Locklin pulled up alongside the curb, behind other cars, and finished his cigarette. His old oil-spattered spot on the driveway was now occupied by Roger’s car—a shiny, red Mercedes coupe, brand new, no plates, and no oil leak.
The sun was out, but it was cold. Locklin drew a deep breath before heading to the trunk to fetch his son Will’s birthday present. He’d done the best he could without wrapping paper, using just a few sheets of aluminum foil, shiny-side up.
As he walked to the front door, he remembered moving into this house, installing a new garage door, buying sod for the yard, and hanging Christmas lights along the roofline.
Locklin had always been so mild-mannered, a person always going out of his way to avoid trouble. He took the split, and resulting divorce with Melanie well, hoping all the while that holding his head up would make things better, but it hadn’t.
He stood atop the welcome mat and rang the bell. Melanie pulled the door open so casually, like he was the mailman. “Hi,” she said. Her lips were bright red and she looked well-rested. Her hair was shorter, the ends cut at a flattering angle. “Come in,” she said. The floorboards creaked in familiar spots, books lived on the same shelves, but different keys sat in the blue bowl, and new shoes lay on the floor by the hallway closet. Locklin stared at a pair of big, coffee-colored loafers with braided leather and little tassels.
Melanie walked Locklin to the kitchen, where he set his gift down. They sat at the breakfast nook. Someone’s plate was finished and the egg yolk had dried.
“How’s work?” Melanie said.
“Yeah,” Locklin said. “Doing some handyman stuff right now: painting, plumbing, a bit of electrical work. You look nice, Mel.”
Melanie sipped her coffee and wadded up a napkin.
“Where’s Roger?” Locklin asked. “Saw his new car out front.”
“Took the van to pick up Will and his friends. There was a sleepover.”
“At Lloyd’s house?”
“Floyd. His friend’s name is Floyd,” Melanie said, pouring some more cream in her coffee.
“It’s weird that a little kid’s named Floyd…isn’t it?”
“How’s your new place?”
“Pretty nice. Quiet, you know.”
Locklin thought about saying “I miss you” but decided against it. He’d done it before and the words usually sat in the air like an unpleasant odor. Not too long after, Roger pulled into the driveway, and Locklin took a few sips of watered-down coffee until the door swung open. With it came a flood of noise: Will, Will’s friends, Roger, and Roger’s collie, Figgy, whose nails made little tapping sounds on the hardwood.
“Happy birthday, sweetie,” Melanie said as Will turned the corner. He smiled. “I can’t believe you’re already nine!”
Figgy barked a couple more times and his collar jingled. Will’s friends laughed.
“Hi, buddy,” Locklin said, lifting Will and squeezing him tightly. He always smelled so clean and young, and Locklin took a long draw before setting his boy back down.
“Dad,” he said, “it’s my golden birthday.”
Roger approached and said, “It’s when the date matches your age.” He then patted Locklin on the shoulder.
“Yeah,” Will said, “today I’m nine on the ninth.” Some of his hair was stuck to his forehead and crumbs of sleep sat in the corners of his eyes.
Everyone took a seat in the living room. Locklin stared at the pile of ash that rested in the fireplace and at the dog hair that coated the couch. It would have been smart, Locklin thought, to strategize exactly how he was going to hurt Roger. He’d certainly had plenty of time to think of something, but that was the problem with nice guys—they spent so much of their lives avoiding trouble that when it came time to make some, they didn’t know how. Locklin sometimes thought about the perfect world: the one with Roger driving too fast on a slick highway, the radio loud, his shiny coupe tucked in the blindspot of an eighteen-wheeler. It’d go fast—something sudden, on impact. Melanie would be saddened, and he’d be there for her. Will would be shocked, and he’d console. To Locklin, revenge always sounded good. Many times, he heard people argue against the death penalty, saying, “Sure, it kills the murderer, but it doesn’t bring the victim back. Revenge doesn’t pay off.” But he didn’t buy that—he bet that some people close to the victim felt relieved when the perpetrator was strapped to the table and pumped full of fluid.
“Good to see you,” Roger said to Locklin. His blue eyes stood out against his tanned skin, and his curly hair was stiff with hairspray.
“Good to be seen,” Locklin said.
“How’s work going?”
“Good, good. I just got a new car. Really great ride.”
Melanie stood up. “So I thought we’d start off by having a little lunch. I made a few different things—some eggs and bacon for those who want a late breakfast, and then there are some sandwiches. I even grabbed a couple pepperoni pizzas.”
Floyd said he was going to put eggs and bacon on a slice of pizza and a couple boys, including Will said, “Eww.” Figgy barked again and a little drool drizzled over his black lips.
