Any idiot could have told him it wouldn’t work. Pretty much every idiot did. Starting with his own idiot ex-wife, Carine.
“What are you thinking, Dan?” she said. “You barely like your own son.”
He was standing at his old front door, at his not-anymore house, where she’d installed stone lions. His not-anymore wife had put pretentious fucking lion statues on either side of his old front door.
“Ouch, that’s my heart you’re stabbing,” Dan said with a wincing smile. Carine smiled, though Dan could see she didn’t want to. Her lips opened, her real genuine-article toothy smile, not that thin-lipped bogus thing he’d watched her stretch on for photographs or in uncertain, demanding conversations. That-a-way, my man, Dan thought you’ve still got some moves on her.
Carine was right, sort of at least, about the son, his son. But it wasn’t so much liking him or not liking him. It was different. More particular. The boy hit nerves, like tooth pain. Like his son’s way of laughing. It was annoying. Overjolly. And a lot overjolly. Like everything in life was hysterical. And the boy would actually say that. “Look at that, Dad,” he’d say, pointing at a road sign: Slow Children Playing. “You see what that says! They’re calling the children slow! That’s hysterical!”
“I love my Danny boy,” Dan said to Carine. He heard the boy coming down the stairs, bumping his rolling backpack on the wood steps. And laughing. Hysterically. Probably at the jalopying wheels, which weren’t funny to Dan.
Funny, not so much.
What Dan wasn’t telling Carine was that it was easier, way easier, with the girlfriend’s kid, because he didn’t have to care. Nothing was personal. It wasn’t really about him. If Dan paid attention. Or didn’t. Not his son. It wasn’t obligatory.
He’d tested that right away. Right off the bat, Dan had said Fuck. Said Shit. Didn’t remind the boy to put a napkin in his lap. Didn’t even look up when the kid burped at the table.
Now here was his boy, Danny, exclaiming, “Hey, hey, hey big Daddy-o,” and even though Dan held open his arms and lifted his son up for their weekly ritual of knocking heads, Dan was mostly thinking, Why does he have to laugh that obnoxious laugh?
“Hey, hey, right back at you, Danny-o,” Dan said, giving Danny a fast kiss on his cheek.
“I’m just telling you.” Carine matched her eyes to Dan’s over their son’s bobbling head, her lips thinned to the hateful line. “I’m just here telling you. It won’t work.”
Last night, actually even before Carine, it was the girlfriend.
He liked the word girlfriend so much. Out loud, he called her Juliana or Jules, but in his mind he always called her the girlfriend.
“I’m not sure,” the girlfriend said, before she’d even made it down the full flight of stairs and poured herself a big glass of the fancyass white wine she liked to drink, and drink a little quickly for Dan’s taste. He could still hear the boy crying, not the wail he’d kept up at an Olympic fucking level for a gold medal record of two hours. Now it was a simpery, needy mewling.
“You tell me, how we can ever make this work?” the girlfriend said.
The girlfriend looked frazzled from her kid’s tantrum. Hair messy, disheveled T-shirt, so nerve-fried she looked flushed and drained in the face at the same time. She looked as though she’d been picked up in the tantrum, tossed and splintered like a wood house in a tornado. He felt concerned for her, not exactly in a doctorly way but not without a measure of clinical distance.
Dan felt an easy hum in his brain. It was crazy how easy it was, another person’s kid. It didn’t even matter that this kid had a major decibel range. It just didn’t tear up his heart the way Danny’s crying did. Didn’t tear or scratch or piss him off or make him want to bash a door or break glasses or take the fucking kid and throttle him silent. It didn’t make Dan feel inadequate. Weirdly, it made him feel good. Sexy good. Like he could bone the girlfriend till she had nothing left to worry about, and do it right there, by her fancy stainless steel fridge, where she was reaching in and pulling out the corked Pinot Grigio.
He felt invincible.
“It will, Jules,” Dan said. “I can make anything work,” and he rolled a little bicep curl and then pumped it Popeye-after-spinach-style. Fuck yeah. He could match that kid’s Olympic tantrum with Olympic patience.
