If Terence’s wife hadn’t had an affair with his best friend, Kyle, then died in a car wreck three years later, today would mark their eighth anniversary. The math comes to him as he’s pouring himself a shot of Kyle’s Jägermeister for breakfast: there’s a utility bill hanging out of its envelope, and a shaft of sunlight through the kitchen window lends the printed date a radioactive glow. Terence fishes the bill completely out of the envelope and lets out a low whistle. An electrician should know how to use his power more efficiently than this. “And two-twenty to keep a rental house this small cool in summer is not efficient,” Terence says to no one as he pulls last night’s pizza box out of the fridge. “You could say it’s less than efficient and closer to stupid.” He’s happy about it. He’s happy about almost everything he’s discovered about Kyle’s life since calling him a week ago to ask if he could crash here.
“Egret,” he’d said by way of greeting, testing the waters. It was an ancient nickname. There was a charged pause before Kyle responded, “Gherkin,” passing the test. They’d been nineteenish, wasted one night and roasting each other, when Kyle commented that Terence must have a dick like a gherkin and Terence shot back that Kyle was as white as an egret. They called each other Gherkin and Egret for years after that, the monikers a passcode into a night of hard partying. The nicknames somehow vanished as they approached thirty.
“Well, Egret’s still in the swamps,” Terence mutters. “And looks like he’s doing as bad as Gherkin.” He’s cramming a cold double-pepperoni slice into this mouth and grinning around the mouthful when the big-screen TV roars to life behind him.
“Waffles.” The small voice is coldly regal. “Make me some waffles, slave.”
Terence looks up, past the cluttered countertop into the even more cluttered living room. Makayla, dressed in a frilly pink thing, sits dead center on the leather couch with her arms folded. She’s six years old, blue-eyed and dark-haired. She’s the spitting image of Kyle, but since Kyle and Terence have been mistaken for brothers since high school, one could just as easily call her the spitting image of Terence. Last night, finally trying a joke, Kyle said, “If science got to the point where a couple of gays could have a kid, no egg required, this’d be her, right? She’s like an eggless omelet.” Terence had just laughed and said, “Egret baby.”
They were both drunk. They’d gotten drunk four nights in a row, since Terence first arrived here freshly evicted and out of a job, carrying his clothes and a backup fifth of Jack Daniels in a duffel bag. Save for the occasional awkward run-in at a Shell station or grocery store, they hadn’t really spoken since Terence divorced Melissa and Melissa moved in with Kyle. Getting wasted was easier than talking about how Kyle had destroyed Terence’s marriage six years ago, or how for the third time Terence had been fired for drinking on a job site, or how they’d never figured out which of them had fathered the little girl whose dolls they kept tripping over every time they went out the back door to smoke.
Makayla slaps the shredded leather of the couch with the flat of her hand. She’s pushed all Terence’s bedding off the sofa and onto the floor. “Now,” she says. With her other hand she hits the volume button on the remote. Hushed dialogue and some low moans fill the room, amplified by Kyle’s surround-sound, and Terence glimpses a pair of tits.
“Next channel,” he says, trying to sound authoritative and not like he’d been the one watching this filth five hours ago. “That’s dirty stuff.”
“Bewwwwbs,” Makayla says knowingly. She taps another button. A hideous cartoon materializes, the semi-human figures all out of proportion with their eyes popping out of their heads. “I need chocolate chips in the waffles,” she adds off-handedly.
“We’ve been over this. Do you see a waffle-maker in this kitchen?”
“Order me some.”
“People don’t deliver waffles like pizzas. You can have cereal again, or nothing.”
Makayla turns her vixen face away and focuses on the television, or pretends to. Terence digs the Cap’N Crunch out of a cabinet and shakes it, but she continues to ignore him. He shrugs and puts it back. Then he crushes the pizza box and heads outside to dump it in Kyle’s recycling bin where last night’s beer bottles are huddled like homeless men.
He’s agreed to keep up the house and look after Makayla while he’s here, since he can’t pay Kyle rent. Of course, as far as he’s concerned he doesn’t technically owe Kyle anything; the man fucked him over, and Terence shouldn’t have to do jack in return for a bed here. But he doesn’t want Kyle thinking this is charity and feeling all superior. So he’s saving Kyle daycare costs, and in three days he’s managed to turn an utter pigsty into a passable bachelor pad. He’s thrown out five garbage bags’ worth of empty boxes and kitchen trash, cleaned the appliances, fixed the broken coffee table in the living room, and vacuumed the carpets using an ancient model Kyle got God knew where and had been keeping in the laundry closet. Upon discovering the mountains of damp clothing heaped onto the dryer and spilling onto the concrete floor, Terence tackled the laundry, too. But the clutter keeps coming back, scuttling into place like an army of roaches as soon as he turns off the lights at night. It’s frustrating and yet gratifying: Kyle’s life is such a mess that mess itself is ineradicable.
“I’m working on your room today, Your Grace,” he announces to Makayla upon returning to the kitchen. “I warned you. Your dad warned you.”
