Dad Thing

by Jonathan Durbin, recommended by Electric Literature

EDITOR’S NOTE BY HALIMAH MARCUS

Sometime after I’d read and fallen for Jonathan Durbin’s “Dad Thing,” I learned from his cover letter, which I had skipped over, that he’d taken inspiration from Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” I’ll admit I didn’t notice the allusion on my own, but the nods became immediately clear: drinks around the kitchen table or island, gin or scotch, the rhythms of conversations had over those drinks, the search for meaning in past violence and trauma.

Equally clear was how such an homage often means more to the writer than it does to the reader, because Durbin has built the inspiration he gained from “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” into something else, something unrecognizable as Carver because it is so essentially Durbin.

Carver’s is a rare case of the title’s notoriety surpassing the story itself. The title, which was actually Gordon Lish’s, acknowledges that when we talk about love, what we talk about is not love, or at least not quite. In “Dad Thing,” Bill and his high school friends Neal and Soraya discover that what we talk about when we talk about fatherhood, or marriage, or illness, or friendship, is not any of those things but the evidence of them, which is as often unpleasant (or devastating) as it is pleasant.

In Neal’s case, his desperate performance obscures the true subject of conversation. Bill is in L.A. visiting his hospitalized father, and though Bill and Neal haven’t seen each other in years, Neal insists on touring him through a maniacal renovation of his already magazine-quality house. “She’s going to love it,” Neal says of his absent wife, who possibly has no knowledge of the work being done. And of his three-year-old son’s bedroom he says lecherously, “It’ll make the girls weak in the knees. I’ll have to supervise when his girlfriends come to play. ‘No sleepovers until you’re eight.’”

Bill makes a good audience, as do most people who keep their opinions to themselves. But as Neal and Soraya carry on, Bill’s thoughts display a depth of feeling that their words do not: “One time after school my senior year I came home and found my dad’s Audi parked in the driveway, my dad sitting behind the wheel,” Bill recalls, “… still belted into the driver’s seat of his convertible, hands on the wheel at ten and two like he was thinking hard about driving someplace else.” His father might have gone anywhere, but he didn’t and so Bill doesn’t ask where he wanted to go, and one senses that a moment that contained a real possibility for connection has been passed over. With “Dad Thing,” Durbin asks if we notice those moments only in retrospect, or if we can catch them while they’re fresh, and still full of possibility.

Halimah Marcus
Editor-in-Chief, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading

Dad Thing

by Jonathan Durbin, recommended by Electric Literature

My first night back in L.A., I went to Neal McDonagh’s house because he said he wanted to talk. Neal is a sports agent now. He handles celebrity athletes, spends his days dealing with all these celebrity concerns. I wasn’t planning to visit him, but he found out I’d be in town to see my dad and dropped me a line. So I had to go over. Neal and I grew up together. We’ve known each other too long for me to slip in and out of L.A. without stopping by.

The two of us stood around his kitchen island drinking scotch. The kitchen island was draped in tarp and the floor was covered with brown paper. He had a TV crew in to renovate his house, the one he owned in the Palisades, and everything in there crinkled to the touch. It was a beautiful place, a white modern box with frosted-glass picture windows, blonde-wood accents in the interior. I know; I’d seen it before. After he and Heather first moved there, I flew in for the housewarming party. But that was five years ago. Neal and I weren’t as close anymore. New York kept me busy. I hadn’t even sent him a note when he and Heather had their boy. I found out about Max the same as strangers did: Facebook.

“Wait until you see him,” Neal said. “You’re going to think Max is so handsome. He’s such a good-looking kid.”

“I hope I get to,” I replied.

“I hope you do too. How long are you in town, Bill? How long can you stay?”

“Don’t know yet. Maybe a week.”

“I wish you were here longer. But I get it. I understand. I can’t imagine what you’re going through. How is your dad?”

I rubbed my mouth and hoped whatever I said sounded believable. I didn’t want to get too far into that conversation. The hospital smell still clung to my fingers, sweet and heavy, like bad fruit. “Better,” I decided to tell him.

“That’s good.” He nodded deep as though he believed me, as though encouraging me to go on. But between the delay at LAX and traffic on the 405 and then spending the afternoon with my father, I didn’t feel much like expanding. I didn’t even want to be in California. I looked around his kitchen. I saw the holes in his walls, the insulation stuffed up against his baseboards.

