On the day of his mother’s wedding, Brian’s father took him to see Star Wars. With his feet sticking to the ground, they snaked their way into the back row of the theater and Brian’s father handed his son the tub of popcorn, the butter leaking down the side and onto Brian’s fingers.
There, as the daunting back story scrolled up the screen, Brian heard his dad sniffle. As the little rebel ship flew through space, pursued by the awesomely huge intergalactic star destroyer, Brian saw his father cover his eyes and lower his head. And as the storm troopers blew through the doors of the rebel ship and shot everyone down, Brian imagined being on board that rebel blockade runner so he could protect Princess Leia from Darth Vader. He could have found a way to hide her, a way to get her on an escape pod. Next to him, Brian’s father cried, but Brian said nothing, for he knew he wasn’t supposed to ask questions. He was 10.
In high school, as the fourth pitcher in the rotation on junior varsity, he’d spent nights watching ball games on the little black and white TV in his room. There at his desk, he imagined being Dennis Eckersley, the one who trotted out of the bullpen to sew up the game, the game he usually let slip through his glove.
His senior year of college, while he struggled to “find himself,” daunted by the prospect of a career and terrified of never finding one, he longed to be John McClane, the one to be hiding in the skyscraper, talking to the cops on the walkie-talkie, unfazed by the broken glass under his bare feet, swinging by a fire hose to shoot down the bad guys. What act would define his life and force everything into place? His marriage stabilized him, though his life coalesced two years later, when he cradled his new born son.
Dabbing little Kyle’s cheek with the hospital’s blue blanket, Brian whispered, “I’m going to be the best father the world has ever known; you’ll see, little man, you’ll see.”
At Kyle’s feeding time, Brian drove Ally crazy, constantly running his fingers along the underside of the highchair tray. “Just being careful,” he defended. When she mentioned moments like this, playful in her notice, she shook her head, like Brian was like a little puppy who just couldn’t help it. There in their bed, Ally would close whatever book she was reading, smile and her husband, and turn out the lights.
“You check every time we feed him, Brian, I think he’ll be fine,” Ally said. The moonlight smoothed out every subtle wrinkle in her soft face. She conked out after 17 minutes of stroking his thinning hair. She snored as her hand slumped on his side of their queen-sized bed. Once five minutes passed, he eased out of bed and down the hall.
From the doorway to Kyle’s room, he watched his son’s little face twitch. “Another good day,” he whispered to the sounds of the wind-chimes mobile coasting in mellow circles over Kyle’s head.
Then Kyle tried to learn to ride a bike. Even training wheels could not steady his bike as he wiggled it around the neighborhood.
“Look at the little retard,” Ally said the boys jeered. Brian had been sitting on the edge of a hotel bed, clutching the phone. His blood simmered as he pictured those brat kids laughing at his little boy with those plump fingers and unkempt hair. When he got back from his business trip, he would show them. Kyle would learn so those little shits could never laugh at him again.
That following Saturday morning, before the sun had a chance to warm the hard-wood floors beneath their feet, Brian woke Kyle.
“I don’t want to be up yet, Dad,” Kyle grumbled.
“It’s okay, buddy, we’re gonna get you dressed and get you some practice.” In the garage, Brian planted Kyle’s little body on that black vinyl seat, sans training wheels. Kyle rubbed the sleep out of his eyes as the garage door chugged open.
With Brian’s hand clutching the back of the seat, he circled them around the drive way. Gliding, the boy cried with glee. Confident his son was more comfortable, he released the handlebars and then the seat. The bike faltered. “Dad!” He grabbed the bike again. No matter how many times they circled, the boy could not maintain his balance. The sobbing started.
“Okay, buddy, let’s get this back in the garage.” As he leaned the bike against the wall, it wobbled. He steadied it then stepped back. The bike tire skidded and the frame clanked against the concrete.
The elderly woman sitting on a rickety-looking folding chair in the back of the thrift store examined the bike like it was stolen. “Hmm,” she said. The chain dangling from her thick glasses swung in time with her neck waddle. “Just need some ID,” and she handed Brian a clipboard.
Feeling like he was a player who had dropped the ball inches before the first down marker, Brian scribbled his name and information, pulled out his ID, and handed everything to the woman.
