Up in the Air

By John J. Clayton

 

 

“Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, I’m up! Daddy, I’m up!”

And Alan yells back, “Yup—up, up. I hear the bedsprings squeaking! Be there in just a minute,” finishes making Joey’s sandwich and stuffs it into insulated bag with fruit, cookie and thermos of juice. Now he hustles into the bedroom, juggling oranges, four of them. “Up, up, up!” He’s no great juggler but it always rouses Joey, who, two hundred percent awake, stands up on his bed and bounces, long skinny six-year-old kid in blue pajamas, long black hair a mess from the night. Up go the oranges, floating. Shrieks!

Is Joey really so happy to face the day?

Last night Joey cried because he couldn’t watch more television. Or because his mother is gone. Does he want to show me that he’s okay now?

Sunny day in April. Four months now since Dani walked out on them.


So what happened is, one morning Alan goes into the kitchen to make coffee and there she is, up early enough to sit with him. Huh? This never occurred in all of history, their eight year history. Joey still sleeping another fifteen minutes. “The thing is,” she says, “I’m leaving you, Alan. This minute. No therapy, no long discussions. You know how I hate that. Omigod.”

She points. He turns his head.

Her three bags are by the door. Her new, expensive, leather luggage.

“It’s not your fault,” she says. “And I,” she shrugs, she sighs, “can’t help it.”

As if the gods have provoked her. Helen and Paris. What’s a poor girl to do?

No fight, no commotion in the recent past. The worst lately, a battle over whether to buy a new fridge—she’d wanted a Sub Zero; he thought she was full of shit. Don’t they have a perfectly good fridge? All vanity. But so what? Is that a big deal?—enough for all of a sudden, bags at the door? He hadn’t even yelled—he maybe scowled. Yes, maybe he was a little judgmental about her basic sanity.

But this wasn’t it.

“Frankly,” she sighs, “I’m deeply in love.” The way she sighs, it’s as if she’s victim, not perpetrator, of this love. “Head over fucking heels,” she says, sighing a big suffering breath.

“Do I know the lucky guy?”

“Oh, now Alan, yes, you do; now, Alan, now don’t get mad.” And she tells him.

It’s his friend, for godsakes!—Art Director at the agency, their family friend, Derek. Derek is married, marriage on the rocks. A handball friend—watch the Yankees or Mets with him, run the reservoir together. Bastard! Not “Derek.” Ought to be Drek! Crap in Yiddish.

What the fuck! He stays cool just to spite her. Like, I’m so together you can’t shake me even by announcing you’re in love and walking out. You’re leaving? Hey. Leave.

He says very quietly, “And Joey?”

“Oh,” she sighs. “Joey. Yes, Joey. As soon as I get things together we’ll work some­thing out. Something fair. I tiptoed in and kissed him. It was very, very sad. You know? But you’re a good father. So for awhile it’s just going to be you, Alan.”

The joke is, she’s been complaining he’s no father at all. Like, she does everything, and that’s besides her work as a copywriter. Yeah, well she has Kerry, their after-school nanny, doesn’t she? And a cleaning woman two after­noons a week. But she meant, criticizing my fathering, that me, Alan, I work twenty-five hours a day eight days a week. Or used to be­fore she split. But didn’t I bust my butt to get home in time to say goodnight to Joey? We played together weekends if I didn’t have to pick up the pieces from work. But hey—if she wanted a social worker or a doctor—say a dermato­logist, someone who worked normal hours—she should have married one instead of me—a guy at the peak of his working life, account executive at a big NYC agency. An all-over-the-world firm, based in Madison Avenue digs. What did she expect?


Well, what did he expect? Here he was, fifteen years older than Dani. At fifty, closer to her mother’s age than to Dani’s. But in love with her, right? And sexually all there, right? And provid­ing and providing.  I remember, he thinks, the way she ran after me, called me all hours, making me feel great to have this young beauty dazzled over me. She, twenty-seven, me, forty-two.

Not that Dani was the first. When he was thirty, he was with an eighteen year old modern dancer. He’s always seen himself—always been seen—as a charmer. Always with a young beauty on his arm. A bull. Big shoulders, craggy good looks—which he used the way birds have their sexual songs and pretty feathers. Attracting young chicks to his bed.

