by Mark Brazaitis
My marriage was a mistake. She was a nice girl, and she thought I was a nice boy. After a year and eight months, we decided to end things. No harm—well, some harm (I was unfaithful sixty-two days after our wedding and remained so)—no foul.
I was twenty-six-years-old and a bachelor again. Free. Or so I thought. What I didn’t count on was my ex-wife, three months after our divorce, telling me she was pregnant. Toward the end of our marriage, we’d made a certain mournful—and, as it happened, inadequately protected—love.
Beth, my ex-wife, sensibly wanted me to have nothing to do with our child. Conveniently, I agreed. I was dating two women at the time and was eyeing a third. I had a full-time job as a lifestyles columnist for our local paper, the Sherman Advocate and Post, with syndication in newspapers and Web sites across the Midwest. I played the horses. I played the market. I played the field. I was busy.
Three years after our divorce, my ex-wife died in a car crash. I felt terrible for our son. He had lost the one person who would forgive him everything and love him unconditionally even if he became his father to the fifth power. He would have to grow up under the care of his maternal grandparents, who, in my presence, anyway, had never cracked a smile. (Doubtless I contributed to their lack of amusement.) But unbeknownst to me, not one but both of my ex-wife’s parents had been diagnosed with cancer, his throat, hers lung. Or vice versa. The upshot: They couldn’t take care of Sammy.
My ex-wife had the misfortune (my misfortune, anyway) to be an only child and therefore had no sibling who could sweep in and whisk off Sammy to a happy life. My parents would be no help. After their divorce, which occurred when I was old enough to remember them married but not old enough to remember them happy, they’d both remarried—to partners who believed they should be the center of their spouses’ solar systems. No other planets were permitted in telescope range. I might as well have grown up light years beyond Pluto. Bottom line: Sammy’s other grandparents couldn’t rescue him.
I did, however, have a brother. He had four children, including, as I learned, a one-month-old with Down Syndrome. He lived in Seattle, and I hadn’t talked to him in six months. Or a year. Or more. Over the phone, he didn’t recognize my voice, and we had an awkward exchange in which we pretended to know each other better than we did. After our five-minute re-acquaintance, I said, “I have a favor, Danny.”
“It’s Dan now. It’s been Dan since I was eighteen.”
I plunged ahead: “It’s a big favor, Dan, but I know how much you love children.”
“If I didn’t love children, God wouldn’t allow me to make them.”
“Right,” I said. “I’m wondering if you’d like one more. Mine. Sammy is his name, but you can call him Sam. See—it rhymes with Dan.”
“No, it doesn’t,” Dan said, but he listened, he asked questions, he seemed interested. I breathed seventeen sighs of relief. I’d been having nightmare visions of nestling on my couch with the woman whose generous smile and even more generous backside had recently drawn my aesthetic interest only to be interrupted by Sammy’s pleas for milk or orange juice or a more vigorous solution to ending global warming—whatever two-and-a-half-year-olds demand.
“I’ll ask Jo,” Dan said.
“Your son has veto power, huh?” I said.
“Joanne is my wife.”
“I knew that,” I said.
Dan relayed Jo’s answer the next day: No.
“May I talk to her?” I asked my brother.
“About her decision.”
Dan put Jo on. She sounded like she weighed 400 pounds and brushed her teeth with a spatula. I had never before been cowed over the telephone. By the end of our chat, I was huddled in a corner of my kitchen as if awaiting an aerial bombardment.
Jo’s last words to me: “He’s your kid. Step up, mister. Take responsibility.”
I had only one option left: my best friend, Ted.
“Jesus Christ, Ben, are you serious?” Ted said upon hearing my request. “I’m unemployed, and I haven’t been sober in a decade.”
“But you have an extra bedroom.”
“Yeah, but I think rats might be living in it.”
“So the kid will have a few pets.”
“Let me call you back.”
He never did.
I had no choice. I had a son. Welcome to my world, Sammy.
