The secrets we keep to maintain the illusion of our happy lives always escape when we least expect it, like a child losing a balloon. One moment, it is clasped tight, the next it is free for the world to see.
Friday afternoon a few weeks after their camping trip, Tank was waiting at T.J.’s school in Galveston. When T.J. didn’t come out, he walked into the office and was told that his son had been signed out to go home early by Irene. Angrily, he went to Irene’s rental house.
He was ready to yell at her when she opened the door, but his rage evaporated. She looked upset like she had been crying. “Babe, what’s wrong?”
Irene swallowed then answered. “Mama called. Dad was found dead in a motel in Arvada. He... he was naked and his wallet and clothes were gone. They... um, mom thinks he was with one of his hookers and died of a heart attack. The... the whore stole everything and left him there.” She may hate him for the kind of man he was but he was still her father.
Tank held her while she cried. “Oh babe, I am so sorry. Do you still want me to take T.J. or...”
She stepped away from him. “Go ahead. The funeral is on hold until they finish the criminal investigation. I... I just can’t believe he’s gone.” Irene walked to the hall, calling out, “T.J., your dad’s here.”
“I don’t wanna go with him,” T.J. yells back.
Irene’s eye widen, then she snapped, “Thomas junior, you get your butt out here.”
T.J. came down the hall with a sullen angry face, glaring at both his parents. “What?” the six year old demanded hostilely.
“T.J., don’t disrespect your mother like that,” Tank reprimanded him. “Get your bag.”
“No. I don’t wanna go with you, you’re just like him.” T.J. folded his arms.
“Just like who?” Tank asked, he was starting to get a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach.
“Who is Dad like?” Irene demanded when their son didn’t answer.
T.J. chewed his lip, looking like he was going to cry. “I don’t wanna be like him and stop loving you, mommy.”
“Thomas, lil’ man, what are you talking about? I didn’t stop loving mommy. I made a mistake and hurt her. It happens to adults sometimes,” Tank explained.
“But mommy told Uncle Isaac you were a hole monstering bat turd like Grandpa Cedric.” Thomas Jr. was crying now. “I don’t want to be a bat turd and hurt mommy like you did.”
Tank straightened and looked at Irene, who had her hand over her mouth. “Do you still hate me so much? It was one fu*cking time, Irene. I have done everything you asked to prove I’m sorry.” He was yelling by the last two words.
“Thomas, I... I’m sorry... I didn’t m-mean for him to hear... I just had to tell Isaac something. He... he wanted to know why you wouldn’t be at... at the funeral,” Irene stammered, the regret in her eyes wasn’t enough to assuage his temper.
“But why would you say that in front of my son?” Tank demanded hotly.
“Because they don’t know,” She shouted back.
“Don’t know what?”
“They... they don’t know we’re divorced. I... I didn’t tell them,” she confessed.
“Irene, we’ve been divorced for six months and you haven’t told your family?” He put his hand to his forehead like he was getting a headache. “Why? Why would you do that?”
“Because I didn’t want to listen to my sisters say they told me so,” Irene huffed, then she shrieked, “You did exactly what they said you’d do.”
Their son’s sniffling had them both looking at him. Tank looked back to her, he could see her pain in her eyes and he wondered if she could see his. In a low voice he said, “It was one time and I was tricked into doing it by a man who hated us both. I have never stopped loving you and I will never stop loving you. You are my one and only.”
He turned away from her as a tear ran down her cheek because he wanted to wipe it away, he wanted to kiss her and make everything better, but he couldn’t. He had broken the one taboo she had, and she couldn’t, no, she wouldn’t forgive him. He walked over and knelt in front of his son.
“I love you, lil’ man. If you don’t want to come with dad because of what happened, I understand. I was a monster, but I didn’t mean to hurt your mommy. Someday, when you’re older, we’ll talk about it. I just want you and your mom to be happy.” He hugged T.J., and when he let go, his son ran to his room and slammed the door.
Tank stood up and started to walk out, when Irene spoke, “Thomas, I’m sor...”