“You are not touching my stuff.” But she’s engrossed in her television show, absentmindedly snapping a rubber band on her wrist the way Kyle used to do back when they were in their late twenties and attending AA meetings together. Melissa had told Terence she wouldn’t marry him unless she knew he could be responsible; Kyle’s alcoholic father had just died of cirrhosis, and he too was pushing Terence, saying they both needed to get straight. Briefly Terence wonders if that’s where Makayla learned it—if Kyle’s back in AA and snapping that band to jolt himself out of dark moments—but he reminds himself that he doesn’t care. If Kyle’s an alcoholic again, he deserves to be as such; it’s his fault Terence got back into the sauce himself.
He affirms that Makayla is still focused on the TV before he moves down the short hallway and lets himself into Kyle’s room. There is no visible imprint of Melissa anywhere in the rental house save for in Kyle’s top drawer—a cache Terence discovered the day before yesterday while Makayla was playing outside in the sprinkler—and he keeps coming back to it, unable to stop himself. There’s a half-empty perfume bottle, a stack of journals whose pages Terence will not open. Some old tee shirts and slips, a melted candle in a cobalt cup. Most unsettling of all, a ring box containing two thin gold bands: one from her marriage to Terence, one from her hasty wedding to Kyle. The police or paramedics must have removed the second ring the night she died. But what of the first? Had she been wearing both? Or had she and Kyle kept that ring here in this drawer, walking around it as they must have walked around the subject of Terence himself? Nestled together in the box, the rings look like somebody’s idea of a joke. An eggless omelet.
He closes the drawer, cursing softly. “Last time I look,” he promises himself. “No fucking point in it.”
In Makayla’s room, he tackles the little girl’s closet first, hanging up her ridiculous outfits and organizing her shoes in a hanging shelf she seems to be using as some sort of apartment building for her stuffed animals. By the door there’s a multi-tiered plastic box filled with beads of every imaginable shape and color, its contents scattered all over the hardwood floor, and he feels crazy plucking the damn beads up one at a time. “Why,” he mutters. “Who buys this for a kid?” But the worst is the dollhouse, a five-story pink plastic monstrosity that takes up half a wall. Most of the bedroom’s mess seems to orbit this hell-castle; plastic cars and vans are parked haphazardly from the front porch to the base of Makayla’s dresser, like everyone who attended last night’s party was either trashed or Raptured. Dolls and doll clothes are flung everywhere. Makayla’s own clothes hang off the dollhouse roof, blocking the windows. Terence crouches on the bath towel where Makayla sits when playing with this thing and he peers into the rooms. It’s a regular whorehouse, nothing but beds and vanities and mirrors and discarded clothing. He picks up a few of the shucked outfits. Mini-dresses, bathing suits, low-cut gowns. No wonder the girl wasn’t shocked at the sight of bewbs. What sorts of dramas did a kid play out in a house like this?
On the ground floor are some of Kyle’s bizarre masculine touches. The living room wall has a display of artillery taped to the plastic, little rubber AK-47 look-alikes probably taken off Star Wars figures, and Kyle has sawed the head off a toy moose and used putty to affix it beside the front door like a hunting trophy. Upturned Dr. Pepper bottle lids serve as plates (or are they ashtrays? do these dolls smoke?) on a coffee table. Following some instinct, Terence opens the top drawer of a bedside stand in the bedroom above and finds a tiny plastic handgun waiting there. Well. At least the whores could defend themselves.
“You want to play?”
He turns around. Makayla is standing in the doorway, eyes round with hope. She says, “You can be anyone you want,” like it’s the best deal Terence will ever be offered in this life.
“Yeah, I’m not really good at playing dollhouse,” he says. “How about we go outside instead? I can turn on the sprinkler again. Or maybe Nina’s around?” Nina is the neighbor’s kid, a scrawny gummy-eyed seven-year-old who likes to wander over when they’re outside.
“Too hot. I want to play with you. Besides, you have to. You’re our servant.”
“He does, huh. Doesn’t he have other things to do at night? Doesn’t he have friends over?”
He wants to hear it again: “Never? He’s always alone?”
“Nobody comes except Nina.”
“And your dad plays dollhouse with you.”
“He’s always that one.” She points, and Terence picks up the doll—a brown-eyed blonde, not too far off from Melissa in looks but inappropriately fully dressed.
“Don’t you have any boy dolls?”
“Dad won’t let me.”
Terence finds this interesting, but before he can inquire further, Makayla is half on his lap, all their breakfast-angst forgotten. He’s been wondering for days whether all children were innately schizophrenic. She hands him the Melissa doll and reaches into the house for a brunette. “Let’s play Storm,” she continues. “That’s when a hurricane is coming and we have to batter down the hatches.”
“Batten down the hatches,” Terence corrects, before he realizes he’s not actually certain that’s how it goes. “How do we do that?”
She reaches under her bed and comes out with a roll of masking tape. “We do the windows first.” She tears off a couple of pieces and tapes them in an X over the window in the second-floor bedroom.
