“I mean it, I don’t wanna come home tonight and have to start cleaning up after you. That applies to you too, Jon.”
“I know Dad.”
“Anyone coming over today?”
Simon…again. The kid lives here.
“Is Suzanne up?” The two boys looked at each other and shook their heads. “Can one of you please go and check to see if she’s awake?” I took a gulp of coffee and glanced at my watch. I was cutting it fine; I should have left by now but my pleas for help were falling on deaf ears. I waved my hand in front of David’s face to get a reaction.
“What? I’m not going into her room.”
“I’ll go,” said Jon scraping back his chair, but as he ran in his pajamas to the stairs, his sister was already coming down.
“Okay, okay, I’m here.” Suzanne yawned and gave me a quick smile before frowning at the clutter on the table and scanning the rest of the kitchen with a critical eye. I was relieved to see her but felt guilty about the mess.
“Boys; can you clear-up after yourselves please?” It was a rhetorical question but Jon responded with a mischievous grin and a mouthful of oatmeal. “That’s disgusting Jon.”
“Don’t worry, Dad. I’ll clean the house,” said Suzanne. “I’m home for most of the day.” I was grateful for all the help I could get but she had been looking increasingly weary of late.
“Thanks, dear. Oh, Bobby hasn’t had his breakfast and he needs a bath. Sorry.”
“I’ll take Bobby in the shower with me,” said Jon but David didn’t look up from his magazine.
“Shouldn’t you be going,” said Suzanne. “You're going to be late.”
“I’m already late dear. I’ll see you all tonight, be good, kids. Any problems call me.”
“I can never get through to you at work, your line’s always busy,” said Jon.
“Then leave a message on the answering machine, I’ll get back to you, I promise.” I took a deep breath, kissed Suzanne on the forehead and headed for the door. “And if you're all gonna be out at the same time, will somebody please lock the back door.”
I left the house to a chorus of grumbles but these things needed to be said. The previous week, I came home one day to find the house empty and the back door wide open. There wasn’t enough communication between them and they were lacking in discipline and self-control.
Those were skills I learned in the military but had so far failed to pass on to my offspring, although not through lack of trying. I didn’t think I was asking a great deal. I just needed them to meet me halfway and share some of the burdens until I was able to become more organized.
Managing four kids and a dog was never easy, even when Kate was there, but as a single parent, it was proving more difficult than I had imagined and at times near impossible.
The problem was my job; I worked downtown, at the City Hall, in the building everyone loved to hate. It may have been one of the ugliest buildings in the world, but it housed one of the best employers in the state. The City Council. They had a policy of employing veterans and I was one of the lucky ones who were able to take advantage. I got a lot more job satisfaction from fighting the Vietcong in South East Asia than I did organizing repairs on Main Street but the $14,000 a year salary was more than double what the Army had paid me.
When I was at work, Suzanne was in charge. At eighteen, she was the eldest by two years and my only daughter, but not cut out to be a leader. She wasn’t ruthless enough to control the boys and David particularly, wouldn’t listen to her. My eldest son had his own agenda, which, it seemed, was at odds with everyone else, especially me.
My life was a total mess; like my car which hadn’t been cleaned in months. It was starting to smell as bad as it looked and like its owner was in dire need of a service.
I’ll clean it at the weekend, or pay Jon to do it. He was the middle and most helpful of my three boys, providing there was money involved. Jon was smart, a schemer and a sportsman. A baseball player with a strong arm and a good eye. David may have disappointed but I was expecting a lot more from Jon.
I was able to claw back some valuable minutes on my way to work thanks mainly to an uneventful commute. No school buses and fewer cars helped to keep the traffic moving on the ninety-three but the summer break created problems for me at home. Problems which weren’t there the year before.
Has it really been nine months since Kate died, I guess it has? The time has gone so quickly.
Her birthday would be soon; it would present us with another emotional hurdle to climb. Christmas had been bad enough. I made a mental note to visit her at the weekend; fresh flowers would be good but I would forget all about it by lunchtime.
* * *
“I blame myself; I’ve been too lenient with him; I should have been stricter. Ever since Kate….”
“There’s nothing wrong with David, you’re being hard on yourself, he’s a good kid.”
I had a little chuckle at that statement. My younger brother, Todd, was David’s favorite uncle and he could do no wrong.
