His wife had worked at jigsaw puzzles like he imagined beavers worked at logs. If you were a beaver and you worked at logs, you probably had a saying or two that you could pass on to others who didn’t normally undertake such things: “Start on the side facing the moon at night — so you can see better — and work your way in.”
His wife said, “Find the edges.” Start with the corners, make an edge, work your way in. Puzzle, meet solution. She had worked in the kitchen where he sat now, the puzzles she did with the boys seemingly too large for the table itself.
Now the table was strewn with papers. Bills, notes to self. Wreaths had been ordered. The Rendons must have been by earlier when he was out, visiting the fellow he privately dubbed the Monument Man. The man with the hammer. Old-school. He never saw him at work, of course, and most likely he had a drill — something air-compressed, high-end. It wasn’t 1947, after all. His wife had been born in 1975. He was from 1977 himself.
A pie sat amid the papers. Comfort food, as Mrs. Rendon said to him. Her car was often in his driveway now, even though she couldn’t have lived more than two hundred yards away. He tended to measure in football fields because football was one of the sports that his boys played. “Mrs. Rendon really should walk,” he thought as he grabbed a piece of pie. It struck him that he would have to return to work at some point. He thought about how he was not dead, and how people just expected you to be able to pretend you were alive.
In the hospital, everyone watched the television. Some laughed. Life didn’t stop so much that you couldn’t laugh — even he had, once or twice. He thought of that too as he bent over the sink and threw up the pie. The television in the hospital was always on the same station, as if governed by some entertainment-industry bylaw.
He thought of his wife’s instructions in these matters. “Relax, now, Ted,” she had said when he lost his job and Clay had been recovering from pneumonia and Danny was having his trouble, which meant counseling sessions. “We’ll get through this.” Danny was getting beaten up every day behind the dumpster before he went to school. Getting beaten up, it turned out, because he asked the other kids to beat him up. Neither he nor his wife understood why, and neither did the kids, but they complied anyway, kids being kids until the end of time.
“Relax, now, Ted,” his wife had said when his mother died after he had stopped speaking to her for three months. It had been one of those small arguments, dredged up like something from a trawler, something that should have stayed on the bottom.
You’re supposed to let those things be. But he was always too anxious, too eager, wanting to improve things. He wanted to be a better parent. His wife was the one the boys came to. His duties lay elsewhere, as far as they were concerned. Ice cream man. He took them for treats after his wife had done the fixing-up. His job was to pretend that this trip to the Dairy Queen represented a new start. Now things would get better. Half a puzzle had been assembled on his watch, but mostly thanks to his wife’s love and counsel.
“Fuck that,” he thought, looking at the chunks of piecrust in the sink. He laughed. You never think it’s good to be alone, save when you laugh when you shouldn’t. You have to be alone for that. That’s the company you’re after.
Mrs. Rendon had been thinner when his mother died, and she had taken the boys to her house. His wife joked about how she had flirted with him during a game of Trivial Pursuit. There was talk on the block of Mr. Rendon being a swinger: he looked like Charles Atlas, he did push-ups in the driveway. When he did them in his garage, in the winter, because he had a space heater in there, he opened the door first.
A couple of days before his wife was diagnosed, Danny had taken such a beating that you could hardly recognize his face before it was cleaned off. The blood from his mouth and nose was all over his throwback Star Wars shirt. He had hugged the boy, who didn’t hug him back. His wife led Danny away, quickly. She took him into the living room. The name struck him as ironic now, as he wiped his mouth and rinsed out the sink and ran the garbage disposal, Mrs. Rendon’s pie disappearing for a second time.
His wife had whispered over her shoulder to him, as if Danny wouldn’t be able to hear, words about getting a warm, wet towel and leaving it by the door.
He wasn’t offended. He was never offended. But he wanted to take the boys to Little League practice a couple of days later. Just him. Normally his wife would go if she was free. The boys talked to him then, jabbering from the back seat — even Danny, who had a slight whistle in his voice now that a tooth had been chipped. After his wife died, he had read a pamphlet about how the return of routine was essential for young children. Return of routine. He liked the acronym you could make from that: ROR. Like the sound a lion made, just down a letter. A diminished lion — but a lion still. He had roared weakly when he cut himself shaving that day, then patched up his face and took the boys to Little League. Return of routine.
Now the boys didn’t talk much to him from the back seat. When they talked to each other, they whispered. They would talk to Mrs. Rendon when she came over. She waited outside the bathroom while they showered, listening, hands folded on her lap. Clay had stopped using full sentences, but that seemed normal enough: he, too, had to force himself to use any words at all when he encountered another human being.