“So when did all this happen?” I asked.

Neal grinned. “Wait until you see what they’ve done.” He began to pace, tracking plaster dust across his brown paper floors. “You won’t believe it. This house is going to be famous. This house is going to shine.”

Neal’s tall and thin, with thick black hair cropped tight at the temples. He hadn’t changed much since high school. He still liked sports watches with gold links and playing around with stereo equipment. He’d wired his duplex so he could use his phone as a remote. Right then we were listening to hits from the nineties, all these rappers I barely remembered. He commented on them, what happened to Eazy-E and ODB and Tupac and Big Pun — how hard they’d all been, how sad they’d all turned out. Then he started in about fatherhood. Neal said having Max saved his marriage. He said since he’d become a dad he and Heather were better than ever. They’d quit the drugs. They weren’t trying to kill each other with good times anymore.

“You’re going to love Max’s room,” he continued. “It’s probably the size of your whole apartment.”

I laughed. “Probably.” I drained my glass and set it down on the tarp.

“You’re going to wish you had a room like it when you were a kid.” He stared at me. It took him a while to blink. “I’ve been dying to show it to you. I’ve been dying to show you everything they’ve done.” Neal pointed at my tumbler. “You want another?”

I said yes even though I didn’t like this scotch. It was full of peat and smelled like sore-throat medicine. But Neal said he bought it to celebrate my being home. I couldn’t turn him down.

“You know you’re welcome to stay whenever you like. Whatever the reason.” Neal inhaled. “Soraya’s slept over a few times.”

“She always liked to hang with you,” I said.

“I never let the good ones go.”

“Heather’s all right with that?”

“God, yes. They’re close.”

“What does Heather think about the renovation?”

“She’s going to love it.” Neal pursed his lips. “It’s my gift to her. Sort of.”

“That’s nice. Must be expensive.”

He shook his head. “It’s paid for. Besides, it’d be more expensive if I didn’t do it.” He laughed. “You don’t even know. Soraya’s been helping me out with the décor. She’s been helping me decide what Heather would like.” He tossed back the rest of his drink and his face went tight. “Soraya wants to see you, by the way. I invited her over. But don’t worry. I told her you were in rough shape.”

I knew Soraya from high school too. She was pretty and dark and even at seventeen had the husky voice of someone who was used to telling people no. Her mother lived in Riyadh and her father managed shopping malls in the U.A.E. He was always away on business. Growing up, Neal and I spent a lot of time at her house. We smoked cigarettes together. We did a lot of cocaine. Then I went to school out east. They kept the party going back here.

“Where’d she sleep?” I asked.

“The guest room. Your room.” Neal thrust his hands into his jeans and cocked an eyebrow at me. “That’s what Soraya calls it: ‘Bill’s room.’ I designed it with you in mind.”

“Neal, you’re too much.” I laughed again, expecting him to laugh also. When he didn’t, I went on. “You didn’t have to do that.”

He put his scotch on top of the fridge and came right up to me, close enough to smell the peat on his breath. He placed his hands on my shoulders. “You know I’ve missed you, right?” There was a slushy look in his eyes.

“Sure,” I told him. His hands were hot.

Neal grinned again. “Okay, then. Come on.” He tilted his head toward the foyer. “Don’t bother taking off your shoes.” We walked single file into the heart of his home. Neal led the way. His sneakers left prints in the plaster dust for me to follow.

As he started the tour, Neal explained it like this: one of his basketball players owned a piece of a production company. The production company had been developing a pilot called Renovation Revolution, a design show where a TV crew turns a regular place into somebody’s idea of a dream home. Anyway, last March, the basketball player brought a producer over so Neal could help them with a contract. One thing led to another and the producer pitched Neal on renovating his house. Neal’s house was already most peoples’ idea of a dream home, but the producer said there was always room for improvement, and the basketball player assured him that if the producer was involved, the house would turn out to be fly. Neal told them that sounded good to him. He wanted to live in a house that was fly. He said he had to convince Heather, but it didn’t take much. Who wouldn’t want their house renovated by a professional television crew?

“I have no idea,” I said, following him up the stairs.