Everyone headed to the kitchen and helped themselves. Locklin just wanted another cup of coffee. He opened the cabinets—cabinets he’d built—and tried to find the World’s Best Dad mug that Will had bought him a couple of Christmases ago, but it was no longer around. He settled on a plain white one, sat at the table, and stared out the window onto his old street. It was a day like today, a cold day with sun high, when Melanie had come home from work and told him that she didn’t love him anymore, that she’d been seeing someone, a guy named Roger. The strange thing was, Locklin wasn’t angry with Melanie. He wanted so much to hate her, but he couldn’t. Years of love couldn’t be transformed into anything else. Instead, Roger became the target of all his quiet rage: jobs that hadn’t worked out, people who were disrespectful, dishonest, racist, ugly, to Locklin, they all were related to Roger. In so many ways, though, Roger was the man he wanted to be—handsome, richer, better educated. He just never thought that Melanie wanted him to be these things, too, and moreover, he knew he couldn’t be. Each time the two men saw each other—in the early going, anyhow—Roger always extended his hairy hand for a shake, and Locklin couldn’t help but think that was the hand that now got to hang ornaments, flip the pages of Will’s bedtime stories, and pull Melanie’s soft panties down, over her thighs and knees, calves and softly-rounded ankles.
After a while, everyone joined Locklin at the table. Roger ate his bacon with a fork and knife; Melanie blotted her pizza with a napkin, and Will picked off shiny pepperonis and popped them into his mouth. Melanie touched Roger’s hand after she finished her slice, and Locklin found himself staring at Roger’s sun-spotted face. The worst part about divorce was when one of the parties remarried, the other had to witness all the stages of love unfold. Melanie and Roger had been together for a year now—meeting at church of all places—and Locklin knew that the proposal was coming. He could sense it. If Roger were a friend of his, he’d say to go for it. What’d it matter, though?—the two of them were already living together, sharing a bed, a house, a life.
The kids laughed as Floyd finished telling a story about how he got sent home for having lice, and Roger got up and made a fire. When Roger returned to the table, he whispered something into Will’s ear, and Will rushed down the hall and came back with a box the size of Figgy. “Told him he could open one now,” Roger said to Melanie.
“Okay,” she said, “just one.”
The fire began to catch and pop.
Will tore through the wrapping paper and Locklin watched scraps flutter to the floor. “No way!” Will said. “It’s the remote-control plane I wanted!”
“A P-51 Mustang!” Floyd said.
“So cool!” said another one of Will friends, a short one with Velcro shoes.
Melanie stared at Will and narrowed her eyes. Will then headed over to Roger, laying his head flat against his cashmere sweater. “Thanks, Roger,” he said.
“Glad you like it,” Roger said. “It’s the best one on the market, so be careful. And good news…I charged it up this morning so all you have to do is slide it out. It’s ready.”
“Surprised he didn’t have a Marine come over to show Will how to fly it,” Locklin said to Floyd, who just shrugged his shoulders.
Will and his friends got up and darted to the street. Figgy followed.
Roger and Melanie walked across the room and gazed out the large bay window. The fire was going strong now, consuming the wood and leaving parts of it incandescent. They then plopped on the couch. “Will never saw it coming,” she said, propping her feet on Roger’s lap.
“Well, I saw him looking at it at the store, and later I saw him looking at it on the computer,” he said, rubbing her smooth heels.
Locklin didn’t understand why they had to be so affectionate.
He lifted the box that lay next to the table. “Made in China,” he said. “Crazy to think that an all-American plane like the P-51 would someday be made by the Chinese.”
Roger laughed a little, working his hands around Melanie’s ankles that bore cuts from a recent shave. The fire hissed as flames encountered some moisture in the wood.
There was a loud whirling sound. “Look at it,” Melanie said. She and Roger stood and moved towards the window and watched the plane fly. Locklin didn’t budge. He stared at the fire. So much of his life had been pretending he was happy when he wasn’t, and he wondered where he’d be today if he’d always told the truth: if he’d had the courage to tell his father to pull himself together, or the boldness to tell his mom to stop popping pills, or if he could just tell Melanie how much he still loved her, how he’d ruin everything just for another night with her.
Roger brought his hand out from his pocket and wrapped his thumb through one of Melanie’s belt loops. Locklin remembered doing that while standing in the garden at Paul Connick’s home when Melanie told him that she’d gotten pregnant. And he remembered telling her he’d find a way to make it work.
Later, the kids and Figgy came inside. Will held the plane under his arm and Roger told him to be more careful. Floyd carried the joystick and others talked about how great it was when the wind came along and pushed P-51 into “warp speed.”
“So, how was it?” Melanie asked.
Will smiled. Many of his grown-up teeth had come in and were too big for his mouth. “Gonna go recharge it,” he said, heading down the hall with his friends.
