Jim Bolone has been a sales rep, dockporter, bouncer, bartender, and a teacher. Born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, Jim earned his B.A. in English from Wayne State University. He shares his home in Toledo, Ohio with his wife and children where there are plenty of books to read and many stories to write.
Another Day, in Milan
She ordered a glass of sambuca.
The trattoria was a welcomed retreat from the comparatively oppressive August sun. Her order agitated him and only magnified his general discomfort; he knew that she knew he would brave the crowding, the annoying warmth, for her. “Is it that important?” he asked, wiping his brow.
“What?” she replied.
“The sambuca. This place.” The trattoria was bright at mid day. Lots of people were populating it and tables were filling, a cacophony of voices echoing throughout. There was a group of elderly men sitting at one of the tables, an old farm style table, longer than the rest. They were smoking cigars, sipping espressos around a game of scopa.
“Yes, yes it is. Why such a killjoy?” she asked.
“I'm not. It's just that there's still so much to see and only so much time in a day.” He wrestled to say what he wanted. “After all it's Milan. The Bagutta is filled. Let's get a sambuca somewhere else.”
“When we planned this trip we imagined ourselves in the Trattoria Bagutta, sipping sambuca and toasting our life together, our marriage,” she said.
He only partially listened to her. His thoughts gravitated to the night before when they lay together, naked in their villa, the windows opened to the night, and he wondered in the midst of his yearning for love, with an absence of window screens why were there no insects or birds occupying the room when so many could be heard outside. He considered these things, as she lay next to him naked and asleep in the cool night. Now, his shirt was beginning to stick to his back and chest with sweat.
“Don't you remember?” she asked.
“What?” he asked, pulling his shirt in and out to dry. “Of course, you know I do.”
A waiter approached. His appearance intimidated the man. He had everything he didn't:height, no body fat, golden-skinned and wavy and black hair,, plus his eyes were blue. She loved blue eyes. Her husband felt she seemed to love the things about other men that he did not possess. “Ciao, sono Carlo. Com'e va?” the waiter spoke in Italian asking them how they were.
“Let me try this,” she interrupted.
“Va bene, grazie,” her words —translataded to 'very well thank you' — were slow and careful, her enunciation strangely attractive to her husband because it reminded him of her mouth and lips and teeth. “Siamo da Gli Stati Uniti. Ti miei piace, due bicchiere di agua e due sambuca...scuzi, parlo le lingue Italiano poco,” she said, informing the waiter they were from the U.S. and that they wanted two glasses of sambuca. The watier’s eyes met hers in a patronizing and sensuous way, and she allowed it.
“Si, va bene,” the waiter slowly replied, intentionally pausing before leaving.
“What the hell did you say to him?”
“That we're from America.” She angled her head and peered into his eyes, amused. “What's wrong?”
He hesitated. “Nothing, nothing...you're right, let's enjoy this.” He wondered how she could lay vulnerable in the villa the entire night and not share his desires. His judgments of her compounded; he cradled remembrances of their past, when things were different, when she kissed him hard and open-mouthed, her lips upon his cheeks, around his neck while her fingers pressed deeply and passionately into his thick chestnut hair, when the newness of love and all its splendor painted truth.
“Here,” she said to him, “Eight euros should cover it, including tip. I'm going to the bathroom.”
He watched her walk away, her jeans perfectly wrapped around her legs and complementing her butt. She always looked good; she always looked young. Her black hair glowed back the Milan sun like the moon's trail on night waters. He remembered seeing her in the shower in the morning and how he had wanted her, how he was on the verge of mustering the courage to ask if he might join her, and how instead she asked him if he would close the door so that she might enjoy some privacy. Then he wondered what his life would be without her, if she were never to return. And later if she regretted the decision, and returned and wanted him, he would possess the upper hand.
This triggered a sensation once greatly peculiar to his youth when he fought relentlessly against frequent, surprise waves of obsessive behaviorthat included fearing separation from his mother and father, bouts causing private embarrassment at the height of adolescence, when a boy wants to be seen as he sees himself in dreams, independent and strong, but cannot because dreams end and dreamers wake and futility becomes the master of such things and takes what we want and diminishes it. When he was fourteen it all went away -- except for the resolute hatred, his loathing toward that fear of separation, the terror of abandonment, and how it eroded his early life and maybe affected him now, and how then he vowed he would never again be an emotional slave.
