Chain Smoke

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Summary

By day Jack delivers the mail. By night Jack drinks. This is why his family leaves him. Watch Jack try and break this vicious cycle with no help whatsoever from his eccentric, at times irascible friends. I'll forewarn you, this is literally the entire plot. A dad estranged from his son by chronic thirst. Bottoms up.

Genre:
Drama
Author:
Dominic Breiter
Status:
Ongoing
Chapters:
7
Rating:
5.0 2 reviews
Age Rating:
18+

CHAPTER ONE

An American exodus.

She hushed him awake one night, dapples of moonlight on his sheets, and as he rubbed the bits of sand from his eyes she told him don’t make a sound, only whisper if you have to speak. She had his Spiderman backpack already packed, clutching it to her side by the top handle. It looked tiny in her grasp.

The garage door was open. The car was in the driveway. The car was running and the backpack was thrown in the backseat alongside a naugahyde suitcase. The boy looked out at his cul-de-sac swimming in the lactic sodium glow of the lampposts. Nothing stirred. Little green bugs tuned their violins.

He was so tired he did not think to ask to push the button on the boxy remote, the one clipped to the sun visor that activated the overhead door. When they were driving around running errands he liked to hold it in his hands and watch the houses out the window, jamming his thumb into the button with dramatic gusto, seeing each targeted home or business explode in his mind. Fanciful flights of terrorism.

He watched the dark windows of their duplex drink in the sweep of the LeSabre’s headlights. He saw the window of their front room with the poletop drapes, and he asked about the slumbering presence within, vaguely defined in his sleepy mind as gyres of black hair matting a firm fleshy mass, vacillated breathing, sinus obstruction, bass tremolo from some dragon cave deep in the pocket of its chest. He thought he could hear it, even there in the car. And maybe she heard it too because she put the radio on, low, familiar voices the boy was surprised to find awake at this hour. The morning talk show they always listened to en route to school. Cracking jokes before sunrise, jovial, alert, caffeinated. It soothed him more than any assurance his mother could make.

His head lolled and he fell asleep partially garrotted by the shoulder strap of his seat belt.


Jack awoke to an empty house. It was his day off. He rose naturally by the will of the sun. An empty bed. An empty house. He enjoyed his solitude, stalking around in pinstriped boxers, drinking juice from the carton, dropping flatulence, hawking loogies in the kitchen sink. Wyatt was at school. Ruby was clocked in at Polyfab, doing custom injection moldings of everything under the sun, the invulnerable detritus of the modern age, and counting the days till the robots came for her.

Jack opened and closed the refrigerator door for no reason other than he enjoyed the sucking resistance of the gasket. When the coffee was done brewing, he went and sat on the front stoop and enjoyed a cigarette, slurping from his Reno mug, plotting all the things he was supposed to do today: install the new gutter guards, restain the picnic table, mow and edge the lawn, pressure wash the siding, and patch up that hole in the basement door. He reveled in the semi-subconscious knowledge that he would do little or none of it, that his day would be in service of leisure. And fuck what she had to say about it when she got home.

The nine-to-fivers were marshaling out of the cul-de-sac in midsize sedans and minivans. Five days a week he was one of them. Today he felt elevated, superior, like the happenstance of his schedule was owed to some ingenuity on his part, like he had gamed the system. Jack could talk for days about the system. It was really quite a simple dynamic. You tell the people they can be something, make something of themselves. You even show them a few examples. You proliferate certificates, accolades, non-collegiate diplomas. You invent promotions by adding rungs to the ladder that are spaced only a hair’s breadth apart. Regional Senior Vice Departmental Staff Submanager. Keep feeding them abstractions to hunger for, more and more abstractions. Status and rank and profile.

Jack saw through it. Maybe he played the game but that didn’t mean the game was playing him back. He knew his job at the post office was a dinosaur gig, had been moribund since the invention of email and Amazon and drone delivery. He was milking that cow for as long as it stood on four hooves, hopeful but not clinging to any puerile certainties about his federal pension.

