It sounds like a damn joke and maybe it is one. The other day Richard had asked the doctor where the sting in his back was coming from. Doctor said, It’s coming from your back. And he was kidding but also wasn’t. Trick backs and necks are what your 40s are all about, Rich. And your 50s, 60s and 70s.
Nothing he could do about it?
Nein. It’s natural wear and tear, especially with you former athletes.
Former my ass!
No, former your back. Take glucosamine and fish oil.
Hot baths. Stretch and exercise. Try a hard futon.
Take it easy by lying on something hard, says Dr. Common Sense. Great: So Richard’s back pain isn’t coming from his back, it’s coming from his futon. A futon’s not a bed. So now he takes hot baths. His fingers twiddling in soapless water make currents drift against his thighs, and the pain, which is what hockey turns into, steeps away. But he laughs because now he gets it: In an hour, the pain will be back, the joke will be back, the tricks will be back: in his back. And he feels tricked.
Richard has turned his cell phone off. So has the phone company. Fine—he needs to distract himself from distractions anyway. And fine—since anymore the only ones who call him are the guys from community hockey asking to borrow his goalie pads. Or else Leigh, the chick he’s been seeing on and off (she’s on; he’s off). He met her through the personals and she’s been talking marriage from date two. “Listen, Rick, we’ve both been through this hokeypokey. I don’t even want a wedding. It’s just good sense for two old hides to be together. You’re that cowboy type who needs to be dragged into doing anything good for you. Well, if it makes it easier, put it this way: We get hitched, you get all the sex you want. You like sex, don’t you?”
Women can talk like that now, say whatever they want and it’s equality so long as it’s at his expense. Leigh’s a mouth. Usually he’s the mouth. And he’s never “Rick.” At any rate, nobody’s getting married.
He checks for cancer downstairs, and when the bathwater goes luke he kicks out the plug by its chain. Feels his ribs through a damp cotton towel. Doctor’s right, he needs exercise, something to get his unemployed heart in shape. A heart’s not a bed. It needs to work too. He does like sex. Could take the dog for a run. But the last time Richard was outside three days ago, the air was so thick with cold that he coughed out his first few breaths and after 10 minutes he had an ice cream headache. When he staggered back inside he checked the temperature, 47 degrees. Anyway the dog’s got hip dysplasia. A trick dog that can’t learn new tricks.
The air shrinks the moisture off his body as he snaps on his briefs and walks to sit at his computer. Spam, spam, can’t figure out how to cancel it, hey-o, there’s the one:
Dear Mr. RICHARD F. DYERS,
As a world-class establishment with eight locations across the Pacific Northwest, Bob Hope’s Laffateria receives many applications. We’re sure you’d make a great addition to our first-rate LINECOOK, but given the current economic—
Richard doesn’t know how to delete it so he switches off the power strip and walks to the kitchen, scratching under the elastic of his underwear. Teakettle weighs a thousand fucking pounds apparently. Somewhere under all the back issues of Shootout the cordless phone rings, can’t find the cocksucker. The landline makes him feel older than anything else. Down the hall the magnetic tape in the answering machine spins and a voice lays itself across it. How can a phone be nowhere? How the hell do you answer a phone that’s nowhere? Suppose you don’t. Suppose instead you watch the TV for one God-blessed reason to move.
After four rings Suzanne hears her own dull duh voice on the other end speaking the outgoing voice-mail message, which is less than outgoing: “You’ve reached Richard and Timothy Dyers and Suzanne Ueda, the Dyerses. Please leave a message. Okay, so now what do I—” beep.
He still hasn’t changed it. No surprise that he’d enshrine her at her stupidest. “The Dyerses” never sounded right. “Harrises” sounds right but “Williamses” doesn’t. Huh. Dyerses Dyerses Dyerses—well, now she can’t tell. In the message’s background she hears the old stove’s hood fan and the TV news from four years ago. Had she been cooking? She never cooked. Richard neither. She lags after the machine’s beep, and trying to make her pause sound deliberate, or at least not deranged, she painfully extrudes her words. “It’s Suzanne. It’s about Tim. If you still care about your son, you’ll call me back. Same number. This is important. B—” she says, halting herself.
