Sometimes a man’s just glad for a TV and a capable bartender. Tonight, the barman’s got a clairvoyant sense he ought to keep our mugs full and his mouth shut. To keep it this way I’m paying him five for each three-fifty beer. My son Kevin’s letting me pay, not even bothering anymore with the effort of reaching for his wallet. For once we can forgo our usual duel, where the man with faster reflexes plays generous provider. Monday Night Football is on: Raiders at Pittsburgh. Kevin’s playing at watching the game, though my Raiders are shit this year. “Tough hit,” he says, or “come on,” always a few seconds after the play.
“Is that snow?” I ask about the white stuff starting to dust the field and the shoulders of guys on the bench. It’s something to say.
“Looks like,” says Kevin.
“January in Pittsburgh, no thanks.”
I can hear fragments of the game over the jukebox. Looks like Yancey wants a PI call on Webber, but nobody’s throwing a flag. The bartender slides a new mug into my grip. I make a note of his name – Aaron – and think there ought to be a course in bartending school called How to Be More Like Aaron. The beer is cold and malty.
I spy on Kevin to see how he’s holding up. He’s smoothing the fringe of his damp cocktail napkin, staring up at the TV. It’s been two days since he admitted his wife had packed up and taken their twin daughters to Chicago. We were in this bar when he told me. I don’t know how long he carried it around inside before he finally let me hear it.
Kevin has always resembled his mother. He has her broad mouth and bright eyes, her small nose. I’ve wondered, sometimes, what he might have looked like had I married someone else instead. Elisabeth, for instance, the girl I was supposed to be on a date with when I met his mother, Angie.
This was thirty-three years ago. I got set up with Elisabeth by Tommy Howard, who had a thing for Angie. His plan was that the four of us would hit the lanes and the diner, share a basket of fries and a pitcher of beer, and pair off neatly around midnight. Elisabeth was tall and thin, with a way of biting her lower lip when she was concentrating. I can’t say why it happened that I fell for Angie instead. Maybe it was only for the chance to pull the rug out from under Tommy. I targeted Angie with jokes, sharing asides and liking the way Tom’s cheeks were burning. “Be a pal,” he kept saying, ring-a-ding-ding.
The funny thing is, Tommy ended up with Elisabeth; they run an art gallery inSanta Fe. Parquet floors and bare-brick walls and a pottery wheel in back for Elisabeth. She writes Christmas letters about the gallery, the town, the kids. She says “we” instead of “I.”
And I ended up with Angie. She was a chemical reaction in those days, always sparking and giving off heat. She used to wear clothes that made music: skirts with little bells on the ends of a drawstring, shoes that slip-slapped against her heels. When, after B-School, I got a real suit-and-tie job, she stopped wearing her filmy, gypsy clothes, except for one blousy shirt with embroidery that she would wear with jeans. She let her hair hang down her back in thick curls, even though the other wives mostly had sleek little bobs. “I’m low-maintenance,” she would tell me. “Wash and wear Angie, that’s me.”
She went back to the loose-fitting skirts and thick sandals when she got pregnant. I remember, she took a class in silversmithing, which seemed okay since we lived in Boston– some sort of Paul Revere thing – and she made me a ring that I wear on my pinky. I never thought of myself as a pinky-ring kind of guy, but that’s the finger it fits on. To tell the truth, I think maybe Angie made it the wrong size. But she liked taking the class, said it kept her mind occupied while she was waiting for the baby.
I wear Angie’s ring on my right hand so it doesn’t knock against my wedding ring. When I lift my glass, the silver makes a satisfying clank against the freshly full pint.
If the baby had lived, she would’ve been Kevin’s older sister. He would be a different man if he’d grown up with her. I imagine she would’ve looked out for him, kept him from rushing into marriage with the first girl who let him possess her. Maybe taught him how to dress in high school. The importance of clothes and hairstyles had snuck up on him; she would’ve made sure he wasn’t ambushed. Set him up with a college friend of hers so he’d have a date for his junior prom.
But, as it turns out, Kevin is an only child. I didn’t know what to say to Angie, how to help her heal; I was hurting a fair bit myself. I parroted back what people told me: “It’s for the best,” “It’s God’s will,” “It wasn’t the right time.” The lines were supposed to soothe us, but the grimaces of the people talking seemed to apologize for the failure of the words even as they spoke. We sat around wondering, eating take-out food because it was comprehensible. Pizza boxes piled up in the kitchen.
We got drunk one night on margaritas in our neighbor Ed’s backyard. Staggering home, pulling our clothes off, messily kissing, fumbling in the dark. No time for the diaphragm or wondering whether we were ready. Then, thirty-eight weeks later, Kevin.
“Think they’ll go for two, then, Dad?”
“Stewart hasn’t completed a pass all night. I guess they might try to run it in.”
“It’s that guy Webber,” Kevin says. “He’s all over the receivers.”
Webber, a hotshot who hasn’t delivered all season, knows the Monday Night spotlight is on. This is my team, and I ought to be pleased, but it feels cheap and artificial. I swing my beer toward the screen. “Looks like they’re going for it.”