“What?” Danny said. They were in the car, coming back from errands. Dan barely had errands, but whatever he did have he saved to have something to do with Danny on their days. It worked to have a routine. Today: dry cleaner, lightbulbs, bubble wrap, wrench, groceries. Then minigolf: winner got the Super Brownie Shake. They always ate the Rooster Burgers and shared an order of large fries.
Dan didn’t have many chores either, but he saved garbage, recycling, laundry, vacuuming for weekends with Danny. Once, Dan’d left his icebox open just so they could defrost it. It was important to teach the boy something about feeling invested in a home. Even if Dan half wished the home he once owned would catch on fire and burn to the ground with the fucking guard lions still in place. Even a rental apartment like this, even a tent in the woods, Dan explained to his son, needs sweeping once in awhile.
“What what?” Dan said. He heard pop pop pop. Danny had gotten into the roll of bubble wrap. “Awesome,” Danny had said when his father took it off the hardware shelf. “What’s it for?”
“Wrapping stuff,” Dan answered in a tone meant to end the discussion.
“Not this. I mean whatever it was Mom said won’t work,” Danny said, his hands working steadily over the plastic. It made Dan’s neck tighten, each plastic pop.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Dan said. But he did, of course he did. This was an example of what was easier about the girlfriend’s kid. He didn’t have to explain anything. Come up with good reasons. Make plans. Make the future right. Teach the right lesson. Fuck, he barely had to look at the kid during a meal. Even if the kid spilled his soda. And fuck, sure, let the kid have two sodas. It wasn’t Dan’s dentist bill.
“All in good time, Danny-o,” Dan said. They’d been driving in silence. Or a silence irritated by bubble wrap pops.
“All in good time, that’s what I tell them all,” he repeated when his son hadn’t followed up with the “What what Daddy-o?” that Dan had expected. He wouldn’t tell his son much, just talk loosely about change and rolling with change. That if you were with the people you loved, everything worked out fine. Or maybe he wouldn’t say that last line, since if you gave that a two-second pause, it appeared a pretty flawed line of reasoning in Danny’s life.
“I think it’s all going to work out for us,” Dan said. He looked over and saw his son, staring straight ahead, his small hands working along the rows of plastic, feeling for a stray air-filled cushion.
A car careened into Dan’s lane and Dan gave it on the horn a little longer than necessary. Usually that would get a rise from Danny, like putting on the horn was a you-get-‘em sign of his dad’s strength. But Danny was squinting, focused on the road. Dan didn’t think his kid could keep quiet that long, even in sleep.
“I know exactly what’s what,” Danny said suddenly, with one of his weird hiccupy laughs and then kept up a droning of what what what what what like a syncopated beat against the bubble wrap.
Dan turned in under a red-and-white cutout rooster. Red Rooster, it said in letters that hung from the rooster’s talons. He looked for his girlfriend’s car and felt juiced seeing she’d parked just where he’d instructed her to park, under the trees by the picnic tables. “One thing at a time,” he told her, after she’d had her second glass of wine and he’d led her to her velvet couch, giving her a serious round of I-believe-you-need-this-fucking. “Accidentally the first time, then a few planned times and by the end of month the boys will be begging for us to move in together.” She looked at him with what Dan thought was postfuck gratefulness. “Whatever you say, boss.”
Dan had kissed her half-closed eyes. “Now you’re talking like my kind of modern woman.”
“I’m definitely winning today,” Dan said. He pulled in and parked a couple cars away from the girlfriend’s car. “I’ve got the winner’s feeling today.” He said this every time he and Danny arrived at minigolf. He did not believe in allowing his son to win just because he was a kid. What kind of lesson was that?
“I’m already trying to decide between strawberry or a black-and-white Super Brownie Shake,” Dan said.
“Okay, you win. Do we have to play?” Danny said in a flat, petulant voice. Dan saw that his son had not even looked up.
