(The final chapters of the 88th key are in the works, but as mentioned previously, here’s a short, short story that came to me during a restless night. I attribute this to too much hot sauce and not nearly enough guacamole, but high-ho, that’s the way things go from time to time.)
Saturday in the Park
“I talked to your mom last night,” she said to her husband as he stepped out of the shower, “and she mentioned tomorrow is your father’s birthday. Do you want to call him?”
“You know, it’s none of my business, but…”
“That’s right, Abby. It’s none of your business, so drop it.”
“Does he even know about Micah?”
“I have no idea. And I don’t care.”
“Perry? He’s your dad…”
Her husband shrugged as he began toweling himself. “I don’t give a shit.”
“You mom thinks it would be a good idea.”
“They’ve been divorced for something like fifty years. Do you honestly think she knows what the hell she’s talking about?”
“Perry? I’ve never even met him, and your mom either can’t or won’t tell me anything about him. And he’s Micah’s grandfather, for God’s sake. Don’t you think your son has a right to at least meet him, to know he simply exists…!”
“Abby? Drop it, okay?”
She shook her head. “He won’t be around forever, Perry. Maybe one day you’ll want to reconcile…”
“No, I won’t.”
“Would you mind if I call him?”
She saw the expression on her husband’s face in the foggy bathroom mirror and quickly walked from their bathroom to finish getting dressed; when he came out a few minutes later his face was still beet-red, and she could almost feel his clinched jaw as it worked overtime.
“I’ve got two surgeries this morning, and rounds after lunch. I’m meeting Jack at the country club at three, and I want to squeeze in at least nine holes…”
“Don’t forget…we’re supposed to meet the Andersons at seven.”
“Yeah. I talked to Dennis yesterday. We’re going to meet them at the club after Jack and I finish up. We’ll go from there.”
“I thought you were going to play tomorrow?”
“I am, but that’s more like a business meeting. Jack and I need to talk to some potential investors about the new clinic.”
“What’s your tee-time?”
“A little before noon, so we should finish up by five or so. Why don’t you meet me in the Nineteenth Hole around six?”
“If I can get a sitter…”
She watched him slip into his sage green scrubs and Adidas sneakers, not really knowing what to think about him anymore. He had become a total money-making machine – yet somewhere along the way he’d simply lost his sense of humanity…but this thing with his father was too much.
She walked with him out to the kitchen and pulled his plate from the ‘fridge. Three ounces of smoked salmon and half an avocado, seven days a week. Slam down two glasses of Evian – at room temperature, no less – and grab a bottle to-go for the drive to the hospital.
He sat and quickly dispatched his breakfast, then without a word walked from the kitchen to the garage.
She watched his little black Mercedes back down the driveway and out into the street, and she looked at her wristwatch as the roadster bolted down the street towards the gatehouse.
‘Five-fifteen on the nose, like clockwork,’ she said to herself.
She walked over to Micah’s room and peered into the darkness, heard his quiet breathing and almost smiled, then she made her way back to the kitchen to put on her coffee.
She went out to the backyard with her coffee and sat by the pool, waiting for the sunrise – and for her favorite time of day.
‘It’s not just Perry,’ she told herself for the umpteenth time. ‘It’s this life. The pointlessness of it all. But what about Micah? What’s all this secrecy and deceit going to do to him?’
On the rare occasion Perry made it home in the evening, he locked himself away in his study and in a heartbeat was online. Usually ordering sweaters. Bright, gaudy sweaters, or talking with his partners at the clinic about this or that new plan for expansion. Always making more money, and – usually – spending it on himself, yet if Micah dared ask to see his father in his study the boy felt like he’d committed some sort of mortal transgression. And…did his father ever drop by to say goodnight to the boy?
That had stopped years ago, hadn’t it?
And in fourteen years Perry had never once bought Micah a birthday present, nor even a Christmas present. Not once. He always left that to her, or to his mother, and now she thought she could see how all this was going to end: Micah would end up feeling about his father exactly the way Perry felt about his own.
Blown apart, empty. A big hole where something important used to be.
Or, in a word, dysfunctional.
So – she wanted to know – who was Perry’s father? Her son’s grandfather? She had a right to know, didn’t she? And she had an obligation to secure that knowledge for her son. He was old enough to understand and appreciate what a grandfather might mean at this stage of his life and, who knows, maybe this stranger might appreciate the chance to know his grandson.
