Michael J. Vaughn
For Katrina Galway
She had had boyfriends, had made love, but Rodin’s work she knew to be something else, something about power and surrender and weakness and force and then all those things getting mixed up, so that you couldn’t tell which was which. They weren’t actually two figures. They were some kind of storm. Some kind of storm at sea with the clouds and waves and winds tossed about, and was it the sea that made the rain or the rain that made the sea?
--JCWatson, from Current Wisdom
My mother wanted me to be a doctor. But I knew how awful I was with people, so I botched the exam. She expressed her disappointment for years.
Mom was a cabernet alcoholic, much more elusive than your square-bottom whiskey swillers, your pitcher-a-night barflies. She carried on for years, hidden by her custom wine cellar, her weekends in Napa – and never, ever tired of complaining about her wretched, alimony-fueled existence.
One day in Calistoga, she jumped the embankment, her brain swollen from all-day tastings, and planted her Jaguar in the crown of a live oak. Watch the picture in stop-motion, drunkie Mom rocketing through the windshield, dangling seat belt erect with inertia, a jag of glass slicing her head clean off.
I was relieved. Relieved to get on with my life without the constant board review, the endless filibuster, the eternal making up for my father’s desertion (when I couldn’t really blame him). I was also relieved that she hadn’t taken anyone with her. I always thought she would.
I’m a drunk, too. Half the time that shit touches my lips, I end up behind bars – or married. There’s your free will, your predestiny. The fault lies not in our stars, but our cells.
It’s 1973. A psychiatrist, Donald Goodwin, rounds up a pool of 67 Danish children – sons of alcoholics, adopted soon after birth by non-alcoholic parents. Didn’t matter. Eighteen percent became alcoholics, compared to five percent of the control group (sons of non-alcoholics, adopted by non-alcoholics). Dancing to the tune of their DNA, they were three to six times more likely to become alcoholics.
The tune I dance to is science. I love the human body. I love every part of the human body except the larynx, which produces so much more shit than the colon. Abolish the larynx, give me mutes for patients, and Voila! I’m a doctor.
I haven’t had a drink since the bachelor party. Whenever I drive past a liquor store, I picture 23-year-old Davey, climbing a live oak in his paramedic jumpsuit to fetch my mother’s noggin from the high limbs.
It’s four o’clock Tuesday. I run the last of my gels, give the high sign to Marty Quock (my guardian, my wing-man) and hop on my bike for a ride down Palm Drive. Palms are not a native species here, but they give the campus a regal entranceway, leading through small twin towers to El Camino Real, highway of the Spanish missionaries. (We call it “The El Camino,” which translates as “The The Road.”)
I track the spooky sidewalk underpass, tunneling under the train station, then reemerge in the townie chaos of Palo Alto. Cars stack up at the light as pedestrians scatter across like pigeons. I wing a right at the bead shop, lock my bike to an S-shaped rack, and cut around to the side door. My secret knock (the opening beat to “My Sharona”) is answered by the sexiest woman on the peninsula.
Kelly’s got one of those short, mousse-dependent haircuts that spindles out like an old broom, falling from her crown in triangles of black and purple. For her it works, because she’s got the face: long lines, sharp chin, Mediterranean nose with a midway bump, brown cat’s eyes and a loose-lipped smile. She’s the library book I always check out.
“Hey, Hoppy. In for the usual?”
“Sure. How about you?”
Kelly turns around, bends over and flips her skirt. She’s painted her ass like a hooker’s face: blue eyes with overlong lashes, a broad nose straddling her crack, and pouty lipsticked mouth surrounding her bubble-gum labia. She has pre-lubed herself with massage oil, so my mission is clear. I open my fly, give my dick a couple of pulls and ram it home. Then I close the door.
“Oh!” she groans. “God! I never feel complete without that cock in me. Could you just follow me around the rest of the day?”
“I think the necklace-makers of Palo Alto would frown on it.”
“Charge them admission!”
I slide out till nothing’s inside but the helmet, then thrust back in. The blue eyes jiggle.
