The half-opened bathroom door cast an orange light into the dark hallway. The father, wearing light blue pants and a short-sleeved jacket sporting large breast pockets, barely knocked on the door. The son, recently turned thirteen, swung the door wide open, causing the father to squint. The father’s longish dark hair was wet and combed straight back without a part, his sideburns neatly trimmed. The son’s hair was also long, but bushy and parted in the very center of his head. His bell-bottomed corduroy pants hid the brown Vans that had small holes on the sides and the large collar of a plaid button-down shirt stuck out the V-neck of his beige sweater.
“I don’t mind getting up this early,” the son said. The father put a finger over his lips. The son said in a whisper, “I’m ready. It’s still night outside. Do you remember the last time I got up this early? Maybe last Christmas when we were still in the old house? I probably won’t get up this early on Christmas morning in this house; I’m older.”
“You sure don’t get up this early for school,” the father said quietly.
The son turned off the bathroom light. The father turned the light back on, the son squinting this time.
“Go turn on the light by the front door,” the father said, pointing.
The son walked away, his light sweater growing dimmer at the end of the hallway, and then disappeared into the blackness. Then the small chandelier above the entryway clicked on. The son stood there under this new light, his hands in his pockets, the tail of his plaid shirt hanging out of the bottom of the sweater’s hem. The father turned off the bathroom light.
The son pumped diesel into the 1977 chocolate brown Mercedes-Benz sedan. He watched the dials, the numbers, furiously spinning like a slot machine. Now the rising sun was horizontally halved by the rooftop of the fast food restaurant across the intersection and the boulevards were full of traffic whizzing back and forth on blue-gray asphalt. A woman in a denim jumpsuit was at the pump on the other side of the self-serve island. Her red hair sustained a wild frizz.
“You’re looking too spiffy for a kid going to school,” the redheaded woman called. “Or maybe you’re older than you look, huh?”
The son stopped squeezing the pump’s handle and changed hands. He shook out his free hand.
“I’m working with my dad today,” he said, nodding toward the father sitting in the car. “I’m helping him out with his selling job.”
“Geez, don’t rush adulthood, handsome,” the redheaded lady said. “Working is for suckers.”
“I don’t mind,” the boy said, smiling broadly. “I want to work.”
“A man who not only knows what he wants but gets what he wants.”
The father’s hand shook the bulbous stick shift, his knuckles sprouting fine black curly hairs. The son turned the radio dial until the speakers came upon Steve Miller just beginning a guitar solo. The father, after putting the stick in gear and revving the engine, tapped his finger on the steering wheel. A moment later, after shifting, he turned the radio’s dial off.
The small parking lot outside of a donut shop was full of cars. The son pushed open the glass door with his rear-end. In one hand he held a large Styrofoam cup and in the other hand he balanced a cardboard carrier with a small Styrofoam cup and a paper bag. He carefully walked up to the driver’s side door. The father stared out the windshield of the car, not noticing the son.
“Dad, here you go. Open up.”
The father turned, his pale blue eyes stared at his son through the glass.
The father ate a maple Long John and steered with his free hand, the car on the curving freeway interchange from the 57 to the 60. The son licked at the multicolored sprinkles and chocolate frosting covering his donut and took a swig from the small cup. He let out an exaggerated sigh.
“I love drinking coffee with a donut,” he said. “I put a lot of cream in my coffee, but I kept yours black with only one packet of sugar, like you like it.” The son took a big bite out of his donut, sprinkles falling all over the front of his sweater. “Dad, why don’t we drink coffee in the house? Does Mom drink coffee? I’ve never seen her drink it. I’d drink it, and you probably would too, if we had some Folgers or whatever.”
The father turned up the radio. Neil Diamond was singing about consoling oneself with cheap wine.
“Don’t spill,” the father said.
“Dad, could I go out selling with you tomorrow?”
The father chewed and merged the car in between a truck and a wide sedan with inches to spare. The traffic picked up speed for a mile or so and then all of the bright taillights ahead slowed everyone down.
“No,” the father finally said.
“I’m glad I’m going with you today. I’ll really help out, like you said last night. I’ll carry the boxes for you.”
“We got the dolly.”
“I’ll push the dolly for you.”