The bold colors on the signs in the window of the sporting goods store a block over teased him, so Brian entered. He passed the clothes racked near the front—sporty clothes that made him wish he hadn’t stopped his gym membership, and nodded to the clerk behind the counter, the one too busy texting to notice. He scrunched a couple cleats lining one of the walls. They looked cheap, like the stitching would give at any moment. The hardened glue created a little air bubble at the heel. He returned the shoe. In the back of the store, he perused the baseball rack, where he grabbed a stiff brown Rawlings glove. It creaked as he closed it. He tucked it in his armpit. On his way to the register, he snagged a Phillies hat and curled the brim.
Beaming, Brian strode into the family room, where Kyle was consumed with a video game. His fingers worked the controller buttons like he was sending a Morse code message. Brian blocked the TV, crouched, and tossed the baseball glove in his son’s lap.
“Who’s that for?” Kyle asked.
“It’s yours, buddy.”
He slid his hand inside and watched his fingers slide around. He hand tensed but the glove didn’t budge. He tossed it aside. “You’re in the way of the TV, Dad.”
Brian grabbed the glove. “I’ll just oil it up for you and leave it in your room.” He patted Kyle on the head as he walked towards the garage.
Around this time, Brian began ingesting a lot of antacid tabs, though he often forgot to carry them when he needed them most. At Back to School Night, Kyle’s second grade teacher kept studying him and Ally, even when she was bothering other parents. When Ms. Cassidy strolled over, Brian’s tongue swelled. “Mr. and Mrs. Greens? I’m Stacy Cassidy, Brian’s teacher. I was hoping you would show tonight. I have been meaning to have a sit down with you two about your son.” She cleared her throat. “Sorry, excuse me, got something caught there. Anyway, so Kyle; yes, well, I think you might look into some special tutoring for him. I am a bit worried about how he is progressing. He is a bit behind his classmates.”
So he’s a handful, a fuck-up, basically, is what Brian heard. He scoffed at her assessment. Oh no, his son would never be labeled “special needs.”
“What exactly do you mean, Ms. Cassidy?” Ally probed.
After 15 minutes of details and “options,” during which Brian noted the cracks in the cheap floor, the grime on the windows, the dust in the fluorescent lights overhead, and the subtle crack in the doorjamb corner, Brian clutched Ally’s bicep. She responded with a what-the-hell-are-you-doing look, punctuated with arched eyebrows and frosty tone to her “really?” They shared a silent car ride home.
Ally charged through their front door, paid the baby sitter, then excused herself to wash her hands. Brian crept upstairs, eased Kyle’s bedroom door open, and watched his little boy’s legs kick the covers in his sleep. “I’ll get you there, buddy; wherever there is, I’ll get you there.” He tiptoed across the carpet, gathered the Power Rangers and Tonka trucks littering the floor and lowered them into the toy bin without a sound. Quietly. That would be how he would handle this-quietly. You will not even know I’m helping you, buddy, no one will.
When junior high arrived—Kyle had to have been, say, 11?—Kyle moped home most days. With Kyle busy in his room, at the dining room table, Brian rested his aching head against his hand while he scanned Kyle’s overly complicated assignments.
“What the hell do these people want from these kids?” Brian’s elbow pinned his notebook pages, the ones scribbled to hell with his erasable pen, the one whose eraser had been chewed to the cap. How was Kyle supposed to get this work done if he couldn’t? Through the ceiling, Brian could hear Kyle rocking his desk chair back and forth. Hard at work, good. Of course, the PS2 might be on.
The garage door chugged. Brian hurried the assignment sheets into the notebook and slid it into the china hutch. Ally waltzed through the door.
“Uh, damn traffic,” she offered without being asked why she was late. She dropped her purse on the kitchen counter and approached the stack of mail. “Anything interesting in here?” she asked as she thumbed the envelopes.
Kyle galloped down the stairs, into the kitchen, and smothered his mother’s mid-section.
“How was school, honey?” Kyle shrugged. “What did you go over in class today?” He dipped his head like a dog being scolded for peeing on the carpet.
“Kyle, what did you cover in class today?”
He slumped away from her. She exhaled. “All right, we do this my way now.” She lifted his chin and shifted to meet his eyes. “I need you to go upstairs, unplug that game system and bring it to me. Now, please.”
Kyle stomped upstairs and Brian’s heart sank.
“What?” She demanded. With those intimidating folded arms, no wonder his son didn’t answer her.
“Nothing.” Ideas exploded in his mind.
“Your coddling is doing him no favors.”
