I find the divorce papers in the stack of junk mail and late payment notices. Alex, watching Adventure Time beside me on the sofa, knows something’s up. My hands shake opening the thick envelope but it’s all clear, just a few signatures needed. I thought for sure she was going to bring criminal charges, negligence, something, but Andie just wants the whole thing behind her. I don’t know if that’s possible for me though.
When I finally look up, the boy’s face has an unusual, considered cast to it, like he’s five going on twenty-five—a squint of the eye, an upturn of the chin, a hint of the man hiding inside the child. My heart fissures. It’s almost waterworks, right then and there.
Alex scooches over and straddles his legs ’round my belly. He gives me one of those too-serious looks, like he’s the parent around here, which, honestly, he pretty much is these days.
He fidgets, then plants his hands on my bare chest. Chews his lower lip. Was a time I would’ve snapped, Say what you need to say, goddamnit. Spit it out.
“Let me guess,” I say, staring into his sky blue eyes. “You wanna go.”
“I don’t want to.”
“You have to.”
The words come thick—waterworks, people, waterworks—and his hands rise then fall as I take a breath, a big one, to keep from slipping under. I knew this day would come, and I knew that when it did I wouldn’t be ready. Still, I have to play the grown-up here. Or at least try.
Alex nods and leans into me. His scalp smells like a wondrous mixture of fresh bread, baby powder, and something sharp, astringent. When he was an infant I’d hold him the same way as he napped, sometimes for hours, swaying circles around the kitchen while we listened to Talking Heads’ “This Must Be the Place” or “Heaven,” then collapsing on these saggy cushions. The kid never did like sleeping alone, from the get-go. Used to be one of those things that drove me apeshit, how, when he was a toddler, I’d stagger to bed and find him there, curled around Andie in my spot. For a while I’d exile myself to his room. Then I began giving them the boot. I gave this kid so much today, now he wants my bed too?
Since Andie left, he’s been sleeping with me. He’s saved my life, for what it’s worth.
“Well, it makes sense,” I say. “It’s gotta be boring spending all day with me.”
He nuzzles me, his nose soft on my stubble as his lips touch my neck. “I think I’m ready.”
“My big boy,” I whisper.
But inside, that familiar hollow feeling sinks into my gut. An animal terror. I used to grab a cold one—hell, I used to grab anything—to bolster myself against it, but Alex helped me off that shit. He made me get a tattoo as inspiration, or maybe a reminder, though he practically had to push me out of the house to do it. This was the grey period when I’d have dry heaves before getting behind the wheel, when I didn’t want to do anything except burrow in bed and hold my boy. But I went. Drove myself even. Now my left bicep features E.T. extending a glowing digit. “I’ll be right here” is written beneath him.
Running a finger along the long-necked alien roots me down, it really does, when my head feels like it’s going to blow away. Even before I watched that movie with Alex on his last birthday, when we gave him the goddamn bike, whenever I saw E.T.—in college, in middle school—waterworks, every time.
I set the kid before me on the rug, then clap my hands to lighten the mood. This is a big move for him, after all. I can’t let my self-centered fears ruin it, that’s how this whole shit started.
“What we need to do is send you off right,” I say. “What we need is a celebration. How about we camp out tomorrow night at No Name Pond?”
His face wrinkles with worry—he becomes an old man before my eyes. “Isn’t it too cold?”
“Not if we cuddle up in a sleeping bag. Alright?”
Alex does a dab in happiness. “Just make sure to bring—”
The kid’s forever planning and prepping, like he’s one of the adults. He gets it from his mother, believe me. And as if reading my mind he tells me that there’s a few things we need to bring to her.
I haven’t seen Andie since the memorial service, when she told me to clear off, to get the fuck out of this house, out of her life. Alex, probably sensing these thoughts in that spooky way he does, takes my hand. Though he’s a scrawny thing, not even four-feet-tall in Darth Vader Underoos, he’s got this kind of commanding presence—it’s a new thing, or something I wasn’t attuned to before. “You’ve got this, Dad,” he says. “You’ve got this.”
But later, lying next to him after he’s asleep, I’m not so sure. Because that hollowness returns, along with something raw and dark, and the thought of Alex not being beside me—well, I don’t know. I kiss his forehead and leave him spread eagle in the moonlight, a slumbering angel.