“Nine years old,” Locklin said. “I remember being in the delivery room. He had this huge glob of black hair. The nurse even made a joke about Elvis.”
“While they’re in there,” Melanie said, “let’s get the cake ready.” She opened the fridge and pulled out a slab of cake—chocolate with blue icing piped along the border. Roger plucked nine candles from the junk drawer and placed them in a circle around the words HAPPY BIRTHDAY WILL. Locklin pulled out his lighter, spun the flint wheel, and dragged the fire over the wicks.
When the boys came out from Will’s bedroom, Roger, Melanie, and Locklin started singing. Will smiled and came to the table, his face only inches from the icing. His eyes were open wide, enough for Locklin to see flames reflected in his boy’s pupils. With a big breath, Will extinguished all the candles; rings of smoke curled to the popcorn ceiling.
As Locklin divvied up the cake, he thought about cutting another cake a long time ago, in that Marriot ballroom packed with friends and family from high school. Melanie’s hair was auburn then, and she wore a loose dress to hide the bump.
Locklin sat next to Will in front of the fireplace. The brick was warm and Locklin put his arm around his boy. He was proud of the way Will had handled it all—he seemed okay, not blaming himself or anything. Will was a lot like he was, though, and that worried him. Once, Locklin had talked to him about how there were two types of people in this world: volcanoes and geysers. “Volcanoes, like you and me,” he’d said “sit and brew and stuff all their problems. The thing is, one day, they erupt. You don’t know how or when, but when it happens, it’s ugly. It’s best to be like your mother, a geyser—let it out often and easily. Don’t hold back.” Will had seemingly understood.
The fire was burning his back, so Locklin got up and walked the hall to the bathroom. A new bed sat in his old bedroom, a four-post bed, unmade, the sheets messy and showcasing the bodily imprints from the night before. In the bathroom, he pulled the door shut and opened the medicine cabinet, timing a cough with the squeak of a hinge. The spot where Locklin’s shaving brush used to sit had been taken over by a curvy black bottle of aftershave. BOSS, the label read. Locklin held the bottle over the toilet and added some piss to it, then returned the BOSS to its proper spot.
Before reaching the living room, Locklin peeked into Will’s room. The Dodgers banner that Locklin had bought him a few months ago hung above his bed, and a team photo of the Raiders was still tacked onto the closet door. On the bookshelf was a photo of Locklin and Will setting up a tent. The sun hit the picture in the afternoon and it was beginning to yellow. The P-51 Mustang charged on the bed. Next to it was a card from Roger: Dear Billy, it read, May you have a beautiful birthday. I love spending time with you. –Dad
Locklin read the card again. He imagined Will calling Roger “Dad.” His neck stiffened and his limbs burned.
With everyone in the living room talking, occupied, still shoving cake in their mouths, Locklin picked up the P-51, inspected the wings and tail, popped off the engine cover and looked inside at all the wires and gears. He brought out his screwdriver keychain and with a couple quick turns, loosened the propeller, then headed back into the living room.
“Hun,” Roger said, “you want me to put some more logs on the fire?”
“Please,” Melanie said.
Locklin grabbed a beer and sat on the couch. The kids were laughing. The dog barked at something on the back porch. He pictured quiet Meadow Road, saw the P-51 tracing through the winter air, then losing control, veering, dropping, exploding onto the asphalt, leaving behind shiny shards to sparkle in the afternoon sun.
Melanie straightened up the kitchen and Roger dropped another log onto the fire. Will and his pals were on the floor, listening to Floyd talk about one of his teachers at school: “I swear,” he said, “she has this thing on her cheek, a mole or something, and there’s this huge hair that grows from it. And whenever she uses the overhead projector, it blows around because of the fan!” The kids laughed hard.
“You think it’s charged up?” Will asked.
“Probably,” Floyd said.
The kids rushed to the bedroom.
“The light’s blinking!”
They took the plane outside. Melanie, Roger, Figgy, and Locklin followed. Will set the plane down at the south end of Meadow Road. The kids were excited, talking over one another and telling Will what he should do. Locklin stood still, hands deep in his pockets, a light smile on his face.
“Watch this,” Will said. “I was reading the manual. Gonna make it do a barrel roll.”
“Be careful,” Roger said.
“Yes,” Melanie said. “Be careful, sweetie.”
“Let it rip,” said Floyd.
“Go for it,” said Locklin, running his tongue over his beer-soaked lips.