What did I offer him? Babysitters. A succession of them. Like Popes. In order, we had:
Linda, age forty-eight. She claimed to be the mother of two but didn’t know how to change a diaper. I didn’t know how to change a diaper either. But I knew ignorance when I saw it. Or smelled it.
Reason for departure: Fired for incompetence.
Linda II, age twenty. A sophomore religious studies major at Ohio Eastern University, she tried to introduce Sammy to Buddhism. I tried to introduce her to my bedroom.
Reason for departure: She didn’t see the light. She also threatened to have her boyfriend separate me from my teeth.
Rhonda, age thirty-three. A chain-smoker who claimed to have quit. I knew she hadn’t when Sammy and I were at Food World and he asked if I would buy him a pack of Pall Malls.
Reason for departure: Fired for corruption of youth.
Felix, age twenty-two. A senior in aerospace engineering at Ohio Eastern, he was, honest to God and Einstein, building a time machine in his backyard. Occasionally, he allowed Sammy to sit in it. When Sammy started speaking to me in a language that sounded suspiciously like Latin, I had to wonder what century he’d visited.
Reason for departure: Fired for using children in scientific experiments.
Bambi, age twenty-four. A nighttime employee of the Above and Beyond Gentlemen’s Club, she liked to entertain Sammy by pretending to be a firefighter swirling down a pole. She even infused her performances with siren sounds. Sammy never seemed impressed. I, on the other hand, found it so fiery I had to douse myself with cold showers.
Reason for departure: Contract dispute. She wanted $50 an hour. For that price, I wanted additional services. No deal.
Stability presented itself in the form of Mary Draper, a sixty-three-year-old retired nun who occasionally brought Sammy to visit the Sherman Fire Station but, as far as I knew, performed no pole dances. By this point, I was unattached, my two girlfriends and my one would-be girlfriend having found lovers who didn’t have to interrupt matters steamy and sweet to coordinate a circus-worthy assortment of babysitters. Because of my overwhelming loneliness and an unprecedented string of celibate nights, as well as, I’ll admit, a thing for nuns, I made a move on Mary one night, after she had tucked Sammy into bed. She mistook my overture for an epileptic seizure and stuck a spoon in my mouth. “It will be over in a minute,” she soothed. And it was.
When Mary wasn’t with us, I practiced a form of child rearing I liked to think of as benign neglect. Like kings and queens of yore, I strode purposefully about my life, ignoring, as much as I could, my young heir. This worked up until a point, the point being when Sammy screamed. He screamed over the littlest things. If he was hungry, he screamed. If he had a dirty diaper, he screamed. If his foot was caught in the bars of his crib, he screamed. He was the worst kind of egoist. He couldn’t see beyond his selfish desire for food, drink, and unsoiled clothing.
One afternoon, desperate for a few moments to myself, I tried to teach Sammy yoga. To my delight, he performed downward dogs like the most expert German shepherd. As he sailed toward a transcendent union of mind and body, I slipped off to make a phone call. Driving home the previous afternoon, I’d spotted a For Sale sign in the window of a 1999 Oasis. The minivan didn’t interest me; the woman driving it did. On the phone, I faked interest in the former as I luxuriated in the purr of the latter’s voice. As we made an appointment to meet the following morning, Sammy’s journey to nirvana came to a howling end.
“Are you calling from a zoo?” the woman asked.
“The monkey house,” I said.
“He sounds sweet.”
The next morning, a Sunday, Sammy and I walked to Jennifer’s house, located on the other side of the South Side Cemetery from us. Sammy thought the graveyard was one big playground, and as we traversed it, he dashed from tombstone to tombstone. I was sure his delighted laughter was something the place had never heard.
I, on the other hand, found myself spooked by our walk. I had turned thirty the week before, and while I had written a lighthearted column to mark the occasion, I felt I had entered a world where a graveyard was no longer an abstraction. As Sammy ducked behind another headstone, I scanned the landscape for available plots. My eyes settled on the bare ground beneath an apple tree.