In the bathroom, she thinks about the virtue of self-sufficiency but then cries anyway, touching her eyes with the corner of a towel, lightly so they won’t turn pink. She imagines a smarter self, standing behind her, arms crossed—Real independent, this figment says, very Woman Having It All. After a few cri-du-chat breaths, she blows into a folded square of toilet paper and dimly recovers. In the mirror she anguishes over mouth lines that no longer vanish with the relaxation of her face, the thought-crease between her eyebrows, so much for the ostensible Asian fucking fountain of youth. Then there’s her new haircut, which made the face that should’ve looked heart-shaped look fat.
In the hallway, her answering machine indicates a missed message. “Suze—it’s Peter. We’re going on-site Monday and we should dress for success. One of those start-ups that gets their first taste of VC money and thinks they’re an enterprise. Ping me when you get this.”
Peter is a managerial fast-tracker, a passionate hander-offer. His job consists mostly of not stuttering. While Suzanne sumo-wrestled the in-house IT and shit-kicked through log files and fought the screen-glow migraine, Peter would be kibitzing with his management kindreds, trading restaurant recommendations and explaining that Memecare was pronounced meh-meh-care and not meem-care since the company was founded before memes were memes. Thank you ibuprofen, thank you coffee, thank you half an Ativan.
God and here she’d just made the stupidest phone call of her life to avoid thinking about work. It’s the first time she’s reached out to Richard sans lawyer in two years, and when he gets her message, he’ll want to know what’s up with Tim. Then what’ll she say? Certainly not the truth: that nothing was wrong, that she was lonely. She would’ve called Colleen instead, if Colleen weren’t on her extempore jaunt to Germany with her husband. Childless couples can do that. Colleen is Meme-care’s HR lady, a compact woman with a queen-size butt that looks implanted. Since the separation Suzanne has relied on Colleen as a social chaperone, and in her reintegration, Suzanne found herself asking questions like “Can I wear jeans there?” Suzanne waits on Friday nights for Colleen’s summons to go and sip their enormous drinks. Suzanne sways solo to the music and practices flirting with the bartender, who she hopes is gay, and it’s time for more moronic questions: “Um, so what goes into a manhattan?”
Colleen’s fun energy, let’s be honest, makes Suzanne feel torpid. Next to her Suzanne is a hippo, an unhippo, hur-hur. But the alternative is to go out alone. Better to be inferior.
With Colleen in Europe, with nobody’s childlessness to borrow, Suzanne is just a mediocre mother. Tim’s in his room watching cartoons on TV and picking at an unplugged Stratocaster. His long flat body spans the armrests of his couch, and the bladelike angles of his recently pubesced face startle Suzanne. None of her fat to soften them. When Suzanne enters he doesn’t look up.
“Dessert?” Suzanne asks. “Ice cream? Wait, no, we’re out. I could go get some.”
Not even a grunt. She hates when Tim doesn’t engage. Suzanne stares at the colorful mayhem he’s staring at. TVs are so huge now. He’s too old to watch cartoons but cartoons are so filthy now that he’s also too young. It’s okay as long as he’s passing his classes, though it’s ironic that Richard, community college dropout, takes the credit for that, since Suzanne was never home to help with Tim’s homework. Did Tim miss his father? He’d never tell her, and she’s the only one who needs to know. He probably tells his friends. She always forgets their names. She knows what they’re thinking: Who’s the weird awkward Asian lady raising a white kid a foot taller than her? Can she even speak English? And the answer was yes—she just didn’t, sometimes. She hates Tim’s friends and is polite to them.
But Suzanne adores his girlfriend Cristina. Elegant feminine manners, which must be cultural. Suzanne tries not to over-trill her Latin name, though weren’t you supposed to?