Down in the basement, I remove my dad’s wooden box from the back of my worktable drawer. Beneath a thick layer of dust, gold lines trace the lid’s perimeter, forming fleur-de-lis in each corner. He used to keep his magic tricks in here, slight of hand gags involving handkerchiefs, boxes in which pennies vanished, toys he’d trot out whenever he got a load on. Seems a fitting resting place for his Colt, since Dad used it to perform his greatest feat, making himself disappear.
I take the weapon in my hands, surprised as always by its weight. The reality of the thing. The finality of it. I imagine Dad holding it to his temple, the loneliest man in the world. But I think of Alex lying two floors up and the gun comforts me.
I’m not alone. Not yet, anyway.
The next day I’m loading the car when Richard walks past in his pajamas. He’s just dropped the girls at the bus. Alex and his youngest, Lucinda, used to play together sometimes on Friday afternoons, while Richard and I split a six pack or two. I counted him as one of my only friends with kids.
“Hola, amigo,” Richard says, though he isn’t a bit Spanish. “Getting outta here for the weekend? That’ll be good for you.”
His voice softens, but he doesn’t move from the sidewalk; he keeps a good distance from me. That’s how it is around here. With the neighbors, I mean. I ask how Lucinda’s liking kindergarten—Alex is supposed to be in her class—but the color seeps from his cheeks and he only says it’s great, yeah, thanks.
He’s looking behind me as he blabbers, and I follow his eyes to Alex’s window—his blue cement mixer’s right where he left it—and I realize Richard’s still uncomfortable talking kids. So we shoot the shit about how the day is clear and bright, the sky spotless. “Kind of like the morning of 9/11,” I say.
On that note he hightails it. Well, fuck him. Fair weather friend.
Alex comes out with his blankie and Star Wars thermos. He shifts from one foot to the other, nervous the way he gets whenever he’s on the driveway, though he was the one who insisted I not move. I did get a new car though. From the insurance company. A rental, long overdue for return.
I tousle his hair. “Ready to race me to the dock?”
“Like, a hundred times ready. No. A thousand.”
First, though, we have to see Andie. She’s at her sister’s place, closer to the city. It’s out of our way and traffic’s a nightmare, but I tell myself it’ll be the last time, and that I should straighten the hell up and do something nice for once without griping. As I drive, I notice Alex has stopped sucking his thumb, a habit that returned when he first came home. He is growing then, in a way. He’s not stuck in amber, something probably all parents wish for their children at some point. A selfish desire. Because every child wants to grow up, of course. No one realizes how terrible adulthood is until they arrive, and then it’s too late.
As we crawl down the highway we sing “Free to Be You and Me” five times straight, belting out the end when the choir turns it to eleven. Then I play the Fantastic Mr. Fox audiobook, which I’ve heard so many times I can practically recite it myself. But whatever Alex wants, he gets. That’s the way it always should have been.
When we pull up to Theresa’s, the blinds are drawn. I should have called first. Andie might not even be in, she might’ve gone back to work. The last time I came here we were together, a family. Now the divorce papers are in the passenger’s seat, where Andie used to sit. I rub my tattoo and tell myself the lukewarm Coke sitting between my legs will be enough to get me through this.
“It’s okay, Dad.”
I find his eyes on me in the rearview.
He has a blue backpack beside him, full of favorite things— In The Night Kitchen, which always cracked him up because that kid’s naked for most of it, and his beloved Boo Bear, and a pill bottle with his one and only baby tooth rattling around inside. For a moment he considers his thermos, but that stays in his lap. His blankie though, goes in. It’s a white linen square with orange fishes. I used to swaddle him in it as a newborn and lay him atop me, whispering all those stupid promises new dads make, about how I was gonna be the best dad I could, and never hurt him, and always be there for him, and not repeat the mistakes of my dad and his dad before him and all the men who have ever walked the Earth in their narcissistic, stoic stupidity, blah blah blah. As if having a kid erases history, as if you’re a new you and not just the same old you with the same fucking problems, plus a whole added mess of responsibility.
“You sure about that?” I say, meaning the blanket.
“It’s okay, Dad,” he says again. “I won’t need it.”
“Well, it’s kind of fitting, actually. Since your mom was the one who bought it for you.”
