by Cole Parker

~    P a r t   1    ~

Chapter 1

Escaping one problem only to find others, a boy can find unexpected courage when pushed to his limits.

> 1 <

Hearts racing.  Feeling naughty, dirty, excited, scared—wonderful.  Hearing and seeing taking second place to feeling, tasting, smelling.  But mostly it was feeling.  And a heart racing faster than ever before.

Time stood still, had no meaning.  Ren was oblivious, anyway.  He was so into it that a moment could have been five minutes or an hour.  Knowing time meant thinking about time, and Ren wasn’t into thinking right then. 

Bobby was wriggling underneath him, and then Ren was on the bottom, but not for long.  They grasped one another, hugging, mouths making contact, and then their necks were in contact as well and their chests and even lower.  Squirming and wriggling.   Moving, always moving, not able to hold still with the wonder of it all.

Gasps and sighs.  Squeaks and moans, none of them registering.  Ren wasn’t sure who’d just made that deep inhaling sound.  Had he?  Maybe.  What he felt going on down below took all meaning away.  All sensation seemed to be centering there at the moment.

And then Bobby’s attention abruptly shifted elsewhere, and Ren had a sense of coming back to himself and his surroundings. 

Then it happened.  The bedroom door opened, and with it came a gasp.  He knew where the gasp came from this time.


Mrs. Michaels stood in the doorway, staring at the two writhing boys—naked, writhing boys.  Ren tried to cover his erection but one arm was under Bobby and the other was blocked by Bobby’s shoulder.

“Mom!” Bobby yelled, embarrassment and shame coloring his voice.  “Go away!”

Instead, Mrs. Michaels walked into the room and grabbed Bobby’s arm and pulled him off Ren, leaving Ren totally exposed but also finally able to use his hands to cover himself.

Bobby hit the floor and rolled over onto his stomach, then moved up onto his knees and crawled away from his mother.  Mrs. Michaels was looking down at Ren, ignoring her son for the moment.

“Get out of my house!” she screamed and reached for him.  He rolled over on the bed away from her.  She saw her chance and, SWACK, spanked his bare bottom as hard as she could.

“Owww!” he shrieked, and when he saw her raise her hand again, he jumped up, not caring now if she could see all of him, caring only that he not be stung again.

“Out, out, out!” she screamed. 

Ren wanted to grab his clothes, but she was between him and them.  He was scared of her—both her red face and her fury.  Running outside in the middle of the day naked, argggh!  And he couldn’t possibly imagine himself running all the way home like this, undressed for the world to see.  “My clothes,” he cried out, surprised that his voice sounded almost normal.  Nothing else was, that was for sure.

“Out, out, out!” she screamed again and moved toward him, making getting his clothes an impossibility.  He was thinking again; it didn’t seem she was.

He scampered from the room, his bare feet making no sound on the carpet.  But even running as he did, he had enough brain left that wasn’t frazzled by his fear to yell back, “Bobby, my clothes!  The window!”

Mrs. Michaels chased him downstairs.  He had a choice to make when he reached the bottom and barely enough time to make it, but he made it and ran to the back door instead of the front.  He hoped there’d be less chance of anyone seeing him if he used that way out of the house.

She followed him to the door but didn’t continue outside.  He was in the bright daylight of the backyard and saw no one.  His hands covering his nakedness the best they could, thankful his fear had resulted in there being less to cover now, he moved to the side of the house, the side on which Bobby’s upstairs window was located.  He kept checking, but Mrs. Michaels hadn’t come after him.

He stopped and looked up, and as he watched, the window slid open and clothes and shoes rained down.

Where he was standing he was exposed to the street, but he couldn’t worry about that.  As quickly as he could he pulled his pants on, stuffing his underwear in a pocket, then put on his shirt.  He was about to sit down to work on his socks and shoes when he heard the Michaels’ back door open and decided on further retreat instead.  He’d put on these final things while sitting on the curb down the street a ways. 

After a short run and once seated and fully dressed, he didn’t get up.  He was gulping air in deep breaths.  His stomach felt like it might heave.  His head was spinning.  He had visions, vivid visions of what he’d face when he walked into his house.  He was fighting all the time now with his mom and her boyfriend; well, thinking about all that was more than he was able to cope with, so he didn’t.  He simply didn’t.