“And what kind of question’s that?” Dan could see his girlfriend and her kid over by the picnic benches. They were sitting on a table, their feet resting on the plank bench. They were working on ice cream cones. Large chocolate-and-vanilla-twist cones. He watched them turning the cones, in matching rhythm. She’d gotten it wrong. They’d done it backward. Play first, then the boys get lunch. Game then reward. Didn’t it seem like the obvious order? If she was counting on him making a plan that could work, then why couldn’t she listen to something that simple? Especially this, the first meeting, doing it accidental-style. It wasn’t a fucking disaster in his larger plan. He’d adjust. But what was with her?
“Well, hey, hey, hey, look at that.” Dan opened the car door. “There’s a lady I’m friends with. This lady and her kid.”
The boy didn’t look up. “Where?”
Dan pointed. “He’s okay. Not you, doesn’t hold a candle to you, but he’s not a psycho or anything.”
“I’m sure,” Danny said.
Dan went first to eliminate the question of which boy got to go first.
“That’s so unfair,” the kid said, pulling on Juliana. “You said I could go first, Mom.”
Dan leaned over his putter. Dan heard her say, “Yes, Tracey, but now we’re playing with another family.”
“Why?” the kid hissed.
Dan felt focused. It didn’t matter what her kid said; it never mattered. Tracey, he mostly even forgot that was the kid’s name. It was a weird name. For a boy. Tracey. But that wasn’t his business either. Then Danny said, “Welcome to my dad; he always goes first.”
Dan felt his back go tense. What did that mean? What the fuck? And since when? When, actually, Dan always let Danny whine his way into going first. Dan closed his eyes, adjusted his stance, and tried to breathe into the spasm he could feel shooting from his neck down his arm. Then he opened his eyes and took a stroke. It made a clean line through the hole in the lighthouse.
“Hole in one,” he said, looking over at his son.
The fifth hole, the windmill, was deceptively hard.
“That’s four,” the girlfriend said, pulling the pencil from behind her ear. She was scorekeeper. It was just like her to take her job so seriously. Yes, Dan had done it on four hits. But it was kind of fucked up, since it was obvious he should have had it on the third. It was kind of Danny’s fault because Danny wouldn’t shut up even though he knew his dad’s rule. Talking was fine between holes. Not during.
“Hey,” Dan said, “cut the chitchat.”
“Come on,” said the girlfriend. “Are we playing a game or are we playing the Masters?”
He heard Danny laugh.
The girlfriend laughed conspiratorially. “So I see your dad gets a little competitive?”
“Tracey,” Dan said, standing just behind where the boy was readying to swing. “On your third breath hit the ball and you’ll avoid the windmill.” The boy shot Dan a look. Dan realized he’d never called the kid by his name. “That’s right, Tracey, your third breath, Tracey.”
The boy knocked the ball and it slid right through the rotating sails of the windmill. He ran to the other side and easily downed the ball on his second hit. “Look at that!” the kid shouted, “I did in two. That’s better than you.”
“You bet, Tracey,” Dan said. He felt affection surge, uncomplicated.
Then it was Danny’s turn, but Danny was standing on one foot, hopping to keep balance. “This is too easy,” he said. He hopped and swung and the ball whacked right into a wooden sail, ricocheting into the gravel. Danny hopped over and picked up the ball, all on one foot. He hopped back, gravel slipping and crunching under his jumps. “Somebody’s got to do something to make this boring game interesting.”
Tracey was laughing. He began jumping on one leg. Juliana was laughing. Dan half expected her to start jumping up and down too.
“Can you just play,” said Dan. The girlfriend came close to Dan while Danny kept up his hopping. He hit and the ball bounced off the windmill again.
“This is stupid, Danny.” Dan said.
“Please, Dan,” the girlfriend spoke quietly. “They’re having fun. That’s what we want, right?”
“There are rules,” Dan said and walked off to wait at the sixth hole, where there was a large white rooster sporting a red bow tie. The rooster had a hand on one hip and a kicked-out leg. There was a hole in the rooster’s big white tennis shoe where the golf ball had to pass through.