Will slammed the joystick up and the tires hummed as they spun along the pavement. When the plane moved fast enough, a little light blinked on the joystick, telling the “pilot” that it was ready for take-off. Will pressed the button and the plane lifted, flying over a car, a stop sign, a two-story house, and then an old maple. It flew northward until Will brought it back around towards the house. He was calling out his movements, and Floyd was repeating them in a garbled voice that was supposed to sound like a walkie-talkie. “All right,” Will said, “gonna attempt a roll.” Then Floyd said it: “Attempting barrel roll. All clear.”
Melanie held Roger’s hand, her thin fingers intertwined with his thick ones. Early after Locklin and Melanie separated, her ring finger had a tan line from where her wedding band used to sit, and that always made Locklin happy—made him feel that even nature was on his side. But now, that sliver of skin had found the sun.
Will twisted a few knobs on the joystick and, just then, the propeller flew off and skipped across the pavement. The ping grew softer and softer as it made its way down the road.
“Oh, no,” Floyd said.
The P-51 began to wobble like a fat duck and nosedived straight down at a home, shattering as it crashed into a neighbor’s chimney.
“Jesus!” Roger said. “What the hell? What did you do?”
“Nothing,” Will said. “I was just doing it like normal and the propeller flew off.”
“Flew off,” Roger said. His neck turned red. “It’s brand new!”
“I swear,” Will said, his lips quivering.
Locklin couldn’t believe what he’d done. When he’d looked at the plane, he’d seen Roger, never Will.
“Unbelievable!” Roger said.
Will’s friends backed away, as did Figgy, but Locklin approached and put his hand on Roger’s shoulder. “That’s enough. It’s just a toy.”
“A toy! It’s just a toy because I bought it.”
Will stared at the street and a gust blew strongly, causing him to shut his eyes. He kept them closed long after the wind passed, doing all he could to keep from crying in front of his friends.
Melanie came to Roger’s side and used a softer voice. “It’s okay,” she said. “We can just buy him a new one. It’s no big deal.”
“A new one!” Roger said. “That’s it—let Roger buy him a new one.”
When Melanie touched Roger, he shooed her off.
Will looked up for the first time in a while and Roger stared directly at him. “I knew I shouldn’t have bought this for you,” he said. “I knew you’d screw up. You always screw up.”
“Watch your mouth,” Locklin said. “Don’t talk to Will like that.”
Will stood straighter and looked at his father with big eyes. Locklin’s fingers twitched and his muscles tightened. He didn’t know what his next move was, but he could feel his son’s gaze, and it was the only bit of warmth that had been flung his way in quite some time. He took another step towards Roger and felt bursts of breath hiss through his nostrils.
Roger didn’t move.
Locklin stared into his eyes.
Every other feature on his face seemed to blur and, for the first time, Locklin thought Roger looked scared. When you reduced a person to just his eyes, just those little circles of color, everyone looked young and frightened.
Locklin bent his fingers and felt his dirty nails dig into his palm. In a soft voice, he said, “Haven’t you hurt me enough? You take my wife, my house, my bedroom, and you insult my son.” He could feel his heart beat in his ears and beads of sweat sprout on his brow.
Roger closed his eyes and clenched his teeth, as if expecting to be hit at any moment.
“Dad,” Will said, coming to his father’s side. “Don’t! Please. It’s okay, really.”
Roger opened his eyes and both men turned towards Will. The boy’s skin was flushed and he held his hands together, begging.
No one wanted to move, but when Melanie started back towards the house, Roger and Figgy followed, and eventually, all the children surrounded Will and their voices reached their normal volumes.
Locklin stood there, watching his breath fog up the cold air. He pulled out a cigarette and lit up. In his old home’s front window, he saw Melanie and Roger fighting. She was waving her arms and pointing outside, and Roger was standing still, shaking his head.
“Hey, guys,” Locklin said to Will’s friends. “Do me a favor. Go grab my present for Will. It’s in the kitchen, I think. The one wrapped in aluminum foil.”
The kids took off.
With everyone gone, Locklin sat next to his son on the curb. Goosebumps dotted Will’s arms, and Locklin ran his hand over them. “You okay, buddy?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Will said, placing his head on his father’s chest.
Locklin listened to the sigh of nearby traffic, studied the long shadows of oaks on the pavement, and continued to rub his boy’s smooth forearms. “Can’t believe how big you’re getting,” he said.
“I’ll be as big as you soon,” Will said.
“Bigger,” Locklin said. “Much bigger.”
He drew a deep breath and looked up at the cloudless sky. With his cigarette finished, he flicked the butt onto the road and watched it smolder for a few seconds. Again, the wind picked up, and Locklin did his best to shield his boy. They sat there, faces tight, eyes narrowed, huddled, waiting for the gust to pass through.
Mathieu Cailler is a poet and award-winning short-story writer. A graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts, his work has been published in numerous literary journals. He lives in Los Angeles.