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Orphan by Brady Golden

Orphan by Brady Golden

Fiction, Vol. 1.3, Dec. 2007

When Angela’s sister died, I didn’t embarrass myself by pretending to understand. I had no frame of reference for her grief. I took a few days off from the insurance company where I entered data, and rented a car to drive us down to Bakersfield. Her mother, sick with Parkinson’s, had been in an assisted living community for the past few years, so I booked us a room at a Travelodge. I hugged her when she pressed into me and held her when she slept. Beyond that, I couldn’t know what she needed, and she didn’t say.

Her brother-in-law had flipped his SUV on the freeway, killing himself and his wife on their way to pick up their daughter from a friend’s house. The attorney wouldn’t let me come to the meeting with the representative from child services. It was for family members only. I’d spent my own childhood around judges and civil servants and lawyers. I knew what went on in these meetings. Around authority figures, Angela either froze up or became uncontrollably hostile. She and our landlord couldn’t pass each other in the hall without getting into screaming matches.

With her mother’s health problems and her father out of the picture, it fell to Angela to become Emma’s guardian. It was all decided without me. I was twenty-three, same as her.

After the funeral, we cleared the belongings out of the dead couple’s house. Some things we sent up to our apartment in San Francisco, some we put in a storage unit, and a lot we gave to Goodwill. Two days later, we checked out of the motel and drove to the house where Emma had been staying since the accident.

George and Claire Anderson were in their late-thirties and childless. They’d been friends of Emma’s parents. George worked for a contracting firm that handled most of the major commercial plumbing and electrical work in the San Joaquin Valley. We’d spoken a little at the funeral, but he was more interested in Angela than in me. His wife had had nothing to say to either of us.

They lived in a development near the freeway, and their two-story looked the same as the rest on the block. I recognized George’s Miata in the driveway. Two days ago I’d followed it from the church to the cemetery. I’d seen my headlights reflected on its bumper in the middle of the afternoon.

I parked and followed Angela up the concrete walk that bisected their lawn. She wore a pair of black jeans, slashed at the knees, a sweatshirt, and a pair of decayed sneakers. A bandana held her chopped, bleached hair from her face.

Claire Anderson met us at the door.

“George’s helping Emma upstairs. Let me get you a drink. We have all these juice boxes.”

Angela stopped in front of a table by the door. I had to peer around her to see what had stolen her attention: a black and bronze statue of a cowboy on a bucking horse. It looked like a gift a tobacco company might give to reward loyal smokers.

“Maybe I should go up there,” I said. “I could help.”

“I think they want some alone time. They’re real close. Even before she started staying here. They’ve always gotten along real well.”

“That’s great,” Angela said.

We declined the juice offer, but she led us into the kitchen anyway, and we sat at a table and listened to the thumps and the scrapes on the ceiling.

“Do you think they’re going to take long?” Angela said. “We need to get on the road.”

I sucked a heavy breath and coughed into my fist.

“Have you had a chance to think about schooling yet?” Claire said.

“I think we’re just going to send her to public school. Right, Rob?” Angela said.

“In San Francisco?” Claire said.

“I’m a public school kid and I came out okay.”

“Yeah,” Claire said. “Yeah, I know, and your sister, too. I’ve just heard that city schools aren’t, well—”

“There are magnet schools,” I said. “And we’re going to look into the financial aid situation with some of the privates. We have a lot of research to do. A lot to look at.”

A mental list of Emma-centric issues that would need to be dealt with had been growing all weekend. School, clothes, food, money, our apartment, furniture, a pediatrician, our jobs, our friends, our neighborhood. It was straining my composure. But it was also a list of things that I was sure that Angela had yet to think about. Which meant that I would.

A few minutes later, George appeared in the kitchen, large and heavy-set, with a shaved head and small, widely-spaced eyes.

“Good morning, Angela. Robert.”

I stood up.

“Hello, George.”

In each hand he held a suitcase, one large and wheeled, and the other small, made of shiny pink plastic, and decorated with dancing circus animals.

Peeking out from behind him, holding fast onto his leg, was the seven-year-old we’d come to claim. Seven years old. Little Orphan Emma. Her blue jeans were cuffed at the ankles and her red jacket was zipped to her neck.”Hey there, sweetie,” Angela said.

“Hi, Aunt Angela.”

“Hello, Emma,” I said.