He sat on the curb for an hour.  He was sitting only a couple of houses down from Bobby’s, but his friend didn‘t join him.  Probably grounded for life if he knew Mrs. Michaels.  And he certainly did that.  Knew her and liked her, actually, and she’d liked him, too.  Before.  She was normally sort of like a kind, compassionate, humane version of what he thought a mother should be.  Nothing like his own mother.

Unbidden and against his will, tears came into his eyes.  Just what did he have now?  A friend—and those were in short supply—who probably would no longer be allowed to spend any time with him.  A mom who was bitching at him constantly anyway, who was always angry these days, and who was now going to be told what he’d just done.  Her boyfriend who not only didn’t like him but who had been threatening him physically for the past year and sometimes even following up on the threats when she wasn’t around, and now probably wouldn’t be held back even if she was.

That’s what he had.  No other close friends like Bobby, and he was sure that was over now.  No adult support.  A younger brother who loved him but couldn’t help him.  Ren was 13 and Lynn was 8.  Lynn would do what he was told to do.  He always did.  He was a survivor.  Lynn had learned how to be one when his father had walked out.  Which had been OK with Ren because he hadn’t liked that guy, either.

Ren stood up.  He might as well go home before the boyfriend arrived.  He’d prefer to face his mother and her boyfriend one at a time rather than together.  He didn’t know what was going to happen, but whatever it was, it wasn’t going to be good.

He would find out it would be worse than he could imagine.

> 2 <

The train slowed down as another dusty—dusty and desiccated—small Texas town could be seen around the gentle turn the tracks were making.  It continued to slow as it pulled into the small station, and its airbrakes squealed and hissed it to a jerky stop.  Ren sighed and tried to get comfortable in his seat, carefully repositioning himself.  Still several hours to go, he knew.  His stomach growled; he tried to ignore it.  He didn’t have much money and didn’t know what he’d need when he arrived where he was going.

The train was only stationary for about five minutes, its engines idling with a deep rumble, releasing occasional gasps of pressurized air, giving the impression the train was eager to be moving again.  When it pulled out of the station and began its slow acceleration, Ren shifted his shoulders again, then closed his book on his chest and shut his eyes.  Sleep would be good if he could manage it.  It wasn’t even noon, and he was dead tired.

“Phillipsburg!  Next stop, Phillipsburg.”  The call woke Ren from his light doze with its tortured visions.  Well, he thought, rubbing his eyes, remembering what he’d been dreaming, he must have been more asleep than he’d thought.

Outside the window, everything looked just like it had before.  Well, perhaps the land was rolling a bit where it had previously been flat.  Now he could see there was some fluctuation to it.  Nothing quite as dramatic as hills, but the land no longer resembled a pool table, one with a shaggy beige cover.

Maybe no hills, but still lots and lots and lots of grass in a variety of shades of brown.  Miles of it.  He opened his book, and the train rolled on, continuing its journey, heading west.

Miles and miles, steel wheels grinding over steel tracks.  The sun was higher.  It was only the start of summer, but the days already were scorchers.  The day remained bright, the outside temperature hot, the sky cloudless.  Thank God for air conditioners, Ren thought.

The train was slowing.  After lightly dozing off and on and ignoring as best he could the constant hunger pangs in his empty belly, Ren could sense the change in motion.  As he watched, the grassland outside his window wasn’t moving past quite so quickly.  Then, gradually, the train slowed until it wasn’t going much faster than a brisk trot.

Houses could now be seen out the window.  They were small and scattered, with empty land between them.  They looked plain to Ren, mostly with faded and peeling paint or no sign of paint at all.  Small and neglected and poor.  Some had various things in the yards, which were un-mowed and untended for the most part.  He saw a few junked cars, some on blocks; in another, a pile of bald tires; and on one property, there seemed to be a washer and a dryer sitting right in the middle of the front yard.

He even saw some kids at one house.  They were in the front.  Young kids.  Shirtless.  One was in a diaper, a dirty gray thing that dipped almost to the kid’s knees.  They seemed to be doing something that involved sticks, a hose and a mud puddle.  No sign of any adults.  He watched them till the train left them behind.

