Two days before Halloween, Ernie stood in the men’s room relieving himself on break. That’s when the clammy gray face of Troy Festerling, grill master, loomed into view. Troy belonged to that breed of men who liked to banter over the partition, like neighbors over a fence. Favorite subject: the “snatch” in the chow line. Ernie kept his eyes on the urinal screen and its built-in cake of deodorant.
Despite himself, Ernie looked up. For some reason Troy’s face was listing toward his with a cocked grin. “I said, ‘What?’”
“Want to make some dough?”
Ernie bristled. He had only mentioned struggling with alimony once, in a rare moment of candor, yet here Troy was exploiting the knowledge. “How?” he asked resentfully.
Ernie knew enough to know exactly what needed delivering. The only thing that kept him from dismissing the idea out of hand was recognizing the small town on the coast where the delivery was to be made. Their first year here, he and his then-wife had driven down with the boys the day after Thanksgiving to watch Santa Claus sail in on a shrimp boat. They had stayed at a charming inn topped by a widow’s walk and cupola, and each night after the boys went down they sat in rocking chairs and nursed bourbons on the wraparound porch, relishing the newfound wonders of the South, during what might have been their last best time. Those memories gave the overture an air of possibility. That and the money.
“Why don’t you do it yourself?”
“Car troubles,” Troy replied, the answer readymade.
“Are you trying to get me killed?”
Troy cocked another grin. “Maybe.”
Nothing else was said and for the rest of the day neither broached the subject. Then Troy reared up again and said, “Okay, man, you win. I’ll throw in another hundred—and all of it up front.” He handed over three grainy new bills. “And there’s more where that came from.”
At midnight, back at the college, their two cars side by side in an otherwise empty parking lot, Troy produced an enormous purple teddy bear, the kind dispensed at midways for the most dexterous of feats, like ringing a bottle or shooting out a star. “Just sit him right up front,” he said, shoving the bear in.
An hour later Ernie was on the road, driving past inflatable churches and hand-painted signs for boiled peanuts. Even after three years the novelty of the South still struck him. He had grown up in Manhattan at the corner of East Broadway and Market Street where his father ran a Hung Gar school. If his father had had his way, it would have been the Wan Ming Lee & Sons Hung Gar School, but Ernie never took to kung fu; instead he played hockey. Became a goalie in Peewee. Almost made the National Under-17 Team. Dreamed like his buddies of the NHL. Larry “China Clipper” Kwong had already played for his beloved Rangers back in 1948—ten whole years before Willie O’Ree, the Jackie Robinson of hockey!—but only for a minute in the third in his one and only game, which seemed a technical first. Ernie wanted to be the first Chinese star. If his parents indulged him, it was only because the Ivy League had hockey teams, too. But when his grades fell short he opted for St. Cloud State in Minnesota, a Division III school with a Division I hockey program. “Herb Brooks coached there,” he enthused. “You know, Miracle on Ice.” His parents blinked uncertainly for all they would never understand.
After college he signed a two-way contract with Vancouver and for one golden summer he seemed on his way. But outside of training camp every September he never played on the West Coast. Instead he toiled for the minor league affiliate in Syracuse where his form steadily eroded. Four years later he signed with the Tallahassee Tiger Sharks of the third tier East Coast Hockey League in a last-ditch effort to salvage his career, which explained how he came to be in the South and in a car hurtling toward the Gulf of Mexico with a drug-filled carnival prize riding shotgun.
After winding along the coast for nearly an hour, eyes on the speedometer, he came to a small oystering town on the far side of a darkened bay. As he sat in the car facing the very dock where Santa had alighted, he kept telling himself he was safe, that no one could possibly know, that the world remained as blind as ever to the things roiling about inside him. At the appointed hour a figure, a man, appeared on the dock. Calmly, breathlessly, Ernie walked over and proffered the bear, to no surprise, and just like that he was done, released. After circling the town once, he sped home ecstatically. With no time to sleep and too wired besides, he downed a pot of coffee and went to work, relaying success to Troy through only the curtest of nods. By the time he got home he’d been up for a day and a half. Hours later he awoke to a feeling of pleasure, for his triumph and the kingly rest that followed. What he would never tell his ex-wife: he hadn’t overslept his plans to take the boys for Halloween; he had forgotten them altogether.