The Mercedes-Benz pulled into the small parking lot of an elementary school built in the late fifties. The father popped open the trunk and lifted out a red dolly. The son moved up to grab the nearest box. The father kept the dolly steady, watching the son push the edge of one box on the narrow spade and lift another box on top of the first, finally bracing it against the dolly’s parallel bars.
“How are you ladies on this magnificent morning?” the father said cheerfully as two women carrying large satchels came by on the sidewalk.
“Wonderful,” said the woman with sunglasses.
“Nothing beats the weather here, especially when the fog burns off.” The father laughed quickly to himself. “I grew up in the desert and I didn’t know there was such a thing as fog until I moved here.”
“You need a horn to guide you,” the other woman said over her shoulder.
“Ha! You are right about that one. Have a great teaching day with many teaching moments,” the father said. The women waved and turned the corner of the nearby stucco building.
The son placed the third box on the dolly and smiled at his father.
“Can I push it?”
“No,” the father said.
The father picked up his briefcase leaning against his leg and tilted the dolly, holding the handle with his free hand. The son, placing his hands on the top box to keep the stack from toppling over, hurried behind as the father pulled it fast toward the main office building.
The media specialist, a woman in her mid-forties, and a library aide, a younger woman in her twenties, sat at a small round table in the middle of the library. Both women exuded maternal qualities, wearing oversized glasses and large blouses over their abundant chests. Like a spread out deck of cards, colorful booklets fanned across the table. The son helped the father stack cassette tapes behind each booklet. The father paced as he gave his spiel. The son stood off to one side, looking at a large globe of the earth sitting on top of a shelf.
“I appreciate you ladies having this appointment with me so early,” the father said in a cheerful voice. “I know in about thirty minutes the kids will arrive and it’ll get busy around here, so I’d like to jump right in and introduce you to one of the most innovative audio/reading products on the market today.” The father became more animated, using his hands and winking and pointing his chin at the two women when pushing the plays-on-tape greatest selling points: the Shakespearean actors from a famous San Francisco theatre company adding their talents to the many different well-known tales, the read-along booklets aiding students in vocabulary recognition and comprehension, and how this product created a deeper learning experience than just listening to the tape or reading the play alone. The father took a small tape player/recorder out of one of the boxes and played a quick moment from A Christmas Carol, when Scrooge spoke to the Ghost of Christmas Past.
“Have you read these plays?” the media specialist asked the son.
He looked at his smiling father. “I’ve read them all, but The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is my favorite, and Frankenstein. Oh, and The Red Badge of Courage.”
“A little salesman,” said the library aide.
“Yes,” said the media specialist. “Missing school today?”
“He’s my partner today,” the father said, chuckling. “The best one I’ve ever had. In fact, ask him anything about stories. He’s read and heard them all. He’s a great resource.”
“The voices,” the son blurted out, “make the words come alive on the page.”
The women and the father laughed.
“Go on,” the media specialist said, smiling.
The father held up his hands as if giving up and stepped a few feet away from the table. The son quickly moved into the open space in front of the table.
“When I hear Ichabod Crane—the way he talks through his nose—I can actually see his big nose in my mind.”
The media specialist walked the father, who pulled the dolly, and the son, who kept his hands on the stacked boxes, to the entrance of the main office building. She shook the father’s hand and then shook the son’s hand. The father thanked her again.
“Goddamn proposition thirteen,” the father said, watching the son put the boxes back in the car’s trunk. Then the father shoved the dolly in the trunk but it wouldn’t fit around how the son had placed the boxes. So he roughly moved the boxes and finally fit the dolly in.
“What’s proposition thirteen?” When the father didn’t answer, but scowled into trunk of the car, the son said, “Thirteen is unlucky.”
The Mercedes-Benz sped down the fast lane in moderate freeway traffic.
“Now I recognize where we are again,” the son said. “This freeway goes by our house, right? Are we stopping by the house for something?”
“I should’ve said more about how there are so many cool sound effects,” the son said, nodding at the windshield. “I could’ve talked about the running horses, the church bells, the wind—oh, and fire crackling.” The car weaved and raced down an off-ramp. “I thought we weren’t going home?” The father turned onto a side street a block down from the off-ramp. “Where are we going?” The son’s voice rose and he shifted in his seat, almost getting up on one knee. “Dad? Why are we going this way?”
The father stopped the car at an intersection surrounded by neighborhoods of tract homes. He vigorously shook the stick shift while waiting for the light to change. The son kept asking the same question and darted his head from the windshield to his father’s blank expression.