Soon, the derelict houses were replaced by commercial buildings.  As the train passed these by, they were replaced by grander buildings, though never very grand, and then, eventually, seedier structures again.  The train slowed even further, then finally, with a lingering hiss, stopped altogether.  With a jerk.

Ren looked around the mostly empty car.  His stomach was playing tricks on him, and he wondered if he should use the toilet before leaving.  Then he worried he might be on the pot as the train pulled out.  He didn’t think it would be sitting at this station for long.  And this was where he was supposed to get off.

The decision was made for him.

“Ashville,” the conductor shouted, entering the car from the end Ren was facing.  The man was looking directly at him.

Ren stood up.  He had known this was Ashville; he’d simply been undecided whether he really was going to get off or not.  He reached up into the overhead space and pulled down his small, cheap suitcase and held it at his side as he walked up the aisle toward the conductor, touching the occasional seatback for what?  Balance, or some sort of solace?  He wasn’t sure.  The man stepped into the space between seats as Ren passed him, his hard eyes never leaving the boy.

A door at the end of the car lead to a metal platform that separated his car from the next.  Just before he reached it, there was a stairway leading down to another door, this one leading to the station platform.  This door was open.  He awkwardly made his way down the stairs, his suitcase bumping his knees, and then took a long step out onto the platform.

 It was mostly deserted.  He turned and looked toward the back of the train and saw only a man and woman walking toward him, each with a suitcase.  He turned the other way and saw a man standing by himself, looking at Ren.

Ren took a deep breath and held it.  Then he sucked up what courage he had and stepped forward.  He walked till he came to the man, a man who looked somewhat familiar from an old photo he’d seen.

“Hello, Father,” he said.

> 3 <

The man looked at Ren for what seemed forever and then smiled.  Well, Ren thought it was a smile.  It was pretty weak, but it was certainly more welcome than a frown.  The man took a breath.

“Lawrence,” the man said, and, removing the Western hat he was wearing, stuck out his hand to be shaken.

Ren set his suitcase down, and, feeling awkward because almost-14-year-olds don’t shake hands often—and he’d never imagined doing so with his own father—he offered his own hand.

His father took it and shook, his hand entirely engulfing the boy’s, then very awkwardly, seemingly as awkward as Ren himself had felt, pulled the boy to him and gave him a brief, stiff, one-armed hug, never letting go of his hat.

“People call me Ren now,” the boy said softly.

“Ren?  OK, Ren.  That’s fine.”  The man leaned down and picked up the suitcase and put his hat on, all the while with Ren watching him closely.  His father was tall and lean, but just the way he moved suggested muscle that couldn’t be seen.  His face was angular, and Ren realized his own might someday resemble this man’s.  The face was also quite handsome, and Ren thought, if that’s what I’ll look like in a few years, that ain’t half bad.  The man was certainly old, in his thirties at least, but Ren couldn’t help but admire the way he stood and moved, the figure he cut of self-possession and confidence.

The man was dressed in jeans—worn, well-worn jeans—and a tee shirt that looked soft from many washings.  He had Western boots on, the standard dress here, Ren imagined, and he could see they were well-used.  They were working boots, not worn for style.  The man had a tan that quite obviously came from spending time outside.  Ren had no idea what he did for a living.  He had no idea who his father was at all.

After picking up the suitcase, the man said, “It’s this way,” and turned and started walking down the platform, his long legs chewing up the distance faster than it appeared.  Ren had to walk quickly to keep up with him.

There was a small, empty parking lot next to the station, empty but for three vehicles.  The man headed for one of them, an older Ford pickup truck.  Ren had no idea how old, but it obviously had seen quite a few years and so probably had quite a few miles on it.  His father set the suitcase in the back before opening the driver’s side door and getting in.  Ren walked to the other side and tried the door, which he found unlocked.  Hmm, he thought, we’re not in Kansas any more, Toto.

Ren was from Jackson, Mississippi.  People locked their vehicles in Jackson.  They needed to.  Jackson had one of the highest crime rates in the country.  If you left your car unlocked, it wouldn’t be where you left it when you came back for it.  Sometimes, even if you did lock it.