He spent forty-five minutes on the crapper thumbing his phone, checking the hours of the hardware store, perusing for nearby deals on Craigslist, and then somehow getting sucked down a gangbang rabbit hole which he watched with the sound on. A waifish and thin-ribbed redhead bleeding mascara from her porcelain eyes, getting passed around some San Fernando Valley soundstage. Her whimpers echoed as through a tin can in the small tiled space, pants around his ankles, the rubber case of his phone growing hot in his hands, and the button speaker quivering like one of the many excited orifices on screen. His prick took some cantilevered interest, waiting for him to make up his mind. In the end he xed out of the private tab without jerking off. There were turds bobbing below him after all and he did have standards.

As the toilet tank refilled, he studied his gray face in the mirror. When the fuck had it got so gray? Gray hair was one thing, but he looked sickly, on the brink of death, his teeth coffee-stained, his tongue an atlas of bile. Stubble used to be rugged on him. Now he looked like an old wino. A second chin was threatening inception. He barely had to look down for the crease to form. He thought of the bare glossy torsos of the men fucking that waif. He thought of their nine-inch dicks and was supremely disappointed in himself. He left the bathroom and lay on the couch, researching upperbody workouts he could do at home, sparing himself the disgrace of a public gym.

At some point he got up to charge his phone.


Wyatt dribbled milk on the tablecloth conveying the spoon to his mouth. It was a strange old-person cereal that looked to him like straw bales, but he could forgive their grassy texture since they wore a liberal dusting of powdered sugar. He watched his mom at the counter, calling Longfellow Elementary on his grandparents’ landline, telling Ms. Kirschel the secretary he was sick. She met his gaze as she told this lie. She met his gaze and held it.

Grandpa was still out on his morning bike ride. Wyatt anticipated his surprise at finding them here, he and mommy. Grandma was in the basement switching loads of laundry. She had poured him the bowl of cereal. She had kissed the top of his head and tousled his chestnut hair and she had smelled the way he thought those fancy ladies who drowned on the Titanic must have smelled. Silk ballgowns and tiaras and pearls. Even puttering around the house in sweatpants, he found his grandma to be a regal figure. He heard her coming upstairs now, breathing heavily, hamper in tow piled with blankets and sheets.

Are they for us? he wondered. Are we staying the night? Are we staying here long? Are we living here now?

“I have to go,” said Ruby, having just hung up the phone. Even Wyatt could sense that her voice was iced with regret. She was dressed for work. She had been when she first stirred him awake, back in that predawn memory that seemed like ages ago. The company polo was gray polyester with a navy collar, navy bands on the sleeve hems, a two-button placket, and the word Polyfab stitched across the left breast. When he was away from his mother and conjured her image, this was how he saw her. Sometimes she came home and wore it well into the evening, pungent of dyes and polymers. Eating takeout on the couch drinking captain and cokes. Wyatt squeezed between the duolith of his parents.

Was that all over?

What sort of movies did grandma and grandpa like? Probably not fun action flicks.

“Don’t,” said grandma. “Take a personal day. For pete’s sake, Ruby.”

“There’s no such thing.” Ruby picked her purse off the counter and slung it over her shoulder, fishing for the keys to the LeSabre. “Tell daddy everything’s okay. It wasn’t a physical fight or anything like that. I just got fed up.”

Wyatt’s grandma said nothing.

Ruby came to the table and kissed him and reflexively smeared milk from his chin with the ball of her thumb, though she immediately wished she had used a napkin. She hated milk, hated drinking it and certainly hated the feel of it dried to her skin. “Be good. I told grandma not to let you watch TV all day. Work on your book report. After you finish that go play outside, maybe help Grandpa with some yardwork. Don’t be a bump on a log.”

Then she was gone, leaving Wyatt with this injunction and leaving in her wake a brief billow of fragrance, which did not smell regal like Grandma. It smelled like his own armpits did whenever he had to stand up before the class to give an answer or to present a project, whenever too much was being asked of him and he felt he would rather hide.


He wanted to like the hardware store, he really did. Particularly this one, a True Value that had been franchised by the same family on the same streetcorner for five generations. King Kong and Godzilla replicas were wired upright on the roof, lording over the parking lot. For that reason alone Wyatt got a bigger kick out of coming here than Jack did.