Stranger things happened, after all?
Saturday, in the park
She drove through Golden Gate Park on JFK, the car’s top down and with a mild November sun beating down on their shoulders and arms. She and Micah were looking for the turn-off to the old boathouse on the west side of Spreckels Lake.
“There it is,” Micah said – with not a trace of excitement in his voice.
“There are supposed to be some parking places on the street, and a few benches by a little beach. He said he’d meet us there.”
Micah peered ahead, always studiously observant, always oriented to his surroundings whenever he ventured outside.
“I see some benches,” he said a moment later. “Vacant, too.”
“Does this look like a good place to park?” she asked, and he shrugged as she slipped into one of the many open spaces. She flipped a switch and the BMWs clamshell top extracted itself from the boot and whirred into place, then she got out of the coupe and grabbed the picnic basket she’d prepared. “Would you grab the blanket, honey?”
They walked over to the bench he’d said he would meet them at, and she looked at her Rolex. “We’re ten minutes early,” she said to Micah – as if to reassure him – but he had already walked ahead and stopped at the water’s edge.
When she got to him he was standing there – hands in his pockets – face cast down, looking at shadows and reflections on the surface.
“Want some tea?” she asked.
He shrugged. “No thanks.”
“Interesting place. I didn’t even know anything like this was still in the park.”
Nothing. Not even the glimmer of a response.
“Are those geese?” she asked. “Too big to be ducks, right?”
“I think so.”
“Would you help me spread the blanket?”
She looked at the blanket and felt guilty about putting something so beautiful on the ground, but, after all, the Polo site had described it was a picnic blanket. She spread it out and Micah put the picnic basket on the windward edge to anchor it in place, then she sat and took a deep breath.
“Hard to imagine we’re in the center of the city,” she sighed.
“What kind of car does he have?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, here comes a Q-tip.”
“An old guy with white hair.”
She laughed at that. “Where’d you learn that one?”
He shrugged, but at least he had smiled a little – though his eyes never left the approaching car.
It was, she saw, and ancient Porsche. A 911 Targa, and though she was no expert she guessed it was a late-60s model, kind of a tangerine color with black seats, and she just knew that would be the kind of car he’d drive.
And then the driver pulled in behind her car – and looked their way.
And then the old man waved.
Seeing that, Micah stood and walked over to the Porsche, watching and waiting as the old man opened the door and slowly unfolded himself.
And by the time the old man was standing Micah was right there by his side, and after a word or two she couldn’t make out she gasped when her son hugged the old man.
And when he returned the hug she smiled too, then she stood and watched them as they walked to her.
“You must be Abby?” the old man said as he reached out with his right hand. “I’m David.”
She took his hand in her’s, felt the galvanic reaction of his cool, dry skin on her own. “And I see you’ve met Micah,” she added – a little unnecessarily. “Could I get you some tea, or a sandwich?”
He looked at the blanket, then at the nearby bench and sighed before he lowered himself gently to the ground. “Hot tea if you have it.”
“I do. I brought pastrami sandwiches, if that’s alright?”
“Micah,” she started, “may I have the thermos and a cup.”
“Could I have some too?” her son added.
“Three cups it is,” she said as she poured and passed the brew…and the three of them sat in silence and took a few sips.
“So, happy birthday, David!” she resumed. “What number is it?”
“Seventy-eight, I think, but a few years ago I decided I’d rather not keep counting.”
“You think?” Micah snorted.
“Well, I have to check my driver’s license from time to time, just to remind myself.”
Everyone laughed at that.
“And how old are you now, Micah?”
“I’ll be fifteen in January.”
“Ah. The best years are just ahead.”
“Yeah? They feel pretty crummy from here,” Micah sighed.
“Yup. You can count on that.”
“So,” Micah added, “what made fifteen special for you?”
David leaned back and looked at the sky, and for a moment she felt like he was communing with something up there.
“Fifteen,” the old man began, “was a big one, Micah. About eight in the morning on my fifteenth birthday my dad took me out to the airport and I flew alone for the first time.”
“What? Like on an airliner?”
He chuckled. “No, no, I soloed that morning.”
