Sally always gets a little down every Spring, on account of this was the time of year Billy got sick. Two years ago, he had a high fever. They said it affected his brain and he’d never be the same.
So when she says to me I should take Billy for the day, I say, “Fine, no problem. But what do I do with him?”
She says, “Do the father and son stuff you used to do. Give me the day to myself.”
She deserves the free time. I mean, since Billy got out of the hospital she’s been a real trouper. She quit her full-time job at Haynes Hardware and took a job working as an aide at the special school where Billy goes, so she could learn more about how to help him. It’s been rough on both of us. Even with the tuition scholarship we get because she works at the school, it’s still expensive, especially his medication. So I’ve been working extra shifts whenever I can and doing plumbing jobs some nights and weekends. Sally’s really with the boy twenty-four/seven and it gets to her sometimes.
Before all this happened, we were like a family on a TV sitcom. I mean neither of us worked weekends and we always did stuff together, like go to the zoo and then out for pizza. That was Billy’s favorite thing to do. To tell you the truth, I liked it, too. Billy and me got a kick out of watching the monkeys jump around and scratch themselves and pick insects off each other. Then we’d get a pepperoni pizza and me and Billy would make monkey noises. Sally would act frightened and say, “Oh no. Two monkeys escaped from the zoo.” Billy would giggle and say, “Look, Momma, it’s really me!” And we’d all laugh.
We haven’t been to the zoo since, and I can’t remember the last time all of us laughed.
So I think maybe the zoo is where I’ll take him, but then I think about how hard it would be to walk around with him and how I’d feel when we look at the monkeys and he just stares with that blank look on his face, like he’d never seen them before. I don’t want to sound cruel, but he’s six now and all he does is stare and make humming sounds and drool. And if you’re not watching, he’ll just wander off. The doctors say he lives in his own world and he can’t communicate other than for his most basic needs. And even then he craps in his pants if we don’t remember to sit him on the pot. So taking him to some public place like the zoo isn’t a good idea.
Besides, I hate the way people stare at him. Or worse. They look at me with pity.
I remember when Billy was little and Sally wanted us out of her hair, I’d take him bowling. He’d get a kick out of watching me, thinking I was like Superman since he couldn’t even lift the ball. I’d drink beer and I’d let him put some of the foam on his lips to taste it. And we’d make a secret man-to-man promise not to tell Momma. Then we’d go to our favorite pizza place and make monkey noises and sometimes people at other tables would join in.
I decide to go to the alley on Bolton Road. I know it’s on the other side of town but it’s a nice place, newer than The Golden Triangle. Besides, I figure I probably wouldn’t run into anyone I know.
When we get there, music is blaring and there’s this huge Easter bunny with flashing lights. Like there isn’t already enough of a racket at a bowling alley.
Billy has this weird look on his face. He sometimes freaks out when there’s a lot of noise and lights. I almost take him home, but instead I put my arm on his shoulder to steady him and he seems okay. I get a lane on the far end of the place, and I take Billy’s hand while I look for a sixteen-pound ball that fits the broken knuckle on my right thumb. Finding a ball that fits good is always a problem and I tell Billy the story of how I broke the thumb breaking up a bar fight, as if he understands me. Anyway, it must have taken me ten minutes to find a ball, and all that time Billy stares at my hands and then at his hands. It’s strange, but kind of nice.
Anyways, when I start bowling Billy gets this crazy smile on his face. It’s hard to know if he’s smiling at me or at something in his head, but he just keeps smiling. I order myself a beer and him orange juice and he dips his finger in my beer and smears the foam on his lips. I hug him and shout, “Billy! You remember! You remember!” And he looks up at me and grabs my hand.
I’m so happy, I feel these tears tickling my cheek. I want to call Sally and tell her our boy has come back.
But when I look at his face again, I see the smile is gone and he’s back in his world, humming. His eyes are blank and drool is back on his mouth. I wipe it off and squeeze his shoulders, and tell him it’s all right. We’re gonna be all right. I help him roll a light ball down the lane and when some pins fall, I tell him how proud I am to be his dad.
After that, I take him out for pizza and make monkey noises. He just stares. The people in the restaurant keep looking at us, but I don’t care. He’s my boy and it’s springtime and I feel like something inside both of us has been renewed.
Wayne Scheer has been locked in a room with his computer and turtle since his retirement. (Wayne’s, not the turtle’s.) To keep from going back to work, he’s published hundreds of short stories, essays and poems, including Revealing Moments, a collection of twenty-four flash stories, available at http://www.pearnoir.com/thumbscrews.htm. He’s been nominated for four Pushcart Prizes and a Best of the Net. Wayne can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.