So we’re walking home from the high school after meeting with Principal James and it is muggy, like eighty-five degrees, which feels wrong, considering it is Halloween and the streets are blanketed with orange leaves and vampires and punk rock stars, when I say to my wife, Caroline, that I wish I was the Lord, or, at the very least, a prophet, which prompts Caroline to turn around, apparently expecting an Old Testament trick-or-treater behind her. No, I explain, I don’t want to dress as the Lord, I don’t even need to be worshipped, although that would be nice. I just want some clarity on how we got here and what to do because it’s like trying to put a shattered egg back together, right?
Yup, just like Humpty Dumpty, is her response, but she’s distracted, her hazel eyes staring straight ahead, not bothering to look at me or the cracked-vinyl-sided homes plopped in the middle of weedy lawns. She must think I’m talking about Josh, who, it’s true, is unraveling, but I’m not really talking about our son, I’m not really talking about his only friend, Thomas, who is a pyro, and I’m not really talking about Principal James having just labeled Josh a “troubled young man” with a “tendency to resolve conflicts by force.”
Caroline always blames herself for Josh’s problems, but my wife is patient, a woman of few words, who lets me talk and listens well. Take, for example, right now: we’ve just walked by a mother strolling her daughter, who’s sporting a Teletubby costume, looking like what I imagine an alien looks like, so I start talking about Fermi’s Paradox and possible answers, such as advanced civilizations always destroy themselves, and that might be why you and me and Josh are in this mess, but this is the world, I say, and we must play by its rules. Do I smother her? Do I? No, I do not, because, as I said before, she listens well and chooses her words carefully, and she says right then, it’s like those dead brown leaves on that oak hanging on for dear life, and I smile because sometimes she gets me.
It is true that occasionally she gets mad: broken plates, bent silverware, a shattered window, that sort of thing. But those events are rare; she’s like a volcano, usually quiet, erupts every so often, and when she does, we assess the damage and move on.
Her eruptions make her think she’s the reason Josh comes home with bruised knuckles and chipped teeth, and I fail to convince her otherwise. The thing is, I can’t bring myself to tell her what I know to be true: Josh is not angry. He is, like his father, scared of so many things: his big nose, pretty women, aggressive boys. How do I know this? It’s his sweat, which smells like mine, sour and unholy, and when he comes home from school he stinks to high heaven, his odor like that of a cornered animal. I want to help him, but how can I when I am the same?
The sun is getting low, streaming into a gaggle of costumed pre-teens gathered outside the Margolis home, known for their jumbo-sized Butterfingers and zombie lawn decorations, the children extending their gangly limbs in all directions, relieved that for this one day they are not themselves and that the competition—amassing a superior candy stash—is a low-stakes affair where they benevolently trade and stuff their faces and toss wrappers that fall to the driveway and do not move in the hot, windless evening.
We’re five blocks away, and I need to be straight with Caroline before we get home because Josh is inevitably coding and chugging Monsters in his room, upset that Thomas canceled on him (he probably went to burn down a forest or something) even though they had purchased matching Steve Jobs costumes and started calling themselves the Steves. But I don’t know how Caroline will react and I chicken out.
We’re now passing the park, which consists of two rusty swings and a rusty bench, where I’ve spent the last three days sunbathing, listening to the empty swings creak, coming to terms with my loss, my job loss, that is, the fact that after nineteen years I have been relieved of my duty as the Customer Development Manager of Hogs Gourmet, the fact that I had worked hard, really hard, to sell over one million hot dogs consumed by thousands of satisfied families, the fact that I had lost Alex’s account because he wanted to go with organic-cased rather than non-organic skinless, the fact that cleaning out my office—sifting through musty boxes filled with invoices yellowed from time; sticky notes with my harried, now faded, handwriting; a customer service award in thick, typewriter font; a coffee-stained user manual for MS Office 97—made me feel like I was dying, like my life consisted of a pile of useless, soon-to-be-discarded relics.
When I look over at Caroline, though, I think maybe I can be reborn, transformed into something better, and I ask Caroline to wait in the park and she furrows her eyebrows, but sits on the bench. I start running, my feet smacking the pavement, sweat pouring down my face, and I enter our house and run up to Josh’s room to get his costume and he is not coding. Instead he’s flicking a lighter and staring into the flame, goddamn Thomas, and I ask him where the costume is and he points to his closet and tells me I smell. I want to help him, I do. He is my blood, my child, but I can’t slow down, I can’t stop myself.
I am overheating in the black turtleneck, the rimless eyeglasses are bouncing off my nose, and the restricted, rubber-smelling air inside the mask—which is equipped with a receding hairline and gray stubble—is making it difficult to breathe as I run back to the park, where I find Caroline, who stands and faces me. Through the eyeholes I can see wrinkles forming at the corners of her mouth and I think, please embrace me, please embrace me. I know how this looks, it is strange, it is pathetic, but I need to be someone else, someone successful, and the point is, I need to play by the rules, but as I begin to speak I just want to disappear in her arms and burn it all down.
Mike Riess lives in New Jersey with his wife, Jen, and daughter, Madeline. He works as an attorney and started writing fiction a couple of years ago. His work has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Typehouse Literary Magazine, and Cleaver Magazine.