A part of him hated her for this and resented her private little ethos of existence as if she were the wielder of what is and what he should be.
She returned. “The sambucas?” she said, tossing her purse on the tabletop.
“He hasn't brought them yet,” he replied, clenching the euros, sweaty in his palm.
“God I love it here.” she said. “Hand me the money.”
The waiter returned with two slender glasses, each filled half way, placed on a black circular tray. “Ecco, due sambuca,” he said.
“Grazie,” she replied.
The waiter smiled and stared a little longer at her, which cast a sudden and uneasy expression on her face. She handed him the money.
“Allora, bene…ciao," the waiter exclaimed, then bowed. “And your Italian is almost as beautiful as you,” he said, departing.
“Hey! Can you believe that?” she exclaimed.
“Yeah, ‘vabenny' and ‘beautiful' to you too,” he said under his breaths the waiter walked away.
“Don’t," she said. “It's sarcastic and disrespectful.”
“You don’t," he replied indignantly. “Did you see how he was staring at you? And he knows English; he played with you. He's a player.”
“What are you talking about?”
He sighed. “Nothing. It's unimportant. Hey let's drink this stuff and get some fresh air. It's too uncomfortable in here.”
“No. We are staying and doing nothing. A little of nothing on a day in Milan is what's real,” she said. “What better than enjoying a bit of sambuca in the Trattoria Bagutta.”
“We're drinking sambuca in the Bagutta. It's hot, it's stuffy, and it's thick. That's real.” His eyes closed and his nostrils flared as he slowly inhaled. The trattoria reverberated with the clamor of its patrons. A mixed smell of cigar and cigarette smoke intensified but was not unpleasant to him. It made him think of his childhood and his father. “Why do you have to be so damned take charge?”
“Me?” she asked defiantly.
“I really don't know what you are saying,” she replied.
“Maybe that's it,” he said.
“Playing the ignorant card to get what you want.”
“I still don't understand,” she said.
“You're doing it right now.”
“And you, my love, are dreaming.”
“It's convenient to compartmentalize me, put me in a nice, neat little box labeled dreamer, isn't it.” He raised his head and panned the trattoria, then noticed the handsome waiter in the distance laughing, playfully kissing a woman. “Six nights and not one of them intimate. I think we know who the dreamer is, knowing who sleeps the most.”
“My God, not fair, and why now, in Italy! You're relentless. It's oppressive. What's happened to you, my strong, self-assured man?”
He held his glass in front of his eyes, looking at her through the sambuca. He saw himself swimming inside the glass, free, free from the heaviness of the humidity in the trattoria. “He's gone I guess,” he murmured. “Lost...in something.”
“Well I wish I knew what,” she said.
“If it meant bringing you back to your senses, then yes, certainly yes.” She smiled.
Beneath the table her foot slipped away from its sandal and moved gracefully toward his leg where her toe gently lifted his pant leg then tenderly, purposefully, stroked his calf.
Eddies of cigarette and cigar smoke rose and settled high in the trattoria, clouding the skylight and the brilliance of the Milan sky.
“Another sambuca?” she asked.
“Why not," he said, but he said it reluctantly because he felt those words were driven by the temporary and not the forever. So it was, just another day, and it just happened to be in Milan, like everywhere else.
Maybe it was fate that the transfer to public school from parochial school marked a first and a last in my family. I was the youngest of seven to attend the local Catholic school, which had sort of become a tradition. And by no doing of my own, after fourth grade — together with the nuns, the morning prayers, the Ave Maria — it all ended. I wasn’t so sure about it, but I knew change was inevitable because I overheard Dad complaining to Mom about how things were changing in the church and after all he did to raise money for it, after all the days he’d volunteered, joined clubs, donated money, carried the bricks that made it (literally), etc. that they had the heartlessness to double tuition and deny the last of his seven kids the same eight years all the other six had gotten. He said whenever the church wanted a handout they were nice, but when it came time to give back they weren’t so nice. “It was time,” he said. “Time you go to public school in the fall. Besides,” he added, “your new school has an all wood gym floor…and there’s band.” It was an easy sell because I had wanted to learn to play the drums. In the end we all won.
