Tell Me

This story was told to me by my son, about a friend of his, Spencer, and it's worth mentioning at the start that Spencer happens also to be the name of my son's first friend, when we lived on Lake Minnetonka. Spencer Fillview, whose father and I spent a spring night or two each year in one another's company casually pretending we'd someday go together and purchase one hell of a boat, some ghastly beautiful floating fortress of luxury, was my son's best friend until we moved into the cities when Collin was eleven, though the boys kept in itinerant touch through high school, sure they had some magical, magnificent best-friend bond before realizing that's just what things feel like.

The story was related to me as follows, though I'd like to make clear from even before the outset that my son Collin is someone prone to more than the usual masculine level of exaggeration, and how much this trait has to do with his mother's and my estrangement is impossible to guess—I don't remember the trait suddenly growing more pronounced after Trish and I failed after 18 months of trying to see our way into something resembling a communicative adult relationship. Trish and I fell apart because of our daughter Beatrice's death, at age 23 (a car accident which, mercifully or not, involved no other drivers), and how much Beatrice's death had to do with her younger brother Collin's tendency to conflate is beyond me. I suppose I've always merely hoped that his friends—this series of Spencers he's befriended, whoever else—accomodate his quirks (besides exaggeration he has a tendency to what his sister would've called flaking, one manifestation of which is how he is, like his mother, perpetually and frustratingly late) and, at harshest, chalk them up as the tendencies of a boy who'd been, like a landscape, artlessly transformed by forces larger and harsher than himself. I love my son.

The story is as follows: this Spencer (who lives, I understand, within blocks of my son, meaning the Longfellow neighborhood in Minneapolis, a region I knew in my youth as a blue-collar stretch, and though the area retains that character it's now also popcorned by people like...well, people like my son: tattooed or in some way tribally identified youngish people who drive ragamuffiny twelve-year-old vehicles to the co-op to buy $10 blocks of artisinal cheddar from ladies with chia-like underarm hair; young people who fetishize industry and mechanization seemingly because they're a generation removed from what it actually looked like—uncles missing fingers, fathers sputtering ceaselessly in the dark, coughs racking them; young people, in other words, unhealthily searching for what they believe is yesterday as they ride their steel-framed bicycles and drink raw milk and listen to music by artists they believe in) has, apparently, a partner. Not a wife, not quite, though they did, my son told me, engage in a nice ceremony in which they dedicated themselves to each other (in the name of what covenant, what god, what larger force? I wanted to ask). So: a partner, a woman whose name Collin never spelled but kept pronouncing as Teelee, or perhaps Tealie, I'm not at all sure. Regardless: there is Spencer, and there is his partner Tealie (that must be it, certainly that's better than Teelee) (one ultimately just hopes it's a self-styled and -devised moniker simply for not having to wonder what parents would do that to a child), and Tealie was, when the story was told to me three months ago, in April, over lunch at Manny's, pregnant.

Tealie is pregnant, Spencer the father, and as Collin told the story he led me to believe that the pregnancy was both new and only maybe half-planned-for. Maybe not half, maybe more, but some percentage less than 100% let's-have-a-child-together. The thing about Collin is that asking him a simple, adult question—how could your friend Spencer and his partner not be 100% planning for conceiving a child if they were engaging with any regularity in procreative coitus—can sometimes be maddening, not from any refusal to answer but simply because he seems, honestly, to not understand the question. He was (and may still be: I've not been a passenger of his in years) a terrible driver, just maddeningly bad—never checked his blind spots, employed his blinker perhaps 10% of the time, tailgated, lacked the most basic awareness of his vehicle in the lane—and I asked him once, maybe a year after he got his license, what he hoped to accomplish by not glancing over his shoulder when changing lanes.

"What do you mean, hope to accomplish?" he asked, thankfully keeping his hair-obscured eyes on the road.