I was waiting for a train to San Francisco, taking the kids to a Giants game. Laura tapped her finger against a bulletin board.
“Daddy! Look! It’s a cat with a tuxedo.”
Or a picture of a cat, name of Corialanus, on a “Lost” flyer. I spotted the same cat ten feet away, on a “Found” flyer, tore them both down and said, “Look, Laura – two of a kind!”
She screwed up her face. “Does that beat… a straight?”
“No. But it will give us a happy pet-owner.”
“You don’t know what it’s like!” said Kelly. “I’ve got a seven-year-old who’s been mooning over that cat all week.”
“I could hazard a guess,” I said.
“Let me buy you dinner.”
“I have this ‘wife’ thing. And you sound entirely too good-looking.”
She laughed. “I am. But how can you tell?”
“I’m a geneticist.”
“Of course! How ‘bout coffee?”
I thought about it. “Coffee’s safe. Four o’clock? University Café?”
“See you there. I’ll be wearing denim.”
Indeed she was. And a necklace of lapis lazuli. I might have been okay if it weren’t for that necklace – kept drawing my eyes to her cleavage. Milk-white. I’m a sucker for goth girls. But I was not the one who brought up sex.
“The single-mom thing is hell,” she said, chewing a biscotti. “The men all think I’m looking for Daddy number two, when all I really want is a robust fucking. I think that’s why I’m so attached to the goddamn cat. Hah! I must have walked right by that ‘Found’ poster.”
A half-hour later, she was perched on the break-room table at her bead shop, legs splayed as I pounded into her. I certainly don’t mind foreplay, but there was something thrilling about a woman who treated you like a human dipstick. Afterwards, I conducted some negotiations.
“I don’t love my wife. I never have. But she’s the one who’s raising my kids. I have a vested interest in keeping her happy. How about once a week? We get off, we don’t get too attached – you get to keep your prospects open.”
I reached for my wallet and extracted two hundred-dollar bills.
“Before your mind goes anywhere near convention, let me say that this a free-will offering, an acknowledgement that some people get the shaft and others get rich wives. But there are attachments. Don’t tell me about your boyfriends, don’t tell your boyfriends about me. Use a condom with your boyfriends. Are we agreed?”
Kelly smiled and folded up the bills. “You’re a real good fuck, Hopkins. But I will take your money.”
This time is different. She stops me, takes me out, and I finish in her mouth.
“We’re hungry today?”
She peers around my dick sort of… shyly (what kind of a trick is that?).
“I like it, once in a while. You taste pretty good. Nutty-fishy. A touch of almond.”
“I’m on a tasty-sperm diet,” I say. “What some men won’t do to please their…”
“Looking for a noun?”
“Why does ‘lover’ sound so fucking French?”
“Don’t worry,” she says. “I doubt you’ll ever have to introduce me at a dinner party.”
I head for the bathroom to clean what’s left of Kelly’s ass-hooker from my privates. When I come out, she goes in, and I take the opportunity to fetch my wallet. Kelly’s been pretty good, but I still like to maintain a certain mythos about the process – as if the money appears by magic. I open my usual drop-spot – a brass box engraved with Hindu figures – and find it occupied by a hunk of yellow glass, cloudy like lemon marmalade, size of a horse-pill.
“What’s this?” I ask.
She re-enters in her bathrobe. “Trade bead from Kenya. Made in Venice, fifteenth century. I thought you’d like it.”
“I do.” I drop it in her pocket. “Keep it here for me.”
She frowns. “Shithead.”
I tap my temple. “Smart shithead.” Then I slip on my windbreaker. “Next Tuesday? Lover?”
She hesitates. She has every right to say no. I wouldn’t blame her. “Yeah. Next Tuesday.”
“See you then.”
There’s no time I like better than Tuesday evening, wheeling past the immigrant palms of Stanford. Relieved of my lust.
The kid is twelve, going on huge. Six foot, a hundred and eighty pounds. One time, a high school football coach was jogging by, and stopped to inquire.
“That goalie out there. He’s one of the coaches, right?”
