I’d been sending the boys out with the candy bars for a couple of months, them crisscrossing their way through the neighborhoods. Snickers, Crunch, 1000 Grand, all the usuals. I was in a pinch after getting my walking papers and got the idea from when the boys did something similar for their middle school’s fundraiser earlier that year. Any money the boys got this time they got to keep, of course, Wyatt spending most of his take on books, Dalton on supplies for Duke, his pet hamster. They made out all right, too, being the damn handsome fellas they were. They would knock on folks’ doors, stand there holding their boxes with the lids open, and people would shell out a couple bucks. Folks are suckers for kids doing good deeds. Can’t resist.
At each house, the boys were to take sort of a quick inventory of what they saw from the porches and make note of anything worthwhile. Flatscreens, cameras, game systems, stuff like that. If they saw anything of the sort, they were to mark down the address in the notepad I gave Wyatt, the older of the two, and make a list of the goods. They were also to keep an eye out for anything that might jam up the operation. Big dogs, alarm systems, and so on.
In case anybody came around asking questions, I kept a couple fliers from the actual fundraiser in the glove box. While I waited, I’d sit in the car and work on my miniatures. I had a little paint kit and I could usually finish one, maybe two, figurines—the broad strokes, at least—under the dome light in the hour or two I’d let the boys loose. See, the thing is, I have little hands, which has both its advantages and disadvantages. The former being I’m good with small parts, such as my miniatures. The latter being I’m good with small parts, such as picking locks. That side of it has occasionally landed me in trouble over the years. Mostly petty stuff, B&E and the like. I mostly worked with this five-man crew. We were good, clean and efficient, or so we thought. Then a job went bad, a security guard got shot up—didn’t die, but came close—and we each landed ourselves a decent chunk of rehabilitation. Anyway, my current project was a 1/16th scale dojo I had in progress at home. Was starting to look pretty damn good, if you ask me. So there I was painting the bandana on this little kung fu fighter when Wyatt hopped in shotgun, Dalton in back.
“How’d we do?” I said, starting to pack up my paints.
“Good, sir,” Wyatt said. He’d started calling me sir around the time me and his mother split. He could inflect those sirs just slightly this way or that to communicate all sorts of undertones.
“Yeah, Dad. Twenty-seven bucks,” Dalton said.
“That’s real fine, son. How about addresses?”
“Six, sir.” Wyatt said.
“Six? Travis ain’t gonna like that.”
“Quality, not quantity, though, sir. Look.” Wyatt plucked the pad out of his back pocket, flipped it to that night’s list, and handed it to me.
“This one,” I said and glanced it over. “The one with golf clubs and all that? No alarm?”
“No, sir. Not that I could tell.”
“Yeah, Dad, not a motion sensor in sight,” Dalton said.
I looked over at Wyatt, who gave a nod.
“Twenty-seven bucks?” I said as I threw ‘er into drive and pulled out into the street. “You boys must have been on fire tonight.”
I stopped by Travis’ on the way home. The two of us had been close back in high school. Played on the basketball team together. Got drunk together. Skipped class together. Got kicked off the basketball team together. And so on. We thought flipping burgers beneath us, so we devised all variety of scams to make beer money. One summer we painted peoples’ addresses on their curbs. We’d say we were from the city and tell them that, by law, their house number had to be legible on the curb otherwise they’d be subject to a $100 fine. Just so happened, we had the paint and stencils with us and could fix them up for a mere $25. Occasionally somebody’d call our bullshit, but most were eager to comply. I think we liked the high we got from pulling one over on people as much as we did the money.
So, the way this routine worked was I gave Travis the addresses, his crew would check them out, and whichever ones they hit, I’d get a cut. I handed Travis that night’s list. He took a drag off his Black & Mild and looked over the sheet of paper.
“This it?” he said.
“Quality not quantity, as they say.”
“We’ll see ‘bout that.” Travis handed me a small roll of bills bound up in a rubber band. “Only hit a few off last week’s,” he said.
