“The bitch threw me out. Can I stay here tonight?”
Oscar hesitated, but then stepped aside for his son. Jimmy took his work boots off in the breezeway and threw a pink, polka-dotted backpack on the recliner before he slumped into the couch.
“Get your feet down. I don’t want those things anywhere near where I take my meals.”
Jimmy did as he was told, then closed his eyes. Oscar grabbed two Miller Lites from the fridge and turned off Wheel of Fortune to let Jimmy be a minute. When Jimmy didn’t thank him for the beer, didn’t even open his eyes to see it being offered, Oscar lost his patience.
“Well?” Oscar said. “I thought that shrink was helping you two out.”
“It wasn’t about Traci; it was Miranda. She told the school nurse that I was beating on her.”
Jimmy’s eyes popped open. “No.” He took a swig of beer. “So the school called CPS and some dink with a clipboard came out in a hatchback to stand in my driveway and ask me stupid ass questions no one needs to hear the answers to, and then he told me about some services down at Southern Methodist we can go to and I told him, I says, ‘We’re already paying for a therapist, dude, that well’s dry’ and Shit-for-Brains says to me ‘Situations like this tend to fester, Mister Taggart.’ And I says ‘Situations like what exactly?’ And he’s all high-and-mighty but with his clipboard up against his chest like this, and he says ‘Situations that involve anger control issues and step-daughters.’ Now have you ever had someone tell you exactly what your problem is while you’re standing in your own damn yard, Dad? In all your years in this goddamn town, has some stranger ever had the balls to park in your driveway, shove some pieces of paper in your face, drill you with insulting questions for twenty minutes, and then tell you exactly what they think your problem is?”
“Son, there’s entire industries based on doing that. Heck, I used to go door-to-door in the ’60s making people feel bad for not buying their kids the right kind of encyclopedias. But I don’t get why Traci would throw you out for not hitting Miranda?”
“I don’t know. The woman’s fucking nuts. One second she’s asking the dink to back out of the driveway so she can pick Osage up from cheerleading practice—”
“That name. I’ll never get used to it.”
“—and the next second she’s telling me to grab my shit and get out. Zero to sixty, that’s her way.”
“And the social worker just let you leave? What was the point of him even coming out if he wasn’t going to do something?”
“What, you wanted him to put me in jail or something?”
“Nah, I just think whoopin’ on a girl is a serious thing whether it was done or not.”
“I didn’t hit Miranda, Dad.”
“No, I know. I know. That’s not what I’m saying, though that social worker might have a point about your anger. No, what I mean is they can’t just drive up and start asking questions. Don’t they need proof or something to back up the story before they start an investigation?”
“I think you’ve been watching too much CSI, old man. CPS has to answer every call. They don’t need no backing up nowadays. If a girl says so, they come out. She probably showed the nurse the bruises on her shoulders—don’t look at me like that; it was an accident. They was obviously from fingers. Eight little bruises about the size of a nickel and this far apart? What else would leave marks like that? Randa wasn’t listening to her momma again and I was doing something about it. That girl is so dramatic about things.”
“Well, that’s sure as taxes. I ain’t never seen that young lady pass up a chance to stand in front of people.”
“All she needed was Ma and a Target store floor and it could have been Traverse City all over again.”
Oscar cracked a smile. “You know, your mother came home from that and insisted I pay for her to rent another cabin in the woods for a week. That’s where these afghans came from. She spent the whole week by herself sipping red wine and knitting. When I picked her up, she packed them in the back of the truck and—swear on sweet baby Jesus’s manger—she skipped before she slid in next to me with that grin of hers…that was the last time I saw it, I think. You hungry? Think I got some fish sticks in the freezer.”
Jimmy said he was, then his phone rang and he stepped out the back door. When he came back in, Oscar smelled the smoke on him. Jimmy pulled a bread knife from a drawer and started jabbing at the potatoes.
