It seemed like a perfect match. Mike’s sperm were down for the count and Carleen didn’t want children. A rising executive in a company that sent her all over the country, Carleen was smart, sexy, ambitious. Carleen was definitely not motherly. When Mike was miserable with the flu, Carleen’s advice was “Get over it.” When Mike threw his back out trying a new golf swing, Carleen’s advice was “Go back to your old swing.” As a teenager, she had made money painting house numbers on curbs, waking up early for a newspaper route, working retail. She never babysat.
Carleen’s skyrocketing career had made it possible for Mike to work on his golf game and see if he had the makings of a golf pro. When he threw his back out a second time and the disc surgery made him realize he wasn’t headed for country club stardom, Carleen didn’t pressure him to join his father’s dry cleaning business or put his communications degree to good use. All she insisted on was no more golf. Just what his doctors had advised. When he announced he’d taken a job with a courier service, she said, “That’s good. I’m glad you found something,” and returned to her reading.
Mike liked driving. He liked racing the clock, beating his own best time. He looked on his job as a kind of video golf, in which he tried to make it from pick-up to drop-off with the fewest stoplights. He tried to experience each delivery as a satisfaction—a golf ball plunking into the cup. He enjoyed his own expertise, was proud of knowing not to take Braxton Road at noon when the preschool there let out or that Versey to Poplar was the fastest route from the south end to town—farther but fewer lights. He sped with impunity because he knew where the black-and-whites were and what the unmarked cars looked like. He got to see neighborhoods he wasn’t familiar with and parts of town he never imagined. It was difficult driving past Wedgewood Golf Club, especially the intriguing eighth hole with its dogleg around the pond, but Mike cultivated a good attitude.
Mike did get lonely, especially those weeks when Carleen was on the west coast or in New York or anywhere else, weeks that were coming more frequently and lasting longer. Carleen’s latest trip to Dallas stretched on for nearly three weeks. The first day she was gone was especially slow at work for Mike. Monday afternoon, he finished up early, delivering some signed papers to Reese and Jefferson in record time, and then he headed home.
The dogwoods were out along Arbuckle Avenue—it looked like popcorn was bursting from the branches of the trees. A couple blocks into the neighborhood, he pulled over and rolled his windows down. The air smelled new and the Victorian houses in their vintage finery flirted with the sun through the trees.
In the yard across the street, two little boys were playing a game that required digging holes and throwing dirt. Mike remembered long afternoons spent in the backyard sun with his brother Charlie. Often they’d pretended to be soldiers, competing to see who could be shot most spectacularly, rolling and somersaulting in athletic death throes. They’d done their share of digging, too, planting pennies in the ground to see if a money tree would grow. Afterwards, they had peed on the little hillocks to water them. Charlie had taught Mike how to play golf using a baseball bat and a wiffle ball the size of an orange. They’d dug three holes in their yard big enough to cup the ball. The holes had also been big enough to twist their father’s ankle. Charlie had died in Kuwait, on a stretch of land pocked with artillery craters. Mike hoarded his memories of Charlie; he never talked to Carleen about his brother, but he kept Charlie’s pictures and letters in the trunk of his car so they’d be with him all day. They were there as Mike watched the two boys abandon the dig to climb up over the hood of their mother’s car. Their dusty hand and footprints trailed behind them, marking their ascent. The mother came out to holler at them, but when she saw Mike sitting in the car watching, she hustled them inside.
Mike sat for a few minutes longer, feeling like somebody had pulled the plug on the day. He wanted to tell the nervous mother, “Your boys are in no danger from me. I’m not going to steal them,” and “You can yell at them, but they’re boys. They’ll be back out there tomorrow, digging holes and throwing dirt and climbing to places they shouldn’t be. Ask your husband what it was like.” And suddenly, Mike wanted to be the father who would come home and admire the boys’ excavations and their climbing prowess. Mike wanted children. He felt it like hunger or thirst.
Driving home, he imagined his children. Two boys. Charlie had died before Mike met Carleen; she shared none of his memories of his brother, and she herself was an only child, so she had no sense of how Mike missed Charlie every day. Mike thought about naming one of the kids Charlie, but he’d heard somebody on a radio talk show complain about being named after a dead aunt, saying, “You know how when you go out to buy a replacement for your favorite red sweater and the new sweater is never quite right? I feel like the replacement sweater.”
