Authors: Michael Grant Jaffe
For my mother
and the rest of my family
The answer is simple: it is just low-life, some coldness in us all, some helplessness that causes us to misunderstand life when it is pure and plain, makes our existence seem like a border between two nothings, and makes us no more or less than animals who meet on the roadâwatchful, unforgiving, without patience or desire
Special thanks to John Glusman and Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Peter Scott, and Cindy Klein, the best friend and literary agent any writer could ever want
Also, I wish to thank Morin Bishop, David Bauer, Steve Rushin and all my friends at
Bertis Downs and Mike Mills and the rest of the world's best band, Georges and Anne Borchardt, the Hamilton and Henkel families, Lynn Cox, and Lorrie Moore
Calvin eats dirt. He never actually swallows it, just places loose clumps onto his tongue and sucks, I think. It reminds him of the powder I sprinkle into his milkâdark, chocolaty. Often, I grab the back of his head, forcing him to spit it out, squeezing his tongue like an anchovy and stroking it with the corner of my shirt. Mostly, I worry he may choke on a stone or stick, like this afternoon, when I found him coughing, hacking up muddy phlegm that clung like a web to his lower lip. I reached into his mouth, hard, pulling out a twig pressed against his uvula. He knows better, my son, but he is still young and needs to be watched.
The sky quiets with deep orange and loose, heavy smudges of purple. A small patch of well-trodden dirt rests at the bottom of a low, sloping incline, carved from a field thick with tall, slender sheaths of wheat. Standing alone, just above this push of gold, sits a twisted piece of maple, one foot wide and ten feet high. A weathered
plank is nailed in at its top, the flat side perpendicular to the ground, with a rusted basketball rim jutting out an inch or so below-center. The rim is slightly bent and uneven in places. Soiled fragments of net hang still, like grapes.
Poised beyond, where the grass starts tanned and stiff, I lie cross-legged, holding a long-necked bottle of beer pressed between my thumb and lower forefinger. I take a sip. The beer is warm and I let it stay in my mouth for a while before swallowing. Calvin looks briefly in my direction before hoisting another shot toward the battered backboard. The ball is much too large for him and after he releases it the momentum causes him to fall backwards, on his ass. The ball makes a tiny parabola, arcing well short of its target and thumping into the dirt. Calvin has been at this for almost ten minutes and I can see that he is getting tired. Again, he lifts himself, dragging the toes of his sneakers as he moves to retrieve the ball. He leans over, placing his cheek against its worn leather surface. A miniature ostrich.
“You want some dessert?” I yell.
He does not answer. He just stays there with his little Jockey short waistband hiked several inches above his blue jeans. I take another drink of beer and adjust myself, lifting the right side of my rear and resettling it on the ground. Finally, he takes one hand off the ball and reaches for something in the shadows. He turns so that his back is now completely toward me and then stands, lifting both hands to his chest. After a moment he pivots and faces me.
“I'll eat some ice cream,” he says, matter-of-factly.
“I'm sure you will.”
He begins walking in my direction, pressing his right hand gently against the pocket of his T-shirt.
“Where are you going?” I ask.
He stops and rubs his chin with the heel of his hand. He scrunches in his forehead, tight.
“What'd you forget?”
Calvin heads back to get the ball. He holds it out front, against his stomach, like a pregnant woman's belly.
“Got it?” I ask, pouring the last finger or so of beer into the prickly peppergrass.
He nods and the two of us walk up to the house. Midway, Calvin stops and places the ball down at his feet. He lets out a slight breath and then picks the ball up and begins walking again. When we reach the porch he drops it into a large wicker basket beside the door, right on top of a small orange football, a plastic lemon attached to a black cord that wraps around your ankle so that you can swing the lemon with one leg and skip over it with the other, and a twisted pair of convenience-store sunglasses.
In the light of the kitchen I can see Calvin is filthy. He has bruises of dirt above both cheeks and a broad band of dust horseshoed about the front of his neck.
“We're gonna clean up a bit before ice cream,” I say, placing my hand over his shoulder blades and guiding him to the stairs. In the bathroom he pulls out a small stepladder below the sink and climbs up, removing a washcloth from the rail.
“I think we're gonna need a shower here, pal,” I tell him.
He is not listening. He is on his toes, stretching to reach the faucet knobs, his pelvis pressed against the base of the sink. I grab him from behind, sliding my hands into his armpits and lowering him to the floor.
“Straight up,” I say, grabbing the sleeves of his shirt. He cocks his head and looks away, at the window behind me. Slowly his arms become rigid above his head, hands opening like sunflowers.
“What's this?” I ask, feeling a wet spot. I spread his shirt over the countertop, lightly touching a smear of dampness below the pocket. I reach in and remove a small brown slug.
“Jesus. What are you doing with this, Cal?”
He is now staring down at his bare stomach. It is taut and tanned and he is pulling at a fold of skin above his belly button.
“Where did you get this?”
“Playing basketball,” he says, his chin still on his chest.
“Well, don't pick these up anymore. They're dirty and icky and I don't want you handling them. Understand?”
He gives a little nod.
“What'd you want with this, anyway?” I ask, wrapping the slug in a ribbon of toilet paper and flushing it.