“Tell your boys how-dee for me.” As Travis turned to go in, his incontinent old mutt of a dog made a move for the door and Travis kicked it back into the house. Stepping off the front porch, I fingered through the roll of bills and counted our cut. Wasn’t much, but it was enough to get us through the week. Back in the car, Wyatt and Dalton were fighting, Dalton reaching over Wyatt’s seat and going for his neck.
“Dalton,” I said. “Off ‘im. Now!”
“He’s a grifter, Dad,” Dalton said, letting go of Wyatt and leaning back in his seat. “A goddamn grifter!”
“I am not. I gave him thirteen and I kept fourteen and told him I owe him fifty cents. That’s when he started trying to choke me, so I—”
“I don’t care who started it, Wyatt. Now, give me a dollar.” Wyatt begrudged me some but gave me it. I handed the bill to Dalton. “Here you go. You owe your brother fifty cents. Now don’t you forget it.”
Tammy was a little thing, but she had legs damn near up to her chin. We’d been dating a few weeks. She was sweet, and I knew the woman had stick-to-it-iveness because she was in a twelve-step and had been sober just over a year, which was about double my longest. She was a pet manicurist at a place called—honest to God—“The Wizard of Paws” and told me all about it on our first date.
“I even did a lizard one time. The kind that changes colors.”
“A chameleon? You gotta be kidding me.”
“Yep, a real, live chameleon. It was actually kinda cute with its little eyes looking all around while I did my thing. Puppies are my favorite, though. Ooh, don’t get me started on puppies. I like to pick them up and just squeeze the air out of their little ribcages.”
“Jesus,” I laughed. “Don’t let the manager catch you doing that.”
“Sweetie, I am the manager.”
I took her back to my place that night, the boys already asleep when we got home, and had some good times. Wore each other out like high school kids the better part of the night. Next morning, I woke her up early so she could duck out before the boys started stirring.
“Oh, wow,” she said, peering over the work-in-progress dojo on my worktable while pulling her boots up. “If this ain’t just about the neatest thing I ever seen.”
“Oh, don’t mind that.” I said, buckling my belt. “That’s just something I fool around with to keep busy.”
“You made this?” She picked up a little bandana’d kung fu figure.
“Well, the figures I just paint. But, yeah, I make the sets.”
“Seriously? Sweetheart, it’s gorgeous.”
Fast and hard isn’t typically how I fall, but when Tammy said that I knew I was in trouble. My ex-wife, the boys’ mom, could not have given two shits about my miniatures. She’d come in, see me working on a Civil War battlefield or something and snicker and ask if I was playing with my “Barbies.” She knew just how to hit the nerve and pluck it like a guitar string.
Our divorce was of the ilk that made me question whether us humans were really programmed for matrimony: bitter and full of shouting that carried out the front door and into the street. Wyatt was old enough to remember parts, and I believe he harbored things against me for it, for what he saw and what he heard. Can’t say I blame him much. Those were awful times. Just awful. Dalton, thank God, was too young and the worst of it never had the chance to embed in his brain. Every now and then, we’d get a letter in the mail, each one postmarked from a different state. They always end the same way: “I’m going to try to come see you real soon. Love, Mom.” But she never did.
Tammy stayed over a few more times before I formally introduced her. Dalton took to her pretty much right from the git-go. Wyatt, not so much. He eyed her with suspicion, as if at any moment she might grow fangs and try to suck his blood. But Tammy was the closest thing to a saint I’d ever come across. We were getting on so well in fact that, before too long, I asked her to move in.
“Great news, sir,” Wyatt said when I told him and Dalton the news. “I can’t wait to help her move out in six months.”
It was true. Long-term relationships weren’t my forte, but this one just felt right. And Tammy knew I was out of work at the time, so she asked if she could split the rent. Insisted on it, in fact. Who was I to stop her?
Duke wasn’t doing too hot. He’d become sedentary, hardly moving around his cage and only climbing up onto his wheel ever so often just to sit there for a few seconds and then think better of it. I watched from Dalton’s doorway as he and Tammy did some research on the Internet to try and figure out what was wrong. Most of the symptoms pointed to cancer, but Dalton, always the optimist, kept right on insisting it was just a sprained ankle or something.
