Liz Howey

The Boy

​Whitney calls on Thursday, unscheduled. It’s pleasant until Tom picks up, until Whitney announces that the step-father caught the boy vomiting. Tom wants to thank her for thinking to tell him this, wants to know if caught is how the step-father described the situation, if that’s the kindest word the step-father can reach, but keeps quiet. He knows opinions are a right he still has to earn. Whitney says, We think he’s eating himself sick. There’s a loaf of bread missing, all the oatmeal packets. We’ve made an appointment with a therapist. We won’t even leave the salt and pepper on the counter, not when we don’t understand this. This, Tom thinks, is an overreaction. A misunderstanding from a woman who was never a boy, who can never understand the swiftness, the randomness, of their expansion.

I understand, he tells Whitney, but he makes no change from his weekdays, when he’s alone, to his weekends, when the boy stays over. The kitchen’s already been childproofed—fool-proofed, he thinks, since his own mother comes over at least once a week to check that the cupboards are the right sort of empty. On Saturday, as the step-father holds the boy’s little shoulder, Tom smiles and says, We’ll be fine, I swear.

The step-father surveys the living room with John Wayne squints, searching for the sorts of contraband Whitney has been kind enough to pretend to forget. She doesn’t actually forget—nobody ever forgets—but when Tom called her two months ago and confessed his sobriety, she sent the step-father to search the trailer. Tom would invite him to the kitchen for coffee, man to man, but the step-father needs to go soon. He’s a cop, works the weekends like Whitney, and Whitney hasn’t signed any sort of warrant this time ‘round. When the step-father surrenders the boy, he says, Watch him, Tom. He’s a good boy.

Son, Tom says to the boy once the step-father’s left, you’re a damn good boy.

The boy pivots and marches into the kitchen, goes right to the coffee can swear jar, and Tom’s got a dime ready, hot between his thumb and middle finger. He passes it to the boy and lifts him around the waist, taking comfort in the protrusion of ribcage, wondering what child could be the shade of self-destructive Whitney’s so afraid of and yet still be this little, this fragile. The boy is only six, and he never curses, though he always watches when Tom counts the thin layer in the swear jar. It’s all Tom, all hells and damns, nickels and dimes.

The boy throws the coin into the coffee can and it lands on the five hundred pennies Tom exchanged specifically for this moment, to watch the boy grin and drown his fingers in bronze like he’s been gifted something precious. He kisses the boy’s head, the first time he’s dared since the boy was the baby and alcohol was beer and addiction was a family problem Tom would never inherit. He has a chip in his pocket a shade deeper than the pennies in the can and it signifies six months. Both the kiss and the chip are exhilarating, frightening.

Tom, the boy says, his tiny fist full of pennies, please put me down now.

Tom puts him down but keeps him still with a hand on his shoulder. They pause, together, and Tom wonders if raising a child is like knowing how to nudge a horse into obedience. Wonders if he’s ever even seen a horse in person, if the animals around the ice cream shanty his long gone, long dead father used to take him to were ponies or donkeys. Wonders if he’s earned the right to take the boy to such a place yet. The boy pulls away. He walks to the table, climbs the chair and throws the change like dice on green felt. The pennies hit buy-one-get-one boxes of cupcakes and jostle the salt shaker Tom moved from the back of the stove, a sign of trust he hopes the boy is old enough to recognize. Do you know how to count? Tom asks. I can show you how with these pennies. See, one hundred pennies equals a dollar.

I know that, the boy says. Do you know what a blue law is?

Tom runs his hand over his face and sighs, shakes his head. He knows his group gives out blue chips for a year of sobriety, but that’s not something he ever wants the boy to know. Maybe one day, when the boy calls him something nicer than Tom, when he can take the chip out of his pocket and explain the difference between shame and achievement. Maybe then, but that’s a long ways away.

_

When the boy first came over, Tom played the weekend by ear. It was how he and Whitney navigated the baby, decoding the shapes of wails, listening for a diaper change or a feeding or those affirming moments when another kiss should be pressed to a perfect cheek. But that was a long time ago, back when he would fall asleep with a lit cigarette in his mouth, the baby cooing in the plastic bassinet at his feet, back before Whitney issued an ultimatum and Tom ran, ran for years. Now, the boy is quiet. He follows Tom room to room and perches on the recliner or floor and watches Tom like he needs to be watched.

Tom’s mother recommends activities—she knows the boy, says he’s the sort with lots of energy, needs to be constantly entertained—and the books from the library back her up. It’s a tenuous thing, their connection. One day at a time, his sponsor constantly repeats. Tom gives the boy a travel-sized edition of Battleship, still wrapped tight in cellophane. He smiles when the boy examines the reflections of warped light in the plastic, when the boy uses his nails to shred it. Tom will wrap the next game in the funnies, maybe, since the boy likes cartoons, since it’s June and Santa’s been secreted away. This Christmas will have to be the boy’s best. Tom’s hoping to move from the assembly line to one of the forklifts, two more dollars an hour.

The boy asks, Why’s it so little?

It’s travel-sized, Tom says. You take it with you.

I can take it home?

Well, no. I wanted to start a collection. A collection for us, here.

If he gets the coffee can swear jar, Tom can explain this, can count out the differences between needs and wants, the importance of pennies when they become nickels, dimes, quarters, dollars, bills and obligations. See, this is a point of pride: He’d been the good sort of junkie, paid his rent until he couldn’t and then left before he was evicted. He sent Whitney money the whole time, month after month, year after year, all that he could, and she never sent a lawyer after him. He sent the boy birthday cards, drew shaky smiley faces to hide the blank spaces. Always careful, so very careful, until just once, nine months ago, Tom hadn’t even realized he was still high when he took a bigger hit.

The boy asks, But why’s it for travel? Are we going somewhere?

No, Tom says. I’m not going anywhere, I promise.

_

The boy is terrible at Battleship. He calls out A1 and then A2, A3, but Tom finds the rhythm of his lisp soothing. Th