The Mercedes-Benz pulled into the parking lot of a sprawling junior high. The many brick buildings, with their large darkly tinted windows, seemed deserted with all of the students and teachers already in their morning classrooms.
“Are you selling here?” The boy’s hands braced themselves on the large dashboard, his fingers spreading. His frantic voice filled the car like a loud radio. “What are we doing here? Is your next appointment here?”
The car pulled up at the curb in front of the main office building. The nearby flag at the top of the pole draped lifelessly. The car continued running.
The father turned his upper body, also resting his left hand on top of the dash. “You need to go to school today.”
The son was already crying. “Please, Dad. You said I could work with you today. Last night both you and Mom said I could sell with you all day.” The son’s face contorted, his lips wet and trembling.
“I let you miss enough today.” The father spoke firmly, evenly. “The counselor has told your mother that it is the first few periods of school that upset you so—”
“You’ve missed those classes and now you can finish the day.”
“I can’t…I can’t.” The son kept his left hand on the dash and now gripped his right hand around the passenger’s door handle. His whole body braced itself.
“I have so many appointments today,” the father said, unblinking.
“Then let’s go. Please drive.”
“I can’t, Dad.”
“Your school counselor,” the father said, his voice softening. “Mrs.—what is her name? Ralston?”
“Mrs. Ramsey,” the boy cried.
“She’s really on your side. Mom says she lets you stay in her office to do your homework and buys you Del Taco for lunch. Go to Mrs. Ramsey’s office right now and stay there for the rest of the day if you want. Come on, get moving.”
“I can’t. Take me home then.”
“No. Mom and I aren’t letting you get away with that anymore. And Mrs. Ramsey wants you to stay on the school’s property until the last bell from now on. So your problems with chronic absenteeism—”
“You lied to me.” Then the boy let out a choke, now staring out the windshield. His crying was more of a moan coming from deep inside his throat. “Why did you lie to me? You told me last night—”
“Listen now. I’ve changed my mind. Mom and I are losing patience with your unfounded fears. No one is doing anything to you at this school. You are perfectly safe here like the many other students going here.” The father stared intently at the boy who was looking away. “If you can only grasp how vital it is that I make some money today, you’d—”
“I’ll help you make money.” After the boy’s loud voice, a vacuum of silence filled the space until he let loose again. “There’s this kid in P.E. who chases and screams at me from the outfield to the backstop and at lunch two guys pinned me against a wall and threw chocolate milk all over me and all the teachers don’t care. I hate this place. I hate everyone here and I’m never going back in there.” The boy was hysterical. “This place makes me crazy, Dad, and I can’t stand it anymore.”
“You are not crazy,” the father said, sighing and now staring out the windshield, too. “People who are crazy don’t know they are crazy.”
“No, Dad.” The boy’s words came rapidly. “I have all these thoughts that make me stay awake; I can’t sleep, and I was already dressed at two in the morning because I’m used to it and watched TV and I heard you turn on the shower.”
“I’ve got to go get some cash flowing,” the father yelled. Another muffled vacuum momentarily filled the interior of the car. “I’ve got to get something, the promise of something, to the bank before it closes today. Can you grasp that? And every moment we sit here, I’m losing dollars. I’m not taking you home. That is not happening. Here are your two choices: Get out and hide in Mrs. Ramsey’s office or I’ll drive you to the hospital right now, and if you think you are really crazy then they’ll stick you in a mental ward.”
“Let’s go,” the boy barely said, his body now going slack. “Please, let’s go. I’ll go. I need help. Please, Dad.”
The son cried hard. The father put both of his hands on the steering wheel and blankly stared ahead. Two young girls, junior high students, walked by the Mercedes-Benz parked at the curb. They shot glances at the son behind the glass and leaned in close to each other, whispering and then both let loose a throaty laugh as they walked quickly toward the tinted glass doors of the main office building.
“I hate it here,” the boy said out of his sobs. “That girl called me a pussy during slaughter ball.”
“What on earth is slaughter ball?”
“That’s what they call dodge ball.”
The Mercedes-Benz pulled into a parking space. This elementary school’s parking lot was narrow and half-full of cars.
“I’m going to make a quick cold call here,” the father said, opening the driver’s side door. “Stay here.” The father slammed the door and opened the trunk to get his briefcase. He slammed the trunk, and the whole car shimmed. “I won’t be long,” the father said through the glass of the driver’s side window.
