Post Road Magazine #16

Chris Stops the Boys

Dawsen Wright Albertsen

Chris stops the boys before Scott’s house. Scott stands on the stoop within the doorframe. He looks down the steps at Chris. He stares at her.

Chris ignores Scott. There is everything and nothing to say. She calms herself. She smiles. The boys stand still. She sighs. The boys smile. Their biweekly limbo holds them to that spot. She kisses each boy on his forehead and cheeks. She cups their faces so they look in her eyes as she says, “I love you, I love you, I love you.”

The boys stare at her. They do not stir. They wait. She nods toward their father. She tugs their backpacks’ straps.

Robert, the youngest, begins the stairs. William begins to follow Robert. Chris grabs William’s shoulder. She turns him.

She whispers, “Remember what I told you.”

Robert looks at them. William hurries to Robert. Robert waves to his mother. The boys turn toward their father.

Slowly they ascend the stairs. Chris thinks those are the steps to the gallows. Her executioner poses in polo and khakis.

The boys are quiet. They silently rise side by side. They step to their father. Scott pats them into the house. He says nothing to Chris. He glimpses her. He stares slightly above and beyond her. He grimaces and turns into the house.

William and Robert stand in the hallway. They stand at attention. Little stolid soldiers stop for father. The boys have returned. They wait.

Scott passes them. He walks into the kitchen. He counts to sixty. He does nothing but count. At sixty he returns. He stands before them.

The boys stare at his collar. They don’t look at his face. His pressed collar folds perfectly. William thinks it is ridiculous. Why would anyone press a polo shirt?

Robert likes the line. He likes lines. He likes the iron. He wants to press his clothes.

“Robert, what did you do Friday afternoon?” Scott asks.

“Mom picked us up,” Robert says.

“Then what, William?” Scott asks.

“We went to the museum,” William says.

“What museum?” he asks.

The boys wait. They don’t know who should answer. Scott delays. He stretches seconds to minutes.

“Robert, what museum?” he asks.

“Met,” Robert says.

Scott shakes his head. He looks at his feet. He mumbles. He looks at William, then Robert.

“The Metropolitan Museum of Art,” Scott says.

“Metropolitan Museum of Art,” Robert says.

“What did you do there, William?” asks Scott.

“We looked at art,” William replies.

“Art?” Scott asks. “What type of art?”

“Paintings,” William says.

“And . . . ,” Robert begins. He wants to tell his dad about the sculptures. Scott glares a warning at Robert.

“Not now, Robert,” Scott says.

Robert grabs his backpack straps. He clinches them. Gently he yanks one, then the other.

“William, who was your favorite?” Scott asks.

William knows his father knows nothing and cares nothing about art. He wants to lie to his father. But Scott would check. Scott will check for truth and falseness.

“Don’t have one,” William says.

“And your favorite, Robert?” Scott asks.

“I liked it all,” Robert says.

Robert’s mouth cracks. He sounds, “Uuuuuh.” He clinches his thumb. William notices his little brother. He nudges Robert. Robert does not ask his father’s favorite.

William knows his father memorizes names and times. Scott records and begins calculating. An equation will explain their mother’s weekend. If one variable is wrong, does not compute, then the boys might not see their mother for a month. William still wonders how his father gained custody.

“Robert, then what?” Scott asks.

“Mom took us home,” Robert says.

“To her house,” Scott says.

“Yes, home,” Robert says.

“No, this is your home,” Scott says, “she took you to her house.”

Robert mumbles, “To her house.” He yanks his backpack straps. He tells himself, Mom’s home. He smiles.

“Mom’s home,” Robert says.

Scott stares at the boy. Robert looks at Scott’s collar. He counts the three buttons below the collar. He looks at the logo. He hopes the tiny man falls off the tiny horse. He hopes the horse runs away.

“Then what, William?” Scott asks.

“We ate,” William says.

“What did you eat, Robert?” he asks.

“I had chicken, broccoli, and rice,” Robert says.

“And you, William?” Scott asks.

“The same,” William says.

“Robert, what was for dessert?” Scott asks.

“There was no dessert,” Robert says.

Robert easily and proudly lies to his father. He loves to lie to his father. This is the one game that only he plays. He has seen his father explode over ice cream. He can’t fathom how his father would react to brownies and ice cream.

“William, what did you eat for dessert?” Scott asks.

