Charlie had a wart on the bottom of his foot, brown and textured like dirt stuck to sap. In the first couple of years, as their newborn had nursed his way through life and their marriage was at its peak, Molly had been the one to stay at home with the baby while Nick lived a life in orbit around an office building. But Molly was gone now, and Charlie was five, and it was with some surprise—and some sadness, too—that Nick realized he’d missed those days when he could find cause to look at the naked soles of his own son’s feet. Until now. This was the first time Nick had ever looked at the bottom of Charlie’s bare foot, and there it was, the wart, smack dab in the middle of a smoothly pale sole.
Charlie squirmed and whipped his head around, making to bite Nick’s leg, but Nick stepped back and held his writhing son out before of him. He looked over at Paco near the edge of the baseball diamond. Paco’s kid, barefoot too, seemed tired out, hanging loose with his arms down past his head, his T-shirt bunched up around his armpits. It was May, and that Sunday was the first day that it had been warm enough to take Charlie’s sneakers off, which was good; Doctor Nelson had told them that bare feet were best.
“When you bring your son to the park on Sunday,” he had said, leaning hard on the lectern at the YMCA, “and you remove his shoes, you’re reminding him that you are the boss—the alpha male, if you will—and that you are the reason he has shoes.”
Nick nodded at Paco and Paco nodded back. Doctor Nelson was making the rounds, patting each father on the back in turn and bouncing into a squat to speak sternly to each upside down child. As he dropped down to Charlie’s level he smirked and patted Charlie on the side of the head.
“You okay kiddo?” he asked quietly, resting his arms casually on his knees.
Charlie made a sound, a kind of half-moan half-whimper, and faintly squirmed but gave up quickly. Doctor Nelson nodded, chuckling to himself.
“Alright,” he said, laughing the word out, “well you hang in there.” He paused, staring at the boy. “You get it? Charlie? Hang in there?”
Charlie made the sound again, but didn’t really move. Nick watched, engaged, and smiled at Doctor Nelson as he stood up, groaning.
“You’re doing well Nicholas, you’re doing very well.” He gestured broadly. “Glad to see all these feet!” he exclaimed aloud to the group. Almost all the fathers had removed their son’s shoes by then, and those who hadn’t, Nick figured, probably just hadn’t spoken to Doctor Nelson yet. Phil, standing tall by the swings, had even removed his sons’ shirts; they rested in a ball at his feet. His face was slightly red and his arms bulged from the strain of holding a boy with each arm, but he seemed to be okay. “Do you have any questions?” asked Doctor Nelson, calling Nick back to attention. “Have you been doing the home exercises we practiced last week?”
Nick nodded, “yep—twice a day, right Charlie?” He gave his son a little shake. Charlie didn’t move and Nick smiled at the Doctor.
“Alright, well you two seem to have things under control, Nick you just holler if you have any questions.”
Nick nodded and Doctor Nelson slapped him on the back. He shifted his grip on Charlie’s ankles and watched as the Doctor made his way over to Paco.
Late in the afternoon, after Doctor Nelson and most of the others had left the park and Paco had disappeared down the sidewalk with his son, Charlie was on the playground with Phil and his boys. Nick was in the Honda, the windows down and his seat tipped back. Molly’s lawyer had been ruthless, and the old car was the only thing, aside from Charlie, that he’d managed to keep when he left her. He laid quietly still, staring up at the ceiling of tan cloth which showed its age—sagging down in billows that rippled in the faint spring breeze. Time passed, barely noticed, until the applause of the wind in the oak leaves was broken by the rhythmic slap of sneakered feet running on cement, slowing, and coming to rest beside Nick’s window. He sat up; Charlie was there. They stared at one another.
“I’m ready to go home,” said Charlie.
Nick looked past him to where Phil sat on one of the brown wooden benches, tying his sons’ shoes while they pulled their shirts back on.
“Did you say goodbye to Mr. Mason’s boys?”