He climbed up onto the seat and shut his door.  His father started the truck, backed out of the parking place, and pulled out onto the street.  It was mid-afternoon, but there wasn’t much traffic.

Ren looked at the city as they drove and noticed the houses getting farther apart, and soon they’d left the city altogether and were driving on a narrow road.  Just like out the train windows, there was more grassland and a few scattered farms.  There was an occasional oil pump nodding tiredly up and down.

The silence in the truck was broken only by the hum of the tires on the road.  Feeling uncomfortable, Ren glanced away from the window and looked at his father.  The man’s eyes were glued to the highway ahead, his face unemotional and unrevealing.  At least he doesn’t seem angry, Ren thought.  That was something.  Perhaps he was a man of few words.  Still, Ren thought his father ought to be saying something. 

They rode in silence for several miles, Ren’s discomfort growing with each one.  He had questions but wasn’t sure he could ask them.  The silence didn’t seem hostile, but it was certainly uncomfortable, and it lay there between them.  Ren didn’t feel he was in a position to be making the first move.  He felt totally powerless.

Another mile passed, and then the man spoke.

“Sorry.  It’s just… I spent a lot of time alone, awhile back, and still am by myself mostly.  I guess I got out of the habit of talking.  It must be making you uncomfortable.  I’m sorry about that.”

His voice was soft and apologetic.  Ren started reevaluating.  The silence and the impassive face had made him think the man was severe, stern, and quite possibly even irritated or worse.  Now, hearing an apology, Ren was thinking something else.  Maybe the man was more human than he’d thought.  But he didn’t seem soft at all.  Ren decided he shouldn’t be making judgments.  He simply didn’t have much to go on yet.  Maybe he should wait a little longer before coming to any conclusions about who this man, his father, was.

But he’d spoken, which gave Ren the opportunity, too.

“What did she tell you?”  That might not be the best place to start, but it was the number-one question in Ren’s mind.

His father took a quick glance at him.  He was silent for a moment or two, but to Ren it merely seemed the man was working out how to say what he was going to say, not that he was holding anything back.

“She said she thought it would be better for everyone if you lived with me now.”

Ren wanted more than that.  He started to ask, but his father was staring hard at the road again, and Ren wasn’t sure he should.  Then he remembered the soft voice, and he really did want to know, so he plowed ahead.

“Did she say why?”  It took about all the courage he had to ask and then more courage to wait for the answer.

He was watching his father now, watching his reaction.  The man made a slight shake of his head, and Ren thought perhaps he tightened his teeth together momentarily.  Ren’s stomach started feeling queasy.

“Lawr… uh, Ren.  Sorry.   Ren, I don’t know what your mother has told you about me any more than you know what she’s said to me about you.  I can guess what she’s told you, but I don’t know.  That might be a good thing to get out in the open, right off like.  The truth is, her and me, we weren’t real friendly when I left.  In the eight years since then, we haven’t spoken.  We haven’t written.  I deposit a check in her bank every month.  That’s it.  I don’t even think of her any more.  When she called, it was as though nothing had changed.  Just hearing her voice… well, it just brought back a lot of bad feelings.  That life’s behind me, and that’s where it’ll stay.”

Ren was afraid he’d stop then, but he kept talking.

“When she called, we didn’t say much at all.  She said she was putting you on the train, and you could live with me; she’d had you long enough.  She didn’t say if it was temporary or permanent, but that’s her.  And she didn’t say why.  She didn’t ask any questions—whether it was OK with me or anything like that.  Well, I didn’t ask any questions, either.  The less time I spent on the phone with her, the better.  What she said was, you were arriving in Ashville on the 1:00 PM Amtrak train.  Then she hung up.”

He didn’t turn to look at Ren to see how he took that news.  He stared at the road.  Ren saw him clench his teeth for sure this time.

They rode another three miles before Ren spoke again.  The distance was spent getting up the nerve to ask his next question.  He tried really hard to keep his voice steady, but he was 13 and wasn’t completely successful.  “So you don’t want me here?”

Ren didn’t think his father was going to answer at first.  But then, the man looked over at him, and the softness that had been in his voice had now reached his eyes.