“There was no dessert,” William says.

“Then what, William?” he asks.

“We played cards,” William says.

“What did you play, Robert?” he asks.

Robert smiles. He loves games. Card games are his favorite. Games with his brother and mother are better than lies.

“Go fish, rummy, and spades,” Robert says.

Scott huffs. He looks at William. Surprise and disbelief contort Scott’s face. He grimaces. He looks at Robert.

“You play spades?” Scott asks.

“Yes,” Robert says.

“And who won, Robert?” Scott asks.

“We all won,” Robert says.

“William, you and Robert beat your mother?” Scott says.

Scott has never seen anyone beat Chris in any card game. Chris is a card shark. Her grandmother was a card shark. Her mother is a card shark. Her brother was a card shark and cardsharp. Scott knows not his youngest has Chris’s gift. Robert is a natural shark. William knows it. William loves his little brother more for it. He knows they, William and Robert, can beat their father at something.

“Mom let us win,” William says.

“She let you win, Robert,” Scott says.

Robert nods. He doesn’t know if his father asks or states. A nod is safe. Robert knows nodding works. It seems Scott doesn’t care if Robert understands anything.        

“Then what, William?” he asks.

“I went to bed,” Robert says.

Robert’s face reddens. Guilt and fright hold the boy. Before he can emend the statement, his father asks, “What did you do, William?”

“I read, then went to bed,” William says.

“What did you read?” Scott asks.

Huck Finn,” William says.

William thumbs to his bag. He shrugs and smiles. He waits for his father.

“They still teach that crap,” Scott says.

“It’s not crap,” William says.

Scott glares at his son. He steps closer. He tries intimidating the boy with his stature. He tries imposing his will by towering. It is Scott’s best hand. Imposition and intimidation are his trumps.

“It is crap,” Scott says.

He breathes into William’s crown. He steps backwards to see the boy’s face. He pokes the boy in the hollow between his shoulder and pectoral.

“They don’t teach it,” William says, “but it’s not crap.”

“Crap,” Scott says.

William grinds his teeth. He digs his toes into his insoles. His knees lock. He closes his eyes. He imagines. There hangs a portrait, a painting. A portrait of his mother lights his mind.

“Do you read that crap, Robert?” Scott asks.

Robert has never read a book. He doesn’t know who or what Huck Finn is. Robert is smart, but he dislikes reading. He prefers games and numbers.

“Yes,” Robert says, “it’s not crap.”

Scott leans forward to tower over both boys. A hand rests on each boy’s shoulder. He huffs. His hands slightly tighten. He steps backwards. He looks at William, then Robert. His manner holds the boys resolute. He releases them.

Scott storms into the kitchen. He stares at the window. He grips the counter’s edge. He is irate. He is sure they are lying. They lie to protect her. She did this, he tells himself. “She did this,” he says to his reflection. Scott begins counting to 120.

The boys stand still. Each brother wants to touch the other with his hands. Robert wants to hold William’s hand. William wants to ruffle Robert’s curly brown hair and pinch his neck. They stand still. They wait. He will return. They stare forward. They stare where his pressed collar will float.

Scott stomps into the hallway. He stands before his sons. He smiles. He smiles an ugly smile. It is a forced smile. William calls it the Joker. Robert thinks it is the face a man makes before he does something very, very bad.

“Then what, William?” Scott asks.

“We ate pancakes,” William says.

“Only pancakes, Robert?” he asks.

“And syrup and sausage,” Robert says.

“Sausage, William?” he asks.

“Chicken sausage,” William says.

Scott does not eat pork. It is not a religious observance. He hates pork. An irrational fear of hogs began in his youth. He doesn’t want his children eating the animal.

“Then what, William?” he asks.

“We went to the park,” William says.

“What park, Robert?” he asks.

“The park by Mom’s home,” Robert says.

“What did you do there, Robert?” he asks.

Robert thinks his father is stupid. Even he must know that parks are for play. Robert’s eyes bulge. He yanks his backpack straps.

“We played,” Robert says.

“Played what, Robert?” he asks.

“We played,” Robert says, “swings and slides. The jungle gym.”

Robert can’t believe anyone is that dumb. Everyone knows parks mean play. Everyone knows play means anything.

“Did you play on the jungle gym, William?” Scott asks.

“No, I read,” William says, “I read Huck Finn.”