“You’re probably right,” Tammy told him. “That back one does look a little swollen.”
“Dalton,” I said. “Get your coat on. It’s time to go.”
The boys and I went out with the candy bars that afternoon, Saturday. Hit up this newish neighborhood called Belmont Estates. A bit ritzier than our usual stops, but not so much so, I figured, that everybody’d have alarms. Boys did a bang-up job, too, and brought back eleven addresses, which we dropped off at Travis’. He was real pleased and commended me and the boys on our “R&D.” When we got back home, Tammy was on the couch reading a magazine in her short-skirted bathrobe and had cotton balls stuck in between her toes.
“There’s my handsome boys.” She waddled over to me on her heels and kissed me.
“Do you have to do that in front of us, sir?” Wyatt said.
“Alright, alright,” Tammy said, taking her position on the couch. “Where y’all been?”
“Just out helping the boys with a little school fundraising is all.”
“Yeah? Where at?”
“You boys go get ready for bed,” I said, and they were off. I grabbed a beer from the fridge, joined Tammy on the couch, and kicked my shoes off.
“You know I’m not going to kiss you with that beer on your breath,” Tammy said, sidling up next to me.
“Just the one. Then I’ll brush my teeth.”
“So,” she said and resumed painting her toenails. “What are they fundraising for?”
“Hmm?” I took a swig of beer. “Oh, they need some new climbing ropes in the gym.”
“Climbing ropes? That’s about the lamest fundraiser I ever heard of.” She turned to me and swept the hair out of my eyes with her fingers. “That’s good of you to help, though. A lot of daddies wouldn’t even bother.”
“Well, I do what I can, I guess,” I said and took another slug from the bottle.
A few days later, I was at my worktable putting in a couple of hours on the dojo, which was getting close to being done, when Tammy came in.
“What in the H-E-double-hockey-sticks is this?”
I looked up and saw she was holding Wyatt’s pad up in the air. Damn.
“Hmm?” I said, feigning ignorance. “What is that, a Gideon’s?”
“No.” She opened the pad up and splayed it out in front of me on the desk. I stared down at the damning record of every trip out with the candy bars—broken down by date, neighborhood, and address, valuables included—of the last few months.
“Where’d you find this?” I said.
“In Wyatt’s pants.”
“Why were you going through Wyatt’s pants?”
“I was doing the dadgum laundry. And I find this thinking it’s one of his notebooks for a class or something until I open it up. So? Do you wanna stop acting smart and tell me what this is all about? That is your handwriting, isn’t it?”
Life’s all about choices, they tell me. I could try to lie my way out of it. Say I was a furniture mover for-hire or something. Or I could put the cards on the table and see if she left. Wouldn’t be the first to do so. I wanted her to stay, of course, but not if she was only going to leave me when she found out the truth a few weeks down the road. So I told her. I told her about getting laid off—desperate times, desperate measures and all that—and explained how it was just temporary until something else kicked in. She stood with her arms crossed and waited patiently for me to finish delivering my tale of woe.
“I guess,” I said, “it’s what some might call the tyranny of habit.”
“The tyranny of habit, huh? My, aren’t we poetic. Sounds to me more like a barrel of bullshit.” It was the first time I’d actually heard her use a curse word. “Now, I hope you won’t mind my giving you a bit of advice. No?”
“Good. Wanna know what my sponsor says about the truth? She says it’s a rabbit in the bramble patch. You can’t always put your hand on it, but you always know it’s in there somewhere. Follow me? Now I’m willing to bet that, deep down, you don’t buy a word of that bologna sandwich you just tried to sell me. Am I right?”
The woman had a knack for acuity. Tammy went on to disabuse me of my false notion that what I was doing with the boys was all more or less harmless. In doing so, she revealed in herself something to me that had been lacking in the other women I’d dated. When all was said and done, she didn’t leave. Threatened to, but she didn’t leave.