The basketball player and the producer sold the concept to HGTV. If the network picked up the series, Neal’s house would air on the first episode. The Renovation Revolution crew had been filming for most of the summer. They were pleased because the property had good bones, or that’s what they said. They liked the floor-to-ceiling windows and complimented Neal on his backyard, which sloped upward at forty-five degrees. I was lucky enough to be there the weekend before the big reveal.

“Heather’s going to be shocked,” Neal said. “I owed her this. I didn’t think it would turn out this well.”

Heather and Max were with her parents in Calabasas. They’d been up north for the past few months and hadn’t seen any of the work, which was as it was supposed to be. Even if she knew about it in theory, the TV people wanted to capture Heather genuinely surprised when Neal showed her what they’d done. They wanted tears, is what Neal said.

“Did I tell you about the night Heather fell? That’s where she landed.” He stood above me, pointing at a stair midway up. “God, what a mess. She slipped and cracked her face open on the way down.”

“You didn’t mention it.”

“There was so much blood. I’ve never seen anyone bleed so much. She left a dark mark there we never could get out of the wood.”

I couldn’t see any mark. The stair was covered in brown paper. “They redo the stairs?”

Neal smiled. “Stained and varnished.” He shook his head. “What a crazy night. I thought she broke her jaw.”

At the top of the staircase, beyond Neal, I could see more of the work they’d done. Fresh paint on the walls, new crown moldings, coach-lamp fixtures drilled at intervals into the hallway. Beyond that I could hear the TV crew. There was murmuring and shuffling around and some hammering now and then.

“I tell you what, Bill, I am just so thankful.” He held the bridge of his nose and sniffled. “We’re really moving ahead here. You should have been around last week.”

“I can’t believe Heather hasn’t seen any of this.”

Neal glanced down at me and started to say something else, but his eyes narrowed and he swallowed it back. He ran his hand along the bannister, leaving tracks in the dust. “Things are really different. I’ve never been so well. I wish you’d visit more often. It’d be a help. I’d like you to be part of Max’s life.”

“Sure,” I said. “I mean, we’ll see. It depends on the hospital.”

“Did they figure out what’s wrong with him?”

I stared at Neal’s sneakers and thought about how to answer that. My skin felt greasy. I hadn’t had a chance to wash up. I hadn’t even checked into the hotel. If we kept drinking like this I’d need a lift later on, and it was already hard to shape my thoughts into words. What could I tell him that would make him understand? But the silence went on too long, and the dust in the house was making my throat swell, and there was an ache in my lower back, and I didn’t want Neal looking at me with his wet brown eyes. I opened my mouth, to say what I don’t know. As I was about to talk, something upstairs crashed and shattered and exploded all over the place. From the noise you could tell there would be thousands of tiny pieces to clean up. Whatever it was, it was ruined.

“Fuck,” Neal said.

“That’s not good,” I replied. But he’d already turned away. He bounded up the stairs two at a time.

I found him in the master bedroom at the end of the hall. A couple of workmen were by the foot of the bed, standing over a downed TV light. There was a cameraman in the far corner. He held his camera up on his shoulder and chewed his lip. Neal stood in front of them with his hands on his waist. The crew had already removed the paper from the floor, and the bedroom looked empty but finished. I could see they’d done a good job. The walls were cream and the floor was dark and glossy, this rich chestnut color. Shards of glass were scattered everywhere all over it. The smell of varnish was so sharp it stung.

“You’ve got to unplug that light,” Neal told them. “It’s going to burn the wood.”

One of the workmen bent over the cord. He took his time pulling it out of the power strip. Neal’s face went red.

“What’s your name?” he asked. “Tell me your name. I want the network to know what kind of assholes they hire.”

“Hey.” I touched Neal’s back. “Hey, man.” That workman glanced at the two of us in a way that made me understand it had been a long couple of months. His T-shirt and khakis were loose and wrinkled. His hair was patchy, scalp gleaming through in parts.

“Just clean it up.” Neal’s back shook under my hand. “Do it now.” He looked at me from over his shoulder. “How much time do you have? Can you stay? I want you to see the rest of what they’ve done.”

“I’m here now,” I said. “I’m not going anywhere.”

“Great.” He took my hand and pulled me across the hall.

