By F Michael Rodriguez
Published by F Michael Rodriguez at Shakespir
Copyright © 2017 F Michael Rodriguez
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She looked from the bench and saw him just sitting there on the edge of the sandbox, not playing with the other kids or the monkey bars or even the remote control car that had made him happy so much all the last three days since John had brought it home. He just sat there, writing something in the sandbox, his eyes fixed, a six-year old kid wandering away in his daylight dreams.
Stacy suddenly felt bad, almost sick bad.
She slipped the bookmark in the crease of her book and slapped it shut and dumped it in her purse. Johnny and his being too busy! I know, I know, but I’m really busy. Can’t it wait until later? The park was filled with running and laughing, teasing and daring. The yellow slides were stopped with traffic. The whole park smelled of young age, and what a pretty place was this for Brian after the isolated, dirt back yard scattered of shattered red bricks back in Greenleaf. But the couple living above them on the fourth floor weren’t a match made in heaven, and while she knew that happens more commonly than people expect, their constant, rancorous arguing bothered her. It scared her. The guy up there was Bobby, and after the clubs had closed and they had returned home, the fights would start seriously-the work week was just a chat in comparison. The Friday Night Fights, Johnny called them, but it wasn’t funny. The woman-her name was Marla-would at last be reduced to sobbing and to repeating over and over again: “Okay, I’m sorry. Okay, I’m sorry. Please don’t.” And he would scream aggressively at her. Once they had even robbed Brian of his sleep, and Brian slept like a corpse. The next morning Johnny caught Bobby going out and had spoken to him on the sidewalk at some length. Bobby started to bluster and John had said other things, too quietly for Stacey to hear, and Bobby had only shaken his head sullenly and walked away. That had been about a week ago and for a week nights had been quiet, but since the weekend things quickly escalated to the same old abnormal routine we thought was behind us. It was awful for the boy.
Her sense of grief flooded her again but she was on the walk now and she evaporated it. Sweeping her shawl under her and sitting down on the curb beside him, she said: “What’s brewing in that brain of yours?”
He smiled at her but it was with a minimum of effort. “Hi, Mom.”
The car was between his sneakered feet, and she saw that one of the wheels had started to lose traction.
“Looks like it’s time for a new one.”
Brian had gone back to staring up the playground. “It’s okay. Dad will fix it.”
“Your daddy may not be back until after dinnertime. It’s over eighty miles into those mountains.”
“Do you think the Saturn will break down?”
“It’ll be fine.” But he had just reminded her of how unreliable that old car was. Thanks, Brian. I needed that.
“Dad said he couldn’t find someone with the right diagnostic tools,” Brian said in a worried manner. “He said the check engine light kept coming on and didn’t know why.”
“He’ll figure it out, Brian.”
“Figure it out?” he asked her with a hint of doubt.
She sighed. “He’s just been busy with so many other things.”
“Dad doesn’t finished things lately.”
“So if I don’t finish my homework, that’s life?”
“Nice try but nope.”
“Dad does it. When he was looking under the hood he said, `Christ this fuel pump’s gonna have to wait.’ Isn’t Dad always right?”
“He tries his best to do what’s right when he can, but remember he’s also a grown-up. And he’s very careful not to put important things off for too long.”
“You mean like taking me to the zoo?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Can I do that when I’m grown-up?”
“I suppose you will, whether you should or shouldn’t, no matter what I think.”
“How does twenty sound, brain?”
“Twenty is a long way to go.”
“It is, but will you?”
He went back to staring up the playground. He flexed a little, as if to get up, but the Saturn coming was much newer, and much brighter blue. He relaxed again. She wondered just how troubling this move to Washington had been on Brian. He was puzzled about it, but it worried her to see him withdrawing himself into isolation. In Seattle three of John’s fellow faculty members had had children about Brian’s age, but in this neighborhood there was no one close to his age. Most of the apartments were occupied by foreigners, and of the few married couples here on Bartley Street, only a few had kids. She had spotted perhaps six of high school age, two infants, and that was all.
“Mommy, why did Daddy get fired?”
