In the passenger seat next to me she’s reading the paper and tells me it says why the man was arrested the other night. She says, Domestic abuse. She doesn’t say anything and then says, There’s a picture of her.
Look, she says. She does not look good.
These are long pauses where she wants me to reply. I’m waiting for the light to change. My back hurts from the seat. The paper crunches in her hands.
Not that anyone looks good, she says. Not after that.
You did, I say.
No I didn’t, she says, and puts her hand softly on my knee.
I get my youngest son Tuesdays, Thursdays, and every other weekend. Only him. My lawyer told me at the start of this arrangement that the court cannot force children to see their father, and that the court always favors the woman, yes, even if she’s a liar, can’t hold down a job, and drinks too much. I told him I was on step six, ready for God to remove my defects. I had my purple chip.
He said to leave the chip at home, and God too. What you’re doing now doesn’t matter nearly as much as what you did then.
Five thirty-eight I pull into his mother’s driveway and honk. Weekdays I get two hours, but his mother and I have been arguing now for almost six years about how long two hours is. I don’t count the driving, she does, and the papers make no comment. The shades move in the window and I see my daughter, my oldest, the flash of my eyes on her looking at me like she always has since I first held her when she was bloody and crying and I wiped her face clear. Suspicion. I can hear her in the background of the phone shouting that he’s here, that she’s in the car with him. Where my older son is I don’t know and doubt his mother does either. I say over the phone, over maybe a twenty-foot distance,
Hey Kiddo, outside.
He says he’ll be out in a minute, and what I do for ten is not smoke a cigarette. When she tries to light up next to me I pitch it onto his mother’s lawn. Don’t, I say. And not in the apartment either. She crosses her arms but I hate listening to him cough. And even with the door closed I can see his mother holding up her hand to him and saying I should wait until six.
Five fifty he comes out not wearing the Mets hat I got him last weekend. My eyes on him too, though. He opens the car door and climbs in saying hi Dad hi Gina. His mother watches us from the door and waves as I back out. Gina, I love her here, she always waves back. I say,
Big as houses now, look at that.
And shift into drive. Gina says that isn’t nice. My son is quiet. In the rearview his arm is raised to the window but not moving back or forth.
Years from here and now, the court-mandated family therapist will stare at me while I remember the hat. I’ll say I don’t know, but that he always wore hats. Always Mets hats—blue his favorite color. So I buy him a Mets hat and then he stops wearing them altogether.
To placate me the court-mandated family therapist will ask how I felt about that and what I thought it meant. He and I will both scoff sitting on either ends of the couch because all three of us know what we’re talking about is not what’s important. I had to fight tooth and nail with the judge to get us into this room. It was only ever his mother that got between us. But she’s not in the room now, and there is nothing but nothing between us on the couch but still we’re sitting too far away from each other for the court-mandated family therapist to look at both of us at once.
I pull up to our condo, pointing out the unit where that guy got arrested. It looks like every other unit—blue door, white stucco. Our unit is ours, though—I tell him when we walk inside that we’re home. We’re home, and I have prepared a steak that will blow him away—marinating for two days, it will melt in his mouth so he doesn’t even have to chew.
He plops down on the couch with his book bag, then looks up. He asks,
Why’s Gina outside?
I’ve asked her not to smoke inside while you’re here.
You and mom always smoked inside, he says. Let her come in.
The lawyer kept bringing up Christmas. I asked him eventually,
Why are we doing this?
I have to know what happened, he said. You know what ruining Christmas does to your chances of seeing your kids? Every time you tell me the story it’s different. Which version will you tell in court? Which bar were you coming back from, Tara’s or Popeye’s? How’d you get back? Was the door locked? How’d the TV break? Who threatened who? She had a knife on you or she had a kid’s book as a shield from you? And who called the cops—her? Her mother? Your daughter?
The most I could say was Yes. Step five is admitting the exact nature of your wrongs but there’s a difference between a thing’s exact nature and a thing exactly. I couldn’t remember anything exactly and honestly was afraid to look back. I could see in every meeting men turned to salt over what they can’t take back, because not a one of us is a deserving refugee. I knew there were holes in the story but I knew they were made by the devil’s horns. Anyway the facts were documented. I can’t remember better than a police report, and I can’t make what I’ve done better. So what could I do now?
There will be three sessions because the court knows how healing works and that problems can be solved in six hours over three weeks. But at the start I will think I won. Unlike what my first lawyer had told me, the court could force a child to see his father if he had enough lawyers. And I won, seeing his mother drive him to court-mandated family therapy, seeing them sit quietly in the car not talking to one another. But on the way to court-mandated family therapy my hands will shake and my chest will hurt, so Shannon will have to drive so that I get past the liquor store. And then Shannon will sit with his mother for two hours in the waiting room flipping through health magazines, none of us talking about what matters. What broke, and how to fix it.