“You’re gonna hurt yourself chopping like that. Just get out of my way, Jimmy. I don’t need no Great Wall of China between me and the icebox. Just sit in that chair and tell me who was on the phone.”
“It was Traci, telling me Miranda needs her backpack for school in the morning.”
“So you’re heading back home.”
“I told her to go fuck herself. She didn’t even think of standing up for me to Shit-for-Brains. She shoulda told him how easily Randa bruises, but she didn’t—none of ‘em did— and they were all standing there like deer, staring at me then staring over at the dink. They all saw her acting up and me taking her shoulders and telling her like it is: ‘Your ma doesn’t want you at the Howards and that’s that,’ I says. ‘You go to the Howard’s place: your ass is grass.’ I pressed a little too hard; I get that…but I was backing Traci up. And I know, I know Traci and Randa’s dad aren’t gonna say shit about it to her.”
“You can’t touch them kids, son. They ain’t yours to discipline.”
“But nothing. You’re the lone wolf trying to join a new pack. Come hell or high water it’s you they’re gonna shove ahead when trouble walks into the yard. It was the same when I married your mother. That first Sunday dinner your grandpa and your uncles met me. Your Uncle Junior gave me this scar that day telling me they expect me to be a stand-up man, they expect me to cherish their Lois like the angel she is, and all the while with that same shit-eating grin that family has. Pack mentality and all that. Soon as they heard about the cancer they took her from me. Didn’t even let me wipe soup from her chin. Your aunts and uncles cooing at her and reading to her all the time, singing her favorite songs. Thought they were being nice, ‘sharing the burden,’ they called it. No. After all those years and kids and grandkids and great-grandkids I still wasn’t one of them. I was still the new wolf. Still am, I guess.” Oscar laid a slab of fish in a skillet.
“That’s it. I’m staying here tonight.”
“To be honest, Jim, I’m fine on my own. Took me a while to get used to the holes your mother left around here. I’m still working up the courage to eat at the dining room table even though there’s no game of solitaire to mess up anymore. You want some vinegar for your fish? Your mother left enough of these packets to feed all of the third world, there you go— but I like the way I fill the holes myself now. I don’t need you young people coming around trying to fill them up for me. The last thing I want is a fuss. Plus, I don’t see how staying here is going to do you any good. You should go home and face them girls. Your mother called that kind of thing ‘clearing the ivy.’”
“I remember, Dad. I’ll go if you want, but you \can’t keep shutting yourself up in this house. You ain’t no loner. Besides Ma’d want you out living a life, in your garden, at the diner with your guys from the Post, not sitting in here talking to her afghans.”
Oscar put a pan of potatoes back on the burner. He stared at the area rug Lois had brought back from Lansing.
“I heard you talking to her when I was outside,” Jimmy’s voice was just above a whisper. “Ain’t no shame in missing Ma—I miss her like Christmas morning—but the time for licking wounds is up, Dad. Think of Andrew and Charlotte and Colin. Most guys don’t get the chance to know their great-grandkids, you lucky sumbitch.”
Jimmy listened to oil sizzle. He watched his father’s elbow pull back, forcing potato pieces to fly up above the lip of the pan for a moment before their dramatic return. He grabbed plates from their spot in the cabinet beside the fridge, and he marvelled that the rose stencils on the silverware drawer hadn’t worn off in all the years they’d been there. The men ate dinner in silence.
That night lying on his parents’ couch, Jimmy smelled his childhood in the sheets and pillows. He heard every familiar creak of the stairs and floorboards as his father came down to the kitchen early the next morning. The flip of the lightswitch. The whistle of the coffeepot. His father tried his best to close the back door quietly when he went out for his morning walk, but the hinges needed oiling. Jimmy laid there thinking things through. When he finally decided to haul out of the sagging cushions and get himself dressed, he found an afghan folded up in Miranda’s bright pink, polka-dotted backpack.