Should’ve known better, he thinks often. But Dani at twenty-seven! My dark-eyed beauty with actual ringlets in her hair. Still, after four months of separation, he keeps thinking, Do I still love the bitch? Am I that nuts?

Derek! Looking back, he sees himself and Derek, the two of them running the reservoir. He, Alan, ten years older than Derek, heavy set, a good athlete but not light and lithe like Derek. They’d begin at 87th on the West side of the park, begin just loping along, talking basketball or company gossip, but by the time they were near the Met they were silent, were, without acknow­ledging it, in a race, and by the time they were back on the West side, they were knocked out, Derek usually fifty yards ahead.

Competitive bastard. Is that what got this great love for my wife started?

Derek (Drek) has taken the position of Creative Director, a step up from Art Director, with a smaller ad agency in San Fran. When Dani left, she went along as copywriter and Significant Other. She must have been part of the deal he cut with the agency. And Alan had to suck it up, had to go talk that week, broken down as he felt, to Rick Schoenfeld, Accounts Manager, talk about cutting back his workload. He’s been handling two big pharmaceu­tical brands and a line of beauty pro­ducts. He took a cut in base salary. He was willing.

Not that he couldn’t have made a deal with the current nanny, Kerry, to stay longer in the afternoons—or found another woman to spell her through dinner. But that’s not right. Joey’s got to have at least one parent. Right? So Schoenfeld said, “Okay, Alan, if that’s how you want to play it. She really dumped a situation on your head, didn’t she. Okay. I think I’ll have to take one account away from you and let’s see how it goes in a few months. A few months. A kind of maternity leave. All right? But by then you get things in place. That’s what I expect. Do we understand each other?”

The sonofabitch made no mistake in saying the M word—maternity, not paternity: a definite slur.

So on nice days he walks with Joey to his school on West End Avenue, drops Joey with a kiss and a lunch bag, takes the Broadway train downtown and walks to Madison. He gets in to work almost the same time he used to get in. But most after­noons he takes off early to be with Joey, often early enough to pick up Joey at school. The other kids get picked up by mothers or by nannies. Once in awhile there’s another father there—Sam Okrent—a writer, makes his own hours.

And here comes Joey, waving. And bang, it’s all worth it. And really, the thing is, suppose she had taken Joey away. He, Alan, would have gone crazy. Ben Hastings, his lawyer and good friend, tells him to send her a lawyer’s letter, charging desertion, tells him to collect evidence, witnesses, that she isn’t here. Document her change of primary address with the Post Office. Otherwise she could change her mind about Joey and lie through her teeth and claim she’d taken a vacation, and the courts might award her custody or joint custody.

But no. It’s not likely to happen. She calls Joey two, three times a week. Alan puts it on speaker. Mommy loves you, loves you SO much . . . . Course I’ll see you soon. It always upsets Alan. He gets mad, holds himself back from kicking something or breaking something or yelling something. He goes deep inside himself. And so does Joey, who seems okay during the day. But sometimes, when Joey should be asleep, Alan can hear him crying to himself.

Joey’s the one doing the suffering. Once a day, more, he asks, “When’s Mommy coming home?” Never, Alan hopes. Fact is, Alan’s mostly happy about the change in his work life, change in his relationship to Joey. Uneasy about money, but he can breathe better. He walks with Joey over to the Diana Ross Playground, Central Park at 8st, or down to Riverside Park. They look at boats, play catch. They turn a play structure into a boat on rough seas. Daddy Captain; Joey First Mate. Mindless? He’s been all mind, playing superficial mind games at work. Now he minds Joey. At bedtime, Alan puts toy boats next to Joey on the sheets, horses and lions in the hills of Joey’s knees, valley between knees. The horses and lions become best friends. The mommy lions feed the babies.

Once a week he takes Joey over to Raquel—Dani’s mother. She’s been divorced, like forever; her ex lives in Boulder and still pays—ah, them ol’ days of alimony—for the privilege of having lived with Raquel a few years. Born and raised as Rachel, she became Raquel as a chanteuse. In her early sixties now, she’s well put together, a jazz singer and pianist who still plays small clubs. Boney, lithe, made up to kill, not the way he remembers mothers of adult children from when he was a kid in Queens. She has a bald boyfriend; you can almost see your reflection in his shining pate. Raquel l o v e s Joey; Alan guesses her love is partly pumped-up to make up for her daughter’s rampaging romance—for what her daughter Dani isn’t giving Joey.