Terence taps a stack of Tupperware drawers next to the house. “How about we evacuate instead? Let’s evacuate everybody into these drawers and clean up this mess. The drawers are the safest place.”
Makayla makes a face. “That’s cheating.” She takes the two dolls and sits them on the rooftop. “When the water gets too high, this is where we go,” she explains. “The sharks can’t get up here.”
Staring at the dolls, Terence has a powerful flash of himself and Kyle, smoking on the rooftop of the seafood restaurant where they worked after dropping out of community college. They were twenty-two, living together in a duplex in Lafayette and spending their after-rent pay on smokes and beer and the occasional joint. On this particular night, they were watching a massive storm roll in from the Gulf when Kyle let out a puff and said, “I’m thinking about getting into the trades. Like being an electrician or carpenter. They train you, you know. It’s respectable shit. Good enough money to support a family even, if you wanted to. You just gotta commit to it. You don’t do a trade halfway.” He glanced at Terence. “You should think about it, too, Gherk. We can’t do this restaurant crap forever.” Terence was surprised, and a little resentful. He liked his life, their life; he liked the binging and the sleeping and the soporific mornings, always living in the moment. But he ended up following in Kyle’s footsteps, becoming a cabinet installer, because he trusted him. He knew even on the restaurant roof that no matter how hard Kyle partied, he was an honest man with good instincts.
“So much for that,” he says.
“Come on,” Makayla whines, misunderstanding him.
“The bedroom has become confining.” Terence says, “How about this. How about after I do some more laundry and clean up the living room, we walk to the park where they have that ice-cream stand and we get you a snow cone. Even I can afford that.”
She leaps to her feet, and Terence lets out a sigh of relief.
There’s a wardrobe crisis, a lunch crisis, and a temporarily malfunctioning dryer, so that they don’t make it to the park until late afternoon. Once there, Terence only half-watches Makayla as she plays. He sits baking beneath a magnolia tree, the girl’s abandoned snow-cone dripping blue dye down his wrist, and he lets himself wonder. What was it Melissa had found so irresistible in Kyle?
She was a preacher’s daughter, a librarian’s assistant to boot. Quiet unless of course she was nagging at Terence to lay off the booze, or asking him to talk, just talk, as though his silence after a long day on the job was keeping her from a world of untold treasures. She was worse than an AA sponsor that way, always wanting to know what was in his head. Sometimes in bed she reversed things, wanting to talk about her strange upbringing with her harshly judgmental father, or the confused faith such a childhood had yielded. Terence had little patience for these tortuous outpourings and never understood what she wanted from him. She sensed this and began writing in journals instead. But she’d had a wild side. She was startlingly passionate in the sack, limber in those silk slips Kyle kept in his top drawer, and she could laugh musically enough to make heads turn (did she hold in that laugh all day at the library, or during her years living at home with her stern father, waiting for her chance?). She laughed like that anytime Kyle was around, even in their late twenties when both men were going to meetings and struggling to keep their jobs.
Vaguely irritated, he asked her on two occasions what she liked so much about his friend. On the first, she said that you could tell he was always looking up the road, searching for something. “Yeah,” Terence said. “Booze and tail.” On the second, she said that he was “ruthlessly self-deprecating,” and that this made him good at helping people because they weren’t afraid to confess their own weakness to him—even if it was just a bad DIY wiring job. Terence told her that she at least had the first part right. Kyle was always making fun of his body (“if you drive with me, you’ll always have a spare tire”), or exaggerating his clumsiness on the job (he claimed to mildly electrocute himself at least twice a day, and to keep an extra pair of pants in his truck for when he pissed himself). A year and a half after Terence’s wedding, when Kyle’s beautiful girlfriend dumped him for a doctor, Kyle called them and said, “Come help this poor loser get closure.” In his driveway, he used a grill lighter to set fire to a pile of stuff Ava had left behind, then passed around shots of plain fruit juice as a libation. Kyle said, “I deserved it. She says he’s smarter and better-looking, and I’m sure she’s right.” Melissa threw her arms around him. “Forget her,” she said.
Oh, and he had. He’d forgotten Ava and any other woman he’d known when storm season came around. He was entirely sober—that was the worst part. Clean as a whistle. So was Terence. They were thirty years old and they’d both gotten their shit together at last. But a hurricane rolled in and the three of them happened to be together when the evacuation order was issued. There was a fight because Kyle wanted to stay to protect his little house down the street, and Terence wanted to run. Melissa stood in the literal middle, her eyes flickering constantly to Kyle’s. She wanted to stay and help him board up his house, but Kyle wouldn’t stay if it meant endangering Melissa, and eventually Terence became fed up with them both. Things played out in such a way that Terence ended up in one car, Melissa and Kyle in the other. They drove north as a caravan. Later, Terence was convinced that this was where it all began: the two of them alone together in panicked traffic for eight hours, edging their way to Shreveport through pounding rain. At a motel that first night, they stood outside so the men could smoke and Kyle said, “They say there’s no such thing as an atheist on the battlefield. I think that’s true of Louisianans in a hurricane. You start noticing God again when the ocean comes up to meet you, and you realize what a shitbird you’ve been while you were pretending He wasn’t there.”