They were in bed. Molly was talking. “He says that when we use words like feel and want that we’re just hiding behind what he calls emotional tags,” she said. He couldn’t see, but he knew she’d pantomimed quotation marks as she spoke. He heard the sound of pages being flipped. She cleared her throat and added, “Why is this in our house?”
Nick was half-asleep on his side of the bed, a pillow wedged between his knees, his left arm thrown dramatically over his eyes, shielding them from her reading lamp.
“The Neumann’s gave it to us,” he said. “The Neumann’s are your friends.”
“Well—she paused, and he guessed that she was reading. “Here it is if you feel like looking at it.” She tucked the book under his pillow. “Otherwise just toss it.”
She bent down and kissed him on the cheek, clicked off the light, and rolled over.
The next day, he took it with him to work and skimmed it over lunch. The book was small, the cover a cartoon of a screaming woman with bulging eyes and teased hair, above which the title, I Hate You: The Art Of Simple Communication, was embossed in large black print. The author, Daniel H. Nelson, was, according to the jacket, a leading specialist in radical family psychology and the creator of something called The True Modern Father.
Nick read the book in two days.
Stopped at a red light, Nick watched Charlie in the rearview mirror; his head was slumped forward, fingers frantically tapping at his Gameboy. The roads were nearly empty. Up and down the residential lanes the yellow streetlights were flickering on. When they got home Charlie took the stairs, racing the elevator that Nick rode in. Five stories up and down the white carpeted hall and Nick unlocked the door. Charlie kicked off his shoes and sprinted to the bathroom; Nick picked up the phone and checked the messages.
“Nick, it’s me,” his mom’s voice began as he opened the fridge and pulled out some leftovers. “I was just calling—cause I’ll be at the grocery store tomorrow and I was wondering if you needed anything.” Charlie came into the small kitchen, dragged a chair to the sink, and climbed on. The pipes shuddered in the walls as he turned on the tap and angled his head in for a drink. “I could bring it over when I come tomorrow, just let me know okay? Call me when you get this, I love you sweetie.” She hung up. Nick deleted the message and set the phone on the counter. Charlie was putting the chair back in place.
“What should we have for dinner?” Nick asked him.
Charlie shrugged and made a noise in his throat.
“Pasta?” Nick offered.
Charlie shrugged again, his eyes to the ground, and Nick sighed.
They sat at the small wooden table in the kitchen and ate microwaved spaghetti, left over from two nights before. Charlie left his Gameboy on, set beside his plate, and Nick did the newspaper crossword with a pen.
After dinner Charlie brushed his teeth. Nick called his mom back and changed the sheets on his son’s bed while they talked.
“Did you get my message?”
“Do you need anything?”
He shook a pillow down into its case and tossed it onto the bed. “No, I think we’re okay.”
“You’re sure? ‘Cause I could get Charlie that cereal he likes.”
Nick sighed. “Mom, Charlie doesn’t need chocolate cereal.” He rolled up the dirty sheets and walked them to the hamper in his bedroom. Charlie found him and hugged him goodnight, his little arms like a belt around Nick’s waist.
“Okay—if you say so” she paused and Nick could hear the tapping of a keyboard in the background. “You know—I, uh”—she paused, and Nick could hear more tapping—”I had an email from Molly last night,” she finished slowly, trying to sound upbeat.
“Yeah?” Nick said, slouching on the edge of his bed and staring through the open door at his reflection in the hallway mirror; the beard in need of a trim, the gut in need of a jog.
“She was asking about Charlie.”
Nick closed his eyes. “What’d you tell her?”
“I haven’t replied yet.”
They said goodbye and Nick hung up. The apartment was silent beneath the sound of his breathing: ragged, heavy, and slow.
Molly’s voice echoed distant in his ears. She was poking his ribs. He blinked slowly in the dark until she came into focus—skin the color of cream and eyes wide open. He could tell she was struggling to stay quiet.
“Nick—Nick, wake up.”