The whole time the son stared out the front windshield, red blotches high on his face. He watched his father walk toward yellow double-doors. The son elbowed the passenger door hard, and then again. The grass around the building was browning, and a line of tall eucalyptus trees, their bark peeling like pastry shavings, fenced off the school from the tract homes on the other side. A low chain-link fence encircled another smaller brick building. A few kindergarten children looped their tiny fingers through the diamond links, staring out. A little blonde girl in overalls waved at the son. He slowly lifted his hand and held it near the glass for a beat. Next he slouched down in the wide leather seat, cramming his head into the small opening between the seat and the car door.
The father returned and as he drove the car toward the narrow parking lot’s driveway, the son finally sat up. He wiped his face. The boulevard was busy and they had to wait. The father ignored his son, shaking the stick shift while cars sped by from both directions. The turn signal to go left clicked like a thunderous metronome.
“What is a cold call?” the son said quietly. The father’s jaw jutted out and then moved fiercely. “Can I have some gum? Dad, can I have some gum?”
“No.” Then the father finally said, “Last piece.”
“What is a cold call?”
“When you go in without them knowing you’re coming.”
The father peeled out, crossing three lanes. A few cars honked. The engine wailed as the father pushed hard on the accelerator before shifting again.
The father was in front of a phone booth against the outside wall of a convenience store. He held the receiver tight against his ear and swayed back and forth as he spoke. The son stood a few feet away, his hands deep in his front pockets.
“We’re heading out to Pomona next for an appointment,” the father said into the phone’s receiver. “I might try a cold call on the way. We’ll see.”
“Tell Mom she forgot to give me money last night,” the son said. “Can you give me a dollar, Dad?” The son added, “Mom said she would give me some money for snacks last night.”
The father turned away, hunching over a bit, talking low. “I know what we agreed. Was I supposed to drag him out?”
The son looked away, out beyond the Mercedes-Benz parked nearby. On the corner of the busy intersection sat a Mexican on a wooden crate. Sacks and sacks of oranges pyramided next to him. All at once the Mexican sprung off the crate and grabbed one of the orange netted sacks bulging with the fat fruit. He hurried up to the open window of a car waiting for the green light.
“Listen,” the father said louder. “You need to talk to the bank today.” The father paced back and forth in front of the phone box as far as the metal-coiled cord would allow. “Rick, yes, the manager Rick. He’ll work with us. Tell him to hold the check today. Talk to Rick today… Because I talked to him two days ago and don’t have time today…Hon, please…”
The son went into the convenience store. A young woman with an acne-scarred face and feathered hair stood behind the counter. The son went over by the Slurpee machine and looked through the stack of miniature plastic helmets of all the American and National baseball teams, collectors’ items to be filled with Coke or Cheery slush. He walked up and down the candy aisle. The woman was waiting on someone up front. The son quickly shoved a strawberry ring pop into his front pocket, untucking his shirt and pulling down the front tail and sweater.
The father was sitting in the car, and it was already running. The son opened the door and climbed in.
“Mom said last night that we’d get donuts in the morning,” the son said, “and McDonald’s at lunchtime.”
“I know,” the father said tiredly.
As they drove out the driveway, the Mexican was back on his crate, staring at the Mercedes-Benz through a cloud of smoke wafting up from his mouth.
The father took a huge bite out of a hamburger, smudging the corners of his mouth with ketchup. The son slowly drank his orange soda through a striped straw. They sat on curved concrete benches at a round concrete table. Nearby, the two massive golden arches seemingly held up the slanted roof of the walk-up fast food restaurant. A red and white umbrella tilted over them, its pole coming out of the center of the table. The son rubbed his finger over the smooth tabletop. The small dark speckles embedded all over the table and benches gave the outdoor furniture a festive look. The son ate some fries and let a few drop on the ground; tiny birds hopped around underneath, picking and fighting over the bits.
“I don’t know how many times,” the father said, chewing, “we have to tell you that you have nothing to be scared of. Sure, kids in junior high are rough on each other. Like you know I was a junior high principal for three years, so I’ve seen kids during this storm and stress period. And you already know that kids who pick on other kids are terrified of being picked on themselves.”
“It’s more than that,” the son said softly, chewing.