Inside it was quaintly, endearingly cluttered. The same local country station always played: B93.7, headquartered on the southern outskirts, where Jack’s friend Miguel worked as a janitor. The aisles were narrow. Every one of them had an endcap promoting bargain items. A popcorn machine stood by the cash registers. Staff wore green aprons and were friendly and helpful. Despite all this, Jack felt an undue pressure hefted on his shoulders whenever he walked in here: the pressure to be handy, to be a fix-it man, which he most certainly was not. He hated projects, hated the word “projects.” It suggested busywork to him, some protestant ethic that eschewed leisure, that perceived it merely as the carrot to succeed the stick. A cold beer after a hard day’s work. Beer tasted the same to Jack in the morning.

He was all about carrots. Life could be carrots. But people had this funny, almost manic compulsion to be useful. Whatever that meant.

In back by the paint he found an aerosol can of insulating foam and a 12 oz. tub of spackle. He couldn’t remember if he owned a putty knife so he bought one of those too, marked down to a dollar. In the checkout lane he bought a Milky Way and it was only as his receipt came scrolling out of the machine that he realized he’d forgotten wood stain for the picnic table, but realistically he wasn’t going to get around to that anyway so he thanked the cashier—one of those milkfed midwestern stereotypes named Barb or Tammy or something—and emerged back into the radiant sunshine cooking the freshly gummed blacktop. A great day to just lay out on the beach.

Jack dumped his plastic bag on the passenger seat of his Grand Cherokee and took off down Michigan Avenue, past the string of bars that wouldn’t open for another few hours, past an unlikely little enterprise which specialized solely in zipper repair and had been in business for eons, past The Salvation Army, Hoffman’s Flowerland, the Mexican barbershop. He turned left on a major thoroughfare called Business Drive, no clear idea of where he was going, knowing only that returning home would mean starting his project and he wasn’t quite in the headspace for that yet.

He turned up the radio, flipped on his shades, and lit a cigarette. At every stop sign, at every red light, he looked straight ahead, but he liked to imagine that on either side of him, in some adjacent vehicle, sat a female admirer; preferably young. Just on the verge of too young. He drove out to his mail route. Route 19. The beast route, as he called it to anyone who would listen. He wanted to see who they had filling in today. Some newbie. Some wet behind the ears CCA he’d find sweating and struggling and stumbling over retaining walls. He checked the time, estimated where he would be about now. On Union or Colorado or somewhere thereabouts.

There was no sign of his postal van. Van 7223701. So he backtracked a little, expecting that he or she must have fallen behind. Union Tap was open of course, but he didn’t like to drink anywhere on his route just as a precaution. Don’t shit where you eat, as the saying goes. He would swing up the street by Jake’s Liquor and grab a case of Miller to take home, talk some smack with Harry Ficke behind the counter. That big lunatic was always reading something, whatever grabbed his attention first at the public library. And he sweat while he read, which Jack found amusing, even though the liquor store was air-conditioned. Jack had watched him surreptitiously between bottlenecks a few times. The man’s eyes strafed the page like a greenhorn surgeon staring down at his first appendectomy. He licked his thumb, flipped, licked his thumb, flipped. It didn’t seem possible to read that fast. Jack figured it must be erotica slipped into the binding to get a man so worked up as that.

He’d forgotten what he was doing, driving around aimlessly, when a familiar blue uniform caught his eye. A lanky blond was cutting across lawns, her satchel bursting with cardboard parcels. She wore sunglasses and a full-brim canvas hat. A single earbud dangled from her right ear, which was against policy, but everyone did it anyway, Jack included. Nonetheless, he decided to have some fun.

His front tire coasted along the curbside. She was looking down, fingering the mail, magazines or “flats” in the crook of her left arm, and DPS, or standard-sized envelopes, vised between her thumb and four fingers.

“Aren’t you worried you won’t hear a dog coming with music piped in like that?” He was leaned across the empty passenger seat.

She looked up, gave him a reticent smile. He couldn’t think of her name and it was clear she didn’t fully recognize him outside of his uniform. She had only been at the office a couple of weeks, and with forty-plus operating routes, it sometimes took awhile for people to get acquainted.

“It’s not music,” she answered. “Just a man talking.”

“Oh, who’s that? The Postmaster General?” This flaccid joke was further undercut by the fact of the PG being female.

“An Oxford professor. He’s talking about Einstein’s Relativity. I figure I got so much time out here I might as well try and put it to good use.”