Was a canned remark like that enough to make Melissa believe that Kyle had some deep spiritual side, something Terence lacked? She’d maintained a quiet rebellion against her father since her mother died, but perhaps the man’s ministerial blood had awakened in her, responded to Kyle as a moth responded to light. Or was it just ordinary lust, Melissa falling for the same magnetic charm that Kyle had worked, however unconsciously, on a dozen other women before her? Hell, the charm had worked on Terence himself. There’d been times in their twenties when he’d wanted to bear-hug the man out of sheer appreciation for his humor, his ability to understand anything Terence said.
Makayla takes a hard jump off a swing and scampers back to him. Her hair is plastered to her forehead, her dress sweat-stained. “I’m hot,” she complains. “I need a new snow cone.”
“You had your chance, babe.” He climbs to his feet. “Come on, let’s walk back. You can change clothes.”
“I want pizza again.”
“We’ll call your dad and ask what he wants.”
“No, wait, not pizza. Diarrhea Toast.”
“Excuse me?” The conversation ends with Terence calling Kyle’s cell phone to confirm the veracity of the Diarrhea Toast.
“Yeah, it’s real, Gherk,” Kyle says over the rush of wind in his truck. “It’s a single-dad classic and she fuckin’ loves it. Here’s what you do. Everything’s already there—”
Makayla sits on one of the kitchen stools, resuming her regal coolness, as Terence defrosts ground beef and sausage in the microwave and cuts rye bread into squares. Their stove doesn’t work, so he dumps the meat into the big electric skillet where Kyle does most of his cooking. Makayla points to a bottle of Walmart-brand oregano and tells him to put some in with the beef and sausage. It gets gross when Makayla orders him to dump a full pound of Velveeta cheese into the mess. The kitchen starts to smell like a cross between a county fair and a horse farm, and with the smell comes a flood of memory: this isn’t a single-dad classic, but something Kyle used to make for his father, that first year after his mother died. Eleven-year-old Kyle would stand at the stove and stir the pot of meat and apologize to an impatient Terence: “We can leave soon as it’s done, man. He just really likes it and it’s the only thing I can get him to eat . . . ”
When the cheese is fully integrated into the beef, it really does look like a heaping pile of diarrhea. Terence is spooning the mess onto the rye squares when Kyle keys his way through the back door.
“Were you good for Uncle T?” Kyle demands as Makayla runs into his arms.
“Perfect,” she responds.
“Oh, yeah,” Terence mutters.
“Did you give him a hard time about helping clean your room?” Kyle holds Makayla at arm’s length, his blue eyes mock-serious. “I told you, I’m gonna sell your toys on eBay if you don’t start keeping them where they belong.”
“Not eBay!” she shrieks before burying her face in his shirt. She’s giggling. “Not eBay!”
“Oh yes. That’s where toys go when kids leave them out for daddies to break their legs on.” Kyle peers up at Terence. “Thanks for making dinner. You want me to order you Chinese or something else that didn’t come out of Satan’s Port-o-John? My treat.”
“I have a few bucks lying around,” Terence says. “But I’m not hungry.”
“How’s that going, anyway? Have you checked the jobs online?” Kyle nods over at his beat-up laptop, which is exactly where he left it three days ago. “That’s all yours to use, you know.”
“Yeah, so you said.”
“Hey, no pressure, bud. Just trying to help.” Kyle opens the oven door. “I think these are ready to go. You should try some with us. ‘Course, at about three AM we’ll have to rock-paper-scissors for the toilet.”
“Awesome as that sounds, I’ll pass.” He pulls a beer out of the fridge and downs half of it as Kyle transfers the Diarrhea Toast onto a platter. When the three of them are seated at the kitchen table, Terence says, “How’s work been for you, anyway, Egret?” He asked this same question his first night here, but he liked the answer so much (Kyle’s job was still the monotonous, if perilous, slog it always was) that he wants to hear it again.
“Not great. Like I said, I had a lousy helper for awhile there, this kid Pete who was a total hazard. I told you about him, right? Some of these guys, they don’t get it. This isn’t house painting. You can kill people if you’re careless, and you need a damn brain. One slip of a meter point, one loose wire, one bad contact and somebody’s dead. You got to pay attention, all the time.”
“Guess he should’ve been a cabinet installer, huh? No brains required for that job.” Terence takes a big swallow of beer, then looks at Kyle, who’s using a napkin to slop up some meat that’s fallen off Makayla’s plate.
Kyle tosses the balled-up napkin backwards, landing it in the trash can by the sink. “I didn’t say that.”