Tim never asks for money, which is either worrisome or not, and he bikes himself around. He doesn’t smoke anything, although she supposes it wouldn’t be terrible if he did (thought the Cool Mom). She’s never had to discipline Tim, and probably couldn’t. If something were wrong with him, she’d have told Richard the truth. She’s got to stop worrying. Teenagers need privacy, and Cool Moms know that privacy means total estrangement.
She leaves the den feeling like she needs to talk with him before he leaves for college in three years. But about what? If only they’d had anything in common. If Tim had been a girl, or Asian. That is, what if Suzanne had gotten her way re: adoption? But it wasn’t good to consider what you were owed, and also? What awful things to think.
Lately dark blurs have appeared in Suzanne’s vision. Flushing her eyes doesn’t help and rubbing makes it worse, but she does both. Something may be wrong with her brain and not just her personality. Every time she tries not thinking tumor, she thinks it. Walking to the kitchen for a glass of water, which she’ll either drink or pour on her eyeball, she hears the phone ring and panics.
Before it finishes ringing, her body decides to seize her purse and keys off the kitchen table. “Tim, I’m going out for ice cream. Don’t stay up late.”
“You’re not my real dad!” he shouts back. A joke.
Then Mom whams the door shut in the exact way she always says not to wham it. Now she’s hauling across the lawn to the car instead of taking the walkway, another of her own no-no’s. Not even gonna answer the fucking phone, Mom? Tim gets up groaning and answers the hall phone. Mom, a.k.a. Rules RoboCop, a.k.a. Politeness Nazi, Heil Mom, doesn’t like when he answers with “hey” or “hi” or “sup,” but there’s no logical reason not to. He says, “Sup.”
It’s Cristina. For whatever reason she won’t text and never calls his cell. She calls specifically so Mom knows she’s calling, so everything’s proper. He throws his guitar over and taps up the phone volume. “How was your day?”
Her end is quiet. He’s not even sure if she’s still on the phone but he doesn’t want to say “Are you there?”
“Everything’s okay,” she says.
“What…wasn’t supposed to be okay?” For some reason he’s talking all slow and weird like he has to build each word from mud and spit before saying it.
“Something could’ve gone wrong.”
“Should I come over?”
“No. My parents are here.”
You told your parents we had sex? Why the fuck did you tell them that?
It was crazy last night how easy it was. Cristina’s parents were at a party so Tim went over and all the lights were out except Cristina’s window. He had been worried about having to do something special, but she opened the door and just was kissing him right there, and Tim did it back and pushed the door shut. That was it. When she took her clothes off it was weird. Like it wasn’t normal even though it was fine. Aaahhh it was hard to explain. He got on her and felt hot on his chest and thighs, but he didn’t actually get very, like, sprung. Everything looked great, her tits looked awesome, like the three times he saw them before, but they didn’t make him feel like porn tits made him feel, like even non-great blurry ones. And he definitely wasn’t expecting her pussy to look that way, messy and really dark, or feel that way, like different parts of the inside of his own mouth. But it was fine, he totally still did it, and for like a long time too. It just didn’t feel as good as he thought, not even when he shot his load. Which literally made no sense. And her face the whole time was blank like, wuh. He left after, not saying anything. Easy.
Tim paces around the den, into the kitchen, as far as the phone cord can stretch. It’s so stupid that they’re paying for a phone with a cord, like, for real? Especially since he and his mom have smartphones, and double especially since Mom doesn’t even talk on the phone because she has no friends. He’s not her friend. In fact, if he didn’t feel so bad for her sometimes he would think she was a cunt pretty much.
“I told my parents we did it,” Cristina says.
“Your parents? You told them we had sex?”
She doesn’t sound sorry, even a bit. “I don’t lie.”
Tim’s hands feel staticky. “But not telling’s not lying.”
“I never said it was going to be a secret.”
He knows that Cristina’s family has customs and shit because they’re not American. They’re Mexican, so Jesus makes her all serious, and maybe her dark hair and really straight posture is that sort of thing too. She can change her accent and when it’s heavy she sounds better. Her weird rules, where she always needs to do some hypothetical right thing, fuck him completely the fuck up.