Jennifer’s house was hard against the cemetery. It was redbrick and tiny, with ceilings a few inches taller than I was. Jennifer wasn’t a munchkin. But if she was taller than five feet, it was by a fraction of an inch. She had straight, corncob-yellow hair to her shoulders and eyes I initially would have called violet but, upon closer inspection, found to be a kaleidoscope of green, brown, blue, and black. She wore a blouse and blue jeans but no shoes or socks. She greeted me with a smile whose politeness, disappointingly, contained no insinuation of anything more. On Sammy, however, she bestowed a big hug, which he returned with enthusiasm.
She served me coffee in her kitchen, and we talked about her car, the weather, our jobs. With kind foresight, she had bought coloring books and a collection of markers for Sammy. For most of our conversation, he sat cross-legged on the floor beside her chair, slashing crayons across pages. As my coffee grew cold, he brought one of the books up to Jennifer. “Beautiful,” she said to every page he flipped. A minute later, he scooted onto her lap. “Sammy, we don’t do this with strangers,” I chided.
“We’re friends now,” Jennifer replied.
“Maybe we should have a look at the car,” I said.
“It’s in the driveway,” she said. She pulled a car key from her pocket. “Please have a test drive.”
“I thought the three of us would go,” I said, although this had never been my intention. I’d had a delectable vision of me and Jennifer stealing off by ourselves while Sammy remained behind with whomever might be around: one of Jennifer’s neighbors or roommates or ex-boyfriends.
“Did you bring Sammy’s car seat?” Jennifer asked.
I looked around, as if I might have forgotten where I’d left it.
“I’ll look after him,” she said. “No problem.”
“I can’t impose,” I said. “We’ll come back another day.”
“No time like the present,” Jennifer said.
Sammy, who had been playing with the beads on Jennifer’s necklace, turned slowly toward me. “Go, Daddy. Go!”
I did. The Oasis’s smell was familiar, and even before I turned the key, I remembered why. It was what my ex-wife had smelled like: strawberries and apricots and, lest a vegetable be left off the menu, broccoli. I slipped into reveries of our early days. Beth loved me and I loved her. But she also loved her friend Becca and her friend Samantha. She loved all our neighbors and all the people on the street immediately above and immediately below ours. (For some reason, she didn’t care for the people on the streets perpendicular to ours.) She loved talking to whatever stranger was willing to have a conversation. Love was a pie, and I was eating crumbs.
As I drove, I must have been caught up in memories because by the time I thought to consider where I was, I didn’t know where I was. Sherman isn’t a difficult town to navigate, especially for someone who has lived in it his entire life, but by the time I found my way back to Jennifer’s house, evening had come and Jennifer was feeding Sammy dinner.
I told Jennifer what had happened, apologized for being gone so long, and said I would think seriously about buying her car. “Time to go, Sammy,” I said, but he refused. “He’s still hungry,” she said.
Half an hour later, I at last pried him off his chair. As we headed out the door, I took a last look back at Jennifer. But her eyes never engaged mine. They were fixed on Sammy. “Come back any time,” she said.
Every morning thereafter, after Sammy woke up, he said, “Will I see Jennifer today?” Every night before sleep, he said, “Will I see Jennifer tomorrow?”
Eventually, I asked Jennifer if she wouldn’t mind having a “play date” with him. I offered to pay her, but she refused. “Bring him over whenever he wants.” So I did. And when Mary moved to Florida, I did so often. Jennifer worked from home and evidently had no problem doing so when Sammy was with her.
Because of Sammy, I saw Jennifer frequently. But rather than deploy on her my repertoire of seductive stories and foolproof flatteries, I spoke to her in succinct clichés. My interest in a romantic relationship with her had faded.
In pursuit of soul-reviving romance, I decided to write a column on the Sherman Beauty School, housed in a two-story, yellow brick building downtown. The school employed four instructors and was educating a dozen students I would have been happy to kiss. I asked to coffee everyone from the dean of students, a forty-nine-year-old named Barbara whose hair was styled like a lion’s mane, to a first-year student named Natalie, whose shortcomings with scissors suggested a career as a shampoo girl. I heard excuses about husbands and boyfriends and girlfriends. It was Natalie, however, who spoke most bluntly: “You seem like you lost something and you expect one of us to find it. But we’re all busy looking for our own lost stuff.” She sighed. “Last month, I lost my bottle of Prozac, my best shoes, and my diaphragm. No wonder I’m depressed, barefoot, and pregnant.”