David seemed puzzled at that, then he looked from Micah to Abby. “I hate to ask this, but what exactly do you know about me?”
“Nada,” Micah said. “As in zip-a-dee-doo-dah.”
And she nodded in affirmation. “There’s been a kind of embargo in our house, David. Perry won’t talk about you, and neither will Denise. I hate to say it, but I have no idea who you are or what you’ve done.”
“And the same applies to you, I assume?” David said to Micah.
And those two words hit Abby hardest of all. She’d never heard Micah voluntarily address anyone as ‘sir’ in all his life.
“I see. Embargo, you say?”
“Yes, I’m afraid so, David.”
“Well, I guess I’m not all that surprised,” the old man said, shaking his head pensively. “Lot of burning bridges back that way.”
“So,” Micah said, now almost agitated, “your fifteenth birthday?”
And David turned to face this ‘grandson’: “That’s the day I became a pilot. The first time I piloted an airplane on my own.”
“You mean, by yourself?” Micah scoffed. “Flying an airplane, by yourself? And you were fifteen? Bullshit.”
“Micah!” Abby blurted. “Watch yourself, young man!”
But David was fishing around in his back pocket, and a moment later he pulled out his wallet and then produced a few pieces of paper. “Come here, Micah.”
And the boy sidled over to the old man.
“I still carry this around with me, but heaven only knows why,” he said as he unfolded an ancient piece of paper. “See the date and time?”
“The signature by those figures was my flight instructors. Next is the aircraft type, a Cessna 150 in this case.”
“What’s this one?”
“That’s my current rating.”
“Can I see?”
He handed the papers over and watched the boy read.
“Airline Transport and Certified Flight Instructor – Instrument? What’s that mean?”
“It means I was an airline pilot, Micah. And that I taught a bunch of airline pilots how to fly.”
She could see her boy’s hands were trembling a little now, but she was more interested in how David would handle this situation. She wouldn’t have blamed him if he got up and left, but he seemed more confident than that – almost too confident.
“Yeah, kid. No shit.”
And Micah recoiled a little on hearing ‘kid’ – but then she saw his reaction soften. “So, you were an airline pilot?”
“Which one what?”
“Never heard of it.”
And David laughed at that, gently but knowingly. “Ain’t it the truth,” he sighed.
“Micah,” Abby said, “TWA was one of the biggest airlines in the world.”
“And it just disappeared?” the boy said, not quite believing what he was hearing.
“It became a part of American, probably before you were born.”
“Oh. What kind of plane did you fly?”
“Me? Oh, I started in 707s, then in the 70s I moved over to 747s.”
“Whoa! You flew those things?”
David reached out and flipped over his main license, pointed to a list of aircraft types he’d held current type ratings for when he’d retired. “703 was the 707-320c; 742 was the 747-200, and 743 was the 300 version.”
“What’s this one? AFONE?”
“Air Force One.”
“The president’s plane? You flew that one too?”
“Well, not really, but our flight academy trained all first time Air Force One pilots, and for a while I trained those guys. In order to do that I was checked out in the aircraft.”
“Whoa, that’s pretty rad.”
“Yeah, I guess it was.”
“So, you’re a teacher? Could you, like, teach me?”
He stifled a laugh – because it felt like he’d just recognized something important. “Well, I’m a little old for that now, Micah.”
“Oh.” Crestfallen, almost a frown, yet she continued to study both their eyes.
“I didn’t know you were interested in flying,” Abby said.
Micah shrugged. “When I have study hall, I read flying magazines in the library.”
“Yeah,” David sighed, “been there, done that.”
Connection. Bond formed. She watched, amazed, because with his body language David seemed to have led the way to that little bit of hidden information. “Is he old enough to learn?” she asked.
“He will be in January, as long as a parent signs for him.”
“Why does my dad hate you?” Micah blurted, and David looked down into his cup of tea.
“Think I could get some more tea, Micah?”
“Sure,” her boy said, leaning over to take the cup. “Ready for a sandwich?”
“Pastrami, you said?”
“I did,” she replied as she opened the picnic basket. “Half, or a whole one?”
“Better make mine a half,” David said, then his eyes went wide when she pulled out the sandwiches. “Dear God…those are huge!”