“But they didn’t ask you, did they? They didn’t know.”
“Tim, relax. They’re angry, but it’s okay. They trust me. And this is why they trust me. The one thing is they want to have me examined.”
“What? For what?”
“Because we didn’t use protection.”
“Why the fuck did you tell them that? That’s fucked-up!”
“Do you have a problem?” Cristina pronounces it pro-blem instead of the right way, praw-blum. “I need an examination and to go to confession, but that’s all, there’s no punishment. So what is the matter?”
“I don’t know,” he barely says.
“This was a bad idea,” says Cristina. “We need to talk later—no, later, Tim.”
The house is quiet and he slugs over to his room and drops into bed. It made no sense why you couldn’t just sleep whenever. After Dad was fired they’d stay up late together and watch those shows that were only reruns anymore. That’s when his sleep started getting fucked-up, like somehow whatever was making Dad drink was making it hard to sleep.
After an hour awake in bed Tim kicks his sheets off and goes to the bathroom to look into the mirror at a goblin basically. Like, yeah, he’s overall better off with Mom, money-wise, but he wishes he could get on a plane to Dad. All that has to happen is: Dad gets a job, Mom decides to be less of a useless shred of cunt lint. She loved him before. Why didn’t it get easier the longer you did it? Even if he told them what to do, they wouldn’t be logical enough to do it.
The hallway phone rings but Tim ignores it. They were so afraid of change they still used landline phones, but divorce is okay somehow? The bathroom light is going through his head like a spaceship and he flicks it off. He fucked Cristina. He smashed the V. So what’s the problem. Why does he care about Cristina’s parents or some whatever examination. The phone’s last ring gets cut off by the answering machine, and Tim sits on the toilet and boo-hoos like just a complete wiener.
Suzanne gets to the bar and it’s both loud and mostly empty, with drunk people drinking in private spaces. A girl and a man at the end of the bar are making out, nearly all-the-way out, under a green Heineken neon sign. The only time she’d been here was when Colleen was in low spirits, when her husband canceled their Vegas trip because it would look bad if he took time off during his company’s re-org. Colleen had shanghaied some younger guys to play cards, draining and flipping every shot glass they handed her. She sucked on her hair and mushily muttered to Suzanne about needing some fresh dick. Suzanne left her at the bar, pretending that she’d promised to watch a movie with Tim.
And what happened the next morning was so predictable that Suzanne was amazed it even happened—a force field of hangover oozing from the phone receiver as Colleen sobbed, “Oh shit oh shit I am fucked beyond life! I don’t know what the fuck.… He was such a creep, really—oh, I cheated with such a creep—why did you bail on me?” Um, because you’ve done this twice before? is what Suzanne should have said. Colleen drags Suzanne out; Colleen implodes; Suzanne has to mop up Colleen’s sad yellow puddles of guilt.
No more begging permission. Suzanne is here tonight by herself because she wants to and can be and in life there are no real rules. Suzanne is free, and with her freedom and $5 she orders a white Russian and mezzes out into the mirror behind the bar, then realizes she’s dressed in work khakis and a pink button-down. Undeodorized too. A zit of dried pesto on her khaki leg from lunch. And these ugly clothes weren’t even covering a good body; no sir, it was schlump-upon-schlump. She crosses her legs over the stain and nods at the bartender when he sets her rocks glass on the bar.
Midway through drink two, someone calls her name. She pivots on her stool and sees a man standing so close to her that she can’t see his entire face. “What’s the news, Suze?”
There he is, cozy old Peter, boss man, old slackass intestinal parasite Pete Farber. He’s flopping his hands around in his pockets, smiling like there’s a rake sideways in his mouth. “What’s a working gal doing here on a school night?”
“This working gal is getting ready for a week of good old-fashioned data recovery,” Suzanne says dully, refusing to amend his mixed metaphor.
“Super,” he says.
