MY BAD • by Mike Pemberton

Bob bent down on one knee and popped the tops on the last two cans of paint. He flipped the lids of “Royal Lavender” onto the canvas drop cloth and stared at a muddled mess of grey and white satin.

“For Christ’s sake,” he muttered, face flushed under salt and pepper stubble.

He mixed the splotchy goop with a wood stirrer and glared at his fifteen-year-old son, Tommy, perched on an aluminum ladder under the eaves two stories above.

Tommy sang a song Bob did not know.

Bob pushed up the battered bill of a camouflaged cap with “Sarge” sewed across the front, a gift from his platoon, the lone memento from a combat-filled tour of duty in Afghanistan.

“Thomas James…”

Tommy winced, stopped painting and singing, and leaned out into the late afternoon sun. Auburn hair flowed from his white painter’s cap and spilled down the back of his neck. His burnt-brown chest and shoulders, dotted with paint, had broadened and thickened over the summer, but a slim waist betrayed a lingering adolescence.

“Pops, I can paint and sing at the same time. Chill,” Tommy sighed.

Bob waved the wood stirrer.

“I said to make sure this paint was mixed well at the store. This crap looks like two shades of pigeon shit.”

“They said they did.”

“Next time, check before you leave.”

“Okay, okay. My bad.”

“My bad?” Bob said. “‘My bad’ don’t change nothin’. Paint’s still not mixed.”

Bob grit his teeth, bowed his head and stirred. Tommy brushed in silence.

They had scraped and painted their century old, Victorian home for two weeks. Bob hoped to finish that day. He hated the thought of cleaning brushes, lugging out ladders, and sweating like a chain gang con over the Labor Day weekend.


A paint can crashed onto the landscape river rock.

“Dammit,” Tommy said as he clambered down, flat-soled skateboard shoes skimming the aluminum rungs.

“Hey,” Bob yelled. “Slow down.”

The lightweight ladder shuddered and banged against the wood siding. Tommy slipped and jerked it away from the house.

“Tommy,” Bob shouted.

The ladder arced towards a tipping point. Tommy froze, eyes wide, left leg dangling, right hand clinging to a rung.

Bob lunged, jammed the base into the loose rocks and pushed like a football player ramming a blocking sled. The ladder wavered, then slammed against the siding. Father and son sagged against the vibrating metal.



Tommy moved first. Bob braced the ladder until his son was close enough to touch, then stepped back.

Two of Tommy’s friends zoomed up on skateboards at the front of the house, their lean, supple bodies undulating like slinkies under the summer sun.

In the shadow of the eaves, Tommy stared down at the lavender splattered stones, ignoring his buddies’ shouts to join them.

“Sorry,” he said, righting the spilled paint can.

Bob tugged the bill of his cap and eyed the boys on the sidewalk then Tommy.

The boys stopped yelling.

Tommy’s blushing skin was as smooth as the silky paint he spilled. A peach fuzz mustache covered his pursed upper lip. His brown eyes glazed over.

Bob had seen that dazed and confused look too many times, with too many young men. Boys, really. Some had not lived long enough to become men.

“Stuff happens,” Bob said, removing his sweat-soaked hat and wiping his brow. “It’s gettin’ late. I’m beat. Let’s finish tomorrow. Go skate.”

“But I thought…” Tommy said, studying his father’s unflinching face.

Bob winked.

Tommy whooped and tossed his white painter’s cap into the blue sky.

“I’m coming,” he yelled to his friends.

Bob hosed off the rocks, cleaned the brushes, lowered the ladder, and tamped down the lids on the unmixed paint.

He sank his bone-weary body into a weathered Adirondack chair on the front porch and gulped a frost covered glass of ice-cold beer.

Tommy and his buddies chattered, chugged Mountain Dew, skated, and broke into song and dance whenever a favorite tune blasted from their boom box.

“Hey, Pops. Watch this,” Tommy shouted.

Long arms stretched wide, he zipped along the sidewalk, shot up a homemade ramp and flipped the board in mid-air. A white smile burst across his tan face when he stuck the landing.

Bob grinned.

He removed the camouflage cap, smile fading, and traced the tightly stitched “Sarge” with a paint-smudged finger.

“My bad,” he said, thinking of other boys on other days.

He tossed the cap onto an empty chair and watched the boys play in the lengthening shadows of a late summer’s day.

Mike Pemberton is a freelance writer and an instructor for Danville Area Community College. His short stories and essays have been published in literary journals and newspapers. He is available for speaking engagements. More of Mike’s work can be found at or you can contact him at

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Every Day Fiction