She looked at George’s feet. When I’d told Angela that I was afraid that Emma didn’t like me, she’d assured me that I had no cause for worry.

“She doesn’t get who you are,” she’d said. “We’re not married but she’s supposed to call you ‘Uncle’? That’s confusing for a kid. She’ll figure it out. You’re absolutely family.”

“She calls Claire and George ‘Aunt’ and ‘Uncle.'”

“It doesn’t mean the same thing.”

Her insight had struck me. Statements about “family” and its mysteries often rang with a certain amount of wisdom to my ears.

“We’re going to San Francisco today, aren’t we, sweetie?” Angela said.

“There’s lots of fog so I’m wearing my jacket,” Emma said.

“What have these two been telling you?” Angela said. “We’re not going to Antarctica.”

“It can get pretty cold,” I said.

“San Francisco’s where the Golden Gate Bridge is,” Emma said.

“That’s right. It is. We can go see it soon. Tomorrow, maybe. Would you like that?”

“Don’t forget. The movers are coming tomorrow,” George said.

We loaded Emma’s suitcases into the car. Claire was on the verge of tears, and George looked like he was ready to punch through a wall, but Emma said her goodbyes with a smile.

As Claire and Angela fussed over Emma in the backseat, I stood in the front door with George and watched. He reminded me what time to expect the movers, and I thanked him for his and his wife’s help over the past few days.

“I talked to your girl last night,” he said. “Did she mention it?”

I shook my head.

“I didn’t think so. We talked about Emma. About what’s best —about what might be best for Emma.” He paused to let me respond, but I didn’t. “Me and Claire, we love that kid. And we’d be happy to take her off your hands. Hell, we’d love to do it.”

“It’s not really up to me.”

“Rob, I like you, buddy, but I have to lay it out here for you. Just going to be totally honest.” He stepped closer to me, drawing attention to his own height and bulk. “Emma’s parents were very important to Claire and me.”

“I get that,” I said. “I know Angela doesn’t seem like she’s got it all together. Maybe she doesn’t know what she’s in for, but I’ll be there, too. And I’m going to do everything I can. Whatever I have to.”

“Strange that I don’t feel better.”

He folded his arms in front of his chest, and I realized what “lay it out” meant. I was being scolded for being here, for my attachment to Angela, for complicity. I’d misjudged George Anderson. But he’d misjudged me, too.

“How about not standing so close, George?” I said.

“You can’t give Emma what she needs, buddy. You know you can’t.”

“You don’t know that.”

“Of course I do,” he said. “You’re a kid. Look at you two. You think you’re ready for this? Me and Claire, we’ve known her her whole life. We love her. And you know we’ve got the means, buddy. We’ve got the means to take care of her.”

“Angela cares about her, too, and I care about Angela. So that’s how it’s going to be.”

“Cares about her? Fantastic. But does she know her? Does she know what it takes to take care of someone? We’ve looked into this. We’re ready.”

Claire closed the car door and started toward us. It was time to go, time for me to drive us away, time for me to start us on this new life. Angela had assured me that I was “absolutely family,” but she’d jumped the gun. There was no family to be a part of, only a family to create. When I got in that car, when I turned that key, that would be it.

“Taking care . . . caring’s part of it,” I said.

“Yeah, you’re the master of the situation, aren’t you? Just try and remember when all this falls to crap, when you start using your head, me and Claire, we’re here. And we want to do this. We can do this.”

“I’ll be sure to keep that in mind.”

“Help me out, buddy.” I heard a warble beneath his stern tone. “Help me out, and help Claire out, help Emma out. Christ, buddy, help yourself out. Help your girl out. You know how hard this is going to be. You know it. And you don’t want it.”

***

A pileup on the 5 doubled our time on the road. Emma cried and demanded multiple bathroom stops. Angela cried, too, but she kept it quiet and hidden. She impressed me.

The evening fog greeted us when we dropped into the city, lit a radioactive orange by the streetlights and carried along by a Pacific breeze. It crawled over and between the two-stories that made up the outer avenues.

At the apartment, the girls collapsed onto the living room sofa. Emma pressed her head into Angela’s lap.

“Let’s get unpacked so Emma can get some sleep,” I said.

“I’m not sleepy because I slept in the car,” Emma said.

“When did that happen?” I said.

Angela cocked a skeptical eyebrow. She dragged her fingertips across the child’s cheek. Emma turned her face to accept the touch.

“Well I’m tired,” I said.