"Just that: what do you hope to accomplish? Do you fear you'll hurt your neck if you turn to look and therefore abstain? Do you believe you'll be somehow wasting valuable time? Are you fearful of taking your eyes off the road in front of you? I want simply to know why you seem incapable of checking the lane you're attempting to move into." I could of course have gone on: I wanted to ask you don't attempt to use the toilet without looking at it, do you, to see if someone's already involved with it, to see if the seat's in an amenable position? We were driving to, if I recall, some art event, something at the MIA. Like many of his peers, my son has a shakeless faith in self-expression, though he's never actually chosen some artistic path—he's written fey poetry, played various instruments poorly, dabbled in oil painting for a spell, tried acting. 

"I don't know, Dad. I check the rearview, all of 'em—up top, both sides. I don't know." He shrugged. Part of me wanted to whap the back of his head, not to hurt him, but simply to remind him that surprises can come out of nowhere, unexpectedly—in fact not can but will, always. Of course I did nothing, and so now my son, age 28, expresses amazement when a friend impregnates a woman through, one has to assume, the typical lasciviousness and hunger.

Spencer and Tealie: pregnant, and though Collin didn't outrightly specify, they were, as I understood things, in the first trimester, in that wild secret phase before the story goes public. Collin's mother was a mess during that period for each of our children—weepy, sick, confused; she spent what felt like months staring out of one window or another—yet I loved that pre-tell period, the almost illicit thrill of it, akin to how it felt to walk around with my future wife's engagement ring in my pocket for the week I did before I sufficiently steeled my nerves to take a knee and ask her. Regardless: these friends of Collin's were pregnant, and the story involved two events that transpired in rough simultaneity.

 

Apparently this Spencer had had, prior to Tealie, a girlfriend he was quite close to, a dear beloved. Collin didn't fill in many details out of, I assumed, a lack of familiarity, but apparently her name was June, and apparently the relationship's demise—a demise prompted and pushed for by June—provided some significant measure of devastation for Spencer, and for a good while. Again, Collin wasn't overwhelming with details, but it's not too hard to imagine, is it? Spencer and June love each other, let's say they're in their mid-20's (college educated, living in a metropolis—imagine any TV show, essentially), and Spencer feels he understands real love for the first time, though also feels there's some measure of necessary incomprehensibility, a way in which his heart's truest noise is a strangled whooshing wordlessness which, he can't know, is not incomprehensible but inchoate, and soon enough he believes that real love is defined by its incomprehensibility, as if one must be unable to speak something's name or identify its parts to know it fully, truly. Whyever she does so, June leaves him, shattering his heart. It's not too hard to imagine. I feel certain, without a scrap of evidence, that this Tealie must be less attractive than June.

The first of the two events in the story of Spencer and Tealie is that June sent some letters to Spencer, returned them, I should say, three of them. They were letters he'd written to himself each of three consecutive December 31sts. It was, said Collin, something they did: apparently both June and Spencer would, for the time they were together, write letters to their future selves at each year's finish, and those letters apparently stayed with June, and she, who knew why, chose to keep them another four years before sending them to Spencer in mid-December of this past year. As he told me about the letters Collin watched me: I'd seen this sort of examination before. When he told me his mother'd begun Tai Chi and had ceased eating dairy he looked at me in just this way, scanning my features, hoping for I couldn't guess what. Sympathy? Recognition? Sometimes your daughter dies in a car accident because the hour was late and she exhausted—she had been, according to her friends and colleagues, sleeping fewer than four hours a night for weeks by then (she'd been in charge of a theater company's summer programming in Milwaukee and was on her way home to her mother and I). Sometimes things change, and sometimes young lovers write letters to their future selves full of the lofty, can-do fluff some of us tell ourselves, and sometimes one's ex sends word from the past to the present. Things happen. The left edge of my lips tightened just slightly as Collin watched me—I hadn't any idea if that would be twitch or revelation enough—and he continued.

