I had my whole day planned out. I was going to head over to the McElroy’s and make sure my new guys remembered to trim the bushes around back once they finished with the lawn. I also had to order a couple replacement parts for a mower that was giving me problems. Altogether, there wasn’t too much work stuff to do. My big plan was to fire up that grill sitting out back, toss a steak on there, crack anywhere from sixty to ninety beers, and listen to the baseball game on the radio. It was warm, it was sunny, and it was about ten o’clock in the morning when all of my plans fell to shit.
I was finishing off the dishes from breakfast when I heard a knock at the door. Since my door gets knocked on about once every year, it startled me. Nobody told me they were coming over. Nobody had any business coming over. I set the glass onto the drying rack and walked to the door.
A boy, vaguely teenaged, stood on my porch. He looked up at me and didn’t say anything. I didn’t see any candy bars, cookie boxes, or even a petition in his hand. Unless this kid finally opened his mouth, there was absolutely no reason for him to be standing there. I leaned against the doorframe and we looked at each other for another few seconds.
He looked familiar.
“Hi. I’m, uh, I’m Jim,” the kid finally said.
Jim. I flipped through my mental catalogue and only came up with one person named James. Mary’s kid. I looked at him again and decided the math added up.
I pushed myself off the door frame. “The miracle baby,” I said. Shouldn’t you be floating or something?” It wasn’t a funny joke, but I laughed and turned around.
“Wait,” said the boy. I turned back and he had a hand on the door, keeping it from closing. “I need to talk to my dad. At least once.”
“Hate to tell ya, kid. But I’m not your dad.”
“Yeah, well, you’re the closest I’m going to get.”
He had to be, what, like thirteen years old? How long had it been? I had written them off so long ago that I was almost able to completely block it out. I gave her how many chances to tell me the truth? I loved her so much but couldn’t move forward with this question hanging over my head. And here he was, the reason for it all, holding my door open with eyes like water balloons. I sighed and glanced at the ceiling. I wiped my hand on my pants and stuck it out to him. “I’m Joe,” I said.
“Yeah, I know,” he said.
I swung my head toward the living room and walked inside. Jim followed shortly behind me but left the door open. The place was a bit of a mess. A blanket was strewn over the couch, magazines were on the floor, empty beer cans were hidden throughout the room like Easter eggs. I swiped the couch clean and offered it to him.
I ended up sitting on one side of the couch and Jim plopped himself on the other side. An empty cushion sat between us. I guess I always knew this conversation was going to happen eventually, and I had nothing to hide. I was still planning on fulfilling my plans for the day.
“I know why you left Mom,” he said.
“I’m surprised. Women don’t usually admit stuff like that, especially to their son and especially not after holding out for thirteen years.”
“That’s not exactly true,” he said, and cleared his throat. “Mom got pregnant before you guys got married, right?”
I nodded. We decided to wait until marriage because we still had values at the time.
“But she didn’t sleep with anyone else.”
“As the story goes,” I said. It sounded crazy then, and it sounded crazy now. How in the hell was I supposed to believe she just, whoops, got pregnant out of nowhere? That has only happened once in recorded history, and I didn’t even believe the first account.
“People have been following me lately,” he said.
He sounds like a real chip off the ol’ block, I thought. Too bad whoever she slept with didn’t cancel out the crazy gene she obviously possessed. I nodded and just waited for it to be over.
“Like, they don’t even seem to know why they do it. They just follow me and wait for me to say things, but I don’t know what to say. And there are these dreams that I have. That I’ve been having since I can remember. Bushes on fire, and voices telling me to do things.”
Jesus Christ, I thought. This kid sounds like he needs to be chained up somewhere before he starts lighting houses on fire.
“He talks to me, you know. He does. And he wants me to be like him, to do what he says I should, but fuck that, right? Who the hell is he to tell me what I should be doing with my life? I don’t care what plan there was for me or how I can help.”
For the first time, he sounded like a normal teenager. This, obviously, didn’t negate the fact that he was a raving lunatic.
“You ever pray?” he asked.
“Not for a long time, kid.”
“But when you did, did you ever have one come true?”
I chuckled. “Did you?”
