Rocket Science

I pulled over to the curb at my father’s two story brick house. I smiled to myself, glad that my son spent afternoons with his grandfather. This was one thing, in all my screwed up life, I could feel good about. But the second I pulled up the parking brake, Caleb ran down the short path, flung open the passenger door, and threw himself into the car.

“What’s the matter?” I asked, leaning across to kiss him.

“Just drive,” he muttered.

I caught sight of my dad in the front window, arms folded across his chest. Normally I would stop for a brief chat, but Caleb’s attitude made that awkward. I met my dad’s eyes. “Thanks,” I mouthed.

He shook his head and rolled his eyes.  Kids today!

Figuring we could talk tomorrow, I put my foot on the gas. “What’s up, Kiddo?”

“I’m not going back there.” Caleb stretched one bony arm out the window.

“Yes, you are. We’ve been over this before. I don’t have anywhere else to leave you.”

“Why are you always telling me what to do?”

I sighed. My feet were screaming and my back was starting to chime in. “When you’re ten years old, your mother gets to tell you what to do. It’s not rocket science.”

Caleb changed the radio to rap music, and turned up the volume. I felt a migraine coming on. But I needed to win this battle. I couldn’t afford a babysitter, not on my salary from the care home, not after my ex had stopped sending cash, not after we’d paid the rent and bought food and clothes from Walmart. I couldn’t leave Caleb alone, and my dad enjoyed having his grandson around, even if he grumbled.

“What’s for dinner?”

I considered the contents of my fridge. Not promising. “Hotdogs,” I said, trying to muster enthusiasm.

“I don’t like hotdogs.”

“You liked ’em last week.”

“And I don’t want to go back to Grandpa’s.”

I drummed my fingers on the steering wheel, inwardly cursing the driver ahead of me who kept slowing down at each intersection. I wanted to be home, done with dinner, and relaxing in front of the TV.

“What’s wrong with Grandpa’s place? He has air conditioning,” I said noting the hot air that moved sluggishly through the open windows of my car, “And Netflix and a rope swing.”

Caleb shook his head.

“And he has lots of war stories. You just get him talking.”

“I don’t like his talking,” Caleb mumbled, staring at the strip malls we passed.

“Why not?”

“He says things…”

I waited.

“Things that make me uncomfortable. Nasty things.”

I manoevred the car into the parking lot of our apartment building and braked hard.

Caleb tried the door, but the child locks were on.

“Tell me!” I said calmly, although in my mind I was smashing the car into the row of metal trash cans.

Caleb picked at the tear in the plastic of his seat and said slowly, without looking at me. “He showed me this magazine with pictures of ladies without their underwear.” He stopped and let out a big deflated sigh. “It looked like the camera went right up between their legs.”  His pale skin colored under the freckles. “Grandpa said he enjoyed looking at those pictures and he said I would too–if I wasn’t a pussy.”

I gripped the wheel, leaving fingernail scars in the fake leather. “No!”

“You don’t believe me?”

“I believe you… It’s just…” I couldn’t think what to say. “Come here.”

He leaned towards me and I pulled him tight against my chest until he wriggled uncomfortably.

“Go inside,” I said. “We’ll talk about this later.”

He made a face. He deserved more of a reaction, but I needed to sort things out. I tried to remember the look my father had given me when I picked up Caleb – exasperated, amused, but surely not guilty. Caleb must be making this up. He’d lied before. But not more than most kids. And where would he get those details? A ten year old wouldn’t make up those images.

Then I remembered the Playboy I’d found in my dad’s toolbox when I was twelve. I’d been looking for something, a Philip’s screwdriver, I think. Caleb wasn’t lying. I shivered in the moist heat like a long-term malaria sufferer.

 

****

 

I stopped off at my dad’s place the next day.  The lawn was crew-cut short. The hummingbird feeders were full and the paint on the siding and the trim looked new. The thought of him fixing things reminded me of the toolbox. My father, Jack Heller, answered the bell promptly and let me in. He was still lean with a small stoop and a gentle slope of a belly where he used to be ironing board flat. His military short hair was gray with a hint of rust. He shut the door and cut out the electric insect buzz and bird racket.