“That’s my son,” I said. “A twelve-year-old gargantua.”
“Wow! Any interest in football?”
“Not a whit.”
“Do me a favor, wouldja? Take him to a ‘Niners game.”
I watched him jog off, certain that I would never see him again. Marcus has size, and coordination, but he’s too damn nice to play football. He hates the idea of ruining someone else’s fun. By, for instance, taking the ball away. He runs his goalie box like an isolationist country, willing to patrol his borders but not to take proactive action in adjacent regions.
He certainly doesn’t get this from his parents. Jessie and I are two of the most aggressive, selfish assholes I know. I’ve even tried to pass on some dirty tricks from my high school days.
“Y’see, Marc, when you’re the goalie, you’re protected. The ref has to keep the other players from messing with you. There was this one game where this pesky little striker was buzzing me every time I came out for an easy pickup. It was pissing me off, so the next time I stayed low till he made his little run at me, then stood up real fast and clipped him in the shoulder. Hah! Little bugger spun three times and fell on his ass. Then the ref called a foul on him! Because I had the ball, and it was his obligation to stay out of my way.”
Marcus gave me a puzzled look. “But that doesn’t seem very… nice.”
“Nice?! Son, he broke the rules, and I was nice enough to illustrate the error of his ways.”
He just looked at me. I love that kid like nobody’s business, but I wish I knew what species of extra-terrestrial impregnated my wife.
When I get to the park, it’s that cool, murky twilight, when the kids are all tired but still looking for that perfect Beckham boot to the top right corner. Pietro the wonderkid is lifting lazy crosses from the right sideline; Marcus stands patiently in the goalface, waiting till one of his teammates gets a head or a foot on it. Some of them go in. He doesn’t care. To step out and intercept one of Pietro’s lovely arcs, to deny the midget forwards their due glory, would be unpassably rude.
What kills me is that Marcus rarely lets in more than three goals a game. If he had even the least bit of aggressiveness, I would be answering calls from Team USA. But now he’s jogging my way, so I jam those thoughts into my back pocket.
I give him a hearty hug and pound him on the back. Hard to believe this big ol’ piece of horseflesh is my son.
“Ouch! Dad!” he whines. It’s not the pain, but the embarrassment.
“How was practice?”
“Same ol’, same ol’.”
I don’t know where he picks up these old-fashioned expressions. I swear, one time he said “Hell’s bells.”
“Dad, what’s that gunk on your sleeve?”
“Well for God’s sake,” I say, thinking quickly. “It’s that viscuous thortazine we’ve been using at work.”
He laughs. “Better be careful. It looks like lipstick.”
He has pierced me, like a butterfly on a collection board. But you can’t explain to a twelve-year-old the sad compromises of life – how you pay a single mom to fuck you so you can keep your family together.
“All right, joker.” I grab the back of his neck and steer him toward the car. “You and me got a date with a pizza parlor.”
“Glory be!” he exults.
The reviews on the pizza are mixed. Laura greets us with huzzahs.
“All right! Did you get pepper-shlomoni?”
“Would I get a pizza without pepper-shlomoni?” I flip open the box to reveal a sea of oily red circles.
“And a vegetarian pizza for Mom.”
My wife appears in the hallway, holding a bell pepper and a paring knife. She also has the pissed-off stare, the one that never seems to leave.
“What am I supposed to do with the dinner I’m halfway through preparing?”
Ten seconds in the door and already, a minefield.
“I left a message on your voicemail.”
“I’ve told you before, that doesn’t work!” Her voice is working up to schoolmarm nasal. “Laura’s been on the computer, so the line’s been tied up. Is it too much to ask that you speak with me directly before you go making executive decisions?”
And here we are, back in our familiar tracks. Jessie loves fighting, because fighting is the only way she knows if I still care about her. I guess if I didn’t, I wouldn’t fight back.
I throw up my arms. “Executive decision? It’s a goddamn pizza!”
She’s in my face, drilling me with those beady blue eyes. “What have I told you about swearing in front of the children?” But I have a stopper.