She has a sweet little alimony palace in the East 60’s. Alan and Joey dress up, stop for flowers and a bottle of cold white wine, and take a cab to Raquel’s.

They touch cheeks. Then, making a high-pitched ooooooh sound, she hugs the life out of Joey. Every time, every time they visit these past months, she has to make a big thing out of wanting the two of them, Alan and Dani, back together “where they belong.” “Dearest,” she calls him. A little phony-baloney, this “Dearest” business. It’s hard for Alan to be around her, but he thinks she has a right to keep in touch.

She’s got a mushroom pâté and crackers on the glowing cherry coffee table, and Joey goes at it hearty. Alan remembers his mom making for him chopped chicken liver full of rendered chicken fat. So people died a little sooner but they died with a smile on their face. It’s pâté the way Rachel is Raquel. But still, still, he feels an outpour­ing of affection for the lady. She tries so hard.

The mirrors, of which there are many-many, are framed in filigree of painted gold. Travel posters from the 1920’s askew and overlapping on the walls. The sofa and wing-back chairs are in a soft velvet red. My flamboyant mother-in-law.

She’s ordered lasagna from a restaurant around the corner. This is something Joey loves. “Don’cha love lasagna?” Joey sings. “Don’cha?” And he starts cutting and eating. “I love it. It’s my favorite.”

When Joey’s like this, full of jumping beans, Alan feels everything’s going to be all right.

Raquel, sitting kitty-corner from Alan and Joey, loves to put a hand on Alan’s shirt sleeve as she talks to him. She tugs the cotton between thumb and forefinger and pulls and pushes. He doesn’t like this but she isn’t asking. “You know, Dearest, every month—this must stay a secret between us—I send my mixed-up daughter a little check. Not so little. So she can get set up out there. And not have to worry. Which may seem odd to you, because what I really want is for her to come home. But you know, you know.” Sigh. “That’s why she doesn’t ask you for money. You see? Also, of course, she has her job. But I help. Is that all right with you, Dearest?”

He doesn’t answer—knows she’ll keep talking.

“I tell her what a sweet boy she’s got at home.” Raquel strokes Joey’s cheek. “You want your mommy to come home, don’t you? I know, I know. And she wants to, bien sur, but what can she do?—she has her job out there. But I’m sure you’ll see her super-soon.”

Please,” Alan says.

Raquel puts thumb and forefinger on her lips—a lock. “Joey, dear, you want a teeny bit more lasagna?”


Money’s getting to be a problem. You’d think with his salary, even cut by a quarter, he’d have plenty. But hey, this is New York. And he’s gone from two salaries to one, and Dani’s not contributing to the cost of private school or maintenance on the apartment, so of course it’s a problem. He sits down one night and looks at bank statements and credit card ex­penses and realizes that at this rate all his savings will be down the drain in a year and a half. First thing he does is a not-doing. He doesn’t pick up the renewal of the lease on his BMW, so that saves him $450 per month, and then he can drop the $400-a-month garaging of the car. Oh! He hates taking this step. No more weekends at friends in the Hamptons. Gone the pride in just driving a cool car. And he’s also cut back on taxis. Subways get you through the city faster anyway.

Restaurants are another thing. He stops eating out or ordering in, except nights he’s been too busy to shop or too tired to cook, and then it’s off to the cheap Chinese restaurant around the corner. “Want to learn how to use chopsticks, Joey?”

And the leakage of savings slows to a drip. Still, a drip is a drip.

This thrift is good for me. I was getting spoiled. And it’s a good model for Joey.

But it’s not just thrift. It’s steering the ship onto a new course. Exactly. No more being Mr. Big Shot. But he still experiences a kind of shame when he descends a subway kiosk. Though it shames him that he feels shame! The ship, a great, rusting liner, turns slowly, slowly, against years of moral inertia.

Now, evenings, instead of working on a campaign to sell a face cream, he broils a steak for the two of them and after dinner sits with Joey to laugh at Danny Kaye in The Court Jester. Both of them chant, “The pellet with the poison’s in the flagon with a dragon. The chalice from the palace has the brew that is true.” And when he can’t pick up Joey at school, while Joey is walking home with Kerry, Alan calls from work and in Grizelda’s witchy voice chants, “The pellet with the poison . . .” and Joey finishes it and shrieks.

So it’s not all bad.