Every other week in Tallahassee a giant mechanical talon came around to pick up oversized garbage, which meant every other week the streets were strewn with ugly armchairs, grubby mattresses, mangled swing sets, and rusty water heaters. This was the scene that greeted him as he turned into his old neighborhood just north of Frenchtown. He stopped in front of a house with a faux brick wainscot and a sun-peeled metal awning. Christa had rules about showing up unannounced, but he wanted to see the boys, make it up to them somehow. If he had called, she would have been done with him on the phone.
As he started up the walk, the front door opened and Ben, his older boy, appeared on the threshold. “Dad, where were you?” he cried. He raced down the steps, then stopped abruptly, withholdingly. Then, in an overflow of relief, he ran the rest of the way and slung his head over his father’s crouched shoulder.
Ernie squeezed his son with the feeling of being watched, a feeling he had always had as a parent but all the more so since getting divorced. Now that he only saw Christa passing the kids back and forth, he found himself performing, overacting, to prove in those fleeting moments of contact his ability to father.
But when he looked up she wasn’t there blocking the doorway, which seemed a good sign, a virtual invitation, so he poked his head in the door. Toby, his four year-old, was playing with cars on the living room floor. On the other side of the kitchen peninsula, his wife—his ex-wife—stood in profile at the sink, lost in the sound of running water.
“Hey, Toby,” he whispered.
Toby looked up serenely, then went back to his cars—reproof, it seemed, for last night. But like his mother the boy had always been remote, especially after the accident that left him half-blind in one eye.
“Mom, dad’s here!” Ben shouted.
His mother turned and smiled absentmindedly. Then she looked up and her smile dissolved. Last night Ernie awoke to find two messages on his machine. “I’m starting to get worried,” went the second. “Call me when you get this.” He left a message at the office where she temped, hoping a night of worry might expand to regret, even love. But whatever she felt last night was gone.
She shut off the water, then rounded the counter with a tea towel in her hands. She was still dressed for work in a shimmery blouse with a bow collar, her blonde hair up in a loose bun, and the air of naughty secretary made him wince inwardly. He didn’t like the thought of her out in the world looking better than she had at nineteen.
“So. What happened?”
When he first proposed Halloween, she said, “That might be doable” and left it at that. He could have accused her of ambiguity but didn’t. Instead he lied. Long shifts at work, compounding exhaustion, a mishap with the alarm. “I’m sorry, Ben, Tobes.”
Christa studied him. Then she walked over, arms raised. Her first hug in months, and surprisingly tender. Maybe a night of lying awake had indeed dredged up old feelings.
He rubbed his hands together happily, theatrically. “So how much candy did you get?”
“We didn’t get any candy!”
“We didn’t go trick or treating.”
“What do you mean you didn’t go?” He turned to Christa accusingly.
“They wouldn’t go,” she replied calmly. “They wanted you. Fell asleep waiting.”
“Don’t worry, dad. Mom bought candy.”
“Well, that’s not the same, is it?” His plan had been to extract the boys for ice cream, but now he had a new plan. “Go put on your costumes.”
Toby looked up, milky eye darting.
“Why not?” he asked, strangely pleased with himself.
Now the boys were on his side, clamoring. “Just a few houses,” he said. “Just to say we did.”
He expected a glare but she seemed unusually composed.
“All right. Wait here. We’ll just be a minute.”
As she helped the boys get ready, he thought about her sudden embrace. Back in college, after months of seeming indifference, she snuck up on him at a party and squeezed his arm in passing, and the world opened up, and though she would grant much more on her skinny single in Shoemaker Hall, and in the room where she’d slept as a child on a dauntingly quiet street in Eau Claire, and in the lakeside cottage in the Dells where he proposed, he still thought of that exchange as the most intimate of their courtship. Maybe today was another opening.
The boys came running out, Ben in a rainbow wig. “Dad, what do you think?”
“A clown and a monkey?”
“It’s what they wanted.”
“What’s wrong? Don’t you like it?”
“Like it? I love it. My sons Bozo and Bubbles.”
Christa didn’t flinch. Instead she hustled the boys to the door. “Have fun,” she said. “Don’t be long.”
He decided to take the boys a ways, far from immediate neighbors. As the three of them pushed along, Ben looking up to keep his big red nose from slipping, Ernie imagined people would think they’d been out all night and then some, wandering the wilderness for candy.