At public school I got more than wood gym floors and drums. I got new friends in new neighborhoods. Before transferring to public school I could walk the four blocks to class. All my classmates lived in the neighborhood. We could spit as far as we lived from each other.
Changing schools meant I’d be riding my bike almost two miles away in what seemed like another country with streets I’d never heard of or seen.
One of the first friends I met my first year at public school was John Taylor. This was a kid who by all accounts was more than a kid. John was a hunter! He had his own shot gun and every fall hunted duck and partridge with his father. John was the youngest of four and the only boy. His personality was magnetic and his looks just right for the girls to notice. He played every sport and was not small by any means, and yet he wasn’t a giant either. His strength was probably twice mine and he was someone you wanted on your side in a fight. In library class John and some of the other boys and I paged through issues of Boys Life and Outdoor Life. It was exciting to argue who’d get the next best shot gun or fishing rod, even though I had none. Sometimes we’d look through National Geographic to find photographs of topless tribal women. Or we’d open the fat unabridged dictionary to find the really bad cuss words and marvel at them and their definitions and at the presence of such a book in our own library. The best thing I liked doing with John was playing catch, which we did at school during recess or after school at either his house or mine. Playing catch with John might as well have been the same as playing catch with Mickey Mantle for all I cared.
It was in the eighth grade, my final year at school and my last with John when I first laid eyes on Teresa Monticelli. She was sitting high on the bleachers in a cluster of popular girls at our first junior high pep rally in the school auditorium. That moment is a water-marked memory in my life pages. It wasn’t lust because I knew what that was and felt it strong when I saw those topless tribal women in National Geographic. No. It was something else. I mean, it was her face. Too young for beautiful, Theresa’s was fresh and bright. She was heaven personified. Instantly I fell for her fully knowing she didn’t have any idea who I was. John was with me that day. I found out later through friends that Theresa had noticed him.
Funny how obsession closes in on teens and wrangles them to the ground, how it causes unwanted night terrors, how it makes every song played on the radio suddenly about the girl or boy, while every other girl or boy they see gets compared with someone and never matches up. That’s how it was with me and the idea of Theresa. You could say I was in love. She was different and so was everything about her, even her smell, which was a unique blend of perfume and a peculiar hint of cigarette smoke. I did my best to get to know her, and that included what I was good at to get her attention: being funny. And it worked. Until one day in study hall she said to me “You’re hilarious!” but in the kind of way that made the whole thing feel more like a service, like I was her jester.
One of the great ironies in the course of my life was how John made it clear he wanted nothing to do with Theresa. He was dead set against ever dating her. I couldn’t understand it, but at the same time was overjoyed. Problem was as much as John avoided Theresa, she became more obsessed with him. I mean notes in his locker, candy in his coat pocket, greeting cards secretly placed in his binder, all to my self-embarrassing envy.
After eighth grade most kids took different paths to a mix of high schools. Some, like John and Theresa, went to Parochial ones. (I didn’t even entertain the notion of asking my dad if I could go.) Sadly, after this John and I didn’t hang out as much; I really missed playing catch with him and talking about camping or hunting or reading Outdoor life and National Geographic magazines. I really missed just John.
Late in the fall of my ninth grade year I mustered the guts to call Theresa Monticelli, though now what once was complete obsession had subsided to an idled attraction. I’d heard through friends and acquaintances she didn’t have a boyfriend so I figured I’d see what she was up to at her new school and other stuff. She was very happy to hear my voice and told me it would be awesome if I stopped by any night of the week “But only after dinner,” she emphasized.
That’s when those old junior high feelings for her returned from out of a bottle filled with yesterday.
After dinner the next day I threw on my hoody and started out on my bike for Theresa’s house. The late afternoon sky was wide open, clear, and just cold enough to be uncomfortable in the hoody, but I wasn’t about to waste time going back for something warmer. I pedaled on, my hands and face reddening from the cold. By the time I rolled up her driveway they burned with chill. My lips felt novacained.
Her house was small, but nice. I knocked at the door and an older man — her father I guessed — answered. He wore frayed and faded flannel paisley pajama pants, a stained and worn tee shirt, his feet bare, dark, and hairy.
“Is Theresa home?” I said. The words labored through hypothermic lips.