“I’m sorry, darling,” I said.
“Don’t apologize to me. Apologize to those boys. They’re the ones you let down.”
“It was a stupid thing to do. Come on, now.” I patted my leg. “Saddle up.”
“You swear?” Her arms remained folded. “You swear you’re done with candy bar nonsense?”
“Cross my heart and hope to die. Now, come on.”
“Say it. Say, ‘I’m done with the candy bar nonsense.’”
“Jesus H. Christ,” I laughed. “I swear. I’m done with the candy bar nonsense. I won’t leave the house with so much as a Twix. OK? Now get on over here.”
“OK,” she said, sitting down on my lap. “We’ll find you something a little more befitting of your talents. Promise.”
We had boxes and boxes of candy bars left over. I was eating them for lunch most days, and what little funds I had stashed away were drying up faster than spit on hot asphalt. I started combing the want ads, making phone calls, filling out applications online. Everyday, Tammy would come home and ask me, “Any bites?” and I’d shake my head and shrug it off as if the sting of rejection weren’t starting to get to me. Only once or twice did it occur to me to sneak out with the boys and a box of candy bars for a couple of hours. I’d given my word, though, and I knew I needed to adhere by it.
After a particularly demoralizing string of “not-interested”s one afternoon, I got a text from Tammy. “Help Wanted,” it said, “at a little watch repair shop in the strip mall down the street. Got a good feeling about this one, babe! ?” So, I hoofed it down to the mall and found the shop. The sign on the awning read “Watch Repair,” the plainness of which struck me as quaint.
The bell rang when I walked in the front door. The place was a mess, boxes and such stacked from the floor all the way to the ceiling. In the wall behind the counter, which ran the length of the narrow shop, were rows upon rows of drawers—some of which no wider than a dime—that seemed to go on forever.
I hadn’t even noticed him among all the clutter, but a short little fella was behind the counter fooling around with a pocket watch. He sounded Russian or Polish or something—German, maybe—and had a jeweler’s monocle gripped in the flesh of his left eye.
“Fine shop you got here.”
“Huh?” He kept right on working.
“I said, fine little shop you got here.”
“Fine shop? Shop shit.”
“Right. Well, I see you’re looking for some help.”
“The sign in the door? Help wanted, right? I’d like to fill out an application.”
“Do you ever fix watch before?”
“A watch? No. But I’m good with my hands.”
“Yes? Show me. Show me hands.”
I held them up and turned them front to back to front.
He looked up from his work just long enough to glance and said, “Hmmph. Hands like woman.”
“Mister, that’s some kind of nerve you got. Some kind,” I said and started to leave.
“Wait, wait, wait. You don’t wear watch, I see. You never fix watch, you say. But you want to work at Watch Repair?”
“Like I said, mister—”
“Fine. Here,” he said. He reached down below and pulled out a sheet of black felt, which he laid on the counter. Then he dug through one of the drawers behind him and said, “Ah!” and put an old, rusty wristwatch that looked like it had been salvaged from a sunken ship and a set of small tools on the sheet of felt. “Fix. Let me know when finished.” With that, he disappeared into the back of the shop.
It took me a half hour or so to disassemble the thing and acquaint myself with its innards, after which the source of the malfunction became plain to me. The big gear and small gear weren’t meshing up with the winding mechanism, so it was just a matter of tightening a few tiny screws and making sure a gasket was flush against the casing. After that, I had the thing ticking like a metronome.
“Done, mister—” I called to nowhere in particular. I poked my head around a few of the stacks of boxes and when I looked back to the counter, the German/Polish/Russian fella was already behind it. He picked the rusty watch up off the felt, held it to his ear, and stink-eyed me.
“You did not oil?”
“Is no matter. Is fix.” He grabbed the placard from the front window that listed the business hours and slid it across the counter to me. “You work here this times.”
“All of them?” I asked.
“Hours no good? Fine. Good-bye.”