The admission, not directed at anyone, lingered uncomfortably without a response.

“What about some food?” I said. “I’ll make some food.”

“I’m not hungry,” Emma said.

“Oh, come on. You haven’t eaten all day.”

“I had Jack-in-the-Box!”

“You had some French fries four hours ago.”

“Christ, Rob,” Angela said. “What are you, arguing here? If she says she’s not hungry, she’s not hungry.”

I went down the hall to the kitchen.

My apartment hadn’t always been such a mess. For the six months that I’d lived alone, I’d furnished the essentials —a bed, a dresser, a bookshelf —and I owned little beyond my clothes. I liked living in emptiness. The carpet was a bland beige-grey, the color of oatmeal. I felt Japanese in my minimalism, enlightened in my freedom from clutter. The group homes and dormitories where I’d grown up were like overstock warehouses for children. We’d lived on top of one another. Open space was a reward.

Angela and I began dating a year and a half ago. When she moved in, her stuff washed over my one-bedroom like a tsunami’s debris. CD racks and bookshelves and a dressing screen and matching velour chairs and a lime green shag throw rug buried my floor. Movie and music posters went up on my walls like bills pasted in subway stations. Candles of all colors, heights, and girths lined my windowsills. A family of garden gnomes took up residence in my hallway. Plastic figurines of Japanese robots and characters from Saturday morning cartoons formed armies on every available flat surface. The coat rack she deposited by the door looked like a Dr. Seuss-ian tree once she’d draped her jackets over it. We hid milk crates full of records in corners and closets. When we couldn’t fit any more of her mismatched plates, bowls, and cups inside the kitchen cabinets, we stacked them on the countertops.

On pay days, she came home with more. More records, more lamps, more statuettes and toys, more obscure knickknacks that fulfilled no purpose beyond occupying space.

I surprised myself by not minding. The full commitment to a lack of impulse control, to buying everything that caught her eye without regard to financial or spatial consequence evidenced a freedom from fear that I could never hope to achieve. That the things that caught her eye were so ugly made her compulsive spending endearing on top of admirable.

Over time, the clutter became invisible. I could no longer keep track of the individual pieces of junk that she brought home; they came together to form a single mass, like a trash heap at the dump. Does the heap become something different if a single fast food wrapper is removed, or if an old newspaper is added?

Sometimes we would play a game where she would ask me to spot the new item she’d brought home in my absence. I would wander through the apartment picking up old lunchboxes and souvenir ashtrays that I didn’t recognize.

“It’s this, right? I’ve never seen this before.”

“Baby,” she would say. “You’re so oblivious.”

Now, navigating through the clutter, I was suddenly aware of it again. All the things that could break, all the precarious stacks that could tip over, our apartment was a minefield for a child.

In the refrigerator, hidden among the beer bottles and half-empty take-out containers, I found the essentials of a sandwich, which I assembled on a plate and carried down the hall. I paused when I heard crying.

“Sh, sweetie. Sh. I know. Your mommy and daddy love you very much, sweetie, sh. You’re not alone. You’ll never be alone. Sh.”

They didn’t acknowledge me when I stepped through the door. Puffy eyes and red cheeks brought out a family resemblance that I’d failed to see before.

“I made a sandwich. I hope you like turkey.”

“Jesus, Rob.”

I balanced the plate on an arm of the sofa.

“Where’s your dining room?” Emma said.

“This is a small apartment, honey,” Angela said. “We don’t have a dining room.”

“Do you have a dining room table?”

Angela’s eyes met with mine. I saw surprise and worry in them, and I realized that, for the first time in my life, I was participating in one of those exchanged glances that adults, despite their own childhood experience, believed kids couldn’t perceive.

“Where are we supposed to eat?” Emma demanded. She threw up her hands at our silence, a display of dramatic exasperation.

“We eat wherever we want to, honey,” Angela said. “On the floor, on the couch, wherever.”

“You can’t eat without a table! It’s rude!”

I left them alone. Half an hour later, I returned to find the empty plate on the floor in the hall, spotted with crumbs.

***

We put Emma to bed on the sofa beneath some extra blankets, and then turned in ourselves. In the dark, Angela asked if tomorrow I could take the day off to watch Emma. Her boss at the pet store had recently warned her about missing too much work —Angela used her frequent hangovers, even the mild ones, as justification for personal time —and she was worried about losing her job.

