“I’m going to take this now,” the man said, standing in front of his refrigerator, door open, one hand inside.
“All right,” the boy said, “but if you do that, I will remember It 25 years from now, and in a white-blonde classroom littered with molded plastic desks and ten tired students I will write it down to be exposed and thought about.”
“But you’ve done that already, haven’t you?”
“In at least half a dozen short stories; and in that novel you left inside two blue notebooks years ago; and in that self-pitying essay you tried to publish.”
“I’m ten years old,” the boy said. “I don’t know what an essay is.”
The man pulled a thick-walled 16 oz. bottle of Carling’s from the refrigerator. Light could not penetrate the smoky glass of the bottle, the color of stirred tar. The man shut the refrigerator door and saw a can opener clinging there by a magnet, its hook end broader than his nose.
“You’ll know what an essay is soon enough,” the man said.
“No thanks to you.”
“Every thanks to me.”
“That means the same thing,” the boy said.
“Listen to you,” the man said. He smiled, popped off the bottle cap and let it fall to the counter, where it banged and skittered to a corner.
“If you drink that, you’ll want to drink another,” the boy said.
“And it’s only 2:00.”
“It’s Saturday,” the man said.
“What difference does that make?”
“Every difference,” the man said. He leaned the bottle back and let what was inside into his mouth. He took it into his system. Deep, relieved drafts. The boy saw the man’s bony Adam’s apple thump three, four times.
“Now you’ll want another.”
The man shrugged. “Eventually.”
“By 5:30, at which point you will already be recognizably affected, you will decide you are bored with beer and switch to gin. Small sips, of course. Manageable tastes. That’s what you’ll tell yourself. And maybe they will be — but how religiously pursued. By seven you will not be able to walk to the liquor cabinet without lurching from hip to hip, wall to wall. By 8:30, you will feel thoroughly overheated and eager for the delicious air of the Wicomico, the springtime bloom of the wind along the river bank, the subtle burn of the rising moon.”
“How do you know?” the man said. “You aren’t even here. You’re in Philadelphia with your mother.”
“You can take me at my word,” the boy said.
The man studied his son’s face. “Maybe I can,” he said. Then: “But I can’t help myself. I’m sorry.” He lifted the bottle and poured down another swallow.
“By nine you will be so far gone you won’t see where your feet land, where the grass stops and the retaining wall begins. The sky will have thoroughly darkened, and the neighbors to your right and left will have no idea that you are wandering, drunk, in your backyard. In fact, Captain Jensen won’t even be here. He’ll be in a hotel room in Vienna, four hours from waking and preparing for the long flight back across the Atlantic. Mary Ann Jensen, however, will be inside, watching American Movie Classics, a bowl of microwaveable pasta in her lap, looking forward to her husband’s return. She’ll look forward to seeing him again, to not eating alone for a string of days.”
The man smiled. “Sounds about right.”
“Davy Campbell, meanwhile, will be inside too, arguing with his girlfriend about his ex-wife’s visiting privileges while trying to ignore the screech coming from his daughter’s television upstairs.”
“That’s the Campbells,” the man clucked.
“In one of your more ill-advised lurches, your right foot will land in a hole just behind the retaining wall. Your body will tip and fall over, even as your foot remains stuck, thus cracking your leg and simultaneously causing you to hit your head on a stone at the center of the wall.”
The man blinked.
“The impact will render you unconscious. While you hang there, dangling by a broken leg, the tide will come in, covering the upper half of your body.”
The man set his beer a bit too forcefully on the counter. “You don’t think I don’t know this?”
“No,” the boy said, “I don’t think you do.”
“What do you care, anyway? When did you ever? While I drown you get to be entertained by your mother’s conspicuously well-heeled relatives. They’ll ply you with taffy and ice cream sandwiches. They’ll buy you comic books and licorice. They’ll take you to the country club. They’ll take you to the zoo.”
“I already went to the zoo. That was earlier. We just got back.”
“That’s not what you said in your essay. You said your father died while you looked into the haunted face of a chimpanzee.”
“Poetic license,” the boy said. “Besides, I haven’t written it yet. I might change my mind. I might say I was watching Happy Days.”