Good lord, the lawyer said, the first one. Whatever you do, do not say any of that.
He’s quiet in the living room while Gina and I make dinner. The oven sets off the fire alarm, and then I’m holding the baking sheet in my hands saying the squash is burnt.
So I stomp around, and I slam things. I see myself doing that. Throw the squash smoking into the trash, throw the window open. Slam the oven door.
Potatoes are like five minutes in the microwave, Gina says.
If it’s something that can just be thrown together in five minutes then what is the fucking point? I ask.
I slam some more things. I feel the muscles in my arm doing that. I ask her low why she didn’t just check on it, and she tells me in a hiss that it’s not her fault I fucked up the squash.
She goes outside again to smoke. I stab some potatoes and nuke them. I haven’t heard a sound from the living room through the alarm, the slamming, so I check on him. He’s sitting in what’s dark now from the window, reading. He looks up at me as I come in, then through the window at Gina outside.
Everything okay? he asks.
Fine, I say.
He nods. Turns a page.
How about a light? I ask turning one on. I say,
You’ll ruin your eyes that way.
It’s not good for you, I say. Reading in the dark.
He turns a page.
Is that for school? I ask.
He shakes his head.
Shouldn’t you do your school reading?
I did it already.
What about your other schoolwork?
Did it already.
Then why did you bring your backpack? I ask.
Which makes him look up. You asked me to, he says.
Well because I thought I could help you with your schoolwork or something, I said. But if you did it all.
He looks back at his book. He says he doesn’t really need help. He says, Sorry.
I sit on the chair at the other end of the couch.
Well, what are you reading now? I ask.
Which is a trick of a question. If I ask him about whatever book he’s reading he goes and goes, into painstaking detail. He weighs all of his words and interrupts himself to make sure plots and characters are clear, that I know the setting, that I understand the tone, and why all of that is important. I never have any idea what he’s talking about and never remember the books and listening to him it’s easy to think that maybe I’ve never read anything, ever, at all, but it’s nice to hear him talk, in that way, to me.
The lawyer asked me what I was even doing out on Christmas, why I would leave my family for orphan drunks at some sad divorcée bar. I told him it was cereal.
Their mother hates it. On Christmas morning she made a big holiday breakfast with french toast, bacon, sausage, hash browns, a quiche—but I’d gotten hungry while she was cooking and ate a bowl of cereal. When everything was done I wasn’t hungry anymore and she yelled at me, over the entire table, her mother there, Why do you have to do that? Why can’t you just eat with our family, my mother, your children?
In the second session we will not talk about Christmas, but we will talk about his mother. The court-mandated family therapist will say that there seems to be a lot of unresolved tension, and confusion. That she is confused about when exactly I stopped being a member of my own family, she’ll mean.
Her mother brainwashes him, I’ll say.
I’ll say, I’m the bad guy, I’m the drunk.
Forever, I’ll say,
It doesn’t matter what I do, it doesn’t matter what I went through.
I’ll say, What I’m going through now.
He will be quiet with his hand over his mouth as I speak, then ask,
Did you bring me in here just to tell me how much you dislike my mother? /p>
Do you have any memories of me in the house that your mother didn’t put there? I’ll ask.
He’ll shake his head. He’ll say, How little do you think of me.
You were so young, I’ll say. What could you remember?
Then he’ll laugh into his hand, and ask me, What exactly do you remember?
He’ll ask me what I thought I’ve been doing all these years. Sending random men to serve his mother papers on weekend mornings; not paying child support to the single mother working two jobs; emancipating the children I couldn’t guilt or force into seeing me; this, what we were doing here, right now, what was this?
Papers, I’ll say. It’s just papers.
Gina comes back inside without looking at us, gets her phone, and walks back out.
Is she okay? he asks.
But from here, through the window. She’s sitting on the patio, where we watched the man across the lot get cuffed and carted away, his wife watching from the door. I said I’d been there, and she said she’d been there. We smoked, we laughed a little at ourselves and where we were now. But right now she’s hunched over her phone like she’s being pelted with rocks.
The court-mandated family therapist will shift subjects and ask him what he’s reading in school. He will talk reverently about some dead Frenchman, and I will think he sounds essentially hopeless. I will want to tell the court-mandated family therapist that this will not work, this trick. I will know because it was my trick. And still, in the next and last session, when we are done refusing to talk about anything important, or anything at all, the court-mandated family therapist will give him a small stack of books tied with string, the rest of Frog Legs’s career. She will say that she thinks he will appreciate them more than she will, now.
