"You sure have been leaving a lot this week," Ronda said as John was getting ready to leave.
"I have things to do sometimes."
"Oh, I know. I'm just saying that I can't remember seeing you leave and be gone so much in one week before."
"Well, Monday and Tuesday were because of Valentine's Day."
"You never told me how Claire liked the dinner you made."
John shrugged. "She liked it fine. She probably would have preferred we went out to eat. I don't know."
"Did she say that?"
"No," he admitted.
He'd gone out of his way to cook her a nice dinner. It had been beyond anything he'd ever tried making before, but it had been kind of fun he had to admit. He liked cooking. He wasn't sure if that made him weird or her weird for letting him do it most of the time. She helped and was willing to learn, but overall she left it to him. It seemed the most logical way to do things since she worked downtown and had a commute every day where he didn't. He'd thought of doing the dinner out thing, but he wanted to do something they didn't do. Nice dinners at home weren't typical for them.
"Did she comment on the fact she finally got to use the dishes she told you she liked?"
"Yes," he said. "I'm glad I paid attention to where she put them or I would've had to ask her to get them for me."
"Not nearly as fun to surprise someone when the surprise is partially ruined."
"No. She seemed genuinely happy I remembered she'd wanted to use them."
He'd found the set of China she'd mentioned and set the table with it. He'd even gone out and bought a tablecloth, napkins, candleholders, and candles for the table. She had real silverware and crystal, too, which he'd used. She'd mentioned having napkins he remembered, but if he was buying a tablecloth he figured he may as well buy some napkins to match it. It seemed logical anyway. These were just things he'd never thought of needing until this week. He could honestly say until this week he'd never had a romantic dinner, at home or out. Not even with Claire really. He'd avoided Valentine's Day in the past, managing somehow every year to not be involved enough with anyone for them to expect anything from him.
He supposed there was perhaps something comical about the fact that his first Valentine's Day involved with someone was with his wife and not just a girlfriend.
"Good. I'm glad."
"Anyway. I'll be back. I won't be long. I just have something to take care of."
"It's not like you're accountable to me."
"No, but I don't need you telling Claire I've been disappearing all week or anything. She asked me last night if I was having sex with someone else."
"We were maybe having a bit of a discussion in which I didn't express my thoughts so clear or well."
"I know, shocking right?"
"And she thought that?"
"Well, I think I cleared up the confusion, but you telling her I'm disappearing for hours the next day may not go over well."
"You're not are you?"
"Wow. You, too?"
"No! I'm not. When do I have time?"
"Clearly you have time!"
"I'm going to see my mother. If you think that's code for I'm going somewhere to have sex with someone else then so be it."
"Didn't you just see her yesterday?"
"And fixed her furnace?"
"You noticed yourself I wasn't in such a good mood yesterday. I may have said some things I should maybe at least pretend I'm sorry for."
"To your mother or to Claire?"
"I already made up to Claire my being in a foul mood. I'm surprised you didn't notice the bags under my eyes as a result."
"That's probably more than I need to know. So your mother then?"
"Am I what?" he asked, confused.
"Sorry you said them."
"Oh," he said, forgetting what they'd even been talking about for a second there. As it turned out he hadn't gotten a whole lot of sleep the night before. Long after the bath water got too cold for them to put up with anymore and they drained it he'd done what he could to ensure she didn't go to work this morning thinking he was mad at her or didn't want her. "Kind of. Some of the things. I just wasn't expecting her to come talk to me while I was there. You know? I was in a bad mood. She was trying to be nice to me."
"You're her son."
"In theory that'd mean something."
"I know. Go do what you need to do. I won't lead Claire to believe you're out having a torrid affair."
"Now if she calls here and I tell her you're at your mother's she may think that of her own accord."
"I don't think so, she's the one who suggested maybe I should go see her today and apologize if I still felt I should."
"And then maybe when you get back you can tell me what's going on with you."
"Not yet, Ronda. I'm still sorting things out myself. This, though, my mother I need to take care of."
"Have at it."
"Oh, and hey," she said.
"Yeah," he said, hand on the door.
"I'm glad you're in a better mood today, even if you haven't resolved whatever's on your mind."