“So I watch her tomorrow,” I said. “What about after that?”

“I don’t know, baby,” she said. “School. Daycare. A sitter. I’m wrecked. Can we do this later?”

Streetlights cut through the window blinds and cast crooked yellow stripes along the opposite wall. It was Monday night, but outside was loud with laughing bar-hoppers and cranked up car stereos. The sounds traveled up to our bedroom, and on the way all balled together into a single, inseparable auditory mass.

“You didn’t mention that that George guy wanted to adopt Emma,” I said.

“No,” she said. “I guess I was thinking about other stuff.”

“Yeah. Well, he’s not. He cornered me about it this morning.”

She didn’t move. The mattress that connected us amplified her stillness. The instinct to create a physical connection in moments of conflict urged me to cross the foot and a half gap between our bodies, but I resisted. I wasn’t sure that I was ready to announce to her that there actually was a conflict. I still hoped that maybe there wasn’t.

“What do you think we should do?” she said.

“I hate to say it.”

“Say it.”

“I think if Emma stays here, we could be heading into a real disaster.”

Her hand found mine under the covers.

“Sweetie, I know it’s been hard for you,” she said. “It’ll get easier. You just have to learn how to talk to her.”

“That’s not what I meant.” I tried not to let the sting she’d landed come through in my words.

“What then?”

“Angela, you work in a pet store. The longest job you ever held was six months. You go out drinking, what, three, four nights a week? You live on pizza and Chinese food.”

She snatched her hand away.

“Say what you’re trying to say, Rob.”

“I’m saying that—”

“You’re saying that I can’t take care of my own niece?”

“Do you even want to? Seriously. Think about it. No social life. No money. No nothing but her. Do you even want to?”

“I’m not stupid,” she said. “I know it’s going to be hard. But her parents are dead. What am I supposed to do?”

“Give her to someone with the—” I caught myself before I said ‘means.’

She sat up and kicked off the sheets. In the dark I couldn’t see the astonishment and indignation played out on her face, but I knew the look that accompanied the voice.

“What am I supposed to do with this, Rob? What am I supposed to do when you of all people have no faith in me? What the hell’s the point in having a boyfriend who has no faith in you?”

“It’s not about faith,” I said, and it wasn’t. Faith has to do with the unknown, with making the decision to recognize a possibility, even a remote one, as fact. Free of doubt, I knew that Angela could not take care of Emma, with or without my help.

Her grey shape shot from the bed to the door. I could only make out traces of her: her t-shirt, her messy hair, her bare legs.

“She’s my niece, Rob. Her parents are dead, and George and whatever her name is aren’t a thing to her. I get that you never had a family, that you don’t get family, that it’s this perpetual mystery to you, or whatever, and I’m sorry. But Emma needs family. You don’t get that, fine. But accept that it’s important. Make a goddamned effort to accept it.”

I listened to her bare feet on our hall carpet, and chose not to follow her when I heard the living room door open and shut.

***

Angela was wrong. For one solid year, I did have a family. It was before I was eight years old and living in the suburbs with the Born-Agains who fostered a dozen kids and tried to pamper the homesickness out of us, before I was sixteen and moved in with Grandpa, who stank up the house with his constant smoking and mistook me for my uncle half the time, before I spent six months at the Hallelujah Boys Ranch, sharing a room with a two-hundred-pound thirteen-year-old who put matches out on his arms when he thought I was asleep, and before my two years with Norma Gringolt, whose daughter smelled like apricots and once showed me the tattoo on her stomach that her mother didn’t know about.

I was four and living with my mom when my grandmothers announced that they had been in contact with one another, and that after some discussion, they had decided that my parents needed to marry. Nevermind that they’d stopped seeing each other before I was born, or that my father had two kids from a previous marriage whom he’d already proven himself incapable of caring for; the only way I could ever hope to live a happy life was if Mom and Dad came together in the eyes of God and the state.

And they did. They knew they didn’t love each other. Whether or not they yet knew that they didn’t love me didn’t prevent them from wanting me to have that happy life of which their mothers spoke. We lived in a trailer behind Dad’s boss’s house, and my parents did their best to act married. He installed sheet metal and she answered phones at a real estate office. My days were divided between pre-school and the houses of the friends and family members who could watch me while my parents worked. At night we ate dinner together. Our family time was cordial if not affectionate. There were no memorable fights, no unpleasantness that left an impression. The few scenes that I could remember from that year were quiet ones —no one speaking, no one minding the silence. My parents were doing what they had to do, and if they didn’t enjoy it, they didn’t begrudge it.