The weather was perfect for sitting outside. A long white ribbon trailed an unseen plane across the pale blue sky. The kind of day you’d say to someone living thousands of miles away from Southern California, “This day! It’s why I put up with all the freeway congestion and crowded malls and restaurants and crime and smog.”
“Think about it this way,” the father said, wiping his mouth and then each finger with a napkin. “You need to get out and talk to the other kids.” For the first time today since the father and son had been alone with each other, the father’s voice became highly animated and inflectional; he was making a pitch. “When you stop hiding in that counselor’s office—get out and get things started—well, that’s when you’ll see everything around you begin to change. You will literally see others treating you differently. You’ll find something in common with a few kids and before you know it you’ll be hanging out over at their houses and they’ll come around our place. You need friends. Everyone needs a group to identify with. You’re too isolated. You had that one kid you were always around last year.”
“Jerome? He moved away. To his dad’s in Oregon.”
“Find someone like him.”
“I don’t want any friends at that place.”
“What if I were like you? What if I hid out at home, not coming out?” The father waved around him, turning his head as if expecting to find someone over his shoulder. “What if I gave up on drumming up more cash flow? We’d be a lot worse off, trust me. And we are not doing so well these days as is.”
“That’s why I want to help you,” the son said quickly. “I’ll go out with you every day and help us make lots of money.”
“You are a little kid,” the father said. He picked up his hamburger and took another bite and talked while chewing. “Your place is in school. That is your job.” The son looked down at a bird rocking back and forth near his worn-out sneaker.
“I quit,” the son said.
“I’m crazy. I can’t do it.”
“Jesus,” the father said, slapping his hands together. “Can I be crazy, too? Can I quit, too? You need to stop acting like this.”
“I’m not acting.” The son dropped another fry and a tiny bird snatched it up, the long piece like a massive log weighing down its diminutive beak.
“Those first few days, we shouldn’t have let you stay home,” the father said, slowly nodding his head. Then he took a long sip out of his cup, his straw sounding off. “I see that now. We didn’t help you by letting you avoid your responsibilities.”
“You never said anything to me.”
“That’s what I’m saying now. I shouldn’t have—”
“You didn’t even know I missed school until Mom told you last week. You’ve missed all the meetings with Mrs. Ramsey.”
The father glared. “Because I am out on the road every damn day doing my job. See how that works?” The father did not blink and his tone had lost its vibrancy and taken on an edge so even and sharp. “Listen to me now. I’m going out, trying to hustle things up, trying to change our circumstances. Get it? That’s what you’re doing starting tomorrow morning when I personally drop you off at your school before I go out and do what I’ve got to do. And there will be no scenes. I will drag you into the building, if that’s what you want. Right in front of all those punks you are so terrified of. Listen. You—look at me—you are changing your circumstances starting tomorrow. Get it?”
The son kicked at a bird underneath the table.
The father drove in silence, staring straight ahead. The son watched the green barrier fence separating the two different directions on the freeway. His forehead pressed against the glass of the side window. The father turned on the radio and an announcer’s voice filled the car. He spoke of a stalled vehicle on the 210, and a single car accident on the 91, and gridlock, and on and on.
The Mercedes-Benz pulled into the parking lot of a juvenile correctional center. A high chain-link fence crowned with barbed wire encircled the large complex of one-story buildings and a few Quonset huts sitting out on a large grass field. The son looked over the whole place. Dirt fields surrounded the center, and a two-lane frontage road just off the freeway was the only way in and out. The father parked in a space near an entrance gate.
“They have to take school, too,” the father said. “But they don’t have a choice whether to go or not.” The father quickly opened the driver’s side door and got out. The boy opened his door but the father stuck his head back inside.
“You’ll have to sit this one out,” the father said, his voice now flat. “They might mistake you for one of the inmates. You wouldn’t want to get stuck in here.”
The boy sat in the car with the windows rolled up. He slouched down in the seat and closed his eyes. After a while he opened his eyes and took the ring pop out of his front pocket. He sucked on it, sticking different fingers through the enormous loop of the plastic ring. Someone knocked on the glass of the passenger side window, and the son quickly lowered the sucker to his thigh before looking up. It was a short man in beige uniform and black cap and mirrored aviator sunglasses.
“Open up,” the guard said. He made a come here motion with two of his fingers, and the son shoved the candy between the leather seat and console.
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” the son said. “I’m waiting for my dad.”
