2011 spring fiction saywhatyoumean

by William Cass

It was his wife’s turn to get up with their disabled infant son, so Nick got to sleep in. By the time he crawled out of bed that Saturday, it was almost 8:00. His wife had fed the baby, given him the new med the neurologist was having them try, and made scones. Nick had time to shower, dress, eat, and read the sports page before he walked over to Tom’s condo to help him move.

Tom was just lowering the ramp on the rental truck when Nick walked up. He’d brought a couple scones wrapped in a napkin and he handed them to Tom.

“Molly made those,” Nick said.

His big friend smiled. “Great. I haven’t had a chance to eat. And I don’t think I have a thing in the place to offer you. Maybe some cheese or an old carton of milk.”

Nick shook his head. “I ate.” He looked inside the empty truck. “Do we start with the beds?”

“I guess.” Tom had his mouth full, chewing. “These are delicious. I really appreciate you guys.”

Behind Tom, the haze from the beach was beginning to burn off. Nick could see the San Diego skyline peeking through it. He said, “Let’s get started, boss.”

* * *

By the time Tom’s mother came by later, they’d moved out most of the big furniture and had filled half the truck. They were both wet with sweat.

“Don’t hug me, either of you,” she said.

She was carrying a six-pack of bottled iced tea and some empty cardboard boxes stacked inside of one another. Nick marveled, as he always did, at how full of life Tom’s mom seemed at sixty years old.

She put the boxes on the kitchen floor and the iced tea in the refrigerator. “Get one of those when you want. So, do you care how I pack this kitchen, or will you leave me to my own devices?” She climbed onto a stepstool and opened a small, high cupboard. Tom kissed her elbow. She asked, “Where’s Kelley?”

“At the house,” Tom said. “Setting up for the yard sale that supposed to start at noon. To sell most of this stuff. We’ll never make it.”

“If you get busy you might,” she said, dropping a plastic colander into one of the boxes.

* * *

They took another two loads out to the truck before Tom’s dad showed up. He was rearranging the back of the truck when they came outside.

He glanced at them and said, “Don’t you want to set something on this couch? Didn’t anyone ever show you how to maximize a load?”

“Hello, Tom Sawyer,” Tom said.

“Help me move this bureau onto the couch.”

“I don’t think we have enough stuff for it to matter,” Tom told him.

His dad was already struggling with the bureau. “Are you going to help me here, or not?”

Tom hopped up onto the truck, took an end of the bureau, and they put it on the couch.

“There,” his dad said, slapping his palms together. He stepped to the back of the truck and shook Nick’s hand. “Hello, Nick. At least Tom had sense enough to hire good help.”

Tom rolled his eyes at Nick. He said, “Mom’s packing the kitchen.”

“Oh, is your mother here? That’s good. I need to mention something to her. Tell her I’ll commandeer things here in the back of the truck for a while, then come in and talk to her.”

On the way back inside, Tom shook his head and mumbled to himself.

“Is it kind of weird for you to be together with them?” Nick asked.

“Nah. We’re with both of them sometimes for family birthdays and stuff like that. Get-togethers when friends overlap. It’s a small town. Hell, they’ve been divorced almost twenty years.”

Tom’s mother had finished in the kitchen and moved into his bedroom closet. She had classical music playing on his nightstand clock radio.

“Dad’s here,” Tom told her.

“Yippee. That and Christmas to look forward to in the same year. Speak of the devil.” She took a framed black and white photograph out of a box on the closet floor and blew dust off of it. The picture was an old one of Tom’s mother and father, she in a long dress, he in his naval uniform, arm in arm on a dock. “Your dad’s about to go off to sea here,” she said. “You weren’t even born.”

“I used to hang that in my room as a kid,” Tom said.

“I remember.”

Nick looked away from them and out the window at Tom’s old widow neighbor who was standing on her balcony studying the moving truck with disdain. She wore a flowered housedress and held a Chihuahua, scratching the dog behind the ears.

“There are two separate collages of pictures from different old girlfriends in that box, too,” Nick heard Tom’s mother say. “Do you want them?”

“Throw a towel or something over them, and I’ll stick them away somewhere where Kelley won’t find them.”

“Want these old letters?”

“Cover them, too,” Tom said. “Come on, Nick. Let’s try to take apart that entertainment center.”

It took a while to disassemble, to label all the nuts and bolts and group them together with masking tape. Tom’s dad held the front door for them as they were carrying the boards to the truck.

He asked, “Anything to drink in there?”