“No, no. The hours are good. I just—“
“Good. Yes.” He grabbed my hand and shook it disinterestedly. “Start tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow? Right. OK, well. Appreciate it, Mr.—“
“Godlewski. Yes. Good-bye.”
When I got home, Dalton was on the couch watching TV while Wyatt did his homework at the kitchen table, Tammy trying her damnedest to help whenever she could.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” I announced. “You’re looking at a gainfully employed man. What do you have to say about that?”
“Dalton!” Wyatt said and slapped him on the back of the head. “He means, congratulations, sir.”
Tammy squealed and came and hugged me. “I knew it was just a matter of time,” she said.
That night, we celebrated with fried chicken and sparkling grape juice and played Monopoly and listened to good music. I told them about the strange little man who was to be my boss and about how I fixed the watch. But even though I should have been in fine spirits, a pang of melancholy—the kind you get on Christmas morning when everything’s almost too perfect—kept welling up in my craw.
When I first arrived at Leavenworth State Penitentiary, I plowed through the all books in the prison library that looked worth reading. Knocked out One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in about fifteen hours time. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in about twenty. The latter I liked a lot even though I only followed about half of it, the maintenance half. When I’d finished all the books that interested me after just a few weeks, I needed something new to keep my mind from turning in on itself. Just so happened my celly was into building these miniature sets. I took to it right away. With it, I finally understand the Zen part, I suppose, the part about living outside your own head for a while. After I was released, the hobby stuck. The only drawback being that I could become so immersed with my miniatures that I had a tendency to lose track of time.
I was late picking up the boys. On the way out the door I fed Duke, whose weight was ballooning more each day. By the time I got to the school most of the other parents had already been by and I was able to pull right into the roundabout in front of the building. I gave the horn a couple quick honks to rally the boys, and when they didn’t show after a couple minutes I cut the engine and started making my way up to the school. I spotted one of Wyatt’s teachers who told me she saw him and Dalton over by the blacktop. As I rounded the corner, I could hear a holler echoing out across the yard.
“Ooh-wee!” Travis said. “That was from downtown. Nice stroke on you, son.”
Wyatt was collecting the basketball, which had bounced into the grass.
“Let’s pack it up, boys,” I said. “Time to go.”
“What’s the good word, partner?” Travis said as Wyatt passed him the ball. “Ain’t seen you around.”
“Yeah, I know.” The boys gathered around me and I wrangled each with an arm. “Been busy.”
“So I hear. Could have called, you know, if you needed to take a break from the gig. Actually, I think it’s a good idea. Nothing worse than predictability.”
“Yeah, I don’t think we’re going to be doing that anymore. You take care, Travis.” I started walking the boys to the car.
“OK. Well, good to see you, too,” he said. “Don’t be a stranger.”
When we were all in the car I turned to the boys and said, “I don’t want you talking to Travis, OK? You see him coming again you go wait inside for me, you hear?”
“Wyatt, you hear me?”
“We hear you, sir.”
It was a wonder to me how the shop managed to stay in business. Customers were scarce, and most of the time they just needed new batteries put in their Casios and Timexes. I made the mistake one week of trying to kill some down time by organizing all the boxes and clutter that appeared to have mounted up over the decades of neglect.
“Shoo, shoo,” Mr. Godlewski said. “You start meddling, I lose track everything.”
So in between changing watchbands and batteries I mainly just read old paperback novels. Sci-fi and Spillane and the like. Once in a while, though, somebody’d bring in a Waltham or an Elgin or some other brand, Mr. Godlewski explained to me, that had long been out of business. The arrival of one of these watches would make his eyes light up like rhinestones and he’d have me follow him back to his workbench, a funny little gallop in his step.
“Look,” he’d say. Then he’d dismantle the watch as carefully as if it were a bomb, arrange the dozens of tiny pieces on the black felt top of his bench, and marvel. “All this just to make tick, tick, tick.”
“Yeah, mystifying,” I said. “How all that can fit into something so small.”
“Yes, exactly. This what makes watch so beautiful. No wasted space. Everything just so.”