“Better yourself,” Jack said.

“Exactly.”

She was clearly hoping that this stranger in the Grand Cherokee had now had his fill of small talk and would press on so she could do the same. He decided to hint at his identity, let her put the pieces together herself if she was so bright.

“Between you and me, I’m the same way. I like to stay on top of the news, world politics, current events, that sort of thing. Be an informed citizen.”

“Cool.”

A cocker spaniel was yapping in the picture window of 2119 South 16th, the house directly behind her. Spencer and Martha DePagter. Before them it’d been a Korean vet living all on his own named Oscar Malloy, but he had keeled over from cardiac arrest. Even Jack had to admit this was getting unsustainably awkward.

“You know, you’re a little ahead of schedule on this thing. Try not to make me look too bad on my day off, alright?”

Her mouth made an O of epiphany. She seemed genuinely apologetic for not recognizing him, and because of this he drove away thinking: seems like a nice enough kid. She’ll do fine out here. Earbud or no earbud, it ain’t rocket science. Still never got her name though.

There was an unfamiliar face behind the counter at Jake’s Liquor, an aloof twenty-something with gauged ears, ink sleeves, and a shirt that read Twenty One Pilots. Jack could surmise at first glance they would find no common ground and felt cheated out of the badinage he’d been anticipating with Harry Ficke. He grabbed a thirty of Miller High Life from the cooler, bought a pack of Dorals from the mealy-mouth Millennial, and left the store in a bad mood, unable to conceive of any more procrastination tactics.

John Benjamin Lemkuil, aka Jack or “Benno,” passed a digital billboard as he regressed down Business Drive. It was for the state lottery and it showed a linkage of six people captured in mid-jump, all holding hands, a daisy chain of ethnically-diverse airborne celebrants beaming with Photoshopped smiles. The caption read, in crackling red letters, JOIN THE CLUB. Jack took it this was supposed to imply the models on the billboard were all lottery winners, and therefore the club the billboard was referring to was about as rarefied and exclusive as the Bilderberg Group, or the front row at the Oscars. Then the pixels of this image dissolved, to be replaced by a far more sober bulletin from the State Patrol.

Half the billboard was dominated by a yellow box of bulleted information. The other half was a school portrait of a girl roughly Wyatt’s age. A year younger, according to the given data. Her name was Kylie Cho. She was last seen in Oshkosh—about sixty miles west of here—three days ago. She was wearing a blue jumper, white tights, and black barrettes. A hotline number was provided. She had pigtails in the picture provided. Her eyes bore a pilot hole into Jack’s substrate, despite the overinflated quality of the image. They were ladled from the same pool of whatever innocence pervaded Wyatt’s gaze when he was totally unselfconscious, when he was fixed in the amber present of being a child with nothing to distract him from that ephemeral privilege.

The billboard then changed to thick labial shavings of roast beef stuffing a Subway sandwich. Jack’s mind returned to the matters at hand, trivial and nagging, his focus on the road ahead.


Wyatt’s mother was the spitting image of his grandpa. Everyone said so. All those wet-thumbed great aunts who never married, some wearing their wimples over plain granny sweaters. Carmelites, his mother called them, which made him think they were sweet to the taste, dripping inside with bronze syrup. These odd family reunions, which usually took place in a park shelter or church basement. He was fascinated to hear his mother talked down to like a child, an exalted princess, something far grander than even he made her out to be. Little Ruby. Sweet little Ruby so good to see you. Ruby you angel, you precious ray of light, you grow more beautiful every time I see you, how is it possible. Praise be to God.

She had what everyone called the Reinemann complexion. Olive skin. Hair as black as the winding Danube on a stormy day. Schwarze Deutsche. Some fledgling genealogist in the family had deduced that in the 15th century, when the Jews were evicted from Spain and journeyed eastward, the Reinemann bloodline had been infused with that of one or more Sephardic merchants. Ruby and her father bore the same long, almost equine skull structure, tempered by a graceful chin, a neck that went on for miles. They had narrow jutting shoulders. In fact, every piecemeal bone in them was pronounced, their ball joints catching the sun like chrome fenders. Particularly in the summertime, father and daughter looked as though they were modeled from a rich silty clay, woven through with ochre and umber and burnt sienna.