He smiled at me then turned. “Theresa!” he shouted into the house. He opened the door wide and invited me in. I watched him silently and slowly drag his hairy feet to a recliner chair, next to it jazz music played from a hifi unit; he lit a cigarette, crossed his leg and moved his hairy foot up and down with the music with a large grin on his face and his eyes closed. “She’ll be down, don’t worry. She will be,” he smiled, eyes still closed, retreating to his music.
“Hello? who’s there?” a woman’s voice called from downstairs in the kitchen. “Who is it Sam?” She showed herself. She wore black high heels and a beige skirt with a floral top. Her hair the results of a perfect permanent. She looked proper, but didn’t look in place standing in their small tri-level kitchen. She disappeared for a while then showed herself again. “Oh. Who are you?” she said.
“I’m Theresa’s friend from school. David, David Fleming,” I said.
“I’ve never seen you at St. Al’s,” she said. ‘St. Al’s’ was short for St. Aloysius School.
“Uh no. We met at Clark Junior High,” I said.
“Really? I don’t remember you. That, that was a couple years ago.” She put her finger on her lips to think. “Where are you now?”
“Poor boy.” She shot me this grandiose patronizing look. “Your parents won’t send you to private school?”
I was unprepared for that question and equally unprepared to answer truthfully. Soon as I made the attempt she interrupted.
“So you’ve met Theresa’s dad. I apologize for him in advance. He’s not dealing with a full deck and as you can hear; lives in his jazz world. I’m sorry.”
Theresa came down the stairs. She saw her mother, but said nothing to her. Then she saw me and greeted me.
“You smell like the cold,” she said. “I love that smell.”
I never thought about that smell until she said that.
“You two can come down here in the kitchen. I was on my way up anyhow,” Mrs. Monticelli said as she made her way up to the living room, wiping her top with a wash cloth. “Dad needs company,” she said with a note of sarcasm. Theresa ignored her.
We sat at the kitchen table. And for just the right amount of time we made eye contact.
“Let’s play something,” Theresa said.
“Sure, what?” I was hoping we’d talk or something but I wasn’t going to push the issue.
“Circles,” she said.
She explained it all and it was simple. We took turns circling words in the newspaper that matched our feelings. “Go ahead, you start,” she said.
I started first and from the lead story on the front page chose Excited.
Theresa circled New.
I circled Interesting.
She turned the page and scanned until circling Lapse.
Then I circled Unknown.
“Theresa your friend needs to leave by eight thirty, that’s in half an hour,” her mother said. Oblivious, Theresa only hummed as she hunted down her next word and while we played the game, her parents conversation grew louder. It was very awkward and difficult not to listen.
“Please turn down the sound; I’m not listening to it tonight,” her mother shouted. “I want to hear my shows!”
“Awe c’mon. Just a little longer?” Sam pleaded. He cleared his throat then mumbled something. I heard the hinge of a steel lighter squeak open and then snap close.
“Dammit Sam!” she said, “Why’s it always about you and your blasted jazz music. I don’t like it. And while I’m at it I won’t be home till late tomorrow so unless Theresa makes you dinner, you’re on you own.”
“Awe hell,” he said. Then the telephone rang. “You gonna get that?” he said.
“Why don’t you,” she said.
The phone rang until the caller gave up. Theresa pursed her lips then circled Psychological. The parent war continued.
“Don’t you ever get tired?” her mother said. “Don’t you ever want more than just sitting on disability checks?”
There was an audible sigh. Theresa turned the page. I searched. This entire situation was starting to get weird, like somewhere in between imagination and reality. When I saw the word Disrupt I circled it. I thought for a moment the bantering stopped. I was wrong.
“I mean don’t you want more? I’m worried about you. You’re like this giant codependent baby we have to watch and feed every day,” her mother said.
“I’m not co-dependent.”
The hell you’re not.”
“I’m. Not. Fucking. Co-dependent!” he screamed. “I’ll tell you what I am and that’s sick and tired of hearing the same old shit come out of that exhaust pipe you call your mouth every goddam day!”
“Yeah well welcome to the club asshole. Should never have married you. Should have listened to my mother.”
“You don’t know shit,” he said.
“Right back at ya,” she said.
“To hell with you.”
I nervously swallowed and was glad the music was up to cover sound. I circled Time. Theresa smiled. I noticed her mother walk up the stairs.
Theresa circled Difficulty.
I nervously circled Genuine.
