October 31, 1994
John knocked, certain this was a stupid move on his part. She'd said no to his offer of pizza and the game when he'd asked last month. He'd expected it, but he hadn't anticipated hearing nothing from her for six weeks. True, he could've picked up the phone, too. He hadn't because he thought he needed his mind focused on what he needed to decide. Plus, he wasn't the world's greatest phone caller.
"Mommy, someone's here to see you," her oldest son called out behind him after he'd opened the door.
"I'll be right there."
"How are you, Bill?" he asked.
"You know my name?"
"Sure, I met you at your grandpa's funeral in July."
"Oh, I don't remember. I'm sorry, Sir."
"It's all right. You probably met a whole bunch of people that day whose names you'd have to remember. I only met you and your brother so it's easy for me."
"What's your name?"
He looked a little panicked or perplexed. John couldn't figure out what that was about.
"He's not supposed to call people by their first name, so he's asking for your last name."
"Oh," John said, understanding now. "Hey, I'm sorry, I didn't know. I'm not up on rules." He should've guessed, he supposed. "It's Bender."
"It's nice to meet you, Mr. Bender."
"Yeah, you too, Bill," he said. He hated being called Mr. Bender with a passion so deep he'd rather poke his eyes out, but he understood rules. He couldn't help but stare at his mom, though, to the point he was probably bordering on being terribly impolite himself.
"What? Do I have chocolate on my face or something?"
"You're staring at me and I just snuck a piece of Justin's Halloween candy."
"Oh, that's right," he said. He hadn't really ever given Halloween much thought. Holidays weren't things celebrated at his house. "You don't have chocolate on your face." She was just so much more obviously pregnant today than the last time he'd seen her.
"Well, that's good I guess."
"They already went trick-or-treating then?"
"Yes, Mom took them around the neighborhood when Bill got home from school. I had to stay a little later to take my decorations down."
"That was nice of her."
"I think she liked showing them off."
"Oh, the proud grandma? That's cool. I told you she was glad you guys were here."
"Is everything okay?"
"Well, you're here."
"Oh, yeah. Well, I got done a little early today and I got to thinking. The Packers and Bears are playing tonight."
"Right, I know, Monday Night Football."
"So, I figured I'd try running the watching a game idea past you again." Only this time in person so you'd be less apt to say no.
"And you drove all the way out here so I'd be less inclined to say no?"
"Come on, it's a football game and pizza or something."
"I just can't help but think you'd have a better time watching the game with friends."
"You're my friend."
"Well, yeah, but I can't drink and I have the boys."
"So? I'm not asking you to drink or leave them here. Go get them and yourself ready, pick a place that has a TV, and we'll go watch the game for a while."
"You want to go out?"
"I'm not sure that'd work very well."
"Then we'll eat and leave if they start getting antsy."
"You want to watch the game."
"Claire, quit arguing with me and go get them ready already. If we have to come back here then so be it. You deserve to get out of your house once in a while for something besides work."
"Fine," she said. "Come in. I have to change, too."
"Because I can't go out in public like this."
"Like what? Pregnant? You look fine, better than fine."
"I look like a swallowed a softball."
"I don't think softballs are quite that big sweetheart."
"Nice," she said.
He chuckled. "If you need to change, fine. I went home and showered first."
"Bill. Justin. Come here. You must've really gotten done early then."
"Yeah, about three o'clock."
"Go put some socks on and find some for Justin while I find Grandma," Claire said to Bill when the boys showed up by the door.
"Where are we going?" Bill asked.
She glared at him so he shut up. She was good at that look, too.
"Mr. Bender invited us to go get something to eat and watch the Bears game. They're playing the Packers tonight, so it should be a real good game."
"Hopefully better than the one you saw against the Vikings last month."
"Okay," Bill said. "Come on, Justin," he said, grabbing his younger brother's hand.
"You can have a seat in the living room while I talk to Mom and get ready."
"We'll have to take my car."
"I figured that and it's fine. Go already, I'll be fine. And we are going to talk about this Mr. Bender stuff."
"I can't wait," she said, sounding like she wanted nothing to do with that conversation. He chuckled a little, watching her leave the room.
He had never paid pregnant women any attention. Ever. They were pregnant, which was a pretty immediate and obvious indication that they were unavailable. He'd known guys whose wives or girlfriends were pregnant, but he rarely saw them to notice the changes. He couldn't believe how much more she was showing now than when he'd seen her at the game six weeks ago.
She'd obviously planned on being in for the rest of the night, maybe answering the door for trick-or-treaters or something. She was wearing some workout pants or something, but he saw nothing wrong with what she was wearing.
Bill and Justin appeared first. They'd done more than get their socks on. They had shoes, coats, and hats on, too.
"He did all that?" John asked, indicating Justin. Three seemed pretty young to put all that together, especially since she'd told Bill to help the younger one get socks.