That night, once Ally’s sleep-aid kicked in, Brian snuck Kyle’s backpack out of his son’s room. He cradled it down the stairs. At the dining room table, Brian unzipped the bag carefully, like he was removing a Jenga piece, and then fished out Kyle’s notebook. Turning the pages of sparse notes and a bunch of doodles, Brian found Kyle’s math homework. Even the twenty years since he had looked at integers could not prevent Brian from seeing his son had missed every single question. Maybe Kyle misunderstood the direction of the greater-than-less-than sign? Brian searched the backpack’s pocket for a pencil then used it to change all the wrong answers. The pencil nearly tore the thin brown paper. He needed to finish. The last thing he needed was his wife to sleepwalk right into him. There, that is enough for tonight. Zipping everything up, he realized he had better leave a few wrong, just to be safe.
Over the next month, Brian hummed as he repeated this homework clean-up duty. Then the first report card came home with Kyle.
“What does she mean, ‘There seems to be a disconnect between his homework and his tests’?” Ally demanded from no one in particular, though Brian tucked his hands in his waistband. “I’ll call her from the office tomorrow.” Ally slipped the card into her briefcase.
I must not tell her, Brian thought, as he returned to stirring the pasta sauce on the stove. With the ratty dishrag, he dabbed the splatter on the counter. As he watched the rolling boil in the pasta pot quicken, he plotted. There had to be a way to help Kyle through his tests. If at first you do not succeed, try, try again. Ally trucked upstairs to change.
But, before he could rally his efforts, Ally delivered the news the next day: “That’s it, Kyle needs a tutor.” Brian swallowed hard. As long as Kyle did not get singled out in school, Brian could deal. Maybe. They found this guy, Nate, who promised to get Kyle “on the right track” with his math and science. Brian couldn’t stand the fact that this guy didn’t look like he had to shave. He was probably one of those guys that shaved down and then up—who does that? But he inexplicably ignored Kyle’s English class, so Brian kept sucking on his cough drop when Ally cut the check.
Of course Ally got tied up at work on Kyle’s first night of tutoring, but Brian asserted over the phone “Work’s got me buried,” as he sat at his empty desk. Though irritated—something about Brian not helping where he needed to—Ally managed to hustle home. Later that night, while Ally read in bed, Brian retreated to their bathroom.
“So Nate thinks Kyle will get on course eventually, but he needs to get a better handle on the fundamentals.” She started the next sentence and Brian cranked the water faucet and spread his toothpaste. The motor on his toothbrush never sounded so soothing.
In the weeks that followed, when Nate called with his little status reports—ones that included words and phrases like “condition,” “intensive” and “special allowances at school”—Brian did his best to pass the phone as quickly as he could. Still, Ally deliberately repeated the assessment out-loud with Nate still on the line. The roots of Brian’s teeth throbbed while Ally twirled the phone cord the way she used to work her long curly brown hair back when they were dating. He used to love that image. Were moments like this the reason people always reached for a cigarette? He couldn’t shovel the pretzels into his mouth fast enough, even though he hated the ones that had lost all their salt.
Brian dodged the subsequent meeting with the school counselor; deadlines, projects, he told Ally, unable to control his flat tone. “Fine,” Ally said, as she slung her purse over her shoulder and snatched her keys off the counter. She straightened her suit jacket in the hall mirror and slammed the door. Why can’t I just tell you that I will not let some random person tell me I have dropped the ball as a parent? Through the front room window, Brian watched the taillights leave their street. How was he going to pull his child through this? At least Kyle did most of his English work at home, as opposed to some convoluted in-class exam. Kyle felt like a designated hitter waiting on the bench.
That spring semester, Brian ducked into Kyle’s room to find Pilgrim’s Progress stuffed into the mess of papers and dog-eared books in his backpack. Kyle had a report coming up on it, so Brian crept downstairs and cozied onto the couch. Under the reading lamp, he skipped the poem prologue and embraced the prose that felt familiar.
During the next few weeks, late at night, alone with the book, without his wife or son aware of his time in the computer room, Brian refined Kyle’s scattered ideas and corrected the commas in the essay. Ally attributed the good grade to the tutor (perhaps forgetting that “Nate” did not even look at Kyle’s English work); Brian only cared that his son’s English grade improved. That sneaky teacher still had to spring an in-class exam on them though. One step at a time, Brian told himself, as he devised a schedule for the next book. Kyle would have the important passages highlighted next time.
Brian enjoyed The Outsiders in 7th grade and noticed some things he had forgotten about in The Old Man and the Sea as well as The Pearl when Kyle hit 8th grade. The added benefit: Kyle believed he could write well. He figured he just wasn’t a good test-taker. Brian did nothing to discourage this belief, nor did Ally. Kyle wanted to tell his friends to buy used books: all the good parts are marked up for you already. (Brian coached his son to keep this revelation to himself.) While Ally encouraged, congratulated, Brian’s dinner tasted richer, heartier, and mid-afternoon crashes bothered him less and less. Still, he looked forward to the summer.