“About a pound per sandwich,” she said, grinning madly. “They’re the best thing this side of New York City.”
“Assuming I don’t stroke out after the third bite,” he grumbled under his breath.
“Just rye bread and Russian dressing,” she said. “Want a pickle?” she added, pulling out an eight inch long thing that seemed to have the girth of an elephant’s snout.
“Let me guess…that’s the family sized pickle?”
Everyone laughed, but she looked at him expectantly as he bit into the sandwich.
“Like it?” she asked.
“Man, that’s better than the Carnegie Deli.”
“Where’s that?” Micah asked.
“New Jack City, man.”
“New York, kiddo. You got to remember this, too. Everything evil in the world can be found in New Jack City, starting with death bombs like this beast.”
“Dad won’t touch these things.”
“Can’t say I blame him, but he’s missing out, isn’t he?”
“Yup,” Micah said, and it was the first time she’d ever heard him use that word, too.
“Goddamn! That’s a huge pickle!” David said after he took out a pocket knife and sliced off a chunk, then he plopped it in his mouth – and then his eyes crossed: “Garlic and…peppers?”
“Yup,” Micah said again, grinning now.
“Son of a bitch, that’s good!”
“You cuss a lot,” Micah said, grinning too. “Dad never does.”
“Now that surprises me,” David sighed. “I wouldn’t have expected that…not in a million years.”
“Oh?” Abby said.
“He always had a way with words when I was around,” David said, rolling his eyes.
“So, why does he hate you?”
David shrugged. “He did a few things when he was younger that, well, he did things he knew would hurt me, and they did. Then one night he went too far, but that was long after his mother and I divorced. Anyway, he went too far then I said a few things I probably shouldn’t have. Bottom line, Micah, is after Denise, uh, his mother and I got divorced, he started taking sides, and usually against me. That’s when things got out of hand, and everything kind of spiraled down the drain after that.”
“Like what?” Micah asked, and she saw David’s glance just then…
“Micah,” she said gently, “these are the types of questions we can’t ask, okay. We talked about this, remember?”
“Listen Micah, and this is important,” David said quietly. “The problem with questions like this is you’ll only hear one side of the story. The answers won’t be what you need to get at the truth, so the problem is a simple one: if you really want to know, when you’re a little older you can come talk to me about these things, but do so only after you’ve talked to your dad. Get both sides…”
“But,” Abby blurted, “Perry won’t talk about you, and I think Micah needs to know what happened. And the truth of the matter is, David, that I think I need to know what this is all about, too.”
David shook his head. “I’m sorry, Abby…Micah…but when it comes to Perry I’d have a hard time not telling you some pretty rough things…”
“Rough?” Micah asked, clearly perplexed.
“Things that might be real hard to hear, Micah. And your dad wouldn’t be here to defend himself. That’s not fair, and it sure isn’t the right thing to do.”
Micah looked unconvinced.
“I’ll put it to you this way, okay? If people were talking about you behind your back, telling your friends about things that – maybe – you’d done, things that you wouldn’t want them to know, well then, you wouldn’t like that, would you?”
“I might not like it, but as long as people were listening to the truth I’m not sure it matters. Still, I get what you’re saying.”
“Okay, good enough. Now Abby, mind if I tackle the other half of that sandwich?”
She reached to pull out the other half just as her phone chimed at an incoming text message:
Perry: I’m home. Where are you?
Abby: What happened to your game?
Perry: Called off. Jack had an emergency on-call.
Perry: Where are you?
Abby: Out with Micah, eating pastrami.
Perry: Oh. When will you be home?
Abby: Not too much longer.
Perry: You didn’t tell me where you are???
Abby: In the park.
Perry: Golden Gate? Where?
Abby: Yes, Golden Gate.
Perry: By the boathouse?
Perry: So, you’re with dad???
She watched the phone for a while but there were no more messages.
“Micah, ready for round two?” she asked.
“Was that Dad?”
“Is he coming?” her son asked nervously.
And she shrugged. “He knows you’re here,” she said – to David – but to her son as well.
“So, he didn’t know the plan today?” David said, almost defeated by the lie.
“No,” she said, and her shoulders hunched inwardly now, almost protectively so.
“Are you afraid of him?” David asked, and he was startled by how quickly she nodded her head.