One Saturday, as I napped in front of a baseball game on TV, I lost Sammy. Or, rather, Sammy lost me. When I woke up, the game was tied 2-2 in the ninth inning. I watched until the home team’s cleanup hitter knocked a pitch into the right-field seats.
Sometime later, I realized Sammy wasn’t home. Gazing down our street, I saw the edge of the cemetery with its overgrown grass and crooked headstones. It dawned on me where he was. Furious, I sprinted to Jennifer’s house and smashed my fist against her front door. When she opened it, I said, “How dare you lure my son here.”
She held up her hand, perhaps to block the spit flying from my lips. “I’m not a siren,” she said.
“You could have called me to let me know he was here.”
“I did call. Three times.”
“My phone must be broken,” I said, my voice trailing off the way it did when I was lying.
“Well, come on in,” she said, bestowing on me a forgiving smile. I wasn’t sure why I didn’t find it appealing.
“I don’t know how he found his way over here,” I said. “He’s barely out of diapers.”
“He’s been out of diapers for six years,” she said, laughing at what she must have assumed was my joke.
It couldn’t have been this long, I thought. But when Sammy appeared before me, as tall as my chest, I had to account for the years I’d condensed in memory to days.
“I built him a little rec room in the basement,” Jennifer said. “And the graveyard’s a great place to play catch. He can throw a baseball all the way from Peter Plum’s headstone to the apple tree.”
“Peter Plum?” I said. “Jesus. I went to high school with him.”
Death reminded me of what I would be missing when I was dead. There was a phone call I wanted to make. I’d met a waitress as I researched a column on the best new restaurants in town and, blessed day, she’d slipped me her number.
I asked Jennifer if Sammy could stay a little longer at her place.
“Of course,” I heard her say as I rushed across the graveyard. “He can stay as long as he wants.”
I wooed and won the waitress. Her name was Alexandra, she had red hair, and she smelled like a five-star restaurant even if she worked in a diner. I proposed marriage to her after what was otherwise an unmemorable lunch (my BLT was soaked in mayo; my fries were soft and cool) by leaving her a diamond ring as a tip.
Alexandra was a smart, decent, and attractive person. Or at least the final adjective in that list. She could have been a mass murderer, serving poisonous coffee to all the diner’s other patrons, and I would have loved her all the same. Why? Because when she served me, I felt I was the only customer who mattered.
I needed Alexandra’s devotion because I had lately developed a fear of creeping middle age and the devastating sucker punches it was throwing at my body. Staring in the mirror one morning, I was shocked to see that portions of my hair had turned white. I looked like a thirty-nine-year-old skunk.
Alexandra liked Sammy. She tolerated him, anyway, although she doubtless would have preferred for the two of us to be alone—which, in fact, we often were, thanks to Jennifer. If Jennifer wasn’t hosting Sammy at her house, she was shuttling him to baseball practice and art camp and birthday parties. In effect, Sammy had two homes, with a graveyard between them. Occasionally I mulled the metaphor, wondering if Jennifer was more than a surrogate for my dead ex-wife—if she might be her outright ghost.
Every time I wondered about Jennifer’s romantic life, my curiosity was satiated by chance encounters with her around town. Once I saw her holding hands across a table at the Firelight Restaurant with a bald man in a three-piece suit. On another occasion, I saw her on Main Street walking arm-in-arm with Natalie, the shampoo girl from the Sherman Beauty School. In one three-day stretch, I saw her in intimate conversation with three different people. Lovers or friends? It was hard to tell. She always wore the same contented smile.
Predictably, Alexandra and I found our marriage foundering over the question of children. She wanted them; I didn’t.
“I have a son,” I reminded her.
“A son you never see,” she replied. “You ought to write a book: Fantasy Fatherhood.”