He has that curious look kids wear when they learn details about themselves before they were aware of themselves, the secret history of the self, as it were. I nod—Andie bought almost all of his baby stuff, she went all in on “nesting”—and he seems doubly pleased to include it in his offering.
“You wanna do it?” I ask, hope making my voice creep up an octave.
But of course he can’t. So I trudge up the steps and ring the bell. The porch is in dire need of a paint job, strips of the rust-colored siding are peeling away, and the windows are closed though it’s a warm day. I wonder what their neighbors think of the two women squirreled away in this dump of a row house. I wait a minute then ring again, and as I’m about to drop the bag and bolt the door opens with a squeal. The screen’s sheer surface obscures Theresa’s details, but its clear she’s not happy to see me. A cigarette dangles from her lips, and she’s either about to leave or just got home, or else she likes wearing her nurse scrubs around the house.
“We gotta get a restraining order now?” she says.
Theresa shakes her head, but doesn’t offer any details. I get it. She wouldn’t want to see me even if she was, or maybe she is home and she’s hiding—it doesn’t matter, not anymore. I hold up the bag. “These are for her,” I say. “She... He...”
My voice catches on something in my throat, some scrap of emotion I can’t name but tastes bitter. I look over my shoulder at the Honda, but Alex must’ve ducked down because I can’t see hint of him. “I thought she should have ‘em. And her papers are there too. Which I signed.”
When I turn back, Theresa’s thin eyebrows are curdled like she’s confused, maybe even worried. “Leave it,” she says.
Alright, then. I did my job. No need to expect a miracle reconciliation. Theresa never did much like me to begin with, though we did do blow a few times at various family functions, picnics and such, which was fun. But as I’m walking away, she surprises me.
“Thanks,” she says. And then, “Goodbye, Ed.”
Something about the way she says it, as if she knows what I’ve got packed in my duffle, grabs me the wrong way. So I ruin things with a lie. “I’ll be seeing you.”
“Yeah, right. Sure you will.”
When I get back in, I find Alex flat on the back seat, cradling his thermos. I look at him as best I can from behind the wheel. “Mission accomplished. You ready?”
“As ready as I’ll ever be.”
I start the car. Now that I’m off the property, Theresa’s come onto the porch, arms crossed, cigarette pointing at me like an accusatory finger. She’s slowly shaking her head, whether in good riddance or because she thinks I’m nuts, I don’t fucking know. Probably a bit of both.
I let Alex beat me to the dock. He leaps off the end in a picture perfect moment, arms spread wide, legs apart, knees bent, a silhouette against the long rays of the late afternoon sun flashing fire over the water’s surface. Miraculous. When he comes up for air there’s a funny bubbling sound. “I farted!” he announces.
We’re all laughs, but later, around the campfire, I can’t stop myself from going dewy-eyed. “You know I’m gonna miss you kid.”
It’s been five years of being home with him. Five years of pain and hostility. I remember spanking his ass beet red when he bit me mid-tantrum. Locking him in his room when he refused to settle down for a nap. Cursing him when he threw his Hulk figure at me. Dropping him at preschool only to get called back twenty minutes later cause he ran so anxious he was having a kind of seizure; driving to pick him up choking on resentment—all I wanted was a few hours to myself, a chance to grab a shower in peace. We were like fire and fire, his nerves and my nerves. Five years of telling myself I’d find a new job only to let opportunity after opportunity slip through my fingers like sand at the playground, or ash in the bottom of the grill. Five years of watching my boy grow up through the veil of a hangover, or worse, the frosted plate-glass of a midday drunk. How many times did I wish he’d never been born? That something might happen to him and Andie on their way home from the mall, an accident, a shooting, that I might be free? Five lost, wasted years.
But this summer... and then I say it aloud, since this isn’t the time to hold back. “This summer’s been the best time of my life.”
“Summer’s awesome, Dad.”
He turns his thermos over in his hands, all thoughtful. Then he tosses it to me. “You’re gonna need to do it for me, okay?”
I know then, with surety, that he’s ready to go. I tell him that’s how he’s always been—it might take him a long time, like deciding to walk, say, or talk—but when he’s ready to do what he wants to do then he ups and does it.
“Like eating,” he says, through a mouthful of s’mores.
We laugh at that, cause the kid’s always had a hell of an appetite. Like his old man.