And before the court-mandated family therapist tells us the session is over, before she says that she hopes we found the sessions helpful, before I ask my son to come outside with me for a minute to talk, before he says No I will not go outside for a minute to talk, before the only thing left for me to say is Okay son fine don’t come outside for a minute to talk, before I shake another pill onto my tongue for back pain and tell Shannon to drive, before—I will watch him take those books and say thank you and I will only want to tell him that I would have given him every dead French author’s books if I thought that they would help.
And would they have helped? Do they still?
I’m right about the steak. It does melt in your mouth. The meat is soft and full of juices and so tender. I’m licking my fingers and smiling like a kid at the back of Gina’s head. I want to tell her that this will be good. That I can make good, with my own two hands.
I gave him a copy of Moby-Dick once. Expurgated, abridged—classroom edition. I found it in the discount section of a Borders.
I will leave so many messages, starting before the court-mandated family therapy, after he tells me that he can’t do it anymore, can’t keep watching me do this—to Gina, to Jen, to Tracy, now to Shannon. And to myself. In the message I’ll say,
Papers don’t have to mean anything.
We will just have been about to leave to get him from his mother’s house—me and Shannon and Shannon’s son—to go to Port Jeff Bowl. He won’t hear it in the message, no matter how many times he listens to it over the years, but Shannon will be holding my arm through the entire thing, looking at me, and looking at her own son sitting in the car.
From here I can see exactly what not to do, what not to say. It hasn’t happened yet so I don’t have to take it back.
I will not hear his voice for a long time. Entire years. I’ll call—on the train to the city with the conductor announcing Stony Brook or St. James in the background, on weekends on my way out of church, at the dinner table, I’ll call. My messages will repeat themselves and standardize.
Hey Kiddo. It’s today’s date, around the current time rounded to the nearest quarter-hour. Merry Christmas or Happy Easter or Happy Birthday. Just wanted to see how you were doing. Haven’t heard from you in a while. Give me a call when you get a chance. Okay? My number’s the same.
I ask the table who wants to say grace, and they stare at me. Gina laughs. It’s funny until you need it. I take their hands and say the serenity prayer like I have every night for the last six years, whether or not their hands were there to take. But it only works if you work at it. Amen.
Neither of them say it back. Gina gets up from her seat to get more wine from the bottle I said she could keep in the back of the pantry, saying, Forgot the blood of Christ.
Don’t, I tell her when she sits back down. Mock me.
She raises the glass to her lips but doesn’t drink. I take up the carving knife and say,
Don’t you know what grace is? It’s a debt.
The meat spills over itself, tender, dark, and thick. Perfect blood inside. I carry a piece to his plate, to hers, and to my own.
This marinade, I say, chewing. Is soy sauce, extra-virgin olive oil, fresh lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, fresh garlic, organic basil, rosemary, thyme. I basted it each of the last two nights with honey also. The meat itself is Black Angus beef, a heifer who lived a life happier and better fed than you or I could ever hope to be, except tonight.
It’s good, he says.
Does your mother ever let you have a glass of wine with dinner? Gina asks him.
She better fucking not, I say.
My parents always did, she says. It’s very Italian.
You better make sure I never hear of you drinking, I say.
My parents were both very Italian, she says. Waving their hands around. Making sauce.
Rosaries everywhere. Saying mangia.
I say, What’s in me is in you. And, I will blow your head clean off.
She asks, Is his—is your mother Italian?
His mother doesn’t know what she is. She’s nothing, she’s a mutt.
He sighs into his cutlery and without looking up asks me not to call his mother names.
Like she doesn’t call me names, I say.
We don’t really talk about you, he says. They try not to. With me.
I watch him cut his meat. I don’t believe him. He holds his silverware wrong. Like his mother does. He changes hands to cut and stabs the fork into the meat like a dagger. It’s not that his mother taught him but that she didn’t. No class. The sharp noises from the tines against his plate make Gina wince. Her glass is already half gone.
What did you learn in school today? I try.
Nothing? I ask. Give me something, son.
He places the silverware on his plate crossed and stares at it.
My favorite subject was history, Gina says. Ancient history. The Mesopotamians. It’s amazing what they were able to do with nothing, with rocks.
What’s your favorite subject? She asks.
English, he says.
What about science? I ask. Math? The useful ones.
He shrugs again. Eventually picks up his fork and knife.