The sheet had made its way into a tangle at their feet and he was naked in the heavy summer air, his clothes mixed with hers on the floor. Moonlight or lamplight was coming in through the window, and her chest rose and fell with her quick, shallow breathing. He rubbed his scalp and swallowed hard, reduced in his half-asleep stupor to basic animal instincts.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, his voice cracking.
“I heard a noise.”
He cleared his throat. “Like what?”
“Like a pot—in the kitchen.” She folded her arms beneath her breasts. “Like a pot banging in the kitchen.”
He rubbed sleep from his eyes and swung his legs off the bed, flexing his toes into the coarse wall to wall carpet. The digital alarm clock on the dresser said it was 3:35, and a single bird was chirping outside. He pulled on some sweatpants.
“Just—stay here,” he said.
The floorboards creaked beneath his feet as he shuffled down the hall, then down the carpeted stairs, finally poking his head around the doorway into the kitchen. The cat was on the counter; a pot was on the floor. The dark shape of the table sat hunched in the corner and the vinyl floor was streaked in moonlight through the windows. He moved into the scene and got a glass from the dishwasher.
Molly appeared in the doorway, nervous and small; her bone white skin and the careful, fragmented way she moved made her look ghostly. He filled the glass from the tap and stood there drinking. She turned on the overhead light; they both squinted.
“It was the cat,” Nick said, setting the glass in the sink and blinking quickly.
“It was loud.” She said, yawning as she spoke. “Scary.” She rubbed her eyes with the heels of her palms, her fingers buried in her hairline.
“You’re a coward,” Nick said simply, without much emotion.
“What?” Molly said, lowering her hands and raising her eyebrows.
“Label, then name,” Nick muttered under his breath.
“It’s in the book—the—the book—” Nick explained, brushing her question off with a toss of his hand— “label then name when you would ‘feel’ and then blame.”
“What book?” she asked, squinting again and shaking her head. “What does that even mean?”
“It means when you’re acting like a coward I recognize it, and then tell you you’re a coward,” Nick said, leaning on the counter. “And now, when you’re acting stupid, I tell you.”
“Tell me what?” she asked, speaking to the floor, her head in her hand.
“That you’re stupid,” Nick said, and he smiled.
“So Grandma will pick you up from school, okay?” The car sat idling in the grade-school parking lot; he was talking to Charlie in the rearview mirror. “You can remind her that it’s Meatball Monday, but I think she knows.”
“I’ll see you tonight.”
He nodded again.
“I have to go to work now.”
The car-door creaked as Charlie pushed it open; he hopped out and slammed it shut. Nick waited until the boy had turned and waved at the top of the steps before starting the car up again.
It was another nice day and he drove with the window down until he got to the freeway, at which point he turned on the air conditioning. He popped a faintly labeled white cassette into the tape-deck, number three in the series, Hanging Is The New Hugging: A Six Cassette Path To Becoming A True Modern Father With Dr. Daniel H. Nelson, Ph.D., turned up the volume, and listened as Doctor Nelson’s rumbling voice picked up right where it had left off on Friday, filling the little car: “and so we see that, to the misguided father, his son is like a dumping ground, a place for all of his insecurities to pool. Independent studies have shown that the sons of failed athletes are twice as likely to go into youth sports programs, and three times as likely to suffer sports related injuries.”
“When we hang our sons, not only do we assert ourselves as dominant men, we cease to treat our sons in this way—as receptacles for our own desires—and approach them instead as conduits, through which our insecurities may flow freely away, leaving only patriarchal strength: the Modern Father!”
Nick’s mom was on the couch, sipping cranberry juice from a wineglass; an open book of crossword puzzles lay on the seat beside her. It was almost midnight.
Phil lived in a suburb nearly an hour south of the city, and it had been his night to host the fathers group. Doctor Nelson had shown up late smelling faintly of beer, at which point Phil, a recovering alcoholic, had left the room. He spent most of the evening in the den while the group used his living room to meet. Nick’s mom spoke over her shoulder to him as he leaned with one arm against the wall, by the door, and pulled off his sneakers.
