[Issue 13 / 1 May 15]
He was past fifty, looking stouter than his real self in the billows of a khaki trench coat, his hair a tangle of silver and dun in the March wind that blew in over the white-capped surface of Lake Michigan. Hair longish in a fashion that had long since become unfashionable. His collar, cufflinks, the creases of his pants, his real armor he kept immaculate. He crossed the park at a confident pace and slowed when he reached the boardwalk, where he searched the faces briefly on each bench as he approached the water. When he found an unoccupied bench that faced back the direction he had come, he sat down. A seagull landed almost immediately, waddling a solicitous dance for his benefit before wandering off to join some other seagulls that gathered near one end of a French-fry vendor. The tourists were scant and he could turn and see the length of the boardwalk, the Ferris wheel of magenta, green, and yellow rolling slowly as it smudged a rainbow against the gray afternoon sky. He checked his watch.
Minutes passed. The people he noticed for the most part had dressed warmly, and later loosened their jackets, sweater arms tied around their waists; some had bought snow cones, eager to convince themselves that winter was over. It was that sort of spring day. A young black couple exited the arcade, a boy of about three carried in the father’s arms, exhausted and wrestling with sleep.
He remembered his own son in arms, the simple, primal satisfaction of a warm head against his shoulder, and thought now that it had been all too brief. Where was I, what could have been more important? The boy in the tree, the boy with a shovel in the vacant lot of sagebrush and snakes. The boy who had wandered a mile from the house, down to the highway to follow his father, unobserved by his mother. The boy rampant through the rooms on the second floor while his parents argued on the first; probing, gathering, disassembling the electric candle from the window at Christmas and putting it in his mouth. The dazed boy, lips burned, eyes vacant, something essential erased. What could have ever been more important?
She always refused meeting where a neutral party could be present, and so her propensity for profanity, screaming, and throwing glasses had necessitated these rendezvous’ in public places. Not a solution guaranteed to pacify her, but at least there might be a cop around. Hell hath no fury like a borderline, or had she simply learned that bullying people eventually opened doors? She rewarded the boy for the same behavior.
She was late and he heard her before he saw her, the familiar click of her soles, a gait of self-importance cultivated precisely for times when she was late. A responsible gait, designed to convey her demanding schedule.
“I suppose you know what this is about,” she said. She clutched a Nieman-Marcus bag against her black leather car coat.
“Not a clue.”
She pulled off her sunglasses with practiced, incredulous indignation. “The school didn’t call you about Seth?”
“Why should they call me? I’m just a signature on a check to them.”
“You’re his father.” She snapped the glasses at him.
“Do you ever remind him of that? I’m more like his damage control officer.”
“Well,” and she sat down next to him, putting herself at his level, she believed. “I had thought, hoped, that once we got him into this program,”
“We got him in?” He turned slightly on the bench to face her. “We?”
“It was your name.”
“It was my money.”
“Isn’t it always? I wanted him to stay at Greenmont, face the music.” He tugged at his cuffs that had receded into his coat sleeves, leaving his wrists vulnerable. Looking old. He covered them. “You’re the one who lied on the application.”
“I did not. And how could you know what I wrote?”
“Christ, talking to you is like arguing with Bart Simpson.” He rubbed his temples and stared at the pavement. “What did he do, this time?”
“I only know what they said he did. Some other students got hurt. Sort of.”
“Sort of. Jesus.”
She shrugged. “Not badly. The police said there wouldn’t be any charges.”
“Since you’ve raised him to be such a fine citizen.”
“There might be some minor legal costs.” She glanced at a note in her hand, as if recalling some lesser detail. “And he can’t use the Chemistry lab anymore.” She put the note in her purse.
“There isn’t any such thing as a minor legal cost.” He looked at her. “Seth doesn’t care about what happens to others.”
“He says they were picking on him.” She drew her purse and the shopping bag closer. “I thought maybe you could talk some sense to him.”
“He doesn’t listen to me.” It was the summer in north Idaho, or a beach near Eureka. Deaf to counsel, as irretrievable as a cruise missile: A fall from a precipice, a rock slide, an angry park ranger, a grass fire out of control. The incidents had, without any dialogue, any agency, started to run together. “Somewhere along the line you taught him that wasn’t important.”
“How can you say that?”
“By example, Missy, by example.”
They both sat numbly, the wind fluttering their lapels. Unsettling scenarios re-emerged: Seth living under a bridge at twenty-five, Seth unkempt and delusional, still living in his mother’s house at forty. Seth in prison. A bubble of impenetrable loneliness settled over him, a premonition that his old age would be empty, his only legacy a creature that drove others to turn away in embarrassment, disgust, or draw their vengeance.
She struggled with her perennial challenge, rearranging the fragments of life she had been dealt in order to achieve a certain appearance she still dreamed of, though with less and less frequency. It was then that she saw them, a young man lean and chiseled, wearing a college sweatshirt, the girl with her head and torso pressed to his chest, her hair swinging with each step as they meandered in unison, their joy infectious and radiant a hundred yards away. “Now they’re in love,” Missy said.
