It wasn’t until he was in junior high that Dylan learned from his grandmother that a certain barely discernible figure in one of the photographs from his mother’s wedding reception was his father. All his life the yellow photo album had been sitting on the bottom shelf of the bookcase in his grandmother’s living room in Lordsburg, New Mexico, and Dylan had never suspected that it contained an image of his dad. By then his father’s non-existence had been so firmly established that there was something almost obscene about the casual certainty with which his grandmother’s finger pointed him out — an out-of-focus man looking down at a piece of white cake on a paper plate. It didn’t bring him to life. If anything, by pressing him into the mundane world of human time and space, it sentenced him to death.
Dylan knew only the barest outline of the story of his mom’s brief, unhappy marriage. She was nineteen when she married a man named Gerald Pryor, fresh out of the army. She moved with him to somewhere in backwoods Maryland, where his family was from. Two years later she divorced him and returned to Lordsburg. End of story. It was never mentioned how they met. Or how long they were together before they got married. Or why she married him at all. It was a testament to Lynda’s determination to erase Gerald Pryor from their existence that it wasn’t until Dylan was in college that he thought to ask these questions. By then his mother was dead, and it was too late.
One day in the summer of his freshman year at Berkeley, Dylan was sorting through the folder where he kept his important documents and came across the sheet of paper he had torn from his mom’s address book, the one with “Gerry” and a phone number written on it. The sight of his mom’s handwriting instantly filled him with sorrow and longing for her. Simultaneous with these feelings was that same peculiar sensation of unreality that the picture of his dad in his grandmother’s photo album had always evoked in him. The preposterous notion that he actually did have a father somewhere out there appeared to be corroborated by the matter-of-fact presence of a phone number beneath the name, as if this unassuming sequence of digits were in fact the magic combination that would suddenly bring that blurry picture into focus and conjure his father into existence. Dylan had no idea what year his mom had even made the entry — surely the number was no longer valid — but the urge to dial it and see what happened had taken hold of him and would not let go.
He sat down at his desk and pulled the phone close to him. For some reason the sound of the dial tone at that moment called to mind an image of an endless plain the color of dried blood. He listened to it for so long that eventually the strident off-the-hook alarm jolted him back to his senses. He pressed and held down the hang-up buttons, released them and listened again to the haunting drone. At last he pressed the number 1, silencing the tone, and dialed the remaining numbers.
Someone answered on the third ring, a woman. Whoever she was she didn’t say hello but rather something polysyllabic and unintelligible which Dylan guessed by her harried yet obliging tone was the name of a business.
“Uh, hello,” Dylan said. “I was trying to reach Gerald Pryor. I’m not sure if I’ve got the right number.”
“You mean Gerry?”
Suddenly Dylan’s heart was pounding.
“Gerry Pryor?” he said hesitantly, and he was stunned when instead of telling him that Gerry Pryor didn’t work there anymore the woman asked him who was calling. He wavered for a moment, fighting back a sudden impulse to hang up. Then, thinking that maybe she was just reluctant to divulge information about a former employee to a stranger, he said, “This is his son. Dylan.” Strange, improbable words to his own ears.
“Hold on,” she said and set the receiver down. A few moments later he heard her holler, “Hey, Ger, you got a son named Dylan?”
Again Dylan resisted the urge to hang up. His heart was racing now as it hit home that he was on the verge of speaking to his dad for the first time in his life. He switched the receiver to his other ear and tried to think of something to say. He heard footsteps, then the clatter of the receiver being picked up.
“This is Gerry,” the voice said, with reservation.
“Uh, hi there, this is Dylan,” Dylan said. He took a breath. “Your son.”
The silence that followed only lasted a few seconds, but to Dylan it seemed much longer.
“Is everything all right?”
“Yes. I just had this number from my mom’s address book. I didn’t know if it was still valid.”
“Yeah, this is my work number.”
“Oh, sorry about that. I could call back another time if you’re busy.”
“No, no. I’m just surprised, that’s all. You can imagine.” Pause. “Where are you?”
“I’m in California. Berkeley. I’m in college here.”
“That’s near San Francisco, ain’t it?”
“Yes, right across the bay, on the east side.”
“How long you been out there?”
“Well, at Berkeley, less than a year. I just finished my freshman year. But me and my mom moved to California from New Mexico when I was a sophomore in high school. We lived in Union City, which is pretty close to here, down towards San Jose.”
Another pause, this time longer, then his dad said, “I’m real sorry about your mother.”
Dylan wasn’t sure how to respond, so he changed the subject.
“Where do you work?” he asked.
“J&P Flooring. We’re a tile outfit. I’m the foreman. I’ve been with them about fifteen years now.”
“Is that in Maryland?”
“Yeah, we’re in Rockville. I live up the road in Derwood. Remarried. Fran. She’s my third wife. We got a couple kids. Justin and Beth. He’s seven and she’s four. I guess that makes them your half brother and sister.”
“Wow,” Dylan said, trying without much success to absorb all of this.
Another long pause.