Wyatt smudged the window pane with his breath and drew shapes in the fog before it evaporated. He wrote his name, then turned it into a calligraphic Chinese dragon of sorts. He breathed on the glass again. This time it was smoke fuming from the dragon’s nose.

Catalpa Street was so named after the trees shading its medians. They grew panicles of striped white flowers, briefly, in the spring. Cigar-like seedpods hung from their branches all winter long. Piercing sunlight winked through momentary gaps in the foliage, as the heart-shaped leaves danced in the breeze and took on differing jewel-hues of green. Wyatt was mesmerized. He was patient, more patient here than ever at home, because nirvana seemed to be the order of the day at his grandparents’ home. Nirvana in lieu of strife and thick bottled tension. The brass pendulum of the old Kieninger floor clock swung in its mahogany housing. Wyatt had anthropomorphized it à la Beauty and the Beast into a kind of servant, a butler always on call, mute yet gracious, walking around at night to tidy up with a feather duster. The scent of his grandmother’s baking pooled through the room, something special to curb the blow of this tumultuous day.

Wyatt watched for his grandpa to return on bicycle, quads searing and swollen in a pair of link padded liner shorts, canary yellow jersey damp at the armpits, and the little dental mirror that protracted off the brim of his helmet. At 68 years old, he never missed his twenty-mile jaunt, training year-round for the Annual Hodgkin’s Charity Cyclathon, which traveled along the state’s south-central meridian, starting in Milwaukee and ending in Prairie du Chien. Participants could drop out as early as they wanted. Wyatt’s grandfather always crossed the finish line.

The boy sat in a rhombus of sun on the pale blue carpeting, legs splayed, feet socked. He sat and waited with a degree of sedate complacency that might have rendered him unrecognizable to some of his teachers.


The radio was still playing nineties-alternative when Jack blinked his eyes open. Somehow he had managed to snore through the likes of Soundgarden and Alice In Chains. He had a hand down his pants, phone on his chest. The coffee table to his right upheld an accusing slew of empty beer cans. He tipped up his phone, head swimming, and swore when he saw the time. 5:30. Certainly he had already been discovered.

But there were also two missed calls from Ruby (3:25 and 3:39). The bus usually dropped Wyatt off around 3:50. Did the kid have a swimming lesson or something? Was he meeting with that math tutor he liked so much, the middle school girl with the rosacea and the underbite? He propped himself on his elbows, squinting around the sunblanched room. The basement door was patched and repainted and the fumes still hung in the air. At least he had deigned to get that much done before launching into his impromptu bender. Did five beers constitute a bender? Hardly, he thought, swinging his legs onto the floor and digging a palm heel in each eye.

The word “fuck” exploded out of him at the tail end of a violent yawn.

It was possible he had been thrown a bone here. He could clear up these cans and gargle some mouthwash before anyone got home. He set out to do just that. On his way into the kitchen he threw a disgusted glance at his patch job. Entirely conspicuous. The erasure of wood grain at eye-level commanded attention and told a whole story. It was as glaring as looking at someone with no eyebrows. Some emotionally stunted trainwreck had picked his knuckles up off the ground long enough to drive a fist through the hollow-core door. As he remembered things, rage had not been the main catalyst in his act. He may have even been smiling as he did it; a notion that spiked a chill down his spine.

Ruby had not known what to do; her reaction struck him as highly practical. “Why?” Her voice flat with disappointment. “This isn’t even our house. Why did you do that?”

Because I’m drunk. Had he really said that, or was this a false clarity?

Jack stood in the garage and smashed the empty cans into discs using the wall-mounted crusher. Normally he reserved this job for Wyatt, who got a kick out of seeing his small bony hand, which couldn’t even open most jars, manipulate the leverage of the handle to produce a satisfying crunch. In light of recent events, this ritual seemed perverse, like letting the boy clean his gun after committing a homicide.