“Don’t think you’re going anywhere this weekend young lady,” her mother shouted.
Apathetic. Tired. Theresa broke the rule of one word at a time and circled both.
Amid the quarrel, we continued to focus on the game, and didn’t talk much; the game was beginning to lose steam.
I noticed two empty wine bottles standing on a corner table, its surface marked with beverage ring stains, one still fresh. I was thinking how Theresa hadn’t changed much since junior high. I wondered where she got the strength in a situation where I’d be crazy sick with embarrassment.
Eight thirty arrived. Mrs. Monticello came down to the kitchen. “I feel sorry for you kids,” she said. Theresa didn’t raise an eye. “Do yourselves a favor and never marry,” she said. She walked to the corner and grabbed the two empty bottles and threw them into the garbage. “And if you do,” she continued, “marry well and you won’t end up being the bread winner like me scrounging every goddam penny every goddam day for a daughter who never says a thing!” The volume of the music rose.
“Probably a good time to go,” Theresa said.
“I know,” I said.
Our goodbye was civil and courteous. I was grateful for seeing her. She was pleasant about the whole thing. She never once mentioned her parents. We went to the back door. Then it all changed, as if I’d been struck by lightning and brainwashed. She immediately appeared to me as less, less than what I thought she was. “Come over again,” she said. “Oh. Something else,” she continued. She seemed reluctant, nervous. “Do you still hang around with John?”
“Not much anymore,” I said.
“That’s too bad,” she said.
“Yeah,” I said. “It is.” I opened the door and a cold rush of air streamed in and closed it behind me, pulling on the knob to make sure the lock engaged. That was it. I was out of the house of the girl I had loved since I could remember and felt disconnected. It wasn’t what might have been puppy love anymore as much as a very deep sense of pity, even if she was in Catholic school.
My ride home was cold and dark. There were lots of stars out, and I made them into all the kids I knew in grade school now and maybe for the rest of my life. I promised myself the next day I’d call John Taylor to see if he’d play some catch with me, even if it was going to be cold outside. And neither of us would think about Theresa.
Years later I heard through the grapevine that John Taylor was living in Georgia with his husband, that Theresa Monticelli’s parents were eventually divorced, and sadly Theresa herself had a short-lived marriage with some rich oppressive guy, and not too long after her divorce she was struck by a car and killed while carrying the Thanksgiving groceries she bought to make dinner for her father.
Looking back, Ben realized the first sign of change happened at the dinner table.
Leftover meatloaf was on the menu at the Dunnigan house. Ben took his usual place at the head of the table; his wife, Greta, sat directly across. His daughter, Elle, sat to his left, and his son, Sonny, sat directly across from Elle. Elle loved her big brother and sometimes didn’t like him. Her birthday was approaching. Sonny promised her he’d buy the doll and clothing set she really wanted, the one her parents said they couldn’t buy because it was too expensive.
Without waiver, dinner was every evening at 5:30 p.m in the Dunnigan house. It was during those meals that they laughed, sometimes argued, but it was truthful, real. On this particular afternoon Ben was absorbing the experience, and it shaped a prideful smile on his face. “How was your day sweetheart?” he asked Mrs. Dunnigan as he bit into a hunk of meatloaf at the end of his fork.
“Actually not all that bad,” she eagerly said. “In fact I went to—”
“God, even for leftovers, this meatloaf is great hon,” Ben interrupted with his mouth full. He speared a chunk with his fork and added to the load already in his mouth. “You have the knack for making good food,” he said, out of the side of his mouthful of meatloaf.
Mrs. Dunnigan — Greta — almost missed the Dunnigan dinner deadline. She really wanted to tell Ben she was at the local library attending a presentation given by the author of one of her favorite book series about subject matter and publishing dos and don’ts. Reading was always a passion for Greta, and recently she’d been interested in writing; that is, when — and if — she could find the time. For now she chose to keep the conversation safe, as always.
Strangely, Ben felt he was becoming more in tune to Greta recently and he began to wonder if he was there for her, and this thought bothered him, but he chose not to dwell on it too much.
A large gilded frame holding the genealogical chart of the Dunnigan family occupied most of the dining room wall. The Dunnigan family crest marked the center of the chart. Its motto: Semper Veritas ‘Truth Always,’ was depicted by a cross of swords over a crowned heart.