“Mom brought some iced tea. It’s in the fridge.”

“No beer or anything.”

“Sorry.”

They started down the walk and Nick heard Tom mutter, “Help yourself, jackass.”

His dad was leaning against the bedroom windowsill talking to Tom’s mother when they came back inside. Tom and Nick worked on filling boxes in the guest room.

“So,” Tom’s dad said, “I think this would be a prudent time to sell. Mortgage rates are just starting to rise, but it’s still a seller’s market. The building has appreciated as much as it’s going to.” He thought, “Or close to it. Anyway, I want to get my money out of it.”

“All right,” Tom’s mother said. “I’ll talk it over with Mike.”

“Talk it over with him promptly. If necessary, I can meet with you both to hammer out the details.”

The phone rang and Tom’s mother answered it. “It’s Kelley, Tom.”

“Hell,” Tom said, looking at his watch. It was 12:30. “Tell her we’re on our way. This is the last load. We can run the nickel and dime stuff up later in the back of the car. I have to return the rental truck by two, anyway.”

“Let me make sure you arrange that stuff correctly,” his dad said.

He followed them out. They finished packing the back of the truck, lowered the grate, and pulled in the ramp.

“I’ve got a television on the passenger seat of the cab,” Tom told his dad. “Can Nick ride over with you?”

“Fine. I’ve got to make a quick stop on the way. We’ll see you there.”

“All right. I’ll go say good-bye to Mom.”

His dad opened the doors on his white BMW. He yelled after Tom, “Tell her to call me.”

They got inside. Nick looked over at Tom’s dad: an older version of Tom. The same large limbs, the same thick bulk, the same clear blue-gray eyes, the same firm jaw, the same troubled mouth. The interior of the car was immaculate and the exterior looked as if it had been recently detailed. Tom’s dad started the engine and air conditioner, and they drove off.

They crossed the bridge and turned off on J Street into a Mexican neighborhood just north of Barrio Logan. The buildings were mostly stucco apartments and old bungalows with iron fencing over the windows.

“I just have to run in quick and collect some rent,” Tom’s dad told him. “It was supposed to have come this week, but it never came.”

They stopped at a traffic light. Across the street, a Catholic church was holding a rummage sale in the parking lot. Even with the windows closed, Nick could smell carne asada on the barbeques under the eucalyptus trees.

“Mexicans are generally good tenants,” Tom’s dad said. “Generally they pay their rent regularly and keep their places clean. But from time to time, I’ve got to come by and make a call.”

“How often?”

Tom’s dad shrugged. “Maybe once a week. Tom’s step-mom and I own five buildings over here, so that’s not bad.”

“Have you ever had to evict someone?”

“Only once. And that was a white girl. Strung out on crystal meth. Had a little boy, maybe three.” Tom’s dad shook his head. “Awful.”

They stopped near the crest of a sloping street and parked diagonally in front of a schoolyard.

Tom’s dad said, “This will only take a minute.”

Nick got out of the car with him, but stayed leaning against his door. He watched Tom’s dad as he strode off across the street and into the courtyard of a green two-story apartment complex that looked as if it might have eight units in its L-shape. A security system sign sat askew in the crushed rock between the building and the sidewalk. Aluminum foil covered the inside of the windows on the apartment that fronted the street.

Nick watched Tom’s dad disappear up some stairs, heard a doorbell ring, then Tom’s dad’s loud voice: “Is your husband here? Your esposo?”

A woman’s voice spoke rapidly in Spanish. A baby cried.

Tom’s dad said, “Did he give you some money for me? Dinero? Rent? From last two weeks?”

The woman began speaking quickly again. A man working on his car in the driveway of the bungalow next door looked up from under the hood toward the voices. A Spanish radio station played scratchily on the boom box that sat on a trashcan lid. He pushed a straw hat back on his head.

Nick walked off up the street where he couldn’t hear them. He stood and watched two tall Black teenaged boys on the playground shooting baskets at a rim without a net. They had their T-shirts tucked into the backs of their baggy shorts, no socks, high tops, and moved unhurriedly with a combination of grace and disinterest. Watching them, Nick found himself thinking of the fifteen years that had passed since he’d graduated from college and began teaching in the migrant farmworking school in the Salinas Valley. He thought of the time he’d spent in the Native fishing village in Alaska and at the rural project in Guatemala. He thought about the summer he spent caretakinging the retirement home of a family friend in the town where he now lived, and how he’d met his wife that summer, and of how they’d both found jobs there teaching children of the nearly rich, and of how far his life had strayed from where he’d expected it to lead. And then their son was born with his problems. He guessed now he was trying to believe in new expectations.