Her heart was jolted out of her comfort and calculating for an answer. She and John had discussed ways they might this moment of truth, with evasion to the plain truth with plenty of colors on it. But Brian had never asked. Not until now, when she was feeling concerned and least prepared to answer. Yet he was looking at her, maybe reading the fear on her face and growing his own worries from that. She thought that to Brian her adult motives and actions must have seemed as strange as creepy creatures flashing across the shadows of a dark alley. They were jerked about like baits on a fishing line, with only the vaguest ideas why. The thought brought her dangerously close to a near heart attack again, and while she smothered the tightening sensation down she leaned over, picked up the beaten down car, and turned it over in her hands.
“Do you remember your daddy was dealing with a tough student in class?”
“Sure,” he said. “Something about a class bully?”
“Right.” She turned the car over and around, looking at the trade name (FAST N FURIOUS) and the blue under car lights, and found herself telling the full blown truth to her son.
“Daddy had to suspend him. That means he wasn’t able to go to school anymore. Jax said your daddy wrongfully accused him of doing something wrong. Then Jax did a bad thing. I think you know about that.”
“Was he the one who put the holes in our Saturn’s tires and messed up the paint?”
“Yes, he was. It was the next morning before school and your daddy caught him doing it.” Now she hesitated again, but there was no point derailing into stories now; it was the whole truth or nothing.
“Your daddy… sometimes he does things he regrets later. Sometimes he acts quickly without thinking. It’s not all the time, but sometimes it happens.”
“Did he hurt Jax like the time I spilled juice over all his papers?”
“Sometimes-(Brian with his arm in a cast), he does things he really doesn’t mean to do.”
Stacey blinked her eyes savagely hard, pulling her tears all the way back.
Stacey remembered that night as John had retold it. When John returned to his study and saw Brian standing there, wearing nothing but his training pants and a brilliant grin, a brewing, red cloud of rage had fogged Jack’s reason. It had seemed slow subjectively, inside his head, but it must have all happened in a blink of an eye.
It only seemed slow the way some nightmares develop. There seemed to be a burglar the way every door and drawer in his study was ransacked in the hour he had been gone. File folders, boxes, the sliding bookcase. Every desk drawer yanked out all the way. His working manuscript, a novel he had been slowly developing from a short story he had written five years ago as an under-graduate, was scattered everywhere. He had been drinking a beer, lots of it and revising when Stacey said the phone was for him, and Brian had poured the can of beer all over the pages. Probably on his way to grab a pencil. To write on the front and back of all the pages he had worked seriously hard on. Even worse was having to make out the words through the red and green crayons so that he could retype them in the typewriter, again, by hand.
He stepped deliberately toward his four-year-old son, who had no other intention but to smile a pleased grin, his pleasure at the masterpiece he so successfully completed in Daddy’s study; Brian began to say something and that was when he had grabbed Brian’s hand and bent it to make him drop the handful of pencils he was clenching. Brian had cried out a little… how many times have I told you.. he screamed. The memory was cloudy after the heat of anger.
Stacey somewhere, tracing Brian’s cries. Her voice faint, hollow by the inner cool of terror. This was between them two. John had whirled Brian around to spank him, his big adult fingers grasping into the skin and fat of the boy’s forearm, red on his fingers from the pressure, and the snap of the breaking bone had been somewhere between very loud and not loud. Just enough of a sound to fan out fog of fury-but instead of letting in cool air, that crack let in the clouds clogged in the soot of shame and remorse, the fright, the agonizing convulsion of the heart. Seeing Brian’s face grow pale until it was gray, seeing his searching eyes, always wide open, opening wider still, and full of tears, dam sure the poor boy was going to faint dead away into the puddle of beer and papers; his own voice, slurred and slowed, trying to mumble something, to make light of it all-saying: Brian, you okay buddy? Brian’s answering shriek, then Stacey’s shocked gasp as she first witnessed the peculiar sight of Brian’s forearm in relation to his elbow; an arm hanging that way was not supposed to happen. Her own shout of fright as she swept him up into her arms, and a nonsense babble: Brian, what happen to your arm; and Jack was standing there, stunned and out of words, trying to make sense of it all. His eyes met the hate in the eyes of his wife. It did not occur to him what she might do with that hate in her eyes; it was only once he was sober that he realized she might have left to her sisters that night, hired a divorce lawyer in the morning; or filed a grievance with the police right then and there. He saw only that his wife hated him because he hurt Brian and it all weighed him down to utter isolation. He felt the worse kind of awful. This was what a slow death felt like, the kind you deserve. Then she fled for the telephone and dialed for an ambulance with their screaming boy hanging from the crook of her arm and Jack remained frozen, he only stood in the ruins of his study, smelling beer and lost in thought.