“Every time.” He looked at me with a stare that felt like it was coming from a statue. His eyes were hard and unblinking. If his mother put him up to this, he was the best actor I had seen in my life. But why would she do this? Why wait so long?
“Bullshit,” I said with a wave of my hand and sat forward on the couch.
“Joe, I’m not lying to you. That’s one of those, y’know, commandments.”
“Oh yeah?” I turned my head toward him. “Which one?”
He sat back and looked at the ceiling, lost in thought.
“That’s what I thought. Look, you seem like a good kid but you gotta stop with this son of God bullshit. Okay? It’s childish. It’s fantasy. You’re going to have to grow up sooner or later.”
“But it’s true!” he yelled.
“Oh yeah? Second coming of our lord and savior Jesus Christ? Prove it.”
He was lost in thought for another moment, except this time his eyes were darting back and forth. He was panicking and could probably tell I was a minute from kicking him out the front door.
“Water into wine!” he yelled.
I shrugged. “Sure. Why the hell not? I could use a drink.”
We stood from the couch and I led him into the kitchen. I grabbed the glass I had just finished washing and filled it from the faucet. His hands were shaking when I handed it to him, and I was afraid he would shatter it on the ground.
He held the glass up and looked at the light coming through the window as it passed through the water. He brought it back to chest-level and waved his hand over it. Still just a glass of water. He looked up at me with his jaw clenched and his eyebrows pushed together as far as they would go.
“I think I need a sheet, maybe,” he said.
“This isn’t David Copperfield, kid.” I stood at the barrier between the kitchen and the living room, with the front door a little behind me. Jim stood deeper inside the kitchen with his back toward the sink.
He put the cup behind his arm, going for some sort of big reveal I guess, when a truck blasted past on the road outside.
Whatever was left of Jim’s nerves evaporated and the cup came out of his hand. It smashed by his feet and sent tiny shards of glass, that I would probably be finding for the next month, scattering around the kitchen.
“Shit!” He quickly bent over to pick up the largest chunk of the shattered cup and immediately cut himself. “Shit!” he said.
“Oh god, just leave it there,” I said with a sigh. I walked to my left, being very careful of where I stepped, and opened the closet to grab the broom and dust bin.
“I’m sorry, Joe. Shit, I’m sorry.”
I turned around and started sweeping up the glass as Jim cupped his left hand under his right to catch the dripping blood.
“Joe, you gotta believe me,” he tried saying over his shoulder as he quickly walked to the sink.
“Listen kid.” The glass clinked as I gathered it in the dustbin. The edge of the broom was getting soaked with water. “Just because—”
“Oh my god,” he said.
I took a couple steps toward him and looked over his shoulder, expecting to see a tendon hanging from the bone or something equally as terrible. But Jim wasn’t looking at his hand; he was looking at the faucet. I could smell the pungent sweetness as soon as I saw it.
We stood in silence and watched the wine cascade down the drain.
* * *
I didn’t end up following through on any of the plans I had for the day. Shortly after we turned off the faucet, I helped Jim wrap his hand and he left me to wrap my head around my new reality. I don’t know exactly how I spent the next few hours, but I can’t imagine it was more than simply staring at a wall with my mouth hanging open.
I called Mary later that night, sometime around dusk. I tried to apologize, even though I didn’t know how to go about it. How do you apologize for not believing something nobody in the world would believe?
He was not my son. I knew that right from the start. But the question of who the father was had haunted me for years. Who was the son of a bitch that ruined my marriage, my chances at living the happy life I had wanted for so long? Now I had my answer.
When I hung up with Mary, I was optimistic that even though so much time had passed, we would be able to rebuild what we once had. The biggest question was how would I go forward and connect with Jim? There was certainly a desire on his part, I mean, it was all his idea. I guess the one thing I had going for me was that he didn’t want to follow what his father wanted for him. Lord knows I could always use a strong mind in the landscaping business. If he didn’t want to follow in father’s footsteps, maybe I could convince him to follow in his step-father’s footsteps.
Josh Rank graduated from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee and has had stories published in The Missing Slate, The Feathertale Review, Hypertext Magazine, The Oddville Press, and elsewhere. He recently moved to Nashville where he’s set a quota of saying “y’all” at least three times a day. More ramblings can be found at joshrank.com.