Dan tried hard not to look back at his son, who he could hear was keeping up the one-foot shenanigans.
“Danny, try whacking it on your third breath,” Tracey said and it was Tracey who counted a slow one, two, three. Dan kept himself from looking. He heard the thwonk when the club connected with the ball, then Tracey shouting, “How cool is that? That’s what your dad taught me.”
Dan turned and saw Danny hopping to finish up his shot, his head practically sliced by the turning windmill. The ball had landed at the lip of the hole. Danny tapped it in.
“Can we make my score two? Please?” Danny asked Juliana, excitedly. “I didn’t know the windmill trick until Tracey told me.”
“That’s fair,” Juliana said. “Anyway, we’re making the rules.” She balanced the score sheet on her knee.
Dan set up his ball and took a practice swing
“Fair as in completely unfair,” Dan called at the girlfriend. “As in nothing to do with the game of minigolf. But what the fuck do I know?” He wanted to start in on the rooster hole. It was bad form, against the rules, but hey, wasn’t everyone else ready to do whatever suited them best?
“Dad! Dad!” Danny shrieked, jumping now on both legs. “You cursed! You cursed!”
“Are you kidding, your dad curses all the time,” Tracey said. “At my house he’s a major curser.”
“He’s at your house?” Danny said, as if he were exposing a big lie. “When?”
“Hey, it’s my turn,” Juliana said quickly. “Can someone pay attention? I am having a hole-in-one feeling.”
Super Brownie Shakes all around because, of course—wasn’t it obvious?—the girlfriend decided everyone was a winner. Dan saw that Danny had gone pouty, his shake pretty much untouched. Hysterical or pouty, sometimes it seemed that was his son’s whole emotional range. It probably didn’t help that Tracey was leaning in, telling Danny how he’d figured out the angle and next time he’d definitely get a hole in one on the last crazy-maze hole.
“It’s actually super easy,” Dan heard the kid say. It wasn’t easy. Even though the kid was right that working the ball to ricochet off the left-corner wood block was exactly the way to play the maze hole. One game of minigolf and Tracey had figured that out. How many Saturdays had he brought Danny to the Red Rooster and still Danny had no strategy, hitting the ball every ridiculous which way.
Under the picnic table, the girlfriend pressed her leg against Dan. It was warm and Dan could almost feel the tan she’d been devoted to deepening for the last month. He liked the way her browned skin looked, especially the contrasting white triangles on her breasts. But it was reckless, really, that tan. Didn’t she listen to all the caution about the sun? Dan worked at his burger. Tracey stood, showing Danny some kind of hand-and-song game. Danny still looked mopey but he was, even sluggishly, doing the grip and high five and front-back paddywhack moves that Tracey was teaching him.
“I think it’s going pretty good,” the girlfriend said.
“Well,” Dan said. Neither boy had finished their burgers. Dan had a rule with Danny, an obvious finish first, then play.
“Well, what?” she said.
“Pretty well. Not good. I think it’s going pretty well.”
She knocked her leg this time against his. Hard. Harder again. “You can be an asshole. Like, a really serious asshole,” she whispered, covering her face from the boys with her brownie shake.
Now Tracey was teaching Danny songs for the hand-clap game. “That’s it,” Tracey encouraged. “Let’s do it again.” Dan couldn’t believe they were the same idiotic songs he remembered from his school playground, the girls chanting, Miss Mary Mack Mack Mack, all dressed in black black black, crossing arms, hitting thighs, then clapping hands three times. When did boys start playing these games? That’s just what Dan needed, Tracey teaching his boy a bunch of girl games and his already loosey-goosey Danny would grow loosier and goosier, and never even make it to sign up for something as solid as Little League.
Then Tracey was taking Danny the second time through another song-and-clap game Dan vaguely remembered. Miss Lucy had a steamboat the steamboat had a bell Miss Lucy went to heaven and the steamboat went to HELL O operator give me number nine and if you disconnect me I will kick you in the BEHIND the fridgerator there was a piece of glass Miss Lucy sat upon it and it went right up her ASK me no more questions . . .”