They’d done a good job with Max’s room too. There was an area rug with an airport design woven into the fabric. I stood in the middle of a runway and tried to take it all in. I could feel Neal behind me waiting for a reaction.

The walls were painted charcoal gray. There were wooden bunk beds in one corner with a strong wooden ladder connecting them, both of the beds made up with gray duvet covers. The window seat was a plush gray cushion. It was growing dark outside, but I could still see Neal’s yard out there, palm trees and Japanese maples rustling around in the evening breeze. The light fixture above us was glass, shaped like an airplane. The bulb went into the nosecone. The ceiling was a deeper gray than the walls, spattered with white paint. At first I thought the paint was a mistake but then I realized the spatters were supposed to be stars.

“How old is he?” I asked.

“He’ll be three in May.”

“That’s amazing,” I said, staring up at the light. I’d meant to sleep on the flight in but hadn’t been able. I kept hearing my father’s voice whenever I closed my eyes, the dirty, throaty sound of him over the phone. I was the only family left my dad could talk to. My mom was living in Phoenix with her boyfriend, and she decided not to come. I asked her to, pleaded with her, but she changed the subject. She didn’t want to hear about my dad. He’d been in finance for the studios. The way he used to work — long days, over weekends, whatever he was doing when he wasn’t home — my mom used to yell at me that he treated us like a hotel. He was the kind of man you could count on never to get sick, even if you hoped he would. But he did get sick. Eventually.

“You missed some good times out here, Bill. Ever since Max it’s been better and better.”

“I’ll bet.”

“It was touch and go for a while, though. That night Heather fell, Soraya came over. She accused me of pushing her. Unbelievable. Down the stairs! Like I’d hurt my own wife. Soraya said she was going to call the cops. ‘You’re going to jail this time, Neal,’ that’s what she said.”

“But you didn’t.”

“It turned out all right. Soraya helped me clean her up.” Neal laughed. “Heather kept saying, ‘Hit me, motherfucker. Break my mouth, I love you so much.’ Things like that. God, we were so high. It was like high school.”

I let my eye trail across the spatters on Max’s ceiling, not counting them, not doing much of anything. High school was twenty-five years ago.

“But enough of this depressing talk,” he continued. I heard his keys jingle. “Tell me about you. I want to know what you’ve been doing. Are you seeing anyone?”

I fixed on one of the larger spatters. “Not lately,” I said. I didn’t tell him that I kept long hours at the editing studio. I didn’t tell him I worked most weekends. There wasn’t time to see anyone with a schedule like that, which was okay with me. I do detail work, things that require focus. I keep distractions to a minimum. There are times when I’ll leave my phone in my bag all day without checking. The way I look at it, anyone who needs me will keep trying until they get through. The hospital had to call four times before I picked up. I didn’t know the number, but I recognized the area code. Whoever it was, I figured they’d have bad news. I was right.

“You’re a catch, Bill.” Neal’s keys kept on jingling. “Heather always says that about you. ‘Bill’s a dream.’”

“I don’t know about that.”

“It’s enough to make a guy jealous.”

“That’s sweet of her.” I liked Heather, but I didn’t know her too well. She and Neal started dating after I left town. I turned to tell him how I’d like to see her whenever she returned, but Neal wasn’t paying attention. He was holding a glassine bag in his left hand, digging into the powder inside it with a key he held in his right. He leaned over the key and sniffed. He rubbed his nose. Then he held out his works for me.

I said thanks and took the bag and his keys and considered Heather’s comments while he asked if I’d rather hear Liquid Swords or The Chronic. I said I was fine with whatever. He pressed play on his phone but kept the volume low enough for me to hear everything else in the house. Across the hall the TV crew shuffled around, setting up shots. I did a polite little bump and stared up at the light fixture, thinking about booking my return ticket. I didn’t want to have to take the red-eye, but I would if it came to that. I’d fly out on whatever.

“Max is going to be a real heartbreaker,” Neal said. “He’s already got two girlfriends. He reminds me of us, the way we were when we were kids.”