Perching next to Suzanne, Peter delivers entirely without segue his philosophy of success, which seems to involve squash at the YMCA, deep tissue massage and a cross-platform internet-blocking app. He gestures demonstratively, like he’s launching a product. Over his shoulder Suzanne sees someone try repeatedly to feed a limp dollar into the jukebox, which at last plays “Come As You Are.”
When Richard used to take her out—when he bothered to go out, before he took to making 10-pin arrangements of empties on the kitchen counter—he would start conversations with waiters, passersby, other couples, anyone in range of his yap. Whereas Suzanne was so cowed by chitchat, by the pressure of knowing his friends expected her to be this trembling Asian concubine, that she came off as slow and diffident even though she’d kicked ass in college and she made the money. But nobody at a bar cared if what you said was astute or informed or even true. People wanted to laugh. So she needed a few seconds to say nonstupid things; Richard just said them, and the wide way that he talked, that nonstick coating of Georgia around his vowels, exonerated everything. She became Richard’s duller half, to whom you spoke only out of the goodwill of proximity, with no friends of her own. She should have foreseen that as an adult in the job world, his charm would fail. See where the love of charm got her.
“—that’s where I say nuh-uh, 13.5 percent is just a little bit ridiculous. Three things about me: I hate wasting time, money and food. It’s the rule of minimums. Speaking of which, I’ll be going on a retreat this February, a safari of the Sierras thing. Boys only, unfortunately, though sometime you’ll have to meet my buddies—ridiculous guys. But they’re great. Let me get you another.”
A gin and tonic appears, tastes like antifreeze, and down it goes, hoo.
Peter is still close enough that she sees the hatch mark of hairs in his chin cleft that his razor missed. But his aftershave is nice—or not actually nice, it’s just nice to smell aftershave. Or whatever men use to smell like something other than drunk. A gin and tonic appears, tastes like antifreeze, and down it goes, hoo. Pete’s voice has flattened into the background noise, and it’s nicer than having to screen it out. Though the side of his hand just made some maybe probably not accidental frottage against her forearm. Oh—another one.
She looks up at Peter and he isn’t Richard. But he’s about the same height, median. Oh, isn’t that good enough? Half of everything is below median. Can we not just have fun without ramifying? But she doesn’t have a Suzanne of her own to bail her out. Well, but she’s not trying to do herself any favors. And she’ll get away with coming in late tomorrow.
From a bathroom stall Suzanne leaves a message: “Tim, it’s Mommy. Listen, take care of yourself tonight. You’re so mature, I never tell you this but you are so much more mature and capable than your father, and I’m very proud of you; you’ll have no problem handling things tonight. Have some friends over. Have a beer, why not? I trust you. Love you, sweetie.”
Steam wiggles from the kettle spout. No one’s answering. Richard’s been drinking a lot of tea: gunpowder black, blooming flower, Lapsang souchong, dirty greens with canister labels in foreign scrawl. The swallowing keeps his mouth busy, and he swishes with hoji-cha as he prepares the next pot. Richard hangs up and tries again, and when someone picks up, Richard asks for the manager. Man says, “This is him. How can I help you?”
“Hey there, brother, Richard Dyers. How’s it going?”
“Can I help you with something?”
“How’s it going?”
“Great to hear, brother. Well, what my situation is right now, last week I put in an inquiry for a position at your eck-stablishment, which I’ve bought my shares of, I don’t mind telling you. I was wondering if y’all’d got around to taking a look at my résumé yet.” Richard pours hot water into a dirt-brown mug and dunks the steeper.
“I do remember a query, yes. Hang on one sec.” The phone at the other end is placed down, and in the background is the mall’s PA system. Man picks up again. “You were dismissed from your last job.”
“Indeed. No bull from me.”
“Can you give me some background on that?” the man says.
“That, I believe, I included on the application.”
“Can you describe to me the way in which you were ‘unfairly persecuted’?”
Richard makes himself smile. “A lot of shit was getting shoveled in that place. A lot of guys with agendas, plans hatching, little men in brown helmets—”
“Sir, can you give me the reason they gave you for your dismissal?”