“Anyway,” he said, “I didn’t really have any reason for calling. I just had this number and thought I’d check it.”
“Well, I’m glad you did. Here, why don’t I give you my home number.”
“You got a pen and paper handy?”
“Yeah, go ahead.”
After he had given Dylan the number, he said, “Call any time. I’m home most nights. If not, Fran can take a message.”
“Let me get your number while I’m at it.”
Dylan gave him the number.
“Let me give you my address, too,” his dad said and gave it to him. “If you’re ever in my neck of the woods, stop on by.”
“All right. I guess I should let you go.”
“I’m glad you called, son. You take care.”
Dylan hung up. His heart was still beating hard. His shirt was soaked in sweat. He sat there for a long time, staring out the window, going over the brief conversation again and again.
That night he called Lance and told him what he had done.
“It was so weird, man. I didn’t even know if the number was still good. Then all of a sudden I’m talking to my dad. It sounds strange even saying those words, ‘my dad.’”
“It must have freaked the shit out of him. Out of the blue like that.”
“Yeah, he seemed a little nervous. I didn’t know what the hell to say.”
“What did you say?”
“I just told him I was at Berkeley and stuff, just filling in some of the blanks.”
“What did he sound like?”
“Total hick accent. He works at some flooring place. Oh, I nearly forgot—he’s on his third wife, and he’s got two other kids. I’ve got a half brother and sister!”
“You need to meet him, man.”
“He gave me his address. He’s in Maryland.”
“You should go.”
“I don’t know about that.”
“You need to see what he looks like at the very least. After all, he’s half your genetic material.”
“That’s what scares me.”
“Come on. I’ll go with you. We never did get our road trip in. It’ll be fun.”
Dylan wasn’t convinced, but a few days later, feeling that he needed to seize the moment, he called his dad at home and floated the idea of coming out there for a weekend with a friend.
Two weeks later, on a Saturday afternoon in mid-August, Dylan and Lance found themselves driving in a rental car along a two-lane county road in rural Maryland. Dylan was in the passenger’s seat, the map open in his lap.
“Keep your eye out for Shady Grove Presbyterian Church,” he told Lance.
It was a green world outside the windows. Dense woods of tall deciduous trees walled in the road on both sides. Every so often the woods gave way to a clearing occupied by a brick or clapboard house set far back from the road, dwarfed by a lawn of lush grass. American flags saluting from the eaves. Huge pickups and RVs parked on the lawns. Dylan found it hard to imagine his mom — the same age that he was now! — living out here in one of these houses, married to the man whom he was about to meet.
“I’m getting nervous,” Lance said.
“You’ll be fine,” Dylan assured him mock-solicitously. “I’ll be with you every step of the way.”
They had been performing variations on this routine since leaving New York four hours ago, when, in response to the seriousness with which Lance appeared to be taking his supporting role, Dylan had taken the part of the lighthearted sidekick for himself, concealing his own apprehensions behind a mask of gaiety and adventure.
“There’s the church,” Lance announced a few minutes later, pointing to the tall white steeple up ahead on the left.
“Is it Shady Grove Presbyterian?” Dylan asked. Then, spotting the sign: “Yes. Okay, third left. Everett Road.”
It was another few miles before they reached the third left turn. They were still in the country, but the woods were sparser here, the homes closer together. Lance was driving more slowly now, both of them scanning the fronts of the houses and the roadside mailboxes for numbers. The mere sight of these bland homes, the trucks, the propane tanks, the four-wheelers, the flags, filled Dylan with anxiety.
At last they spotted 5970. It was a broad, pale-yellow prefab house with a pitched roof, mounted on an unpainted cinder-block base, set back about twenty yards from the road on a plot of short grass. A dirt driveway led up to the left side of the house, where a maroon Chevrolet coupe was parked. A blue-gray Dodge minivan was parked in the grass in front of the house. Two kid’s bikes lay in leisurely abandon in the middle of the yard.
They sat there for a while, looking at the house, both of them more nervous than they were letting on.
Lance pulled into the driveway, stopping a good distance back from the Chevy, and cut the engine. Dylan looked at his watch. 2:27. He had told his dad about three. They sat there for a while, looking at the house, both of them more nervous than they were letting on.
“I could pretend I’m you,” Lance suggested.
Dylan smiled but made no comment.
“Has he ever even seen a picture of you?”
“I don’t know. Probably not. Other than baby pictures.”
A few minutes later Lance took a deep breath and said, “Shall we?”
They got out of the car, leaving their bags in the trunk. Dylan was wearing jeans and a plain black T-shirt. His hair was tied back in a ponytail, his only concession to decorum. Lance had on khaki shorts, Tevas, and a cardinal-red Stanford T-shirt.
“Jesus Christ, it’s fucking hot,” Dylan remarked as they walked up the driveway. He instantly began to sweat.