Tealie was miffed by the letters on several levels, said Collin: she didn't like any contact from June (because she knew how much Spencer was hurt and didn't want him hurt again explained my daft son and I nodded patronizingly, more clear than ever why he was alone despite, admittedly, his handsome face and the fact that he was materially secure, thanks to both his mother and me), but also, said Collin, she didn't want Spencer to focus on that past and whoever he'd been back then. Those letters he'd written himself, they were from before she was around, and before he'd gotten her pregnant, and etc. etc. etc. Collin laundry-listed Tealie's small complaints as we both appraised our steaks, he with his Flat Iron Au Poivre (from which, as ever, he made a little pile of mushrooms for me to poke at), me with my small filet with Bearnaise. She just didn't like the whole thing, Collin said, and I nodded, glad he at least could spit such a declarative out. It seemed one of the sadder aspects of his generation and demographic was their embrace of relativism, the takes-all-kinds shrug they'd offer deviances large and small. Certainly such an attitude bodes well for their stress levels but what a loss, what shameful abrogation: it's okay to call some things a spade.

Spencer's feelings were conflicted on the letters as well, though Collin explained that only about 30% of Spencer's conflicted feelings were shareable with Tealie. First, of course, Spencer intuited, or at least chose to believe, that June's delivery of the letters meant something—she had to have tracked him down, had to have bothered to not throw the letters away for several years. Most crucial among the chosen meanings Spencer apparently fixated upon was this: June had to have cared about him now for some reason, and as my son explained this aspect of Spencer's considerations we were briefly visited by Phil Dahlie, whom I'd seen on entering but decided to let slide. Hands were shaken all around and Phil and I mentioned the time's highness and shouldn't we grab lunch one of these days. I nearly kicked Collin's shin beneath the table as he continued like an ape to saw at and stick bites of his steak in his mouth as Phil stood there, as if Collin were somehow malnourished, as if I would let that happen to my son, and so to distract I dropped my fork hard on my plate, enough for a good rattle, surprising my son and charging the scene with enough weirdness that I could, later with Phil, simply pass it off as nothing more than a butterfingery moment, nada.

So he's thinking about June all the time, Collin said once Phil'd left, and I nodded, uh-huh, choosing to neither take him to task about the slovenly manners nor to ask if he even remembered Phil, and that we used to be quite close—Phil spent countless summer evenings passing the time on the lake with us—and of course part of me wanted to ask him if he had any recollection of Phil's wife Vanessa. Thinking about June all the time, or not all the time but just wondering, you know? Said Collin. Why'd she do it. She had, Collin informed me, sent along a note—Have meant to get these back to you, finally got off my ass—though the tone offered nothing in terms of clarity. Were the letters each in their own envelopes, I asked? Yes, Collin said. And were the envelopes intact? Yes, Collin said. So Spencer must have—Yes, Collin said, Spence was like both hurt and not, you know? Like he loved that June didn't open the envelopes, that even after this long she respected the whatever they had, or him, enough to keep them sealed, but also he's like, come on, you don't want to know? We talked about it and both of us said we'd've damn sure opened the envelopes, Collin said. Was there any marking on the envelopes? I asked after a moment's pause, and at this Collin set his fork and knife down. You know, I don't know, he said, honest to God. I got to watch it all play on his face, ten seconds of consideration that suddenly left the story Spencer'd relayed to him shaky.

 

The first Spencer used to pee each night into Lake Minnetonka, and Collin and I both knew this because we'd see him, over on his dock as we were occasionally on ours. Collin of course from the first wanted to pee into the lake from our dock as well, and soon enough did so, and then it was the two boys peeing toward each other, separated by perhaps 40 feet of shore and who can guess how many minnows, peeing at each other most nights each week. Spencer's father and I would shrug or raise a glass of whatever was being sipped. I believe Spencer and Collin ceased peeing at each other around age eight, though I know they spent years wondering about their respective penises, a curiosity that culminated in Collin coming home shortly before we moved with a temporary tattoo of a spider applied to the tip of his penis.

It took some doing to get Collin back on track after the question of the envelopes' provenance knocked him. Like me, he values a complete tale, and he knows the sort of psychic crossness I suffer on being given only some percentage of a story. This was something Collin's mother excelled at—she'd begin a story, become distracted, and leave me wondering forever how, say, her mother had parked the car in downtown Winona the time her three boys had fled the backseat on being scared by a moth. We've gone a decade now without a hint of contact, and I still remember some of these things, remember that I don't know the full story.