Everything ended when the police arrested my father for braining a coworker with a wrench in a bar parking lot. My mother deposited me in the back seat of a friend’s car and disappeared for five years. As a child, I knew nothing of his drinking or of her promiscuity. I only knew that they’d done their best, and that it hadn’t been enough. They were who they were, and the best intentions in the world couldn’t change it.

***

The next morning, I found the girls spooning on the couch. In their sleep, they’d kicked the blankets to the floor, where they lay in an enspiralled heap. Emma had both Angela’s arms pinned to her chest; she wore her aunt like a bear-skin rug.

In my boxers and t-shirt, I brought my cell phone out into the stairwell. The walls were a shiny yellow cream.

George picked up on the first ring.

“Who is this?”

“It’s Rob, George. Angela’s friend. I’m sorry for calling so early.”

“You didn’t. I’m at work already. What do you want?”

“You’re right,” I said. “That’s all I called to say. I think you’re right.”

He didn’t answer for a moment. All I heard was the fuzzy hum of cellular dead air.

“That’s great,” he breathed.

“I’ll talk to her,” I said. “It’ll take some work, but I’ll talk to her.”

“Buddy, I can’t tell you how smart you’re being. I knew it. I knew you were a smart guy. A good, smart guy.”

I peered over the banister. The stairwell ran up the center of our building like a spinal column, wrapping around itself in tight coils: ten steep stairs, turn right, ten feet of landing, turn right, ten more stairs. At the bottom, I could see the mud-colored mosaic tiles of the lobby floor, caught in the morning light coming in through the barred windows. Once, after a night at the bars, Angela leaned out over the banister, stared straight down, and declared that she could see the spiral spinning. I tried to pull her back, afraid that she might tip over and fall. All she did was puke.

***

The movers arrived at noon. Angela was at work. They stacked boxes in the corner of the living room, two precarious towers, until the whole room bore the mulch-and-dust smell of cardboard. Some of it was stuff we’d scavenged for ourselves, but there were also toys and clothes and child-sized pieces of furniture. They brought up Emma’s desk and chair and particle-board dresser. Then came her twin bed, which they leaned up against the wall. The mattress drooped.

After I paid the movers, Emma and I stood together and looked at her unpacked life squeezed into the empty spaces in our apartment, and I’m sure she wondered the same thing as me: How could it all fit?

I suggested that we find something for her to play with. Her eyes didn’t exactly light up, but they glinted with more approval than I’d gotten so far.

I pulled a box down from the pile and slit the packing tape with my pocket knife. Emma peeked over my shoulder at the mess of Styrofoam peanuts inside. I dug around and pulled out the first thing I found: a rose-tinted wine glass. Inside there were five more just like it.

“Sorry about that,” I said.

“It’s okay, Uncle Rob.”

“You don’t have to call me ‘Uncle’ if you don’t want to,” I said. “If it’s weird.”

“An Uncle is a man who is your mom or your dad’s brother,” she explained. “Or a man who is married to your aunt.”

“But I’m not.”

“But it can also mean a grown-up friend,” she said. “Like Uncle George and Aunt Claire.”

“But we’re not friends.”

“Uh-unh.”

We’d both said it, said what we meant to each other. We’d spoken without concern for feelings. I felt exhilarated.

I opened another, which held a KitchenAid blender and a stainless steel frying pan, and another, that was all crystal fingerbowls. I was reaching for the next box when Emma suggested that we do this later.

“Did you like staying with the Andersons?” I said.

“Who?”

“Uncle George and Aunt Claire.”

“‘S’okay.”

“Do you want to live with us?”

She shrugged.

“If you could live with anyone you wanted,” I said. “Who would it be?”

She lowered her head. For a quiet moment, she looked as though she were in prayer, or perhaps as though she had fallen asleep on her feet. With her week, it wouldn’t have surprised me if she had.

I waited for her.

She looked right at me, showed me that her eyes had misted over, that her cheeks had reddened, and that even if I’d asked the right question, it had been a stupid one. If she could live with anyone, it wouldn’t be the Andersons, it wouldn’t be Angela, and it wouldn’t be me. But she didn’t have that choice, because she was entirely alone.