“I don't know. I just wanted it,” he says, his voice trailing off near the end.
“Slugs are the same as worms, Cal. Remember what I told you about worms? Worms are not pets. Neither are slugs. People don't get up in the morning to take their slugs for a walk. They're nasty.”
I slip my hand into the front of his jeans and yank him over, unfastening the top button.
“Up,” I say, tapping the edge of the tub. He sits, holding my shoulder for support, while I pull off his pants and underwear. I undress quickly, leaving my own clothing in a pile beside Calvin's. The two of us step into the tub, Calvin grabbing the back of my knees. Pointing the nozzle down, I turn on the shower, adjusting the water temperature before I lead him around front. He hands me the soap and I wash his face, his back. I pour a dollop of shampoo into my hand and then wipe some of it into his hair and the rest into mine.
“Okay, eggbeater,” I say, lathering my scalp. Calvin does the same, squeezing his eyes closed as pencil-thin streaks of shampoo channel down the front of his face. After a few minutes I wrap my arm around his hips and lift him, tilting the back of his head into the widening spray of the shower nozzle. His hands are cupped over his eyes. I bury my fingers in his hair, fanning out the remainder of shampoo; I shift my elbow over his waist, away from his sardine-sized penis flicking beneath the water's thin shimmer.
“That's it,” I say, pulling back a corner of the curtain. “Use your blue towel, the one next to the hamper.”
I rinse off and then step out, gathering my hair into a stubby clump at the base of my neck and squeezing the excess water down my back. Calvin has left moist footprints, the size of a large dog's paws, on the bathroom mat.
“Calvin, come back here.”
He returns to the doorway, naked and dripping.
“Did you dry yourself?”
I remove the towel from around my waist and give him a once-over, rubbing his face as I might a shoe. He moans, but only for a moment.
“Okay, now I want to put some powder on you,” I say, sprinkling the powder onto my palms and touching him where he chaffs: underneath his arms, between his thighs.
“Pajamas,” I yell to him as he starts down the hallway. “And bring your towel back in here.”
Calvin sits on the counter beside the stove, his feet dangling, tapping against the cupboard door beneath. He is holding two teaspoons like drumsticks across his lap. He watches me pry out large wedges of ice cream and knock them into our dishes.
“I want sauce,” he says, banging the spoons together.
“We don't have any. We'll get some more the next time we go shopping.”
“Let's go now.”
“We're not going now,” I say, running hot water over the serving spoon. “It's too late. The store is closed.”
“What'd you mean, why? Because the people who run stores have to go home to their families, too. Shouldn't they get to have dinner?”
Calvin is still for a minute, digging the edge of a spoon into the spongy roll of skin behind his chin.
“They can eat,” he says. “Just not when we want sauce.”
I smile. “I'll let them know that.”
“Let them know,” he starts, climbing down. “For next time.”
The two of us sit at the table and eat our bowls of French vanilla ice cream. Calvin uses his spoon like a spade, grabbing it down low near where the handle vanishes into the flat well of metal. The ice cream is turning soft and it has begun to slither its way around Calvin's wrist and up his arm.
“Maybe we should have showered afterwards,” I tell him, reaching over to wipe the hollow, open side of his elbow.
His hair is almost dry, spiky and tight above the rise of his forehead, stiff as straw. It is yellow, with clefts of brown buried deep and random.
“Done?” I ask, taking both bowls to the sink.
“Well,” he says, his chest wavering with quick, short breaths. “Well, do we have more? 'Cuz I could eat more.”
“No more tonight. You've had plenty.”
“Yeah, but â¦ but.” He moves over to my side, his hands sticky and anxious, twisting above his waist. “If I â¦ maybe â¦ I'll just have a little.”
“You won't have a little. It's getting late andâhere”âI hand him a damp towelâ“wipe up. You've got ice cream all over yourself.”
I am reminded of a time before Kate left, when she was still pregnant and we were visiting my parents in Ohio. It was late November, before Thanksgiving, and
the air had just turned cold. Kate and I had decided to take a drive in the country, away from Lakeshire, away from Cleveland. After a while we pulled off to the side of a small gravel road, beside a narrow bend in the Chagrin River, and sat in the car watching the water run from black to foamy white and then back to black again. I stroked her arms, which were draped steady over her bloated belly. We didn't talk for a long time, resting still, listening to the rush of water through her open window. Finally, Kate turned to me and said in a low, throaty whisper that she needed something. I leaned over, moving my hand to the softness below her breasts, and kissed her on the neck and then full on the lips. We kissed deep and wet for a few more minutes, my hand moving down, brushing over the embryonic Calvin on its way to Kate's inner thighs. Then she started to laugh, saying this isn't what she had in mind when she said she needed something. What she had wanted was something sweet, like pudding or ice cream.
There was a small New England-style town called Gates Mills about a half mile from where the car was parked, and Kate waited while I went off to surprise her. The houses were clean and white, with slate roofs and a common white fence that held off the road. I attended high school not far from there, and in the spring, before baseball practice, we would drive to Henry's, a general store, where we would buy bubble gum, chewing tobacco, sunflower seeds, and sodas. I hated the chewing tobacco, so I bought licorice, which turned my spit brown without making me ill.