I asked what the letters said and my son was less than specific about their contents—vague hopes, places to see, monetary advancement—but he said, no, that's not even the thing: the thing was, he informed me, was that Tealie, in telling Spencer that she didn't want him to have any contact with the past like that, she really messed Spencer up. We both chewed meat for a moment and I wondered how my son was in bed, though I tried not to. He took jagged little bites of meat and was altogether too fast with his meal and I fought the urge to hm him. It was an unfortunate tic I'd overemployed during his late teenage years, hm-ing some decision instead of saying anything confrontational, though the hm was always the syllable I used instead of a negative comment, which fact became soon enough plenty clear, and we'd eventually fought about it and I'd sworn to him I'd watch it. I had not hm-ed anyone in years.

Nor did I hm as he smacked his lips like some classless urchin then wiped his mouth with his hand. I very lightly cleared my throat, which he chose to either ignore or not hear.

The thing is, Collin said, Spencer didn't want to go back to that past either, the one with June. The shit he wrote to himself was like silly now, he's got a kid on the way, the stuff before—he wrote this when he was 23, 24, and 25—wasn't about the way he lived now, you know? He didn't want to go back to it either, but then, Collin said, Spencer started getting like upset that Tealie was being so cut-off about it, being pissed about the past. Like anyone can deny the past or something? He stopped short at this point as if a train'd hit his line of thinking, then massaged his jaw, and being a parent means of course not knowing, so that when your son says like anyone can deny the past you cannot reach over, put some of your own flesh before him, and ask do you mean me? Do you mean your mother and I or your dead sister, my son, my beloved, my only? There are things one cannot say and so one says nothing. When I say handsome I mean it as a man, not as a parent: my son is a fine looking animal, he looks like his mother who had (and, presumably, still has) a sort of structural, golden-ratio-like beauty which induced tractor-beam stares, and both of our children, thankfully, got the lion's share of their appearance from her genetics. I myself am what'd be considered maybe a ruffled old moneyed fogie: 5'10", never thick of build nor thin as some of these contemporary man-child skeletal types. I have a cul-de-sac of gray hair, I wear blue or white shirts, I keep my shoes well shined, my ties are nearly all patternless. I have a face which, after you've met me, you can't recall if I have a mustache or not (I at present do not, though have had one at various points in the past).

Spencer couldn't say anything, I said, urging my son on, but he shook his head, as if he'd been told something irredeemably sad. As if anyone can deny the past: he for the moment couldn't move past the phrase.

 

There were these shoes, too, Collin said after some quiet in which I wondered for not the first time if I'd ever told him enough, which is certainly an aspect of parenthood, but which aspect quintuples on divorce or any other familial-bond-disintegrating event. I have never had much to say, which strikes me as about correct—the children’s mother was their lead and guide, and I the one to punish, to drag them away from danger they found accidentally or otherwise—yet watching my son for two or three minutes, quiet and stark as someone slapped or thickly processing life-altering news, I wished I knew more, knew to say more. There were these shoes, Collin said again, at which point our waiter Jim came to ask if we wanted an aperitif, some dessert, the catch-all anything else. I've enjoyed Jim's service, and am always happy to leave the standard 18% which all regulars leave, yet I'm always sad by the peppy can-do jump of his and his ilk’s service, particularly at nothing more pressing than a Thursday's lunch, which this was. I looked at my plate, then at Collin's, and tried to savor the decadent moment of plates pink with some animal's blood, napkins crumpled off to the side like spent munitions, potatoes disemboweled in their foil, the post-succor scene, the satiated fugue. There's a way in which sitting before the bloody mess one's made makes one's whole corporeality feel more real, tied deeper into epochs of existence: one doesn't leave carrying some wrapped little nub of burrito or burger as if a souvenir; one does one's gustatory job as humans have done since time immemorial, and then one spends a satisfied, reflective moment before moving on and having a cup of coffee or a small dose of port.