“It’ll take some getting used to, Ren.  For both of us.  For me, well, I’ve got used to living by myself.  But, you’re my son.  If there’s one thing I regretted in this world, it was leaving you with her.  But you were five, and I didn’t have a nickel in my pocket and no job, so there was nothing I could do about that.  Now?  Well, I don’t know that I’d have said I wanted you if she’d asked, that’s the truth, but seeing you, well, I can see a lot of me at 13 in you, and you need a place to stay, and I’ve got one, and I’m thinking we might get used to each other, and if after a time you ever ask me that again, I’m hoping I can say: yes, Ren, I want you here.”

Ren didn’t quite know how to take that.  He didn’t say anything at all.  He sat, watching the road roll under the truck, and thought about what the man had said, but even more than that, he thought about what he’d seen in his father’s eyes.

> 4 <

Ren’s mood had sunk since his father had said they’d have to get used to living together, that he hadn’t had much choice about taking him in.  Ren realized what he’d heard was a man speaking the truth, not sugar-coating something, but it still hadn’t been what he’d wanted to hear.

That had been the last thing either of them had said.  The next twenty minutes had been driven in silence.

Ren had been getting more and more upset as the miles had passed.  Then they’d entered Danton, the next town on the highway from Ashville.  Ashville was around 21,000 people.

Danton was much smaller.  They drove through it and Ren saw it was not only small, but also drab, dusty and as uninteresting and tired as a town could possibly be.

And when they eventually came to it, Ren saw the house was just like the town.

The house was on the outskirts and was small, sitting on a piece of land without lawn or landscaping with no other houses close by.  Inside, it was barely furnished.  His father led him directly to a bedroom and said, “You’ll sleep here,” while setting the suitcase on the bed.  It was a small bed, a twin, but it was a small room, too. 

His father squeezed his shoulder, a gesture which didn’t feel quite as stiff as the hug at the train station had, though maybe that was hope instead of reality, then walked out of the room.  Ren looked around.  A dresser, a bed, a closet.  No desk, no computer, no chair, no TV, no bookcase, no pictures.  A dresser—empty.  A bed—unmade.  A closet whose open door showed it to be bare as well.

The bed had folded sheets with a blanket and a pillow.  Ren sighed and moved his suitcase to the floor before starting to make his bed.  He knew how.  He’d been doing his own laundry, including his bedding, and making his own bed for over a year now.  That had come about because he’d won an argument with his mother.  His reward for that mistake was doing his own laundry from then on.

When he was finished, he sat on the bed.  He sat and then lowered his face into his hands.  He couldn’t hold back his tears any longer.  He sobbed, keeping any noise he made to himself. 

He wasn’t sure how long he cried, but eventually he stopped.  He wiped his eyes as well as he could with just his hands.  Then he looked up and saw his father standing in the doorway, the soft look he’d seen in the truck on the man’s face again.

“I’ve got some food on the table.  Thought you might be hungry.”

At least he hadn’t said anything about the tears, Ren thought.  He was almost 14.  He shouldn’t be crying, and he definitely didn’t want to talk about doing it.  However, he was hungry.  Starving, in fact.  It was the middle of the afternoon, and all he’d had so far today was a piece of toast and a Coke, and this was after missing dinner last night.  The only reason he’d had the toast was his brother had slipped it to him without his mother’s and the boyfriend’s knowledge.  He’d bought the Coke on the train.

His father led him into the kitchen.  There was an old table in the middle of the room, and on it was a plate with a sandwich.  A glass of water sat next to it.

“I didn’t know what you liked.  It’s tuna fish.”

“That’s fine,” Ren said.  He did like tuna fish, but right now he’d probably have liked it if it had been possum.  Even road-kill possum.  He almost smiled at the thought.

He sat down and took a big bite and then another.  He glanced up to see his father watching him.  They made eye contact, and then his father sighed, pulled out the other chair and sat down.

“I guess we’d better talk.”

Ren’s mouth was too full to answer.  He was hoping his father meant that the talking wouldn’t be so much done by Ren as by the man himself.

“I’m not sure where to begin.”  The man paused and shook his head.  “It’s been a long time since I even thought about things back there.  About her.  Even about you.”

He stopped and turned away, looking toward the window.  Ren hadn’t had a chance yet to see what was outside, what the house looked like from the back, how big the yard was.