There was no door at the front of the house, so, as Dylan’s dad had instructed him, they made their way around to the back, where, not far from the house, there stood an above-ground swimming pool enclosed by a wooden structure with steps. A massive lawn-mowed field, sloping and dipping in places, stretched back at least a hundred yards before ending in woods. On a clothesline nearby, sheets and towels hung motionless in the breezeless air.
When they reached the steps to the raised back deck, Lance paused to allow Dylan to go first. They stepped up and walked over to a sliding glass door across which a thin white curtain was pulled.
“Here we go,” Dylan said quietly and knocked on the glass.
A few moments later the curtain slid aside, followed by the door, and Fran welcomed them in as if she’d known them all their lives. Dylan had spoken with her once already on the phone when she called a week ago to confirm the sleeping arrangements and ask about their food preferences.
“Hi, I’m Dylan,” Dylan said to her.
“Yeah, I kinda figured,” she said with good-natured drollery. She was conventionally overweight, with a cheerful face and curly brown hair. He guessed she was in her late-thirties, younger in any case than his dad, whom Dylan knew from his own birth certificate was forty-three years old. “And you must be Lance.”
She shook their hands and turned towards the small living room behind her, where Dylan’s dad was presently rising from a couch facing a TV on which a golf tournament was playing.
With an eerie jolt of recognition, Dylan watched as an older version of himself walked towards him across the room.
With an eerie jolt of recognition, Dylan watched as an older version of himself walked towards him across the room. They were the same height, but his dad was stockier in the arms and shoulders, and although he wasn’t otherwise fat he had a protruding belly. His face was thicker than Dylan’s, his nose more bulbous, his cheeks and jaw meatier, his receding hair going gray at the temples and sideburns, but behind the mask of age, and especially in his eyes, Dylan could see himself. Even their walk was the same. He was wearing loose blue shorts, white socks, and a white T-shirt with the word “Poopsie” written in airbrush style above a small cartoonish man.
He stopped in front of Dylan and, with a little grin, offered his hand, saying, “It’s like looking in the mirror.” Then: “I wish. Nice to meet you, Dylan.” He gave Dylan a brisk hug, and Dylan awkwardly hugged him back.
“This is my best friend, Lance.”
Lance and Dylan’s dad shook hands.
“Any trouble finding it?”
“No, the directions were good,” Dylan replied.
“The kids are in town at my sister’s,” Fran informed them. “They should be back around four. Can I get you boys something to drink? I’ve got cola, juice, iced tea.”
Dylan didn’t want anything. Lance went with the iced tea, just to be hospitable.
Taking a closer look at his dad’s T-shirt, Dylan noticed that the little man below the word “Poopsie” was in fact a caricature of Gerry himself, smiling from ear to ear, the sort of thing painted by street artists for tourists.
“Come on over, have a seat,” Gerry said, leading them over to the couch.
The floor in the living room was carpeted, but as they walked across it, accompanied by a slight shuddering of the walls, Dylan sensed a hollowness beneath him. The three of them sat down on the couch, Dylan in the middle, his dad to his right, Lance to his left.
“So what kind of work do you do?” Dylan asked as they got settled. He didn’t know what to call him, so he avoided calling him anything at all.
“I’m a tile setter. Least I used to be. I don’t do too much of the work myself anymore. I mostly run the office there in Rockville. Y’all came through there on the way.”
Fran returned with Lance’s iced tea and set it on an issue of Newsweek on the coffee table. Lance thanked her.
“You sure I can’t get you something, Dylan?”
“No, I’m fine. Thanks.” And she disappeared again.
“You said on the phone you were at Berkeley was it?” Gerry said.
“Yes, I just finished my first year.”
“All I know about Berkeley is all the hippies that were out there in the sixties.”
“It’s still pretty much like that,” Dylan replied. “It’s a pretty liberal place.”
“What’s your subject?”
“I haven’t declared yet, but I’m thinking of majoring in film.”
“That right? Like polymers, that sort of thing?”
Dylan smiled. “No. Movies. Cinema. The study of films.”
“Oh, I got ya. So do you actually get to make movies?”
“No, you just watch them and write about them.”
“Is that what you want to do when you’re finished, write about movies, like those two on TV?”
“I don’t know. Probably not. I think I’m more interested in production. I work for media services on campus, taping classes and stuff. It’s pretty cool.”
“You run the cameras?”
“And a lot of other gear.”
“Good skill to have, I reckon.”
All the while they were talking, Dylan wasn’t looking directly at his dad but rather at a vague space beyond the man’s knees.
Gerry leaned forward a little, the better to see Lance.
“How do you guys know each other?”
Lance told the story of them meeting on the tennis courts and being the only two to show up at the rendezvous point that night, which elicited a sort of knowing chuckle from Gerry. Dylan waited a moment for Lance to go on with the story, but when it became evident that he wasn’t sure if he should, Dylan told it himself.
“I lived with Lance’s family after my mom died,” he said, knowing full well that any mention of his mom was bound to make his dad uncomfortable, but he was feeling irked that the man appeared to have no intention of turning off the TV.
“We’re basically brothers,” Lance remarked.
“Do you go to Berkeley, too?”