These shoes, Collin began, crossing his hands upon the newly cleared space and leaning forward—a move his sister Beatrice employed when attempting to secure her mother's and my backing, moral or more often financial, for some scheme (for instance her well-argued idea that her mother and I purchasing a small condo in Milwaukee was actually a wise investment, which we eventually did purchase and, yes, made disgusting blood money on a year later when our daughter was in the ground and we needed never again to have any tie to Milwaukee)—Spencer'd bought these shoes, Collin told me, before Tealie was pregnant and was gonna give them to her as like a special, extra Christmas present. I nodded, for the first time respecting my son's friend Spencer: gifts for one's pregnant wife, regardless of trimester or reason, was like carrying a comb, or knowing how to play a ballad on piano, or knocking one's shoes against a car's frame before entering the vehicle in inclement weather: these were things one did. Had Spencer been across the table I'd've shook his hand.

I attempted to surreptitiously find the time, a move I knew drove my son veritably up the proverbial wall: you can't take another fucking minute, Dad?! When he was in college he spent years seething vigor and recalcitrance, as if my clock-checking had a thing to do with him or his mother or my thoughts or feelings regarding my eldest daughter, before or after she died. You got something better to do?! he'd yell at me, and Collin's mother would sometimes put a hand on his shoulder to calm him, sometimes put a hand on my shoulder to soothe me, and what someday I hope my son discovers is that the binaries so self-evident and lovely in youth fall dismally apart around age 30 or so. I admit I've been at times preoccupied with work, though I'd dispute any notion that I was more preoccupied or distracted than other men of my means and skill-set (I'm a senior analyst for Hormell, involved in grain trading). It was 12:17 according to the clock above the bar, and when I glanced back at my son he looked tired though his face revealed nothing regarding the object of his exhaustion, me or the world at large or any other small, specific thing.

 

Spencer started getting nervous about giving the shoes, Collin said, rubbing his cheek, because I guess there's like changes? Or least for Tealie there were changes, and Spencer'd bought the shoes—these beautiful cream and green wingtips with heels and a matching pair of evening gloves, the same cream color, fringed with the same green—before Tealie was pregnant, or at least before either of them knew she was pregnant. I tried hard to look into my son's deep brown eyes for as long as I could tolerate: something felt like it'd transpired, some exhaustion overcoming him, a dismality I couldn't gauge, and I wanted him to know I was present. She's sick, Collin continued, she's sleeping all the time, her feet hurt, and so Spencer's like, I've got to get rid of these shoes because otherwise they'll be like the perfect Magi gift, except worse, they'll be like a rebuke of her every day of the pregnancy—here's what you can't have or something, Collin said, so he decided to return them, and then Jim brought coffee for each of us and I watched, amazed as ever, as my son slurped his black coffee like some trucker, not a touch of cream or sugar. Everyone's welcome to consume the usual fares as they wish, certainly, but I'd imagined, I guess, someday having an adult post-meal cup of coffee with my son, each of us stirring in the same dab of cream, half a sugar packet, each of us pleased at the rightness, at the this is how it's done of it (I'll admit I believe these accoutrements are marks of civility while simultaneously knowing that's preposterous: my mentor and first boss, Sydney Valento—among the world's more civilized men, one who learned Italian simply to better appreciate opera [this despite an 11th grade education]—drank his three daily cups black as mud).

Had Spencer decided to return the shoes before the letters from June? I asked, and Collin's eyes blazed. See that's the thing, he said: he was planning to return the shoes on the very day he got the letters, which he thought like meant something, Collin said, offering an eyeroll and I wanted to clap his back, shout well done: Collin and Beatrice were raised to mercilessly doubt any sinisterism or good fortune discerned in nothing more than coincidence. On this point Collin's mother and I saw level eye to eye: imagined causality was a terrific minefield about which one had to remain ceaselessly vigilant, and we were fierce in keeping our children’s holy cow did you notice tendencies in check: no, it didn't mean anything that you happened to be thinking of Dairy Queen when I was wondering about what we'd do after dinner, nor that the one show you'd been wanting to see just happened to be finishing as you sat down. Each child knew early on that when 23 people congregate there's a greater than 50% chance two people will share a birthday. There's nothing mysterious or magic about certain ways in which the world works.