“Let’s go,” the guard said. He knocked hard on the glass with a knuckle.
The son opened the car door, but just cracking it, his hand tightly around the handle.
“Step out, please.” The guard backed up and moved his two fingers to his hip and then shoved them inside the thick black leather belt around his waist.
“I’m waiting for my dad,” the son said, his voice rising. “I didn’t do anything.”
“You need to step out of the vehicle,” the guard said.
“Please, my dad said I needed to stay.”
“I’m not asking again.” The guard yawned in a dramatic way.
The son slowly opened the door wider and then slammed it shut and locked it. He was frantic and said through the glass, “My dad said I was supposed to stay inside the car and wait for him. Please, he went inside that gate and will be out in a second.”
“Are you resisting? Do I see an escapee before my eyes?” the guard said, showing his teeth. “Do I need to call for reinforcements? Are you armed and—oh, man, I can’t keep it up. Look at your face, man.” The guard turned toward his left and said, “I think your boy just pissed himself.” The guard laughed harder, his fingers digging deeper into his belt. He came up close to the glass and stuck out his tongue. The son moved away, his back bent over the console. “You’re heading for the hole. You won’t see daylight until you’re eighteen. But if you give up now, I just might—”
“Dad,” the son shouted, looking out the back window. The father was behind the car, bent slightly over the trunk of the car, peering in through the back windshield. He was laughing, his arms tightly crossed over his chest. “Dad,” the son shouted again.
“You’re okay,” the father said. He came up to the passenger side window and the tip of his nose was centimeters from the glass. “Oh, don’t get all upset. You’re okay, I’m telling you. Come on.”
“I made him cry. Look at him cry.” The guard let out a high-pitched yelp. The son’s palm rubbed hard at his face.
“Come on, it was a joke, that’s all,” the father said. He walked around the front of the car. He still smiled but shook his head as if completely bewildered. “Nothing to cry over, for Christ’s sake.”
The guard waved good-bye and strolled cheerfully away.
“Is everything a trauma to you these days?” The father shut the driver’s side door and put the key in the ignition.
The son said something under his breath.
“What was that? Now you’re saying you hate me?” The father was stock-still, staring. “How much longer is this going to go on? I want to know how long I have to put up with this? Just give me a rough estimate.”
The son scrunched down in his seat. “I don’t know.”
The father opened the passenger door. “You’re not sitting this one out. You said you’re working with me today so get back here and get these boxes loaded.”
The father and son set up the booklets and tape cassettes at the end of a long cafeteria table in the middle of rows and rows of other long tables. The media specialist, an elderly woman with wrinkled eyelids and hands bulging with veins, sat a few seats down the long table, looking over a brochure the father had just given her. The cafeteria was empty and the sound of guitar music, a John Denver song, came through the open double-doors leading out to a carpeted hallway.
“This song makes me smile,” the father said with a cheery bounce to his voice, as if he might begin singing along.
The father started his spiel. The son sat at the end of the table and stared blankly at the open box of cassettes at his feet. A loud, harsh sound, like a hammer banging away inside a metal trashcan, came from the small kitchen area behind a low stainless steel counter. The son flinched a bit with each blow.
“Sorry about that,” the media specialist said. “Go on, I’m listening.”
The father had to turn the volume all the way up on the tape player, causing Scrooge and the Ghost to shriek. Then the father mentioned how his son had read and listened to the plays, and he turned and smiled at the boy. The media specialist took in the son as if he’d just appeared out of nothing. She was irritated and obviously distracted by the metal banging coming and going at odd intervals.
“They’re great,” the son said loudly. The banging stopped. The guitar music had also stopped.
“My ears,” the media specialist said. “I can’t stand not having my own office, and that corner over there is supposed to pass as the library, if you can believe that.” At the far corner of the cafeteria, two high bookshelves full of different-sized books were buttressed against each other. “I’ve been clamoring for a real library, a storage room even, but no cigar.”
The guitar music started up again. There came the faint sound of children singing. The father smiled broadly. “So what makes these stories come alive for you?” the father said his son.
The son’s brow furrowed a bit. He rubbed his chin with his wrist and swallowed and jutted his chin forward. “I like…I like how you can hear Frankenstein crushing the skull of the little girl he wasted. I like the screams of the townspeople when the monster rips their limbs off. Oh, and when the head of one of the characters explodes in The Red Badge of Courage, it sounds like a watermelon hitting the ground after throwing it off the roof.”