“You were outside and you read?” Scott asks.

Scott points toward the door. He shakes his head. His face scrunches. His forehead is a million wrinkles. He nods forward.

“Yes,” William says.

William smiles. He knows that he is too old for swings and jungle gyms. But Robert played. So William kept to Robert. They played on the jungle gym. William almost laughs, remembering their swinging contest.

“Then what, Robert?” Scott asks.

“We walked home for lunch,” Robert says.

“To her house,” he says, “you walked to her house.”

“Mom’s home,” Robert says.

“What did you eat, William?” he asks.

“Leftovers,” William says, “chicken sandwich and salad.”

“Robert?” he asks.

“Chicken salad sandwich,” Robert says.

“Chicken salad?” he asks.

“I put salad on my sandwich,” Robert says.

“You ate a chicken sandwich,” Scott says.

Robert yanks the backpack straps. He does not reply. He doesn’t know the difference between chicken salad and chicken with salad. He doesn’t care. His feet hurt. He lightly steps in place.

“Then what, William?” he asks.

“Robert napped while I read,” William says.

“Where was your mother, Robert?” he asks.

“I was sleeping,” Robert says.

“William?” he asks.

“She read on the couch,” William says.

“She was with you Friday and at the park,” he asks, “the whole time?”

“Yes,” the boys say.

“Did she have visitors?” he asks.

“No,” they say.

“Then what, William?” he asks.

“We walked,” William says.

“You walked,” he says, “where’d you walk?”

“Around the neighborhood,” William says, “we got groceries.”

Scott surveys her neighborhood in his mind. She lives in a nice neighborhood. They lived there as a young couple. He searches for pitfalls. He finds nothing.

“Then what, Robert?” he asks.

“We cooked,” Robert says.

Robert smiles. He loves helping his mother. Helping her cook was fun. The kitchen was a laboratory. Robert was a scientist.

“You cooked?” Scott asks.

Robert nods and smiles.

“Robert, you cooked?” he asks.

“Yes, we cooked,” Robert says.

Scott stares beyond the boys. In the wall something does not make sense. His face twists and puckers. The boys wonder what he thinks.

“That was kind of early,” he says, “wasn’t it.”

“No,” Robert says.

“Seems it,” Scott says.

Scott stares at the floor between him and the boys. No one moves. It is quiet.

The silence bothers Scott. William thinks about painting. Robert wants to play. He wants to swing. He wants to swing and jump over the fence. He is sure he could clear a fence.

Scott computes times and distances. Time isn’t working. Scott plots Chris’s neighborhood. He imagines their walk. A walk is fifteen minutes. A walk is no more than thirty minutes. How could it be dinner? There is no place to walk greater than fifteen minutes. He bites his lower lip. His eyes seem to cross. They cross from one boy to the other.

Scott imagines the walk. He repeats the walk. He tries imagining different walks. Scott fails. He imagines his walk. He can only imagine himself: he walks to the store; he walks to the bus, to the train, and to work; he walks to laundry and to home. It doesn’t make sense to him.

“Where’d you walk?” he shouts.

Neither William nor Robert answers. They stand still. They lean into each other.

William imagines painting a portrait of his mother. She smiles. His eyes nearly pop from his head. He hears nothing.

Robert closes his eyes. He bites his cheek. He bites his tongue. He tastes the saltiness.

They anticipate an explosion. It is imminent. They wait. They wonder if he will go to the kitchen.

“Robert?” Scott asks.

Robert bites and waits. He is frozen. He swallows.

“Robert, where did you walk?” Scott asks.

Scott attempts a falsetto. The ugly smile crooks across his face. He leans toward Robert.

Robert feels Scott’s breath. Robert sucks his cheeks. He tightly clinches his straps. He opens his eyes.

“I don’t know,” Robert says.

“What do you mean you don’t know?” Scott asks.

“I don’t know,” Robert says.

“What don’t you know?” he asks.

“Where,” Robert says.

“William, where did you walk?” he asks.

“Around,” William says, “we walked around.”

“Where?” he asks.

“Around Mom’s house,” William says.

“Where around her house?” he asks.

“Here and there,” William says.

“You don’t know where?” he asks.

“No. Not every street,” William says.

“Are you lying?” Scott asks. “Are you lying to me?”

“No,” William says.

