanctuary. A place where I could get away from everyone, when I needed to think…or drink.
There was a deep drawer on the desk, which was always locked and I carried the only key. This was my most secret of places and lately it had become home to an increasing selection of alcoholic beverages. I opened the drawer and replaced a nearly empty bottle of bourbon with one that I had just bought and added a bottle of Jack to keep it company. I liked to be prepared for all emergencies, which was why I also kept a Hardballer semi-automatic pistol and several clips of ammunition in the same drawer.
A souvenir of the military and an insurance policy I couldn’t live without. I had spent so much of life around guns I couldn’t bear the thought of being without one. Even if it was locked away in a drawer at home. I knew it was there and I knew how to use it.
* * *
Johnson was a good-looking, all American boy from a middle-class family. He had a girlfriend back home in Minnesota and he kept a photograph of her in his pocket along with a letter I had promised to deliver if anything should happen to him. He was talking to me and laughing when he was hit.
He wouldn’t have known much about it. He had taken off his helmet to scratch his head seconds before it exploded like a watermelon covering me in his blood and brains. We both dropped to the ground like stones and I must have looked so bad the Vietcong walked right around me thinking we were both dead. That’s the thing about war. Simple mistakes like that can be costly and so it proved for those poor bastards. My hand was shaking so badly I could barely line up the clip to reload after emptying the first one in several quick bursts as they walked away. I took down all three and kept firing into their bodies even though they were so obviously dead but I was never able to keep my promise to Johnson. I was too busy saving my own sorry ass and the photograph and his letter remained in his pocket.
* * *
That was thirteen years ago during an early search and destroy mission in Quang Tri province, South Vietnam. It was my first engagement in a war still in its infancy but going well for us. Now my hand was shaking for another reason as I poured the last drops of bourbon into a glass and threw the contents down my neck.
The door flew open and I jumped out of my daydream scaring the intruder who froze in the doorway.
“What are you doing?”
I took a deep breath, smiled and wiped my face with my palm. “Hey, Bobby, where have you been?”
He didn’t answer my question, sensing even at his tender age it was a diversion. Instead, he walked around the desk to stand next to me looking concerned.
“Why are you wet?”
“It’s just sweat, Bobby. It’s hot in here.”
“You need to open the window.” He flexed his muscles. “You have to push…I can do it.”
“Thanks for the advice, tough guy. I’ll remember that in future.”
“Suzanne’s here,” he said and I could hear her calling from the kitchen.
“Is that Dad?” She popped her head around the door. “Wow, what happened? Did you get fired or something? It’s before midnight.”
“Very funny. I’ve been home since four o’clock.”
“I know. I saw your car outside. Forgot you had one of those.” She walked away taking Bobby with her and I downed another shot of bourbon before closing and locking the drawer. I would need a few more to make it through the rest of the evening.
“Did you come home early to talk to David?” Suzanne stopped loading the fridge and waited for my answer.
“I don’t think that David wants to talk to me about anything and I’m not sure he really needs to.”
She shook her head and sighed. “It’s not me, he’s the one who wants to talk. It wasn’t my idea.”
“If he wants to talk to me then where is he? He knows that I’m here, he heard me come home. I think we should just leave him alone. He’s having fun. If he needs me I’m here. You need to relax. He’ll work things out on his own.”
“It’s easy for you to say, you're never here.” It shocked me, I think it shocked us both. They were so often her mother’s words. It was uncanny coming from someone who was the image of her. “Sorry,” she said. “I sound like mom.”
I smiled and put my arms around her. “Do you want me to help with dinner?”
“It’s okay, Daddy, I can do it, it’s not much. But you're gonna have to start working something out soon. I’m going to college in September remember.”
“I know. I’m working on it.”
“At the bar?” I ignored that comment just like I was ignoring everything else I didn’t want to think about and turned to face my son as he entered the kitchen looking as if he had just got out of the shower.
“Here he is,” I said. “I hear you got the job, well done.” He was wearing a pair of jeans but nothing else and had a towel draped around his neck like a scarf. I knew why.
“I start on Monday,” he said looking nervously at me. He must have been wondering why I had allowed him to get away with it but his little secret wasn’t gonna remain a secret for very long.
“Aren’t you supposed to be happy or something?” said Suzanne.
“He is happy. He’s had a very good day, haven’t you, David?” He shot me a look but didn’t answer before helping himself to a soda from the fridge.