“I could. I haven’t written it yet. I don’t even know what poetic license means.”
The man picked up his bottle, drank more, and then more, as if in a race against himself. When he stopped, he said, “Oh, you’ll learn that. You’ll learn that pretty damn well.” He burped.
“Maybe,” the boy said.
The man laughed: a ragged but still jovial noise. He shook his head once, fast.
“The point I’m trying to make though,” the boy said, “is this: Do you want to end up 25 years from now as a figment in the memory of my imagination, guzzling beer on the pages of my notebook while ten tired students bend heads over their own notebooks, inventing stories just as improbable? Or would you rather remain who you are, in the flesh?”
The man didn’t answer.
“I won’t even ask if you want to leave Mom a widow, if you’ve actually thought about what that means. The other question is pressing enough.”
The man finished the bottle of Carling’s. He took a few steps toward the front of the kitchen and tossed the bottle into a plastic trash can designated, via Sharpie-scrawled message, for glass recyclables. Then he returned to the refrigerator and grabbed another Black Label.
“The question you never seem to ask yourself,” the man said, “is whether I ever cared if I remained in the flesh at all.”
“True,” the boy said, “but that’s more or less what I’m asking now.”
“What do you think?”
“I don’t think you ever came to a decision. But I think you knew perfectly well what you were and were not capable of. I think you let Mom go off to Philadelphia without you because the thought of limiting your intake for three days was unbearable.”
“Got that right,” the man said and popped off the second bottle cap.
“And I think maybe you figured you’d just play the odds. Drink as much as you want and let what happens happen. There was no knowing which day — or night — would be the one. After all, you dodged plenty of bullets already.”
“How many times did I hear you fall down the stairs at the other house? A couple of times you had a gash in your head in the morning. You looked mystified and abashed — no idea how you’d injured yourself.”
“But you were older then weren’t you?”
The boy hesitated. “Yes.”
“So you aren’t ten when this happens.”
“But your mother is in Philadelphia.”
“Yes. By herself.”
“How old are you now?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Old enough,” the man said, “to know what ‘abashed’ means.”
The boy didn’t answer, so the man drank again. A full swig, but not throaty, not endless, not an engorgement. When he brought the bottle down, his lips kissed the rim. He stared at the apparatus with affection, like a connoisseur. “So I didn’t actually try to kill myself?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Good,” the man said. “That would be unsightly.”
“Yes, but what I write in that classroom with those tired students will be as gruesome as any suicide. I hope you realize that. And it will be about you.”
“You’ve done it before,” the man said.
“No, I haven’t.”
“In the short story — the one about Massachusetts.”
“You won’t die in that one.”
“Or the other, the family at the beach.”
“In that one you’ll die when a ladder falls.”
“Oh.” The man looked confused. “Oh, well.” He half-smiled, an embarrassed look that came out as helplessness. He turned and walked deeper into the kitchen. He leaned against the counter, lifted the bottle, and enjoyed several unbroken swallows.
“I’m going to have to write about it,” the boy said, regretfully. “In 25 years or so.”
“I understand,” the man said.
“And it will have to be set here. And you will have to take that walk. And your foot will slip into that hole.”
The man shrugged. He didn’t look at his son. “Sure,” he said.
“Or you can just put the beer away.”
The man waited a moment. “Thank you,” he said. “I think I’ve got it figured out.” He closed his eyes, as if even the meager light overhead represented too much pressure against his skull. The man’s eyelids were a spoiled, fulvous shade of red, oysters with a sunburn.
“I better go,” the boy said. “Mom’s probably wondering where I am.”
“Yes,” the man said. He opened his eyes slowly. He stood straighter. “You don’t want to be here, anyway. I mean later.”
The boy nodded. He started to the door. “Tell your mother,” the man said, “that what you saw was like a car crash, an accident. Just a stupid, thoughtless mistake. Nobody involved was trying to hurt anybody.”
“Sure,” the boy said, his hand on the door knob. “I’ll tell her that. But it will have to wait about 25 years.”
The man thought about it, nodded. “I don’t have much choice, do I?” The boy didn’t answer. He opened the door. The man looked at his shoes. When he brought his head up, he took a sip of beer.