Danny’s face was still bandaged. Maybe that’s why Mrs. Rendon waited for him to emerge from the shower, on medical grounds. The boy could have been Boris Karloff in a mummy movie — in fact, he had been a mummy once for Halloween, encouraged by one of his teachers. The teacher drank. Danny stayed after a lot. He had always struggled. They told him he was smart, because he was in some ways. A whiz when it came to jigsaws, and anything with numbers too. He could compute a player’s batting average inside of three seconds, boom, just like that.
The teacher gave Danny something to drink. He called it an energy drink that would help him focus. Danny got light-headed. He asked if he could lie down to rest. The teacher jerked him off on a soapstone table. He could still see the white from the semen, or what he imagined was the semen, when he learned what happened and then arrived at the school the next morning and banged the teacher’s head against that table. He did not consult his wife in the matter. The teacher was fired. Sentenced to something. He didn’t care what. Which was ironic. You’d think you’d care a great deal about that if that happened to your boy. He had cared more about getting his hands on the man. Everyone doing things with hands.
His son wouldn’t talk to him much after that. That’s when the beatings behind the dumpster started. Clay would talk to him at least, and the two of them would sit in the family room and watch ball games while Danny and his mother were in the bedroom. Maybe Danny knew about the diagnosis before he did. Maybe that’s why he had to stay with her. A soaker-up-of-seconds. You want to hoard time when you know certain things.
There was a fresh pie every Friday going forward, after it became just the three of them. He wondered how long the Rendons would keep at it, being their personal bakers. Surely the pie was not indefinite. He tried that joke out one night in the bedroom, to himself, aloud. Doing his bad jokes alone. Seemed therapeutic. The boys had stopped moving down the hall. They didn’t talk after they went to bed.
Now two feet walked to the bathroom and turned on the faucet, then two more, the water being turned on harder. Whispers from the bathroom. He waited for the flow of water to stop, listening for the sound of those four feet again, but he heard only a vague shuffle, like silk sweeping over brick, and the door to the bedroom closing again.
As his wife was dying, and he was watching her die, he found himself wondering how long you were supposed to stay at the hospital after. What the policy was. Did you leave quickly, because this was the worst moment of your life — worse, he was ashamed to admit, than having a kid die? That was wrong, he figured. You wouldn’t want to say that to anyone. Clay was eleven, but he held him on his lap afterward in a private room for two hours, until the boy became dehydrated from crying. Danny’s face had been stitched up from another session behind the dumpster. That would be the last one. Boys will be boys until the end of time, but boys also lay off after a certain point.
“Can I stay with the Rendons?” Danny had asked, after Clay was hooked up to an IV. “I don’t want to be in the house. I don’t want to be in the house with just you.” He didn’t want to be in the house with just him, either. At that point, he hadn’t yet hit upon his therapeutic device of the bad jokes you weren’t supposed to laugh at. “Yes,” he said, his own voice sounding flatter to him than the sheerest canyon wall. So he said it again. “Yes. You can.”
Alone again, he drove to the school where he had beaten the teacher and sat in his car, looking at the window of the classroom where he used to think his boy had been lost to him. He remembered how his wife would usher him to some event at the school, and how proud she would look when she gazed upon her children doing one of those meaningless things: picking something up off the ground, winking at one of their friends, forgetting to cover their mouths when they coughed, getting it right the next time. When she gazed at him, it was a different look. He didn’t wish to call it warmer. That would be wrong. It was a look of confluence. Not mine, not yours: ours.
As he wept and fought back an urge to scream, another vehicle pulled up behind him. He was worried it was the cops, but then he recognized the familiar Subaru. Mr. Rendon liked to park it along the edge of his driveway after he washed it so you could see him do push-ups.
He saw the heads of his boys in the back seat. The Rendons shut off the lights, and everyone sat where they were. Not everyone gives you time to stop crying so you can face your kids, he thought. Not everyone has a pair of Rendons. He barely noticed when they drove off, and suddenly Danny opened the passenger door, and he and Clay pushed into the front seat.
Danny reached out across his brother with a balled-up fist. His father took it in his hand. The boy in the middle only closed his eyes. His wife would not have spoken, he was certain of that, if she had been in this car, nor would she have expected him to. Where there is no center, there are also no edges. There is space giving way to space giving way to space — a father holding his sons, with nothing silted over, no silt at all, a bottom of a sea.