“No, I’m at Stanford. I’m sure you’ve heard of the great Stanford-Berkeley football rivalry. The Big Game.”
“Sure have. ‘The Play.’ Craziest damn thing I ever seen. You guys there on that one?”
“I was,” Lance said. “My family are big Stanford fans, so, yeah, we were there at Berkeley. It was insane. The band on the field.”
“I love when the tuba guy gets clobbered.”
Lance and Gerry carried on for a while about the coming year’s college football prospects. When they had exhausted that topic, Dylan said:
“My mom told me you used to play guitar in a band.”
“Yeah, I did.”
“Do you still play?”
“I pick around now and again, but not much. You play yourself?”
“No. I never was any good at music.”
“What kind of music do you like?”
“Hard rock mostly. Heavy metal. A bit of jazz and blues.”
Gerry nodded. “I got a Les Paul. 1968 Custom.”
“That’s a nice guitar,” Lance said.
“I do, though I haven’t been playing much since I started college. No time.”
“I hear ya.”
“Lance is good,” Dylan said.
“Fran!” Gerry called out. When she appeared a few moments later he asked her to bring out his “guee-tar.”
On the TV the golf tournament proceeded at its glacial pace, the spectators lined up along the fairway, the commentators commentating in hushed tones as the camera tracked an invisible ball across the sky.
“Where do you want it?” Fran asked when she returned lugging a hard black case.
“Just set it there on the table,” Gerry said and reached for the remotes. Lance grabbed his barely sipped iced tea. Fran set the guitar case flat on the coffee table, and Gerry scooted up to the edge of the couch to enter the combination on the latch locks.
“You sure I can’t get you something to drink, Dylan?” Fran asked again.
“Thanks. I’m all right.”
Gerry opened the case and took out the guitar. The body was glossy maroon with an ebony fretboard, four black volume and tone knobs in a diamond pattern, and a classy brushed steel tremolo. The fretboard was inlaid with circles of mother-of-pearl. Gerry set the guitar on his leg and proceeded to tune it, reaching over into Dylan’s space to tweak the keys. When all the strings were tuned, he strummed a chord and plucked a few notes of a melody that was hard to hear without any amplification.
“Here, give her a twirl,” he said to Lance, scooting the guitar towards Dylan, who grabbed it and passed it to Lance.
“Do you have a pick I can use?” Lance asked.
Gerry reached into the case, which was lined with maroon velvet, and opened a compartment. Retrieving a pick, he handed it over to Lance, who got situated and then played the opening bars of “House of the Rising Sun.” This seemed to please Gerry, for he called out to Fran again, this time telling her to bring out his other guitar and the little amp.
The other guitar was a butterscotch Fender Telecaster. After he had tuned it and plugged them both into the amp and adjusted the volume, Gerry launched into “House of the Rising Sun” himself, and Lance joined him on the Les Paul. Gerry was a fingerpicker, giving his playing a softer, more liquid sound than Lance’s. Upon reaching the first verse he started singing, certainly not with the fervor of The Animals but with a quiet sincerity all his own, which made Dylan feel even more awkward than he was already feeling. The irony of his dad singing the words, “Oh mother tell your children / Not to do what I have done,” was too rich for words, an irony that Dylan was fairly certain was entirely lost on his dad. When they came to the bridge, Lance launched into a solo, Van Halen style, making judicious use of the whammy bar, while Gerry carried on with the rolling arpeggios, his left hand working the fretboard, his left leg keeping time. Dylan sat between them, hyperaware that he was sitting in his dad’s house in backwoods Maryland, listening to Lance and his dad playing “House of the Rising Sun,” while on the television men in slacks and polo shirts advanced on the next green.
When at last they brought the song to a close, Gerry looked at Lance and said, “You’re pretty good on that thing.”
Lance modestly demurred.
“You know ‘Workin' Man Blues’?” Gerry asked him.
“Who’s it by?”
“No, I guess I don’t. How’s it go?”
“It’s an easy old 12-bar blues progression, A-D-E in 4/4.” He quickly demonstrated the chords.
Lance copied the changes until he had it down, then they played the song. Again Gerry sang the lyrics, a country tune about having a wife and nine kids and bills to pay but never being on welfare and enjoying a beer at the end of the day. Gerry seemed to be having great fun with all the chicken picking. Afterward, Lance glanced sheepishly at Dylan. Dylan just smiled, as if to say, “It’s fine.” On the TV, someone sank a putt on the fourteenth hole and leaned down elegantly on one leg and his putter to retrieve the ball from the cup.
They were on their fourth song when Dylan heard rapid footsteps from the direction of the deck. He turned to see the door slide open, and in ran a boy and a girl. The music stopped. The kids ran over to the coffee table. They were barefoot, in swimming suits and T-shirts, their hair damp.
“Are you my brother?” the girl asked Lance. She was a plump little thing, chubby legs and face, with a round little belly like her daddy’s.
“This one’s your brother,” Gerry said, pointing a thumb at Dylan. “His name’s Dylan.”