Then he considered the night before when Tom and he had stopped for a couple of beers after their run and Tom had confessed that he wasn’t sure about Kelley, but that he was more sure than he’d been about the others. It was a variation on the same monologue, generally offered six or eight months into one of Tom’s relationships, when he was ready to move on. Only this one was different. Tom had been with Kelley for almost two years and they’d just bought a house together. The wriggle room wasn’t the same.

Nick pulled at his shirt in the heat and thought that life could have a fair amount to do with variations of truth that you either had to face or mitigate or manage in some manner to avoid. A shiver passed over him and he saw that the two basketball players had stopped and were staring at him. One held the ball against his hip; the other had his arms folded across his chest. Nick nodded to them and walked back down the hill to the car.

Tom’s father was just trotting across the street. “Let’s get the hell out of here,” he told Nick.

They backed out. The man working on his car and the basketball players watched them as they passed.

“Tonight, tomorrow, who the hell knows,” Tom’s dad said. “Miercoles.”

“That’s Wednesday,” Nick said.

“I know what the hell it means. It means another visit next week and the damn husband will be at his brother’s again in Tijuana and we’ll start all over again. I’m sick of it.”

They drove the rest of the way to Tom’s new place in silence.

* * *

The truck was already backed into the driveway. Tom and Kelley had begun to unload it. They’d put some things along one side of the garage and others out on the front lawn. Nick looked up at the house. Tom and Kelley had spent two weeks painting it taupe with white trim, another two weeks putting in a rose trellis and scattering potted plants everywhere, and it still looked like the one-story, 60s, suburban track home it was. The items on the lawn were spread on sheets: two twin beds and mattresses, some boxes of plates and dishes, a few small knick-knacks of onyx and terracota.

As he got out of the car, Kelley walked up to him with her arms outstretched. She was from Boston, where her parents owned an Italian restaurant, and had somehow found her way west. She and Tom taught in the same elementary school near the border. Nick hugged her and said, “The place looks great.”

“Thanks for helping,” she said. She patted him on the shoulder. Her eyes looked as if she might have been crying. “I bought some hamburgers and fries. They’re in the microwave. There’s beer and pop, too.”

“Okay,” Nick told her.

He hopped up into the back of the truck and helped Tom with the dining room table, which was low, black, and designed along Oriental lines.

“We better put this in the garage for now,” he said. “My dad gave it to me. He and my mom used to have it. After he leaves, we’ll move it outside and sell it.”

“Whatever you say,” Nick told him.

Tom’s dad came into the garage from the house carrying a can of beer. “Careful with that,” he said. “I got that in Guam.”

They finished unloading in less than an hour. They moved most of the items from Tom’s old bedroom into a small room Kelley had painted light brown and decorated as his “den.” A few things were already in there: his chair, a small TV, and mounted photographs of Tom accepting his water polo All-American plaque, Kelley smiling from a lounge chair at the beach, Tom and Kelley at his father’s retirement dinner as a pilot. She’d covered his duck-taped green recliner with a Mexican throw.

Nick brought the last box into that room as Kelley was plugging in a floor lamp. “Close as I come to this is my workbench stool in our garage,” he told her smiling.

“I love him,” Kelley said.

“I know you do.” Nick thought of the party they’d been at a week earlier when Kelley and he had been doing the dishes together. She’d been near tears as she told him that her mother had been calling her daily, saying Tom had the best of all worlds: a partner, a house, and no commitment.

When Nick got back outside, Tom’s dad had already started his car and was calling to him. “Let’s go, I’ve got a deal at the Yacht Club this afternoon,” he said out his window. “An installation deal I can’t miss.”

Tom gave Nick one of his big hugs. Kelley waved from the front lawn where an overweight couple was looking over two black statues of leopard’s heads.

They drove down the hill toward the stadium. At the bottom of the hill, they got on the freeway and Tom’s dad said, “When do you think they’ll get engaged?”

“I don’t know,” Nick said. He looked out his window.

“I predict July 4th,” Tom’s dad said. “I think he doesn’t want to deflect attention from his sister having the baby this spring. A couple of months from now, it’ll be his turn. It better be. He owes her that. Hell, he owes me that, what I loaned them to get into this place.”

They drove for a while through the white light toward downtown. Nick looked over the hills toward the ocean.

Tom’s dad said, “He better do her right. Do you think he will?”

“Sure,” Nick said. He was drumming his fingertips on his knees.