"No, Sir. I helped."
He nodded a little, regarding both of them. He could see Claire in Bill, but not as much Justin. Bill was missing a tooth. He wasn't sure if that was a new thing or not. "You must be a pretty good big brother."
"I'm going to be again."
"I know that."
"Mommy told you?"
"She did," John said. He supposed from a seven-year-old perspective he wouldn't understand that it was very obvious to John he was going to be a big brother again.
"She said I'm not supposed to tell people."
"Are you excited?"
He shrugged a bit. "I guess. He's not going to have a daddy, though."
Huh. That hadn't been the response he was expecting at all. John knelt then so he was eye level with Bill, thinking over what to say to that.
"Of course he or she will have a daddy. He just can't be here anymore. Your dad is still your dad, the same as your brother's, and the new one."
John was an expert on still having parents because he knew his were still out there even though he never saw them. His choice was voluntary, though. He got that her kids didn't have a choice.
His parents, or lack of them, was eventually his undoing with Amanda. She'd brought up going to dinner with her parents. Until then, evidently she'd thought his were dead because he never talked about them. So, then she'd mentioned going to dinner with their parents. Together. The six of them.
That was never going to happen in this lifetime. Ever.
She'd gotten a little miffed when he said he hadn't seen or spoken to them in over nine years. He hadn't felt like going into why, but she'd been unable to get past someone turning their back on his family.
Oh, it hadn't happened immediately, but he knew that was the point of no return for him. Likely for her, too. It had taken a few weeks, but he was pretty sure they both knew after those conversations that they were too different. He'd said he'd meet her folks, he'd have been happy to. Well, maybe happy to wasn't exactly accurate. He was pretty sure he gave incredibly bad parent because in all honesty he didn't trust them. Always in the back of his head when he met people's parents was him wondering what secrets their family hid.
Evidently it was a package deal, though. His parents' for hers.
He could've explained it, maybe even shown her. He really, really hated drudging up things that were better off left in the past. He didn't want to show her either because he wasn't confident about what he wanted to do with her. Her having that sort of information if they stopped seeing one another about him didn't sit well with him. So, he'd kept his mouth shut and let her think, he supposed, that he was an ungrateful asshole.
He stood when she came back into the room. He couldn't help it. She looked, holy crap, fucking amazing.
"Wow," he said.
"Hmm. I must have really looked awful if this gets a wow out of you."
"You didn't. It's just been years since I've seen you in a skirt. And, well, you look very nice in that one."
"Thank you. Wow you guys are all ready to go."
"I know. They must have been excited since you told them just to put socks on."
"Thank you, Bill, for helping Justin." She stooped a little, checking Justin's coat to be sure it was zipped up. It wasn't real cold out, but cold enough John supposed zipping up was necessary. "Let's go then."
"So, I was thinking," John said once everyone was settled in Claire's car.
"Maybe we should head to Glenview or something."
"Why?" she asked. She glanced at him then. "Are you afraid you'll run into someone you know and they'll think we're yours?"
"What? No, why would you think that? I was thinking of you more than me. I mean, people can be cruel and if they see us together."
"Really? Ten years later you're worried?"
"About you. If you don't care we can go wherever you want. I'm not the one with the job with the Shermer Public School system."
"I'm not ashamed of being seen with you and if people want to judge my having dinner with an old friend let them. I haven't gone out anywhere since I've been back besides the game, work, and the grocery store."
"Not really. I mean, I take the boys to the park and stuff, but as far as socializing. No."
"No friends with kids? Or just friends who'll tolerate your kids?"
"A couple, and we've talked. I've seen a couple, but I've gone to their houses or they've come to ours."
"Well, I'm glad you're doing something to get out."
"The school counselor recommended some group grief counseling for Bill."
"I'm going to give him a little longer to adjust."
"That sounds like a solid plan if he's not acting out or anything."
They arrived at a place John hadn't been to since high school. The food had always been good and they had a TV. John was pretty sure judging by the number of cars in the parking lot that it was still a good place to go.
"Do you mind letting Bill out?"
"Sure," he said, opening his side's rear door so Bill could get out.
"Thank you, Sir," Bill said.
"Yeah, sure," John said, glaring at Claire over the hood of the car.
"You like the Bears, too, then?" Bill asked.
"Mommy and Uncle Scott do, too."
"You know, I've known your mom for a long time and I never knew she even knew anything about football or liked it until recently."
"Really. I saw you guys at the game you went to last month and I was real surprised to see her there."
"They lost," he said, sounding very sad about that.
"Yeah, well, it happens. At least you had fun, though, right?"
"Yes, Sir, we did. Mommy even let us drink pop."
"She doesn't usually?"
"All of the time?"
"Yes, Sir," he said. "And not even chocolate."
He chuckled a little at that.