One loud single bang came from the kitchen area. The father glared at the son. The media specialist let out an exasperated sigh.
The father stared at a piece of foam rubber the size of a walnut in the palm of his right hand. The car idled at an intersection. The son stretched out across the backseat, his arms over his face, his elbows pointing upwards like tent poles. The father rolled down the driver’s side window and tossed out the chunk of rubber. His palm was dusted with numerous black flecks. With his index finger, he lightly touched the small crater now on the top of the stick shift. A single horn honked.
“Enough already.” The father glared into the rearview mirror. He shifted into gear and the car lurched forward, the tires whining. The whole car lurched again and again with each change of gears.
The son parted his arms and stared at the ceiling. It was a soft plastic material made to look and feel like real leather.
“Can we go home?” the son said. “I want to go home.”
The father ignored him, his jaw set.
After parking the car, the father finally looked back at the son lying across the back seat.
“I’m going in for this one last cold call today.” The father’s voice was free of any anger or cheerfulness or sarcasm or hopefulness. “You can wait here.”
The father walked into the main office. Young children marched behind different teachers in the tiled hallway, the racket making the father blink several times. After introducing himself at a long counter, the secretary made a phone call. Soon a young woman in a button-down shirt and cardigan and a short skirt came into the office. Her hair was parted in the middle and feathered back at the sides.
The father introduced himself and the young media specialist shook his hand.
“Yes, I know who you are.” She nodded her head. “My friend Carol Bingham, who teaches over in Placentia, met you at a media fair last month.”
“It was Carol who recommended I talk with you.” Then the father said with feeling, “I’ve been trying to make my way over here, and I would love to set up a time to show you how my product can enhance your reading program in a big way.”
She looked at the clock on the wall over the secretary’s desk.
“I’ve got some time right now,” she said. “Does that work for you?”
The father opened up the driver’s side door of the Mercedes-Benz and tugged at the lever on the floor. The trunk popped up. The son sat up.
“You can stay here,” the father said to his son, “or come along.”
“Are you really going to drag me tomorrow?”
His blue eyes widened. “I don’t want to.”
“I won’t let you,” the son said, his face reddening.
“I wish you could go in on your own.”
The father hesitated. Then he said, “We’ve got a chance for a purchase order here if we do this right.”
“I can do it right,” the son said, wiping his eyes with the cuff of his sweater.
The son again placed his hands on the box stacked at the top of the dolly. The father carried his briefcase with one hand and pulled with the other. They walked quickly between two buildings of classrooms, and on a wall was an enormous mural of the United States. Different landmarks unique to each state were painted in a cartoon flourish. The border-to-border hole of the Grand Canyon swallowed up the state of Arizona, the giant Statue of Liberty waded in the ocean just off the entire northeast coast, and an oil well taking up the entire panhandle of Texas sprayed black gold all over New Mexico and Oklahoma.
“And who are you?” the media specialist said to the son with a smile.
“He’s my partner,” the father said brightly. “Best salesman in all the Southland.”
The son grinned. He helped his father set up the booklets and tapes on a round table in the middle of a small library. Colorful posters covered all the walls. Terracotta flower pots, with wide ivy leaves and curling stems, hung inside thick yarn holders attached to hooks screwed into the ceiling in all four corners of the room. Rows and rows of several bookshelves took up most of the floor space.
“You look older than the kids who go here.”
“I’m in seventh grade,” the son said.
“Wow. You’re practically in high school.”
“Junior high was fun and trippy but high school was a total gas.”
The media specialist sat down at the round table and crossed her right leg over her left knee. Her nylons made her legs look tanned.
“Wow. I love this story,” the media specialist said, picking up one of the booklets and flipping through the pages.
“Wait until you hear the story,” the father said and began his spiel.
The son sat down in a nearby chair and read first one poster and then another. Soon, the father played a portion of one of the stories on tape.
“Son,” the father said, “why don’t you take the floor. Tell us about how this story comes alive for you with all the neat sound effects.”
The son stood up and began his spiel.
Dan Crawley’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in a number of journals, including Jellyfish Review, apt, New World Writing, The Airgonaut, matchbook, and North American Review. He has taught fiction workshops at Arizona State University, Northern Arizona University, and other colleges. He is a fiction reader for Little Patuxent Review.