"Me, too. I just have stuff going on I never anticipated happening in my life."
"I just have to figure out what I want to do."
"I'd say have a nice time, but I'm not sure that's the right thing given where you're going."
"It'll be fine, thank you."
He made one stop on the way at a nearby drug store before heading to her house. He grabbed the bag of stuff he bought and headed to the door. He supposed there was a chance she wasn't home, but he'd leave the stuff he'd bought for Billy anyway and come back another day if that was the case.
He was about to do just that, opening the screen door to set the plastic bag in between it and the main door when she opened the door.
"Ma, really. I haven't gone by Johnny in years."
"Sorry, habit," she said.
"Can I come in?" he asked.
She hesitated a minute, he couldn't quite blame her, but she stepped aside to let him in.
"Furnace is working all right?" he asked. The house certainly felt like it should feel so he assumed so.
"It is, thank you for checking on us."
"Yeah, I'm glad I could remember what to do. It's been a while since you had problems with it."
"It has," she agreed.
"I bought these for Billy. Can I give them to him?"
"Sure," she said.
"It's just a coloring book and crayons, a pad of blank paper and colored pencils. I figured markers wouldn't be cool, but what do I know. So, you know," he shrugged. "I, uh, kind of a late Christmas present, I guess. I don't know when his birthday is."
"It's this summer."
"Oh, good," he said, not sure why that was good.
"Did you want something?"
"Me? No, really, you don't need to offer me stuff every time I come here."
"Ma, just relax, all right?"
"I was just making some coffee."
He shook his head a little. Again with the coffee. Was she really absolutely that clueless about him? Or did she just not remember? Maybe both?
"Go, go ahead and get whatever you were getting. I'll be in there in a minute."
"He's in his room."
He found Billy in his room as she'd said, which had been John's bedroom. He obviously really liked the old GI Joe and Army guys because he was playing with them again today. He had a whole slew of Army guys set up around the room. Some were on the night stand by his bed. Some were on his dresser. Some were on his windowsill.
John couldn't help but chuckle a bit at that, because he'd done much the same thing with them when he was pretty little.
"Hey Billy," he said.
"Hi," he said without stopping what he was doing.
"How are Joe and his guys doing today?"
"Okay," he said.
"Good. I bought you a coloring book and some paper, crayons and colored pencils. I thought maybe you could draw me another picture some time. The one I have on my fridge looks kind of lonely being the only one." He sat next to him on the floor, pulling the coloring book out of the bag. "Do you like the Ninja Turtles? A woman at the store told me her boy who's a little older than you likes them so I thought maybe you might."
"Well, I made the right choice then. Good to know. Well, you draw me a picture and Mom can mail it to me. Okay. I put some envelopes and stamps in the bag, too, but I'm sure Mom probably has some of those. Just in case, though, because Claire and I would really like another picture."
He sat there for a minute or two, watching Billy play with GI Joe and his miniature soldiers. He didn't expect the kid to say much to him. He wasn't even sure how much three year olds could say.
"I'm going to go talk to Mom for a minute before I go. You have fun playing with Joe."
He stood then, going to the living room where his mom was now having a cup of coffee.
"There's nothing but cream in it," she said defensively.
He sat on the edge of a chair near the couch, rubbing his hands on his knees because fuck if he had any idea what to say to her.
"Listen. I just," he sighed heavily. "I said some things yesterday that maybe shouldn't have been said. I'm not going to say I'm sorry exactly. I'm not going to apologize for how I feel, but I am sorry I said them. I shouldn't have. I'd just learned about your family, which isn't really an excuse but I went from having no family to people I don't even know claiming to be that. I came here to help you out. You were cold and probably tired. I'm sure you didn't sleep well worrying about Billy the night before."
"I didn't," she admitted.
"You need something like that again, you call, but you tell Ronda what you need. My goal in my life is not to rush to the phone every time you call. I have my own house, a business, and a wife to take care of. You tell her it's something important like that, though, I'll call you back."
"You said that already."
"I also told you not to go breaking stuff. I don't want you to do that either, but I don't mind helping you. I still plan on coming here when the weather turns nicer to work on Dad's car for you."