“He was hanging upside down again Nick, after dinner and before I put him to bed.”
During the go-around, one of the fathers had stared at the floor and said that his boy had started hanging himself as well. A couple fathers nodded knowingly, along with Nick, in silent response. Doctor Nelson had been in the bathroom at the time. Nick locked the door and set his keys on the shelf.
“Off the bed?” he asked, confirming.
“Not at first”—she upended the glass, swallowed, and clinked it down on the table—”first I found him in your closet hanging on the bar—Lord knows how he got up there—” she stared at the TV as she spoke, though it wasn’t turned on–”anyway he had headphones in so I guess he didn’t hear me calling him.”
He grabbed a glass of water from the kitchen and came to stand across from her, leaning against the old radiator.
“But then,” she continued, “then I went to check on him about an hour ago? Just to check on him—” she pursed her lips and shook her head, tossed her hand limply in her lap—”and he was hanging upside down off the edge of the bed like on Thursday, remember?” She looked up at him. “Nick?”
Nick looked wearily at his mom but didn’t say anything. He forced a smile and she smiled briefly back at him, her face a mask of wrinkles.
The skin went taut and the lines disappeared. “Nick, is everything okay?”
The following Sunday was decidedly warmer than the one before it had been. Those fathers standing near Phil had followed his example, and at least half a dozen boys dangled shirtless and shoeless, their faces slightly pink from all the blood rushing to their heads, which was another reason Doctor Nelson pushed hanging; “for not only do you strengthen your bond with your child, you strengthen your child’s brain,” he often reminded newcomers. “Take into consideration that the newborn baby needs milk from the teat, in order to develop a healthy body. Does eating make people smart? No!” He would yell, pounding the lectern. “No! As the child grows, he requires nourishment from the other parent—the father—so that he might develop a healthy mind, and it is with our patriarchal strength, our brawn, that we are able to hoist our sons and nourish them!”
Nick could see Doctor Nelson over by the baseball diamond talking quietly with Paco, gesturing with his hands and nodding vigorously from time to time. Finally the exchange seemed to reach its conclusion and Paco almost dropped his son as he thrust his hand toward the Doctor, yanking it back almost immediately to regain control of his rapidly sinking child, whose hair momentarily grazed the dirt.
The Doctor’s back was turned, and Nick smiled encouragingly at Paco, who smiled back and nodded.
“You okay bud?” he asked Charlie, trying for a second to crane his head around so he could see his son’s face, even though Charlie hung roughly an arm’s length away and was facing ahead. “Just a few more minutes and then we’ll take a water-break.” Sweat was beginning to bead on his forehead and the armpits and back of his t-shirt were darkening. A crow alighted on top of the jungle gym and cawed a few times before hopping a few rungs and taking off again, disappearing behind the boughs of an old oak.
Doctor Nelson approached Nick and Charlie.
“And how’re we doing this week?” he asked Charlie, not bothering to drop to a squat this time, stopping instead a few feet away and bending at the waist, his hands at the small of his back as if he were pregnant.
Nick spoke up. “Doing great, aren’t we Cha—”
“—Does Charlie burn easily?” interrupted the Doctor, staring absentmindedly down at the hanging boy.
“Sunburn—sunburn, Nicholas—does your son burn easily in the sun?”
Nick shook his head cautiously. “No, not—not really.”
“Good.” he said, snapping his attention up from Charlie. He took the last few steps to Nick’s side and leaned in close as he spoke. “I’d like you to follow Phil’s example and remove your son’s shirt during the next break.”
“Do you understand why?”
Nick glanced over at the cluster of fathers with Phil at the center. “Same as with the shoes?” he ventured, turning back to face the Doctor.
“More or less, yes.”
The two men were silent for a spell. Somewhere in the neighborhood behind the park an ice cream truck was prowling the streets, its jingle turning the heads of some of the less sun-dazed boys. “Any questions?” Nick asked.