“I guess I’m ashamed.  I should have made more effort.”  He turned back to meet Ren’s eyes.  “I should have.”

Ren dropped his eyes and looked at his sandwich.  There was only one bite left.  He wanted to stuff it in his mouth.  He wanted a lot of things.  Might as well start getting used to not having them.  He waited on the bite.  The upside of that was, when he got to it, it would create a further delay before he was expected to talk.

“On our drive here, you wanted to know what she’d said about you.  I guess I understand that, because I’d like to know what she said about me, too.  You must hate me, with what I figure she said.  You must hate coming here.  I feel bad about that.  For you.”

Ren was glad he hadn’t taken the bite.  “I don’t hate you,” he said quickly.  “I just don’t know you.  Nothing about you, really.  She never said anything.  When I asked, she always said the same thing.  ‘He left.’  That’s all she said.  I did wonder why you walked out on us, but I stopped asking.  Later, it didn’t seem important.”

“You never hated me for leaving?”

Ren thought for a moment.  “I don’t think so.  I don’t remember hating you.  I know… well, maybe I shouldn’t say this, but… well, I lived with her.  All my life.  I’ve never wondered why you left.  I guess if anything, I wondered why anyone would have married her.  I couldn’t hate you for leaving.”  

Ren looked down at the table.  He knew that wasn’t a nice thing to say, not only about his mother but about his father, too.  He wasn’t feeling very kind about his mother, however, and school was still out on his father.  He took a quick look up at the man and found he was looking at him intently and nodding.

They sat like that for a while, and then Ren’s father said, “We’ll go get some dinner in a while, then come back so you can get some sleep.  I imagine you might be tired.”

Ren was dragging; there was no question about that.  He simply nodded.  There was still more of this day to get through.  And then there was tomorrow, which didn’t look like it would be a whole lot better.

Ren lay on his bed after finishing his sandwich.  He had so many questions, but figuring out how to ask them was too hard.  His father just didn’t tell him much and almost nothing without being directly asked.  Did he know what Ren and Bobby had done?  Maybe he did, and that’s why he was being so distant.  Or maybe that’s just how he was; Ren didn’t know.  He did know the idea of staying here, in this old, empty, unappealing house, in what seemed like a worn-out town, seemed like a punishment.

He wished he knew more about his dad.  He needed to know if the man would accept him.  He made a promise to himself: he was going to ask questions and keep asking them until he had an idea who the man was.  Why he’d left him and his mom.  Why he’d never sought out any contact with Ren.  What he did in this tiny town miles from anywhere.  Why he wasn’t married.  Or was he?  That was a thought.  Maybe he was and she was away at the moment.  Or giving the two of them some space. 

Ren didn’t know.  He didn’t seem to know anything!

He was going to ask, though speaking to adults wasn’t his best thing.  He wasn’t sure he had a best thing, but knew talking to a stranger made him uncomfortable and timid.  Maybe he could ask when they were eating dinner.  Or not.  Maybe he was too exhausted for that now.  It might be a confrontation.  Maybe he’d wait till tomorrow.  He didn’t have the energy for a confrontation.

No, he wouldn't do that now, but tomorrow?  He wanted to know what was what, and the sooner the better.  Just not today.

> 5 <

The restaurant was more a diner than a restaurant.  The people there, both the wait staff—well, really a single waitress of indeterminate age with a cheerful personality that didn’t seem to match her appearance—and the few customers, all seemed to know his dad; they smiled at him or nodded.  Ren didn’t see anyone who looked displeased to see Cal walk in.  If people liked his father, well, that was good, wasn’t it?

They sat in a booth, which Ren appreciated because it had a padded back.  The menu was simple, but that was fine.  The sandwich had taken the edge off his appetite, and anyway, he was hungry for information more than food.  He was going to have a steak, but the waitress said the special that evening was barbecued pork ribs.  He chose those instead.

His father had the steak.

They sat quietly, waiting for the food.  Ren opened his mouth twice to speak, but closed it each time when his nerve failed him.  Dammit, he thought, he should be talking to me.  Asking me questions.  Isn’t he as curious about me as I am about him?

He opened his mouth a third time, now determined, but his father beat him to the punch.