“What’s going on, Iris? Aren’t you supposed to be at work?” he asked as he ground the coffee.

He waited, but I didn’t answer immediately.
“You haven’t lost your job, have you?”

“I called in sick.”

He pursed his lips. “You know how I feel about lies.”

I nodded impatiently, too old to be scolded. And anyway, Caleb’s story had made me sick.

“If you’re short of money…,” he said in a gentler tone. He would lend me what I needed, he hinted. He’d helped me before. Was he just pretending not to know what was bothering me? Covering up by reminding me how much I owed him: money for the deposit on my shabby apartment, and free childcare every week day for almost a year. How could I ever repay him?

I swallowed, suddenly not confident about the phrases I’d been rehearsing on the ride over. I didn’t want to have this conversation. Perhaps I should just take Caleb and walk away, like my ex walked away, suddenly bone-tired of the constant hassle without even the energy to make an excuse.

But that wouldn’t work. I couldn’t afford to leave town. I had no job to go to, and no way to afford another apartment. And I loved my father. I owed him some sort of explanation and even a chance to defend himself. I wondered again if Caleb’s story could be wrong–some sort of misunderstanding or even a lie.

The coffee dripped and hissed and filled the small kitchen with its rich, dark smell. My father watched me in the way I remembered: tender and protective.

“What is it, Iris?”

He poured two cups, and reached into the fridge for the half and half.

“Caleb,” I said slowly. The coffee was very bitter. “He doesn’t want to come back here.”

He frowned and closed his eyes. When he opened them, he sat at the kitchen table and gestured for me to do the same. “I was a little harsh, I admit. But Cripes, Iris, he is so darn disrespectful. He needs a good hard talking to every now and then. I told him to do his homework and he said he would, and then I caught him on that lameboy or whatever the Hell you call it. I took the toy away and he sassed me, called me an old dick. He’s just like his old man, I swear, sneaky, rude, lazy.”

“Hey!” I stood up and leaned across the table. “That’s my son you’re talking about.”

“I’m talking about the loser who walked out on you and failed miserably as a father.”

Not a topic we’d ever really discussed. I’d been hurt, and my dad had been sensitive enough to offer me a shoulder to cry on and financial help, with no questions asked. It hadn’t occurred to me that he’d be angry with Bruce too, not that angry.

“Well, Bruce is gone…”

“Except for the half of his genes he left in Caleb.”

I closed my eyes and balled my fists. How dare he criticize my son, especially after what he’d done to him?

“You showed him porn,” I exploded. “And you encouraged him to enjoy it with you.”

He laughed joylessly. “Christ, Iris. He told you that. Really? And you believe him?”

“Yes,” I said trying to sound certain. “Are you going to tell me I shouldn’t?”

I wished I could read his face. Sky blue eyes, hard well-scraped jaw, deep lines, as blank as Clint Eastwood waiting to someone to make his day. He didn’t think Caleb’s story even merited a denial.

But Caleb couldn’t have made up those pornographic images. “Where’s the magazine, Dad?”

“There is no magazine, Iris.”

“Don’t you lie to me!” I yelled and stomped through the side door into the garage, which was perfectly swept, its walls lined with packed boxes, everything in its place. I opened his tool box. Nothing. I lifted the top layer. Still nothing. Had he cleaned up his act? Then it occurred to me that, now that my mother was gone, he wouldn’t need to hide the magazine so well. So, I tramped back inside and up the stairs.

“Iris!” he said quietly but followed at a distance.

Under the bathroom sink, behind the Costco toilet paper, I found the Hustler. I held it up triumphantly. “Handy location!” I spat at him.

He shuffled like a schoolboy.

“You did lie to me!”

I opened the magazine and paged through it. “You showed these pictures to Caleb? God, Dad, he’s only ten.” The pictures got me angrier and angrier, so that yelling at him was easy.

My dad took the magazine, closed it and tossed it in the bathroom trash can. Then he covered his face with his left hand. “All right. I lied about the magazine. What father wants his daughter to know he looks at that smut? But I swear–on your mother’s grave–I did not share it with your boy.”

The reference to my mother annoyed me. But under my certain glare, my mind was scrambling. My father’s story made sense. Caleb could have found the magazine just as I did twenty five years earlier. Perhaps he was grossed out by the images, and then when my dad punished him, he made up a story to get his own back.

