“The Theory of Everything” by Steven Schwartz
A story about not being the parent
INTRODUCTION BY ROBERT BOSWELL
You can’t be a writer without having ideas about what makes a good story. And if you study fiction for a long time, you begin to have ideas about what makes a great story.
The story’s narrator is at once sympathetic and selfish, able to get at the truth and unwilling to see the larger picture, a rescuer and a meddler. He is as complex and contradictory as any of us, and his actions lead to a final moment of stunning moral complexity.
“The Theory of Everything” is the kind of story that becomes a secret rider, and you don’t know that you’ve been carrying it around until late one night you find yourself recalling your own shameful victory in some long ago struggle. Or you hear a child make a weird, laughable statement, and in your mind you also hear Schwartz’s young character Jeremy saying, I interacted with the pool. And the attention you pay to the child suddenly deepens. Perhaps even the way you approach or understand the child changes.
The story’s narrator is at once sympathetic and selfish, able to get at the truth and unwilling to see the larger picture.
The best fiction alters the way you apprehend the world, or the way you interpret your past, the way you measure meaning, the degree to which that elusive element I’ll call the soul claims space in your life. All serious fiction aspires to this; only the best stories achieve it.
Read “The Theory of Everything.”
Prepare to become someone else.
Author of Tumbledown
“The Theory of Everything” by Steven Schwartz
My son is fearful. Not scared. Scared is all right. I was scared during the war, but fearful is something else. He can’t get out of bed some days. He stays in his condo with the blinds closed. After his wife Cheryl left him, I went over there one morning and found him walking around in a daze without his pants on, just a T-shirt. The kids were there. This is why he can’t take care of them.
Even when Cheryl was around we’d come over and the house would be a mess, dirty dishes, not even in the sink but still on the table, clothes on the stairs, the kids — Abby two, Jeremy six then — plopped in front of the TV. And always fighting, the parents, not the kids. Over money. Rex asking where it went what he gave her, and she telling him he’s a lazy son of a bitch and got no right to accuse her. He’s not lazy, he’s got this disease, so I want to take up for him, but you should see how she lights into me. “Mind your own business!” she shouts at me. “I’m trying to do the best job I can and all I get is criticism.” Then she turns to Rex. “I married you, not your whole fucking family!”
All this happens in front of the kids. “Please,” I say, “the children.”
“Fuck this,” Cheryl says and goes into the bedroom and slams the door.
Rex stands there with his shoulders slumped, his belly bigger each time I see him. He’s always struggled with his weight. Comfort food he takes to a whole new level. He’s got a handsome face, his mother’s green eyes, thick curly black hair, but he can’t take care of himself, and always that shameful look. “I’ll talk to her, Dad,” he says. “She gets upset when she thinks everybody’s blaming her. It’s not her fault.”
I look around the house. At this time, they’re living in one of my rental places that I let them stay in for half the going rate. Is it too much to ask that they don’t keep it like a pigsty? I go over to where Jeremy’s watching cartoons. “How you doing, buddy boy?” I ask.
“Fine,” he says, and keeps staring at the TV.
“You want to maybe go to the batting cages after school today?” They got a slow pitch one that he likes.
“Okay,” he says.
In the high chair, Abby pokes at her Cheerios with her finger. I can smell her dirty diaper from here. “Maybe you should get some help,” I say.
“We’re fine, Dad. We’re just under a lot of stress right now. Cheryl wants to go back to school and get her nursing degree, and she’s frustrated trying to do everything.” This woman wants to be a nurse? “We don’t need to see anyone.”
“See anyone? I’m talking about a maid. Somebody to sweep up, make a nice place for the kids — ”
“Shhh,” Rex says, “she’ll hear you.”
“She should hear me,” I say. Something smashes, like glass breaking, in the bedroom. I look at Jeremy, who doesn’t budge. You’d think the little boy was deaf.
“You better go,” Rex tells me. “I’m in a difficult position here. She doesn’t need to get any more upset.”
“Fine,” I say, and that’s the last time I see the woman. This is more than four years ago. She walks out the door with the money that I leave for the kids’ new clothes for school. Up her arm. Jeremy, he’ll remember her. Abby won’t know a thing. Better off she’s got no memories.
Since then, Louise and I take care of the kids full time.