No women in his life. Well, he’s shell shocked. His buddy Tomaso pokes him. “I know how you feel. Okay. You stay down, take an eight count. Don’t worry, the pretty ladies’ll help get you up on your feet—they’ll be all over a guy like you.”

The pretty ladies, ah, the women all over New York. Models walking Madison or Fifth with black leather portfolios of photo shoots, jobs they’ve done. Beautiful women walking their dogs in Central Park, young mothers picking up kids at school. Women taking his breath away emerge from taxis in the rain, umbrellas out first and up over their heads so the umbrella becomes a kind of aura. In the old days he’d put a hand to his chest, oh, my, oh, my—and had been known to follow for blocks just for looking’s sake. Now he merely sighs, acknow­ledging. It’s not time yet.

One woman he does see—as a pal. Abby, Derek’s ex—still not exactly ex. Alan wishes he could be interested in her as a lover. Who can explain? A real kind, smart woman, even good look­ing. He likes her smile. She has the last unrecon­structed buck teeth in New York City. Her daugh­ter’s a year older than Joey; some­times Alan will bring Joey over or Abby will stop by for tea with Suzie. They mutually com­miserate. They help one another out when one of them needs an unex­pected hour for work, also help each other by feeling free to groan, and laugh at their own groaning.

It wasn’t long ago that the two couples, who lived two blocks apart and whose kids got along, would get together for dinner and bridge. “What dummies we were!”

Abby’s not grieving! Good riddance. “Quel asshole,” she says. But finances are hard. Harder for her than for Alan. She teaches violin, which was okay as a second income but not as a first. Derek sends not-enough money. The lawyers are ironing it out.

They avoid bad-mouthing their exes. Let’s talk about any damn thing else. Can the Mets make the playoffs? How about them UFO’s?

 

Their weekly trek with cold white wine and a bunch of flowers to Granny Raquel’s.

Raquel comes to the door beaming. She kisses him with cheek on both cheeks.

He knows at once, knows before he enters.

From the living room Dani shrieks, “My Joey, my Joey!” And Joey runs to her open arms and jumps onto her lap. Dani, on the middle of the red sofa, is wearing a skimpy, sleeveless, pale cream summer shift that shows off her nice long legs. Whipped cream on a bed of strawberries. Alan admits to himself: So pretty! And in his head he says to her, Oh, let’s try again, and she moves back with him and Joey and for a month it’s lovely and then she runs away again. All this in five seconds. On the middle of her thigh, just at the hem, a tattoo of something or other peeks out. That’s new. She’s nervous, he sees she’s nervous, while playing it cool. Who wouldn’t be?

Joey yells, “Daddy! Daddy! Mommy’s here!”

Very quietly, Alan says “Hi, Dani,” and sits across from her, hands folded between knees.

“I’m back in New York to talk to people at the agency. And at another agency.”

“Oh?”

“Well, you know, I’m just working on a trial basis out in Frisco. And frankly, Alan, it’s shaky with Derek, so it’s shaky at work. And you can’t imagine,” she says, puffing out her lips like a young child, “how I’ve been missing my little Joey.”

Suddenly he can hardly breathe. His temples pulse, pulse. As if darkness covered his eyes.

“Don’t worry,” she says in grownup voice. “This is just a brief visit. It would be quite impossible to take him off your hands. You can imagine. I’m not set up for anything like that. Not yet. And God knows I’ll have to see how things work out with Derek.”

He’s enraged; rage issues from his head at her free-flowing arrogance. As if she had a right to Joey if she were “set up”! But he controls himself, opens the bottle of wine and pours into Raquel’s expensive stem glasses. Raquel opens a little bottle of limonata she’s chilled for Joey.

But,” Dani says, “there may come a time when we share our boy. But,” she says again and sighs, “not right now. You know? You know, Alan?”

“I know,” he says. “Believe me,” he says, “I know how you love Joey. We know that, don’t we, Joey?” He doesn’t know this at all, doesn’t believe it for a single instant. He’s amazed at himself that he can say it so feelingly. Like advertising copy sugaring over with lies some terrible product. He lies, of course, so that Joey will feel loved. And he lies to make her feel good about herself. Oh, he’d deeply love to shame her instead. Love to diminish her in Joey’s eyes. But then a part of Joey would be lost. And she—she’d fight back. Last thing he wants. He wants to take the fight out of her. He wants to assure her she’s right not to be with Joey!

