By: Bob Kalkreuter
Sea oats swayed in the breeze sweeping in from the Gulf of Mexico. Sitting on a chair atop the wind-wrinkled dune, Travis could see down the beach to a fishing pier that looked like a centipede crawling into the waves.
A boy of seven ran toward him, struggling for traction in the soft sand.
“You hungry yet, Jimmy?” he said, glancing at his watch.
“Yeah,” said the boy, skidding to a stop, water dripping from his flattened hair. “Starving.” Although he was small for his age, he was strong, wiry, and eternally active. Much like Travis used to be, at his age.
“Then let’s get something to eat.” Travis rose and pulled a towel from the back of the chair. He tossed it to the boy. “I’m hungry myself. Pizza sound all right to you?” He hesitated. “Just don’t tell your mom. I promised to feed you right.”
Overhead, the throaty buzz of a seaplane penetrated the archipelago of clouds, and when Travis looked up, he spotted the metal chassis winking toward the horizon.
The boy shook his head, looking amused. “We order pizzas all the time,” he said. “When she comes home late.”
This surprised Travis. Although he and Jimmy’s mom had been separated for three months now, they’d lived together for ten years, and Travis couldn’t remember her ordering a pizza before, ever. “How often is ‘all the time’?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” said Jimmy. “When she has company.” He was tanned nut-brown from a summer of constant sun. He wiggled as he rubbed himself with the towel.
“Company? What company?” asked Travis.
Jimmy looked toward the pier. “Can we go fishing?”
“I thought you wanted to eat.”
“I do, but I want to fish too.”
“Well, sure, yeah, we can fish right after we eat. But well, you know, what company does your mom have?”
Jimmy shrugged. “I don’t know. She’s working.”
Travis was wearing a light t-shirt and even as he stood there with the hot, yellow sun boring into his skin, he felt himself flush even warmer. “I thought she was working with your Uncle Nick?”
“Well, what company does she have, then?” Travis asked again, feeling himself get impatient.
“I’m hungry,” said Jimmy. “Starving. Can we get a pizza now?”
Damn, thought Travis, listening to the unanswered ring of Sharon’s phone. Finally, he said “call me” and hung up. Jimmy was already asleep.
As he sat checking his email in the living room, he could smell the odor of burnt pork chops creeping in from the kitchen. For him, cooking wasn’t an everyday event, it was an ordeal he’d come to equate with low-grade torture. Still, he wanted Jimmy to have a good time, and Jimmy loved pork chops.
So tonight, it was pork chops for supper, with chocolate ice cream for dessert. And no vegetables.
Getting up, Travis went to the refrigerator and got out a beer and went back into the living room and sat down in front of the tv, crossing his legs. Company, he thought. What company?
His cell phone rang, Sharon’s ring.
“Hello,” he said, taking a drink before setting the beer on the coffee table.
“Is everything… you called… Is Jimmy… is he okay?”
“He’s great,” he said. “We went swimming in the morning and fishing in the afternoon.”
“Oh. So he’s all right?”
“Why wouldn’t he be all right?” he said, snorting. “He’s having fun. We’re both having fun.”
There was a hesitation on the line before she said: “Well that’s good. I thought you were going to tell me you were sending him back.”
“Sending him back? He’s only been here four days. We agreed to ten.”
“I know what we agreed, but… well, that’s good. He’s not getting on your nerves?”
“Damn, Sharon. Why should he get on my nerves? He’s my son. I like to have him here. We ought to be together more often. A lot…”
“Well that’s good,” she said, her voice edgy. “He’s a great kid, so sweet.”
“Yeah, he’s a great kid. You having fun with him gone?”
“Fun? Well, only if work is fun. I’ve been working long hours.”
“With Ted? Long hours with Ted?” he said.
“Ted?” she said. “I work for Ted, not with him. Last month I took over the audit of one of his big clients, the bank down by the river. You know…”
He took another drink of beer and held the phone way from his ear while she talked.
“Well,” he said, taking a breath. “You seeing anybody?”
“Seeing… what do you mean?”
“You know what I mean. Are you seeing anybody? Is that a hard question? Are you…”
“Don’t be stupid. I’m working. Who said I was seeing anybody? Did Jimmy say something?”
“Jimmy? What would he have to say?”
“I don’t know,” she said, sounding wary. “He’s just a little boy.”
“I know he’s a little boy. He hasn’t figured out how to lie yet.” Rising from the couch, he walked to the front window and peered into the darkness. Outside, the twisted trunk of the cabbage palm in the corner of his yard looked like a many-armed giant with a mop of unruly hair.
“What do mean, lie?” she snapped.
“Why are you feeding Jimmy pizza?” he asked. “You never did that.”
“Pizza. I’m not feeding him pizza. Who told you that?”
“Who is it?” he asked. “Who are you seeing?”
“I’m not seeing anybody. What are you talking about?”
Travis had been pacing in front of the window, then turned and went into the kitchen. He could no longer smell the pork chops. He reached into the refrigerator for a beer, and then realized he’d already left one on the coffee table, still half full. “Damn,” he said.
“Oh, nothing. I forgot I left my beer in the living room.”
“You’re getting drunk? With Jimmy there?”
“No, I’m not getting drunk. I’m drinking a beer, and Jimmy’s in bed.”
“I’m beginning to think I shouldn’t have let him visit,” she said.
“What do you mean?” he said, raising his voice. “He’s my son and I have a right to see him.”
“He doesn’t need to see you getting drunk.”
“I’m not drunk and I’m not going to get drunk! I just want a simple damn beer!”
“You know,” she said, her voice dropping. “Maybe it’s not such a good idea, you moving back here.”
“I heard you!” he said. Stalking back into the living room, he ignored the beer on the coffee table and stopped at the front door. “But you said…”
“Well I don’t think it’s a good idea,” she said. “Not anymore.”
Goddamn, he thought. But he wasn’t sure why that thought came to him. Over the past few months he’d missed her less and less. In fact, he wasn’t really sure he’d miss her at all, in another month or two. “You are seeing somebody,” he said.
As he stepped outside, he could smell salt air drifting in from the Gulf. The moon was a pale smudge through the pines at the end of the street. At the curb, the fronds of the cabbage palm trembled in a slight breeze.
“Yes!” she said. “Of course I am.”
“I knew it!” he said, feeling a rush of anger. “You’re not taking Jimmy from me. Don’t even think it. I’m getting joint custody, and there’s nothing you can…”
Instead of answering, she laughed, loud and tauntingly. “You’re a fool,” she said. “And you’re not getting custody of any sort. Jimmy’s not yours.”
From deep in the darkness, he could hear the hoot of an owl and, closer, the scratchy chirp of crickets. Down the street, night recast the neighborhood houses into shapes of grimacing faces.
Unnerved, he retreated into the house.