I stop over at one of my houses. It’s near the beach on Dakota Avenue right beside San Lorenzo Park, a very nice neighborhood, a two-bedroom home that three girls share who go to the university here in Santa Cruz. I don’t allow more than three in a place. These girls, I know their families. The parents gave me their home numbers and said if I should have any trouble call them right away. But so far so good. Now I understand a window is broken — somebody threw a rock through it. They want it repaired; I said I’d come over and take a look. “Did you call the police?” I asked them. They said they didn’t realize it was broken until this morning, and so here I am.
Two of the girls are at home, one with blonde hair and wearing flip flops and a flashy green jogging suit, the other with the low-cut jeans and the belly exposed like they all do now and golden tan. I’m not a man immune to the charms of young women. Believe me, I still look. The cleavage, this bare midriff business, but I keep my eyes on the girls’ faces when they tell me they woke up this morning and the window was broken. It’s a big window that looks out on the front yard. It will cost me a pretty penny to fix it.
“So you didn’t hear anything?” I ask.
“No way,” says Shannon — she’s the one with the shiny green jogging suit. “We came out and we’re like what happened?”
“You were sleeping,” I say.
“Yeah,” Angela, the other one, says. “We had the fan on.”
“So maybe we should call the police,” I tell them.
I see them glance at each other. “I’m sure it’s okay,” Shannon says. “It was probably, you know, a one-time thing.”
“You think so,” I say.
“Oh, yeah,” Angela says. She’s got a big smile that could light up a tunnel. They’re nice girls, but I know they’re lying to me.
“You could be in danger,” I tell them. “What if this person comes back and makes more trouble? We should let your parents know about this.”
Shannon fingers her necklace. Why she’s wearing a fancy pearl necklace with a jogging suit and flip flops I don’t know. But I got some idea. I bet if I search in the garage I’ll find a recycling bucket full of beer bottles. “I have to ask,” I say, “where’s the rock?”
Angela looks at Shannon, who says quickly, “We put it back.”
“And you cleaned up the glass?”
They nod their heads. I look at the window. Most of the glass is on the outside of the window. I checked before I came in. “So did anyone have to go to the hospital?”
They both look at me.
“I’ll tell you what,” I say. “I’ll make you a deal. You pay half, I pay half. I won’t ask for details. You had a party maybe. It got a little wild. Maybe there was a fight. Somebody got pushed against the window or just backed up too hard. I don’t know. You’re lucky no one got seriously hurt. You promise me you won’t have a party again, and I don’t call your parents. Plus I help you out with the cost. You’ve been here almost a year, with no problem. We got a deal?”
Angela, the one with the bare stomach, crosses her arms over her belly, as if to hide herself, shame on both their faces. They nod, and I tell them I’ll have the glass company here by the afternoon. It’s too big to glaze myself. They tell me they’re sorry, they were afraid if they told me the truth, I’d evict them. I’m the nicest man they’ve ever known, they say. Young people say such things to old people. I’m eighty-two, I should know. They think we’re like children who surprise them with how smart we are sometimes. Then they fall all over themselves heaping praise on us just for having a brain that still works.
After school gets out, I take the kids to their swim lessons. We go to the municipal pool at the Simpkins Center. They’ve got four pools, including a big warm water pool they keep at eighty-six degrees. Abby, she took to the water right away. She raced through the different levels — seahorse, barnacle, guppy, goldfish…now she’s up to a sea otter. This would be a good thing, except her brother who is four years older and eleven is at the same level. He should be at least a sea lion. All his friends, they’re already barracudas. So I said, enough with the fishies, let’s just learn to swim, and we got a private instructor who teaches both of them. Dana. She’s a college student, full of “awesomes” and high fives.
I sit on the bench and watch where Jeremy can’t see me. He stands on the edge of the pool, and Dana tries to teach him how to dive. He’s got to do a standing dive to pass his test and be allowed to swim in the deep water here with friends. She shows him how to bend at the waist and point toward the water.
“Hey, Jer,” Dana coaxes, “just aim and fall in.”
“I can’t,” he tells her.
“Sure you can!”
“You can’t or you won’t?”
“Is there a difference?” he asks.
“Of course there is, sweetie,” says Dana. At which Abby, sitting nearby on the edge of the pool, stands up and offers to show them. “Let’s just concentrate on your brother,” Dana tells her. “Maybe you want to go down the slide a few times.”
“Can I?” Abby says.
