When Teddy was just a few months old and James wasn’t getting much sleep, he realized one morning as he lay there waking up that he had to see Lonnie T. Sue was in the corner at the bassinet, they had not yet moved Teddy to his own room, and he was just wailing, Sue rocking him saying, there, it’s all right, you’re a good baby, aren’t you? Of course, he was, but also a loud one. Too loud a child to have to have a clear enough mind to teach John Kenneth Galbraith at 9:00 a.m.
“I’m going to see Lonnie,” James said.
“When did you decide this?” Sue asked.
“Recently,” he said, sitting up in all his nakedness and rubbing his eyes with the palms of his hands. If he were black metal, he’d be a Rodin—that’s how tight he was built at that age.
“And what do I do?”
“Invite your girlfriends by. Make it a baby party.”
All their friends had just delivered or were about to. Shirley was the only one who had a sense of humor about it and saw it something like Sue, the rest just a bunch of Betty Crockers.
Friday afternoon James left right from school. Got inside his ’49 Ford and drove up the Ohio to Wheeling and then hooked a right for Pittsburgh, got into Mount Washington by dinnertime and Lonnie T, who had moved back to the States from England, waved to him from his porch. His rental was a small place, and he had made the couch for James.
“Just toss your bag by the couch,” he said, and he gave him the quick tour of the kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom—a small room, eight by ten, just a double bed for Lonnie’s dense frame. He knew an Italian place down the hill, a house essentially, but what had been the living room and foyer had been made into a dining hall, with six round tables seating four people each. The dinnertime crowd had cleared out, red sauce spattering the white tablecloths; it was an early rising, early to bed kind of neighborhood. They each got a heaping plate of spaghetti with meatballs, one large antipasto, which they shared, and enough bread to constipate a regiment.
“You seeing anyone,” James asked, and Lonnie shook his head. “It’s a working-class town. It’s not that easy to meet someone.”
He had lined up the job from England and moved to Pittsburgh only a few months earlier. No, he had not yet made his way down to Tippleton to see his folks, and they had not gone out of their way to visit him or even to acknowledge that he was back. “You’re the first person I’ve seen from back home.”
“You miss it?”
“Not the people. Not the downtown. The hills maybe.”
“You have hills here.”
“You can’t see ‘em. There’s houses everywhere.”
“So, no one then?”
He shook his head. “There’s a man at work. He keeps trying to talk to me. I’m not sure he quite knows himself, if you know what I mean, but he sure likes to talk to me.”
James woke up at three in the morning and saw Lonnie sitting on the chair looking at him in the dim light of the room. Neither man said anything, and James turned away, toward the back of the couch, and went back to sleep.
Saturday they walked the downtown, up and down the streets, which were bustling with shoppers from the suburbs. It was early spring, and they walked out to the point to see the rivers, which had recently neared flood stage from all the melt-off upstream. The rivers flowed brown. They drove to the museum in Oakland to see the dinosaurs; kids everywhere, it was the first time James missed his son. Lonnie got him to see the art, too, but mostly it was paintings of local and historical and interest. The only one James really liked was by John Singer Sargent, a rich boy being read to by his governess, the boy staring into space as he listened to her words. They found a hot dog vendor outside the museum and sat on a bench near the library at the back. The leaves were just coming out and the temperature was in the sixties. Lonnie asked what James thought of the new war, and James said this one seemed like a pissing contest between the Russians and the U.S. Lonnie said he had no desire to reenlist, however much he hated Stalin; he’d known a lot of communists in London, and they all had loose screws. “It’s different here, that’s for sure.” How was being a father, Lonnie asked. Not bad, but Sue did the work, James just pitching in sometimes late, wrecking him for school the next day. The boy’s personality? Willful, demanding, their own little dictator. It was fair to say he was wearing Sue out.
“She’s some girl, it sounds like.”
“That’s why I married her.”
“Young and dumb?”
“The first. Not the second.”
Lonnie said he remembered her family. Said they kept to themselves. He thought he’d seen her playing at the side of her house when she was small. “She didn’t seem to have any friends.” James said she had a few, but that she was particular. The only woman she really seemed to like in Parkersburg was Shirley, but she came with a husband who was a lech and had tried screwing every woman in their circle.
“I guess I get to avoid such intrigue,” Lonnie said drily.
“What happens when people ask why you’re not married?”
“It’s okay for now. I tell them I didn’t want to get married to someone who just wanted a ticket to America. That shuts ‘em up right away, and they admire my practicality and patriotism.”
Lonnie was sitting on the chair again that night at the same time. James stared at him for a few minutes. Thought about saying something to let him know he was awake. Then he turned to the couch again and went back to sleep.
Sunday morning he made the trip back home. He had papers to grade, he had more Galbraith to prepare. He wondered why he had felt the need to see Lon Trainer. They had been good friends in high school, the two best athletes, secretive, knowing if anyone ever found out about them it would be bad for everyone. His sister knew, but she was the only one. That’s how careful they were. But what he felt for Lon now, he could not say. Just a need to see him again, nothing more.
Sue was glad to see James at the door. She was looking at him closely when he stepped inside, Teddy in her arms. He pecked her cheek and looked at his son. “How was he?”
“The same fussy boy you left Friday morning.”
“Tell me about it.”
“Tell you about what?”
“What all you all did.”
James wasn’t quite sure what she was asking.
“Did anything happen?”
“Oh,” he said. He understood now. “I slept on the couch.”
She was looking into his eyes. Whatever she saw, it seemed all right. She handed him the baby.
“You see Shirley?”
“Yes,” she said. “Davin, too.”
“How’d that go?”
“The way it always goes when he’s around.”
“You shouldn’t have left me,” she said.
“What’s that mean?”
“Exactly what I said.”
Now it was his turn to look. He wasn’t sure he liked what he saw.
Michael W. Cox has published flash fiction in Atticus Review, Fiction Southeast, and Weave. His longer stories have appeared in ACM, Columbia, Passages North, Salt Hill, and West Branch. He serves as editor of creative prose for Pennsylvania English and teaches creative writing at University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown.