“There’s my boy!" Claire dropped her carry-on and suitbag to catch Todd as he ran to her. He was dressed as Space Invader, in a silver body stocking and black cape.
She spun with him, kissing his face repeatedly. It was like something from a TV commercial.
"You're late," he said. "We've been waiting for hours."
"I missed you so much!" She smiled at me over his shoulder.
I kissed her, inhaling the scent of her spicy perfume and the stale cabin odor of the airplane. Although she looked tired, her face pale and her eyes sunken, she seemed exuberant. Triumphant.
It was a relief to see her finally, even though she’d been gone only two days. Wearing jeans, sneakers, and a pullover, she looked young—in her mid twenties, not thirties. Her hair, the color of rust, was pulled back in a pony tail.
"It couldn't have gone better," she told me later in the car.
We were on I-40, speeding past too-green tobacco fields that gave way abruptly to the sprawl of industrial parks, RV sales showrooms, and carpet warehouses. Todd was sitting on her lap, playing with her hands, lifting one, then the other.
"I told you you'd do well." I smiled as though I could picture all that had happened, but my mind was as empty as a field of snow.
Claire described the interview: how the faculty applauded after she’d read an excerpt from her book; how she started a debate among the students during her class visit—and they were so taken with her, they made her late for her meeting with the dean.
"It sounds like you got the job," I said.
She gazed out the window on her side, pulling Todd closer. "It looks that way."
I saw her smile. She nuzzled Todd's neck and he giggled.
"Is Oakland pretty?" I asked. All I knew about the place was that it was across the bay from San Francisco, it'd had riots in the sixties, and it had a football team called the Raiders.
"It's got hills,” she said. “And the city isn't anything you might have imagined."
"You don't know what I've imagined." I regretted this uncharitable nip as soon as I’d said it.
She knew I didn't want to leave North Carolina. Seven years ago, we had made a plan, a contract of sorts: she would earn her doctorate in English and I a masters in Marketing; then we would take the first, good job offer either of us received. But then Claire got pregnant, in spite of our precautions. I dropped out after Todd was born because one of us had to work. So much for plans. As yet, I had not agreed to move west—or anywhere, for that matter.
Winston-Salem appeared abruptly to our right, a cluster of high- and medium-rises on a hill. Each time I saw the city from this distance, I felt a comfort I couldn't imagine feeling elsewhere. I was born here and could recall a time when there was only one highrise and the tobacco factories were running twenty-four hours a day, the town reeking sweetly of the curing leaf.
Finally Claire answered me: "We'll get a generous housing allowance." She knew I was worried about the cost of living in California.
"We get allowance?" Todd asked.
“When we move,” she said.
“To California,” he said, “where Disney Land is.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell him Disney Land was an eight hour drive from Oakland.
Claire palmed one of Todd's hands. "My little boy has painted his fingers, I see."
"They're black like monster nails," I explained.
"It's my new color," said Todd. Last week it was yellow. He held his fingers to the light.
"It goes well with your Space Invader costume," I added.
Claire glanced at me and heaved a sigh of mild disapproval.
It was true, I indulged Todd, letting him paint his fingernails, eat cereal for dinner, wear his Invader outfit to the mall. Claire sometimes did the same but not as often as I. It seemed her brief absence now made the difference between us—my leniency—more obvious. She’d never been happy about the fingernail painting.
It’s not an issue, I announced recenlty, unless we make it so.
Once we got home, Claire sat in the kitchen with Todd and cleaned his fingernails with remover-soaked cotton balls. "He can't wear polish to school," she said.
"Do you really think I would've let him do that?"
I was sitting across from them and thumbing through the latest properties catalogue—recently I'd been promoted to business sites division. Real estate. My boss said I was a natural salesman.
Todd began to whine: "Mommy, you wear polish to work."
I hated when he whined.
"I'm a grownup," she said. "Grownups can wear polish to work but little boys can't." She dabbed at his fingers. He watched her closely.
He said, "When I'm grown up I can wear polish?"
Claire glanced up at me as if to ask, What’s going on here?
I reminded myself that this was what she did as a profession, asked questions, analyzed issues. I didn’t have to take it personally.
I said, "If you want to paint your nails when you’re a grown-up, Todd, that's fine. It'll be your decision."
He was still watching Claire.
"Right?" I asked her.
"Sure," she said. "It will be your decision, Todd."
After she sent Todd out to play in the back yard, she said, "Billy, what’s going on with him?”
I shrugged. Before me was a full-page photo spread of an overgrown field, a parcel of the former Hanes estate being sold for development. It took me a moment to recognize this as the field on which my friends and I had played baseball about twenty years ago.
"It’s just kid stuff," I said.
"If he’s got issues, we should deal with them.”
"He's a kid who likes fingernail polish. There's no crime in that."
"Maybe not.” She tossed the dirtied cotton into the trash pail.
A cry from the back yard made us both turn abruptly and peer through the kitchen window with some alarm. Todd was squealing in fright, the neighbor's toy collie—Veronica--chasing him from one end of the yard to the other, Todd’s cape flagging behind him as though he were about to take off. Veronica nudged and nipped at his ankles and Todd skittered along, nearly on tip-toe, shouting, between yelps of fright: "Stop, you stupid dog!”
Claire shook her head doubtfully. "You'd better get out there."
I moved for the door.
Todd’s complaints did him little good since he was running all the while: "Veronica, you creep, STOP!"
Sternly I said, "Veronica, heel!" And she did, sitting dutifully before me, her dopey dog eyes regarding me curiously, her tongue lolling.
"See that?" I said. Todd stood behind me, chewing his lower lip to conceal his fright. "She just wants to play."
"Come here, Todd, Veronica likes you."
The dog barked once, as if in agreement. I held her by the collar. Her eager tail swept the grass.
Todd approached cautiously. He was small for his age but, then, so had I been. Claire and I had debated putting him into first grade so early. He wouldn’t be seven until May.
This was the fourth time in the last two weeks I had rescued him from the new neighbor’s dog.
"Come on," I said. "She wants to shake hands." I commanded Veronica to shake: she lifted a paw and Todd watched her with wide eyes.
Tentatively he took the paw in his hand.
Later, after we had put Todd to bed, and Claire and I were in our own, she said, "Would you object if Todd wanted to wear lipstick?"
Her question confused me because I was still thinking about the dog. What becomes of people who grow up fearing even the smallest dogs?
Carefully I said, "Todd doesn’t want to wear lipstick.”
"But if he did?"
"But he doesn't."
She was slumped against the headboard, her knees raised slightly under the sheet in a way that made her look pregnant.
"We're under a lot of stress, Bill."
"What are you saying?" I glanced at the alarm clock to make sure it was set.
Claire started picking at her lower lip with her fingers, one of her annoying habits when she's pensive. She said, "Since you’re the one spending so much time with him now, I’m hoping you can handle whatever trouble comes up."
"There’s no trouble.”
I was staring at a pancake-sized water stain on the ceiling. It had come with the house, the threat of a faulty roof which the previous owners had claimed they'd fixed. We hadn't known whether or not to believe them. But the roof never did leak.
"I just don't want us to make a mistake," she said. “Not if there’s time to correct it.”
"Well, here's some news,” I said, suddenly irritated, “life is all about mistakes, one after the other. So you’d better get used to it."
In answer, she reached over and flicked off the light.
All right, I told myself, I’m an asshole—I had ruined her day.
I watched her in the dim green glow of the electric clock. She was still leaning against the headboard, staring at the opposite wall, and wondering, no doubt, whether or not she had gotten the job.
After five minutes of silence, every minute of which I hated myself, I said, "When did they say they'd call back?"
Her knees dropped. I couldn't see her face well enough to read her expression. "Could be a day," she said, "could be a week." She sounded weary.
"Did you look at the neighborhoods near campus?"
She turned on the light. "Are you really interested?"
"Of course I'm interested." I tried to picture it, the mossy green hills, the towering eucalyptus trees, the red brick college buildings. But it all seemed as hazy as a desert horizon.
"The campus has a view of the bay," she began. "You should see the beautiful neighborhoods nearby."
Neighborhoods we’ll never be able to afford, I wanted to add. Instead, I joked: "Movie stars? Swimming pools?"
"This is northern California, don't forget."
"I'm sure it’s great," I said.
She turned off the light. "Let's talk when we're not so tired."
"Okay," I said, yawning. "I want to hear all about it."
When I was ten years old, I started twirling the baton. This may sound silly and inconsequential now but back then it was momentous, causing my parents grave concern. Nobody but girls twirled batons. I thought baton twirling a wondrous skill and I could not understand why everyone was so upset at my wanting to learn it.
As a result of my baton practice, I became known in the neighborhood as Snow White, Cinderella, Fairy Queen. All I could do was ignore the taunts, though one time, after a particularly cruel exchange, I slammed David Block with my baton and bloodied his ear. My parents were supportive, if a little scared. They were smart enough to wait me out.
The morning after Claire's return, I thought of this while I shaved, watching myself in the mirror, one hand soaping my cheek, the other poised with my old-fashioned safety razor. I remembered vowing, at ten, never to give up the baton. But, pressured by the taunts, I couldn’t sustain my interest longer than a year. Soon after, I had joined the middle-school track team, was sneaking cigarettes with the other boys, and was considered normal at last.
At home, my parents’ relief was as palpable as sunshine. For my birthday they gave me a dirt bike they really couldn’t afford. As I rode it around the neighborhood for the first time, I realized I was relieved too. What had I been trying to prove?
Now, waiting for Claire to return from a day at the university library, I wondered what I’d prove by refusing to move west. Why even bother trying to wrangle a concession from her?
When she came home, I told her I'd go to California. No reservations.
She watched my face, as if to read for sincerity. She was dressed casually, jeans and a blouse, her briefcase in hand.
I was standing at the kitchen sink, ready to cut up a fryer for dinner.
I said it again: "I'll go, Claire."
She strode over to me, crooked her free arm around my neck, then pulled me to her: " You’re the greatest." She kissed me on the mouth, which reminded me that we had not had sex in nearly two weeks.
Just then Todd walked into the kitchen dressed like a little woman. He was wearing his mother's sequinned flats, her pearl necklace, one of my shirts secured at the waist with Claire's mock-alligator skin belt, and purple lipstick smeared like rouge on his cheeks. The way he approached us, his face bright with anticipation, made it clear that he expected a delighted reception.
“Well, look at you!” Claire exclaimed. Too effusively, I thought.
“What are you dressed for?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Whatever.”
“Whatever what?” I pressed. “Did you ask Mom if you could wear her things?”
Todd glanced to Claire for help.
“Don’t look away from me when I ask a question,” I said. I still hadn’t raised my voice.
“It’s all right,” Claire offered.
“You don’t like it?” Todd asked. I couldn’t tell if he was disappointed or indignant.
“It’s fine for what it is,” I said. “If you wanted to surprise us, you did a good job. Now go upstairs and get ready for dinner.”
“Dinner’s not ready,” he said matter-of-factly.
I held up a frozen chicken thigh like a miniature club. “What did I just say, cowboy?”
He shrugged, then trudged out of the room.
I ran warm water over the chicken and wondered, What’s become of cowboys?
When I glanced up, Claire was staring at me sadly.
“What?” I asked. “Did I handle that poorly?”
“No, you were fine,” she said. “I just don’t what to make of—of that show.”
“Is he testing us?” I asked. “Sending signals?”
She laughed abruptly. “To tell us what, that he’s a cross-dresser?”
“Hell if I know.” I patted the chicken dry with paper towels. “At least he’s not twirling a baton, right?”
“Oh, Billy, you don’t blame yourself, do you?”
“How can I?” I said. “It’s not like I gave him my old baton and told him to march proudly with the girls.”
Claire came up behind me and started massaging my shoulders: “Every little boy should be allowed to twirl a baton, don’t you think?”
“I tell you what’s sad.” I started dropping chicken parts into a bowl of flour. “I’ve never twirled for you.”
“Hmmm.” Now she hugged my waist. “That’s a thought.”
The next day, Claire got the call she’d been waiting for. Then she came home with the news, bringing with her a bagful of library books about Oakland and the San Francisco Bay Area. We ordered in a large pepperoni pizza, then sat on the rug in the den, with our pizza on paper plates and each of us with a mug of diet Coke, while we read through the picture books with Todd.
"What's that?" he asked, pointing to a white building that looked like a wedding cake centerpiece.
"The Claremont Hotel." Claire knew all the landmarks. "And here's the Mormon Temple, just off 580, not far from my school."
"Your school," I said.
"MY school!" She laughed. And Todd laughed.
It wasn't until the next day that I had second thoughts. While it seemed to Claire that I could sell real estate as easily in Oakland as I could in my home town, I wasn't so sure. I had done well here in great part because Winston's history was my own. Whenever I drove a client to a property, inevitably we would pass a building, a lot, or a neighborhood I knew from childhood. My passion wasn't for real estate, I realized, it was for my past, for the memories that this old tobacco town conjured every time I sold a piece of it.
This came to me as I drove to Todd's grade school to pick him up at the day's end. That morning I had given notice at the office. Mike, my boss, took it so well that I was disappointed. Some childish part of me had hoped that he would try to convince me to stay or, at least, tell me my leaving was a great loss. In truth, I simply wanted someone to say aloud what I couldn’t say—that the loss was mine.
Todd looked sullen, his face pale, as he approached the car. I imagined that somehow he sensed my mood.
"Hey, what's the problem?"
He climbed into the car slowly. The school drive was crowded with parents, mostly mothers, picking up their children, the air sweetly acrid with car exhaust and noisy with the squeals of Todd's classmates.
"Somebody don't like me," he said.
"Doesn't, Todd. Who doesn't?"
He stared down at the floor mat. "I got beat up."
At first I didn't want to believe him. "You don't look beat up, buckeroo."
"I got beat up." He wouldn't look at me.
I saw a van full of kids pass, their gleeful faces at the windows, and suddenly I was angry.
"What happened, Todd."
He was worrying his lower lip, picking at it just the way his mother picked at hers, his eyes brimming.
We sat there for a while, in silence, the other cars passing.
Finally, I said, "Isn't there something I can do to help?" I wanted him to look at me. But he kept staring at the floor.
"Don't tell mom," he said.
When Claire came home from work, I was under the sink, swiping at a leaky ring nut with a crescent wrench. A messy chore I had been avoiding for months, this job suited my mood. I was surprised to hear Claire stride across the linoleum in her flats, which she usually kicked off at the door.
“Hello down there,” she said.
From the soap-perfumed gloom, where I was crowded on one side by a bag of scouring pads and, on the other, by a box of detergent, I said, "I gave Mike notice today."
I heard Claire sigh. She was standing beside me now, though I didn't pause in my work to take a look. She said, "Sometimes I think I still don’t know who you are.”
"You're not happy I gave notice?"
"That's not what I'm talking about."
I slid out, took a breath. My head was pulsing; the kitchen sunlight made me wince. My fingers, I noticed, were black with graphite and pipe grease, my forearms wet from the sink drip, my shoulders aching.
She half-smiled, half-grimaced, then said: "What's Todd doing out there with that thing?"
"You mean the little Uzi?"
"Is it some kind of joke?”
“He wasn’t feeling well after school,” I explained, “so we stopped at the Toy Warehouse and that’s what he wanted, a purple Uzi.”
“Since when have we given him toy guns? I mean, couldn’t we have talked about it first?”
I nodded in agreement. “You’re right. I wasn’t thinking.”
Then she laughed: “God, he’s got us coming and going—-from fingernail polish to machine guns!”
It seemed she was relieved by his interest in a toy gun. This irritated me. I suspected that deep down—like me—she didn’t want a gay son or a transvestite son or whatever it was Todd was going to be. Her resistance scared me a little too. If she was less, rather than more, accepting, perhaps I would not fare well in her estimation—especially if I failed at real estate in California.
Barking outside brought our attention to the kitchen window. Todd was shouting at Veronica. Again. When we got to Todd, I heard him saying, "I'm gonna KILL you, stupid dog!" He was lunging and swinging the toy gun at Veronica, who yapped at him and dodged each swipe. Eyes wide, tail waving, Veronica thought it was a game, but Todd was earnestly trying to bean the dog with the butt of his plastic Uzi.
Before I could grab the toy, he made contact at last, slamming Veronica’s snout.
Veronica yelped, starting back, confused. Abruptly, blood welled from her nostrils. Then, yowling, she sprinted back to her yard.
This brought our neighbor out of his house.
Like a fool, I waved, meaning to signal that I’d get to him in a minute.
Angrily he called, “What the hell you do to Veronica!”
“You’d better get over there,” Claire said.
Why is it always me? I wanted to protest. Why am I the one who’s supposed to offer correction, apology, acceptance, advice? What about you, Claire? What are you doing about any of this?
“Goddamnit, Bill, what happened?” my neighbor asked. He seemed more hurt than angry now.
Lying, I explained that Todd got carried away in his play, that it was accident, that we were very, very sorry.
“Is she all right?” I asked.
He was dabbing Veronica’s bloodied nose with the tail of his polo shirt. “I’ll send you the vet bill,” he said. Then, without a glance at me, he carried the dog inside.
As I walked back, I felt an idiot for having bought the toy gun for Todd. I realized I had no idea what I was doing.
I heard Claire quietly coaching him: “You have to be careful, honey.”
Pouting and staring at the grass, Todd wasn’t having any of it.
Damn it to hell will you pay attention? I heard my own father barking.
I all but snatched the toy gun from Claire, then grabbed Todd’s shirt collar from behind, lifting him a couple of feet before setting him down hard in the grass. His legs buckled. Suddenly he was on his butt, blinking away the surprise, his mouth open in a painful Oh!
I might have stopped there had he been hurt. But he was fine. And he looked defiant. Which scared me.
I shook the miniature machine gun an inch from his nose: "Do you have any idea how badly you might have hurt Veronica with this?"
"I'm gonna kill her!” he blurted. “Stupid dog!"
"Kill her?” I croaked. “Did you hear that, Claire?"
"Let's go inside," she urged.
“Oh, joy!” I said. “We’re raising a sociopath!”
“Veronica is your friend.” I said hoarsely. “You don't BEAT on friends, Todd. You try to understand them, you try to WORK with them." I felt Claire's hand on my arm. "LOOK at me when I'm talking to you, Todd!"
Slowly he raised his eyes to mine.
"If you don't LIKE Veronica chasing you, then STOP giving her something to chase—stop running, for Christsake, it's that simple, do you hear me?"
"STOP running, do you hear me, Todd?"
He nodded yes, his lower lip quivering. What a relief to see him surrender at last!
"What did I SAY?"
"Stop." He swallowed. "Run-ning."
"As for this thing.” I held the gun high in one hand as if about to toss up like a baton. "I'm sorry I gave it to you." Then I slammed it over my thigh, cracking it in two—which hadn’t been my intention. When it snapped, it made a hollow sound, like the pop of an open hand against someone's cheek.
Now Todd was crying. Claire led him back to the house. He walked like an enfeebled little man. Still gripping the broken toy Uzi, I stood in the back yard until it was dark, asking myself, What have I done?
The next morning at breakfast I listened with regret to the metronomic drip of the sink pipe I had failed to fix yesterday.
I said to Todd, "You want to help me plant the 'for sale' sign in the front yard?"
He shrugged glumly, his attention focused on his bowl of Coco Puffs. He was spooning at them but not eating, his elbows on the table, his chin nearly at his bowl.
Either eat or quit, I wanted to tell him. Don't torture your food. Which is the parent's way of saying, Don't torture me. Though Todd didn't usually hold a grudge, I now found myself searching for the magic words or the single gesture that would break his foul mood.
I had promised myself I wasn't going to be the bad guy today. It was Claire's turn. Bustling behind us, humming a happy tune that sounded like "Be My Baby," she was going to spend the day working at home. I quietly resented her freedom.
As I drove Todd to school, I felt my hope diminish with each passing traffic light. He was staring out his window. Thinking of what? Flying away like Space Invader? Saving the world? Killing dogs?
"What are you going to do in school today?" I asked. It was a question so stereotypically parental—just the kind of thing my father might have asked—I felt my face warm with embarrassment.
"Get beat up," he answered. He was still staring out the window.
"You don't mean that," I said. But, of course, he did. He was beginning to learn, in some painful ways, how small he truly was in the scheme of things.
When we arrived at Whitaker Elementary, the kids were out still, a crowd scattered across the blacktop and the fenced recess yard. The place hadn't changed much since I'd attended so long ago: a single-story brick sprawl built in the early fifties.
I pulled to the curb and cut the engine.
Todd turned a worried glance my way. "What are you doing?"
"I want to talk to Ms. Kroll," I said. His teacher.
"Right now?" He must have sensed that I was in the mood to do something stupid. "You got to go to work."
"I've got time," I said.
With a mixture of worry and suspicion, he kept looking back at me as he walked ahead and then reluctantly passed through the gate.
"See you at three," I called. This time he didn't look back.
I found Ms. Kroll at her desk, doing paperwork. She was a young woman with a full face and close-set, startled eyes. I had spoken to her only once, and briefly, during a January parents-teacher conference, when she told us that Todd was doing "fine."
Looking up, her brows raised in question, she said, "Mr. Spenser-Danvers?" I was surprised she remembered me.
The classroom overlooked the blacktop, where the laughter and yelps of children rose and fell like the wash of waves on a beach. Occasionally one of the teacher’s aides would call for someone to slow down or to cut it out.
"Danvers," I said.
She smiled, as if I needed reassurance. Dealing with kids all day, it must have come naturally, a smile like that. "Mr. Danvers, is there a problem?"
Damn straight, there's a problem, I wanted to blurt: one of those little shits is beating on my boy.
Standing there amid those miniature desks, though, and listening to the kids play, Ms. Kroll's fruity perfume reminding me of the crush I'd had on my first grade teacher, I could only say, "Todd—we're a little worried about him."
"He's a good student, he's doing fine." Her pencil poised over the page of her notebook, she watched me with polite impatience.
Hearing a child cry out in pain, I went quickly to the window. Maybe too quickly. A boy had taken a bad fall, already a teacher’s aide at his side. I couldn't see Todd.
When I turned around, Ms. Kroll was standing beside her desk. "It's about time for the bell," she said. Still that kind smile.
I took a final glance outside and there he was, by the swingsets, which didn't have any swings, I noticed. A yellow-haired boy was talking to him. He was maybe two inches taller and a good twenty pounds heavier than Todd. With one chubby finger, he poked Todd in the chest. Three times. It didn’t look like an argument. But it didn’t look friendly either. Todd hesitated, staring at the boy’s finger. Then Todd said something.
That’s when the boy smacked him across the face with an open hand.
"Did you see that?" I blurted, my ears ringing as if I had been smacked too.
Now Todd was sprinting across the yard, the other boy in pursuit. Panicked, wanting to fold myself through the window, get out there somehow, I said it again: "Did you see?"
"Yes," said Ms. Kroll, now at my side. "It's Stacy and Todd. They shouldn't be running like that. A monitor will stop them."
"That kid just hit him," I said. How much goes on that teachers don't see?
“Are you sure about that?” Ms. Kroll asked skeptically.
Todd was a good runner—small consolation—and it seemed he'd easily out-distance the yellow-haired boy. But then, inexplicably, Todd stopped: he pulled up short and the other boy nearly stumbled into him. I felt my fingers twitch, as if to grab the bully. The boy said something, his menacing face close to Todd's. What was this about? Territory? A possession? Looks? Todd spoke in return. I was thinking of a bloody nose, of nightmares, of saving Todd from pain. Before I could say another word, though, before I could rap on the window or bolt for the door, the bully abruptly turned and walked away. Just like that.
Wonder of wonders.
Todd stood there—looking neither happy nor sad—and stared after his adversary.
I looked away to clear my head, catch my breath. Jesus.
Ms. Kroll was waiting, her hand extended for a shake. "I'll see you at our April conference," she said. Her grip was firm and chalky dry. She must have thought me a nuisance, just another worried parent sneaking around to check on his kid. But I wanted to convey to her the importance of what I had just witnessed—there was so much she had missed.
"I taught him to do that," I said.
"To do what, Mr. Danvers?"
When I considered what I might say, I realized that it was too much, I didn't know where to start, I couldn't begin to explain all I had wanted to do, and so I stood there mutely, the gleeful cries of children crowding my ears, then the peal of class bells ringing like fire alarms.