“Absolutely.” She goes off, happy as can be. When she’s around older females it’s like she’s auditioning to be their daughters. It breaks my heart.
Dana says, “Should I give you a little push?”
So he stands there, looking down at the water like a man on a cliff.
Amazingly, he does it. Okay, it’s not the best dive, more a roll into the water, but still it counts. Dana high-fives him. Jeremy doesn’t crack a smile, but on the way home he tells me he’s glad that’s over with. He won’t have to do it again. “Of course you’ll do it again. You did terrific!” I tell him.
“I looked ridiculous,” he says, staring out his window. Abby is in back playing with a purpled-sequined wrist purse Louise bought her the other day.
“You did not,” I say. “You tried, that’s what counts. And you went in.”
“I half did it.”
“You’ll do the other half next time.” We stop at a light on Ocean Street. I look back at Abby. She’s dangling the little purple purse on her arm and inspecting it in the light from the window.
“There’s Daddy,” she says. She rolls down the window. “Daddy!”
I see him now. Rex is coming out of the bank. I pull into a handicap space and wait for him to walk over.
“Hey everybody!” he says. He’s got a suit and tie on, his wavy black hair nicely cut and combed, and a royal blue dress shirt with gold cufflinks. I haven’t seen him wear a suit in years. When he dresses up like this he’s an attractive guy. You’d stop and think here’s a man who’s somebody’s handsome husband.
He works putting up drywall, a job he’s had almost three years, a record. I don’t know what he’s doing here in the afternoon.
“Daddy!” Abby says and reaches through the window for him. She’s a small child, and he pulls her out, grabbing her under the arms and spinning her around. If you didn’t know better, you’d think he was just getting off work and thrilled to see his kids at the end of a long day.
Abby hugs his neck, and he boosts her onto his back, then he taps at Jeremy for him to roll down his window. “What’s happening, pal?” he says and bumps knuckles with Jeremy, who lets his wet hair be ruffled. “Looks like you’ve all been hitting the surf.”
“Tell your father what you did,” I say.
“What’d I do?” Jeremy says.
“He dove into the pool.”
“You did?” says Rex. He acts puzzled. And why shouldn’t he? He’s got no idea that his son practically has a phobia. “That’s great. From the high dive?”
Jeremy stares at him like he’s crazy. “From the side. And I wouldn’t even call it a dive. I interacted with the pool,” he says. This is the way he speaks. Half the time I don’t get what he means.
Abby, still on Rex’s back, stretches her neck around to him and shouts in his face, “I’m a sea otter!”
“Wow,” Rex says.
“Daddy, I want to go with you,” says Abby. “Take me to your house.”
“Hey, pumpkin, can’t do it today. But soon. You want to come over and cook spaghetti with me again?”
“Soon, I promise.”
He puts Abby down beside the car and opens the door for her. She gets in reluctantly. By now, she knows there’s no use begging.
“Dad,” Rex says to me. “There’s something I want to talk with you about.” All smiles. “It’s exciting. Really exciting.”
I look at the bank. I look at Rex in his suit. I know it’s got something to do with money. “I have to get the kids home,” I say.
“We’ll talk tomorrow then, all right? I’ll call you.” He puts his hand on Jeremy’s shoulder. “I’m going to be at your soccer game Saturday. Okay, tiger?”
“Don’t bother,” Jeremy says. “I hardly do anything except stand there and let them kick the ball by me. I might as well be an obelisk.”
“Great, then,” says Rex. “Wow, I can’t believe I ran into you guys. You’re all so — ” He steps back and pumps his fist in the air. “Unreal!”
Two days later I get a call from Rex, who says he needs to meet me for lunch. I tell him I’ve got a busy day. I have to pick up the tile for a bathroom I’m redoing in one of my places. “What’s it about?”
“I’d rather tell you in person, Dad.”
“I’m in person,” I say. “As in person as I got time for today.”
At least once every time we talk he says he’s sorry. It doesn’t do any good. He doesn’t change, and what am I going to do? He can’t take care of himself, simple as that. You have to be in the situation to understand. I sat with him during his worst spells, I got him into the bathroom after he soiled himself, I made him take his medication, I stayed all night in a chair and watched him that he doesn’t slash his wrists again. And how’s he going to take care of the children when he’s like this? When you got a child’s welfare on the line you don’t make ultimatums, because you’re making them to somebody who doesn’t react like a sensible person. From the outside it looks like we’re hurting more than helping — we make it possible for him not to take responsibility. I’ve heard it all before. Coddling, spoiling, “enabling,” whatever term you want to use. But throw the children in there and all the tough love goes out the window, in my opinion.