He raises his glass. He sips, she drinks and he pours her another full glass. And he pours for Raquel, who sings out in chesty, brandied voice, “Oooooo! It’s so lovely to have my little girl back.” Already a little wobbly, Raquel goes to the kitchen to bring back a second bottle. Alan opens it and pours for mother and daughter. “So,” he says, “how you doing out in San Francisco?”

“Fine. Why? You think I can’t make it on my own?”

He does think that, but he doesn’t say so. On her own! And what about Derek? Doesn’t she have Derek? Dani’s never been on her own in her whole life.

“Not at all,” he says. “Not at all. So, how’s my old friend Derek?”

“Oh,” Raquel says, laughing, “we don’t need to talk about him, do we?”

“He’s frankly not who I thought he was,” Dani sighs. “In fact, we’re not together actually. Here—” She hands Alan a 3 x 5 card with her new address and landline number written in. “It just wasn’t working out.”

“You’re kidding. That was fast. And?”

“I’ll give you the grizzly details some time. So I’m . . . elsewhere.” She gives him the address, the phone number. He jots them down.

He knows. He doesn’t have to ask: With somebody?

“But you know,” she says, “I’m missing Joey a whole lot. You know that, Joey.”

“Oh, I know,” Alan says. “So, you’re planning to come back to New York sometime?”

“Well, I have these interviews. I don’t know. “When I feel I’ve got it together. Then I want to see my Joey. You’d be proud of me—I’ve been doing therapy out there. And sometimes,” she sighs—by now, halfway through the second bottle, she’s slurring her words, just slightly—“sometimes I think I’m just loony giving up . . . everything I’m giving up.”

“Oooooo, sweetie,” her mother says. “Sweetie, sweetie.”

He’s half expected this, expected Dani to feel—as she used to say—“butterflies deep inside.” Panic. And expected her, in her panic, to wonder if maybe they shouldn’t maybe give it another try. She sighs, she kisses Joey on the top of the head. False! False! Every­thing she does tonight disgusts him, yet hasn’t he set her up to get slobbery?  He has! Shrewdly! He has!

“It must be so hard for you,” he says in a comforting, gentle tone. “We know you want to be a good mom.”

Now she’s crying. As he kind of hoped. As he plotted. But that doesn’t keep him from feeling bad for her. Her pain real, even if dramatized by self pity and sparked by alcohol.  It doesn’t take much to get her a little looped. She says, finally, “Guy I’m with, address I gave you, smart guy from the agency, nice and all, but you know, he’s just helping me out, it’s just a temporary fix.”

He says nothing.

“Joey?” she whispers. “You miss your mommy?”

Joey nods fiercely. “I miss you, Mommy. We miss Mommy,” he says, nestling against his Mommy while looking at Daddy.

“Oh, we do. We do. But,” Alan says, “we’re doing okay, aren’t we, Joey? You don’t need to worry about us, Dani.”

“I can’t help worrying,” she says.

“Oh, I know. I know.”


In a seminar at college he read a lot of D. H. Lawrence. He remembers that poor sap Ernest Weekly, who got ditched by Frieda. Frieda chose Lawrence—Lorenzo, she called him—and Weekly, once Lawrence’s college English teacher, kept the children away from her. She could never see them. Alan remembers what he felt as a college kid: how could the S.O.B. do that to her? Now he understands. Part of it, sure, was pure narcissistic injury talking. Hurt, the guy hurt back. But part must have been fear for the damage that the kids would incur. Turns out Derek’s no Lawrence, in love forever. And Alan won’t keep Dani from Joey. But he wants Joey’s life to stay coherent, simple. The longer she stays a little crazy, maybe the better for Joey.


He can’t sleep tonight. He thinks about the meeting, replays it in his head. He realizes that something profound has just taken place. He can’t quite figure it out. What’s changed? There’s been no change. Yet something has changed, and he feels kind of giddy. What is it? He has a new, clearer awareness he’s won something. He’s won, and it’s scary: she’s not going to try to claim Joey—wherever she lives, New York or Frisco. He’s got Joey. For a long time Joey will have to do without a mother, except for sparkling moments.

And maybe it’s also this: Up until tonight, while he’s been a single-parent father, a loving, devoted single-parent father, that status has been, while real, also a gesture. An expression of victimhood. He was alone with Joey, but in a sense she, Dani, was his audience. Look at me, I’m taking care of my son full time, you irresponsible brat. I’m giving up some lucre and taking on burdens, and isn’t that damned noble!

