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. The boy sits on his knees on the kitchen chair, torso on the table, a pile of ignored animal crackers near the bend of his arm. He bites his lip and whistles through the gaps of his missing teeth. His hair is a mess and Tom wants to pat it down, wants to be able to make that sort of gesture with ease. He imagines Whitney dressing the boy for his first day of school, slicking his hair back and kissing him on the cheek.
A4, the boy says, and Tom shakes his head. Then B1, the boy says, is there a boat at B1?
Tom finds inspiration in the boy’s frown—whistles as he aims a red peg at his board, sputters an explosion as he fills an empty spot with a hit—and when the boy cheers, Tom knows he’s done something right. It’s a stunning feeling, like his chest is simultaneously melting and expanding, and he wonders if this is how life could’ve been, if this is how life can still be. When the boy pushes against the table, rocking the chair on its back legs, Tom knows he’s earned the right to say, Legs on the floor. The boy settles so easy, and Tom wonders if this is the sort of power the step-father is constantly drunk on. Says gratuitously, Thank you, son.
The boy asks, What about B2? And it’s the nicest decision Tom’s ever had to make, to decide if the boy has sunk a two-hole destroyer or if he should wait for the boy to get to B5, to announce that the boy has sunk the biggest ship possible, to lose the game and be a hero. He decides to start small, to build momentum until the boy smiles in victory, but then Tom can’t stop letting the boy win, can’t remind the boy that Tom deserves a turn, and the boy gets bored. Tom says, But you’re winning, and the boy responds, I know. He uses his little fingers to scoop the loose pegs out of his tray, arranging them in curved lines. Tom looks for the pattern in the squiggles, tries to determine why a white peg is used instead of a red, a miss instead of a strike, but before Tom can figure it out, the boy waves his hand across the tabletop and starts fresh.
They eat Hamburger Helper for dinner and the boy doesn’t bother with seconds. Tom reports this to Whitney when she calls. He tells her that he’s cleaned house, that the kitchen is close to bare and, anyway, he’s bought more vegetables than usual. Whitney laughs and asks if Tom still hates carrots. Of course, he says, smiling because this might be flirting. He remembers how Whitney cooked carrots, stewed under a roast, boiled in blood. At the shelter, the carrots had been the best part of the tray, tinny but rich with butter.
I want to tell him goodnight, Whitney says.
It’s a test he’s failed once before, that first week, not long ago, when he and the boy stayed up ‘til midnight, slumped on the couch and recliner, as a cartoon morphed into an old man reporting God’s small miracles, as the small miracles turned into a younger man shilling low-risk strainers. Tom spent an hour staring at the afghan behind the boy’s shoulders, wondering what would happen if he tugged it down, tucked the dark wool behind the boy’s shoulders. He turned it over obsessively, hesitant with the sorts of ramifications and consequences he’d only just started to weigh, but Whitney called and the boy was supposed to be asleep. There are consequences for inaction; Whitney will never actually forget. The step-father picked the boy up—at twelve fifteen, as if he’d been waiting—and carried the boy out of the house.
He’s already sleeping, Tom says.
The boy looks up. He’s sitting on the living room floor, surrounded by pennies and Battleship pegs. There’s a wrapped cupcake at his feet, which Tom gave him mostly as a bribe or maybe a dare, a way to prove the step-father wrong (caught, Tom remembers Whitney say). The boy’s focused on his play, stacking uneven mounds of dirty zinc, using pretend missiles as white flags. There are brown coin wrappers on the counter, and Tom is waiting for the right moment to bring them down to the boy’s level, to teach him that one roll requires a hundred pennies, that the teller at the bank will give him a dollar bill and a lollipop for each transaction. Tom wants the boy to learn practical things, life lessons that will help him in quantifiable ways, the sorts of tools places like therapist offices will never provide.
It’s ten, Tom knows, and the boy is supposed to be in bed by eight.
When Tom smiles at him, the boy kicks the metal village back into its parts. The destruction is too small for Whitney to hear, and Tom says his goodbyes, confirms that he’ll keep an ear open tonight, that the boy has no reason or opportunity to binge, that he’ll have the boy ready for noon tomorrow, dressed and brushed and packed. She’ll be there with the step-father, which is a nice warning, a gesture of faith, and he wonders if he’ll have enough time to replace his dollar store goodies with the vegetables he should’ve bought.
Do you want me to help you rebuild? Tom asks. He sits on the floor and pushes the mess into a pile. The boy shakes his head, says, I have to go to bed.