But Stacey also reflected after the incident, how John was working frustratingly hard to get them a new home and take them from rags to riches. It was no excuse, but John had since did away with drinking.
“Something like that, honey. Your daddy hit Jax to make him stop and Jax hit his head. Then the school principle said that Jax couldn’t go there anymore and your daddy couldn’t teach there anymore.” She stopped, out of words, and waited in dread for the wave of questions.
“Oh,” Brian said, and went back to looking up the playground. Apparently he was satisfied with the story. If only it could be closed that easily for her.
She stood up. “Let’s go upstairs. I’ll make some tea for myself. We still have those oatmeal cookies that go perfect with cold milk.”
They walked away together, holding hands.
“I’ll watch for Dad through the window.”
“I don’t think he’ll be home much before bedtime.”
“Maybe he’ll come early.”
“Maybe,” she agreed. “We’ll wait.”
She was halfway up the stairs when he asked, “Mom?”
“Are we going to stay with Aunt Marie for the winter?”
Now, if there was ever a question she could evade it would be that one. John losing his job to a terrible mistake was one thing, losing their new home was another, but moving in with her sister? It was a sure sign that things were falling apart.
She said: “If it’s what we need, we should stand by it.” She paused. “How do you feel about that?”
“It’s okay,” he said finally. “I don’t have friends around here.”
“You miss your friends, right?”
“Sometimes I miss Joseph and Max. And Caroline.”
She bent down and kissed his forehead, rumpled his jet black hair that was just losing its baby-fineness.
He was such a solemn little boy, and sometimes she wondered just how he was supposed to survive with all these problems going on. Losing their first family home, the high hopes of living the American dream sunk to this already cluttered apartment building in a city they knew nothing about. The image of Brian in his cast rose up before her again. Somebody in the Keeping Families Together Service had made a clerical error, one she feared could never be corrected and which only the most innocent bystander could pay for.
“Don’t get crumbs on the couch, Mr. brain,” she said, and hugged him tight. “We need to sell it before we go.”
She went into the kitchen. She microwaved water and threw a couple of Oatmeal cookies in a Tupperware bowl. Sitting at the table with her campfire coffee mug in front of her, she looked at Brian stare out the window, sipping his milk. The tears which she’d collected deep inside her threatened to burst out all at once and she leaned into the fragrant, curling steam of the tea and cried. In grief and loss for the past, and terror of the future.
“Dad!” cried Brian.
Stacey dried her face as quick as possible and stood up to greet John as he entered. John had a huge smile that almost spilled over his face. He picked up Brian and lifted him up, his head almost hit the ceiling.
“Hey, there, son,” said John, as he knelt before Brian. Their eyes locked onto each other’s. “I’ve got good news for all of us.”
“Mom told me. We’re going to live with aunt Marie.”
“John, what do you mean?” Stacey asked, puzzled with relief.
“Remember those Powerball numbers I played yesterday?”
“The number I picked?”
“That’s right, son. The numbers you picked. Well, it turns out we’ve won!”
“Stop it John!” Stacey whispered loudly. She thought he had come up with a story to lift up Brian’s spirits.
“No, no, no, it’s true Stace, and I’ve got the winning receipt here to prove it,” said John, as he pulled the ticket out of his wallet. “This little paper right here means that we’ve just won six! Million! Dollars!”
“Oh, my god!” Stacy shouted.
“Does this mean we can stay, dad?”
“Son, this means we can do whatever your heart desires,” said John, and he bent over and kissed Brian on his forehead. “But to start we will definitely keep our home.”
Stacey and Brian rushed John and they hugged each other with the greatest joy in their hearts.
“Dad? Can we still go to Aunt Marie’s?”
“Sure, honey, we can always visit,” she said. Caressing Brian’s ear lobe.
“Can we pick her up and bring her here with us? She’s alone over there and I have no friends over here.”
John knelt down before Brian and kissed the arm that had the cast.
“You’re the winner so whatever your heart desires. Hey, I’ve got an idea. Why don’t all of us move in together in a new, different place and start from scratch. Some place warm. How’s that sound?”
“That would make me very happy, dad.”
Stacey’s tears rolled down her cheek, but not from sadness or fear this time, but of a beautiful joy, a joy that would put behind all of the frightening memories of the past and fears for the future.