And now?

Now: I’m just taking care of my son.

And he knows it can’t last, this way of living only for Joey. For instance, he’ll have to go back to work full time, and soon. He can’t continue to define himself as only a father.

Next morning he calls Rick Schoenfeld. “Yeah, I’m okay, Rick. I’m back in business. I mean I’m ready for prime time. Can we meet for lunch?”

“I’ve been waiting for this call,” Rick says. “Glad to have you aboard again.”


Dinner the next evening with Abby and the kids. She’s made them shepherd’s pie and a salad. The way to a man’s heart, he wants to kid her—is afraid to kid her. He doesn’t tell her about Dani; he does tell her about his meeting with Rick. “Schoenfeld—you’ve met him?—ah, he was all smiles. He stretched across the table and patted me on the back like I was getting married to his daughter. He praised me at the restaurant, reminded me I used to brag, ‘I work eight days a week, twenty-five hours a day.’ I didn’t let him know: Them days is gone forever.

“What a fool I was, Abby! The thing is, I used to be busy for busy’s sake. It wasn’t just exigencies of work. The thing is, I was getting stale. I needed to pump my­self up with pressure so I could keep going. Well, no more. You know what I’m doing Saturday? What I’m not doing is taking a guy from a drug company out to lunch to talk over a new campaign. If it’s nice weather, I’m taking Joey to the toy sailboat pond in the park. There’s a workshop in juggling by the bronze sculpture of Alice in Wonderland. Maybe I’ll get some of my old skills back—and maybe it’ll excite Joey.” As a kind of afterthought he says, “Abby? You and Suzie want to come with us?”

Joey and Suzie are playing Spit on the living room floor. Abby grins her beautiful grin with those horsey teeth of hers. You can shoot a cannonball through the gap in front. And funny thing is, it is a beautiful grin. It hasn’t changed, but now, Alan thinks, now I do see something wonderfully sexy in that mouth of hers. What? Am I crazy? Turns out, in some funny way, she’s beautiful.


Hundreds of balls afloat in the sunny air! The three presenters up front by the sculpture of Alice are passing, passing, passing to one another and to themselves and to those with ability among the congregation of jugglers—kids and parents tossing and catching. Some, fancy-pants guys, are tossing and catching oranges and plastic eggs, or bottles and baseballs. That’s hard! But most are making soft juggling balls float above Central Park. Maybe a hundred kids and adults defy gravity. Defying gravity! he thinks. That’s the ticket. Not to be weighed down—though, admittedly, a presentation for client remains to be tied together this weekend.

A hundred, more, brought together by social media. One insane guy can keep six balls in the air at once. Ahh, show-off! Most, like me, just two. Joey and Suzie do okay for a first time. And Alan begins to get it back, the rhythm smoother, smoother, a dance of hands, and Abby lets him teach her to juggle—her first time, too. There’s laughter and kid shrieks everywhere.

So by the time they walk across the park and down a side street to Abby’s for lunch, Alan’s pretty high, still floating on all those balls in the air, floating on the laughter—Joey and Suzie running ahead of them, breaking off the park path to chase each other, giddy. They’ll probably grow up as friends, probably be friends as adults.

As he watches them run and swivel, turn and run, he considers the delights of floating. Because those kids, when they’re feeling happy, they’re . . like floating. How about me? Too scared to hang glide. How about lifting up in a hot air balloon? How about lifting up from my own insides? He takes a deep breath and holds it, pretends it was helium or hydrogen and he’d soon take off.

Up in the elevator. Joey chants, “The pellet with the poison’s in the flagon with a dragon.” And Suzie goes: “The chalice from the palace has the brew that is true!”

The kids laugh; the parents laugh. Then, as they walk into the apartment they smell  cigarettes. Cigarettes?

“Derek?” she calls.

“In here.”

Expensive Italian shoes on, he’s stretched out on the couch. Seeing Alan, Derek sits up. “Alan! Well, well, well.”

It’s possible to say “well, well, well” and make it sound ugly, even sinister.

Alan is at the edge of explaining, We’re having lunch, but why should he have to explain anything to this S.O.B.?

Abby says, “I knew I should change the locks. How dare you come in without calling?”