"I don't need…"
"No, I know you don't need two cars, but that way if something happens to yours you'll have Dad's up and running to use."
"Do you like my parents?"
"I only met them once. I like your brother, though."
"Phillip or Wayne?"
"I've never met Wayne. Are you going to talk to him?"
"I don't know…"
"I think he'd like it if you did. I don't know for sure, but thinking over some of our conversations it seems as though he's curious and concerned about you. I bet he'd talk to you. I didn't tell him you worked at Shermer Memorial, too. I figured that was up to you to contact him."
"I might. I don't even know what I'd say."
"How about 'hi, I'm your sister Cindy.'?"
"You like him?"
"He's a likeable guy," John admitted.
"Then he must be all right."
"You wouldn't say that about someone if it wasn't true."
"And you know that how?"
"You haven't changed that much. I was shocked you got to know someone well enough to marry them."
"Thank you," he said.
"I'm not being insulting, just stating a fact. You weren't the most social person."
"I don't think we need to touch on that subject today, Ma. There was a reason for that."
"I know," she said softly.
"Listen. I just wanted to say I was sorry for saying those things."
"You had every right to."
"Maybe so, but I still didn't need to say them."
Now what? He'd said what he'd come to say. Should he just leave?
"I was thinking maybe some Sunday I could take Billy somewhere."
"I don't know. You tell me. Lunch or breakfast somewhere to start and go from there. A zoo when it's nicer out."
"Would Claire go with you?"
"Probably. I don't know. She knows I've thought about seeing him."
"People might think he's yours."
He shrugged. "I'd thought of that. I've had worse things thought about me. I can deal with it."
"I don't know. I guess I'll find out."
"You'd need a seat."
"I'd thought of that," he admitted. "I figured before I invested in one I'd probably come here, take your car and leave my Jeep for you in case you needed it while we were gone."
"Would Billy have a problem going with me?"
"No, why would he?"
"I don't know. I don't know how he does with virtual strangers."
"He knows you're his brother."
"I doubt he understands what that really means at the age of three, Ma. He didn't know me until a few months ago."
"He'd seen pictures of you."
"You know what I mean."
"No, he'd be fine. He goes to daycare, remember?"
"Sure, and probably sees the same kids and caregivers most of the time."
"Well, yes. He'd be fine."
"All right. I'll work out a time then and let you know. I guess I should ask if you trust me with him."
"Why wouldn't I?"
"I don't know. You might not."
"Whether you think so or not, I know you Johnny. You wouldn't hurt your own brother."
"No, I wouldn't," he said. "There are some envelopes and stamps in the bag you may want to get and put away somewhere. He draws a picture you can mail it to me."
"You didn't have to…"
He shrugged. "It's kind of nice having his picture on my fridge. Another one wouldn't be bad at all."
"I hope you can have your own kids' pictures on it one day, Johnny. I really do."
"Me, too, Ma," he said. He stood then, knowing he had to go then. Her bringing that shit up was not a way to end this conversation on a good note.
"I'll call you when Claire and I figure out what we want to do with him. Pizza maybe?"
"All right. I'm glad the furnace is working."
"Thank you again."
"You don't have to thank me, Ma, but you're welcome."
He grabbed his coat from the back of the chair he'd set it on when he went to go find Billy and slid it on.
"The house looks good," he said as an afterthought. "I thought that the day I came here to fix the car, but assumed it was a fluke."
"I'm trying, Johnny, I really am."
"I see that," he said. It was the main reason he asked her about seeing Billy today. He hadn't really decided one way or the other if he wanted to, but he could see that she really was putting an effort into maintaining the house the way it should've been all along.
"And I am going to file for a divorce. I just need to get the money together."
"How much are you talking?"
"Well, he's in prison so custody isn't an issue, but I want to be sure if he gets out he doesn't have visitation rights."
"You think he's going to get out on a murder charge, Ma?"
"He could. You know he can be well-behaved when he needs or wants to be."
John shrugged. Yeah, his father could be an all-around good guy when he had to be. The garage he ran wouldn't have stayed open if his customers knew what an asshole he was. He had most everyone fooled. Most everyone. Not everyone. John though there were a few who saw through his façade.