I talked with Mrs. Moretti in the guidance office today, he says. She’s not a counselor, but she’s at a desk in the lobby. Whenever I come in she calls me Curly, because of my hair, and I call her Moe. I asked her what this magnet on her cabinet meant that said Pogue Mahone and she told me how she wasn’t born here. She came to America when she was my age as a refugee from Ireland. During the Troubles? I didn’t know what those were. A car bomb killed her father. She said that she’s lived here most of her life now, but that Ireland is her home. I asked if she’s ever gone back and she said she couldn’t go back to what wasn’t there anymore.
I don’t know what to do with that. I don’t say anything.
So I know what Pogue Mahone means now, he says.
Gina asks, Who’s Larry, then? Can I be Larry?
I meant something you learned in class, I say. What did you do in math?
He chews. He swallows. He says, Proofs.
Oh my god, Gina says. I hated those. Explaining why a triangle isn’t a square?
Sure, he says. P’s and Q’s.
P’s and Q’s! You know that is the most useless thing. I can’t count on one hand how many times I’ve have to P and Q, because I’ve never had to!
What I think is that she poured herself a glass in the pantry, drank it, then poured another before sitting down. She’s light and small. It hits her quick. By her own admission—we met in a meeting. She still goes but she’s stopped speaking. She says she can’t say anything until she can say she’s stopped. We don’t know she’s pregnant yet, but when we find out next week I’ll somehow think it’s another chance to make good.
Can I get anyone anything? I ask, getting up for pepper.
A.I.? Gina asks.
The steak doesn’t need it, bleeding onto the platter. I put it on the table not lightly.
You know, I say to him, Your birthday’s not far. Know what you want?
Books, probably, I say.
Gina says her birthday’s not far either, and she has ideas.
You read them so fast, I say.
I might need shoes? he says.
Let your mother get you clothes, I say. And I’m about to say I should get the fun stuff when Gina says to him,
Get your elbows off the table.
He doesn’t look at her or me or move his arms at all.
Hey, she raises her voice. I’m serious!
I put my hand on the table and say her name.
I’m sorry, she says too loud. It’s ingrained in me, you know? My mother would hit my elbows with a wooden spoon to get them off the table. My back to sit up straight. Hard—we had to have good table manners. If he were in my household he would be covered in bruises.
He straightens his back a little but doesn’t move his arms.
Our spoons are plastic, though, she says into her plate.
She takes another sip of wine. She’s rationing. I would never hit my kids for manners. This is not a conversation they could have about me at their mother’s table. I don’t think so, anyway, I think I’m in the clear.
I tell him about work, while I have it. We’re rebuilding tower three. I’m a foreman on this one so I don’t have to climb the steel. Too old now anyway, too many back problems. My doctor only gives me Tylenol, like I’m some sort of child. I tell him I’ve been taking a lot of pictures I’m excited to show him. We’re getting high, starting to clear some surrounding buildings. He can’t imagine the sunsets, but I’ll show him. And what’s wild is that, as high as we are, as long as we’ve been going up, we haven’t had a single accident. No one has gotten hurt.
I’m looking at him, and I can feel my face wide open, but he doesn’t know what I mean. I don’t know how to make him understand. He reaches for the asparagus and Gina says,
Sure, reach over me.
Which stops his hand, floating above her plate. I say,
Maybe you could pass my son the—
But she takes the plate and drops it on the table in front of him. He takes two spears and tries to hand the plate back. She doesn’t take it. She’s got her forehead in her hand, and her glass is empty. I ask if they want more steak.
There’s plenty, I say, squeezing Gina’s knee under the table. Hard. I take the carving knife and honing steel and look at Gina, sharpening. I give him a thick cut. Her too, past her hand holding up No.
Plenty, I say again.
No accidents, I say. No one’s fallen. The job’s safer now than when your uncle took his fall, that’s true, but it’s different with this one. I’m excited to ride the train in the morning. I’m proud of what we’re doing. We all are. We’re building on the bones of people who died that day—that does something to a place. The work feels sacred. We think the spirit is holding us up. Even the guys that don’t believe anything believe that—this site is something different. We want to make good for those people and for each other. We want to rebuild.
Neither of them say anything. His fork against the plate makes a sharp sound and Gina grabs the fork from him and says,
Stop that. Who raised you?
Gina, I say.
Who? She asks him. You would be covered—
—in bruises, What?
She looks at me. She puts her forehead into her hand again, still holding his fork. He hasn’t moved. He never moves. He would always just sit there and try to be somewhere else.
May I be excused? he asks.
Sure, son, I say. Why don’t you go up to your room to read while Gina and I clean up?
He gets up. I hear him go up the carpeted stairs and close his bedroom door. I turn to Gina and I lean in close to her. I put my arm around her. I control my voice—it’s amazing, the control I have in my voice. I make it soft, and light. Comforting.