“I see him plenty,” I said, although, in fact, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d spent more than a few minutes with him. He was in high school now, and when he wasn’t off with his friends or at a school activity, he was at Jennifer’s.
I said, “I thought you wanted to open your own restaurant.” This had been a longtime dream of hers. If it had lately been buried under her desire to bear a child, it resurfaced easily. I helped her work on a small-business-loan application, and three months later, we celebrated the opening of Alexandra the Great (the name was my idea).
Within three months, it was one of the most popular restaurants in town. She’d hired a Greek chef, the instructor of a cooking seminar she’d aced in Columbus the year before. She’d managed to lure him to Sherman for what couldn’t have been close to his usual salary. But, as became clear, he had a more enticing reason to come to town. One Saturday afternoon, she told me she was leaving me. She was pregnant with the chef’s baby.
I’d never been much of a drinker, but by the time the gray afternoon had become a gray evening, I found myself deep into my second bottle of cabernet sauvignon, which I augmented with vodka, whiskey, and rum. With each sip—or gulp—of alcohol, I cursed. The object of my wrath wasn’t Alexandra but Jennifer. If Jennifer hadn’t stolen my son from me, I reasoned, I wouldn’t be six-feet deep in a hellhole of loneliness and despair. Sammy would be with me, consoling me, cheering me up. We’d play catch in the graveyard. We’d do…whatever else we were supposed to do.
Wearing only a black T-shirt and jeans, I burst outside. There was a cool drizzle, but I didn’t return to the house for a raincoat or umbrella. Instead, I marched or stumbled or plodded down the street and into the cemetery. I intended to reclaim my son. I was owed the comfort of his company.
I was either drunker than I thought or evening had given way to night because I found I was lost. The tombstones were indistinguishable from the skyline until I was upon them. I dodged them as in a video game.
The rain picked up. I stopped and looked around. The only landmark I recognized was the apple tree. I headed toward it with relief. Perhaps my eagerness to reach the tree caused me to miss what was underfoot. By the time my right foot stepped into nothingness, it was too late to stop or reverse course. I plunged into an open grave.
I hit bottom, slid, and fell on my back, the mud cold around me. I was sure I’d sprained an ankle and fractured a knee. I shouted for help but the rain was so fierce it felt like I was speaking underwater. Minutes passed before a familiar face appeared at the top of the grave.
“Funny.” I was in no mood to joke. “I’ve come for Sammy.”
She didn’t say anything, and I interpreted her gaze as a reproach. I needed a gentler approach. “Maybe you and I should go out sometime,” I said.
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m not sure why we never dated.”
“Of course you are.” She said nothing more.
“No,” I said, “I’m not.”
“Because you’re actually the ghost of my ex-wife? Because you’re a lesbian? Because…” I didn’t want to say it, but it left my mouth anyway: “Because you would always love Sammy more than you would ever love me?”
In the rain, I could no longer see her face (I suspected she had begun to walk back home), but I heard her say, as if over her shoulder, “He left for college last week.”
“He’s only a sophomore in high school,” I shouted.
“Tell that his professors at Dartmouth.”
I hurled more words her way, but they didn’t bring her back. I struggled to stand but couldn’t move. As if to see to my burial, apples began to rain on my body. It wouldn’t be long before I was trapped beneath them.
Even so, I decided my predicament wasn’t hopeless. If I needed Jennifer, Jennifer needed me. Sammy was gone, after all. Who would she love now? Every mother needs a child. Why couldn’t this be a crib instead of a grave? The rain, loud and fierce as it was, was nothing compared with my tears: I cried like a baby.
Mark Brazaitis is the author of seven books, including The River of Lost Voices: Stories from Guatemala, winner of the 1998 Iowa Short Fiction Award, The Incurables: Stories, winner of the 2012 Richard Sullivan Prize and the 2013 Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award in Prose, and Julia & Rodrigo, winner of the 2012 Gival Press Novel Award. His latest book, Truth Poker: Stories, won the 2014 Autumn House Press Fiction Competition. He wrote the script for the award-winning Peace Corps film How Far Are You Willing to Go to Make a Difference?