“Don’t Irene, just don’t. I know now there isn’t any hope for us left. I keep hoping you’ll forgive me, take me back, but you were right, I’m a fool. Please call me when my son wants to see me again.” He closed the door behind him and walked out to his truck.
Instead of driving home, he stopped at a liquor store, then he drove down to the end of the island and found a public access to the beach. Parking his truck at the edge of the tideline, he sat in the back and drank. Every empty bottle he threw as far out into the water as he could, wishing he could throw his pain away so easily. He drank until he passed out, but it never numbed the pain.
Tank watched the men carrying everything out of the house except the recliner, couch, coffee table, and his bed. He had T.J.’s bedroom furniture delivered to Irene with the explanation that he was selling the house and she would get anything leftover. It was the only time they had spoken since her father died two weeks earlier. He had the walls in the master bedroom repaired and had moved his bed in there. The giant six bedroom house was now as empty as his heart. The realtor had warned him that he was underwater on the loan and they would be lucky to break even. But he didn’t care. He just wanted out from under the massive mortgage. He returned the Lexus rental that had sat in the garage since she left and put the money toward his truck payments.
As he sat watching the ESPN news, he called his grandfather. They hadn’t talked in months, Irene hadn’t told her family and neither had he. He didn’t want to admit his marriage had failed and that his stupidity was the reason. The phone rang only twice.
“Hello, Thomas,” his grandfather, the only real father figure he ever had, greeted him.
“Hey Pappy, how you doing?” Tank asked, his thumbnail peeling the label off the beer bottle in his hand. In his lap was the wedding album Irene’s coworker had made after their wedding in the backyard. It had been the last time he had seen his grandfather. Putting the bottle down, he traced the picture of them with his fingertip while his grandfather talked.
“Doing good, son. Got a full herd of pregnant cows. I rented a bull off old Doc McConnell, and he was a gigolo. My girls are happy and I ain’t feeding steak on the hoof all winter. How’s my grandson and that pretty wife of yours?” His grandfather sounded as optimistic as ever.
Setting the album aside, Tank took a slow drink, and tried to think of a way not to say it, but he needed to tell his Pappy the truth. “I messed up, Pappy. I trusted the wrong man, tried to help someone who hated me, hated that I was married to Irene. I thought he was my friend and he sabotaged my marriage before I even realized it, then when it was over, he laughed at me and said, a brother doesn’t want to see a white boy like me married to beautiful black woman like her.” Tank almost flung the beer bottle at the wall, but someone was supposed to come look at the house tomorrow. “Irene left me two months after the Pro-Bowl and took T.J. with her.”
His grandfather was quiet for a moment and then said, “Tell me what happened, Thomas.”
Tank spilled everything from surprising Irene with the house she never wanted to the team doctor telling him he had caught not one but two STDs, then up to what T.J. had overheard Irene tell her brother and that he was selling everything to get out of debt because she was never coming back.
“So that’s why your playing two-way ball now?”
“Yes, Pappy. I... I can’t protect him, I want to kill him.” Tank answered as he opened another beer.
“What was that sound? Are you drinking, Thomas?” His grandfather sounded upset.
“It’s rootbeer,” Tank lied.
“Really?” His Pappy’s voice was skeptical. “You know your pa used to say that...”
“Pappy, it’s rootbeer. The coach doesn’t let any of us drink during the season, and the league tests players for drugs and booze. An intoxicated player on the field is a hazard to himself and others.”
Tank felt dirty lying to the grandfather that raised him because his own father was too drunk to care for anyone, even himself. His mother had walked out and never looked back, she had a new family somewhere. Thomas hadn’t even heard from her since she remarried. His father had died while he was in college of liver and kidney cancer caused by decades of alcoholism.
“Well, I am sorry for you and Irene. It’s a damn shame that boy did that to you. And you don’t remember anything?” His grandfather asked the same question everyone did.
“No, I don’t remember having sex with any woman. Why would I? I love Irene. I shouldn’t have been drinking, you raised me better than that. I just thought you should know why we won’t be coming up for Thanksgiving this year.” Tank explained.