Richard pops his knuckles just to rally up a go-getting feeling. “With regards to that, it may have been due to one episode of inebriation. But it was after game time, practically after hours and well, I know I don’t have to explain this to you, fella, we’ve all been there.”
“It also says here,” the man adds, “that up until last year, you were a hockey referee.”
“Yes sir, and believe me, that’s referees. Drinking’s part of the culture.”
“I follow hockey. I don’t recall anything like that.”
“Local teams. Hawks versus Dragons.”
“I’ve never heard of either,” says the manager. “You mean Clement Regional Junior High Hawks?”
“This one cholo was disrupting the game. Chucked a hot dog on the ice. The way he was going on, who knows, hot dog coulda melted through, hurt some kids. I was right by him.”
“Frontier justice, I confess.”
“Okay, Mr. Dyers, we’re getting a little off track. We don’t have any positions open.”
Richard feels a dizzying strike of anger. Words roll up his spine and out his mouth. “Bullshit, sailor! I saw that help wanted sign yesterday.”
And it’s done.
It’s bright in here. Sun coming up off the surface of the tea into a fat web of light wobbling on the ceiling. Richard looks at the phone like he’s giving it three seconds to apologize, then chucks it across the kitchen, which is the den too. The phone strikes the wall, battery lid flying off, and hits the carpet softly; the dog jingles awake in his basket. Nine-volt battery dangling like a gouged eye.
He fills the kettle again at the faucet, but he’s already full of tea, his gut so swollen another cup will throw his back out. But that doesn’t mean he has to stop drinking—or for that matter that he has to drink tea. In the closet. Behind the skis. Paper bag. Orange discount sticker still on it. Adults with no problems kept booze in the house all the time. It was something you had just in case. For guests, people in shock, cuts, the common cold. Lots of uses besides that one. How long since? Not since Suzanne. And nowhere close to enough to, God forbid, enjoy.
It was only being married that made it a problem. Not just for Suzanne, but for everyone. But how do you convince anyone you’re clean, once their eyebrows go up? They didn’t have to smell it on your breath either, just step one toenail over the line. Leave the bathroom with your shirt untucked and you’re off the wagon so far as the Joneses are concerned. Any fun and you’re fired. You can’t drink—you’re a father.
But what’s a father who never sees his kid anymore? Maybe if there was that solid band of blood connecting him to his son. But there wasn’t. His parenthood was repossessed. They took everything but what he didn’t have: ex-hockey, ex-husband, ex-dad. Now Richard is squatting in the closet and he’s not feeling like a father, not feeling anything except for dust, until his fingers brush the textured glass and label. Okay, slow it down, not right from the bottle. It goes into a Dixie cup and he toasts the dog and drinks, breathes it in, apples, caramel, moss, alcohol, reminds him of when everyone liked how he was, when he was like the Dean Martin of his own life. Cheers to Suzanne, to Tim. To Matty Dyers who took 12 shots and laid his genius ass down in a snowbank in 1993 and didn’t get found until a plow hit him two days later with a solid pond of ice in his mouth. Here’s to Dean, ain’t that a kick in the head….
Suzanne wakes only a little later than usual, and her head feels fragmented, corrupted, unreadable. But no headache. She wasn’t that drunk.
Negative evidence of Peter’s body indents the pillow and the loose sheets beside her. Shit. She’d sworn not to feel guilty but now she’s envenomed with it. Yes, it was stupid to feel guilty about cheating on your past, but that happened to be all she had, and from now on she knows that she will never be able to correctly feel the dignified hurt that she’s relied upon, the sore satisfaction that she is lonely because she has no choice.
Peter’s room is neat like her own, with a taupe carpet still bearing vacuum tracks and a miniature Zen garden on an oak desk. She gets up to kill, if necessary, for water. Lapping out of her hand from the bathroom faucet, she hears her phone buzz in her purse, so she returns to the bedroom and saves it.
“What’s this about Tim?”