The fight had been over nothing. Money. Money was always the excuse, their proxy war, and neither party dared dig any deeper than that. They each of them felt stuck. Or rather, Jack knew he felt stuck and so he had to imagine Ruby mirrored this desperation if he was going to be able to humanize his foe. A word that didn’t even jolt him anymore. They had effectively and overtly become foes, negotiating their lives in spite of the other, not in tandem. Jack’s day-to-day felt like a chess match, sacrificing pawns and bishops and rooks, not even sure what his queen represented any more but knowing he had to hold onto her at whatever cost, out of pride or existential necessity. When had they stopped being on the same team? Which of their magnets had switched polarity, his or hers? He didn’t feel like he had changed much in the past ten years and therein lay the problem. Stunted. That word again. He had heard it somewhere recently, one of those exhumed and dusted off terms from his old lexicon. Now he was using it all the time. Not out loud but in his inner dialogues, where he could be brutally honest, journalistic in the assessment of his life. Whereas outwardly all he knew how to do was punch doors.

In the kitchen Jack poured himself a tall glass of water from the tap. The stories out of Flint, Michigan had led Ruby to buy a filtration pitcher on Amazon. She had shown him the demo of orange Gatorade being poured in and leaching out the bottom clear. Using unspecified technology, it retained essential minerals like calcium and magnesium while stripping out lead, mercury, fluoride, chlorine, all these words Jack had grown up with. Now they were villainous. Had the Boomers really got everything that wrong or were their offspring just a bunch of anxiety-racked manic depressants? The fact that he drank regularly from the tap indicated his vote.

He sat out on the porch and had a cigarette. The paint fumes were heady when he was trying to sober up and anyway the place was cooking. They had a window AC unit in the master bedroom which they only turned on at night. Poor Wyatt had to settle for a box fan blowing on him. Jack always thought he’d have signed the lease to a nice big split-level by now. Somewhere rural but not “country.” Trees not soybeans. A nice dogwood lot big enough for a garden. A manmade pond to accommodate ducks ʼcause they didn’t tear up the lawn half as bad as chickens and were generally of a more anodyne disposition. And central air. Fuckin’ A, central air lulling him to sleep every night.

What else.

His own porch. He shared this slab of concrete with the neighbors next door. The Shifmans. He looked over and he saw their potted begonias, their star-spangled windsock. The balustrade needed mending. If this was his place he would’ve done it by now. Water had seeped down into the brackets and now rust was creeping up the wrought-iron posts, corroding them and making the whole thing wobble. The aluminum awning was aslant too. When it rained heavily, a sheet of water came down on the Shifmans’ side, almost none on Jack’s. But they didn’t give a damn, they were onto bigger and better things. “Trying for a family,” as Andy put it, Andy Shifman, grilling bratwurst one night in some whimsical apron that made him look like a woman in a bikini. “Things could get a little tight here. We want to have room for the tyke to run around.” He ran quality control for a foodservice equipment manufacturer called Vollrath and had been hinting around for weeks about a big promotion. Jack dreaded the day when he would have to say congratulations, didn’t know if he had the theater chops to pull it off in a convincing fashion, especially not after a bald-faced aspersion like that, implying their duplex wasn’t a fit ecosystem in which to raise a child. Jack couldn’t believe it. He kept waiting for Andy to backpedal, to apologize, to acknowledge he’d put his foot in his mouth, but the grillmaster went on blithely about market expansion and the exponential ubiquity of output. “Hotels, hospitals, stadiums, even military barracks. Chances are you come in contact with a Vollrath product every day and don’t even know it.”

And don’t give a shit either. Never trust a man who dances his meat around the grate. Christ on high let it cook. If he doesn’t drop that tongs I’ll kill myself.

Jack was in the midst of lighting another cigarette when he remembered those two missed calls from Ruby, when he recalled that his son had not arrived home on the school bus for reasons still unclear to him. He took out his phone, a Samsung S3 badly in need of upgrade, and speed-dialed his wife just as Andy Shifman’s Acura was turning into the cul-de-sac.


One of the best aspects of Grandpa and Grandma’s house was the trove of old Fisher Price toys down in the basement, heirlooms which had been played with by Ruby and her siblings. Wyatt’s favorite set piece for his melodramas was the castle. It had a stickered veneer of blue bricks. It had a small kidney-shaped moat attached like an apron beneath the yellow drawbridge. The beady eyes and snouts of crocodiles were painted in the blue water. There were plastic crenellations atop the battlements, a midpivot trapdoor which chuted into a dungeon at the base of the tower. Wyatt would insert minion after minion until the entire tower was stuffed full like a gumball machine. The castle was vivisected and when one turned it around one could see all the discrete chambers within. There was even custom-scaled furniture like beds for the inhabitants to sleep in, and of course a king and queen’s throne. Most of the characters were so vintage their little cog bodies were made of wood.