My dad watched me. An innocent man falsely accused and in danger of losing the two people he loved? Or a guilty man planning his escape? His version made sense; but so did Caleb’s. One thing I remembered from my one philosophy class in community college was the duck-rabbit. A line drawing consisting of two open ovals, a circle and a dot representing an eye. Look at it one way, and you see a duck, the ovals as a beak. Look at it another way, and you see a rabbit, the ovals as ears.  Nothing on the page settles the matter.

Here were the lines on my page. A dirty magazine, Caleb’s accusations, and my father’s denials, nothing to determine which version was right. But unlike the duck-rabbit, this one mattered. Everything important to me depended on it.

“I’m your dad, Iris. You can’t lose faith in me.”

I didn’t want to lose faith in him. It would be easier if Caleb was the one lying. At ten, he had no idea how much damage he was doing. I could forgive Caleb. So, could my dad. But if my dad was the bad guy, I didn’t think I could forgive him. I looked into his face and remembered how I’d always seen him. A hero, hard, disciplined, sworn to protect the innocent and defeat the wicked. The Hustler made sense for a man and a widower. But the rest didn’t fit. Caleb must have lied.

“I’ll talk to him again,” I said.

“He’ll just lie again.”

“I think I can tell when my son is lying,” I said. “It’s not rocket science,”

He shook his head. “Let me know what he says.”

“Sure.” I gathered my purse and keys.

****

When I picked Caleb up from school, he seemed pleased to miss the hour long bus ride. “Does this mean that I won’t have to go to Grandpa’s anymore?” he asked as we pulled away.

“No,” I said. “It doesn’t mean anything. I took a day off. But I have to work tomorrow. I have nowhere else to leave you.”

“I could stay by myself.”

I stopped at a red light. “You have to be twelve.”

“You want me to spend my afternoons looking at girls’ twats?”

“Caleb!”

“It’s OK. You know I might start to enjoy it.” He giggled oddly. “Isn’t that what real men do?”

I took my eyes off the road to stare at him. “I went to his house today.” The driver behind me honked. I resisted the impulse to give him the finger. I released the brake and set off slowly. “I figured out what happened.” I spoke with more conviction than I felt, the way they did on the late night cop shows.

“Oh yeah?”

“You found the magazine in the bathroom.”

“No.” He shook his head firmly.

“And then he punished you and you got mad and wanted to get back at him by making up this story.”

I watched Caleb out of the corner of my eye. He was shaking his head and staring out the window, not confessing and apologizing as I’d hoped. “Talk to me,” I murmured.

I stopped at another light.

“What’s the point? You never believe me.” He opened the passenger door. “I hate you.”

He left the car, moved to the sidewalk, and stood contemplating his next move. I pulled over and watched him for a few seconds. He was too thin, all long limbs jutting at uncertain angles. I’d let him down again.

I called through the open window, “Come back. I promise to listen to you.”

He dragged his feet on the tarmac and then sat in the back seat. “You’re the only person I have. You have to trust me.”

I turned around and gripped his hand. “Of course I trust you. But I trust Grandpa too. Look…I love him just like you love me. He was always there for me. It’s hard for me to believe that he did a terrible thing, especially when he says he didn’t.” I sighed deeply, and said, as much to myself as to him. “What am I supposed to do?”

He pushed aside his too-long, copper hair and looked into my eyes. “Trust me. I’m telling the truth. And I’m your kid. You’re supposed to love me most.”

****

Caleb stuck to his story, as did my dad. Neither of them ever admitted lying, no matter how often I questioned them. I suggested putting them in a room together to confront each other, but Caleb refused.

I didn’t think I could bear it–hurting one or other of them. But in the end, I had to choose. I worked out a plan where Caleb took a bus to the Boys and Girls club in the afternoons. He didn’t like it much but he grumbled less than he had before and learned ping pong and made a couple of friends. When he turns twelve I’ll let him stay by himself for those few hours.

My dad took my decision hard. I tried to tell him it didn’t mean I believed he was guilty, but he just rolled his eyes.

One day we’ll get things back to normal.

 

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