Scott thinks about his walks. He can name every street. He walks for minutes. Their walk confuses Scott. He thinks.

Scott doesn’t know that the boys walk with their mother for hours. They walk slowly. They play games. They identify trees. They discuss school. They chat about all the world but Scott.

Scott mutters, “Visitation.” He reminds himself that he has custody and he makes the rules. He is confident that they are lying, and they would lie only if she had told them to lie. Scott concludes that she lied, she, but why did she?

Scott storms to the kitchen. He stares at the window. He drums the counter. He begins counting to 180.

William ruffles Robert’s hair. Robert looks at William. William nods. Robert grabs William’s belt loop.

Scott moans. He groans loudly. He stomps his foot. He kicks the cabinet. He smacks the counter with both hands. He takes a pan from a hook. He raises it. He slams it on the counter. He hits the floor. He smacks the island. He beats the faucet and drops the pan into the sink. He stares at the windowpane. He sees only the glass.

The boys hear the noise. William removes his hand from Robert’s head. Robert releases William’s belt loop.

Scott strides into the hallway. He smiles the ugly smile. He nods to each boy. He shrugs. He wags his head. He throws out his arms. His hands shake. He shoves his hands into his pockets. His elbows tremble.

“What did you cook, Robert?” he asks.

“We made croquet and potatoes,” Robert says.

“Croquettes, Robert, croquettes,” he says.

“Croquettes,” Robert says.

“What did you do, Robert?” he asks.

“I helped,” Robert says.

“Yes, but what did you do?” he asks.

“I measured and put stuff in bowls and piles,” Robert says.

“You didn’t cook,” Scott says.

“I did too,” Robert says.

The boy does not know his father is trying to diminish his assistance, his enjoyment. Robert thinks maybe his father is teasing. Robert knows that he cooked.

“He helped Mom cook,” William says.

“He sorted and piled,” Scott says.

Robert frowns. He wants to scream. He wants to yell. He wants to hate him.

“What did you do, William?” he asks.

“I watched,” William says.

“You watched?” he asks.

“Yes,” William says.

“Did Robert use a knife?” he asks.

“No,” William says.

“You weren’t reading Moby-Dick?” he asks.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” William says. “I wasn’t reading.”

“Then what, Robert?” he asks.

“Mom cooked croquets and potatoes,” Robert says.

“Croquettes,” Scott says. “Crow-ketts.”

“Croquettes,” Robert says.

“Did you help?” Scott asks.

“No,” Robert says, “Mom doesn’t let us use the stove.”

“What about you, William?” he asks. “Did you help?”

“No, I watched,” William says.

“Did you talk, Robert?” he asks.

Robert says nothing. He is tired. His feet hurt. His legs want to bend. He wants his brother. He wants his mother. He wants him to leave.

“Robert?” Scott says.

“About school,” Robert says.

“What about school?” he asks.

“If I like it,” Robert says.

“Of course you like it,” he says. “What else?”

“What I like,” Robert says.

“All of it,” Scott says.

William notices the wall. The boys have shuffled backwards. Their backs are at the wall. William palms it. His fingers begin painting behind his back beneath the bag.

“Then what, William?” Scott asks.

“We ate,” William says.

“That’s an early dinner,” Scott says.

Scott walks from the boys into the kitchen. He has to think. Things must make sense. The time is wrong. The times are wrong. His sons are hiding something. He stares at the window. He notices nothing outside the window. The pane is all he sees. Scott counts.

Robert looks at William. William notices and smiles. Robert’s eyes beg, When? William shrugs. He musses Robert’s hair and tugs his ear. Robert shakes his head and smirks. He looks at the floor. He is tired. William thinks about painting. He fingers the wall. Both stare where the collar will return.

Scott finishes counting at 240. He walks to the boys. He wears the ugly smile. The boys’ stolid faces wait.

“How was it?” Scott asks.

The boys do not answer.

“How was the meal, Robert?” he asks.

“I liked it,” Robert says.

“Yes, but how was it?” he asks.

“Good,” Robert says.

“What was for dessert, Robert?” he asks.

“Nothing,” Robert says.

Robert steps in place. He wiggles and crosses his toes. He wants to stand in ice cream.

“How were the croquettes, William?” Scott asks.

“Very good,” William says.

“Then what, William?” he asks.

“We walked,” William says.

“Again?” he asks.

“Yes,” William says.