“I’ve been on to him to find a job for the summer if only to get him out of the house and away from the television for a while.”
“Now that’s a good idea, it’ll give him some extra money and a bit of responsibility. I can ask around to see if any of the retail outlets need some help.”
“I appreciate it Todd; you know I don’t get a lot of time lately to do these things.”
“It’s not a problem. It’ll do him good. And you never know, he may even meet someone.”
“Like a girl you mean?”
“Or a boy depends on which way he swings.”
“A girl,” I said sharply. “He’s definitely not one of them.”
“Jeff, please. How do you expect David to grow up, when you talk like that?”
“You know what I mean.”
“How do you know for sure anyway, has he told you?”
“No, of course not. Boys don’t tell their parents they’re normal, only if they’re not. There’s nothing wrong with him, okay?”
“I didn’t say that there was anything wrong with him, Jeff. It’s just that…well, he hasn’t shown a great deal of interest in girls yet has he?”
“Leave it, Todd, I’m sure he will when he’s ready. I would know if my son was a queer. Let’s concentrate on getting him a job first, shall we? He’s not overly keen on the idea as it is. Maybe you could have a word with him?” He was a little hesitant at first but Todd had a heart of gold and was the only person who David seemed to listen to.
“I’ll talk to him at the weekend.”
“I owe you.”
“Right you do, and for the lunch too!” He pushed a ten-dollar bill across the counter to the waitress and nodded at her to keep the change.
“I’ll buy you a steak dinner if you can find David a job for the summer, how about that?”
“You're gonna regret that because I already have something in mind and I’m pretty sure they’re hiring.”
As we entered the mall, it was already filling up. Mostly with teenagers. The summer break was going to be a busy time for my brother.
“Is it a store?”
“Yeah, Gino's. It’s a new fashion store on the first floor, popular with the kids. They’re expecting to be busy over the summer, so they’re hiring extra staff.”
“Isn’t that a girl’s store?”
“It’s unisex,” he said. “For girls and boys.”
I knew what unisex meant but I wasn’t sure if that was the best environment for David. I had visions of him doing something a bit more masculine. Something that would build his muscles a bit before going back to school. Filling grocery bags would have been better than selling women’s clothing. That was how I started out.
“I guess it’s better than nothing. Can you try, please, like right now, before they give it to someone else?”
He shook his head but smiled. “Is there anything else you want me to do for you Sergeant, while I’m at it? I have got a shopping mall to run as well as look after your offspring, you know.”
“I know,” I said and patted him on the shoulder. “Just see what you can do. I have to run; I have to be back at the office in twenty minutes. Sorry.”
He shouted after me. “You're not fooling me, Jeff. I know you don’t do a lot in that place.”
* * *
The office was only a ten-minute drive from the mall and when I got back there was plenty of time to call David.
“Did you take the dog for a walk?” I was certain he would have forgotten.
“Yes, he’s been out and I’ve cleaned my room,” he replied. It was an unexpected bonus; I was beyond the stage of asking him to do that.
“Good, your uncle Todd’s gonna see if he can get you a job at the mall for the summer, is that okay?” I heard him groan. I didn’t expect him to be jumping with joy over this news, but hanging around the house all day wasn’t doing him any good at all.
“It depends?” What kind of an answer is that?
“It depends on what it is, I don’t wanna be sweeping floors.” He knew how to make me furious, but I wasn’t going to fall for it.
“You won't be sweeping the floors, you’ll be working in a store, meeting people and making your own money. It’s called independence.”
“It’s called boring, Dad!”
If he thought working in a store would be boring, then he should try sifting through stacks of planning applications. I needed a coffee to get me through to five o’clock and a stiff drink afterward before heading home.
Mario’s was only a fifteen-minute walk from the City Hall and close to the harbor. There would always be someone from the office in there and it was a popular hideaway for some of the staff who could be found there in the afternoons. I preferred to wait until the end of the day but recently it was becoming a habit.
When I arrived, a few of my co-workers were already there and Tom looked as though he had spent most of the day propping up the bar. He was annoying when he was sober but even worse when he was drunk and I was an easy target for him.
He flopped onto the bar stool next to mine and insisted on putting my drink on his tab. “I admire you, Jeff. You know that?”
“You do, why?”
“Because you always seem so calm, even though your life is really shitty.”
“You know what I mean. You’ve been through a tough time, losing Barbara.”