“What’s tomorrow’s job?” He’s not really interested; he just wants to distract Kyle while he removes a second Corona from the fridge. As little respect as he has for Kyle nowadays, he can’t help but feel a little uncomfortable about drinking so much alcohol he hasn’t paid for, especially when Kyle’s not matching him bottle for bottle.
“Honestly, not looking forward to it. We’ll be at this hospital, transferring circuit wiring, and they said the power’s going to have to stay on. There’s an open-heart surgery they can’t reschedule.”
Terence cracks open the fresh bottle. “Can’t they just reschedule you instead?”
“Apparently not. This is the kind of stuff I hate, last-minute jobs where people do stupid things because they’re in a hurry.” Kyle puts his hands over Makayla’s ears. “It’s fucking dangerous. They laugh at us on construction sites, like we’re pussies because we don’t do heavy lifting, but some of these jobs . . . bad things can happen.” He releases Makayla, who continues chewing. “But it pays the bills and then some, so.”
“Does it?” Terence glances around.
“Believe it or not, I’ve got my eye on a house. A nice place close to the grammar school that would actually be ours. It’s a little risky financially, but it’s what she needs. This freaking rental’s got mold under the sinks, problems everywhere. That’s why we get it so cheap. If you use my laptop, you’ll see the new place in my cookies.”
“Where are the cookies?” Makayla demands.
“I’ve been saving like crazy,” Kyle continues.
Terence doesn’t believe a word—it’s obvious that Kyle’s expendable income has been going to beer and liquor—but he just nods.
“You don’t believe me. Well, I don’t blame you.” Kyle pushes the platter of toast toward him. “Eat something, Gherk. Don’t drink alone.”
“I wouldn’t be drinking alone if you had one.”
“Sure, I will, after she goes down.”
After dinner, Kyle reads to Makayla in her room and returns with his fingers at his temples. “Thank Christ she always passes out early,” he says as he sinks onto the couch. “I seem to get headaches about this time every night. I think it’s what I’m doing with my neck when I’m working.”
Terence is in the lazy-boy, sipping his fourth beer. “Want one now?” he asks.
“Maybe in awhile.” Kyle picks up the remote and starts surfing channels. He stops on a home network show and they watch two young men resplendent with energy and health renovate an ugly kitchen. But Kyle has the volume so low, probably to accommodate Makayla’s sleeping, that Terence can barely hear the nail guns. The silence in the room is becoming uncomfortable when Terence says loudly, “God, I hate cable. It’s all hoarders and whores. Why do you pay for this shit?”
“I’m about to ditch it. Got a couple weeks left on my last bill and then I’m canceling.”
Feeling obscurely rebuked, Terence goes silent.
Kyle says, “You’re right, TV is crap. If it’s not a soap opera, it’s got some garbage political agenda. Or a voiceover talking to you like you’re retarded. I’ll tell you what was a decent show,” and with this he sits up a little. “The X-Files. Ever watch it? I saw it as a kid and then watched all the seasons again a few years ago. Mulder and Scully, they were a fucking pair. Didn’t have sex ‘til like season seven and then they didn’t even show it on screen. The writers just let these two people become, you know? It was all about character. We loved it.” He stops, hearing his mistake, and his blue gaze flicks sidelong at Terence.
“We,” Terence repeats, relishing the charged few seconds that follow. Then, “She read books. Never watched television in her life. When I turned shit on, she told me it was rotting my brains.” Of course, she’d been referring to the porn he’d been addicted to for years, but he’s not going to say that to Kyle.
There is another silence, longer this time. But Kyle rallies: “Mulder always did this thing where he would take two pieces of masking tape and put them on his window and then put a lamp behind it. It was his way of signaling this guy, this mystery guy, that he needed help or inside information or something. It was risky, like putting a target on his back, but he kept doing it. Mostly when he wanted to save somebody else but didn’t know how, like when Scully got alien cancer and he couldn’t find a cure.” He shakes his head. “I used to do that as a kid. All the time.”
“Put X’s on your window? Who were you expecting—God?”
Kyle looks embarrassed. “I don’t know who. My mom was gone, you know? And my dad was always drinking. Or sick. I guess I thought—well, you know the weird things kids do.”
“I do now that I’ve been here four days. Makayla puts X’s on windows, too. I saw her do it to her dollhouse this morning.”
Kyle laughs. “That’s just for when she plays Storm. But who knows. Might be in her blood.”
A beat. “Assuming it’s your blood she has.”
The moment the words fly out, he realizes he has no idea why he came here after his eviction. What did he want? The pleasure of seeing Kyle in his miserable circumstances, navigating fatherhood alone? Did he really think the man owed him something? Was that why he felt so comfortable treating this house like his personal hotel, trading shoddy housework and even shoddier childcare for room and board, doing nothing to find another job or straighten himself out? In his confusion, he doesn’t notice that Kyle’s turned off the television until it strikes him how quiet the room is.
Kyle says slowly, “Does it really matter to you, Gherk?”
“Well fuck, Egret.” He feels heat on his face; the beer is taking effect. “Why not get it all out there? Did you ever get a paternity test? I mean weren’t you at all curious?”