“Sure,” I told him, tasting the chemical drip at the back of my tongue. My throat stung, went numb and roughened on the inside. I didn’t really know what Neal was talking about. We met at baseball practice in ninth grade. He’d been a good hitter, a good pitcher, talented at all that stuff. I was terrible, one of those kids so lost in his thoughts that the safest place to be parked was deep in left field. Even so I fumbled every ball struck my way. Neal could have made fun of me, but he didn’t. He spent time after games and on weekends showing me how to hit, giving me pitching lessons. I never became good, but I got to a place where I could hold my own. The other team wouldn’t cower when I was up at the plate, but they didn’t laugh either. Neither did the guys in my dugout. All that stuttered through my head as I gave him back his bag and his keys and told him how much I was enjoying the tour of his house.

“Look at this, Bill!” He threw his arms out wide, as if presenting the room to an audience. “It’ll make the girls weak in the knees. I’ll have to supervise when his girlfriends come to play. ‘No sleepovers until you’re eight,’ that’ll be the rule.”

I clasped my hands and ground my teeth. I ground them so hard I thought Neal might hear. But he just paced the airport rug and talked about how he’d help plan the décor of Max’s pad, and then he described Max’s gorgeous four-year-old girlfriends. I listened to him for a while, and then I listened to Dr. Dre whisper about big dicks and murder, and then my thoughts turned to the electrodes attached to my father’s chest, the hair stuck underneath them, how much they’d hurt him if the nurses ever pulled them off. Fine, I thought, let them hurt. Sweat popped out along my hairline.

“It would be such a treat if you were here when Heather gets back,” Neal said, nodding at me. “She’d love it. You wouldn’t have to be on camera. I don’t think they’d want you on camera. But I’d like you to see it. Can you be here?”

“When is that going to be, exactly?” I asked in a thick voice.

“We haven’t settled on a — ”

Downstairs a door slammed. I heard a person crinkling around down there, calling out his name. Neal grinned. “Soraya.”

We found her sitting on his kitchen island. She was half-lidded and shiny, leaning back on the tarp, supporting herself with her hands. She swayed slightly. Neal bent over to kiss her on the cheek. She rubbed his back. I kissed her too, which was more difficult than it sounds. She was a moving target.

“You’re looking healthy, Bill,” she said. “How long are you here?”

“I don’t really know,” I answered. Soraya was prettier than I remembered. Her face was thinner, cheekbones more pronounced. She wore a cropped black jacket and light jeans tucked into black leather boots. Neal moved around us and uncorked his scotch. My eyes felt too hot for my head and I couldn’t stop clenching my jaw.

“You ought to be here when Heather gets back,” Soraya said, watching Neal pour a couple of drinks. “You wouldn’t want to miss the big show. Neal told you about everything?”

“He did. I want to. I don’t know if I can.”

“It’s going to be pretty emotional.” She tossed her hair off her shoulder. “I’m expecting fireworks.”

Neal handed me a tumbler. I sipped at the scotch. It loosened up my throat, which I was grateful for. Neal took a drink from his and licked his lips. “If they’re not finished, there’ll be fireworks. Count on it.”

Soraya stared at him, crossing her legs. The big muscle in her thigh bulged under her denim. “They’re almost done, Neal.”

“They’ve been almost done for two weeks.”

“That’s how it goes,” she said. “You expect too much from everyone.”

“They promised.”

“Contractors. What can you do?”

Neal’s face went red. “Heather can’t come back to this. It’s not finished. What happens if they don’t finish?”

Soraya rolled her eyes at him and shrugged. To me she said, “You should come home more, Bill. He’s no fun without you.” She shot Neal a look. “Where’s my drink?”

“I didn’t know you wanted one.”

Soraya peeled herself off the kitchen island tarp and wobbled to her feet. She nearly turned over on her ankle, then righted herself and stumbled a little as she walked to his cabinet and got a glass. His brown paper floors crinkled under her heels.

“You’re driving,” Neal told her, standing between her and the scotch.

“So?”

“You’re already drunk.”

She leaned around him and picked up the bottle. She poured herself a tall one, a good double, maybe more. The scotch slapped the inside of her tumbler. Some of it spilled, making dark spots on the paper beneath us.

“God, you’re sloppy,” Neal said. “You’re the sloppiest girl I know.”

“Please.” She smiled at him and winked at me. “That’s not true. Everyone knows wives get drunker than girlfriends.”

“Not me,” he said. “I don’t know that.”

Soraya walked my way and draped an arm around my waist. She curled her fingers over my stomach but looked at him when she spoke. “Really, Neal.”