Then he’d walk me through the steps of the repair, making sure I understood the what, the why, and how of each along the way. He must have sensed a genuine interest on my part because as I was manning the register one afternoon he brought over a stack of repair manuals.
“Read these,” he said. “Better use of time than comic books.”
I pored through the manuals. I learned about wheels and pinions, dial trains and quartz vibration rates. I came to realize that a watch, resilient yet fragile, is a lot like person. One can take a blow from a hammer no problem, but bump it at just the right angle at just the right time and the whole damn thing goes out of whack.
I was in the middle of a manual titled “Classic Watch Schematics” one Monday when I got a call from Wyatt’s guidance counselor, Mr. Gilmour. Said he wanted to know when I thought Wyatt was going to be well enough to return to his full class schedule. For the last two weeks, apparently, Wyatt had been missing his two classes leading up to lunch hour.
“News to me,” I said.
“Well,” Gilmour said, “I’m in possession of a letter, written by you, excusing Wyatt from P.E. and Social Studies.”
“Mr. Gilmour, it looks like Wyatt’s pulled one over us. Do me a favor, OK? Don’t tell Wyatt we talked. Let me at him first and then he’s all yours. Work for you?”
“Certainly. I’d be very surprised if there’s not a perfectly good reason for it all.”
After I’d hung up, I explained my situation to Mr. Godlewski. I asked if he could spare me for a couple hours the next day and that I could make up any work I missed on my own time, if need be.
“Not necessary,” he said. “Family. Family above all.”
I sat in my car parked across from the school on a residential street so I could see the front of the building. I put the key in the ignition and turned it a click so the radio powered on. The time was 9:52 AM as Travis pulled up in his Caddy, his dog’s head sticking out the back window with a trail of drool dangling from its mouth. A few minutes later, Wyatt came out the front door of the school and got in the Caddy.
I tailed them to a neighborhood on the west side of town near the airport, where they parked on the street in the shade of a big maple tree. I pulled up behind them. They were so engrossed in whatever they were talking about they didn’t even notice me until I leaned in the open passenger side window and said, “Out for a drive, fellas?”
They both startled. Wyatt froze. He had a box of candy bars in his lap.
“Fuck’s sake, man,” Travis said. “Don’t gotta be sneaking up on people like that.”
“Out. Now.” I opened the door and Wyatt stepped out. “Leave the goddamn candy bars.”
After Wyatt had himself buckled in the passenger seat of my car, I ducked my head back in the Caddy’s window. “Just what do you think you’re doing with my boy, Travis?”
“Jesus Christ, man. You act like I’m some sort of child molester or something.”
“I asked you a question.”
“Don’t go getting your panties in a bunch,” he said, lighting up a Black & Mild. “We were just doing a little R&D.”
“Didn’t I tell you we’re not doing that anymore?”
“Yeah, well, Wyatt apparently didn’t agree with you on that one.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means,” he said. He took a long, slow drag. “Your boy came to me.”
“The hell he did.”
“Well, I hate to disappoint you, but he said he wrote a little letter to get himself out of school. Sharp kid. Like father like son, eh?”
“Go fuck yourself, Travis.”
“Now, listen. That shit ain’t nice. Who came and visited you in the pen? Huh? Who checked in on your woman and Wyatt and Dalton? And this, this is the thanks I get? You make me sad, amigo. But I tell you what, I think I got a solution that’ll make everyone happy. We’ll be making the rounds Friday night, but we’re a man short.”
“Not gonna happen, Travis.”
“Hear me out. All’s we need is a driver. You know the drill. Keep quiet, keep a lookout. That’s it. You do this, Wyatt’s out, you’re out. No hard feelings.”
“Travis,” I said. “We go way back and all, but you talk to either of my boys again and I’ll bust you up. I’ll bust your ass up real bad. Got that?”
“OK. Sure.” He pulled a pistol out from under his seat and, as casually as if it were a pair of reading glasses, started breathing on it and rubbing it with his shirt. “You do that.”
