I never wanted a child. But it goes without saying that this is not why I gave in. To stand helplessly by while he walks out the door like this. I know where he got the stuff. He got it from Lecritz. And as soon as I deal with this situation, I intend to deal with that one. I will deal with that nutcase. Right now, I’ve got an emergency on my hands. My wife has already lost a breast. Now this. Is it all just for this? Are we put on this earth just to have things cut away from us, just to have things walk out the door and blow themselves up? I decide to try some reverse psychology.
“You know, we never wanted you.”
“Oh, God, Malcolm. That is not true, Grant. Do not listen to him.”
I press on. “No, it is.”
“I’m not fucking kidding, Grant. You walk out the door like that and you’re playing right into the irony of this situation.”
“How ironic,” he says.
She’s been keeping her distance, trying to not touch him, afraid that a touch could drive him finally away and she’d feel forever after it was that touch, that moment of impulsiveness; but she does touch him now. Says: “We always wanted you, General.”
It seems for a moment that he’s going to say good-bye. By closing his arms around his mother and pulling her tight against the four lumpy cylinders taped to his midriff, which do not look like real plastic explosives to me, but more like mud masticated by wasps, as if stinging insects have been building on his body nests in the shape of plastic explosives and somehow we never noticed. But he doesn’t hug her. The boy just stares at her, blinking, as if there’s something in his eyes. A lash, a windblown molecule of glass. Me, he doesn’t look at, period. Behind him, the front door is open. Steps lead down to the street. Last week’s garbage on the curb. Still on the curb. Then he’s striding past the two of us, back into the house.
“Now where are you going?” I say.
“I have to urinate first,” he says. “Is that too ironic for you or something?”
We’re frozen for a long moment as he disappears upstairs. To “his” bathroom. I listen to the creaking of the steps (the fifth step, the seventh—counting his steps, for some reason), and the creaky steps make me think of the broken keys on an upright piano we once had, years ago, in the old house, in the basement. Grant took lessons for a year or two, then lost interest; then we sold the house and sold the piece of shit instrument for about a hundred dollars, and how hot and hollow my body feels now at the thought of all the pianos people give away and sell for nothing in life, all the piano lessons and the hours of practice, every song out of key, nothing ever not out of key, except for once in a great while, once in a while he’d get a whole measure right, in perfect tune, perfect time, and you’d hold your breath and discover yourself almost praying in the uncertain space between notes.
From upstairs, now: a flush; the sound of the running tap. The water runs and runs, and it hits me that he’s stalling. For fifteen years, he has stalled and dawdled, put important and trivial things off, avoided commitments. Which is why it made no sense the way he came downstairs a few minutes ago. But now I get it. I guarantee you he didn’t have to take any piss in the first place.
“C’mon!” I shout.
“Trust me,” I tell my wife.
A couple more times I shout up there. I dare my boy to come down and see something through for once. I dare him to do it, just to make sure he won’t. And sure enough he doesn’t. The water is turned off, but the bathroom door never opens. The house slips into the silence of a forest between breezes. Silence, nothing—until finally you can hear something, barely. A sad bird calling from somewhere up above. My wife wants to go to him. She starts for the stairs. I hold her back. The kid may not be going anywhere, but he’s still wired. As a parent, you have to know how to deal with situations. When to lay off and when to lean hard. Lecritz I will lean on. I will lean on that nutcase with every pound of weight in my body. But right now I just watch my wife go to the front door, close it and lock it; and as she turns around and makes an X with her arms over her reconstructed breasts, it comes to me without warning, the way repressed memories come back without warning, that one of the three of us will die before the others, and that will leave two.
Greg Hrbek is the author of The Hindenburg Crashes Nightly, a novel. His short fiction has appeared in Harper’s, Salmagundi, Sonora Review, Black Warrior Review, and The 2007 Robert Olen Butler Prize Stories.