When I think of dying, this is the worst part. I don’t know what I believe. If an angel shows up and says, “Mr. Halper, please step this way for your heavenly reward,” fine, I’ll be the first on the bus. If there’s nothing afterward, I know from nothing. Either way, I don’t place bets. But if you ask me what I’m ready to do now, I’ll tell you. I’ll make a deal with anyone, good or evil. It doesn’t matter what happens to me afterward. Just let me live until the kids don’t need me anymore.
“Dad, just listen. Can you hear me out?”
“I can do that,” I say, and for the next ten minutes he tells me about this coffeehouse he wants to buy in Watsonville. The owner is selling. Rex says it’s on a side street but business is booming. In Watsonville, the market isn’t saturated like it is in Santa Cruz. And farmland there is being converted into residential property every day — upscale homes — and retirees are moving in, too. He’s got all the figures on the business. It hasn’t turned a profit yet but he knows he can make it happen if he takes over. The bank’s willing to give him a start-up loan. Only one catch. I got to be a co-signer. The collateral? My three rental houses.
That’s my income, beside my pension from the aerospace company.
But I know better than to say anything on the phone. “You get all the figures together and we’ll talk.”
“So you’re interested?”
“I’ll hear you out. That’s all I can promise.”
“Dad, thanks, thanks. We can drive out there tomorrow and see the place. When do you want to go?”
“Since when do you have all this time on your hands?” There’s a big pause. My question has already been answered. “You’re not working, are you?”
“It’s not what you think. I didn’t get fired. I’m just taking some time off. Preston told me I can come back anytime. I needed to stop for a while because my back was killing me. Last week I pulled something and I couldn’t even straighten up. And I’m taking Advil like candy. That’s not right. I have to find something else.”
“So go back to school, study for a career.”
“I’m forty-one, Dad. I don’t have time to be a freshman again. Just let me show you the place. It’s sweet, I’m telling you. You’ll fall in love with it.”
I can’t give him money, and I’m not signing away my security so he can open the billionth coffeehouse in California and then go out of business. He’ll scream at me that I never support him, that I’ve got no confidence in him, that I’m the reason he’s screwed up, that I never give him the chance to help himself, that I want to keep him “infantilized” (this he got from years of therapy), that he’s going to take back the kids. Can you imagine? He’s going to take back the kids. That’s what he threatens me with. But it’s what scares me, too. “We’ll talk about it tomorrow,” I say, just so I can think.
In the afternoon the following day, I’ve got an hour before I pick the kids up from school. Jeremy has soccer practice and Abby a sewing class that she’s in with her grandmother. Louise doesn’t drive much anymore, so I have to take her places, to the doctor, shopping, to her hairdresser. Sometimes we call Lift Line and they come for her. The sewing class is something Abby and she are doing together, even though Louise could make a whole dress from scratch if she wanted. But she says it’s an activity to do with Abby that doesn’t require too much exertion, and anyway, it’s a mother-daughter class, so she needs to go.
The blinds are drawn at Rex’s apartment. The porch light is still on at two in the afternoon. My heart starts beating fast. I’m always afraid of what I might find.
I knock, I hear shuffling, then the door opens. He’s washed and shaved, dressed and in a clean knit shirt and navy slacks. Nothing’s wrong. He’s not curled up on the floor with his hands tucked between his knees as I’ve found him other times.
“I thought I’d stop over before I pick up the kids.”
“Um, maybe I should…” He steps outside and closes the door behind him. “I’m a little busy right now.”
I get what he means. I’m not naïve about such things. “You’ve got company, no problem.” I apologize for not calling first and start to leave when the blind is pushed aside and I see Cheryl.
“What’s she doing here?”
“Now just take it easy,” he says. “Everything’s fine.”
“Everything’s fine? How long has she been here?”
“Dad, I know what you’re thinking, but we’ve been talking — ”
“Who’s been talking? You and her?”
“Things have changed. Cheryl has a job in San Jose and she’s been living by herself and staying clean. She wanted to see if she could reach the one-year mark before she even contacted us again. It’s her anniversary today — ”
My head’s exploding with questions. “Anniversary? She got remarried?”