“OK, Ren.  I’m sure you want to know something about me. I thought I’d let you ask, thought you might find that easier, but since you’re not doing that, I guess I’ll just talk.”

He took a drink of water, then another, and Ren had the distinct impression he was delaying the inevitable, gathering up his courage to speak just the way he himself was doing.

“I guess I should start at the beginning.  With your mom.  She never talked about me at all?”

“Never, even when I asked something.  I figured she was mad at you or something.  But I was never sure.  I learned not to ask, and you haven’t even been mentioned for several years.”  Ren watched his father as he said this, wanting to know if he was offending him at all.  He couldn’t tell, however.  The man kept his feelings well hidden.

“OK, then.  We met at college.  I hadn’t had much experience with girls.  I was shy in high school and didn’t date at all.  But I told myself when I went to college that was going to change.  And it did; I forced myself to meet girls and asked a few out.  Your mother was one of them.”

Ren’s father went on to relate how she was as inexperienced at dating as he was, how both had misinterpreted the rush of hormones and their desires—felt and soon acted upon—as love.  How they’d been together for two years at school and were beginning their junior year when they found she was pregnant.  How they’d both dropped out of school so he could get a job to pay for the childbirth costs and then support them all while she took care of the baby.  How they learned, once they were living together full time, that hormones weren’t enough.  In truth weren’t nearly enough.  They found that they weren’t much alike, had different values, and that the more they were together, the more they grew to dislike each other.

“Ren, when your life settles around you, you learn that what your thoughts were as a kid weren’t always very realistic.  You learn that dreams don’t come true as often in real life as they do in books.

“I discovered that your mother felt just as I did.  She didn’t want to spend her life with me any more than I did with her.  We didn’t want the same things, and we didn’t deal with life the same way.  She was emotional, flying off the handle over little things, and I was stoic and reserved.  She wanted lots of drama in her life.  I wanted things planned and steady, all figured out in advance.  I greatly valued honesty and honor and integrity.  And, probably most importantly, I needed my own sense of independence.  That was important to me; it was who I was, someone who needed to be able to make his own decisions, run his own life. What she needed was to be in control of everything in her life.  Total control.  It was the only way she was comfortable. And I was in her life.  Controlling me was essential to her. 

“We were as different as two people could ever be.  And it didn’t take much time before we both knew it.”

He cut up his steak and took a couple of bites. Ren watched him.  Wondered if that was it, that was all he was going to get.  But the man looked up, saw Ren watching and grimaced, used his napkin on his lips and continued.

“Even so, I stayed with her.  I stayed as long as I could, each day becoming just a little harder than the previous one.  It finally came to a head.  Our life together had been moving in that direction for a long time, and it finally happened.  When it did, Ren, I didn’t walk out.  It was her decision.  She was controlling things, as usual.”

He stopped, pushing his plate away.  He hadn’t eaten much.  Ren couldn’t tell from his voice, but the uneaten food told him his father was feeling the things he was saying.  Feeling emotional about them, and he’d just said he didn’t like emotions.

“She always was telling me what to do,” he resumed.  “How to do it, when to do it, and for the last few years, I’d been mostly ignoring her.  We didn’t talk much.  She talked at me.  I didn’t talk back, just ignored her mostly.  Her instructions had become more than simply annoying, and if I listened to her, I just got angrier and angrier, and I didn’t like being angry.  So I just didn’t listen.  And that was unbearable for her.

“If what she wanted done was something I too thought should be done, I did it.  When I wanted to.  On my terms.  It drove her crazy.  That wasn’t my intent, but it’s what happened.  Over and over.

“It really had become intolerable for both of us when the end came.  What happened was this: she’d told me to buy something for dinner on my way home from work.  That was it.  Simple.  Nothing out of the ordinary.  Nothing to make a fuss over.  But that was the straw that broke the camel’s back.  Not for me.  For her.  I didn’t stop at the store, but it wasn’t because I was making any kind of point.  I just didn’t feel like doing it.  She’d had plenty of time to go shopping.  I had a job.  She only had you, and you were in kindergarten half the day.  She could have shopped.  Instead, she told me to.  Just because doing it was a way of controlling what I did.  She had to feel in control of us.  I had to feel in control of me.