The boys were excited, slowing, then shouting at the almost bad words. Danny was more than shouting; he was screaming. Top of his lungs.
Hysterically, Dan thought.
“Whoa, whoa boys,” Dan said. “Do you think we’re the only ones here?”
The boys didn’t slow down, let alone quiet down. It seemed Danny had gotten even louder. Danny spun in on another round of the game.
“Whoa,” Dan repeated. “That’s not okay.”
“You curse; we curse,” Danny said. He didn’t even look over at his dad.
“That’s enough, Danny-o; we’re out of here.” Dan’s voice was harsh, unbending. They had things to do. Errands. He wanted to be alone with his son.
The boys stopped. They looked stricken in a way that pleased Dan. That’s the way. Sometimes a little parental enforcement was necessary.
“Can Danny come to our house?” Tracey asked in a whine that bordered on begging. “Please?”
“Please, Dad,” Danny repeated. Then Danny was jumping, two feet this time and Tracey was jumping too, both boys shouting, “please please please please please please,” as they jumped around the picnic table. And just as Dan was saying, “Another time, boys. There will be another—” the girlfriend was saying, “Hey, you kids really get along. This is great. Sure Danny, we’d love to have you. Should we include your grumpy old dad on this playdate?”
Dan couldn’t remember having ever actually agreed, but here he was, driving toward the girlfriend’s house. The best he could claim was having put his foot down about Danny riding in her car. “No, I’ll take Dan. His mom’s a little picky about his going off in other people’s cars.” Dan knew it was kind of a low blow. First, relying on Carine’s cautiousness. Second, calling the girlfriend other people.But he wanted to be in charge. He thought the girlfriend wanted him to be in charge. Of this, doing the “blending,” as the books optimistically called what now felt more like tossing than blending. Suddenly, everyone all together for an afternoon felt fast. Reckless, Dan thought, maybe this is all a little reckless.
“She could be your girlfriend, Dad,” Danny said, as soon as they pulled out of the Red Rooster. “I like her and she could be your girlfriend. Don’t you think?”
A car and then another car cut in front of him. Juliana’s car went through the yellow light but it was red by the time Dan came to the stoplight.
“Whoa, Danny-o. Don’t you think that’s a little fast? You just met Tracey’s mom.”
“Yeah, but I like Tracey. If they have a cool house, we could move there. You’ve been there? Is the house cool? We could have a TV show about us. You two could get married on the show and Tracey and I would do stuff and everything and it would be cool. Don’t you think?”
Dan looked at his son. The boy looked desperate, and Dan felt that he was seeing for the first time just how reckless the last couple years had been. He couldn’t count how many times he’d claimed that the whole damaging-cost-on-the-kid argument was way overrated. He’d liked telling people that Danny claimed two homes were better than one because it meant two sets of Christmas presents. But now, all of Danny’s jolly laughing seemed like the hysterical crust over a havoc chasm. It made Dan miss Carine and all their predictable arguments.
It made Dan want a do-over.
“I think you’re jumping a couple steps ahead in the game, son.” He’d never called Danny son before, but he liked the word’s solidity, the possessive connection of the word to father. Like just saying it set an example. Like it set things on a corrective path.
The light went green. The girlfriend’s car was nowhere in sight. Frankly, it was a little inconsiderate, zooming off like that. Did she have to go all Nascar on him? Anyway, it made Dan glad to have his son safely belted in his car. Dan thought about turning into the next shopping center and telling Danny they had to get back and start in on their regular errands.
“You think everything’s a game. ” Danny said in a whispery voice Dan had never heard before.
The boys were out in the yard, taking turns twisting up the tire swing rope and letting it spin out. Then they took to one boy twisting it up and quickly jumping to share the tire with the other boy. The tire swung fast. The boys shrieked, screaming out cowboy and cops-and-robbers commands, though it was unclear if they were chasing or being chased. Dan couldn’t remember ever watching his son play this hard with another kid. Certainly never this well. Usually, Dan watched Danny trying to fit into the games other kids set up, but he was always awkward and bad at finding a way in. Most times Danny just made up his own games and insisted they could only be played alone.