Elle drank from her glass of milk. She abruptly slammed it down and some of the milk splashed onto the table. “Someone’s going to get into trouble at school,” she said.
Ben stopped chewing. “Who?” he asked.
“No one knows yet. Someone’s bullying someone at school, stealing his lunch and leaving nasty notes in his locker," Elle said. “But if they catch him he’s gonna be in big trouble.”
“Maybe it’s all just talk sweetheart,” Greta Dunnigan said.
“Yeah,” said Sonny, "I heard about it too, but I think it’s fake.”
“It’s not fake!” Elle said, frowning a little longer at Sonny.
“Well it could be!” Sonny raised his voice. "Why don't you wipe up that milk!"
“Easy you two. I’m sure whatever it is they’ll figure it out,” Ben said.
After dinner everyone pitched in with cleaning up. Greta, Elle, and Sonny were finishing loading the dishwasher and tidying up the kitchen. Ben had taken out the garbage and just entered the back door. “Beautiful afternoon,” he said. “Whaddya say we play some catch Sonny? Go grab the ball and gloves."
“He’s not done helping me wipe down the table, Dad,” Elle said.
“That’s fine, sweetheart,” Greta said. “You’re almost done anyway. Sonny can go.”
Sonny tapped Elle on her shoulder. “I still say the trouble at school is all a bunch of fake,” he said.
Elle frowned at Sonny and stuck out her tongue at him.
“Elle, please don’t do that,” Greta said. “Sonny, go ahead with your father .”
Sonny ran down the stairs to pull out the gloves and baseball from his old toybox. When he attempted to lift the lid his fingers slipped; the lid was stuck. "Shit," he whispered to himself. He tried again with all his might, lifting until his face reddened with anger. The lid opened, but not enough for Sonny to reach the ball and gloves. Sonny lay on his back and used the heals of his sneakers to do the rest of the job. It worked, but only after breaking one of the hinges. He reached in and smiled as he grabbed the ball and gloves. "Piece of crap," he said, casting a final glance at the toybox before running back upstairs.
There was still enough daylight to get in a good hour of catch. Beneath the canopy of the great elm that stood in the front yard, Ben grew pensive. He considered how important it was that he made his own father, a minister, proud — the man he’d listened to and practiced the things he learned from. And he knew in doing so he could achieve the level of success realized by his father. He recalled the nights — lots of them — when his father was away for weeks on mission trips, how his mother would remind him of the sacrifice his dad made to be away, every day, every hour, eternities for him. And these thoughts led Ben to remember how when his father was home he’d be in his office, door closed; those were the times Ben tried to interrupt his father only to be reprimanded by his mother telling him ‘not to interrupt your father while he was making a living to support the household.’ Ben believed there wasn’t a man that stood taller, more erect in the church pulpit than his own father, the man who shaped Ben’s life. ‘Funny,' he suddenly thought — how many times I had my ball and glove and prayed my dad would stop and play as he climbed into his car and drove off to prepare his Sunday sermon.'
Ben’s father died shortly before Sonny was born. There was a phone call while on business in Soho. It was Ben’s mother. She told Ben his father had suffered a massive stroke. His mother was strong and held herself together. Oddly that thought reminded Ben of Greta and how she so reminded him of his mother, and for that reason he felt he’d chosen and married well.
It was a swift death. His greatest fear had come true. Ben caught the first plane out. And now he knew that in the natural order of life, he was next. And this truth prompted him to prepare himself to be exactly the kind of inspiration to his children that his own father was to him.
Ben threw the ball high. “Pop up!” Ben alerted Sonny, who ran fast as he could then turned at just the right moment to look up and make the catch.
Sonny then reached back, wound up and threw a high ball. Ben strained to reach, but missed, the ball bounced down the driveway, nearly run over by a car that had just parked in front of the house and finally resting on a sewer grille near the car. The driver stopped the engine and opened the door before Ben could say anything. He noticed the ball on the sewer, picked it up and threw it to Sonny.
“What can I do for you?” Ben said to the man.