“Her anniversary of staying clean and sober, so I made arrangements for her to come here last night.”
I feel my knees go weak, and I sit down on the white plastic chair on the small balcony. “She’s gone four years and she just shows up and everything’s fine?”
“Listen, Dad, you’re not an uninvolved party here. I know that. And I know I can never repay you for all you’ve done. I can’t change what I did, but I can change. Cheryl wants to be part of that.”
“My God,” is all I can say. I feel my age suddenly. “Why doesn’t she come out here?”
“This isn’t the best time. She’s doing great. Maybe a little shaken up about coming here and trying to prepare herself to see the kids. But she’s taken responsibility, Dad, that’s the main thing. And she did it on her own. She’s not asking for anybody’s forgiveness. Believe me, she’ll be the last to ever forgive herself. But we want to try again.”
I can’t even show him my face, which is hot with fury.
“That’s why I need to talk with you,” Rex says. “I know we can make a go of the business.”
“The coffeehouse. We’ve got a lot of it figured out. Cheryl’s been working as a hostess in a restaurant, she knows about keeping the books, about how to manage a business. It’s still a work in progress, but everything’s falling into line. Just let me explain it all to you, okay? Not now. But tomorrow. I’ve got to go up to San Jose and talk to someone about a new roaster for the place. But after I come back?”
“Look,” I say, and forget what I’m going to say.
“You all right?”
“I have to pick up the kids now.”
“Actually, we were thinking about doing that this afternoon. A surprise.”
“No!” I say. I stand up and tell him to his face. “No more surprises today. You don’t just show up and introduce her to a daughter who has no memory of her! Are you nuts?”
“Calm down, all right? We weren’t going to do it that way.”
“I don’t care how you’re going to do it. Not today. I’m picking them up like always.”
“What should we do?” I say to Louise that evening. Jeremy and Abby I’ve told nothing. Jeremy complained of a sore knee after soccer practice. He said, “This could be as serious as Osgood-Schlatter disease, which tends to primarily affect boys my age, or as minor as a sprain. I suspect the swelling will respond to a combination of ice and anti-inflammatory therapy, but the prognosis isn’t good for me to play in Saturday’s game.” This is his way of explaining he’s looking for an excuse not to play.
I tell Louise that I’ve heard of grandparents going to court over such matters. “We have no official custody but we could make a case, a good case.”
“I’m not so sure we can,” Louise says.
“You want to just hand them over to her?”
“Keep your voice down. The children.” She’s got a gray shawl around her shoulders and her lips are blistered from the cold she’s had. The kids bring home all the stuff that’s going around. “We need to speak with Marvin,” she says. Marvin’s our lawyer, who’s helped us in the past. He’s got a young associate in his office who knows the ins and outs of family law.
“And what if Marvin tells us that they’re the parents and that’s who gets them? Are you prepared for that? Are you willing to list in affidavits all the bad things she’s done and talk about your son’s problems in front of a judge?”
I can see by the way she twists her mouth she isn’t. She’s always felt it was her fault what problems Rex has. She was forty-two when she had him, and it wasn’t so common back then to have a child that late. We tried for years with no success. He was our miracle baby. Somewhere he’s still a miracle in her mind.
She pulls the shawl tighter around her shoulders.
“You should go to bed,” I say.
“And you,” she tells me. “You hardly touched your dinner.”
“I’m fine.” Inside, my stomach turns over as if I’m on the Cyclone at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, a ride Abby makes me go on with her.
“We find out what they have in mind,” Louise says. I say nothing. “When we know the facts then we can discuss it with Marvin.”
“Marvin’s got nothing in his pocket to help us. We should have severed her legal ties when we had the chance.”
“We never had the chance.”
“When she abandoned her children, we had the chance. We waited, like fools.”
Louise gets up from the table and pours a little cream over sliced pears for me. “Eat,” she says. “It will do your stomach good.” She sits down next to me and puts her hand on my neck and rubs with her thumb and forefinger. Her fingers feel tiny back there, but they’ve still got strength in them. “We do this together,” she says to me. “You understand that, right?”
I carve a crescent of sweetness from my pears and eat. I can promise nothing.