“Heather won’t touch the stuff.”

“And whose fault is that?”

Neal’s face darkened another shade. “That’s enough.” He crossed his arms over his chest. “I haven’t told Bill. I haven’t told my parents. I’ve barely told anyone.”

“Told what?” I asked. Soraya leaned against my shoulder. Strands of her hair, thick and black, caught on my lip. Her hair product tasted like hand sanitizer.

For a moment I didn’t know if Neal was going to respond. He squinted at her and he squinted at me. His face went blank, as if whatever was going through his head was caustic as turpentine. Then he said, “Heather’s pregnant.”

“Hey, congratulations,” I told him.

“She’s not even twelve weeks.”

“How’s she doing?”

“Okay. Max is excited. He wants a brother.”

“That’s a good thing.”

“Yeah, very good. I’m happy about it.” But he stared at Soraya with that erased look, and his shoulders shook a little, and his mouth was thin and white.

Soraya ignored him and began shimmying against me in time to the music. She raised her drink in the air and sang along with Dre and Snoop, dancing as though she was mugging for a camera, like she was hard, like all of us were hard as hell:

It’s like this and like that and like this and uh

It’s like that and like this and like that and uh

I pushed her away and picked her hair off my lip. “It’s a boy?”

“Too early to tell. We’re just hoping it’s healthy.”

“That’s very cool, man.” I meant it. I was an only child. I’d always wanted a brother or a sister, someone I might have been able to talk to when things went dark, when my parents were screaming at each other, slamming doors, keeping gin and whiskey on the bureau in their bedroom. One time after school my senior year I came home and found my dad’s Audi parked in the driveway, my dad sitting behind the wheel. I waved at him but he didn’t wave back. I went inside and did some homework and screwed around on Nintendo and called people on the phone. Then Neal came over to pick me up in his Jetta so we could go cruise Melrose or Sunset and talk to girls the way we always did, and when I left the house I saw my dad sitting there, still belted into the driver’s seat of his convertible, hands on the wheel at ten and two like he was thinking hard about driving someplace else.

“It’s awesome,” said Soraya.

“Yeah.” Neal dug around in his pocket. He wagged the bag in front of us. “You want?”

I told him I was fine. He opened the bag and shook some out on the tarp and cut himself a rail and cut Soraya a rail too. He asked me again and still I said no. So he did his and she did hers and afterward she watched me with red and bulging eyes while Neal licked his thumb and pressed it to the tarp. He put his thumb in his mouth. Then he spat and spat again and rubbed his tongue with his fingers. “Tastes like plaster.”

Soraya laughed. It took Neal a second, but he laughed also. The two of them were always so close. One time when Heather and Neal were visiting New York and we were out for dinner, he excused himself to go to the bathroom and Heather told me she was mystified by how close they were. She said it was the kind of thing that could make you crazy if you thought about it long enough.

“I showed him Max’s room,” said Neal.

Soraya grinned at me. “Beautiful, right? Max is such a little hottie.”

“You bet.” I cleared my throat and sipped my scotch. Then I said, “What are you going to do about a nursery?”

“You’ve got to show him,” she said to Neal. “I can’t believe he hasn’t seen it.”

Neal bit his lip. “Here’s the thing, Bill,” he started. “It’s only temporary.”

Soraya slapped him on the back. “It’s a baby, asshole.”

“The nursery is temporary.”

She crooked a finger at me. “Come on. I’ll take you.” She walked toward the vestibule. As she passed she held my elbow. “I heard about your dad.”

The nursery was on the main floor, past the staircase, behind the sunken living room. There was a door in the living room wall that allowed access. Neal said that at one point he’d been using it as an office, but the TV crew had redesigned it to have a housewares-catalogue feel. They’d painted it light steel gray and put up taupe linen curtains. A white daybed, still wrapped in plastic, rested against the far wall.

“Obviously it’s not done yet, but I had you in mind,” Neal said. “ I have a set of speakers picked out. I’m going to wire it so you can control the music in here yourself. You can listen to whatever you want.”

“I don’t understand,” I told him. “This is the nursery?”

“Like I said, it’s temporary.”

“This is going to be the nursery,” Soraya said, “whenever Heather gets back. They’ll have to do some work in here before the baby comes.” I felt the bloodshot weight of her eyes on my chest, my chin, my forehead. “You really should have come home sooner, Bill. He’s been planning this guest room for you for a while.”