“Any” Nick realized what he’d said. “Nevermind.”
“It’s hot today,” the Doctor said, patting Nick on the shoulder. “After the break maybe you should move to the shade.” He gestured loosely towards Phil.
The pancakes were on a white plate with tin foil over the top. Her green jacket was folded neatly on the counter.
“You don’t have any maple syrup?” she asked, bent down with her head in the fridge. Charlie was still asleep. Nick shook his head. She peered over the door and looked at him.
“No,” he said.
There had been one message on the answering machine when they got home the night before. Nick had listened to it while he made dinner; Charlie was in the shower. It was Molly.
“Nick. It’s me,” she began, her voice filling the apartment. “I guess you’re still doing that—that thing; otherwise you’d probably be home right now.” She paused, but he knew she hadn’t hung up; she’d called for a reason. “Anyw—whatever—look, I just need to come by sometime this week to have you sign a few forms.” She paused again and sighed. “Everything’s fine. I just need to prove that we were—married—when Charlie was born.” She was quiet again, but this time hung up after a few seconds. Nick had been listening from the kitchen, making dinner. He crossed the living room, a glass bowl of half-finished pasta salad under his arm. The small black delete button stuck when he pressed it down. He moved back toward the kitchen but stopped halfway, turned around, and picked up the cordless phone. She answered on the second ring.
Molly ducked back into the fridge. “Maybe jam,” she said to herself.
Nick left the kitchen and went to wake up Charlie. The hallway was dark. His son’s door was cracked and Nick pushed it open. He was asleep sideways on the mattress, his head upside down off the edge, face a deep red. Dirty clothes and small plastic toys were scattered across the wood floor. Charlie’s eyes fluttered and he pulled himself up, clutching his head; he flopped back down and lay almost motionless, breathing deeply, his head now on a pillow.
Nick stood just inside the door. “Your mom’s here,” he said. “She brought you breakfast.”
Charlie opened his eyes and nodded. Nick turned and left the room.
“Is he up yet?” Molly asked, scooting her chair back and standing.
“No,” Nick said. He sat down across from her.
She sat back down and then made a little revelatory noise, stood, and left the room, returning shortly with her purse. “Here,” she murmured, pulling out a manila envelope and tossing it onto the table before him. “The, uh—the forms.”
He undid the small metal clasp and slid the papers out. The tinfoil crinkled as Molly removed it—twisted in her chair to toss it in the sink. She pulled a fork and knife out of her purse and began cutting the pancakes.
“Don’t you think he’s a little old for you to be cutting his food up for him?”
The utensils clattered as she dropped them onto the plate, “He’s five, Nick. He’s five years old.”
They stared across the table at each other. Nick set the forms down. Molly resumed cutting. After a moment Nick spoke. “What are these for?” he asked, tapping the pages.
Charlie’s ankles were sweating. Or Nick’s hands—maybe his hands were the problem. Paco hadn’t shown up; Nick kept glancing absently at his empty place by the baseball diamond.
“Try and hold still Charlie,” he said as Doctor Nelson approached.
“I am,” came Charlie’s voice, choked and distant.
Doctor Nelson paused to chat with one of the other fathers and when Nick took the opportunity to adjust his grip he nearly lost hold; Charlie dropped a couple inches and yelped as Nick clamped down, probably bruising the tendons.
“Sorry bud,” he whispered, as Doctor Nelson gave the father a friendly punch to the arm and turned back towards them. “You okay?”
Charlie’s weight shifted slightly, but Nick couldn’t tell if he was nodding or shaking his head. Nick’s arms trembled under the strain of Charlie’s weight and he pulled him in closer, trying to ease the tension. He glanced over at Phil, who’d shaved his sons’ heads during the week, and appeared to be using one of their feet to scratch his neck.
“Nicholas!” boomed the Doctor, clapping his hands and smiling squint-eyed against the sun. He sidled over and watched silently as Nick stood rooted, stolid, sweating. Finally the Doctor spoke. “Struggling some today?”