Richard’s voice is a familiar depth of monotone—drunk—and it arouses the familiar response—contempt. In pale yellow cotton panties and a camisole, Suzanne wants to cover herself before speaking. Richard asks again, “Tim.”
“It wasn’t anything serious. I made a mistake. I’m sorry for bothering you.”
“Put him on.”
“He’s not here.”
“Whuhthfuck. Where’s he?”
The alcohol makes him sound pitifully redneck. She hears his misspellings. She never believed nor wanted to believe that he wasn’t as intelligent as she was, but that accent has always sprung her prejudices. Or maybe not always, but between that and the drinking.
“Tim’s at home,” Suzanne says. “I thought he had a fever but he didn’t.”
“He’s at home? Where are you at seven in the morning?”
Suzanne cups her forehead. “Work.”
“Okay, what the hell is this?”
“Richard, I just wanted to talk.”
“Just talk,” Suzanne says. “It’s, you know, for one moment I felt a little strange and I made a mistake, and I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to annoy you.”
“You tell me my kid’s in trouble and he’s not? Yeah, I’d call that a mistake all right. Real piece of work. Calling me up to lie! I gotta—”
She takes her clothes, dresses in the bathroom and leaves her boss alone with his sexual breakfast.
Suzanne pulls the phone away from her ear and covers the receiver. His voice vibrates in her palm. When it goes still, she moves the phone back.
“I can’t do it,” she says, talking more quietly than she needs to. “TV and internet, TV and internet, all day. He never talks to me. I don’t know what’s going on in his head. He hates me. And I think—something’s wrong with my brain.” Her lips warp to a shape of wretchedness. Her troubles sound as thin as the air she’s speaking them into.
Richard breathes on the other end. “Tim can handle himself. I raised him that way. He doesn’t need you. Leave the kid alone.”
“Okay,” says Suzanne. She is so grateful to him for not delivering the easy insult.
Peter enters the room with an actual silver tray bearing orange juice, toast and a French omelet garnished with dill. His grin collapses when he sees Suzanne on her phone. He places the tray quietly on the end table and sits on the opposite side of the bed, recomposing the flatware on the tray with effortful indifference.
“Listen, I’ve got to go. Sorry to call you at home,” says Suzanne, in official tones.
“Wait,” says Richard, “how is Tim? How is he really?”
“Yep, touch base later. Good-bye,” says Suzanne, hanging up, and says to Peter, without thinking, “Sorry, that was my boss.”
Peter regards her with amazement but says nothing. Her clothes are horrifyingly folded for her in neat squares on the desk chair, and she takes them, dresses in the bathroom and leaves her boss alone with his sexual breakfast.
Evening. The phone rings again, and Richard, warmed up with anger, makes for the nowhere location of the phone, when his back trumps him with its final trick—he goes down on the carpet, one arm back to grab the handle of the invisible switchblade in his lumbar and the other forward to break his fall. He curses when the voice mail plays. “You’ve reached Richard and Timothy Dyers and Suzanne Ueda, the Dyerses. Please leave a message. Okay, so now what do I—” beep. Exactly, Richard thinks, wincing and going prone. What do I beep.
The machine records a phone hanging up.
The pain is coming out of him in sweat, and the air is double warm because he’s left the stove on in the kitchen. The water has boiled down. He will not try to turn it off. He would rather think about who’s to blame. The way things turned out, people disappearing in every way possible. He’d been a good man and a good father: that only sounded like the first line of a eulogy. Try to see. Go back to when things tilted from fine to awful, the instant where people liked him to when they didn’t. These things start before they get started. He tries, and what comes to mind is Suzanne’s raise, the one they bought the house on. Last step before a family. The hitch was that she couldn’t afford to stop working, so no pregnancy and no maternity leave.
So it happened:
In the agency office, searching through the binder with the worn laminated pages on her lap, was where Suzanne came across the girl with wet dark eyes, an open-mouthed smile, a nose that Suzanne thought might grow to resemble her own. Malaysian. “That’s her,” she had said, circling her finger over the photograph but not touching it. “Richard, look at her.”