Kevin put back something Angie and I had forgotten. I didn’t even know we’d lost it, until we were standing at the hospital nursery, peering through a lemon-scented window at our son. He was wrapped in a standard-issue blue blanket, pink and squinty. Ah, there it is, I thought, as if I had found my wallet on the floor without having felt it drop from my pocket.
On weekdays, the two of them came downtown and we had picnic lunches on the Common. I slung my tie over my shoulder and played patty-cake with Kevin. He held out fallen leaves to me, in offering. Crisp, rust-colored leaves that he held by the stems so they wouldn’t crumble in his small hands. Look, Daddy, he seemed to be saying: autumn.
Steelers, down nine with two minutes to go. They’ve got to be hoping for a miracle. I reach for my drink and find it fuller than I’d expected.
Kevin says, “I wonder if it’s snowing in Chicago.”
“Maybe I should call.”
He doesn’t move from his barstool. I half-turn from the TV to give him a once-over. His mouth hangs slightly open, as if he’s about to speak.
Angie and Kevin were so close; they seemed to understand each other in some telepathic way. She cradled him in her arms as she kissed me goodbye in the mornings. And he exhausted her. By the time I got home in the evenings, she was completely worn out. He had sucked her dry, cracked, sore, so that I didn’t dare touch her. He wore creases into her beautiful forehead. When I talked about maybe taking some time off and traveling, like we’d always planned, she said continuity was important. I had daydreams aboutSanta Fe, parquet floors and potter’s wheels.
After a handful of nuts from the small bowl Aaron has placed on the bar, I enjoy a long drink of beer. There’s a kid in a baseball cap at the juke, pouring in quarters. I hope he’s not the same guy who designed the soundtrack for the last half hour. At a commercial, I take a quick break in the men’s room.
I don’t pretend to know what happened between Kevin and Melanie. Their marriage is their business, and I can’t think of any good that came from people sticking their noses in ours. Angie said last night she thinks they’ll work it out. I don’t know whether Melanie moving to Chicago is going to help that any.
A sideline reporter is congratulating Webber, the cornerback who broke up the Steelers’ passes. “How is it,” the reporter asks, “that you seemed to be part of every play tonight?”
Webber is strangely childlike without his helmet, his head emerging from his pads as if he stands inside a larger man, like one of those Russian dolls. Only silver and black. “I read somewhere,” he says, “that water covers seventy percent of the earth.” He makes a little shrug. “I cover the rest.”
You’ve got to hand it to him. Nonchalant, like every single game is like this, like he’s never been juked by a second string receiver who pranced right into the endzone.
The reporter nods and thanks him for his time.
“That’s assy,” Kevin says.
“Big balls,” I agree.
“I like it.”
Aaron refills our bowl of peanuts.
Kevin eases off his stool. “I think I will give Mel a call,” he says.
A guy at the end of the bar looks as if he’s had the hardest day of his life. His suitcoat is rumpled; his shirt has a large blue ink stain that approximates the effect of a bullet to the left ventricle. He downs two fingers of scotch. After he’s done, he keeps his hand wrapped around the glass like it’ll keep the juice coursing through him a bit longer.
He catches me taking him in and nods. “Another,” he tells Aaron, and at once the glass is refilled.
As he tips his head I can almost taste the scotch, the way it’s warming the back of his throat and distracting him from whatever injustice has been done to him. A man with a tumbler of drink in his hand is a man with his eye on the ball, a man with a solid line of defense.
“She’s out.” Kevin’s voice pulls me away from the scene.
“So you didn’t talk to her?”
“I talked to the girls. Then the woman she’s staying with came on, and just said, ‘Melanie’s out.’”
“Maybe she went to get them some dinner, or shopping. Maybe she just didn’t want to talk to you.”
Kevin shakes his head. “This friend would’ve said so. Out is different. Out means with a man.”
My beer level is dangerously low. I crane my neck for Aaron, but he’s tending to the sad sack with the ink stain. He’s got an ER nurse’s instinct for triage, for tending to the most desperate cases. I’m slightly relieved that I don’t seem more urgent. But still.
The TV is replaying highlights from the game: here’s Webber breaking up a pass in the end zone. Here he is in slow motion, knocking the ball from another man’s hands.
He points to his watch. “Plus, it’s after eleven there. Out means, with a man.”
“Not necessarily,” I say. “Plus, she’s only been there a week; how could she have met someone already?”
Kevin shrinks back from the bar. His voice is weak. “She knows someone.”
“Be reasonable, Kev.”
“His name is Doug.”
“What?” My mouth is dry with thirst.
“Doug Jackson. He was her boss at work, and they transferred him to Chicago.”
“Doug,” I say.
“We used to play bridge together. Asked the girls to call him Uncle Doug.”
He loses himself in his beer. The jukebox blasts me with angry guitar.
