KEEP OUT ON PENALTY OF DEATH!!!! was scrawled graffiti-like in black marker above a Reservoir Dogs movie poster on his door. Booming heavy metal base guitar riffs shook the entire second floor. Once a cheerful, bouncy kid, over the past few years he had morphed into a sullen, scowling 12-year-old who seemed to enjoy cleverly taunting, picking apart whatever I said, getting under my skin.
Lately argument, negotiation and further argument had constituted the fabric of our relationship. There seemed to be nothing we agreed on. He had developed an uncanny ability to laser-in on my many vulnerabilities. I grew to dread talking with him. Of my three sons he was closest to his mother, and had taken it the hardest after she suddenly left. Slouching his way through seventh grade, his grades bottomed. I was as sure as any parent can be that he wasn’t on drugs…but I didn’t really know
I took a deep breath and knocked. No answer. I opened the door a crack. He was lying face down in bed. Mounds of dirty clothes, notebooks, school papers and books were scattered over the dusty floor like a minefield, his desk covered with candy wrappers, empty Gatorade bottles, stacks of Alice in Chains, Led Zeppelin and Guns ’N Roses cassettes next to a blasting boom-box. Like a stamp album the walls were covered with rock posters, obscene bumper stickers and obscure graffiti.
“Matt, I need to talk with you, OK?”
He rolled over slowly. “What’d you say?”
The music was deafening, the room vibrating. It seemed that every angrily screamed fifth word was motherfucker. I turned down the volume.
“Why’d ya do that?” he moaned.
“I can’t hear myself think. Listen…let’s go outside for a few minutes. I need to talk with you about a few things.”
“Whatever. Do we really have to? What’s the use? I mean you always take so long, ‘n it ends up wasting my time, ‘n I’ve probably heard it all before anyway.”
He slowly got up, as if with one muscle at a time, edged into flip-flops, ran a hand through shoulder length hair, slipped on a grungy Nirvana tee shirt, and hitched up tattered jeans. I waited in the hallway as he went into the bathroom.
This could take a while.
I’d been sitting on the porch since dawn, drinking coffee and had taken up chain-smoking. The quiet of the warm Saturday morning seemed to soothe my jangled nerves. Trying to think clearly was difficult. I didn’t know what to do with myself this afternoon, when they’d be away. I felt too shaky to watch TV or go to the movies. The books on child-rearing through divorce sat in an untouched pile on my desk. I was reluctant to wear out my welcome, be a self-pitying burden on friends. Car-pooling to two schools, making it to the clinic and hospital every day and shouldering night-call wore me out. Sleep was fitful at best, and appetite was just a memory. It was getting harder every day. The all-important custody issue and the prospect of losing everything, frightened me. My lawyer said the mother won 90% of the time in this state – even in instances of abandoning their own children, but…I still had a chance of winning. I needed to pull myself together before appearing in Court next week.
I heard the musical opening for Pee Wee’s Playhouse, Jeff’s favorite, coming from my bedroom. Jason’s door was open. He was probably packing his books.
Matt came smiling out of the bathroom. We silently walked downstairs, out the back door and pulled up chairs on the driveway under the basketball backboard.
He was setting his Casio watch. “I’ve got only five minutes so you better begin now.”
Typical shit, once again putting me off-balance.
“You know…I’ve already talked with your brothers about next Wednesday night. I’m going to drive you guys to Cambridge to meet with a Family Therapist. I’ll wait outside. I’ve already met her, and now she wants to meet with you guys. It’ll be just an hour and…”
“I don’t care. I don’t wanna go. I’m not going, period. I’m not crazy. You and mom are the ones that need help.” He looked up. His eyes were red. “Why did you let her go?” Mom says you forced her to leave.”
Me! Forced her? I wondered what other lies she had told them. It had been hard to keep my mouth shut. For their sake I kept it all inside. There had been no arguments or blow-ups for them to witness. We’d been conventionally happy for twenty years, or so I thought. Last week I’d taken down all the wedding and family group pictures from the walls, packed her remaining clothes, books and records and left them on the porch of her new love nest.
“You and your brothers are going to be there together. That’s that. I know it’s been a horribly confusing and painful time. You guys must’ve felt like ping-pong balls being hit back and forth. Take my word, it’ll help to talk about how you really feel with a sympathetic, a neutral person, someone who doesn’t take sides. Like I said, I’ll be out in the car. I’ll never know what goes on. It’ll be confidential, and only take an hour.”
“I said I’m not going. I’ve got better things to do,” he mumbled, looking down at the asphalt, picking up a pebble and tossing it.
“Look, I want to make things easier for you, and…in a month you’ll be going back to Camp Moosehead with Jason.
You’ll have a great month just like last year, ‘n you’ll be away from all this. Just having fun. I heard some of your buddies are also returning, and…”
“Whatever…I don’t want to go back to that lousy camp anyway.” He looked at his watch.
“Then what do you want to do this summer?”
“Just hang out. Watch TV. Maybe get a job. Go to arcades. Hang out in malls. I dunno.”
I let it pass.
“Matt, in about an hour your mother is going to pick you up for the afternoon. You’ll be back after dinner so you can do your homework.”
“What if I don’t wanna go this afternoon?”
“She’s gonna have a birthday party for Paul, ’n his three little whiny girls are gonna be there, if their mother lets ‘em.
We’re not a fuckin’ Brady Bunch!”
“This is the first I heard of it. It’s a very bad idea. Well…you’ve gotta explain that to her.”
Beep. Beep, beep his wristwatch chirped.
“Well, times up. That’s your five,” smiling as he got up.
But, Matt,” I sputtered.
He was already inside.
I needed a cigarette, a Valium, and maybe, after they left, a drink. It was going to be another long, hard day.
Dr. Les Cohen has taught and practiced Internal Medicine in Boston for many years. His short stories have been published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, Archives of Internal Medicine, Journal of the American Medical Association, Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine, Hospital Drive, and in 2000, 2001 and 2005 he won the Journal of General Internal Medicine’s Creative Award for Prose. His essay Two Doctors appeared in our Fall-Winter 2009 issue and his short story A River in Egypt in our Summer-Fall 2007 issue.