“Don’t do this.”
“Well, weren’t you?”
“I didn’t really have time to be curious. You dropped her the second you found out about us. You and everybody else . . . that minister father of hers, hypocrite asshole, she told him about us and then he told her he never wanted to see her face again. He had some nice names for Makayla, too, before she was even born.”
Terence fights an ugly smile. “How horrible of him.”
“I’m just saying, she told the truth and got left in the dust. I was the only one who—”
“Pretty heroic there, Kyle. Thanks. You sure helped me dodge a bullet.” He tries to take a nonchalant sip of his beer, but his hand is shaking.
“Don’t you ever fucking say that to me. I loved her. Nobody forced you to divorce her—you made that choice. Nobody forced me to marry her, either. I made that choice.” A long pause, then Kyle rises and heads for the back door. “I’m going for a smoke,” he mutters.
“You do that.” Terence nurses his beer. A minute later he jumps up and follows Kyle outside.
He finds him on the rickety deck porch, staring out into the yard as he smokes. Terence says, “You know what? I never believed for a second that kid was mine.”
Kyle doesn’t look at him, just nods.
“I mean it.”
“If it had been mine, she wouldn’t have told me about the two of you. No way in hell.”
Kyle exhales a cloud of smoke.
“She only told me about the affair because she knew it was yours.” When Kyle still doesn’t turn toward him, Terence snaps, “Give me a cigarette, will you?”
Kyle complies without looking at him.
Terence lights up, then continues: “You’re a train wreck, you know that? Look at this place.” He waves his hand to take in the house behind them, the gaggle of toys on the scruffy back lawn. “Look at you. Still a fucking alcoholic, house a disaster. . .”
“Ever raised a kid by yourself, Gherk? It’s kinda hard to keep up.”
“Get yourself a woman. I’m sure you can make that happen with a snap of your fingers.”
“Maybe I don’t want to.”
“Oh, God.” Terence lets out a snorting laugh. “What, you’re loyal to her memory or something?”
“Would that be so unbelievable?”
“Loyalty’s not really your specialty, Egret. Historically speaking.”
Kyle grinds out his cigarette; he looks exhausted. “Listen, you stay as long as you want. It’s great getting help with Makayla but you don’t have to clean the damn house. Just don’t look at me like I’m some shit father. All that beer in the fridge, I only bought it after you showed up, because you wanted it. I keep one bottle in the cabinet and that’s it. I don’t get trashed, Terence. I take a shot once in a while when I’m so stressed out I feel like I’ve got wires instead of veins in my body.”
“Right. So I’m guessing the last four nights don’t count?”
“I was pouring my beer down the sink. Or over the rail. I didn’t want you to feel alone.”
Kyle shrugs. “Smell the grass if you don’t believe me.” Then he disappears inside.
Terence waits a few seconds, until Kyle’s figure is no longer visible through the kitchen window. Then he creeps down the deck stairs to the lawn just below where Kyle had been standing. Feeling like an idiot, he kneels in the grass and sniffs. Beer. The ground stinks of beer.
After a minute he climbs back up the stairs and lets himself into the house. He expects to find Kyle’s bedroom door closed, the house silent, but Kyle is back in the living room waiting for him. Terence sits down on the edge of the coffee table, still holding his Corona. “I want to know why she went to you,” he says, surprising himself. “I want to know why she slept with you.”
“She didn’t, til right before you found out.”
“Kudos to you both for your restraint. Look—was it a religious thing? Is that what you pulled on her to get her into bed with you?”
Kyle gapes at him. “What, now?”
“Did you make her think you were religious or something. A fucking goody-two-shoes.”
“What the hell are you talking about? I never made her think anything.” He shakes his head. “She told me once—she said I was her father’s opposite. She said I was the real thing. That’s about as close as we came to talking about religion.”
Terence is fighting for control, struggling to keep his voice even: “And what does that mean, the real thing?”
“She didn’t say. I told her the only real thing I was, was a real fuckup.”
“I’ll bet you did. She liked that, your ruthless self-deprecation.”
Kyle again looks confused, and Terence, a little drunk, remembers that Melissa never actually said these words in front of Kyle.
“What’re you doing here, Gherkin,” Kyle asks softly. “I mean, you stay as long as you want, that’s not what I’m . . . I just want to know why here. I figured you’d never want to see my face again. At first I thought maybe it was because you were missing her. Maybe that’s why you were drinking again. Then I thought it was about Makayla. I thought maybe . . .” He lets out an abashed laugh. “I thought maybe you wanted to help me. She’s always felt like both of ours, you know? At least to me. When you said Egret, I got this rush, I thought . . .”
“Stop.” Terence drops his face into his hands. “Stop giving me all these noble motives. I don’t know why I’m here, but I didn’t come to be your spare-tire daddy. I didn’t come to bond with you over a kid I know isn’t mine.” He lets his hands fall. “What I do know is that it’s felt pretty good seeing this place a tornado and you stashing your liquor. I don’t care what you say about it being one bottle or whatever. I know it’s been good seeing that nothing’s changed. You’re still the loser you always were.”