I looked over at Wyatt, who had his head down on the dashboard. When I looked back into Travis’s car there he was, gun still in hand, and his mutt of a dog was staring at me with a queer look on his face.
“Stay away from us, Travis,” I said.
The ride back to the school was mostly quiet, Wyatt staring out the window at the scenery as we drove across town.
“I told you to stay away from Travis, didn’t I?”
“No. You said we couldn’t talk to him if he came to the school. You didn’t say—”
“Don’t be a smart-ass. You know damn well what I meant. And you forged a note? And you’ve been missing school. Am I missing anything else?”
“I sure as hell hope not.”
“You’re such a hypocrite,” he said under his breath.
“What was that?”
“I said, sir, that you’re a hypocrite. How was it OK before when we were doing it? And now Tammy comes along and I get in trouble for doing the same thing?”
“Tammy? Tammy’s got nothing to do with this, Wyatt. Let me put it this way: The truth is a bramble patch. No, the truth is a rabbit in a bramble patch, and if you let the rabbit eat all the vegetables…wait.”
“Sir, what are you talking about?”
“Look, you’re grounded. And you’re gonna talk to Mr. Gilmour and you’re gonna accept whatever punishment he gives you. Got that?”
Thursday night, Dalton went to feed Duke and discovered him lying in the corner of his cage bleeding from his ears. He called me in to have a look. Poor bastard was on his deathbed, his breathing labored and inconsistent.
“It’s time, Dad,” Dalton said.
“Time for what?”
“Time to put him down. Go ahead,” Dalton said. “I’ll start digging a grave out back.”
I collected Duke from out of his cage. In the kitchen, I found a paper bag, placed Duke inside, and took him out to the driveway. I got in the car, turned the ignition, and revved the engine a few times. Then went around to the rear of the car and wrapped the mouth of the paper bag around the exhaust pipe and held it in place. It would only take a few minutes, I figured. I sat down in the gravel and watched my breath plume out before me in the cold night air. While I waited, my mind began to wander and I thought back to the day we bought Duke at the pet store. Dalton had said Duke looked like a little brown tennis ball with the way he had these two strips of white down his back. At the register, I was a couple dollars short, so Wyatt dug into his pockets, fished out a couple bucks, and offered them to make up the difference. Dalton hugged Wyatt so tight he turned red in the face. If ever we had anything resembling the salad days, those were them.
“He went peacefully,” I told Dalton back in the house.
“Thanks, Dad. The grave’s ready out back.”
Dalton, Tammy, and Wyatt gathered around in the backyard as I placed Duke, in the tattered old shoebox that was his coffin, down into the hole.
“I’m so sorry for your loss, honey,” Tammy said, wiping tears from her cheeks. She hugged Dalton and stroked his head.
“Life’s a bitch and then you die,” Dalton said. “Huh, Dad?”
“Sure feels that way sometimes. Don’t it?”
The week had been an especially slow one, no more than a couple customers here and there. As I was clocking out Friday evening Mr. Godlewski called me back to the office and asked me to sit down. Never a good sign.
“I am apologizing. I must give you this gift.” He reached into his desk drawer, pulled out a watchcase, and laid it in front of me.
“Where I’m from, people don’t usually apologize for giving somebody a present.”
“Yes. Well, open.”
Inside the case was a Waltham. A little beat up, but it had been polished and fitted with a new band so that it looked pretty damn good.
“I know is not much consolation. You are good employee, but I must fire you.”
“Yeah, I figured some bad news was coming my way.” I wrapped the watch across my wrist and buckled the leather band.
“Do you like?”
“Yes, Mr. Godlewski, it’s a fine watch. Awful kind of you.”
“No one wears watch this days. All mobile phones and the computers and digital screens every place. Old days, I was busy as one-armed piano player. Now, business not so good.” Part of me wanted to ask him why he’d hired me in the first place, if he’d thought that the whole world was on the verge of converting back to analog. But I didn’t see much use in it.
“I understand, Mr. Godlewski. It’s been a pleasure working for you,” I said. I stood up and, not wanting to make a ceremony of the whole thing, started heading for the exit.