But you like to stay up late.
The boy starts flicking the pegs into the flayed carrying case like they’re actual bombs, little mouth going pew each time one hits. Tom feels it in his stomach, each pew, pew, pew hitting just right, and he follows the boy’s lead, finds his own pegs to throw. The boy stops. He starts to scoop the pennies into the coffee can. It’s a smart division of labor, Tom thinks. That’s all it is; the boy is tired, the boy wants to finish this and move on. Tom only gets two days with the boy, but it’s not even forty-eight hours. It’s been five years without his son, and that absence is the worst sort of loss, playing with wounds that haven’t even scabbed, wounds that started needle small. Tom thinks he was there the first time the baby’s tiny mouth quirked into a smile, but he’s got a lot of holes in his head, memories he accidentally burned.
We should wrap the coins up before you put them away, he says. I’ve got the wrappers, see, and then you’ll get money tomorrow morning. You can buy yourself something at the store.
Why do we have to go to the store, the boy says. I don’t want to go to the store.
We need carrots.
I don’t eat carrots.
That doesn’t matter.
I don’t eat this neither, the boy says. He holds out the wrapped cupcake, and Tom takes it, thinks the step-father could never trust the boy like this. He stands and throws the cupcake on the table, says, Alright, son, I’ll make your bed.
The boy has started picking pennies up one by one, hurling them into the metal coffee can. Each clang is visceral, makes Tom’s patience tick, crawls up his back and irritates his skin. He breathes in a learned pattern as he pulls the boy’s blanket out of the closet. It’s covered in superheroes Tom doesn’t recognize, and it’s the only thing the boy leaves at Tom’s house. Whitney was the one to carry it in, the boy sullen at her side. At the start, Tom gave the boy his bed, slept on the couch himself, used to worse types of displacement, but the step-father hadn’t been comfortable with the arrangement. As if surrounding the boy in Tom’s scent will taint him, as if it isn’t in the blood itself.
When he wakes, Tom checks the clock on the folding chair next to his bed. It’s already eight, and he’s wasted more time than he has a right to, considering all the wasted time he rests his head on nightly. The boy is probably awake. The boy is an early riser, which is not something he’s inherited. When Tom gets to the living room, the boy is already up, as predicted, but he looks wrong, pale with red eyes and a bulging belly.
Tom asks, Are you sick?
The boy pulls the afghan around his shoulders, starts to cry into his blanket, which Tom had so carefully spread out the night before. I don’t feel good, the boy says. He holds his little belly, rubs circles over his blue nightshirt and moans. Tom listens for clues. He intimately knows those sorts of sounds, pips of suffering or misery that usually die ignored. He wants to kiss the boy on the cheek and make promises. He says, I have Children’s Motrin. He nods and takes a step forward and then back and says, I bought it in case. Do you want some? I’ll get you some.
The medicine is in the kitchen because the cupboard over the bathroom sink is a sort of trigger, a starting line made of prescriptions that snowballed until a pulled back at its worst wasn’t even a twinge. The red bottle is on its own shelf, one above the rounds of seasoning and jar of clear vinegar. Tom holds the medicine and surveys the room. The kitchen is mostly clean, floor dotted with a few pennies, a few pegs, and the cabinet doors are shut. There’s a box of Little Debbie cupcakes on the table, unopened. The salt shaker lies where it fell last night, and Tom picks it up, takes comfort in its fullness.
The boy is a good boy, Tom knows.
The boy must be sick then, maybe a cold. There are many ways in which children are susceptible. Tom’s stomach shifts unpleasantly, a familiar feeling, and he looks at the Children’s Motrin, wonders if he should take a capful for himself, wonders if something that small would even count. But the doorbell rings, and Tom takes it as a sign, the sort of divine intervention his sponsor believes in. He goes back to the living room and the boy is moaning in his nest of blankets. Tom looks at the door and the boy and then sits on the couch, so carefully, so close. He puts his hand on the boy’s back and rubs circles he hopes are comforting. This reminds him of being a new father, that first time he took the baby from Whitney when she couldn’t soothe him, when the baby curled into Tom’s chest and quieted and Tom understood why people had children. He rubs the boy’s back and says, I’ve got you. I’m here.
The doorbell rings again. The door starts shaking under the force of a fist.
Mama, the boy cries, and Tom kisses his sweaty forehead.
