Author's note: This story is set after the Targets arc, and very shortly before SR (in my world, Kira came before Targets). Thank you to Nik who a) wanted to hear the backstory behind a drabble, and b) beta'd it for me.
I tell everyone he's a social worker in Los Angeles. His mother came up with that bit of revisionist non-fiction. She pinches me, hard, under the supper table every time I hint at the closer truth. He loves his mother, so he feeds the lie with his silence. But the shadow in his eyes is not as easily explained.
We sat in the living room long after the women went to bed, smoking, sipping scotch. I asked him to talk. I listened. And as he spun his tales of crime in the big city, the shadow grew.
But I asked.
He doesn’t call too often, maybe once a month or so. We understand; he’s busy. He’ll chat with his mother for a minute, chat with me a minute more, ask after Carey and Sandra, and say goodbye. He says very little about his life.
“Things are OK, Dad.” His favorite answer. I know he has girls that he’ll mention in passing. I know he has a partner at work. He’s got a nice apartment, a sensible car. I figure if he wants to tell me more, he’ll say so. I don’t like to pry.
I have visions of him catting around the big city, a girl on either arm like a sailor on leave. The vision pleases me; I have spent quiet evenings daydreaming, living vicariously through the idea of my boy “whooping it up”, as they say on TV.
‘Watch the mail, Dad,” he says in his next phone call. The letter comes a few days later.
Dear Mom and Dad,
Coming for a visit next week. I’ll rent a car at the airport, no need to bother with picking me up. Staying for a few days, probably Monday-ish to Friday suppertime, if that’s OK with you both. I don’t want to be an inconvenience, so if it’s a problem, I can stay in a hotel.
An inconvenience. Like he could be an inconvenience. That’s my Ken - a good boy, doesn’t want to get in the way, doesn’t want to make a fuss. His mother is tickled pink.
“He can stay in his old room,” she yacks in my ear.
“Hush woman,” I say. “He’s a man, not a boy. He can stay in the guest room, it’s more comfortable. And it has a bathroom.”
She looks so disappointed. I finally give in, after getting her promise that she will replace the Superman comforter on his bed with something more muted.
I shift from one foot to the other. I need to use the facilities, but his flight is due any minute, and I want to see his look of surprise.
Bernita is annoyed. “Even when the plane pulls in,” she says, “it takes a few minutes to get out, don’t you know, with the luggage and the people and the fancy mixed drink carts in the way. Go do your business.”
My answer is cut off by the announcement that Ken’s flight is arriving at Gate 3. Carey comes running up from the snack bar.
“Didja hear that Dad? He’s coming!”
“Ya, I heard sweetie,” I say, without looking down. My attention is on the gate.
And then, there he is.
Tall, like his mother. Blond, like me. A green t-shirt and blue jeans. A rucksack looped over his shoulder. Oh, my goodness; he looks so tired. Pale. Exhausted smudges under his eyes.
“Ken!” Carey screeches, and runs for a hug. She’s spoiled, our late-in-life baby. Neither Bernita nor I can avoid a reflexive glance around the gate to make sure the public display of affection isn’t making anyone uncomfortable. She is only 11, but this is Minnesota, not La-La land.
He approaches us. “I said I’d rent a car,” he says. He doesn’t sound too upset with us, though, I think.
“What is this?” Bernita fingers an unfamiliar mustache.
He gives her a brief hug. “Hi, Mom,” he mutters into her hair.
Then “Hi, Dad.” His voice shakes and he reaches out to embrace me. I hug back, patting his back like a metronome. Carey has rubbed off on me a bit, maybe, but I’m still not much of a hugger. It appears someone else has taught Ken to hug.
I feel his shoulders shaking. I break the clinch and look him in the eyes. He is crying. Not a lot. But there are tears.
“Well,” Bernita says. She fusses with her purse strap for a moment. Then she pats Ken tentatively on the arm. “Well,” she repeats. “That’s that, then.” She pats him on the arm again. “Should we get to going home then?” she asked.
Carey is bouncing around us like a puppy. I grab the rucksack. Ken grabs it back. “I got it, Dad,” he says, with a wan smile. He hikes Carey under his arm like a sack of potatoes. She squeals with glee, earning a shush from Bernita. I’m too worried about our son now to care anymore about public displays.
He’s hurting. He’s hurting, and I need to find out why.
On the way home, we drive through the sub-division. “Hard to believe this all used to be the farm,” he says, looking back and forth. Quarter-million dollar houses and newly-laid sod dot the fields that used to accommodate horses, apple trees and raspberry bushes.
“I get $30,000 a lot,” I say, pride seeping into my voice despite my attempt to mute it. “When you divide 200 acres by half-acre lots, well… You do the math.”
My son whistles, impressed.
“And Johansen does the contracting. I get a cut from him on every house. Not a bad retirement, I must say.” I lace my fingers behind my head. Ken and I are sitting in the back seat of the Buick, Carey and Bernita up front. Leaving the men to talk, as she put it.
“How much land did you keep?” he asks.
“Five acres. For the house and barn. That way we don’t have to look at our neighbors too much.”
“What about Sheba and Baron?”
“Oh, we kept them too. Sheba’s too old to ride. She’ll be glue in a year or two. But Carey still rides Baron.”