Jessie looks around at an empty living room. I can hear the bedroom doors closing, the music coming on. It’s a familiar strategy – I used to do the same when Mom came home drunk. My debate points come at a cost, however. Jessie heads for the kitchen at full rant, gesticulating like an Italian chimpanzee. Because I’m an idiot, I follow.
“I try so hard to maintain some kind of normalcy around here, and you constantly undercut me. Is this why I gave up my life, to look like an idiot in front of my own children?”
I set down the pizzas, searching the memory banks for some way to quell this, to buy a little peace for my poor, scared children. But Jessie’s still ranting, and chopping vegetables, which is not a good combination.
“A little respect, Hopkins. A little goddamn consideration. We’re supposed to be a partnership, a united front. You think it’s easy, running this household with you out there… fucking around? Nailing some perky-titted coed who stops by the lab to give you blow jobs?”
She’s been making this accusation since our first anniversary. For ten years, it wasn’t true. But at least, for a moment, she has fallen silent. I recall a time when I could calm her down with a touch on the shoulder -–and I make my move. But Jessie is a loaded spring, and when she feels my hand she spins around to swat me away.
At first, I don’t feel a thing. Then, a curious warmth beneath my left eye. I touch it with a finger. I see red. And then I don’t see anything.
A year after my master’s, I was still in Berkeley, working as a lab assistant. I got a strange call from Gunnar, my old lab partner, and met him in a coffeehouse. He looked nervous, like an actor before his first entrance.
“You know I like skiing, right? I go skiing… a lot.”
“This last weekend, I am at Squaw Valley, and I am on the tram, going to the top. When the tram goes past the first tower, it swings forward, you know? And I hear a woman, she says, ‘Woo!’ And the woman, she is Nancy.”
“She has the white jester’s hat? And the lime green suit?”
“And she is… with a man, and they are getting very… fresh. And I am thinking, I cannot tell this to Hopkins but for I am very sure. It is late, the last run of the day, so I follow them down – a long, long way. At the bottom, they turn in at a cottage, and… they go inside, together. And so I am thinking still, I must have more…” He rolls out his hand, trying to finish the sentence.
“Yes. So. I ski to the back, and I find a window, and I peek in.” His face flushed, and he was having a hard time looking at me. “Hopkins? Please… ask me to go on?”
My insides felt like a sand castle at high tide. But going back was not an option. I took a long breath.
“Gunnar, please… tell me.”
He stared at the tabletop. “She was kneeling, and had the man’s penis…”
“Stop, Gunnar. Please.”
For me, going on a rampage has a small price of admission: one drink. After that, I was out every night, roaring drunk, on the make. I fucked sorority sluts, desperate fifty-year-old barflies. A housewife in her van, outside a laundromat. A fat chick with big tits in a broom closet at the library. A beautiful black woman gave me a blowjob in the alley next to a nightclub. I stuck my dick in half the holes in Northern California. And then I got venereal warts.
One Saturday morning, I rubbed lotion into my poor penis as I ruffled through three weeks of mail. At the bottom of the pile was an offer from Stanford: a five-year study, “gene expression patterns of breast carcinomas.” A month later, I was standing at a kickoff party in Palo Alto when a good-looking woman came over and started asking questions. She wore a leather miniskirt, tight-fitting sweater, eyeshadow like an Amazon warrior. I guess I was easy pickings. The female gender had simply worn me out.
I don’t remember much else. I didn’t have to. Jessie made all the decisions. She was nuts about me, she was 35, and she wanted children. She was the path of least resistance. She was also fierce, and skinny, with a sharp hawk’s face and a tiny butt.
Gentlemen. The do-gooders and bullshit artists will tell you to ignore that quaking in your balls, those baser instincts that make you respond to certain women and not to others. Do not listen to these people. If you do, you might wake up someday, two children later, and discover that one of your eyes is missing.
“Mr. Grinder! Good to see you moving. Here, let me give you a little help.”
A bee stings my right arm; the pain in my face subsides. My right eye registers a bank of blinking lights on large, blocky machines. Toward the window, an old woman lies next to her respirator, staring at the ceiling.