 

So Spencer's decided to return the shoes, I said, to get Collin started again (he had, post-eye-roll, seemed to drift and was looking around Manny's dining room as if he'd never noticed the brickwork, the wood stools at the dim-lit bar's edge, the waiters cinched with company-supplied ties and attitudes of solicitousness even in repose, other diners masticating, gesticulating with utensils, laughing with open mouths), and he looked over and continued: Right, he's gonna return ’em, but then the letters come and that messes him up, so he says, okay, the next day. I fought the urge then to ask my son what this Spencer did for a living. He ends up waiting a couple days, two or three, then when Tealie's gone he gets it all together, shoes and gloves and the letters, too, puts everything in a plastic bag and heads out, and as Collin relayed aspects I remembered the moments when his mother would be off doing something, carrying one of our children inside her, while I'd be out engaged in some task ostensibly for or about her: buying bottles of wine (I purchased, during each pregnancy, a bottle of good wine each month of the term, both out of celebration and so that she'd have something to imbibe once the children were out and a shared responsibility) or making my inexperienced way through Menards purchasing the necessary tools and items to baby-proof our home. That connectivity, the ways in which the entire idea of separation diminishes for pregnant couples: one walks entirely differently, moves through whole new rooms on knowing one will soon be a father. He takes the bus downtown, Collin said, and it's midday, the bus is basically empty, so Spence grabs a seat in an empty row, just holding tight, not sure what he'll do with the letters but knowing they're connected somehow to the shoes and gloves. Collin's eyes at this point—large brown eyes, mysterious to me; I'm the only one of us with blue eyes and always felt somehow queer or under examination by my family, as if they were looking into my pale irises, searchingly—sparked tinily, some crackle introduced, and he said three stops into his trip downtown, at Lake, some kids get on, teenagers, little thugs in training, and where do they sit, choosing from all the seats in the whole empty bus? They sat right behind Spencer, Collin said.

So he's headed downtown, Collin said, and he's slightly nervous now, these kids behind him, and they're loud, and he's trying not to listen to them or anything but he can't help it because he notices they're talking about him, saying things like check this guy upfront and don't quite fit, does he—none of this stuff's aggressive, but it's leading, and Spencer's jittery because of the out-of-nowhere letters anyway so he's sure the chatter's about him, and he gets nervous. Starts thinking these kids are gonna harm him, maybe jump him, decides these kids know he's got a pair of lady's shoes and gloves in this bag, know his girl's pregnant, and that the past has just come back to him, and they're gonna confront him about all of it. He can't even bring himself to look back. He's sitting there sweating and starts to realize what he's actually scared of is that they'd make fun of him—call him a cross-dresser, make him put the shoes on and sing and dance or something, and Spencer is not that guy, I should add, says Collin: he's the guy who organized the first Longfellow bike polo game and he played that day in a kilt, meaning just he doesn't care about being made fun of by some scrum of little urban kids. But now he's scared—he's scared of these kids and what they might do to him, and he's scared of the shoes and gloves, or at least scared of how Tealie would feel if she saw them, if she'd see them and be like, those days are gone, and he's scared of the letters, too, of course, just that they exist. He's a mess, Collin said, taking a long draw from his coffee only to return it to the table for Jim to, immediately, fill the thing, for which in lieu of a thank you my son offered a fraternal nod, young men in recognition. I myself had, during each of Collin's mother's pregnancies, developed benign cysts, one per child. The cyst that appeared before Beatrice developed on the outside of my left elbow, and the one for Collin grew on the first knuckle of my right thumb, and during each I felt both tremulously scared—I was in fact kept awake a couple nights each time wondering if the growths were shadowy signals, maliciousness sprouting beneath my skin like my own dark pregnancy—and sort of oddly relieved by their appearance, because fear is what a father drinks and breathes and swims, and my little harmless symbols, the fatherly manifestations I sprouted, these ended up as almost comic reminders of scale: ignore the bumps; bigger things will arise.