Skip and Harold. Those names just came to him. Suddenly those were the kids’ names. Skip was older, quieter, a serious kid who treated life like a puzzle he was born to solve. Harold was a big kid with a sunny grin and an array of Superman band-aids. Life was a party, and Harold was always invited. Skip and Harold. They would play in the yard and Mike would feed them hot dogs and beans for supper—that’d been his and Charlie’s favorite supper growing up. They’d have a farting contest afterwards. Mike dropped by the QuikMart to pick up some hot dogs and beans.
As the week stretched on, Mike stopped listening to the radio during his workday road time. Instead, he occupied himself with Harold and Skip. Each day, Mike fleshed out a different aspect of their lives. Their favorite foods, not counting hot dogs and beans: Skip would like lasagna. He’d like the complexity of lasagna. Luckily, Mike made a hell of a lasagna. Harold would like bologna sandwiches on white bread with mayonnaise and raw onions. He’d like anything he could dip in salad dressing—carrots, pretzels, cheese. Skip would dare him to dip odd things like candy bars in the salad dressing, and Harold would eat whatever it was. Mike’s refrigerator got stuffed with bologna, dressing, carrots. His freezer bore lasagna.
Every morning now, Mike dropped the kids off at Big Rock Elementary School just off Faber Lane (a quick light and two right hand turns) on his way to the dispatch office. He delayed his lunch til early afternoon, so he could pick up the boys then. They rode the rest of his route with him and told him about their day at school. Skip was especially good at math. Harold was especially good at recess.
On Skip’s birthday, they went to the planetarium’s rock and roll star show. In the car on the way home, they closed their eyes—all except Mike, who was driving—and looked at the star show on the inside of their eyelids. For Harold’s birthday, they went to the ballgame and Harold caught a fly ball. Actually, Mike deflected it so Harold could scramble under the seat and retrieve it. Skip showed a lot of maturity by not fighting Harold for the ball. Mike bought them both tee shirts on the way out. His boys were fun.
Skip and Harold were really good kids. Skip tried to help Harold with his homework, and Harold tried to let him. On school holidays, Mike let them ride in his car all day while he made his rounds. They rolled up the windows and sang songs as loud as they could. They had complaining contests. They made bets on which letter of the alphabet they’d be on when the light changed to green. They even seemed interested when Mike explained what his job was. They never asked about Carleen, and Mike never mentioned her. They were his kids.
One of Mike’s deliveries took him past a ballpark where a little league game was underway. He had an extra fifteen minutes or so before he was due to arrive at the airport to pick up some formerly lost luggage, so he pulled over and watched. A big kid with curly brown hair whacked a long one into right field, and Mike could hear himself saying to a guy on the bench next to him, “That’s my kid. Takes after me.” Harold sure could make a ball do what he wanted it to. Mike pulled away after a mother approached one of the coaches and gestured to his car. He tried not to take it personally.
Skip wasn’t interested in little league, or any other sport. Mike signed him up for a soccer team, but before the first practice, Skip sat Mike down and said, “Dad, I really don’t want to do this,” so Mike let him drop out, even though the fee wasn’t refundable. Mike was getting worried about Skip. He felt that being on a team might bring Skip out of his shell a little, but Skip was just not interested in soccer or basketball or even swim team. Mike suspected that golf might be Skip’s game, but after his disc surgery, he’d promised Carleen not to play again. He wrestled with the dilemma. Teaching Skip to play golf would be a dream come true, but returning to the links would require introducing Skip and Harold to Carleen, and Mike wasn’t willing to share the boys.
Mike found himself at the child psychology shelf of the local bookstore, looking for something on children and organized sports and self-esteem. When the clerk came over to ask, “Is there anything I can help you with?” Mike was surprised to hear himself say, “Yes. I’m worried about my son.” The clerk, a plump fortyish woman, listened to Mike for quite a while before recommending a book. “You must be a great mother,” Mike told the woman.
“Tell my kids that,” the woman laughed and handed him his change. “Your kids are lucky to have a father as involved as you. Here’s something I’ve learned: don’t try to micro-manage them. Give them room to breathe.”
Mike read the book and stopped pushing Skip to play a sport. He didn’t, however, stop worrying about him.
Mike was also worried that he’d have to take off work to talk to Harold’s teacher. Harold was behind grade level in three areas, and was starting to resent Skip’s interference.
“I’m just trying to help,” Skip explained when Mike intervened, “but Harold won’t sit still long enough for me to explain it to him and he won’t listen to me and he keeps interrupting me and then he starts poking me with his eraser. Make him stop.”