“Stanford Medical.” She’s a short, dark-haired woman with broad lips and round, black-brown eyes. Her features are so expressive they’re almost cartoonish. It must be hard, I think. Going around with your feelings right there on your face.
“I’m Dr. Pisarro,” she says. “You can also call me Lisa. You’re a lucky boy, Mr. Grinder. A half-inch higher, we’d be in some serious trouble. We’ve put in ten stitches, and given you a patch to keep your eye from moving around. Your wife is outside, so let us know if you’d like her to come in for a visit.” She folds her fingers and gives me a serious look. “Also, I need to know if you’d like to talk to the police.”
I do find myself considering it. But hazardous gesticulation is not a crime, and my children’s lives have been disturbed quite enough.
“No,” I reply. “My wife is terribly clumsy, and a little spastic. And yes, do send her in, please.”
Dr. Pisarro gives me a long study, scouring my face for hints of deception, then gets up and walks away. She is wearing black polyester pants that show off her ass, the kind of bubbly, compact butt that short women often have. I am grateful.
Jessie comes in with red eyes, her face worn to the pink with crying. One look at my patch and she starts all over, gripping my arm as she declares her sins.
“Oh God Hopkins I’m so sorry I had no idea I forgot I had it in my hand oh shit I am so sorry!”
She ducks her head to my shoulder and weeps luxuriously. I wrestle my arm free and cradle the back of her head. This episode means that I will have to make love to my wife sometime this week, so I will have to conduct a visual harvest. Sliding in and out of that uninspiring pussy, holding her legs together for friction, I will need to conjure some other woman’s body to bring me over the top. Someone I barely know. Someone highly inappropriate.
Fortunately, Lisa Pisarro has returned for her clipboard, and is now walking away. I pull my wife closer, so I can get a better look.
The patch has taken away my depth perception, adding a technical challenge to an already tricky situation. Kelly is dangling ass-up from a trapeze-style sex swing as I receive her pink slot on my prick like a schoolboy catching apples on a knife. On my seventh foray I misjudge, and jar my member on her left cheek.
Kelly’s smile appears somewhere near her left knee.
“Dontcha mean ‘Ahrrr!’?”
“Oh!” I complain. “Poking fun at the disabled.”
She lets out a girly titter. “Seems more like the disabled is poking me. But you really do look like a pirate, Hoppy. Maybe we should go out and buy some costumes.”
“Whatever you want, hon. But for now, could you give me a little massage?”
She tumbles forward into a handstand and flips to her feet.
“Used to be a cheerleader.” She rubs a handful of oil between her palms, then applies it my injured penis.
“Ah, thank you.”
“Can I see it?” she asks. I lift up the patch to reveal my stitches.
“Aigh! That bitch. How could she do that?”
“Don’t you think I kinda deserved it?”
“Hoppy. A kick in the ass, maybe. Laxatives in the coffee, okay. But no one should go for the eyes.”
“She didn’t do it on purpose.”
“Or so you think.”
“Yeah, okay. She’s definitely getting… edgy. I worry about my kids.”
She stops the rubdown. “I worry about mine.” Then she eyes my penis, which has regained its vigor.
“Lie down, honey. Let me do the work.”
Quite a cowgirl, my Kelly. She knows all the angles, when to work the tip, when to grind it in, when to treat me like a carnival ride. I’m gone in five minutes. She frigs herself off as I shrink inside, then tumbles next to me, fingering her nose ring like a genie with a wish.
“I’ve got an idea.”
I arrive at the soccer match in a bitter, distracted mood, not exactly the ideal sporting parent. The team makes matters worse by playing in a sloppy, uninspired fashion. Even Pietro is off; he blows three chances in a row by lofting the ball over the bar.
“Pietro!” I shout. “Keep it low! Make the keeper play it!”
I have broken one of my own rules: don’t coach unless you’re the coach. Our actual coach, the Norwegian import Nils Arntsen, gives me a look that’s hard to read.