“Because it’s my goddamn apartment, too.”

“Not any more. Excuse me. I have to fix lunch.” At the door to the kitchen she turns. “Are you eating with us?” He nods, shutting his eyes, as if her question is stupid.

Alan sits back in the big armchair and folds his hands—an image of contentment. But he’s boiling and he and Derek both know it.

“I’ll help,” Derek calls to the kitchen.

“You talk to Suzie,” she calls back.

Derek opens his arms and says, “Suzie Q!”

Suzie won’t have anything to do with him. But neither does she leave the room. She sits on the radiator cover and looks out the window at people in the street but watches her father out of the corner of her eye.

Derek has decided—Alan’s sure—not to beg his daughter for affection.

“So. Alan?”

“So. Derek?”

Joey has been helping in the kitchen. Now something in the voices must draw him back to see what’s going on.

“I’m sorry,” Derek says. Okay?”

Alan just lifts a hand, palm outward, like a sculpture of the Buddha.

“Really. Sorry. But hey!” he laughs. “Now I know what it was like for you, I mean living with that woman.”

“You mean woman you were in love with for a few months? Woman you ran off with?”

“I deserve that. I’ve got a lot to learn, right?” He sighs, big-time. “Yeah.” He lifts his eyes to the ceiling, remembering. “We were crazy in love. Crazy in love!”

“Please. Do we have to do this?” Alan gestures with his head at Joey in the doorway. “The kids. . . .Be cool. Okay?”

“I’m just saying. I see what you were going through. Some woman.”

“Your last warning,” Alan says.

“What? You think you’re so pure? What are you doing with my wife?”

“Honest to God. I’m going to throw you out that door unless we change the subject.”

“Okay. No offense.”

“Oh, plenty of offense.”

“About that wife of yours, I’m just saying—”

“Think I can’t do it?”

“Big macho man in my wife’s apartment,” Derek says. He blows smoke rings, doesn’t move.

So, taking a big breath, Alan gets up, grabs an arm with his big hand and yanks. Derek swings a big roundhouse left, no force, just a love tap to the belly of Alan, who’s standing over him.

Alan jerks Derek off the couch onto the floor, lugs him up from the floor. Side of beef.

“Come on! Be careful. Careful. I’ve got a lit cigarette. Not funny. Stop this.”

In one hand Alan collects some of Derek’s long black hair and twists as if he were making a rope, while, other hand on his belt, he gives Derek the bum’s rush across the carpet and slams him into the door. “Your key, you sonofabitch,” he says very quietly. “Give me that key.”

“This isn’t at all nice, think of the kids.” But Derek undoes two keys from the keychain. “Here.” He drops them on the carpet. Alan lets go and Derek col­lects himself, straightens, combs his fingers through his hair, says, “That hurt. Bastard.”

“Don’t hurt Daddy,” Suzie yells.

“It’s play,” Alan says. “Say goodbye to your lovely daughter, Derek.”

“Goodbye, Suzie-Q. I’m not hurt. It’s rough play. Goodbye,” he calls to Abby. Alan opens the door, and Derek leaves like a gentleman, trying to preserve his dignity.

“He’s gone?” Abby says, coming in, drying her hands on her apron. “Well, good. I won’t open another can of tuna fish.” She sits on the radiator next to Suzie. “You okay, honey?”

“Uh huh. Did he hurt Daddy?”

“I really didn’t.” Alan hands Abby the keys. “But I’m sorry, Suzie.”

“You really got him,” Joey says. “Bam!”

“It’s not a good thing, Joey. Last thing I want. Can’t float when you go bam. Get me?”

Alan looks out the window, sees Derek, eight floors down below, leaving the building. “Abby? Want me to call him back?”

“God, no. Lunch is ready, everybody.”

The kids charge into the kitchen. Abby waits till they’re alone, she and Alan, and then, without a word, she puts her hands on his shoulders and kisses his cheek.

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John J. Clayton

John J. Clayton / About Author

John J. Clayton is author of Minyan, Many Seconds into the Future, Wrestling with Angels, and other novels and short story collections. His work has appeared in Commentary, Superstition Review, Missouri Review, AGNI, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Journal, Notre Dame Review, TriQuarterly, and Sewanee Review. Clayton's stories have won prizes in O. Henry Prize Stories, Best American Short Stories, and the Pushcart Prize Anthology.

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