"You need help with them needing to know the kind of guy he is I can do that."
"Thank you, Johnny."
"It's not going to paint you in the best of lights, though, you realize that."
"I know. I go to AA meetings. I have a sponsor. I really am trying."
"All right," he said. "I'll see you next time then, I guess."
She walked with him to the door, closing it behind him.
His next stop was a little more difficult for him oddly. He got out of the car and made his way across Shermer Memorial's parking lot. He was taking a chance he was here now. John really didn't know the hours or days he worked. He did know that he worked on the pediatrics floor so he made his way in that direction, knowing it well. He'd spent a bit of time there growing up. While the hospital had grown over the years, additions put on and so on, the pediatrics unit was essentially the same as it had been since the last time he was there.
He found the nurse's station and stopped there.
"Hi, I'm looking for Phil Taylor. Does he happen to be working today?"
"He is. He's with a patient right now, though, down at X-Ray. If you want to have a seat in the waiting area I can tell him you're here when he gets back."
"Sure," he said. "Thanks," he said, finding the waiting room easily enough. He found a very outdated copy of National Geographic magazine. It was better than the other options of Vogue, Good Housekeeping, or Ladies' Home Journal.
He almost thought the nurse forgot about him it'd been that long. He knew X-Rays could take a while though so he was patient.
"John, hey," Phillip said, sounding clearly surprised.
"Is everything all right?"
"Uh, yeah, you know, just kind of doing some things today."
"Okay. And coming here? Is Claire okay? Your mom?"
"They're fine. Nobody's a patient here or anything. I just took a chance you were working since I'm not exactly sure where you live."
"Oh, well, you never asked."
"Yeah, I guess I'm not too sure how to ask such questions of people."
"You just ask."
"Easy for you to say," John said.
"So, I was thinking about this whole thing."
"I can imagine."
"I'm not so sure you can, really. I went from having nobody on Tuesday to having more people than I probably want or need."
"Well, no one's forcing you into anything."
"Well, that's the thing. I like you. Enough I thought, you know, if Claire and Elizabeth could get along we could take in a Hawks game or something some night."
"Do you still think that?"
"Can we put aside the uncle and nephew thing for now? I'm ready for a friend, I'm not entirely sure I'm ready for any more than that."
"I think I can handle being your friend, John. I told you I liked you and that I wasn't trying to weasel my way into your life as your uncle. I realize the time for that type of relationship has long passed. Besides, I'm only three years older than you are we probably would have been more like brothers or cousins anyway. That's probably why my parents suggested adopting you to begin with."
"I know. I just need to know though, are you going to report back to your parents? I mean, is that part of a friendship with you?"
"It doesn't have to be. I'm not going to lie to them. If they ask me what I've done I'll tell them, but I think I can keep specific details to myself until you're comfortable with the fact they may just want to get to know you."
"Do they want to get to know my brother, too?"
"I'm not sure they know if Cindy wants them to."
"That's between them. I'm not sure she knows either. She still claims she didn't have a choice."
"She probably saw it that way. And, maybe your father didn't give her a choice as time went by. You know? I don't know him, but if he hurt both of you maybe she thought he'd find you easily enough and do worse than just hurt you. No one but the two of them really know, I suppose."
John honestly hadn't thought of that. God had his mom stayed because he thought if she left his dad would hunt them down and really hurt them? Kill them? Had she really, ultimately stayed when all was said and done thinking she was protecting him as best as she could under the circumstances? He had no idea. It would have to be fairly obvious if she'd leave where she'd run off to. He doubted she had several choices back then. As far as John knew she didn't really have any friends and his dad would've known who they were, too.
"Maybe," he said with a shrug.
"My mom said you look just like him."
"So I've been told."
"Probably too many times."
"A few too many, yeah."
"Sorry to add to it."
"It's all right. It is what it is, not much I can do about it. Billy looks just like him, too."
"Is that weird for you?"
"How do you mean?"
"Well, if he looks like your dad that must mean he looks like you? Is it like looking in a mirror for you? You know, when you were that age?"
"I guess it is a little eerie since I didn't know I had a brother until a few months ago."