“Kate,” I said, “my wife’s name was Kate.”
“That’s what I said.”
“No, you didn’t, you called her Barbara.”
“Oh, well, pardon me, my mistake. Bite my frigging head off won't you.”
Tom was a fool; a good for nothing idiot. A few years ago I would have put him on the floor for talking to me like that. I could have still, but he wasn’t worth losing my job over. Instead, I lit a cigarette and turned to watch the news on the television behind the bar. There was talk of a teachers’ strike, which could extend the summer break. That’s all I needed. I was struggling to contain the kids as it was.
I should’ve called Suzanne before I left the office.
I only intended to stay for one drink but when I returned from the John, Tom had lined up another for me. It was his way of apologizing and I felt obliged to talk. He raised his glass and smiled at me but another beer only fueled his obnoxious nature, disguised as helpful advice.
“They’re looking to get rid of a few people in our department, you know that?” I knew what he was talking about, the rumors had been doing the rounds in the office for some time now. The City Council were overstaffed; you only had to glance around the bar to see the proof. Public money was easy to spend but recent constraints on the annual budget would inevitably lead to job losses. It wasn’t something I wanted to be talking about, particularly with Tom, who I knew wasn’t privy to any inside information.
“Watch your back Jeff, that’s all I’m saying. Don’t give them an excuse to get rid of you. You know I’ve heard people talking.”
“What, about me?”
“Not just about you, but everyone. They say one in four will be out of there by Christmas.”
“Who are they, where did you hear this?”
He tapped the side of his nose and smiled. “I know people Jeff, believe me. I’m not wrong, you’ll find out soon enough. There’s gonna be an announcement on Monday.”
I didn’t believe Tom, but I couldn’t afford to dismiss his warnings offhand either. It would have been difficult at my age to find something so well paid. Maybe difficult to find anything at all.
Another problem; another worry. “Another drink, please barman. Monday you say?”
“Yep. They’ve already made up their minds who they’re gonna be keeping.” I could see Tom watching me through the mirror behind the bar. I must have looked worried. “I wouldn’t think about it too much if I were you. You’ll be okay, they like you.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You're a fucking hero. They don't wanna be seen laying off someone who’s won a medal fighting for the country; that’s bad publicity. That would stink.”
He was probably right. It may have been the only reason why I still had a job. It would have looked bad on them to have got rid of me. I was only there because of my war record. I had had too many days off and too many late starts to have been of any real use to the department or justify my exorbitant wages.
“So what’s your excuse, Tom? Why are they keeping you?”
“You think you're tough, don’t you?” He moved closer spitting his words into my face.
“Back off Tom,” I was the one who was edging away though and he was moving with me until I had nowhere to go.
He did his best to look me in the eye but he was too drunk to be a physical threat. “You’re an asshole, you know that? You think you're tough because you were in some fucking shitty war, that you ended up losing.”
“YOU DON’T GET IT, DO YOU. I TOLD YOU TO STAY THE FUCK AWAY FROM ME!” I was holding him by his lapels nearly lifting him off the floor as I bellowed into his face. I hadn’t even noticed myself grabbing him. It was instinctive. The bar which, moments before had been loud with conversation was now silent except for the television. I let him go and turned around staring each onlooker down until they turned away and the conversations started up again.
Tom wouldn’t have lasted five minutes in the army. At times, I wished I was back there. I would’ve kicked his ass for sure. Too many good men had been killed so the likes of that piece of shit could prop up the bar but he still come back for more.
“What else did they teach you in the army? You don’t scare me.”
This was the reason why Tom drunk alone and probably why his wife had left him. He never seemed to know when to stop pushing someone and that day, I very nearly added to his list of problems. Fortunately for him, we were both rescued by Sandra, who spared Tom’s face by pulling me away for a chat before I had the opportunity to show him what the army did teach me.
Sandra worked in the press office and was one of my closest allies in the department.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“Not really; things have been tough lately at home. But I’m doing the best I can. I have to be strong for the kid’s sake.”
“How are you managing during the summer break?”
“From day to day I guess. Suzanne is an angel; she cooks and cleans. I should give her a call…the payphone here eats up my dimes. The others are doing fine, it’s not easy during the summer to keep them amused.”
“How are the boys? How many do you have, is it two?”
“Three but Bobby’s only six. Jon’s a good kid; let me see, he’s fourteen now. And David’s sixteen; he’s my biggest worry.”