“So when I came home without anything to cook for dinner, she went ballistic, which wasn’t unusual.  Except, this time it was.  She told me she was fed up and wanted me out of her life.  I smiled and said fine, we’d both be happier.  She didn’t like that smile.  She said she wanted a support check every month.  I said fine.  I told her I was going to leave town, probably the state, and when I got a job, I’d start sending her money.”

He stopped then and reached for his plate.  He took a few more bites, and Ren could see him gathering his thoughts.  It occurred to Ren that his father might not have spoken like this, put this many words together, in a long, long time.

His father used his napkin and then resumed.  “She said she was keeping you, Ren, and I had to support both her and you.  She wanted a support check and wanted my agreement to that in writing.  I laughed at her.  Reminded her we’d never been married—yeah, we weren’t.  I’m sorry, Ren.  I know you thought we were and that I had as much right to you as she did.  I thought you’d probably be better off with a stable mother than a wandering dad, and that I’d honor my responsibility to help support you—you, not her—but I wasn’t signing anything.  I told her the two of us had been together for seven years.  She should know me by now: if I said I’d do something, then I’d do it.

“She wasn’t satisfied, of course, because I again wasn’t doing what she told me to do.  But, I went upstairs, packed up everything I wanted, which was just a few clothes and such, and took off.  Oh, I did one other thing.  I kissed you and said, “So long, Champ.”  You probably don’t remember.”

Ren shook his head.  “No, I don’t.”

His father smiled.  “I didn’t think you would.  Even back then, before I left, she was getting into your head about what a waste of a father and husband I was.”

Ren had been paying so much attention to what his father had been saying, his plate of food was also mostly untouched.  He looked down at it, and red-faced, even with the small amount of food he’d had today, he really didn’t feel like eating.  He saw that his father was watching him, he started feeling shy.  He thought it was probably time for him to talk.

“Uh,” he said, hunting for a word, then paused before blurting out, “I don’t know what to call you!”

His father smiled wanly.  “No, I guess you don’t.  We’re strangers, and we’re both uncomfortable.  Time will fix that, and talking will, too, but I’m not one to do that much.  I don’t know about you.  Do you talk a lot?”

Ren shook his head.  Then he had a thought.  “Maybe I get that from you.”

His father laughed.  “Maybe you do, Ren.  Maybe you do.  But look, you can call me whatever you want.  My name is Cal.  Calvin, but I hate that.  Cal is better.  Or you can call me Father, or Dad.  I don’t really care.  I just want us to be more comfortable with each other than we are now.  How we’re going to get there, I don’t know.  I don’t know who you are any more than you know who I am.”

He stopped and waited for Ren to speak.

Ren sat, too, wondering if he could say the things he probably should.  He really didn’t feel like it right now.  What he most felt like was going to bed.  He was exhausted and sore and didn’t want to talk.  He was having a hard time holding his head up and his eyes open.

He looked up at his father.  Well, the man wanted him to be comfortable.  He’d said so.  He valued truth, too.  Comfortable meant being able to tell that truth without embarrassment.  So, why not give it a try?

“Dad,” he said, and found himself blushing.  But he did like the sound of that, even if it felt a little funny, a little wrong even.  He tried it again, wanting to get used to it.  “Dad, could we just go home?  I want to go to bed.”

“I’ll get the check,” his dad replied.

> 6 <

The drive back to the house was silent, but Ren didn’t feel the tension in the car he’d felt previously.  Which was good because he was so tired he could hardly keep his eyes open.  It had been a very full day, and that had come on top of a night with very little sleep.

In the house, his dad asked him if he wanted anything, and Ren told him ‘just bed’ and headed for his bedroom.  There, he swung the door closed and thought about just falling onto the bed and sleeping; he was that exhausted.  But he realized he’d sleep better if he undressed first.  So he shucked off his clothes down to his briefs and pulled back the covers on the bed.  He was climbing in when he heard a gasp.

His dad was standing in the doorway holding a glass of water he’d been bringing for Ren.  The door hadn’t shut all the way, and Ren’s back was on display, a back that had multiple ugly, long, thin red welts on it, and two that were freshly scabbed over.

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