We talk to Marvin. He says the law is on the parents’ side. “There are precedents for grandparents having custody but the case has to be clearly that a child’s welfare is endangered by remaining with the parents. It’s a high bar. It might be easier to have a child yourselves.” Louise snorts at this. “The truth is,” Marvin says, “if she’s clean and sober, and willing to assume her parental responsibilities at this time, it’s going to carry a lot more weight than anything that’s happened in the past, particularly if you haven’t carefully documented it. And if they want to, they can even contest visitation rights by the grandparents. It’s a question of how much to push before they push back. You can gamble, but they could win and be vindictive. I’ve seen it happen too many times.”
I leave discouraged. Louise and I don’t speak for a while in the car, then she says, “We have to accept the inevitable. He didn’t divorce her. She never gave up custody. We stepped in and now we have to step aside.”
“So that’s it? Just like that? Since when are you so blasé?”
“I’m realistic,” she says.
“I am, too. That’s why it’s not going to happen.”
“What’s not going to happen?”
“I’m prepared for a fight,” I say.
“You’re prepared to take the children away from their father and mother for good?”
“She comes back from God knows where, supposedly all cleaned up and motherly, and wants them back, and our son says, great, terrific, we’re a family again, come home, children, and you say we’re taking them away? What about them taking away from us!”
“You heard what Marvin told us.”
“I don’t care what Marvin told us. And you’re always too ready to do whatever your son asks.”
Louise puts her hand on my arm. We’re at a stoplight on Mission Street and a boy not much older than Jeremy, a Hispanic kid, crosses in front of us with a surfboard on his head. “It will come to this eventually,” Louise says in a quiet voice.
I remember a piece of a conversation I heard at the pancake house when Louise and I took the kids out for brunch one weekend. A young man was saying to a woman, maybe his wife, “I’m talking about thirty years down the road.” I imagined he was speaking about their future, what his business might be, or what he pictured for their kids one day. Maybe a second home somewhere they all could meet for vacations. I thought to myself I can’t even say, I’m talking about five years down the road. This is what Louise means in her soft voice when she talks about “eventually.”
What did I expect? Maybe somebody in a nice pair of slacks, a tasteful blouse, a trim-cut blazer, and a little makeup to freshen the face, like the moms at Jeremy’s soccer games. Cheryl was always a pretty girl. But this Cheryl is thin and all sharp bones, her cheeks more sunken, her eye shadow too blue, and rings on four of her fingers, including a big silver one with a black stone. She wears snug jeans with embroidered pockets and a leather vest over a tight white sweater blouse.
Cheryl bends down and extends her arms for Abby who shies away. On the way here we told the kids, “Your mother is in town and wants to see you.” Jeremy nodded. Maybe he knew this day was coming. He remembers her, of course, but he never speaks about her. Abby said, “I knew she’d come back. I knew she would.” She became so excited that she made us go back so she could wear her Annie Oakley costume that she got for Halloween in three weeks.
Abby, a finger twisted tightly around her hair, finally goes over to her mother.
We all stand there a minute while Cheryl makes a big scene of hugging her. Cheryl’s on her knees in the sand. We decided it was best to meet at Seabright Beach and have a cookout in one of the fire rings. A neutral place.
Louise gives Jeremy a little push to go over too. I feel like he’s being shoved toward a stranger, but I keep my mouth shut. Now the tears come. Cheryl is crying, hugging Abby and reaching out her other arm for Jeremy, who keeps his body sideways but lets her put an arm around his waist. She turns her face from one to the other like she’s been on a long trip and planned all along to come back. I look away.
“Let’s eat,” Rex says. He’s got his hand on Cheryl’s shoulder this whole time.
“Wait a sec,” says Cheryl, and she jumps up and runs over to where they put down their stuff. She comes back with a present for each of them. Abby, who’s in her Annie Oakley outfit — never mind that her brother told her not to wear it because it looked stupid — gets a stuffed orangutan with a baby orangutan wrapped around its neck. Jeremy, who doesn’t rip open his present like his sister but instead neatly peels off the tape, has some kind of board.
“It’s a skim board,” Cheryl tells him. “You throw it out along the shore and jump on for a ride.”
“I know what it is,” Jeremy says, staring at it. He’s folding the wrapping paper back up in a perfect square.
“Oh, honey,” Cheryl says. She’s got a husky smoker’s voice. “Do you already have one? Rex said no. Right? You said he didn’t have one.”
“That’s what I thought,” Rex says.
“Do you have one? You’re not disappointed, are you?”