Richard, standing behind Suzanne and peering over her shoulder, sucked in his bottom lip and nodded. “Can’t argue she ain’t pretty. Can’t argue that.”
“Let’s ask about her.”
“No reason to rush. Let’s work everything out before we get in anybody’s face. Talk it out first.”
“Talk about what? Richard, I mean, she’s beautiful.”
“I’m just saying is all. If it’s someone who’s going to be at home every day with the child, likely as not it’s going to be me, right?”
“We’ll both be caring for her. Whoever’s working.”
“But in terms of actual hours spent. Ain’t that the truth? What I’m saying is I’m just not sure a guy like me’s really fit to raise a baby girl. Don’t get me wrong now, girls are sunshine. One day we can have ourselves a girl, I promise that. Chinese, Japanese, Martian, whatever you want. What I’m saying, though, is if our very first child is going to be under my own personal supervision most of the day, let’s do it right. Can a guy like me raise a lady—I don’t know.”
“But I can raise a boy up to a man. I know that.”
“So men can only create in their own image? Whereas a woman—whereas women, for thousands, for millennia, raising male babies—”
Richard grasped Suzanne’s shoulder. “Level with me here and let’s not get political. It’s got nothing to do with I’m a man and you’re a woman. I’m saying we make choices that will work best for this baby. You see how I get on with Matty’s boys? I’m Captain America to them.”
Suzanne turned in her seat. “Of course they’re going to be attached to you, obviously, you’re their only—”
“Don’t bring that up now. All I’m saying is that to me, boys are second nature. Would you want me raising a girl, tripping over my own feet, if I already said I’m not sure I can?”
She looked at the picture of the dark-eyed Jane, June, Juliette. “I don’t know.”
“We’re taking our time here. Nothing’s getting rushed. No need to get attached to anything. Spirit of compromise.”
He picked up the boy binder. He looked at Suzanne, who was looking away from him, and he leaned forward and kissed her shoulder and up the back of her neck where the soft hairs were.
After a whole nother night of not sleeping but just looking at his eyelids, Tim sees that Mom must have left for work early, leaving him to bike his own ass to school. He’s changed his mind: He feels bad for her and she’s a cunt. At school Cristina is missing at pre-calc then lunch. So he ditches and pedals five miles across town and he’s wearing all of his sweat by the time he gets to Cristina’s. He leans his bike against the iron mailbox out front. Seeing the house in daylight now is like whatever made things easy that night is gone.
No answer at the door. What the fuckity fuck? He crosses the lawn and looks into the living room window at nobody. She’s the kind who’d get mad at him if he texted her with something serious, so he’ll leave a note. He takes out a pen and paper from his book bag. What’s even to say? I love you? How was your sex examination? Who even writes notes? Maybe it’d help if she knew he loved her, but you come off like you’re lying if you say it like that, so he’s got to prove it to her. He writes: I was here to see you haha call me—tim.
One story up, on a ledge outside her bedroom window, there’s the planter of geraniums she waters in the morning. She’d see the note there. But there’s no tree or anything to climb on. You can’t throw a sheet of paper up that high. If he crumples it into a ball, she might think it’s garbage. Next to the driveway there’s a little flagstone path held together with crumbling mortar, and he gets down and pulls out a loose shard. Fastening the paper to the flat rock with a butterfly clip from his book bag, Tim stands close so he doesn’t hit the window, and makes a layup. The rock taps down on the shingles, rolls and skips off the slant, and he has to bomb out of the way as it comes back down and shatters. Needs more arm. The next shot doinks short into the gutter, so he writes another note. I came to see you please call me was your examination okay? I love you—tim. He clips it to another rock and throws it up again and it goes, not as loud as he’d expect, through the fucking window. And it’s not like he even decided to do this, you know, consciously, but he takes another rock and pitches it through the living room picture window and another through the sunroom window. Sprints for his bike. Coins and gum shake loose from his bag, and he takes off before it hits him just outside of town that he could have folded the note into a triangle and flicked it up if he wasn’t born and raised an idiot.