Eventually they heard a voice: “Y’all are a little late, aren’t you?”
Across the street a girl on her porch stared from under the bill of her cap. She sat low in her chair with her feet up, a glass of something in her hand. Ernie stepped to the curb, hands in pockets, squinting in a hangdog way. Through no fault of their own, the boys had missed Halloween. Would she happen to have something left over?
She took a sip of her drink, considering. Then she set down her feet, first one, then the other, languorously. “Let me see what we got.”
As the girl slipped inside, Ernie caught sight of her legs and her tiny cutoff jeans and felt something inside him lurch. Since moving out at the start of the year he hadn’t been with anyone. If he had, Christa would never take him back. To have any hope at all he would have to be a saint. But at least she wasn’t dating either. She had always been haughty and gun-shy and would only be more so now. Plus, she had the boys. It wasn’t just that most men were wary of kids; it was the fact that his kids would always betray a different father. It was their conspicuousness that would give men pause, and he liked this, the thought of his genes fighting the good fight, warding off Southern boys.
They crossed the street expectantly but when the girl came back she said, “Sorry, we don’t have anything left. My boyfriend must have ate it all.” She rose prettily on her toes and pointed. “Try over there. They had candy last night.”
But they had no luck there either. As the boys came trudging back, Ben hanging his head, Toby swinging his bag like a scythe, Ernie felt a creep of doubt. Maybe Christa was right. Maybe this was a bad idea. He thought about taking the boys home but loathed the thought of going back empty-handed. Something in Christa had changed; the long-awaited thaw had begun. If only he could rustle up half a bag of candy, the ice might finally break.
To change their luck they went a block over. There they came to a house with a curdling pumpkin outside, which seemed a safe bet. But the craggy-faced man who came to the door did not exude an air of festivity. When the boys shouted in unison, he sniffed the air, spotted Ernie, shot him a look. “What’s the idea?”
Ernie smiled. “Sorry to bother you, sir. These are my boys, Ben and Toby. Their mother didn’t take them out last night, if you can believe it.” Which was true, and cause for a little fraternizing, he hoped. “We saw your pumpkin and thought you might have something left over.”
The man eyed the gourd resentfully, trying to decide how much it obliged him. Without a word he vanished inside. Ben turned to his father. Ernie gave him the thumbs up.
The man returned with a wooden bowl and lowered it without stooping. As the boys dithered, he stared in a way that Ernie had come to recognize and disliked. He often wished he could take the boys back to New York or maybe out to California, somewhere where people didn’t think twice about halfers. He kept urging Christa to move, but she said she liked the South just fine.
“Quickly now, boys.”
Things picked up from there. People were surprised but good-natured. Of those who no longer had candy, one gave apples and another brandished a little toy guillotine whose small white blade passed right through their fingers. Toby grinned maniacally and Ernie imagined the day enshrining itself in family lore. “Hey, dad, remember the time…” Toby would ask, a grown man himself, regaled by the memory.
Eventually they came to a house where a woman was waiting on the steps. She wore a gray sweatsuit and her hair up two ways, in a ponytail and a thin plastic headband, and in her lap she held a pumpkin-shaped bucket. “Happy Halloween! Great costumes!” she said with no less affect than she must have last night.
“Thank you, ma’am. We really appreciate it.”
For some reason her eyes welled faintly. “You came to the right place. Candy is something we got, let me tell you.” She laughed bitterly, at her own expense, it seemed. Something to do with her weight perhaps—a tad on the plus side.
As the boys peered into the bucket, she said, “Haven’t seen you in awhile.”
When Ernie pinched his brows, she made running motions with her arms.
“Oh, right.” He had the sudden image of her sitting at her window waiting for him to jog past. Apparently watching the street was something she did.
“No, I just—run at the gym now.”
“I was gonna say. You look in shape to me.”
At that moment lumbering footsteps came from somewhere inside and a boy—ruddy, heavyset, close-cropped—appeared in the doorway. He threw his head back and roared. “What are you guys, retarded?”
The woman snapped her head to one side. “Grady Jefferson. You take that back right now.”
The boy laughed.
“Then no more Xbox today.”
After a long moment the boy said, “Hey, you guys want to play Xbox?”