The boy and the girl gaped in amazement at the sudden addition to the family. The boy’s hair was blonder than the girl’s, and his skinny arms and legs were deeply tanned. A woman followed them in and slid the door shut as Fran emerged from wherever she had been.
“What’s your name?” Dylan asked the girl.
“And you must be Justin,” Dylan said to the boy.
Justin nodded and asked Dylan if he played baseball.
“I’m afraid not.”
“Did you used to play baseball?”
“When I was a kid I did sometimes. I guess you like baseball, huh?”
“Oh yeah. Do you?”
“Sure, I like baseball. What position do you play?”
“What’s your favorite team?”
“All right, you two,” Fran said as she and her sister came over to the coffee table. “They ain’t going anywhere. Go and get changed out of those wet things.”
The kids moaned and sulked off to do as they were told.
Lance leaned the Les Paul against the side of the couch, and he and Dylan stood up to greet the newcomer.
“This is my sister Betty Kay,” Fran said. “This is Dylan and his friend Lance.”
“I bet you’re thinking what the hell have I got myself into,” Betty Kay said with the same cheerful drollery as her sister’s and laughed to let them know she was just kidding. She was taller and skinnier than Fran, with copper-tinted hair and a voice that sounded like she smoked. “Don’t worry, we don’t bite. Least most of us don’t.” She laughed again.
Dylan dutifully smiled.
“When did y’all get in?”
“About an hour ago.”
“And Ger’s already got you on the guitars?”
“Lance there’s got some chops,” Gerry, who was still sitting on the couch with the Fender in his lap, said.
“They could use him over at Curly’s,” Betty Kay remarked. “That one they got there on Wednesday nights is awful.” Then, turning to Dylan: “Do you play too?”
“No, I’m not very musical.”
“He’s into movies,” Gerry informed her. “He’s gonna make ‘em someday.”
“Is that right?”
“They had one on the TV last night. Gene Hackman and what’s-his-bucket. The one with the brown hair. I couldn’t make heads or tails of it.”
Dylan nodded in commiseration.
“How long was your drive?” she asked.
“About four hours.”
“Four hours!?” she said incredulously. “From Baltimore?”
“No, we drove from New York.”
“Oh, I thought you came into Baltimore. It’s only about an hour from here.”
“We decided to spend a couple days in New York before heading back, so it was easier to just fly there, with the rental car and everything.”
“When are you leaving?”
“Well, from here, Monday morning. We fly back on Wednesday.”
“That’s a shame. I thought you were here longer.”
“What time were you thinking tomorrow?” Betty Kay asked Fran.
“We haven’t sorted it out yet.” Then, addressing Dylan and Lance: “We thought we’d take you guys over to Gerry’s dad’s place tomorrow, meet some of the rest of the family.”
“Cool,” Dylan said.
“I guess I should be getting on back,” Betty Kay said. “I still need to pick up that prescription for Marty. Nice meeting y’all. I’ll see you tomorrow. See ya, Ger.”
Fran and Betty Kay headed off, and the kids ran back into the living room, now in dry shorts and T-shirts.
“Play us something, Daddy!”
“I suspect Lance is all played out.”
“I’m all right,” Lance replied.
“Let’s do ‘Workin' Man’ again,” Gerry said. “They’ve never heard it.” So once more they played the song, this time accompanied by the gleeful dancing and cavorting of the kids, each of them doing their own little jig, which spurred the musicians on.
When the song was done, the kids bellowed for another, and Lance and Gerry obliged. Each time a song ended, the kids demanded more. Finally, Gerry told them they needed to go get washed up for supper. The kids protested, saying, with reason, that they were already clean from swimming. Dylan looked at his watch. It was only a quarter to five. The last of the golfers were getting in their putts on the 18th hole.
Hearing that the music had stopped, Fran came over and asked if hamburgers were all right with everyone for supper.
“Yay! Hamburgers!” the kids cheered.
“Is that all right with you guys?” Fran asked Dylan and Lance. It was.
“So is that big field behind the house part of your property?” Dylan asked his dad as they returned the guitars to the cases and wound up the cables.
“Yeah, that’s all ours. An acre and a half. And a little bit of the woods back there.”
“That’s the biggest back yard I’ve ever seen. It must be a lot of work mowing it.”
“I can get it done in about an hour on the John Deere. This time of year I do it every couple weeks. Course in the winter I don’t have to do it at all.”
“Do you get any animals coming through?”
“Oh sure, we get deer, raccoons, possum, squirrels, rabbits. One night I saw a black bear out there.”
“Really? Wow,” Lance said.
“What about that deer there?” Dylan said, gesturing to the mounted head above the TV.
“That’s a white-tail. I shot him over in Garrett, near where we used to live. The year you were born, in fact.”
All three of them gazed up at the deer’s head.
“So I may have actually eaten some of it,” Dylan remarked drily.
“I reckon you probably did,” Gerry said. “One deer can last you a couple years, depending on how often you eat it. So there’s a good chance you could of.”