“Bill will be able to stay here.” Neal nodded at me. “Don’t worry, Bill. I’ll keep this room open for you. This isn’t a one-purpose room.”

Soraya laughed. “It sure isn’t.”

“Enough.” Neal’s face blanked out again. “That’s plenty from you.”

“Don’t you think Bill should know what happened in here?”

“Is that something you should be talking about?”

“I don’t know,” Soraya replied. “I think it’s interesting. I think it’s a real conversation starter.”

“Can you even remember?” Neal asked. “Because here’s what I remember. You were drunk. You were so drunk you could barely stand.”

Soraya frowned at him, twisting her mouth to the side of her face. Then she turned to me. “You heard about the night Heather fell?”

“Yes. I heard everything turned out all right.”

“Keep it up,” he said. “See what happens.”

She took my hand and pulled me toward the daybed. “That’s where she rested after. Well, not there. That’s a new couch. She bled all over the old couch.” Soraya pointed at the floor. “There were teeth everywhere. She spat them out and I picked them up. I saved them for her, but the doctors couldn’t do anything with them. You can’t do anything with broken teeth.”

Neal held the bridge of his nose.

“I wiped her face. I cleaned the blood off her chin. We went through towels. Neal was — actually, where were you, Neal?” When he didn’t answer, she continued. “So I’m holding her hand and Heather goes, ‘He doesn’t want it.’ And I’m like, ‘What?’ And she goes, ‘The baby.’” Soraya shook her head. “I thought she was talking about Max. But she wasn’t talking about Max.”

I tried to take my hand away, but she held firm, smiling. “Bill, you should know these things.”

“I think you ought to go,” Neal told her. He used a quiet voice.

Soraya laughed again. “What do you think?” she asked me, her eyes hot and dry. “Do you think Heather’s going to come back to this?”

Neal walked over to us. He yanked Soraya’s hand out of my hand. He spun her around and held her by the shoulders and put his face right up to her face, so close he looked as if he was going to try to chew it off. But he didn’t. He screamed instead.

“You don’t know what it’s like for us. You have no idea.”

We three went silent. Upstairs the shuffling stopped. One of the crew called down, making himself heard over Dre and Snoop and all that breathing we were doing in the nursery. “Everything okay?”

Soraya glared at Neal until the rage began to leave him and the flush drained from his face. “No,” she whispered, so that only we could hear. “Everything is not okay.” She looked at me. “Or what do you think, Bill? Am I wrong?”

Neal dropped his hands from her shoulders while Soraya waited for me to respond. When she understood I wasn’t going to, she went on. “I think I’ll have another drink. Want one? I’d like to know what’s going on with you. I’d like to hear about your father. I’m sure Neal would too. I’m sure Neal would love to talk about anything other than this.” She walked out of the nursery straight and true, high-heeled boots clipping against his crisp paper floors.

Neal slumped a little. I saw the sweat on his neck, the wild and electric hairs on his arms. “Tell me something good,” he said in a thin, crumbling way. He was staring at the floor, so at first I couldn’t tell if he was talking to me at all. “I need to hear it, Bill. One good thing. Just one.”

I thought about responding quick, before one of the crew shuffled downstairs to check on us, but all that came to mind was my father’s private room, the needles in his veins. The monitor at his bedside. The beeps it made. The old-fruit smell of him. The thin and patchy look of his hair, stuck up at all angles, greasy against his pillow. It took a long moment, and then something in me felt ready. “Okay,” I said. “Here’s what I know.”

About the Author

More Like This

Indiana’s Opioid Crisis Seen Through the Eyes of a Teenager

What Brian Allen Carr's novel "Opioid, Indiana" tells us about the modern day American struggle

Sep 17 - Michael J Seidlinger

The Book That Defined My Teen Anxiety Turned Out to Be a Lie

The sobering message of "Go Ask Alice" had a huge effect on my life—and then I found out the real story

May 22 - Sloane Tanen

Going from Cocaine to Novels, with the Help of “Novel with Cocaine”

This mysterious Russian fictionalized drug memoir spurred me to rethink my past—and write a new kind of character

Apr 23 - E.P. Floyd