Man to Man



            “Hush up a minute, honey, this is important.” Dee took off her jacket and flung it over the back of the recliner. David never noticed how she kept her right hand clenched in a fist as she strode past the television and into the hall. “Les, we gotta talk,” she called toward the back of the trailer. “They didn’t show.” Behind her, still sitting in his kitchen chair, with his feet swinging and his Whipped Topping tub of Fruity Os, David tried to tell her that if she wanted the big burly man who was in her bed he was down the hall in the bathroom peeing. If she wanted somebody else, some girl, she would have to look somewhere else. She disappeared into her room.

            “He’s not in there…” David said in a sing-song voice, knowing she wouldn’t hear. With a shrug, he turned his attention to getting ready for his day. He scraped the last of the Fruity-O crumbs from the Whipped Topping tub with his index finger and licked it clean. Then he upended the last of his can of root beer into his wide-open mouth and slouched his way off the chair. He grabbed the same dingy dishtowel as before, this time running some hot water from the tap onto one of the towel’s cleaner corners. He squeezed out the excess and threw the dishtowel onto the surface of the kitchen table. Surveying the table, he decided he’d help his mom out and take care of it all: clear away the empty beer cans, put the overfull ashtrays in the sink, and then wipe off the rest of the table, which he did. That accomplished, he looked over his work and, with an air of satisfaction, tossed the dishcloth into the sink. Maybe he’d work on a puzzle now that the table was clean.

            David rummaged through the stuff at the bottom of the coat closet near the front door just a few feet from the kitchen table. He found his favorite, the one with two dolphins gliding together through the crystalline blue of the Caribbean. He opened the box and dumped all 500 pieces on the table, doing as his granddad had showed him: he flipped all the pieces picture side up, grouped any pieces already fitted together properly, then began by finding the pieces with straight edges. Those were the borders. Find the ones with two straight edges and you’ve found the four most important pieces—the corners. As he worked at flipping and sorting the puzzle pieces, David kept an eye on the clock. He knew there was no chance of getting very far into the puzzle now, but if he was lucky and his mom went out again for most of the day, chances were good the puzzle would still be left on the table as he had left it and he could pick it right back up when he got home from school. After he had made himself something for dinner. He had just about flipped all the pieces over when he heard the voices down the hall getting loud. He sighed. An argument. Reflexively he grabbed the remote control and turned the volume up a little higher. Shaggy and Scooby were chasing some kind of ghost and he recognized the episode as one he had seen for the first time about a year ago. He liked it, but not enough to set aside the puzzle right now. He was content to simply let it play in the background while he concentrated on his puzzle. He glanced again at the clock. Almost time.

            By the time those meddling kids had defeated the fake ghost, David had had enough of the puzzle and he realized that if he was to be on time he had to get going. Leaving the puzzle on the table exactly as it was, he flicked off the television with the remote and headed back to his room. The door his mother’s room was now closed—probably locked, too—and now there were different noises coming from behind the door. First there was a bunch of clicking like a pen tapping on glass. Then a short pause before two sniffing noises and a stifled sneeze. He’d heard the sounds before. All it meant was that he didn’t have to close his bedroom door this morning. They weren’t coming out for a while now, he knew.

            David dressed quietly, trading his Marvin the Martian pajamas for jeans and a solid-color t-shirt. He wanted a sweater, but he wasn’t sure what his mom had done with the winter clothes when they moved in to this trailer park half a year ago, so he just let it slide. It looked like the sun was out anyway.    

            He went into the bathroom to comb his hair and brush his teeth. Last week Mrs. Everett, his teacher and the nicest of the three first-grade teachers in his school, made a kind remark about how nice his teeth looked and how proud of him she was that he was taking such good care of his teeth. That made him want to try extra hard to look good. Carefully he put one foot either side of the toilet seat and he leaned way to the right so he could see himself in what was left of the tiny mirror. He brushed his teeth standing on the toilet and used one of his mom’s funny round brushes on his hair. He glanced at the mirror one last time to make sure he didn’t have a milk mustache.

            He hopped off the toilet and went back into his room where he retrieved his book bag from its hook on the back of the door. He filled it with his favorite books, notebook paper, a few sheets of construction paper, some pens and pencils. He liked being prepared for school. Next, he fished a small leather wallet from the bottom of the bag and opened it, scanning what cash was left inside. He paused for a moment, thinking. Making his decision, he glanced quickly down the hall before shutting his bedroom door in front of him. He used his bag as an extra doorstop just in case he was interrupted. Like a thief in miniature, David tiptoed across his room and pulled an old stuffed bear from under his bed. He looked at the door again to be safe. As he held the bear by its stomach, David slowly pulled at the zipper in the back that held in the stuffing. He smiled grimly, happy to see that the bills stashed inside had remained untouched. He flipped through the roll looking for the fives before he grabbed the entire wad of cash, impulsively deciding to take it all. He didn’t know what made him do that nor did he care to spend any time thinking about it. With a final glance toward the door, he zipped the bear back up quickly and shoved it unceremoniously back under the bed. Then he made his bed as best he could, the neat wad of cash crammed down deep into his bag.

            Walking down the hall, he paused again outside the door to his mother’s room and called out, “Mom! I’m going to the bus!” He heard different sounds in response, now, though these too were familiar. He waited another moment, thought he heard the burly man say something like “your kid” (to which he heard his mother reply, “Huh?”). He thought maybe he’d repeat the announcement but, as with the eggs in the fridge, figured the burly man might prefer if he didn’t. He was halfway to the front door when he heard his mother call out, “David? Bye honey, have a good day! Be good!” It almost made him smile, but he didn’t let it. He just shut the door behind him and, looking down, noticed the partially filled-in footprints his mother had left in the wispy snow. Avoiding them, David walked down the street toward his bus stop and, ignoring the car that had rolled to a stop in front of his trailer, tried hard not to think about his mother.