“It’s fine,” Jeremy says flatly. “I don’t have one.”
“But you like it right, honey?” Cheryl asks.
Jeremy looks at me.
“He’s not so big on water sports,” I explain.
“Oh,” says Cheryl. Her face is about to collapse.
“It’s fine,” Jeremy says again.
“Fine?” Rex says. “It’s a little more than fine, son. This is a top of the line model.”
Jeremy turns it over in his hands. “I’m most appreciative,” he says, “of your generosity.” This is the way he talks when he doesn’t want to talk anymore. He makes a little house of such language and shuts the door from the inside.
“Anybody hungry?” Louise asks.
While Rex starts a fire in the pit, Cheryl takes Abby by the hand and walks along the beach. Couples, groups of teenagers, other families come down to watch the sun set. It’s already too cold to go in the water but surfers go out with their boards and kids slap their bare feet along the water’s edge.
“So what do you think?” I ask Louise. Jeremy is next to his father, who’s fussing with the fire. Cheryl walks with Abby down the beach, telling her something. Her arms fly out, she jumps up, she squats down and gives Abby another hug. Then Abby shows her how she can do a cartwheel and a handstand.
“I think,” Louise says, “that Abby’s vote is yes.”
“You notice she hasn’t said a word to us. She went right to work on the kids.”
“She’s their mother. What do you expect? She doesn’t have to win our approval.”
Later in the evening, Abby will get on the skim board and zip along. Jeremy won’t have anything to do with it. Cheryl will show Abby her blueberry-colored nails and tell her that they can get manicures. Jeremy she’s going to take to the music store. She says she wants to buy him an iPod. Does he download music? What are his favorite bands? Does he play an instrument? She wants her kids to play instruments. What’s his best subject in school? She hardly gives him a chance to answer, and when he does, he says, “The sun is supposed to set at 6:02. It’s a minute and a half late. The tides must be disappointed.” Rex chews a burnt marshmallow and says, “You kids!”
I watch the waves break on shore. My heart gets pulled out to sea like it’s in a rip current.
The kids spend the next week at the apartment with their parents. At first, Abby, when we pick her up for the sewing class with Louise, is all smiles and glee. She tells us Cheryl takes her shopping. They go out for fudge sundaes and to the movies. They carve pumpkins and bake the seeds. They cut out pictures from American Girl magazine and put them on Abby’s side of the bedroom she shares with her brother. But then, the following week, she doesn’t say so much. “Tell me what you’re up to, snookums,” I say. I’m trying not to make judgments. I keep busy on my houses, read a biography of Eisenhower, catch up on my sleep. My arthritis lets up a bit. I’m thinking I can make the adjustment. They’re trying hard to be good parents. In fact, Rex doesn’t even call for my help with the kids.
“Can you get me a new leotard?” Abby asks. “Mine is ripped.”
“You can get one at gymnastics,” I say. They have a little store there that sells all the accessories the girls need.
“Can you buy it?” Abby asks.
“Yes,” Louise says.
“Did you ask your parents?” I say.
“Cheryl says she can’t afford it.”
“We’ll get it,” Louise says.
“I thought she had all this money saved,” I say, referring to Cheryl. That’s what she had told us.
“Never mind,” Louise says.
“You got anything else you want to tell us?”
“Shush,” Louise says.
“Don’t shush me,” I say. “Maybe she wants to talk. Abby?”
“You got anything else to say?”
“I’m tired,” she says.
Two days later, when Jeremy comes over to the house, I find out things aren’t going so well. Rex and Cheryl are fighting again. We’re sitting on the hood of my Chrysler Imperial. I’ve had the car for eleven years and I should trade it in for one with better gas mileage, but I bought it the day Jeremy was born. He has his soccer uniform on now. I’ve had to pick him up from his game because Rex and Cheryl drove out to look at the coffeehouse. I went with them once and was not impressed, a rundown building with too many flies inside. Every day Rex calls and asks if I’ve made up my mind. I tell him no, I haven’t decided, and in the meantime he should think about going back to work for Preston. Why don’t I tell him the truth? That I’m never going to sign. Because he’s got the kids as leverage. He could hold them hostage from us if I don’t cooperate, and in the meantime I can only hope he loses interest or the place gets sold to somebody else.