“Where?” he asks.

“To the park,” William says.

“Then what, Robert?” he asks.

“We walked,” Robert says.

“Where?” he asks.

“Mom’s home,” Robert says.

William’s left foot and Robert’s right are snugly beside each other. Their respective shoulders and elbows are so fast and close one could mistake them as uneven conjoined twins. The boys stand as one, waiting for their father to record and compute. They wait for another question.

Scott shakes his head. He looks to the ceiling. He sighs. His arms are akimbo.

“To her apartment,” Scott says.

“Yes,” Robert says.

“Then what, Robert?” he asks.

“We played,” Robert says.

“What did you play, William?” he asks.

“Cards,” William says.

“Again,” he says, “you played cards again?”

“Yes,” William says.

“Kind of late,” he says, “wasn’t it?”

“No,” William says.

“No,” Robert says.

Scott stares at Robert. Robert steps into the wall. He looks at his father. He steps in place. Scott bites the corner of his mouth.

“Then what, Robert?” he asks.

“I went to bed,” Robert says.

“What about you, William?” Scott asks.

“I read Huck Finn,” William says.

“Are you going to finish that book?” he asks.

“No,” William says.

“You were up late,” Scott says.

“No, I wasn’t,” William says.

“What time did you go to bed?” Scott asks.

“No later than ten,” William says.

Scott closes his eyes. His head tilts forward and backwards. His face scrunches. He gasps. The time is wrong. He turns toward the kitchen. He slaps the jamb. He storms to the kitchen.

Robert grabs William’s belt loop. He looks at William. William smiles. He beams. Robert tugs the loop. William looks at Robert. Robert shakes his head. William shrugs. Robert’s eyes plead. William mouths, “We’re okay.”

Scott counts. He keeps time by hitting the counter with the edge of his fist. Scott shakes his head at the windowpane. His reflection shakes its head. He hits. He counts.

He stops at 300. He rubs his face. Slowly he inhales and exhales. He pats his hair. He returns to the hallway.

The boys stand. Robert is still. Both look forward and stare at the collar. William taps and paints the wall. He smirks.

“Then what, Robert?” Scott asks.

“Waffles,” Robert says.

“You had waffles?” he asks.

“Yes,” Robert says.

“What else?” he asks.

“Not-bacon bacon,” Robert says.

“And you, William?” he asks.

“The same,” William says.

“Then what, William?” he asks.

“We packed,” William says.

“Then what?” he asks.

Neither William nor Robert answers. Robert looks at the floor. William smirks and fingers the wall.

“William,” Scott says.

“We came here,” William says.

“What?” he asks.

“We came here,” William says.

“That doesn’t make sense, William,” he says.

“So,” William says.

“So . . . ,” Scott begins.

William smiles. He shrugs. He grips his backpack straps. He tugs the straps like his mother tugs them. Robert tugs his straps.

Scott shoves his hands into his pockets. Fists bulge through the khakis. He shakes his head. He thinks, Why are they doing this? He looks at Robert. He looks at William. He mutters, “Why?” The boys do not stir. Scott twists and writhes. He appears tortured. Robert thinks his father will cry or hurt something.

Scott stomps his foot. Robert jumps. Scott stomps again. Robert backs into William’s side. Scott kicks the wall behind him. Robert nudges behind William. Scott stomps the floor. William steps toward his father.

“We’re going to bed,” William says.

Scott gnashes his teeth. He flexes his body. He shudders. He looks at the boys. His head shakes. He stomps his foot.

“Go to bed,” he screams.

William thinks. He remembers. Robert snored on the floor while he and his mother read on the couch. His mother pulled him near her down the couch. She hugged him. She stood and sat across from him on the ottoman. She grasped his knees. “No more fighting,” she says, “I’m not there. It is you and Robert. You two. It will be you against your father. You against others. Even you against me. From now on, you are you and Robert. No more fighting. Okay?” William nods.

The boys ascend the stairs. Scott stands frozen in the doorframe. William smiles. Robert holds William’s belt loop.

Dawsen Albertsen split his youth between St. Joseph, Missouri and a farm north of Toledo, Iowa; graduated the University of Iowa; moved to Missouri, Louisiana, Illinois, California, and New York; worked nine years for two single-payer and one clinical research not-for-profit organizations; and now enjoys Brooklyn with cat, dog and fiancé.

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