Kyle lets out a breath.
“And by the way, I don’t see anything of Melissa in Makayla,” Terence goes on. “Nothing in her face, nothing anywhere. She’s eggless, all right. She’s all yours.”
They stare at each other. The icemaker in the fridge makes a clunking noise; a neighbor’s dog starts barking and keeps at it, besieged.
Finally Kyle says, “We never got the paternity test. She didn’t want it. You think she told you about the affair because it was mine? I think she refused the test because it was yours.”
Terence gets up and makes his unsteady way to the fridge for a fifth beer. His back to Kyle, he says, “So you married her believing it was my child.”
“I married her thinking it didn’t matter.”
Beer in hand, Terence leans over the kitchen counter. “Maybe I’m asking the wrong questions. Maybe what I want to know is why you loved her so much and not the other way around.”
Kyle shrugs. “She was like me. Waiting all her life for somebody to talk with her, not at her. Putting X’s in her window every night. I don’t know why you couldn’t see them.”
“Fuck you, Kyle.”
“I don’t know how else to explain it.”
“If Makayla was mine, and Melissa married you, it means she wanted you no matter what it took.” The knowledge shakes Terence to his core. He drops his unopened beer bottle and it hits the tiled floor with a crash. Kyle instantly gets up, head cocked for sounds from Makayla’s room, and when there’s nothing, he crosses into the kitchen and grabs a roll of paper towels from beside the microwave. Terence just stands there as Kyle kneels at his feet cleaning up the mess.
“Sorry,” he finally mutters.
Kyle deposits the broken glass in the trash can, then turns around holding out both hands palm-up. “I’m the one who’s sorry,” he says. “I should have said it a hundred times, before. There’s no excuse, Gherk. I should have persuaded her to stay with you, no matter what.”
“Yeah. But I dropped her so fast I didn’t give her a chance,” Terence says dully. “Didn’t I.”
Kyle says nothing.
“I’m going to bed.” Terence pushes past Kyle and flops down on the couch. “Turn the light off, will you?”
“Sure, bud. But one thing—you called me a loser. I pretty much have been most of my life, but I’m not now. Okay?”
“Can you just turn off the light?”
The house goes dark; Kyle pads down the hallway to his room and closes the door behind him.
Terence lies awake for hours before losing himself in labyrinthine dreams. In one, Kyle, Melissa, and Makayla are inside the pink doll mansion, and the house is under attack. Kyle has an AK-47 strapped across his chest, a Beretta in his hand, and he’s holding the girls behind him with his free arm. In another, Kyle is in a church fixing a giant masking-tape X to one of the windows. He’s got an industrial floodlight positioned behind the stained glass. Melissa’s stentorian father is there insisting that God is already inside the church but Kyle keeps on taping the window. In the third, Melissa is lying on her back in Kyle’s bed, her skin spread open like a robe to reveal not muscle or veins but wires. Kyle leans over her, intently studying the circuitry. He makes some subtle adjustment and Melissa sits up and reaches for him. In the final dream, more vivid than the others, Terence is on a rooftop watching water swell up in the streets. Down below, Melissa is trapped in a floating car and he can see her face through the soaked windshield but he doesn’t move. He backs up, right into a nineteen-year-old Kyle, and relief floods him. “Beer?” he asks, and Egret nods, hefting a thirty-case. “Just like old times,” he says. The roof turns into a giant Tupperware drawer, and the two of them climb in and crack open their bottles.
He wakes in a sweat. The house is quiet; Kyle has already left for work. Makayla must be in her room. Probably Kyle told her no television until Terence woke up. Rubbing at his face, Terence wanders into the kitchen and opens the top cabinet for the Jägermeister. It’s gone. He spies the emptied-out bottle in the recycling bin outside, the green glass catching up sunlight. “Self-righteous asshole,” he mutters, but there’s no real feeling in it.
He taps on Makayla’s door. “You awake in there?”
“I’m reading,” she responds, dizzying him; she sounds exactly like Melissa.
“Okay,” he says after a beat. “You come out when you want breakfast.”
“Dad made me breakfast before he left.”
He looks at his watch. It’s nearly noon. “Oh. Well, I’ll be in the kitchen if you need me.”
Terence retreats. In the kitchen, he pops open Kyle’s laptop and powers it on. He pulls up the internet, then Kyle’s history. Here’s the starred page from the realty site, a picture of a small yellowish house with a nice yard and new carpeting. Here’s Kyle’s bank account, the password saved so that all Terence has to do is hit log in and he can see that Kyle wasn’t lying about the money. He’s got twenty-eight thousand dollars saved, enough for a down payment on the yellow house. Terence scrolls through more starred sites. There’s research on the grammar school near the new house. Then a series of sites relating to cabinetry work in the area. Following an instinct as he had when opening the tiny drawer in the dollhouse, Terence clicks on a shortcut to Kyle’s email account. Here, too, the password is preset, so he logs in. Nothing in the inbox but work-related communications and ads, but when he checks the Sent mail, he finds a note to a guy named Sam asking about a possible favor for a friend, someone down on his luck but a damn solid installer and a good man . . .