When Tom opens the door, Whitney and the step-father are on the stoop. Whitney is wearing pajama bottoms covered in tiny white rabbits, and Tom wants to touch her hip, wants to smile, to ask if she remembers if the baby preferred the orange jar of mush over any other, but the boy has started to sob, loud and wet. It’s only eight, Tom says. Why are you here? He thumbs at the Motrin’s childproof cap. Its jiggle matches the pulse of his stomach.
He called us, Whitney says. She pushes past him as if he wouldn’t move, as if he’s trying to keep her out. The step-father follows, shoulders jutting broad and obnoxious. Tom, what’s happening? Whitney asks. He said he’s sick.
Tom looks at the boy. Whitney is now next to him on the couch, sitting on the quilt, holding the boy by his familiar chin as she examines him. The boy’s mouth is shiny, his front covered in thick strands of clear mucus. The step-father is crouched next to them, looking at his borrowed family like he owns them. The boy reaches for the step-father, pulls him closer as Whitney prods his little stomach, and Tom wonders if it’s fair to feel betrayal. He says, It’s under control. I have Children’s Motrin.
He doesn’t need that, the step-father says.
Whitney, Tom asks, how many pounds is he?
You said you secured the kitchen, the step-father says.
I knew better, Whitney says. Jesus, Tom.
Tom presses the bottle cap and tries to twist it open, but its grooves won’t align and the boy is howling, holding his stomach which is much too round for his little frame. Tom says, Let’s give him some Motrin. It’s Children’s Motrin. I bought it in case.
He doesn’t need the fucking Motrin, the step-father says.
Hey, Tom yells, don’t curse in front of my kid!
The boy shudders and vomits. The step-father uses the edge of the afghan to wipe his rosy little mouth, says, It’s alright, son. I’m here. The words are worse than when the step-father cornered Tom after searching the trailer, worse than when Tom decided he couldn’t even tell Whitney about it, the way the step-father told him he was non-existent, a nobody, because it felt more like fact than opinion. Tom takes a step forward and then stops.
There are pennies in the boy’s vomit.
Spread over his tiny lap, dotted in his sick, rounds of dull bronze, the pennies Tom exchanged specifically for this visit, to teach his son a lesson. Tom closes his eyes. He closes his eyes and imagines the coffee can swear jar on the table, sees it next to the boxes of cupcakes, overflowing with pennies. But Whitney gasps: She gasps, and Tom doesn’t remember the coffee can anywhere in the kitchen, can’t pinpoint its location when he grabbed the Children’s Motrin.
Whitney runs her fingers through the boy’s mess, pulls pennies out of barely digested food—Hamburger Helper, Tom thinks, but there’s so much, too much—and it feels like she’s foregoing the ultimatum this time, like Tom has done something unforgiveable, worse than just threatening the safety of the baby with his neglect. He counts the pennies as Whitney stacks them on the coffee table, as the step-father murmurs meaningless comfort to the boy, rubs his tiny throat. Whitney doesn’t look at any of them, just searches methodically through the mess like she knows what to expect. When she stops, there’s eighty cents, maybe more, enough for a turn on the miniature rocket in front of the grocery store.
Eighty cents isn’t even that bad, Tom thinks, barely enough for anything, but the living room smells like sulfur and salt, like gutters and rock bottom. I wanna go home, the boy says, please take me home. Tom has four more hours to claim, four more hours to know the boy and mourn the baby he’s missed. He loves the boy, wants the boy to know that he loves him, wants to be the one cleaning the boy’s dirty mouth.
It’s only eight, Tom thinks, and the boy is only six.
Whitney and the step-father take the boy. They won’t take the Motrin or Battleship, even though it’s made for travel, and Whitney doesn’t say anything when Tom asks about next weekend. When the step-father’s cruiser rounds the corner, Tom goes back into the house and looks at the couch, at the soiled afghan and the boy’s superhero blanket. He holds the blanket to his chest and feels the wet of the boy’s bile through his shirt, smells the familiar scent of acrid sick. The step-father carried the boy away, and the boy didn’t bother to look back.
Whitney must think he’s still that same careless man, the one who ignored the baby when he cried and cried, who had a fourth drink when the sound started to pound in his head, who threw the bottles away, ashamed, until it seemed more dignified to just bask in failure. But the pennies were in the coffee can swear jar. Tom can promise this, can swear it to Whitney: He hadn’t meant for this to happen.
Tom thinks about his father, thinks about his own chin, the