Collin was distracted anew, looking around the room as if anything could've changed, and I then suddenly wondered after the purpose of this meeting, if there was some ulteriority afoot. My son is, to my knowledge, nothing of a sneak—he handles secrets as a wet napkin does steel, once asking his mother if she was excited for her surprise present (he was 6 and it was right before mother's day)—but I became moderately convinced something was as they say up. Likely any purpose behind this lunch was something simple, support of some sort, maybe a phone call regarding a potential job, some money. Acts like these I was happy to negotiate: a father hopes to help his son become the agent of his own life, and while I'd long ago imagined that my son would have by 28 made a sustainable path for himself in the world, he'd also had to navigate larger obstructions and developments than I could've guessed when he was born, and after Beatrice I lost my certainties regarding a father's duties and responsibilities. In the months after she died sleep was a bad trick as I ached nightly considering how simply I could've helped, prevented, changed things—I could have bought her a larger or safer car (though nothing I knew of could've much cushioned three high-speed rollovers through trees), or tickets on planes or trains or hired her a driver, anything. A parent never comes all the way down from such a ledge. The younger version of myself, which would've once imagined knuckling down upon my late-twenties son, demanding clear articulation regarding plans and goals, had long since expired. Collin, I said, and he looked at me, and now I searched his face for any clue of what was behind this lunch. Finally I pointed toward my father's Bulova, which I wear on my right wrist despite being right-handed, and Collin was out of his seat like a shot, another slug off his coffee then sentry at table's edge and ready to depart before I'd even a chance to take my final sip. Collin, I said, I've still got to pay for lunch, and he looked cowed, made foolish by his own moves, and I doubted anew that this was merely lunch, father and son enjoying each other's company over bovine nutrients. Finish the story, I nodded toward him, then raised my hand toward Jim who of course, solicitous, dexterous as a pick-pocket, tweezed my card from me and was off and back with the bill.

 

Here's the thing, Collin said once we'd exited. April in Minneapolis. We paused on exit, standing within view of the Foshay, a tower I'd taken the kids up into a handful of times in their childhoods, to the 30th floor's observation deck, and I was tempted to ask Collin if he'd like to accompany me up once again out of nostalgia or some such, go and secure some good view of the lay of what land we were in. What's the thing, Collin, I chose not to say. Tell me. Collin cleared his throat as a bus passed behind us on Marquette, stretched his shoulders back as if to crack them (one of his mother's old gestures), began again: after barely a mile Spencer grabs the line, dings the bell—he wants off. He's sure the kids mean harm, and this harm's gonna have something to do with the letters and shoes and gloves—they'll make him read the letters while wearing the shoes and gloves, he can imagine them taunting, like, how come you didn't mention you wanted to be a cross-dresser. So he yanks it, and soon as he knows the kids are watching him—there's nothing else going on on the bus, they're at like 15th and LaSalle, nothing around but some dive bars and a gas station. The bus pulls over and he's sitting there, scared, because now what if they get off with him? He considers just running screaming from the thing—crazies take mass transit daily and him acting bats would be par for the course. Finally—like three seconds, but it feels like forever—he stands up and looks back—he doesn't want to but it's like he's got to—and they're not thugs at all, Collin said, his eyes widening: it's a couple, this young guy and girl, like seventeen, and the girl's pregnant—here Collin put his arms out, circling a fictitious uterus on himself—beach-ball-bellied with her guy's arm around her, and Spencer just about falls apart—they'd been talking about the guy up front meaning her belly, talking about not fitting not about Spencer riding the bus, but the girl's stomach in the seat. This whole time he's been freaking out, and it's just nothing, nothing at all, my son said with a head shake, wearing the same cocked grin I wear. I wished this Spencer was there, that I could offer a shoulder slap of paternal understanding—sure, I'd say, all the sense in the world.