Wyatt’s other favorite component was the school bus, and so, quite anachronistically, this was often the mode of transportation to and from the medieval fortress. He sat cross-legged on the floor, declaring wars and arranging royal soirees. The TV played reruns of an old show about a bumbling spy whose shoe was a telephone. He paid little attention to it except when the canned laughter roused his attention, and his eyes would scan the screen for any evidence of what the joke had been. At physical comedy he smirked, but the elliptical wordplay left him numb. Occasionally his ears strained past the audio track, angling for bites of conversation from the conjunct dining room. There sat his mother and grandparents discussing the peculiarities of the day. When Wyatt heard his father’s name mentioned, he reached out and prodded the TV’s volume down by two clicks, hopefully not enough to be noticed.

His grandpa was saying, “What could he be doing?”

And Ruby said, “Sleeping maybe. He likes to sleep in the afternoon.”

“Sleeping.”

“It’s all I can think of.”

“He knows what time Wyatt is due back. He should be worried sick.”

“Well, this is Jack we’re talking about. This is the whole reason…” She lowered her voice and Wyatt could not catch what came next. His grandpa sounded mad and that on its own was enough to pique his interest, because this was the most mild-mannered, self-possessed man Wyatt knew. The complete opposite of his father. Couldn’t be further apart really, now that he paused to reflect on it; although being around grandpa seemed to influence Jack positively, like the old man was a Daoist sage through which a whole new philosophical prism opened on how to live life, how to receive it.

“Maybe try him again,” said his grandmother. “Just to see.” Her voice was the saddest of all of theirs. Somehow it never occurred to Wyatt to pity his mom. She never exhibited a need for it, not in front of him anyway. This seemed like a war going on between his parents more than one-sided abuse and misconduct. Strange that they were equally culpable in his mind, when he had never seen his mother go beet red in the face and scream and sob and kick furniture, had never witnessed her storm out of the house at night, not to return until the following evening, just in time for supper like some truant housecat. It was the pugnacity of her reprisals that made them out to be proportional combatants, muddying the victim-aggressor dynamic.

“Just to see what?” said grandpa. “Don’t call, Ruby. I’m asking you. You’ve done enough. I don’t mean to sound cynical but we have to think ahead on this one. This is usable in court, if it comes down to that. Your phone record, all of a sudden it becomes evidence. Documentation of negligent parenting.”

Ruby said nothing. Wyatt heard her exhale and understood at ten years old that she wanted a cigarette, but she was ashamed of being a smoker, didn’t like doing it in front of strangers, much less her parents. The table was set. There was a casserole in the oven and the house was beginning to smell of rosemary and the oxidized fats of ground beef. Then he heard the familiar arpeggio of a digital xylophone and knew even before Ruby said, “It’s him” that his dad was calling. He pictured the phone’s luminous display against the tablecloth, the one depicting a holly and ivy motif that made it feel like Christmas year-round. He pictured the image that would’ve popped up of Jack, the one of him pretending to look scared with eyes rolled back and tongue wagging as Wyatt put him a headlock.

His grandpa said, “Do you want me to pick up? I can talk to him.”

“No, dad. It’s alright.”

She was pushing out her chair on the parquet hardwood. She was walking to the sliding glass door that opened onto the patio. Wyatt crept to the sofa, the backrest of which abutted the sill of a bay window overlooking said patio and the backyard. He saw the garage, the stone bird bath, the brown picket fence. He saw the giant staghorn sumac along the western fenceline, like something transplanted from Africa, its tentacled branches growing straight from the ground as though a tree had been buried up to the crown. He loved to crawl like a leopard in the shade of that sumac and in the autumn when its leaves blazed red it resembled a brushfire. He saw his mother take a seat on a metal latticework chair. She faced away from the bistro table, away from the house. She fished a cigarette from her pack, stuck it in her lips, and lit it all one-handed.

The bay window was open to admit a crossbreeze, so he heard every word.

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