Jeremy and I are sharing a package of black licorice. It’s his favorite candy. I eat only one piece because of my dentures, but he chews away. Between bites he tells me about physics, that we exist in ten dimensions but can only experience four of them. He thinks we have many parallel lives that we’re undergoing at the same time. “In one universe I’ve scored five soccer goals. In another I’m just an energy force. Another has no cause and effect and I’m able to jump off a building and land safely on my feet. That one is very dreamlike. But in this one I’m sitting on a white car believing in time.”
“You don’t believe in time?” I ask.
“For the moment, I do.” He gives me a sly smile. I get the joke and we bump fists like the kids do nowadays. At this “moment in time” I ache over how much I love him.
“She’s drinking,” he says out of nowhere. He’s got a long sad face. He takes my index finger and wraps his own fingers around it. “One day, grandpa, I’ll be able to merge into other universes. I shall call myself The Permeator and solve TOE.”
“What’s this TOE?”
“The theory of everything, grandpa,” he says, as if I should know. “I expect that won’t be soon enough, though.” Tears start down his cheeks. I know what he means: I’ll be dead by then.
What I do next I’m not proud of. I call Cheryl when I know Rex isn’t at home. She agrees to meet me at Lighthouse Point, and I wait for her on a bench. I can see her approaching across the grassy park behind the bluffs. It’s the day before Halloween, and Abby has asked if we could take her out in our neighborhood, where she knows more people (and can get better candy, she believes).
“What’s so important?” Cheryl says, getting right to the point. I’ve only seen her a couple of times since that first night at Seabright. She wears a baseball cap with her hair in a ponytail threaded through the back. From one shoulder to the other she keeps shifting her suede handbag.
“I wanted to talk,” I say.
“So let’s talk. I’m here.” She’s wearing open-toed white sandals and I see her nails don’t have that pearly polish they did the first night. Now they’re chipped and dull, and I wonder if she ever took Abby for the manicure she promised. “If you came here to give me a lecture, you can save your breath. I’m not in the best frame — ”
“I don’t want to lecture. I want to make an offer.”
I gesture toward the bench for her to sit down. It’s eleven a.m. and people are coming to eat their lunch. She sits carefully, not taking her eyes off me. I see an unhappy woman, a tormented person, a scared little girl inside her, but I got to do what I think best.
I reach in my sport coat and take out money from my inside pocket and hold it in my lap, then cover my hands over top like I’m putting a damp cloth over warm dough.
“What’s this?” Cheryl asks.
In the park, there’s a bunch of people around my age doing Tai Chi. They’ve got loose white clothes on and look like ghosts. The waves crash below, seagulls above caw, and here I sit with ten thousand dollars in my lap.
“You can get a new start,” I say.
“Are you trying to buy me off?”
“I’m giving you options.”
“Oh, my God. You think I’m going to take this money and leave the kids? You must really think I’m scum.”
“Not everybody should be a parent.”
“You arrogant old man. Who the hell do you think you are?”
I expect ugly names, but she hasn’t walked off yet. “You let us take care of the children. Maybe you live nearby. Maybe you live, say, in Watsonville and run a coffeehouse. I don’t know. Maybe you want to go away and think about whether you’re up to being a mother with full responsibility right now.” I don’t say maybe you shoot the money up your arm and drink it away. “Maybe we have an agreement about this, and then nobody makes a big legal scene.”
Cheryl’s mouth twists in an unpretty way, like she could spit on me, which would not be a surprise or undeserved.
“You’ve always hated me,” she says.
“I don’t hate anyone. I’m a practical man.”
“I’ve never been a whore. No matter what happened I’ve never gotten that low. You want to know something? This is lower than that.”
I look at my fingers. They got dirt wedged in them from crawling around under one of my houses to fix a pipe.
“Rex would think you’re despicable. You’d be lucky if he ever speaks to you again. You’ll be lucky if I ever do. Shit, you think you can hustle me!”
“I’m making you an offer. What you do with it is your decision.”
“I should tell you to shove that money up your ass.”
When I hear this word, this simple word “should,” because everything when you think about it comes down to the difference between should and did, I know what will happen. I stand up and leave the money on the bench. I count to myself, one, two, three seconds, and I know if I make it to ten, she won’t run after me and throw the money in my face. When I get to nine, I keep walking. I’m afraid to turn around, just like in the Bible because I’ve done a terrible thing that could turn me into a pillar of salt. But I don’t look behind me. I don’t look ahead. I just keep going.