“Difficult age,” she said.
“Difficult for me, not for him. He has it easy; doesn’t do a thing. I’m trying to find him a job for the summer, to get him out of the house.”
“Hasn’t he got any friends?”
“A few. Mostly it’s just Simon; they’ve known each other for years but they’re always hanging around the house.”
“Give him time, Jeff. It’s going to take a while for them to get over it.”
She covered my hand with hers, a comforting gesture, which she had been doing a lot lately, but that’s all it was. I turned towards the bar and stared at my reflection in the mirror. My eyes were red and sore. I looked worse than I thought.
“It only feels like yesterday.” I tipped what remained of my beer down my throat and smiled at Sandra. “I needed that,” I said. “Let me buy you a drink?”
I needed it alright and in increasingly large quantities. Drinking was something I rarely did when Kate was there but recently it had become a habit that was fast getting out of control. I found myself drawn to the comfort of the bar where I could relax and not have to think about things I couldn’t control.
A quick drink after work made me feel a lot better but too many meant I couldn’t drive, although sometimes I would try. I decided to go home on the ‘T’ that night; the car would stay in the parking lot. It removed the one restraint that kept me on the straight and narrow and pretty soon I would be joining Tom in the world of the annoyingly inebriated.
* * *
I got home just before midnight to find next door’s cat digging up my flower beds. I tried to scare it away but the crazy thing stood its ground, dug in and hissed at me. I hated that cat and it didn’t like me. In the corner was my weapon of choice, the hosepipe but too many tequilas ruined my balance and I tripped over the step and landed on my backside. Resting with my back against the door; I couldn’t reach the lock and must have fallen asleep. I was saved from a night on the doorstep by David who opened the door for me to fall backward into the house. I was surprised to see him standing over me in his underpants but he wasn’t surprised to see me wrecked again. He ignored my attempt to explain and turned his back on me to walk upstairs.
There was nothing edible in the fridge and the kitchen was a mess. Dirty dishes and pots on the stove. Suzanne had cooked but the boys were supposed to clean up and they hadn’t bothered.
After switching off the lights, I stumbled up the stairs needing a pee, but when I reached the bathroom, the door was locked.
“Who’s in there? David, are you in there, can you hurry up please?” My face was pressed against the hollow panel listening to him pee and I could have gone to sleep, I had fallen asleep standing up a few weeks before at the station and was woken by a policeman before I was robbed.
I thumped on the door. “David, come on!”
“What do you want?”
To my side was a blurred image standing in the doorway to David’s room.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Who’s in here?” I tried the handle and rattled the door.
“Simon’s in there,” said David.
“My friend Simon,” he said. “You remember him, don’t you?”
He was being sarcastic. Of course, I knew Simon. He was David’s shadow and when the door opened he was the one who caught me as I fell on top of him. For a weedy kid, he did well to steady me; I was a big guy to catch, six foot four and 280 pounds.
David ran to the aid of his friend but I didn’t need their help and I pushed them both away before stumbling against the shower.
Simon was concerned about me but I didn’t know why. It wasn’t as if I was drunk or anything. I had been in worse states than that and more times than I cared to remember.
“Hi kid.” I waved to Bobby. He had been woken by the commotion and was standing, half-asleep in his pajamas behind David. He smiled but didn’t answer and David told him to go back to bed.
I didn’t like that. It was my job so I called him back as David rolled his eyes at me.
“Are you okay, Bobby?” I asked and he nodded but was clearly uncomfortable as I ruffled his hair. “Go to bed; it’s gone midnight, I think.”
“He’s been in bed since nine,” said David abruptly and then he watched me as I stumbled to the sink to throw water on my face.
“Is he okay?” asked Simon.
“Leave him. He’s wasted as usual.”
That hurt me. “You need to show me a little more respect. I’m paying for everything around here.” The bedroom door slammed shut and I could hear them talking as I steadied myself over the toilet bowl to pee.
Simon had been staying over a lot lately, eating all my food and watching my cable. He only lived about a mile away; an easy walk on a summer’s night, but I wasn’t going to deny David his friend. They had known each other for so long, he could almost be classed as family.
I guess David still needed company, even at night. I wasn’t there enough for them…I promised myself to make things better for them.
It was about to get a lot worse.
Thanks to TimothyM for editing and advice.
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