Nick gritted his teeth, shook his head. Charlie moved slightly and Nick’s arms trembled. The Doctor smiled and shielded his eyes with a hand to the brow: “how long is Charlie’s hair these days?” he asked, his voice starting high and slowly, innocently, sinking.
Nick stared at Doctor Nelson. “I don’t know—” he said, pausing for a deep breath—”a few—a few inches?’
The Doctor’s gaze darted past Nick’s shoulder for a second, flitting to where Phil stood, scratching his shoulder with his son’s foot and towering over the others. He met Nick’s gaze again and nodded, “okay.”
Nick glanced again to the baseball diamond; Paco’s spot was still empty. The sun beat down and the playground reflected the glare. The grass underfoot bristled and crunched. Each father—focused solely on holding his son’”stood statue-still; the only things moving were Nick’s heaving chest and the Doctor.
“Have you been doing th—”
“The exercises. Yeah.” Nick nodded. An ant was crawling along one of his arms. The Doctor’s hands were in his pockets. Paco’s spot was still empty.
Nick could feel the back of his neck burning. Across the field two of the other fathers were talking to each other and now one of them laughed loudly, a deep booming laugh, a father’s laugh, a simple laugh.
“Well good then,” the Doctor said, sighing. He rocked back on his heels and glanced over his shoulder at the laughing father. He turned back to Nick. “Only gets worse now,” he said.
“What?” Nick asked.
The Doctor glanced past Nick again but only for an instant. “The heat,” he said. “The summer.”
Both men were silent. Finally Nick nodded.
“Go easy,” said the Doctor, patting Nick’s shoulder. “Don’t kill yourself.”
Nick nodded again. “Yeah,” he said. His mouth was dry and his voice barely croaked.
“I mean it,” added the Doctor over his shoulder, as he moved on. The ant had disappeared but Nick could feel it in his hair. The Doctor was gone and now Nick’s arms began to tremble so violently that his vision shook. Charlie whimpered and squirmed and Nick could feel sweat pooling in the space between his fingers and see it running in slow, hot rivulets down Charlie’s legs, disappearing into his shorts. He hiked Charlie up to adjust his grip. The father across the field laughed again. Charlie’s ankles were sweating—or maybe Nick’s hands—and when Nick lost his grip Charlie fell.
He woke up sometime before dawn. The humidity had broken around sunset when the storm came. Now the power was out and his clock was blank. He lay still and listened to the wind outside. After a time he got out of bed, went to the bathroom, sat in the dark and peed; the toilet was loud when he flushed it. In the kitchen he got a drink of water and then went back down the hall, where he paused at Charlie’s door, open just a crack. The yellow glow from the battery-powered nightlight by his bed was soft and warm. Nick eased the door open slowly.
The room was bathed in yellow light and the tiny shadows of angels; wings and trumpets and robes blanketed the walls and Charlie’s sleeping face; the nightlight was a box made of tracing paper with a small yellow bulb inside, the same kind that Nick’s parents had given him when he was little.
Charlie was asleep sideways on the bed, his head upside down off the edge. His small chest rose and fell and the shadows from the nightlight bent with each breath. His pillow had fallen and lay amidst the toys on the floor. Nick went back to his room.
The shelf creaked as he pulled himself up, and he could feel the bar sag as he relaxed his weight and let go, but it held. He couldn’t fathom how Charlie had managed to get himself up to this height, but he suddenly understood why, and that how didn’t matter. The warm rush of blood to his head and the rhythmic pounding of his heartbeat in his ears begin to drown everything out, anything outside of him slipping away. The room was his, the bed—now on the ceiling—empty and unmade; the whole scene bathed orange by the billboard across the street. He let his arms hang loose and his fingers splay as he slowly closed his eyes. Felt the sudden loneliness of a child being sent to bed while his parents stayed up and entertained guests downstairs; he could almost hear their muffled voices beneath the pounding of his own heart, but as he fell asleep even that slipped away until he knew he was alone in silence.