He closes the laptop and goes outside with a cold beer. For some reason he keeps hearing Kyle saying, “When you called me Egret, I got this rush . . .” What had he expected? That Terence wanted to come play house, co-parent and live on the couch, out of some stale brotherly solidarity? Egret was crazy. Egret was too forgiving, too quick to believe the best in him, because he couldn’t have things more backwards. Terence has come to an understanding in the wake of last night’s dreams. When it comes to X’s, he’s not one to tape up windows at his own risk, even for the people closest to him. Certainly he’s even less the type to answer such a signal. He only came here in hopes of finding the old Kyle, that fellow failure who would help him turn aside from everything he didn’t wish to see. During the long forced-march of solitude after his divorce, he’d discovered that on his own, he was garbage. Lazy. Nothing good had ever come out of him except when Kyle or Melissa had demanded it. Knowing this, where else was there to go but backward? And yet this too had turned out be a dead end.
His impulse is to pack his duffel and run. Makayla’s not a baby and she’ll be alright here alone until Kyle gets back. He imagines the possibilities: take what money he’s got left and rent a motel room someplace a hundred miles from here where no one knows him. Pick up some temp work, drink a little, sleep. If things don’t work out, move again. The prospect of all this roving is both comforting and nauseating. He doesn’t feel at all well. Expletives hiss out of him when he opens the fridge again and finds that he’s finished the last beer.
Makayla appears on the other side of the open door, in her socks. Her face is pinched and disapproving. “You look bad,” she says. “You smell bad.” She scratches at a mosquito bite on her neck. “Can we go back to the ice cream park?”
“Fine, whatever. But I need a shower, and you need some shoes.”
“Okay.” She races back to her room.
Terence locks himself in the bathroom and showers. He dries himself off with a Disney-princess towel and steps into clothes that aren’t much fresher than yesterday’s. Reflexively he wipes some gunk off the mirror. “I’m not doing this tomorrow,” he says defiantly to his reflection. “Gherkin is checking out of the pickle jar.”
“I’m waiting,” Makayla yells on the other side of the door. “Are you pooping?”
“No. I skipped the Diarrhea Toast, remember?” He opens the door. “Come on, let’s go.”
At the park, he lies down under the same magnolia tree as yesterday and drifts in and out of sleep, ignoring the looks of parents and babysitters who occasionally walk by as if to sniff him. Makayla gets involved in some intricate private game in the rubbery mulch, building a kingdom out of rocks and flower-heads, and she’s totally oblivious even to the searing heat. It’s clear that like her father, she’s used to being alone. The hours trickle by. Back at the house, Makayla asks him to do a treasure hunt with her and he tells her he’s too tired. She asks him to at least make her a map and so he draws something clumsy and lame on a legal pad. Amazingly, it’s enough to keep her busy for another hour. When she comes back from hunting all over the house for a pirate’s chest that doesn’t exit, she demands a hamburger, and they walk to a nearby McDonald’s in the twilight because Terence is low on funds and doesn’t want to waste gas when he knows he’s leaving tonight. He buys a dollar-menu burger for her and an order of fries for himself. They eat at a grimy plastic table in the back. It all feels a little surreal, probably because he’s hungover, and by the time they get back to the house it’s nearly seven o’clock. He’s a little shocked to realize that Kyle is late.
He turns on the television to distract Makayla while he packs his duffel. He pours himself a Dr. Pepper, cringing at the sweetness and longing for a beer. Another hour ticks by. Without meaning to, he falls asleep again in the lazy-boy and when he wakes up it’s nearly ten and Makayla is snoring thickly atop his bedding. On his phone are thirteen missed calls from a number he doesn’t recognize.
Shakily he hoists himself out of the chair. Phone in hand, he goes out to the back deck and stands there in the inky darkness. Something like dread is clutching at his throat, and he’s afraid to call back that number. He remembers what Kyle said about the hospital job being dangerous, live wires and such. He refuses to believe it. He yearns powerfully for a cigarette, and then, for his car. He could leave now. He should leave now.
But he hits the redial button.
Twenty minutes later, he reenters the house to find Makayla no longer on the couch. He staggers through the dark hallway to her bedroom. She’s kneeling in front of her dollhouse, and she’s got her bedside lamp down on the floor so that its light fills the plastic rooms. Cast on the wall behind the dollhouse is the shadow of the X she taped to the window yesterday. She turns at the sound of Terence’s feet. Even in the hazy light, he can see that she’s been crying. She’s probably been waiting all night for Kyle to tuck her in.
“You’re supposed to be in bed,” Terence says hoarsely. “Makayla.”
“I know. But will you play with me?” She looks pleadingly up at him, and when he doesn’t respond, she makes him a final offer: “You can be anyone you want. I promise.”