He nods and looks out the window at the now-familiar countryside. The conversation holds no information that I haven’t mentioned to him over the phone during the past few years. But I understand he’s busy; he can’t remember every darn piece of trivia I tell him.
“You’re here until Friday?” his mother asks as she steers into the driveway.
“That’s good, then,” she says. A small smile from our son greets her words.
Later I find him sitting on the porch with a beer in hand. Field crickets sing in the dry, yellow grass. A hot breeze sneaks into the house and stirs the curtains that guard the window near his head. He’s wearing shorts now, in deference to the unusually hot May, with the same green t-shirt. I see the scars on his leg.
“Had a little run-in with a car a few years ago,” he says.
“Looks more like a big run-in,” I say, casually. I lean on the porch railing, sipping my own beer. Bernita doesn’t usually let me drink but I laid in a supply when I heard Ken was coming.
“Mom know you’re drinking that?”
I note the subject change. Accept it. “I’ve got to keep my boy company,” I say.
He leans over enough to see through the window behind him. “Coast is clear,” he says, grinning, a co-conspirator in my moral downfall. I wonder what it would be like to paint the town with my son, grabbing beers, leading young ladies around by the waist.
The smudges under his eyes look like bruises. I want to ask him about the scars. I want to ask him why he is here. I want to ask him how I can help.
“Hot summer,” is all I manage to say. He nods in response. It will have to do, for now.
“The Toleruds invited us into town tonight for supper,” Bernie says to me.
“It’s up to Ken,” I answer.
“What’s up to Ken,” a voice says behind me. Ken walks into the kitchen, grabbing an apple from the bowl on the table.
“The Toleruds invited us into town tonight for supper,” Bernie says again.
He flips one of the old Windsor-back chairs around and straddles it. “I’m not sure I’m up to that,” he says.
“What’s there to be up to?” she asks.
“I barely know them. They barely know me. How insulted will they really be if I say no?”
“It’s not that,” Bernita blusters, grabbing a rag from the countertop and furiously wiping the squeaky-clean table. “It’s just….”
“Mom,” Ken cuts her short. “Do you want me to go?”
“Whatever makes you happy, dear…”
“That isn’t what I asked.”
“You’re a grown man.”
He springs up from the chair. “Jesus H. Christ. I’ll go. That’s what you want, that’s what I’ll do.” He stomps out of the kitchen.
“How do you do that?” I ask her after he’s gone.
“Do what?” she says, redirecting her wiping efforts at the spotless trim over the cabinets.
“No, you had something to say. What?”
“He’s a grown man.”
“That’s what I told him.”
I let out an exasperated sigh. “Like I said. Nevermind.”
I go upstairs in search of work gloves and walk by his room. He’s in there; I can hear his voice. The door is open. I don’t want to stop and listen. It’s none of my business whom he is talking to.
I see a piece from Carey’s latest model boat on the floor. It needs to be picked up... I’m not prying, I’m not snooping, I’m just cleaning. In front of his bedroom door.
While kneeling to pick up the small anchor, I take a tiny peek inside.
My son is spread out on his childhood bed, with the muted maroon bedspread bunched up under him. One hand holds up his head, the other holds the phone to his ear.
“I just needed some time,” he says into the phone. “It was too much. It’s not you. It’s just too much.”
I give up any pretense of picking up toys, and stand up straight.
“He trusted us. And now he’s dead.”
Who’s dead? I wonder.
“But who’s next, Starsk? We think we got them all. But we thought Lionel was safe too. Who’s next? Me? You?”
He drops his head down, and clutches a handful of maroon. “Why now?” he asks the phone. “Fuck. Why not now. We got our jobs back. My rational mind tells me it’s all supposed to be over. But I can’t kick this feeling that’s niggling in the back of my mind. We missed something, Starsk. We missed something.”
Part of the mystery is explained. Starsky is the partner I’ve heard him talk about. Lionel? No idea. But apparently he’s dead. And what was this about getting their jobs back?
Ken is talking again. “I’m getting plenty of quiet time here. Look at it this way; as long as I’m not there, I can’t kick your ass in ping-pong.”
He smiles into the phone, offers a light chuckle. “Anyway, I’ll be back Friday. Pick me up? Flight 224 out of Minneapolis. I get to puddle-jump from Duluth.”
“OK. See you then.” A pause. “Me too.”
I hightail it down the hallway before I’m caught.
At supper with the Toleruds, I tell them he's a social worker in Los Angeles. His mother pinches me, hard, under the table every time I hint at the closer truth. He loves his mother, so he feeds the lie with his silence. But the shadow in his eyes is not as easily explained.
When we get home, he chases Carey around the yard with the dog’s pooper-scooper. They laugh and growl and take turns climbing the trees out front, throwing apples at lightning bugs.
Later in the living room, Carey snuggles into his lap and feeds him ice cream. Bernita reads us funny stories out of the Reader’s Digest. I fiddle with the broken weather radio. Sandra calls to say “hi” to Ken and to ask her mother for cooking advice. For a moment I feel a spike of pure joy.
We sit in the living room long after the women go to bed,
smoking, sipping scotch. I finally ask him to talk. I listen. And as he tells
me about Lionel Rigger and badges careening into the ocean, the shadow grows.
But I ask.