A few pounds of pressure left the woman’s body. “That’s nice of you, Grady. But I think they better ask their daddy.”
Ben and Toby turned to him, so eagerly that he made a mental note to buy them an Xbox for Christmas. Now he’d have the money.
“Hate to intrude.”
The woman pshawed. “Let them have fun.”
He heard Christa warning him not to be long, but he liked the idea of ending on a high note. “One game,” he said, holding up a stern finger. The boys leapt onto the porch. Grady bounced on the threshold, caught up in the excitement. “Come on, you Japanese freaks!”
“Grady!” the woman cried, but the boys were already gone. She buried her face in her hands, then drew up, slapping her knees.
She smiled gratefully. “Want to wait inside?”
“Sure. Why not?”
The house had the feel of a rental: futon, floor lamp, papasan. From all the graven images of Chief Osceola, it was clear where the woman had gone to school or at least where her loyalties lay.
“What street are you on again?”
“Actually, I don’t live around here anymore. But their mother still does.”
“Ohhh,” she said. “What’d you do, mess around?”
He barked a laugh. “Do I look like the type?”
She scrunched her eyes. “You’re a man, aren’t you?”
The woman had taken the futon, which left Ernie with the papasan. He tried to sit up but soon flung himself back as if floating on an inner tube.
“What was it, then? God, I’m being nosy, aren’t I?”
Somehow he didn’t mind. After his last season with the Tiger Sharks, the franchise moved, which meant all the guys and their network of wives and girlfriends simply decamped. He wondered if this sudden aloneness hadn’t hastened the end of his marriage. In any case it meant he hadn’t had anyone to talk to.
Their troubles had something to do with money, especially compared to their friends who had made it to the bigs, but Christa had also accused him of being a mediocre father—“disinterested” was the word. The accusation had jolted him, so far was her view from his view of himself, but he knew there was some truth to it. His problems never vanished around the boys; he could still dwell abstractedly on a bad goal, a bad game, a bad season. And he was always a little relieved to be on the road. Days or weeks without diapers or tantrums, just hockey, poker, restaurants, and a soundly sleeping roommate.
“Guess I was something of a lousy father.”
The woman raised a brow. “Really? Grady would be lucky if his daddy ever came around.”
She launched into the story of her ex-husband, whom she referred to as Rat Bastard. They’d been high school sweethearts in Valdosta, Georgia, went to school together at Florida State, as he might have guessed—she looked around and laughed—got married after graduation, had a baby soon thereafter. Then she caught him messing around. Now he lived in Jacksonville with his new family, rich as sin from some Internet venture. “Lord knows I love Grady,” she said, “but I can’t stand that he’s half Rat Bastard.”
Ernie wondered if Christa had a nasty little name for him.
The woman sighed. “I need a drink. Want one?”
“I should probably check on the boys.”
“I’ll do that. You stay here.”
She came back with a beer in each hand. “Don’t worry. They’re having a ball.”
She sat back down, took a swig, and picked some lint off her thigh. “Do I really look that old?”
His bottle came off his lips with an airy pop. “I’m sorry?”
“You ma’amed me. I hate it when guys do that.”
The welling in her eyes—now he understood. But he hadn’t meant anything by it. In fact, she was halfway good-looking. A bit on the chunky side, but now that her hoodie was open he saw how easily she filled her tank top.
“Sorry. Just reflex.”
Still picking lint, she asked, “What happened to the little one?”
The question made his heart start. He supposed it all began with the move to Tallahassee and the ECHL, which meant riding the bus to towns like Jackson, Mississippi and North Little Rock, Arkansas, places anathema to hockey. He had grown up dreaming of donning the noble shield of the Rangers and facing the winged P of the Flyers, the spoked B of the Bruins. Instead he wound up facing a cartoon nightmare of Sea Wolves, Ice Pilots, and Lizard Kings, even a team called the Grrrowl (three r’s!). Then the topper: the Tiger Sharks announced they were moving to Macon and becoming the Whoopee. The Apocalypse was upon him.
So he retired. Or rather, fizzled into anonymity, which meant a regular job for the first time in his life. On the morning of his first interview he drove to a used car dealership on the Parkway. The owner was a sports fan, memorabilia all over. He recognized Ernie, thought his minor celebrity might be worth a few sales, and Ernie felt his hockey career paying its final dividends. Afterward when he turned on his phone he was jarred by all the missed calls. Half a message later he was racing to Tallahassee Memorial.