That night, I don’t sleep. I hold him close to me in our sleeping bag, stroking his hair and watching the embers fade to black. “You’re a beautiful boy,” I whisper at one point, more to myself than him.
But he’s not a beautiful boy. He was a beautiful boy. Till that Saturday late last May, when Andie left me with him alone for the sixth damn day in a row so she could brunch with her sister and her mom, quality time she said she deserved after a week holding it down for us, providing. As if I didn’t do shit to contribute, you know? You can imagine I handled that gracefully. I went extra hard the night before, though I can’t even remember what I stayed up late watching. Bourbon obliterated the specifics.
That morning, after she left, I sent Alex to watch TV while I slept more of it off. When that finally bored him, he asked to play Angry Birds on my phone. “Fuck that,” I said. Cause I knew it wouldn’t be long before he’d beg for my help nailing pigs. I banished him outside.
“With you, Dad?”
“You think my dad played outside with me when I was your age? He didn’t give a shit.”
“But it’s boring out there alone.”
“You begged for that goddamn bike. Go ride it.”
I lay there after he left, a jackhammer of self-pity going between my ears. I needed what my dad used to call a hair of the dog. On my way to the kitchen I stepped on some sharp LEGO piece, and my foot still throbbed when I swallowed the last of the whiskey. Fuck if I’d have to run out, real quick. Let the “big boy” keep an eye on himself, I remember thinking. Just for a minute. No harm in that.
I felt more than heard the thump of my pickup smacking into him. “You kidding me?” I said. Some sick part of me wanted to believe I’d run over his wagon or something, though deep down, where everything was rank and hollow, I knew what I’d done.
It wasn’t like it is on TV. I didn’t scream or sob, holding his tiny body. I saw the dull, overcast sensation in my head reflected in what had been his blue eyes, blue like mine, gone grey in death. His blood, dark and sticky as tar on my fingers. A chip of skull in my hand, like a big flat canine. A stain forming on the asphalt. Irrefutable, real details, but they couldn’t cut through my fog. “How many times did I tell you? Watch the driveways. Always watch the driveways.”
Richard, out front prepping his lawnmower, found me kneeling there. “What you yelling about, buddy?”
“Can you believe this kid?” I said to him. “Look what he did. This little shit.”
When the edge of the sky turns slate over the lake, I reach into my bag and find Dad’s pistol. I slip it into my back pocket without disturbing the boy. I’m heading with him. I won’t let him go again.
At sunrise, Alex awakes. We walk to the dock, holding hands. The wood under my toes is cool and moist, and the crickets gently call from the weeds by the shore. The air smells good, fresh and new. What I wouldn’t do for a strong cup of coffee though, especially, God forgive my weakness, one with a shot of whiskey.
I can’t help it now: waterworks. Waterworks because I’m flimsy and broken and not the father this boy deserved.
Alex slips his little hand out of my big one. He stands on tiptoe and reaches his fingers up till it touches my heart. “I’ll be right here,” he whispers.
But the kid can’t pull it off—even he’s not that good. He almost knocks me into the water with a full-bodied hug, and it’s when his arms are around me that he feels the gun’s strange shape in my back pocket. He steps away, steel in his eyes. “No, Dad,” he says. “No.”
I’m the one having the panic attack now. I drop to my knees, body curling around itself, trying to contain that unbearable hollow feeling before it empties me of everything.
I don’t feel him take it, I just hear the heavy plop as the Colt hits the water. I sink down, terrified.
But there on the pier, I find comfort. The planks, softened from age and weather, are solid. The treetops shift from blue to orange as the sun limns the horizon in gold. The air thrums with the life of little things: noseeums, birdcall, the rustling song of autumn leaves. While Alex stands silent, watching as the ripples fade from the water’s surface. Mirror smooth once more, the pond twins the dawn. I thank whatever power is up there that has given me this image to remember my son by instead of all the useless ones I’d accumulated in my short, doomed career as a dad. Though I had loved him wrong for so long, my son loved me all the right ways, ways I had never known. He loved me more than I loved myself even. More than anyone ever had, more than I deserved.
Before I have a second thought, I screw open the thermos. Alex’s ashes take to the breeze, and the revenant of my little boy seems to walk on the water’s shadow. Then he disappears, but I’m not alone.