Collin continued: Spencer's standing there, staring at this couple then the bus driver's calling back, Sir?, and Spencer almost reaches out, like to shake the guy's hand, to touch them or something—these two kids staring at this dude who they don't even know, who knows what they're thinking, and finally Spencer just spits out My girlfriend's pregnant, too, then he hustles off, 15th and LaSalle, and walks the rest of the way downtown. That's it, Collin said, offering the hint of a shrug, and we stood there together in silence, digesting. I don't suppose, I said, there was anything in his old letters about not being scared of youths on the bus when his partner was pregnant, and Collin chuckled, shook his head: he didn't think of that one, no.

We hugged, I told him as ever to be in touch, he as always thanked me for lunch, and we went our separate ways. A block from each other I was tempted to ask if he'd told his mother the story, knowing it was something she'd love, or at least the woman I'd married and had long ago known would have loved. It didn't occur to me until a week later, April's end, to send an email asking but what happened to the shoes and the letters? to which my son offered no immediate reply. When he did finally respond several weeks later, Collin wrote that the story had a rough postscript: Spencer'd returned the shoes and gloves without incident, and had put the letters, unaddressed, into a post-office box, and, on returning home, found Tealie—whose given name, my son mentioned, was Janine, offering no explanation for why he'd given her a false name—teary-eyed in the kitchen, and on asking her what was wrong, she'd replied simply she's gone. She'd miscarried that morning (and had decided that they were expecting a daughter, hence a she being gone) at seven weeks, the baby hardly a centimeter, unarticulated fingers and feet, a fraction of a fraction of an ounce of life. Collin wrote that after telling Spencer the news Janine asked for some time to herself and explained that she'd spoken with a friend whose family had a cabin on Lake Minnetonka, and that she'd arranged for some recuperative days there. Collin did not, in the email, mention how Spencer felt about Janine's request but added, at email's end, the following: Spencer's family also lost a daughter—his sister—though not in a miscarriage, so he was especially sad. I responded, of course, immediately: I'm so, so sorry, Collin. Please call sometime.

What stuck in my son's email were not the more-than-coincidental details—that Spencer's family lost a daughter, or a return to Lake Minnetonka, or the name Spencer, or the fact that my son and I met for lunch that day downtown, the destination for his story's Spencer (a lunch date I presume now to have been arranged so he could tell me that he and his significant other, this Janine I'd never known of [had they sworn themselves to each other in some ceremony?], were expecting their first child). He has not responded to that email or any subsequent ones (in one of which I, yes, wrote nothing more than His name's not Spencer, is it?).

What stuck in my son's email, and what I return to now, early June, almost a month and a half since my son's written, is the detail regarding location: that this couple—Tealie and Spencer, Janine and my Collin, whoever it is, whatever configuration of fact and creation—shared news of their loss in the kitchen, the location, as Collin surely remembers, in which Trish and I discovered our daughter had died, and the one place in the house aside from the bathroom which was all but impossible to avoid, despite our attempts. I'm not sure how Collin remembers life after his sister's death—he was finishing his senior year of high school; I can recall almost no specifics other than deciding, his mother and he and I, that he'd rather not have a graduation party—but what my daughter's death tasted like was take-out, weeks and months of it. And what flavors bereavement? Chinese and burgers and Tex-Mex and Caribbean—we tried everything, every flavor available, anything to keep Trish and I out of the kitchen.

His name's not Spencer, is it, I think to myself as I occasionally drive around Lake Minnetonka instead of heading immediately home from work, making my slow way through old streets I vaguely remember from an earlier life as if it's a dream, hoping to find I'm not even sure what—a Janine I wouldn't recognize, boats full of family driven by the sort of steady-handed men I've always believed I am, my son peeing into the lake. Say something, Trish said to me in those harrowing months of loss: say something. I had, until then, been fairly able to find solutions to the problems that'd presented themselves in our life (Trish had, one Father's Day, given me, in private, as a joke, a handkerchief that read I'm A Dad. I Have Answers.). She'd never look at me when she spoke those words, and as I wait for the summer sun to set, either downtown or closer to the lake our family began near, I find myself now whispering to myself—and, as if he could hear me, to my frustratingly incommunicative son—words I said then to my wife, hoping this time they'll do more than they then did before.

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