Gerry was quiet for a moment, studying the TV. “So he hung in there after all,” he remarked. “At one point he was twelve under, then around the seventh he started to crater. Three double bogeys. We’ll see if he can get it back together tomorrow.”
“I take it you play golf?” Dylan asked, again with subtle sarcasm which went unnoticed.
“Nah. You gotta have money to play golf. How about you?”
“No. Lance and I have played a few times, that’s about it.”
“My dad plays,” Lance said.
“Must be some nice courses out there.”
“Pebble Beach. That one right there. Monterey.”
“Is that near you guys?”
“Yeah, a couple hours’ drive south.”
The sound and smell of frying hamburgers drifted into the living room.
“You guys want to see the rest of the house?” Gerry asked.
“Sure,” Dylan replied.
“Justin!” Gerry called out, and both kids came running. “You wanna give them the tour?”
The kids led the way. The first stop was the bathroom, first door on the left as you entered the hallway. Dylan asked his dad if he had done the tile work himself. Indeed he had. Next stop, Beth’s room, on the right. Lots of pink, lots of plastic. Then, next on the right, Justin’s room, baseball being the main theme there, the Orioles in particular. Dylan and Lance both had to take a swing with Justin’s Louisville Slugger. Farther down, on the left again, Mommy’s and Daddy’s room. Nothing remarkable there apart from the surprisingly spacious ensuite bathroom. At each stop along the way, Justin pointed out all the salient features of the room in question, with Beth piping in with things her brother had forgotten or maybe even left out on purpose. Meanwhile, Gerry filled in the gaps with the story of the house itself, how it had arrived on a flatbed trailer, how he had done the foundation himself, how well it retained heat in the winter. The final stop was the basement, where Dylan and Lance would be sleeping for the next two nights, accessed via the last door on the right. It was like a bunker down there, cinder-block walls painted white, no windows, pipes and conduit criss-crossing the low ceiling, but at least it was cool, almost chilly in fact. There were two single beds, two dressers, a wardrobe, and other pieces of furniture to give it a more homey feel. Justin proudly showed them the wood-chip heater in the corner, which of course wasn’t on right now because it was summer.
“I’ll show you the workshop after supper,” Gerry said as they climbed back up the stairs.
The dining table, in the area near the sliding glass door, was all set, and at Fran’s behest everybody came and took their seats. Dylan and Lance were at the end closest to the door, opposite Gerry, who, with the table at its full length, was partway in the kitchen. On each plate sat a thick, juicy hamburger atop an open bun beside some crinkle-cut fries. Glasses with ice cubes in them stood at the ready for the 2-liter bottle of Coke.
“You guys fix them however you like,” Fran instructed them, busying herself with her kids’ plates.
From the garnish platter, Dylan took a slice from the stack of Kraft Singles, unwrapped it and placed it on his burger, where it promptly melted. They all took turns with the ketchup, mayonnaise, and mustard.
“So what kind of movies do you like, Dylan?” Gerry asked him as they tucked in.
“When I was growing up it was the usual Hollywood stuff,” Dylan replied. “Then my mom got me into French films. Noirs. Right now I’m into silent film.”
“I thought you were Dylan’s mom, Mommy,” Beth said, provoking awkward smiles all around.
“No, hon, Dylan had a different mommy. Daddy was married to her before he was married to me.”
“Silent movies, eh?” Gerry said, trying to ignore the interruption. “Like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton?”
“No. More radical stuff.”
“Do you live near the beach?” Justin asked Dylan.
“Justin, don’t talk with your mouth full,” Fran instructed him.
“There aren’t really any beaches near where I live,” Dylan replied. “You have to drive for a while.”
And the truth was, Dylan had no desire to talk about his childhood or his mom in front of his dad’s family. If the man wished to have a private conversation, that was fine. Until then, Dylan was content talking about trivial things.
Subsequent topics included everyone’s plans for the summer, Fran’s fudge, the presidential candidates, ticks and chiggers, airplane food, and earthquakes. The vital questions remained unasked. There seemed to be a tacit agreement that everyone would keep the conversation superficial. And the truth was, Dylan had no desire to talk about his childhood or his mom in front of his dad’s family. If the man wished to have a private conversation, that was fine. Until then, Dylan was content talking about trivial things.
Dessert, pronounced “Die-zert,” was Rocky Road ice cream. When everyone was done, Justin ran off to his room and returned with his bat and baseball and glove.
“Come on, you guys!”
“They might have something else they want to do, hon,” Fran said.
“We don’t have any plans,” Dylan said, grateful for an excuse to get out of the house. “Let’s go hit a few.”
Dylan and Lance followed Justin out to the field. If the day had cooled at all it wasn’t noticeable. It felt like stepping out into a sauna. The sky was gauzy with humidity. Justin explained the rules: one person would be the pitcher, one the batter, and one the outfielder; if you made it to the frisbee and back, about twenty yards out before the outfielder caught you, you scored a run.
Justin was the first up at bat. Dylan took the outfield. Standing out there alone in that vast field, looking back at his father’s house, he felt a profound sense of despair settle over him.