"Listen, I'll let you get back to work. I just," he shrugged. "I don't know."
"It's all right. I'm glad you came by, surprised."
"Oh, I figured you would eventually, call me or something. You know. I just sort of thought it would take a while before you did it."
"Well, I'm not exactly swimming in friends and even my mother pointed out to me if I like you there must be something to that."
"You talked to her about me?"
"Uh, yeah. Her furnace was out the other night and I fixed it for her."
"Huh. I guess I know who to call if mine ever goes out."
"Uh, yeah, sure," John said.
"I'm kidding, I wouldn't do that to you."
"Well, you could, you certainly wouldn't be the only one. I keep waiting for Claire's parents to start asking me to do stuff."
"I'm not sure her mom would do that."
"I don't know if she would either, but her dad might."
"And yeah, you came up."
"Well, I'm glad she knows we've spoken anyway."
"She was surprised."
"I bet. You must have had a quiet Valentine's Day," he said.
"Well, I was expecting to see pictures of the two of you show up this week having dinner or being somewhere out together. They seem to like to catch you guys on holidays anyway."
"Nah, we stayed in. I cooked her dinner, used her good China and all that stuff."
"I bet that was nice."
"What did you cook?"
John chuckled. "Yeah, I'd never tackled that sort of thing before. It was pretty time consuming. Well, they weren't, but I made cole slaw to go with it and that was time consuming grating the cabbage and stuff."
"Worth it, though?"
"Yeah, it was."
"You two. What did you do?"
"Nothing as ambitious as lobster. We went out, did some dancing afterward."
"She seems nice," John said.
"Well, I'd hope you think so since you're marrying her."
"There is that."
"Does she know?"
"About you? Yes, I told her after the day of our consultation because she agreed with you that it was strange my parents came there and then left."
"Yeah, had they not done that…"
"They just wanted to see you without being intrusive."
"Well, I can understand that, too."
"You know I'm done at six. If you and Claire wanted to meet us somewhere for a late dinner."
"Sure as far as I know she has nothing planned."
"Your weekends are usually pretty booked, right?"
"Yeah. It's the rare Saturday I get off."
"What do you do with them?"
"When I get one off? Whatever Claire wants to do. It usually ends up resulting in my picture making it into the paper somehow."
He chuckled softly at that.
"Well, it seems like the pictures of her when she's out include you most of the time. Or if she's by herself, just her and her friends, she's nowhere near the condition I used to see pictures of her in."
"You're right, yeah. She's," John shrugged. "I guess she's outgrowing her need for that lifestyle so much."
"That just means you're the right guy for her."
"I like to think so."
"You're the one doing the other ones, aren't you?"
"It's a good idea. I don't think people know how much stuff people like her do. They're nice pictures, too."
"And I can tell I'm making you uncomfortable."
"I'm just not used to people knowing what I do, you know, complimenting it I guess."
"Well, you're good at your job."
"Sure, people pay me to do it. I don't usually get feedback I guess except when they complain something should be touched up that wasn't."
"Well, you deserve praise too. We all do."
"All right. I'll let it go for now. So, dinner?"
"Sure. Give me a call when you're home and I should have an idea by then if Claire's at least on her way home."
"All right. I'm glad you came by, really."
"Sorry if I interrupted something."
"Nah, it's not too busy today thankfully."
"Well, that's good, I guess. I'll see you later then."
John grabbed his coat then.
"Yeah?" he said. "You're not going to hug me again, are you?"
He smiled a bit at that.
"No, I think I can refrain from doing that today."
"You're welcome. Just so you know, though. We were going to use you as our photographer. Whether you were talking to me or not. Whether you want to be or not you're my nephew I wouldn't want someone else to do it."
"Hmm, wouldn't you want your nephew at your wedding?"
"You will be there, though, from the beginning. You're the only nephew we have. Well, that I know yet. I guess we have two."
"Wayne and Erin don't have kids?"
"No, not yet."
"Huh," John said.
"So, be sure to pencil us in on your calendar."
He smiled a bit at that. "That might be a bit of a weird wedding to photograph, but I'll be there."
Story ©Susan Falk/APCKRFAN/PhantomRoses.com