Kevin was eight or nine when I started sleeping with the girl from Goldsmith & Wong. Lucinda was her name. The regret I felt at first grew fainter as the affair went on. And once I finally figured out that what I really wanted was to be at home with my wife and son, and not with a stranger named Lucinda in a cheap motel room that smelled of someone else’s cigarettes, Angie didn’t make it easy for me. I pretty much got down on my knees and begged to be part of her life, and Kevin’s. Suddenly that stale regret was something I could taste in the back of my throat, coming up acidic and sour. “How long has this been going on?”
“I’ve known since September,” Kevin says. “She told me it was over, that she’d made a mistake and so on. Didn’t mean to hurt us – that meant, me and the girls. That it didn’t matter now since Doug was getting sent to the Chicago office.”
“That’s what she said. I was an idiot, Dad.”
“Well, what else do you call it when a man lets his wife slip away through his fingers?”
God damn that Aaron. I’ll be damned if my son’s going to turn into the mess at the end of the bar. Melanie, the mother of my grandchildren: I can’t believe she’d do this to him. “She loves you,” I say.
Kevin is trembling, one of those brittle autumn leaves.
“She never stopped. I’m sure of it.” I guess I’m a bit of an expert on his, having loved Angie all through my Lucinda entanglement, but I don’t share the details of my wisdom with Kevin. “Let me tell you something,” I say. “When you weld two pieces of metal together, the weld is the strongest thing about it. If the part ever breaks, down the line, it’s never the weld that fails. It’s some crack somewhere else you never even noticed.”
“What are you talking about, Dad?”
“This guy,” I say, “he’s the crack. He’s got nothing to do with the bond you and Melanie have.”
“Right. The weld is still good, son. He’s just pulling at the edges.” This line of thinking seemed poetic and vital in my head, but now as it spills out I’m not so sure. I mesh my fingers together, a church with no steeple, to show him.
Kevin stares at the scratches on the bar.
“You ought to go and fight for her,” I tell him.
He looks up, unsure.
“Hell, yes.” But I picture him standing, rumpled and desperate, on the threshold of some woman’s apartment. Pleading with his family. I have to shake the vision out of my head. It’s horrible.
Both of us grab for the fresh mugs that have materialized before us, open our throats to the drink.
“Girls said it’s snowing there.”
“You’ve got that heavy coat.”
On TV, men are in the locker room, splattering each other with champagne. I hadn’t realized this game was that important. How much was at stake. A reporter is talking with them; bare-chested and dripping, the men recount the day’s glories. Again comes the footage of Webber breaking up a pass. There’s a quick cut to the Steelers’ locker room, where the mood is somber, funereal. A player looks down at a microphone as if it has insulted him. Whatever they are saying has been said before, a thousand times. Just trying to do my best for the ball club; Really have a lot of respect for my opponent.
Kevin sways a little; I’m prepared to reach out and keep his bar stool from tottering. I think about Angie, that toughie look she has when she’s somewhere between crying and scratching my eyes out. When I’ve done something stupid like sleep with a girl named Lucinda and tell Angie about it. I wish that Kevin wanted to scratch this Doug’s eyes out. He’s in no shape to go reclaim his family.
“She loves you,” I say, again.
He spins. “Dad, what the fuck are you talking about?” There’s fire in his voice, but none in his eyes, and even his voice’s heat has petered out by the end of the sentence, leaving “about” hanging half-said and tepid.
“Melanie. She loves you.”
This time he takes a drink of beer to make the words pour out. “Dad, Melanie’s in Chicago with her boss, Doug.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“Give her a reason to come back.”
“Why should I have to do that?”
“That’s just how it works,” I say. Otherwise they’re always going to think about goddamSanta Fe. “Goddam Doug.”
“Cheers to that.” Kevin’s voice is hollowed-out, wraith-like.
The football game has been replaced by an old sitcom: WKRP. Venus, Les, and Johnnie are talking with the platinum-haired Jennifer. They’re each a little in love with her. I was always a Bailey man, myself. Sure, Jennifer had her good points, empirically: her blondeness, her breathy just-for-you voice, those sweaters. Rocket-nozzle curves. Bailey, though, was less aware of her power. She was a sneak attack, play-action, more subtle than the sweep-right Jennifer offensive.
I’m realizing I’m going to have to spell things out for Kevin. It’s going to be a long night here, with Aaron. “This is the turkey giveaway one,” I say.
I nod to the screen. “Les,” I say. “Gets this idea for a promotion where they drop turkeys out of the sky.”
“If you catch one, you win.” I’m grinning, but he’s not looking at me.
“You win getting smacked in the head with a thirty-pound turkey that’s been dropped from a great height.”
I nod: that’s it, now you’re getting it. “From a traffic helicopter.”
I sling an arm around my son, prepared to psyche us both up. I remember the way his mother and I did this for each other, even when the diapers were on backwards, or he jumped backwards into the pool and split open his chin.
“I was never a big fan of this show.” Kevin shrugs and gives me a brave smile. His eyes, Angie’s eyes, are hollow. He looks for all the world like a man who has just won a turkey.
About Jenn: Jenn Stroud Rossmann is a professor of mechanical engineering at Lafayette College. Her short stories have appeared most recently on failbetter.com and Pindeldyboz, and in Readymade and The MacGuffin. She throws right, bats left.