“This is amazing,” Jules said, coming around to Dan’s side of the patio table. She poured them both refills of white wine. “You were right and I was an idiot worrying about it not working. I think we’re all going to be okay.”
The boys were tangled on the rope swing, clinging to each other’s limbs. When the tire spun it was practically impossible to tell which boy was which.
“They kind of look like brothers,” the girlfriend said and leaned against Dan.
“Don’t you think we should cool it on the wine?” Dan said.
“Relax, baby,” she said. “This is good. The boys are good. We couldn’t ask for better.”
He looked at the girlfriend. She looked a little smeary. Her face was slightly sunburned, probably from playing minigolf in the high sun. It seemed funny the way she never used any protection. She boasted she was born for the sun, this was peasant stock skin bred thick for working the fields. Dan could see lines by her eyes and upper lip. Great, peasant skin, peasant mentality. Not a lot of caution. Clearly, not a lot of thinking ahead.
“I’m just saying,” Dan said.
“What?” She squinted. “What would that be?”
“We’re the parents, right?”
“Exactly,” said the girlfriend, taking a big gulp of wine. “And you’re obviously really working hard today, Dan, to model maturity and accommodation.”
Now Tracey showed Danny how he could do the Grand Kazizmo leap off the tire while it was still spinning. When Tracey threw himself off, there was a point when it looked to Dan like the kid’s body stuck in the air. Then the kid unstuck and was crashing down, rolling off in a limb-smacking tumble. When he came to a stop, he wasn’t moving. Then Tracey popped up and shook himself off like it was no biggie. Danny was shouting, “You’re psycho,” over and over. It was a stupid move but Dan couldn’t help but think it was the exact kind of stupid move he loved showing off with as a kid. He’d basically spent his whole childhood shouting, “Look at this,” as he threw himself out of trees or off cliffs into dark lakes.
“Tracey,” the girlfriend screamed, “do you have to break my heart?” Dan saw she looked less frightened than proud of her kid’s daring. Before, he’d thought the girlfriend was relaxed in a good, un-Carine kind of uptight way. Now she just seemed sloppy, a little zoned out. Carine would have been stone-cold horrified.
“You do the Grand Kazizmo,” Tracey shouted over to Danny. “It’s crazy fun.”
“It’s kind of too crazy,” Danny said. “I mean, maybe later.” Danny shot a quick look at his dad. Dan thought he should feel good, to have a kid with a head on his shoulders, not ready to wind up in the Emergency with a broken arm or a head busted off his shoulders. Dan should give a that’s-my-boy-using-his-noggin two thumbs up. But he just felt sad
“That was something, Tracey,” Dan said instead, refusing to meet his son’s look. “Want me to super-duper twist you up?”
Tracey leaped back on the swing, crouching high on the tire. He perched like a squirrel while Dan made his way slowly over to the rope swing. He took his time, sheriff-style, pacing his steps cockily across the lawn. The girlfriend was saying, “Do we have to do this?” but Dan could feel that easiness, that no-worries in her voice. Egging him on. No, it was more than that, she was happy to have Dan finally paying a little attention to her kid. It was clear to Dan that if this was going to be his yard, he had to make it his yard. Dan wound the rope, coiling it higher and tighter than the boys could get it coiled. He could feel his son lurking, watching. The rope, rough, bristled against Dan’s fingers. “You want it super fucking fast?” Dan whispered to Tracey. Tracey squealed and nodded and Dan whispered the question again.
“Hey, Danny-o, come help your dad,” he said, turning to see where Danny had pinned himself against a tree. “Get over here, son,” Dan said and felt that solidity again just from saying the word. It worked too; his son must have felt it. Danny slunk over till he was standing close to his father.
“Wanna see how it works?” Dan said.
“What?” his son said, so quietly it almost didn’t seem like a question.
“The whole thing,” and the father let the rope go.