Slightly overweight, middle-aged with thinning, greying hair, the man ignored the question and instead leaned into the car to say something to someone inside. Seconds later a boy opened the door to join the man. At the sight of the boy Sonny's eyes widened; he ran to his father’s side. The man turned and made eye contact with Ben and cleared his throat. Neither extended a hand. “I believe you can,” the man said. “My son here says that your boy is giving him a hard time at school,” he said. “Hiding his lunch, saying things about him. He says it's been going on for maybe weeks and I figured instead of creating a situation at school I’d come over and maybe we could fix it, you know face to face. Equitably.”
Ben smiled then looked over at Sonny. “This true, what the man here says?”
“No Dad,” Sonny said.
“Yeah it is,” the boy said. “He’s lying, mister.”
Ben looked at the boy, then at the boy’s father. “I trust my son,” he said.
“I’m confused at how your son won’t own up to his actions,” the man said. “There are witnesses. Like I said I’m here to settle the matter out of the school, no trouble, no write ups. Equitably.”
Ben smiled. “You don’t seem to understand. There’s nothing to settle. You heard my boy. He’s telling the truth.”
“What makes you so sure?’ the man asked.
The man’s son pointed at Sonny. “But he’s been punching me,” he said. “In the back of my head at recess everyday. He calls me retard. Everybody sees. They know.”
“He’s lying, dad,” Sonny said. “He’s a lying devil.”
“Look,” the boy’s father said. “I only want to make sure your son stops what he’s been doing, that’s all.”
“But he’s not doing anything,” Ben said. That feeling was there again, the thought that he wasn’t really thinking clear, perhaps insensitively and not fully understanding the needs of others, like Greta. Even though he felt pity for the boy’s father, Ben’s thoughts stayed fixed on the conviction that truth was synonymous with his family name.
The man shook his head in disbelief. “I don’t know what your kid is doing, or how he can hoodwink you like that, but —“
“You need to leave,” Ben interrupted.
“I came here to settle things like human beings.”
“And there’s nothing more to talk about,” Ben said.
The man looked at his own son. “I believe you,” he told him. “He won’t hurt you again. We’ll just call the police next time. The way we should have handled it in the first place.”
Ben processed those words slowly. “Leave now or I’ll call them,” he said.
“Why don’t you just tell your dad the truth?” the boy said to Sonny.
“I did,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.
The man placed his hand on his son’s shoulder and guided him back to the car. “Have it your way,” he said to Ben. “I tried. Please talk to your son. Please.”
Ben just stood there. Afternoon was changing to twilight. They both silently watched as the car backed out of the drive and drove off.
“Catch?” Ben asked Sonny.
“I’m kind of tired Dad.”
“I get it. I have work to do anyhow. We’ll play later.” He looked at Sonny. “Don’t sweat it,” he said. Sonny half smiled. They went into the house.
Elle sat near the window playing with her Barbie dolls. A single ray of sun lit up her play area.
Ben went up the stairs to his office to work. Greta was already there. She stood in front of Ben’s desk, facing him. “Elle and I heard and saw all of that.” she said. “The window was wide open.”
Ben’s face was expressionless. “What was I supposed to do, not defend my own son?”
“You were supposed to do the right thing Ben. The right thing.”
“And that is?”
“Oh please Ben you know better — taking some time to get to the truth.”
“Greta Sonny's not a — "
"Liar?" she said. "And yes it's my turn to interrupt and finish your sentence," she said. "And if you don't think Sonny is having a really tough time at home when you're not here then you're — we're all — in denial. Can't you see it? He's forced into the man-of-the-house complex two weeks out of the month while you're away, and my God he's not the same with Elle." She labored to hold her tears. "You, you and your idea of what this — our family — is supposed to be and it's nonsense, it's goddam fiction! It's not real Ben, it's not! Do you even know where I was earlier today? I know you don't because you're in your own selfish goddam Dunnigan world, and one I'm ready to leave."
Ben looked Greta in the eyes; they told a story. He stared out the window and saw the baseball in the middle of the lawn. Those uneasy feelings were there again and he fought to face them, especially for Greta. He breathed in deeply then exhaled and pulled Greta close and realized the time had come to face change, only he wasn't sure how to manage it all.
Back downstairs Elle stared at Sonny for a second. “You’re the one they’re talking about at school,” she said.
Sonny became furious. “So help me God if you bring this up to Mom or Dad you might as well say good bye to your birthday gift.”
Elle frowned then went back to her Barbies.
Suddenly Sonny jumped at the sound of the telephone ringing.