“Mom?” Micah said, his voice full of sudden, unexpected concern. “Why?”
But she just shook her head as she handed David the rest of his sandwich, then Micah’s second half – before she continued: “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have lied to you about that.”
David took in a deep breath and held it, then shook it loose in a long sigh. “He’s always had a bad temper, so I guess I should have expected reluctance on your part.”
“Don’t make excuses for her, man!” the boy said. “That’s all she does, every day of my life. He’s not at my game because of this. He didn’t come to my recital because of that. And she’s always right there, covering for him…”
“Because I don’t know what else to do, Micah!” she said as she withered before their very eyes, before the dam broke and she lost it.
David watched her closely, and then all of a sudden he wasn’t buying it – and when he looked at Micah he could tell the kid wasn’t either. Like he’d been down this road one too many times before, and this act had worn a little too thin.
She looked up and in an instant stopped.
And, still looking at Micah, he watched as the boy went to her and how he hugged her tight.
“It’s okay Mom. Really, everything will be okay.”
And all of a sudden he knew he was watching the same show all over again. The cast of characters had changed…a little…but this die had been cast a long time ago.
So, he wondered, how do you break the cycle? How do you fix what, really, can’t be fixed? Or do you just give up and walk away – again? Pretend you didn’t see what you’d just seen?
He drifted back to other days, to that other life. The life that came with Denise, then with Perry and all the chaos he’d thought he’d never have to deal with again.
Until the phone rang last night, that is, interrupting his reveries and bringing all that forgotten life back into into the present.
And now, here he was was, in the flash of another lie back in the middle of it all. Denise. Married for just a few months when he discovered she’d cheated on him. And how, when he found the hastily concealed evidence, she’d blamed him for everything. He was gone too much of the time, she said; never home when she needed him, and the first time had been easy enough because, of course, in her mind he was to blame. The second and third times were harder to justify, but by then she’d ratified everything in her own mind – and he’d begun to see the light.
Because there were patterns buried within her all her little deceits. As familiar as an averted gaze, or subterfuges concealed within misplaced words, repeated again and again until everything became clear…
Then out of the blue she was pregnant, and after that everything started to fall apart. The numbers didn’t add up, and yet, for Denise a sudden reexamination of her life’s recent choices brought him back into the picture.
She wanted the baby and began talking to him as if she wanted him around as a father, and really, that too made perfect sense. If she was going to have a baby that meant she needed his steady income, and, in the end, he realized that was really all that mattered. Like a chameleon, she turned into the loving wife he’d hoped she might be and once again he allowed himself to fall into her tender trap.
He wasn’t the first man to fall into those grasping claws, he told himself, and he surely wouldn’t be the last. Because we never learn.
But in the end, he understood that if she was going to have a child it was better for all concerned if the child grew up with both a father and a mother under one roof.
But, of course, none of that mattered. Denise was what she was, trying to undo all the broken dreams she carried around by fucking the next man, and the next, and the next. To him, the only real surprise was that she had really expected he would just sit there and take all her endless humiliations…
So when he was served with papers he wasn’t surprised. He was surprised when she alleged he had been an abusive husband, but then again in short order he learned that almost every divorce attorney sprinkled that allegation into the filings as a kind of ritual guarantee of success. Yet when he produced endless documentation of her almost ritual infidelities he was astonished at how quickly the allegations of abuse were taken off the table.
Just sign over custody and all that will disappear.
“I’ll sign when the alimony figure gets reasonable.”
And in an instant the allegations resurfaced.
“It’s nothing personal,” his own lawyer told him. “Just one of the tools of the trade.”
And he had never been more glad he’d decided against law school.
When a figure acceptable to both parties was hammered out he was, in an instant, free of her and, as part of this hastily arrived at package deal, free of his son – except for one weekend a month.
And in a way he felt lucky. Not to be free of Denise, but to be free of a system that seemed contrived to inflict as much emotional damage as possible on the combatants. As if a terminal marriage wasn’t brutal enough…
But…the numbers just didn’t add up. They never had. And that still remained the first big lie, intact to this day. To this very day.