He sighted down the length of her arm where, it seemed to him, two men were emptying a garbage can.
“Hm-mmm,” he said. “Are you still taking tap?”
“I quit. Some people are just born with that gift. Some aren’t.” And then she thought she saw the angle through his armor, where she might seize an advantage. Guilt perhaps. Sentimentality. Something that, when tumbled properly through her own self righteous logic, would have some monetary value to her. Anything was possible. She took his hand. “What happened to us, anyway?” She whimpered.
“What?” The question upended a contemplative paradigm, and he stared at his hand in hers as if a bird had soiled it. He shook it free. “You quit piano too. Don’t you see? And watercolor.” He stood up. “Nobody gets a ‘gift.’ It would be unfair, if one baby got a gift and another didn’t, wouldn’t it? You get good at something with practice.”
Her angle was closing. “Sit down, will you.” She patted the bench maternally.
He sat, but farther near the end. “You do something, do it a lot, do it even when you don’t feel like it, and eventually,”
“You think you know everything, Mr. High and Mighty,” her maternal air vanished, “because you went to college.”
“Eventually, you get good at it. But you’ve quit everything you ever started.” He took a breath and lowered his voice. “And you’re letting him do the same goddamned thing.”
“He shouldn’t have to do things he doesn’t like. I’ve done alright.”
“You didn’t finish high school.”
“I’ve got my AA.”
“In what? Self-affirmation? Character assassination?”
“I’ve got the credits,”
“You never finished.” He looked off at the arcade. “You’ve trained that boy to do maximum damage, and I always pick up the tab.”
“How can you say such a thing? Don’t you have any feelings left for your son?”
“Feelings? I don’t know him anymore.” He stood and walked around the back of the bench, tempted to just walk away, but turned and leaned over, his face inches from hers. “I feel, like, in marrying you, I stepped in something I’ve never been able to get off my shoe. A stink that follows me everywhere. You came here to ask for money.”
She stood and backed six or seven feet from the bench, facing him. “You’re so crude.” She glared until she sensed the stares of the crowd by the fry vendor; she was on stage and had no lines for them. She shook a wave of hair from her eye and raised her chin. “You’ll be hearing from my attorney.” She took a few more steps back, then turned and stormed away, seagulls and pigeons scattering before the clatter of her heels.
“Don’t you ever get tired of saying that?” He struggled to speak loudly, but his rage, his frustration, was contained still by an archaic obligation to decorum. The din of passerby’s fell silent nonetheless, a dozen gulls took flight.
She heard, but it was important to her exit that she not acknowledges him.
He watched her head, the bobbing mound of hair grow smaller in the distance along a straight trajectory as others stepped out of her path, and tried to think of anything else he might have said to manage the conversation differently. He felt abruptly vulnerable and sat down, crossing his ankles, and stared at his polished oxfords. The breeze shifted and he could smell the restaurant in the arcade, music from the Billy Goat Tavern, something warm and comfortable. He thought he might stay on the pier and have dinner. Perhaps it would repair something.
“Excuse me, Sir.”
He looked up and a young couple stood before him, college age he thought. The girl looked at him bashfully through her hair as she held the boy with both arms like a plush trophy. The boy held something out to him with his free hand, the size of a cigarette lighter. “Could you take a picture of us?” He wore a DePaul University sweatshirt.
“Be happy to.” He stood up and took the tiny camera, examined it for a moment, before deciding where the lens was.
“It’s digital,” the boy said. “Maybe you could get the Ferris wheel behind us?”
“Yeah.” The girl said, and stood up straighter for the picture, clearing the hair from her eyes and smiling.
He squinted through the viewfinder and clicked the shutter. “Wait,” he said. He turned the camera sideways. “Let me get one of you longwise.” He clicked once more. “So, DePaul,” and he handed the camera back to him, “are you going to marry this girl?”
The boy, stammered, screwed up his face and started to blush. “Gee, I don’t know. We haven’t even really talked about,”
“Jason…” the girl turned into him, laughing, but pretended to twist his arm.
“Yeah. I guess so. I don’t know. If she’ll…”
“If I’ll what?” she laughed again, and took the boy’s hand to lead him away. She looked back. “Thanks. For taking our picture, I mean.”
“My pleasure.” He watched them as they resumed their little waltz away from him, so intoxicated with their rhythm that for a while he could think of no higher state of being. He watched them until they grew small and vanished around the far end of the arcade. Farther out in the lake, fog was obliterating the horizon. A channel buoy blinked with a red beacon at the end of a long jetty covered with crying gulls.
It was uncanny, when you thought about it. Some young people could decide so easily who to love, who they’d grow old with, and not make a mess of it. Or would they end up having to meet in public after a few years, unable to behave civilly in any other circumstances?
He concentrated on the sidewalk where it merged with Lake Shore Drive, looking for her, in her black leather, wondering whose happiness she would annihilate next, but all of the foot traffic dissolved into a homogenous dark stream that flowed continuously, silhouetted against the headlights. He turned back towards the lake where the fog had engulfed the jetty and the beacon, the birds crying on in the descent of night.