Tom’s dad began to talk about Tom’s sisters. One of them had married, divorced, and remarried a marine who was stationed on the East Coast. They had one daughter and were expecting another. Another sister had overcome a long illness and had broken up with the boyfriend she’d moved north with to San Francisco. The youngest sister was living with a Navy Seal and his daughter, over whom he had sole custody; they’d met at an A.A. meeting.

“My view about him and Kelley,” Tom’s dad said, “is that he’s a grown man. He borrowed from me to buy that condo, now he’s borrowed from me again. That’s all right. But, he’s thirty-three years old. Christ sake, he can make a decision.”

Nick said, “I think he will.”

They were crossing the bridge back into Coronado. Several boats were out in the bay.

“Truth is, I’m tired of hearing from my supposedly grown-up children,” Tom’s dad said suddenly. “Truth is, I’m done raising them, and I’d like to hear from them occasionally, but not every goddamn week like they talk with their mother. They’re adults, goddamn it! How long do I have to hear them whine?”

They’d come over the bridge and were turning onto Tom’s old street. They pulled up in front of Tom’s condo. Nick thought Tom’s dad must have assumed he’d driven over, but didn’t say anything to correct him. He just wanted to get out of the car. Tom’s dad shifted the car into park.

“Truth is, I’m tired of hearing from them,” he continued. He was looking through the windshield, gesturing with his hands. “Is that crass? Then call me crass. I’d like to hear from them for baptisms or barbeques, maybe one of them rents a houseboat on a river and wants my wife and me to visit for a day. Not goddamn problem after problem. Not, ‘Damn, Dad, can you bail me out?’ How long does that last? I know their mother disagrees with me, but when do you cut them loose? Let’s let them grow up. So, don’t call me, all right? I’ve had enough of your calls!”

Nick was nodding because he didn’t know what else to do. He looked over at Tom’s dad and nodded some more. He thought, “My little boy will never leave home. If we’re lucky enough to still have him around at that age.”

Then he opened the door and stepped out into the close heat of the afternoon.

“Thanks,” he said. “Thanks for the ride.”

Tom’s dad lowered his head so Nick could see him. “I’m sorry I got carried away.”

“No worries.” Nick waved and started down the sidewalk.

Tom’s dad throttled the engine, swung around, and drove off in the other direction. He felt an exhilaration that he had not experienced for a long time, and he knew it had to do with what he’d told Nick. It had been the truth. He flipped off the air conditioner and rolled down his window. The sea breeze refreshed him further. He thought, “Now if I can keep the lid on the cocktails, it will have been a good day.”

Nick turned right at the corner. The sound of the BMW died away as he passed the football field and the elementary school toward home. A low fog had already begun to creep in; he could see the haze over the Naval air station.

He stopped behind the hedges that hid the watering system controls at the elementary school, and he looked across the street at his wife and son. They were sitting on the glider under the big pine tree and swinging back and forth. His son’s head was on his wife’s lap and Nick could hear her singing to him as they moved in and out of the tree’s shadow.

Nick thought of walking across the street, sitting on the glider, and embracing them both. He thought about putting his son in the wheelchair and pushing him up to town with his wife for dinner and ice cream; they could walk back along the beach. When they got home, he’d do his son’s physical therapy before placing him gently in between the bed supports. Afterward, he’d water the flowerpots on the back porch, lock up, then kiss his son goodnight and tuck him in. He might wait a bit and watch his son sleep.

Eventually, he’d come into their bedroom and his wife would be lying in bed reading a magazine. He and his wife would read for a while next to one another. Perhaps a siren would wind off across town, or, if it was still enough, they’d hear the faint clack of a train across the bay. At any rate, at some point one of them would turn off the light and they’d gently embrace in the darkness. He’d put his arms around her; they’d both face the closet door. They wouldn’t need to speak. Maybe, they’d make love, although it didn’t really matter. They were together, which was all that really mattered.

About the Author

William Cass has had nineteen short stories accepted for publication in mostly smaller literary magazines. He lives and works as an elementary school principal in San Diego, CA.

Maintained or neglected, familiar or foreign, well-worn or wild, roadways inform our decisions and identities. Their geographies direct the movement
of our lives and sketch the cartography of our stories. In this spirit, 322 Review publishes provocative emerging and established artists whose fiction,
creative nonfiction, poetry, and mixed media artwork wander the paths of human experience. A nonprofit literary journal conceived
and operated by former Rowan University graduate students, 322 Review is based in Southern New Jersey.