“I understand, son. If you need anything or you just want to come home, Sheriff McConnell is still looking for a part timer, and there’s always ranches looking for a good hand.” He knew his grandfather was just trying to help but Tank was proud of his NFL career and switching to Special Teams had brought his game up to a whole new level. He didn’t really want to be a part time deputy and seasonal ranch hand.
“I’ll think about it. I’ll call you soon.”
“I love you, Thomas. I know I don’t say it much, but I am real proud of the man you’ve become.”
“Thanks, Pappy. I love you too. Bye.”
“I am real proud of the man you’ve become.” His Pappy’s words echoed in his head and Tank said aloud to himself. “That makes one of us.”
The door bell rang and he got up to pay for his Monday night pizza and settled in to watch the game.
Tank looked at all the food on the island. He had ordered Thanksgiving Dinner from a local restaurant for two, one turkey meal for lunch and one baked ham meal for dinner. He didn’t realize that each “meal” was for eight people. He had a twelve pound turkey and ten pound ham plus sides for sixteen people and four pies. Opening his refrigerator, he looked at the shelves of alcohol and Gatorade. The doorbell rang and he realized he had forgotten to cancel his normal Wednesday double order for tamales and carne asada from his favorite food truck. Pietro always swung by on the way to home to drop Tank’s order.
“Hey Pietro, you have a big family right? Too many people and not enough food on Thanksgiving?” Tank asked as he waited for his debit card to run.
“Oh yeah, Tank, my wife’s cousins show up and they never bring any food, but it means no leftovers.” The man shrugged, but his in-laws always freeloading was the only thing he ever complained about.
“Maybe you could help me out. I ordered dinner for two and the restaurant thought I meant two full Thanksgiving meals for eight people each. We’ve got food for 16 people. There’s no way we can eat it all. Can you help us out?” Tank asked hopeful to make something good out of his mistake without admitting he would be alone tomorrow. “It will just go to waste and I hate wasting food.”
He helped carry the food out and politely declined the offer to stop by on the holiday, claiming ‘they’ would be watching the game with friends after dinner. He wasn’t exactly lying, he would be watching the game with a couple million other fans and in sports, fans were each other’s friends, mostly.
Tank cleared a shelf for the food and the single pie Pietro had insisted he keep, he preferred cake but pumpkin pie was traditional. He wondered if he could eat it without thinking about the numerous pumpkin pies Irene had ruined over the years. How it would taste if it wasn’t burnt on the edges and raw in the middle.
As he ate Wednesday’s Mexican dinner alone, he thought about T.J.’s play today. His son’s whole first grade class had dressed up as their favorite historical characters and spoken a few sentences about them. His son had picked Wilbur and Orville Wright. Sitting next to Irene and smiling proudly, Tank had thought his heart would burst with pride. For that hour, everything in his world felt like it was the way it should be. But after the play when Irene had asked T.J. if he wanted to go spend the night at his dad’s, his son had declined claiming he would rather spend the night at the sitters and play video games.
Tank had pretended it was fine and told Irene to have a good night at work. Working a holiday was always interesting or so she claimed. He had driven to the restaurant then home and now here he was watching the weather channel while waiting on sports center to start. It was snowing in Colorado and he wished he had flown home for his two days off. Thinking about his Pappy’s ranch and how beautiful Pagosa Cliffs was in the winter, made him homesick.
When he went to the fridge for another beer, his eyes lingered on the picture of a turkey made from a traced outline of a hand. His son’s hand. Putting his hand over it, he realized how much Thomas Junior’s hand had grown since the first day Tank held his son. He could still feel that moment of happiness with his son’s newborn hand wrapped tightly around his finger.
Opening the door, he took out a bottle of whiskey instead of a beer. Walking into the garage, he sat down and began doing reps of bench presses and squats until his body screamed for him to stop, then he carried two five gallon buckets of ice from the industrial ice maker and his usual bottles up to his big jacuzzi tub. Like every night since she left, he tried to numb the pain in his body with ice, and forget the unbearable pain in his soul with whiskey. It didn’t work... it never did.
Thank you for reading my scribbles, Mama Magie