“Pleasure has been all my own,” Mr. Godlewski said, trailing behind me.
Half way out the door, I looked down at the watch, turned, and said, “It’s the one I fixed when you hired me, isn’t it?”
“Little oil, little cleanup. No trouble. Least I could do.”
“Well,” I said and reached out my hand to shake his.
“No,” he said. “In Poland they have superstition. Is bad luck to shake hand with one in doorway.”
I stepped back into the office and shook his hand.
Out in my car, I pulled out my cell phone and scrolled through my contacts to Travis’ number. I hit call, but before it even started ringing, hit end and tossed the phone in the passenger seat. I started the car, put it in drive, and sat there with my foot on the brake.
“Goddammit,” I said.
I threw it in park, picked up my cell phone, and hit call.
We had a bit of a tradition going: Sunday Dinner. Tammy would throw something in the crockpot—the smell of a soup or stew or some such thing filling the house throughout the day—then the four of us would sit down to eat. This particular Sunday, it was pot roast. As she always did, Tammy had us bow our heads, close our eyes, and clasp one another’s hands while she recited the Lord’s Prayer. Not being a particularly religious man, I cocked an eye open to look around. Dalton, Wyatt, and Tammy all had their eyelids clinched tight, Dalton mouthing the words along with Tammy. Around the time she got to “give us this day our daily bread” something caught my attention. On the opposite wall, the curtains over the windows were glowing off and on with red and blue.
In my experience, the police weren’t in the habit of announcing their arrival, so I began to contrive other reasons why they might be parked out front the house. Maybe the folks across the street had been beating on each other again. Maybe there was a fugitive on the loose. Maybe it was a regular old traffic stop. Could be a dozen things other than what had my gut turning knots.
“Amen,” I said when Tammy had finished saying grace. “Thank you, sweetheart. I’d like to say something, too, if that’s OK.”
“Of course, darling.”
Wyatt, Dalton, and Tammy looked at me and waited for me to speak. As I wasn’t in the habit of delivering orations, they must have believed I had a profound speech of sorts in mind. In a way, I suppose, I did.
I wanted to tell them I’ve made mistakes—plenty, at that—but that the three of them inspired in me the mettle to want to try to do better. I wanted to tell Dalton that life’s a bitch, and then you die ain’t the sum of it. I wanted to say to Wyatt that I had been a hypocrite and for that I was sorry. And I wanted to tell Tammy that she was the best thing to ever happen to me and the boys and that I was so very grateful for everything she’d done for us. I wanted to say all these things, but, like a kid who climbs up the high-dive only lose his grit when he sees how far it is down to the water, I couldn’t get the words to leave the tip of my tongue.
Instead, all I could muster was, “I’d just like to say that I’m honored to share this meal with the three of you fine people.”
I hoped that there was a chance that those few words might be enough, that Dalton, Wyatt, and Tammy would discern my meaning. But, when I laid my hand in the bramble patch I felt the fur of the rabbit’s back graze my palm and I knew my words had surely fallen short.
“Aww, that’s sweet. Boys, wasn’t that sweet of your daddy?”
“Yeah, Dad,” Dalton said. “We’re honored, too.”
“Yes, sir. It’s an honor.”
As Tammy started scooping out mounds of beef and potatoes and carrots and onions into our bowls I got up and grabbed a beer—my cigarette before the firing squad of sorts—from the fridge.
“Oh,” Tammy said. “And there’s candy bars for dessert.”
The room was quiet as we ate except for the sounds of our spoons scraping against our bowls. The curtains continued to glow red and blue as I chewed each mouthful deliberately. I looked down to check the time on my watch and noticed that it was off by several hours. I held it to my ear and heard nothing but dead, motionless gears. I took the watch off my wrist and laid it on the table. Family. Family above all, I heard Mr. Godlewski say. That familiar pang of melancholy welled up in my throat as I looked around the table at the faces of my loved ones and waited to see if the knock on the door would come.