There was a crash outside the back window and the familiar sound of a bicycle dropping onto the deck signaled the arrival of the final piece of the family jigsaw.
Jon looked pre-occupied as he said hello to everyone except David and went upstairs for a shower. His brother still sported a distinct bruise over his eye as a reminder of their clash that morning and he shook his head in disgust as Jon walked past.
“It’s not my fault,” said David. “He’s been acting like a dick lately.”
“Can you put some clothes on, please?” Suzanne stared at her brother. “And get out of the kitchen.”
“I haven’t got any clothes. They’re all in the wash.”
“Well don’t look at me; I can’t do everyone’s washing. I’m not your mother.”
She had been saying that a lot recently but it wasn’t getting through. We were all at fault. She was the only woman in a house full of males and I wasn’t exactly a great role model for my sons.
“I wasn’t asking you to do my washing,” he said. “I was gonna do it myself but there was no detergent.” He took off downstairs in a huff but his sister was upset.
“I can’t tell him what to do. He needs a mom not me.” She started crying and I could understand why.
I had been putting her under too much pressure lately. She was still a teenager but I was expecting her to run the house and do all the things Kate did. They were big shoes for her to fill.
“I’m sorry.” I put my arm around her as she sobbed. “It won’t always be like this. I promise.”
“I miss her so much still. It’s so unfair. Sometimes I can’t cope.”
“I know, Suzy.” I held her tight and patted her back but I knew she needed help. Kind words alone wasn’t going to do it. I was just trying to make her feel better.
It’s what we did to men who were dying; shoot them full of morphine and tell them that they were going to be okay. Then leave them to die. There was no other way; it wasn’t possible to save them. Suzanne’s predicament had the same feeling of inevitability about it. I had no solutions to offer, just meaningless words to make her feel better.
“I’ll talk to him. He needs to take on some of the responsibility. Help us out instead of making a mess of everything.”
“No fighting though,” she said. “Mom wouldn’t have wanted that.”
“No fighting.” I handed her a box of tissue and she wiped her face.
“Why do you never cry?” she said. “I’ve never seen you cry, not even when mom died. Is that a man thing?”
“No, it’s just a me thing. I get upset; it hurt me when your mother died. But I don’t cry. I can’t. Not since…it doesn’t matter now.”
I went to the basement to explain to David how the washing machine worked while he stood with his arms folded looking at the ceiling.
“I wanted something to wear tonight to go out.”
“With your girlfriend?”
“I haven’t got a girlfriend.”
“It doesn’t matter to me,” I said and lifted the end of the towel he had conveniently wrapped around his neck. “I suppose this happened when you bumped into something and you were talking to yourself in your room earlier when I came home.”
He rolled his eyes at me and let out a deep breath. “Okay, there is someone.”
I chuckled and nodded my head. “Go on.”
“But it’s not what you think…I wanna talk to you but….” He looked pained as if he was in genuine distress. It wasn’t what I was expecting. It was meant to be a fun conversation a little bit of teasing but he should have been happy. There was nothing to be upset about and I certainly wasn’t annoyed. I needed to explain this to him.
“David, you don’t have to ask my permission to date, if that’s what you think. I don’t know why you're so uptight about this. I’m on your side here.” I patted him on his shoulder. “I’m proud of you. That’s why I didn’t go flying into your room earlier. I knew what was going on in there.” I smiled but his face remained somber almost scared and it didn’t add up. “Is there something wrong physically that you wanna talk about?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean like, you know, guy things. Is there a problem that’s worrying you?”
“I don’t get it, Dad.”
“Like getting a hard on, stuff like that. Geez what’s up with you?”
“Oh…no. It’s nothing like that. Look, it doesn’t matter kay? We’ll talk later.”
“When you’re ready, son. Why don’t you ask Jon if you can borrow a shirt for tonight?”
He shook his head and I got the feeling that he would rather die. “No way is that happening. And I’m not wearing anything of yours either.” He had a little laugh and I wish I had had a camera at hand to capture it.
He managed to find something to wear that night although he wouldn’t tell me where he was going. And he didn’t bring anyone back with him. I had set a curfew for eleven but I was prepared to be flexible and I heard him come in at half past. I was in the study thinking and working my way through the new bottle of bourbon.
Thanks to TimothyM, Carlos Hazday, and Sweetlion.
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