Lance tossed an easy pitch, and Justin hit a line drive to right field. Dylan ran after it, scooped it up and raced in to try to catch Justin, but Justin was too fast and made it back to home, scoring a run.
Justin and Lance swapped, and Lance clobbered a homer on the first pitch far beyond Dylan.
“Whoa!” Justin exclaimed.
The ball was nearly at the edge of the woods by the time it rolled to a stop. Dylan jogged out and retrieved it, then walked back for his turn at bat. Lance was pitching.
“How you holding up, man?” Lance asked him.
“It feels like some weird dream.”
“What’s that about?”
“Frickin bizarre. Like he woke up this morning, thought to himself, I’m meeting my long-lost son today, I think I’ll wear my Poopsie T-shirt.”
Lance couldn’t help but laugh. “Ah man, I’m sorry, dude.”
“He probably wasn’t even thinking. Just grabbed the first shirt in his drawer and put it on.”
“Exactly. Couldn’t turn the TV off either. Sitting there with that damn golf tournament on the whole time.”
“Sorry about all that guitar playing. It just seemed like we needed something to break the ice.”
“No, I’m glad. You did good.”
“Come on! Pitch it!” Justin hollered from the outfield.
After Lance’s first pitch, a strike, the rest of the family came out to watch. Fran and Gerry set up folding chairs on the deck. Beth wanted to run out and play with them, but Fran wouldn’t let her. Too dangerous.
They stayed out there hitting the ball for about an hour, taking turns, the family cheering them on from the stands. The sun was on its way down now, but there was no sign of the heat letting up. Dylan and Lance hadn’t bargained on mosquitoes and soon were slapping and scratching themselves all over. At eight o’clock they decided to postpone the last three innings until tomorrow. Lance was in the lead with nine runs. Justin had six, Dylan three.
Fran and the kids went back inside to watch TV.
“Let me show you my workshop,” Gerry said, coming down from the deck. He had put on a pair of blue plastic flip-flops.
They followed him over to a small building of simple construction near the far side of the back of the house. He unlocked the door, stepped in, and turned on the lights. Dylan and Lance followed him in. It was roasting in there. The walls were lined with tools and toolboxes, and it smelled strongly of cut wood and oil. Gerry went over and turned on an oscillating fan sitting on one of the countertops, blowing some wood shavings to the floor. On a workbench in the middle of the room stood a huge, two-story doll’s house, about four feet wide, two deep.
“Did you make this?” Dylan asked.
“I’m still working on it. It’s a birthday present for Beth. She’ll be five in a couple weeks.”
Gerry told them he had built the entire thing from scratch, not from a kit. It was a brick house, though the bricks were an illusion created by sheets of red sandpaper with the mortar lines painted in. The entire front of the house could be slid up and out of a slot, which Gerry presently did, revealing all the rooms inside.
Dylan and Lance leaned over and peered into the empty rooms, at present completely unfurnished. Gerry said he didn’t have the skill or the wherewithal to make the furniture and rugs and decorations and such; that would be Fran’s and Beth’s hobby, to furnish it. There were catalogs, of course, where you could buy all the stuff, but he thought it would be funner for them to go around to garage sales and toy shops, looking for things.
“You guys want a beer?” he asked.
He went over to a small refrigerator and brought back three cans of Coors. They cracked them open and drank.
The stained wood floors in all the rooms were particularly nice, nicer in fact than the floors in the real house, Dylan thought. The bathroom had a miniature sink, toilet, and bathtub in it.
“You didn’t make those, did you?” Dylan asked.
“Nah, we sometimes get these little promotional things in the shop. That’s what gave me the idea for the house in the first place. I built it to scale with the toilet and the bathtub.”
“That’s pretty funny,” Lance said.
“What about the floor?” Dylan asked, still looking at the bathroom.
“That’s one single piece of tile that already had that pattern on it. I just cut it to size and dropped it in there.”
“Are the windows real glass?”
“Yep. I cut them and built the frames and glued them in.”
“She’s going to love it,” Lance said.
“I hope so. I’ve been working on it plum near a year.”
“Has she seen it yet?”
“If she has she sure knows how to keep a secret. Justin’s seen it, but he’s been good about not tellin her. He kinda hints at it sometimes.”
All the while his dad was talking, Dylan’s eyes kept being drawn, as if by some irresistible force, to that big “Poopsie” and that grinning caricature on Gerry’s T-shirt.
They drank their beers, looking at and talking about the house. When they were done looking, Gerry slid the front wall back into place.
“I thought I’d take you by the old house tomorrow,” he said. “Over in Accident. You can see where you lived when you were a baby. Show you the hospital where you were born. Then we’ll have a little get together at my folks’ place. You can meet some of your aunts and uncles and cousins. Later on, if you’re up for it, we’ll take you to the Crab Shack.”
“Crab,” Lance said approvingly. “Sounds good.”