This whole separate writing lab and English class structure in high school, though, forced Brian to rethink his strategy. This new set-up, with its more “directed” learning, made helping difficult. The individual attention afforded Kyle made outside help obvious. So, for the next few years, Brian watched Kyle flounder. Embracing the special designation Ally and Nate demanded be made official, Kyle cursed his prior teachers for suggesting he could write. “These new teachers are being too hard on you, buddy.” Brian hugged his sobbing son. “You gotta dig in until you can get into college,” he assured. Then, the two of them would be free of everyone’s meddling. Brian didn’t see the fact that his son’s grade meant that he would need to go the community college routs until he demonstrated he could handle the workload. No, Brian chose to see it as a blessing: community college would be much more affordable.
That fall, when he returned from some errands, he mistakenly left one plastic bag in the chair by the front door. Before dinner, all carried it into the kitchen. “What’s this?” she asked as the clutched a crimson t-shirt with the nearest state university’s logo.
“Oh, just something I picked up when I was out.”
After an eye roll, she dumped the bag on a bar stool and left him alone in the kitchen. He knew he should have picked up one for Kyle as well, which he was sure was what bothered his wife.
A month and a half later, Brian clutched his son’s first college essay, one Brian had spent hours reworking, one shredded by sloppy red ink. “Dad, you said you would help me,” Kyle stammered. Brian flipped to the last page: “seems to be written by someone who is not in this class.” Was he insinuating that Kyle was cheating?
Clearly, helping was not cheating. Helping. Brian knew what his son needed. Why was this teacher attacking Kyle? Waiting for a reaction, Kyle fidgeted with his jacket zipper. His eyes pleaded for something Brian could not recognize. Brian would find it. He needed a new strategy. When Kyle had brought home that first English composition essay assignment, his heart swelled, as if he were a player returning from early retirement. But now…
“Dad?” Kyle stammered.
Brian’s tightening eyes reviewed each red-inked chicken scratch. All those damn questions and implied accusations, punctuated with threatening question marks in that damn red ink: To a wonderfully insightful assertion: Where is this coming from? To how they’d used a source: Were you not here when we discussed this in class? Referring to some revised transitions: We talked about this in conference; to comma usage and sentence construction that was just fine: Did you not understand what we spent covering over that hour in conference? Brian told himself the shivering sensation collecting in his lower back did not exist.
Brian should have heeded the signs, the anxiety in his son’s voice over the phone, who stressed about the confusing articles in his dense textbooks. He longed for the novels he’d had to read before—ones he thought he’d understood but could not quite recall—the ones that had all the good parts all marked up. Why did college only assign confusing articles? Fielding concerns like these, Brian dug his nails into his forearms. He’d wanted to reach right through the phone and retrieve Kyle’s textbooks, pick them apart, and return them in a bow. But this was reaching. The essays, Brian should have been able to help with those. Kyle’s scattered thoughts needed a deft hand to shape them. Why could his teacher not see that? Did Brian overdo it? Should he have been expected to allow his son to submit work in such disastrous shape? Where would that get his son?
His fist crinkled his son’s work. Nearby, Kyle sniffled. Those innocent eyes needed him. Had Brian’s heroes ever failed? Princess Leia ended up all right, Dennis Eckersley lost some games, and even John McClane made a bad movie by the time he got older. These thoughts filled him with trickles of encouragement. Perhaps he needed to let his son fail on his own. Would this make a strong man out of his son? But what about all that time spent studying and constructing, and highlighting, and erasing, and doing… was that all for nothing?
Kyle balled his fists in the sweatshirt sleeves. “Dad, what am I going to do?” Brian looked at the essay shrinking in his hand. He looked at his son and his mouth dropped. His voice disappeared.
Kyle darted upstairs and slammed a door. Brian’s legs felt cemented to the floor. Those legs were doing him a favor. He would let Ally believe that college writing was so much different than anything that had tested Kyle before. He would let her rage against all the money they had spent with the tutor. (Did “Nate” even tutor college students?) He would let her type the email she would never send to his old high school teachers, the one wondering why they hadn’t done enough to prepare her son for college. And he would encourage his son to find the special services department on campus so they could get him on track. With any luck, there was still time, time for Kyle. At the very least, for this Brian had hope. …but, of course, there was always next semester, wasn’t there? After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day.