“I got an idea,” Mike said, and he wrote Harold’s vocabulary words on pieces of paper which he gave to Skip. As Skip said the definition, he wadded up the paper into a ball and tossed it to Harold. Harold had to guess the word before he caught the ball. For every word Harold got right, Mike gave them both a Hershey’s kiss. Better see about a dentist, Mike thought.
Mike got his first traffic ticket because he was so busy thinking up new ways to help Harold study that he blasted right through a stop sign on a familiar back road. Briefly he considered explaining that to the cop, but he felt it would be disloyal to his son to use him to get out of a ticket. He was glad the boys were still at school. He wanted to set a good example for them.
That night, Carleen called from Dallas to tell Mike she’d be coming home a day early. Mike considered what to do. Carleen wouldn’t understand the boys. She wouldn’t even try to understand the boys. He couldn’t let his sons in for that kind of rejection. They didn’t know what it was not to be loved. As Mike moved the educational toys he had bought the boys into the trunk of his car—you weren’t supposed to give your children a lot of toys all at once anyway—he considered what he would tell the boys about Carleen. He had a girlfriend who sometimes spent the night. She’d be gone again in the morning. He’d be all theirs, all day.
His excitement at the notion of Carleen as his illicit girlfriend surprised him. Since she was obviously not the mother of his children, Mike was eager to sleep with her. It would be like having an affair. Mike had kept the house clean so that Harold and Skip wouldn’t have to live in the semi-squalor he used to enjoy when Carleen was gone. The clean house would make Carleen suspicious, but perhaps she would think he had straightened up for her as a love gift. On his way home, he picked up some candles and a roast chicken.
Carleen was unusually subdued when she got home from the airport. Her response to the candlelit table, the wine glasses waiting for her favorite Cabernet, the cloth napkins, was “What’s all this, Mike?”
“I’m making a date out of it, stranger,” Mike said, and reached his hands up under her suit jacket. Carleen shrugged him off, and Mike could feel the next sentence landing after a rough flight.
“We have to talk.”
Mike didn’t want to talk. He wanted to eat chicken, drink wine, and have sex with his girlfriend. He saw himself as a single parent successfully juggling his responsibilities and his pleasures.
Mike dropped the corkscrew and his jaw.
“No. No. Mike. It’s yours. The doctor said sometimes that happens—the body finds a way to reproduce. Some sort of survival imperative. It’s definitely yours. There’s nobody else. Just you. And now, this,” and she pointed to her belly, still flat as daily visits to hotel workout rooms could make it. “I’m terrified, but I’ve been thinking hard about it. I know you want children. I can do this for you—have this baby. You’ll take care of the baby when I go back to work. We’ll both be happy. Mike?”
Mike stood at the kitchen counter, dizzied by Carleen’s announcement. He stifled the impulse to run for his car, to peel out, tires screeching. Instead, he stood there, silent. In the back of his head thrummed the song he’d been teaching Skip and Harold about the hipbone connecting to the legbone.
Carleen pressed on. “Mike? I know it’s a shock, but I thought you’d be pleased, maybe even grateful.”
“Yeah, Carleen. Yeah. It’s just … sudden, that’s all.”
Shock after shock. Mike wasn’t sterile. Carleen was pregnant. Carleen was okay with being pregnant. And the biggest shock—Mike wasn’t happy about it. Mike didn’t want Carleen’s baby. How could Mike love this child as much as he loved Skip and Harold, the children of his heart and mind, the children he himself had given birth to?
“Better not,” Carleen said when Mike poured her some wine.
He took the glass, filled it full, and scrambled for a heartfelt toast: “You are full of surprises.”
They ate chicken by candlelight, talked very little, and did not make love afterward. “Better not,” Carleen said about that too, but Mike was already out of the mood. All night long he wrestled with what to tell the boys.
The next day he drove without his usual verve, making bad time. Having missed a turn, he passed a Goodwill, and on an impulse made a U-turn that drew a few honks. He unloaded toys from his trunk, armfuls of model airplanes (Skip’s) and things that made noise (Harold’s). It took him three trips to deliver it all to the bored intake person at the Goodwill desk. Just before she put it all in a hamper, Mike reached across the counter and took back the wiffle ball. There was just room enough for it in the box that held Charlie’s letters. Mike closed the trunk. He could send the boys to boarding school – they’d be together and he would write them long letters every day. He’d have to get a bigger box for his trunk.
MICHELE RUBY writes, acts, tap dances, and teaches in Louisville, Kentucky. She has an MFA in fiction from Spalding University, and her stories have appeared in Lilith, Rosebud, The Louisville Review, and many other journals. She is a coeditor of the recently published anthology Women. Period.