Listen, I say. I need to explain something to you. Each week I get a total of four hours with my son, and every other weekend I get about thirty-six. This averages each month to a little over five days. I am lucky to get any holidays. And this is only one of my three children, because the other two will never give me another chance as long as I live. Gina, look at me. Gina, I have very limited time with my son, is what I’m trying to explain to you. Very limited time that is poisoned before he even gets here by what his mother and my other children must say about me. Look, listen. I will not fuck this up, and you will not—will not—fuck this up for me.
I will call every week, then every other. Every month then every other. I will call when it’s inconvenient, or it will seem that way to him. I make bad days worse—but when would be a convenient time for you to reconnect with The Estranged Father? Tuesday? Around one?
After a few years the calls will stop almost completely. He will start answering his phone again because he will not be afraid every new number is mine. He will be glad not to have those panics, but also hurt, somehow. Like that panic was the last connection we had, like I’ve given up on him. Like it was my decision.
But one week I will call to leave a message during a lunch break, having practiced all morning a line about busting my back on the steel because that is something I think he could be proud of me for, and his voicemail will have changed. Instead of a robot telling me what number I’ve reached and to leave a message at the tone, it’s him. His voice, telling me I’ve reached him, apologizing for having missed me, could I please leave a message? Thanking me for calling.
The tone will sound and I won’t know what to say. God. I will be able to say, God. Wow. I will say, It is so good to hear your voice.
The first lawyer made his voice low and quiet when he leaned in to ask, sitting down to family court that day, Do you think she still has the photos of your older son’s neck?
I am climbing the stairs to check on him. Gina is polishing off the bottle. She’ll miscarry anyway. One day I’ll use the word crazy to describe her and he’ll say he didn’t know what I expected from a woman half my age that I met at a meeting. I’ll say that’s not fair. I’ll say that good people attend meetings, and that the steps work if you let them. I’ll say it’s up to the person, to forgive themselves.
What about everyone else? he’ll ask. We’ll be in the car, driving him to his mother’s house. There will be the sound of the car, humming. Not looking at me looking at him, he’ll ask, Are you going to her funeral?
But that is years from now. Now, right now, I’m climbing the carpeted steps to his bedroom door. It will always be his bedroom, even when Shannon calls it her son’s room. I knock on the door lightly, and I hear him tell me to come in.
The week after I hear his voice I’ll call again, way ahead of schedule. Too excited. The ringing will stop and in that small quiet moment I will pray.
She did have the photos to show family court but I was only scared of her showing those photos to him, telling him, Look what your father did, evidence I could never refute except with his reflection in the mirror, maybe the only thing I ever did right.
He is sitting on his bed reading. I sit on the end and I am asking him how he’s doing.
Fine, he’s saying. How is Gina?
She’s okay, I’m saying. She’s sorry.
The way he is saying it, I know he means it. He can have forgiveness. I’m seeing him now like I saw him last weekend, after the game, exhausted, about to fall into bed when I said, Say your prayers. And he did. He kneeled at the edge of his bed, this bed, and I kneeled with him. We closed our eyes. We put our hands together.
When the voicemail plays it will not be his voice. It will be the robot again, telling me what number I’ve reached and to leave a message at the tone. I will check my watch. I will say,
Hey Kiddo. It’s Thursday, the twenty-seventh, around five forty-five. Just wanted to see how you were doing. Haven’t heard from you in a while.
Suddenly out of practice I’ll say,
I’m, uh, just about to get off the train. Maybe you heard it. The train. I know you said once you could hear the train from your mother’s house. I don’t know if you’re still living there, but. If you do, if you heard the train, just now, well. That was me. That was my train coming in.
But right now I am looking at him and I know that the next thing he is going to ask me is if I can take him home. But I am looking at him, and what I want more than anything is for him to look at me, away from his book, my eyes reflecting mine, say,
Could I spend the night? Maybe you can drive me to school in the morning.
I can see from here what few moments we really have left, just moments, and how I will always remember them exactly how they happened.
I will put my hands together. I will close my eyes. Can you hear me?
He will be sitting in his living room when I call. He will look down at his phone and watch it until the vibrating dies out, then watch the screen tell him I left a voicemail. He will put down his book and open his laptop, and he will have his fingers over the keys. Miles from the sound of the train coming in, but it will be my eyes staring outward that stop his fiancée as she crosses the room and asks him, What? Which won’t reach him, at first, but he will then say, Sorry, what? And she will say, I thought you were looking at me. And he’ll say, Oh. No, sorry.