Back in the house, Dylan and Lance were commandeered by the kids and ended up in Justin’s bedroom for an hour looking at all of his baseball cards and the various toys that Beth kept bringing in from her room to show them. At 9:30 Fran came in and told the kids it was time to get ready for bed.
“We’re all usually up at the crack of dawn,” she told Dylan and Lance, “so we get to bed pretty early. You’re welcome to stay up and watch TV or whatever. There’s some movies there in the cabinet. Help yourselves to anything in the kitchen.”
Dylan and Lance said they were pretty tired themselves.
“There’s clean towels for you guys down on your beds. Are scrambled eggs all right for breakfast?”
Gerry said he was turning in as well. At last, the TV was turned off. Dylan and Lance said goodnight to everybody.
Dylan headed down to the basement while Lance went out to get their bags from the car. His eye was drawn to a framed picture on one of the dressers. He walked over and took a closer look. It was a black-and-white portrait of Gerry as a young man, in his army uniform, an official photograph, the sort that proud parents place in a prominent position on the mantelpiece. He couldn’t have been more than a year or two older than Dylan was now, if not the exact same age, when the photograph was taken. He was in his formal coat, service cap on, looking noble beside an American flag. The astonishing thing was, he looked exactly like Dylan—or, rather, Dylan looked exactly like him. Same eyes, same nose, same chin, same lips, same cheeks. Same everything. It may as well have been a photograph of Dylan dressed up in an army uniform.
When Lance returned, Dylan was still staring at the picture.
“Look at this, dude,” he said.
Lance set the bags down and came over to see.
“It’s you! That is so freaky.”
“I’m in hell,” Dylan said, setting the picture back on the dresser.
Lance looked at him. “I know.”
“I’ve got to get out of here.”
“What do you want to do?”
“What are you going to tell them?”
“Nothing. Just go.”
“Without saying anything? We can’t do that.”
“It would be rude as hell, and cowardly.”
“I don’t care. I’ve got to get out of here. I’ve got nothing to say to him. We have absolutely nothing in common. Why should we go on with this farce? There’s no way in hell I’m spending an entire day with them and the rest of his redneck family.”
“We can’t drive all the way back to New York tonight. Where would we sleep?”
“Forget sleep. We’ll sleep in a parking lot if we have to.”
“But what do we tell them? We have to tell them something.”
“No, we don’t. We just wait until they’re asleep and sneak out.”
Lance stood there thinking.
“It doesn’t feel right to me,” he said. “I know you’re in hell, but the man is trying. I’m sure it’s not easy for him, either.”
“Do you think I really give a fuck about his feelings? What did he ever do for me and my mom? The fucker never even paid child support.”
“But you knew all that before you decided to come. You weren’t expecting to suddenly be bosom buddies, were you? I thought we came just to satisfy your curiosity.”
“We did. I’ve satisfied it. Now I want to leave.”
Lance thought some more.
“What about just coming up with some excuse in the morning,” he suggested, “some reason we have to leave earlier than planned?”
“I don’t know, I misread the time on the tickets or something.”
“Come on, man. They already know we’re not flying out till Wednesday.”
Lance tried every angle, but nothing could dissuade Dylan. He had to get out of there.
Lance tried every angle, but nothing could dissuade Dylan. He had to get out of there. And so Lance had no choice but to relent and go along with the plan, which was to wait an hour or so, until everyone was asleep, then steal out as quickly and quietly as possible.
It was a long hour. They lay on their respective beds, reliving all the strange moments of the day, which Dylan summed up as “exquisite torture,” and while Lance didn’t see it quite the same way, he commiserated with his friend. After all, the trip had been his idea. The onus was now on him to alleviate Dylan’s suffering.
At 10:30, by Dylan’s watch, they got up from their beds and grabbed their bags. Dylan went over to the dresser where the photograph of his father was, and without hesitation or comment he grabbed the picture and put it in his bag. Lance didn’t say anything. Quietly they walked up the stairs and opened the door. Dylan stood in the doorway for a moment, listening. The house was quiet. A small bunny rabbit nightlight shed a soft, warm glow down the otherwise dark hallway. They tread softly to the living room, the floor creaking here and there, and over to the sliding glass door. Dylan pulled the curtain aside a little, found the latch and pressed it up, unlocking the door. But when he tried to slide the door open it only moved half an inch. He tried more forcefully, but it wouldn’t budge. For a terrifying moment, he feared he would never be able to leave this house.
Lance stepped closer and lifted the curtain. He looked around the edge of the doorframe, which was barely illuminated by the light of the moon. Then, spotting something, he reached down and removed a length of broomstick that was wedged into the groove at the bottom. He set it gently on the floor, and Dylan slid open the door just wide enough for them to get through, then slid it closed behind them.
They hurried across the deck, down the stairs, and around to the driveway. They nearly jumped out of their skins when the security light suddenly came on. They jogged the rest of the way to the car, opened the front doors, threw their bags into the back seat and got in, careful not to close the doors all the way.
Dylan, in the driver’s seat, started the car, backed out onto the road, turned on the headlights, and drove away.