And so here he was, looking at this manipulatively sobbing woman and her manipulated son out here in the park, and she was deceiving her husband – not for attention, but for some kind of truth. She had no way of knowing her life was already broken beyond repair, and that her son would harbor feelings of guilt and despair that would shape rest of his life, perpetuating cycles upon cycles of an unwillingness to face even the most simple truth.
‘My marriage is a farce. It is a farce because I never really had any idea what love truly means. What commitment really means. What taking an oath before God requires – namely endless compromise in the name of this thing lawyers and judges have come to define as love – no matter the toll.’
He took a sip of tea then slowly stood and walked down to the water’s edge. He bent down, took a pebble and threw it as far out over the water as he could, then he turned his back to the ripples and walked away from their endless implications.
And he saw them again, still sitting on their thousand dollar blanket lost in the clutches of their despair, and all he could do was shake his head…
“Because nothing ever really added up, did it? Never.”
Fog started to form over by the bridge and he nodded. “Why not?”
Clouds formed and blotted out the sun. “You too? You want to get in on the fun?”
He heard a growling motor and squealing tires, saw the rakish Mercedes convertible turning off JFK, headed straight for his Porsche. “Yes, this is just perfect. I am Gary Cooper in High Noon. But…where is my Grace Kelly?”
Screeching brakes, a slamming door, he looks and sees the gun in the hand, the anger in those eyes.
“I told you!” screamed the little boy who grew up without that one crucial piece of information, “I told you and I told you! I want nothing to do with you, ever again…”
“Perry,” she screamed, “I called him. I told him you said it was okay…!”
And then, the not-so-little boy running for his father, his outstretched arms now capped by balled-fists, his hatred manifest, the circle now almost complete.
David tried to step between Perry and Micah as the gun came up.
“I made a mistake once,” David shouted. “I never told you the truth about something important.”
Was it too late? Too late for the words to reach him?
He felt his body as it was pushed aside, heard the muffled pistol as it fired into soft flesh at close range. He stumbled, caught himself and turned in time to see Micah falling to the ground, a spreading crimson stain on the back of his sweater – now just covered by his father’s hand.
The police had long-since finished taking their photographs, making measurements for their diagrams that one day they would show to a jury. He gave a statement to an earnest-faced young cop who dutifully took down everything he said, and he looked on with a knot in his stomach as firemen helped load Micah’s body in the Coroner’s wagon.
Abby looked like a dried-out husk sitting on her blanket, their half-eaten sandwiches strewn across navy fields of prancing polo ponies, her tears cold and blown away, like grains of sand on a windswept dune.
A wrecker backed up to Perry’s Mercedes, and he shook his head before he walked over to one of the cops standing by the patrol car where Perry still sat.
“Mind if I ask him something?” he said to the nearest cop.
“No, go ahead.”
He walked over to the back right door, saw the window was about half-way down so he leaned close: “There’s something I need to tell you. I don’t know if you can hear me, but I need you to listen.”
“What is it, Dad?”
“Well, just that, Perry. I’m not your father.”
There eyes met. “What did you say?”
“I’m not your father. I’m sorry…”
The boy seemed to turn inward for a while, buried under the weight of so many lies, then he spoke one more time: “Did you know who he was?”
“No, I never knew their names. Any of them. I’m sorry.”
The boy struggled to nod but turned away, and just then a cop got behind the wheel and they drove off into the evening fog.
He turned and looked at Abby, still sitting on the blanket down on the sand, and he walked over to her. He knelt and took her hand, squeezed it gently until she blinked once, then again.
“It’s getting cold,” she whispered, and he nodded.
“Is there somewhere I can take you?”
“My parents. They live just outside of Boston.”
He nodded as he helped her stand, and he caught her when her knees gave way. She leaned into him for a moment, until she opened her eyes to the reality of her need.
“Could you take me to the house, please?”
“Sure.” He helped her to the little car and put her trembling body in the passenger’s seat, then he got behind the wheel and turned on the heat, closed the convertible top and latched it shut. “Where do you live?”
She told him and he turned into traffic and drove away.
And as he looked at the receding scene in the rearview mirror he couldn’t help but ask himself one more time, that all those things had never really added up. Not even once.
But why, now, did those things seem so far away, yet so very important?
© 2020 adrian leverkühn | abw | as always, this short story is a work of fiction, and a continuation – of sorts – of an earlier story – but as always, thanks for reading.