Just before the half, our sweeper, Jackie Marchetti, catches a cleat and stumbles, leaving their middle striker a clean path to the goal. Marcus follows the textbook, charging forward to cut down the striker’s angle. But then he stops, five feet away, and is back to his usual reactive stance. The striker – who is not center forward for nothing – taps the ball to his left, swings his foot around and boots it in. Marcus is disappointed, but not enough. When halftime arrives, I meet him halfway to the bench.
“Marcus, where are your eyes in relation to mine?”
He looks at me, taking a measurement.
“Yes. And do you know what that means?”
He ducks his head, like a dog who thinks he’s in trouble. I cup a hand on his shoulder.
“Son, it means that you’re a really big kid. And everyone out here knows that. Do you realize that you could have thrown yourself at that kid’s feet and taken the ball away? He wouldn’t have done a damn thing.”
Marcus scrunches up his face. “But Dad, that doesn’t seem very…”
“Fair, Marcus? Was it fair that your defense left you stranded? Was it fair that that striker can shoot with either foot? It’s not fair or unfair, it’s just using what you’ve got. Life will throw shit at you every day, and I want you to learn… to take advantage of your strengths. Listen, I don’t ask too much of you, right?”
“You know how we make you try all the food on your plate? Well, now, I’m asking you to try this. The next time you get hung out like that, I want you to leap at that ball and steal it away. But I’m warning you, it’s just like lima beans. You might end up liking it.”
He smiles, and I feel better. The kid’s so damn nice, I worry about pushing him. He jogs to the bench and grabs a quartered orange. As the second half starts, I drift down the sideline toward Nils.
“Sorry, Coach. Don’t mean to be a buttinski. But I used to be a keeper.”
“Oh!” says Nils, flashing that great big-toothed grin. “Usually it is only the parents who know nothing who butt in.”
Marcus’s second half is largely uneventful. Pietro has regained his form and is controlling the game, setting up beautiful give-and-gos with his wingers. He receives one of these at the top of the penalty box, punches it to his right and – as if he has actually paid attention to me – hits a screamer across the grass. The ball touches down in front of the goalie and skips crazily, rocketing under his arms and into the net.
That one ties it up, but then the defenses clamp down, turning the game into a neutral back-and-forth in the middle third of the field. With five minutes remaining, their winger makes a dash down the left sideline and sends a low cross to the top of the goalie box. The right striker makes a nice leaping header, but Marcus is ready, diving full-out to swat it away.
He doesn’t swat it far, however; it settles ten feet away, to the right of the goalface. The two nearest players, Marcus and the right striker, are horizontal, but not for long. Marcus claws forward with all four appendages, looking all the world like a charging bull. The striker springs to his feet, takes two steps and slides forward, hoping to jab the ball toward the goal.
They meet in a pile. The ref blows his whistle. The striker gets up, holding his knee. Marcus stays down. Nils grabs his first-aid kit, and we’re off. I pick my way through a ring of players to find Marcus in the fetal position, his body curved protectively around the ball. He grips it in both hands, eyes closed in pain. Nils is pounding a chemical ice pack into activation. Marcus’s right shoulder is not where it should be. I kneel and touch his arm.
“Marcus. You can let go of the ball now. They called time-out.”
Marcus opens his eyes, squinting against the sunlight.
“I got the ball?”
I laugh. “You damn well did, son.”
“Oh God, Dad. It hurts!” Marcus is balancing his weirdly sloping shoulder on the passenger-side door, trying to keep it from moving.
“Son, remember how I asked you to try something new today? I want you to try something else. I want you to swear. Swearing is good for pain.”
“I don’t know, Dad. Mom says…”
A car cuts into our lane and I hit the brakes, jamming Marcus’s arm against the door.
“Fuck! Shit! Hell’s… bells!”
“Jesus, Marcus. You been watching cable?”
Marcus manages a sheepish smile. “Pietro gets all the movie channels. Hey, Dad? I think my shoulder slipped back in. Sick!”
“Good, Marcus. I think that’s good.”
“But it still fuckin’ hurts.”