***

The leopard-print sign hung over the front door, announcing the name and the wares of the store: The Spacelounge: Vintage Furniture and Deco. Old mannequin heads capped with Crayola-colored wigs filled the storefront window, rows stacked upon rows, pursed lips, come-hither looks, jagged black cracks in their matching, dull peach skin.

Emma squirmed under their collective gaze.

I took her hand. With a glance she told me that this was not the thing to do, so I let her go. We went inside.

The store specialized in tacky kitsch from the fifties, sixties and seventies. We passed a set of red-topped stainless steel barstools from an old malt stand, a complete set of Lost in Space dolls still in their boxes, a faded poster for the movie Gidget. I lost Emma to a plastic garbage can running over with Barbies in various states of dismemberment and nudity. While she fished around inside, I moved further into the store.

The few dining tables that I found hidden in the clutter, buried beneath souvenir hotel ashtrays, dirty martini glasses, and dashboard hula dolls, were made of Formica, plastic and glass, shiny and pointy and awkward.

I’d made a mistake coming here.

It had been Angela’s suggestion. I’d called her at work to declare my plan to find and buy a table. If I’d expected any recognition or gratitude for my change of heart, for my show of commitment, I didn’t receive it. She just asked me to wait until her next day off so that we could shop together.

“It has to be today,” I said. “I have to return the car tomorrow.”

She didn’t say anything for a moment. When she spoke, I could hear the breathiness of disappointment in her voice.

“Just be sure to check out this one place. I always go there. They have great stuff for real cheap.”

She’d given me the store’s address but not its name. I should have guessed what I’d find; my apartment was practically a Spacelounge showroom.

And then I came upon the right table. There was no trick. It was neither on display nor hidden, just another piece of furniture in a row of the stuff.

It was old and square-topped, a varnished, blackened wood. Its legs were carved and molded with rings and ridges. Gouges near the base were deep enough to reveal the yellow-pink fleshwood beneath, and frequent enough that the table appeared to be going barefoot.

Just then, my cell phone rang, a sharp chirp in the quiet store. When I saw Angela’s name on the digital screen, I silenced it, sending her to my voice mail, and dropped the phone back into my pocket. I ran my hand across the table’s finish, feeling the dust and chips and scratches.

***

I parked the car in front of my building. Lashed upside-down on top of the rental car, the table looked like antlers.

When I cut the engine, Emma jumped out and ran to the front door. A group of bums watched me walk around the car and frown. I’d had a hell of a time getting it out of the store and onto the roof. The matter of moving it up six flights of stairs hadn’t occurred to me until now.

I could sense the bemused gazes of the street people on my back as I tried lifting it by its side, by its legs, holding it out in front of me, hoisting it over my shoulders. I took two steps forward and the weight overwhelmed me. The whole world seemed to shift as the table slid down me like a child at a playground. It hit the curb with the sound of a tire spinning in gravel.

“You smashed your table all to hell,” a man said.

“Uncle George!” Emma shrieked, smiling, and threw her arms around his leg in a hug.

At first, I couldn’t process that she was right, that the man standing in front of my building in khaki pants and wire-framed sunglasses was actually George Anderson. A moment passed where all I could do was stare dumbly at his bulky frame and confident grin.

“George,” I said. “What are you doing here?”

“Popped up for a visit. And I, uh, I thought maybe we could continue our conversation from this morning. I left work right after you called. I’ve been driving all day.”

With a meaty hand, he mussed Emma’s hair, and she laughed like she’d never been happier. I examined her face for any indication of awkwardness or discomfort or an understanding that her laughter was a betrayal. Did she really belong in Bakersfield with this man and his wife? How would Angela take the sight of her niece clinging happily to George’s totem-pole thigh?

“This isn’t a good idea,” I said.

“Uncle George can help us unpack,” Emma said. She looked up at him. “The apartment’s real small. I sleep in the living room.”

“Is that right?” George said. “What say I give you a hand with that beast you got there, and then maybe I take you all out to dinner. We can talk about stuff.”

Before I could protest, he grabbed the table out of the gutter and flipped it so that we held opposite sides of its top.”

“It’s okay,” I said. “I can get it.”

“Like hell you can!”

He was right. Sometimes you have no choice.

I unlocked the front door and told Emma to meet us upstairs.

“No, stay with us,” George said. “You can help.”

“Go upstairs, Emma,” I said.

They exchanged an almost-hidden smirk before she trotted up. Her footsteps were sharp and heavy and they echoed down to us.