When he finally found Christa, she turned to him in a cool fury and said, “The iron. You didn’t put it back.” By back she meant in its metal holder, the one she had bought at a Scandinavian box store and screwed to the wall herself. A sickening wave swept over him, even as he remembered slamming the iron into place. But maybe he had altered the memory in the act of wishing.
In the weeks and months that followed, Ernie learned more about the eye than he ever cared to know. Operation followed upon operation, some requiring Toby, who loved trucks and football—Bubba, they called him—to stay immobilized for impossible stretches at a time. Yet it seemed halcyon now, all those hours of reading to him and keeping up his spirits, for as soon as he was up and about, Christa said, “I’d like you to go.”
Between gulps of beer he recounted the bare minimum, suddenly annoyed that his audience was this somewhat ridiculous woman, insecure and overweight and obsessed with her ex-husband—
And that’s when it came to him: Christa was in love. Christa was in love, only not with him. That’s why she wasn’t going to move. Out of guilt or one of her hang-ups, she’d been moving at a glacial pace, maybe for months and months, but she wouldn’t have to now that Ernie had finally moved on. What else would she think after he’d been out all night? That or at home refusing to answer? When she asked him what had happened, it was with hope, and when he lied, she could tell, she could always tell. So she gave him one last hug as spiritual man and wife to say, Good for you, Ernie. You’ve found someone. Now we’re both free. Our covenant is broken forever and ever.
He didn’t see the woman approach until her hand was in his hair. “Poor baby,” she said. “You poor, poor baby.” She tried to climb into the papasan, only to slide right into him. Suddenly her face was next to his and the watery weight of her breasts against him. Her eyes welled again, this time entreatingly, and it seemed a little of the world’s bounty had at last dribbled down to him. He closed his eyes and let the inevitable happen, and for a moment it seemed he was young again, his body still new, unspent, and huddled under covers in Shoemaker Hall as snow fell long into the night.
He was roused by the sound of a door slamming. In his addled state he thought Rat Bastard had come home. Then he recalled that the man lived three hours away and couldn’t give a damn. The woman was smiling in her sleep, arms winged from under her face, and for a moment he almost felt tender. Then he remembered the boys.
He dressed quickly. As he slipped out of the bedroom and down the hall—without running into Grady, thankfully—he wondered how he had managed to sleep with a woman whose name he didn’t know, without protection, and whether he had tied his sons forever to that asshole of a kid. Whether he was twice bound to a city he had never imagined living in.
He hurried back to Christa’s, hoping to intercept the boys, but a block away from the house he found Ben’s nose on the sidewalk. The boys had beat him.
He stood outside the house waiting for someone to come to the window. That’s where the boys appeared every Sunday, waving as he left. No such luck today, but he couldn’t bring himself to leave, the way he couldn’t quite leave that small town on the Gulf Coast two nights earlier when he stopped outside the inn and stared at the windows, trying to recall which room had been theirs. Looking up at the widow’s walk, he had imagined himself the mariner and Christa the wife looking out to sea. He used to think it was enough that he came back every time, faithfully. It never occurred to him just how lonely a life she must have led.
He turned to go. Stepping toward the car, he spotted a cardboard box at the curb, one flap marked with the word FREE—Christa’s modest contribution to the flotsam and jetsam of the neighborhood. Inside he saw a few things he recognized: a frying pan, a cutting board, a tea kettle. At the bottom he spied two pieces of plastic, one green and one gold. Once years ago in Syracuse when Ben was still a baby, Christa sent him out for teething gel. A wintry night, lake effect snow, and so cold that the aisles of the CVS seemed a veritable hearth. In the baby aisle he came upon a pair of water-filled teethers, one in the shape of a frog and the other in the shape of a goldfish. Imagining the comfort they would bring, he bought them along with the gel. Driving home, he’d been proud of himself, of his two-pronged ingenuity, but when he got home Christa told him they were made of the wrong plastic, and they were quickly whisked to the bottom of a drawer. Now he picked them up and slipped them into his pocket with a searing feeling of relief, to think that his mistakes might have no cost.