“Son, let’s not get carried away.”
He snickers, as we pull up to the emergency room.
A young Japanese nurse comes to take X-rays, then slips out to process them. They return in the hands of Lisa Pisarro. She spots my pirate patch and smiles.
“Well! The Grinder family is having a week.”
“Yes,” I say. “But this one came in a moment of glory.”
She eyes Marcus’s cleats. “Did you win the battle?”
Marcus grins. “Yes.”
Pisarro clips the X-rays into the reading light.
“You’re lucky it went back in. Otherwise, I would’ve had to pop it in myself, and I’m already banned in three states due to certain… excesses of my ultimate fighting career.”
Marcus is such a gullible kid, he doesn’t quite catch the joke. Pisarro signals the jest with those big eyes of hers and manages to get a chuckle out of him.
“However,” she continues,” we still have some issues. You see, when your shoulder separates like that, it stretches out your tendons. We’re going to give you a sling that holds your shoulder up to the collarbone, so your tendons can tighten back up. Should take about three weeks. After that, however, you still need to take it easy, because these things have a tendency to repeat. I’ll send Keiko back to rig you up. Meanwhile, Jolly Roger, try to keep the rest of the family from maiming itself, okay?”
“Will do,” I reply, and give her my best schoolboy smile. Pisarro leaves us in a half-dark room. Minutes creep by, and no Keiko.
Marcus smiles. “I did kinda like it. Taking the ball away.”
“Good.” First Pietro, now this. I should quit genetics and go into coaching.
Marcus chews on a thought, gazing at the image of his warped shoulder on the far wall.
“Is Mom gonna be all right?”
“What do you mean?”
“Wuhl, like, when she cut your eye last week? I sorta… wasn’t surprised. I mean, like, sometimes I’ll ask her something? Something easy, like, What’s for lunch? Or, Can I go to John’s house? And she gets all spastic, like, waving her arms around and stuff. And then she starts talking about wasting her life, and she just can’t handle it, and why don’t you ask your father. I can’t even talk to her, Dad. And sometimes, I really want to.”
My huge kid, the one who’s borne a separated shoulder without crying – he looks terribly small.
“You’re not gonna leave, are you, Dad? Pietro’s dad left, and he never came back.”
I place a hand on his good shoulder and look him in the eye.
“I’m never leaving, Marcus. I won’t ever do that. Your mom and I are going to get some help. You just hang in there, and be real nice to her, okay?”
He sniffles and nods. I bend over to kiss the top of his sandy blond mop.
Keiko arrives to fit Marcus with his sling, then hands him a couple of analgesics and a cup of water. We exit the ER to find the entire soccer team gathered in the parking lot, weaving passes between SUVs and Beamers. When they spot Marcus, they break into that raucous tribal barking that I thought had gone out of style.
“Did we win?” says Marcus.
“Nah,” says Pietro. “But we tied. We put Wehner in goal. He was pathetic.”
His teammates laugh and poke Wehner in the ribs. He swats them away like gnats.
“But he did make a pretty good save,” Pietro allows.
“Hey, Marcus,” I say. “Why don’t you guys stay here and make fun of Wehner some more...” I pause for laughter (twelve-year-olds are my best audience). “And I’ll go get the car.”
“Okay,” says Marcus. As I leave, he’s giving gory details of his injury; his teammates respond with obscurely hip adjectives. I walk along the ER windows, lined with miserable faces, and wave to Nils, who’s standing at the front desk (and probably looking for me).
I sit in the car, and gaze at the green lights of my cell phone, hooked up to the cigarette lighter.
Does anybody use these things to light cigarettes anymore?
It’s a phony thought. I’m stalling, because I need to give my wife a full report. It’s getting dark, and she is certain to be gathering anxiety like valence electrons. This will undoubtedly be my fault. Never mind that boys get injured in soccer games every day. Never mind that I have granted my son his first moment of fearlessness. My place of residence will continue to be hell. Because I have gone and made my son a promise. I take a deep breath and press the buttons.
“Kelly. It’s Hopkins. Let’s do it.”