Walking backwards, I navigated us up the narrow stairwell, pulling us around corners as we made our way from one level to the next. I misjudged every turn, grinding the table’s corners against the wall. With every collision, we left behind a dark slash in the rubbery yellow paint.

“Listen, buddy,” George said. “I wanted to apologize for yesterday. If I was being, you know, condescending. I was. And I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay.”

“I talked down to you, and that wasn’t right. And you got pissed, like any man would. I know you work hard. You do good. You take care of yourself and your girl, and that’s admirable. Really.” He spoke with ease. The table’s weight did not faze him, but it was killing me. Sweat was forming beneath my fingertips, and I had to keep readjusting my grip to hang on. “So I figured maybe after dinner, you, me, and your girl and can sit down, maybe get a drink, and we can talk this out. You and me, maybe together we can talk some sense into her. Convince her to do the right thing.”

“You shouldn’t have driven all the way up here,” I said. “I was going to call you. To tell you that I changed my mind.”

Across the mahogany that connected us, I felt him tense.

“I just want what’s best for everybody,” he said. “For you, for Emma, for me. Right? You can see that. Raising this kid? It’s going to be next to impossible.”

“That doesn’t make it the wrong thing to do,” I said. “And just because maybe it’d be easier for you doesn’t make it right.”

He stopped.

“So that’s it?” he said. “You’re just changing your mind? Back and forth like that? So what happens the next time you change your mind? What the hell do you think this is?”

I avoided his eyes and kept moving, pulling him upward. I stepped up onto the sixth-floor landing, but George held fast on the stairs.

“Dammit, kid, listen to me. If you can’t stick to a decision for twenty-four hours, you don’t have a shot. And your girl? She isn’t ready for this. You just look at her and you know it. You two are going to blow it and the state’s going to take her away. To be raised by strangers. That’ll mess a kid up. You hear about it all the time.”

“I was raised by strangers.”

“Huh?”

“The government took me away.”

“Huh?”

A door opened behind me. Artificial light spilled out. I sensed Angela standing there before she spoke.

“Are you kidding me. You’ve got to be kidding me. You traitor.”

“Angela, listen to me,” George said. “Me and Rob, we were just talking, and—”

“You let him in?” she shouted. “You invited this son of a bitch in? Is that why you didn’t answer your phone? I needed your help, needed you to get this guy off of our doorbell, off of our doorstep, and you’re, what, conspiring with him? You’re supposed to be my partner here, and you’re conspiring with this son of a bitch?”

She stood only a foot or two away. I wanted to look at her, to see her, to show her the furniture I’d bought and carried, the work I’d done, but I couldn’t turn. The table bound me to George like a Chinese finger trap. All I could see of Angela was George’s reaction to her, his scorn written out on his twisted mouth.

My arms stung like hell. The sweat beneath my fingertips felt like used cooking oil.

“So help me God, George, get the hell out of here or I call the cops,” she said. “You can’t have her. She’s my niece! She’s my family! I don’t care what you think of me. I’m going to take care of her. Jesus Christ, Rob. You’re supposed to help me, goddammit. You’re supposed to be my partner.”

“I got a table,” I said.

“Look! He got us a dining room table!” The voice was Emma’s, and it was eager. She was just emerging from the apartment without any idea what she was walking into.

“You think this is a game?” George said. “You think you’re playing house? You are going to ruin this girl’s life. Why don’t you think about someone other than your goddamned selves!”

“Get out of here. Just get the hell out.”

My finger-pads squeaked.

Later, at the hospital, Angela and Emma would sit in the waiting room while the doctor checked George for a concussion and sewed six stitches into his forehead. I would be alone in the parking lot, vainly trying to get the blood out of the rental car’s upholstery with wads of rough, brown paper towels. At the end of the month, Angela would let me help them move into an apartment on the other side of the Bay. For the next year, I would see or hear from her with decreasing frequency, and she’d give me updates on her struggles with Emma: money, discipline, threatening phone calls and visits from the California Department of Child Support Services.

When I lost hold, the near-black tabletop, chipped and gouged, took George away. He seemed to shrink beneath it. First he was half there, then from the shoulders up, and then just the top of his bald head. I couldn’t hear the sounds of his own descent beneath the wooden bangs and cracks until he hit the landing below.

Architecture by Caitlin Horvat

Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right by D.E. Fredd

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