"Well, I expect your mom is trying to be sure you grow up big and strong with no cavities."
"I know," Bill said, but he didn't sound happy about it.
They were seated and ordered their pizza pretty quickly.
"So what were you two talking about?" Claire asked.
"Nothing," John said.
He'd gotten the seat next to Bill's. His only other choice had been Justin. He knew less about three-year-olds than seven-year-olds. So, he figured it was the better, safer choice. He couldn't screw up too much he hoped.
Claire had crayons and a coloring book for each of the boys so they were sort of occupied.
"See anyone you know?" she asked. He'd chosen to sit facing most of the restaurant.
"No, but that's not surprising. I hadn't been to town since I moved out before August."
"So, how's the job?"
"Fine. You know, it's a job. I get to teach hormonal boys and girls things they don't want to learn."
"What grade are you teaching?"
"Huh. Any problem students."
"No," she said.
"One cussed at her," Bill said.
"How do you know that?" Claire asked.
"You told Grandma."
"Kids cussing at you aren't a problem?" John asked.
"He was trying to be cool," she shrugged. "To get a reaction out of me. I didn't react, which is what he was going for."
"You didn't react to a twelve-year-old kid cussing at you?"
"The school I taught at in New York was a very good prep school."
"Okay," he said.
"Politicians, famous people like stage and movie stars and athletes, and old money people all sent their kids there. So rich kids, entitled kids, kids not used to being told no or given detention. So I've learned not to react. Believe me, he said nothing I haven't heard before."
"Aimed at you?"
"I don't like it," Bill said.
"I don't either, but why not, Bill?" John asked.
"She's an adult."
"Yeah," he prompted, wondering where he was going with that. He clearly was thinking through what else he wanted to say.
"And she's a teacher. She's import…"
"Important," Claire prompted.
"Yeah. They should expect her. My daddy told me cussing at a lady is disexpectful."
"On that I can agree with your daddy, I hope you remember that when you're older," John said.
"Daddy told you that?" Claire asked.
"Yes, ma'am," he said.
"When Tommy hit me."
"I remember that happening, but I don't remember Daddy talking to you."
"Tommy's mom believed him that I started it. When Daddy asked me about it I said something not so nice about her."
"And Daddy said?" Claire asked.
"That she was doing the same thing you'd do for me or for Justin. He said that being mad doesn't give me the right to call someone names. He said especially women like Mrs. Trent who were nice ladies."
"I never knew he talked to you about that."
"You'd fallen asleep on the couch. He put you to bed and came to see me because I'd gotten up to get a glass of water. He told me I was a big boy for getting Justin to bed without waking you up. He saw my black eye, though."
"You fell asleep on the couch? "John asked. He found that kind of hard to believe.
"She was sick," Bill said. "Daddy said she had a fever."
"Oh," John said. "When was this?"
"It was in March," Claire said. "I only remember because we had to go to church with him having a black eye on Palm Sunday. It was gone by Easter Sunday, thankfully."
"Were you okay?"
"Yes, it was just the flu."
"That's good," he said. "Were you and Tommy still friends after that?"
"Good," John said.
"Daddy said friends fight sometimes."
"Are you a daddy?"
"Some people don't have kids."
"You don't like them?"
He glanced at Claire for help, but she was helping Justin with his pizza. He evidently needed his piece cut up into smaller pieces.
"Well, honestly, I think you and your brother are the first kids I've really been around."
"None of your friends have kids?" Claire asked.
Now she was paying attention!
"Well, sure, but I don't converse with their kids. Usually, I meet them at a bar or something."
"Leaving the wife home with the kids? That doesn't sound familiar at all," Claire said, glancing away.
"I guess it would," he said. None of his friends were cheaters, at least not that he knew. He didn't go home with them at the end of the night and didn't follow them out of the bar to their cars. He didn't always leave at the same time as they did either.
"You got quiet," she said.
"You know how to kick a guy where it counts," he said. Now he was sitting here wondering if he was somehow acting as one of his friends' beards. 'Oh I'm going out with John tonight. It'll be a late night. I'll crash at his place.'
"Mommy didn't kick you," Bill said with a giggle.
"How do you know?" John asked him.
Bill laughed a little more. "Because she's too far away. She can't kick you from there."
"Maybe she has real long feet," John said.
"No," Bill said, laughing harder now.
"Are you sure? Maybe she's really like Bozo."
"You don't know who Bozo is?"
"Ask your mom to show you pictures tomorrow."
"Who is he?"
"A clown," Claire said. "We grew up watching him on TV."
"And he has big feet?" Bill asked.
"Yes," Claire and John both said.
"I was kidding about your mom kicking me. She didn't tonight anyway, but she did once in high school."
"John," Claire said.
"Why'd you kick him, Mommy?"
"I did something that wasn't very nice," John said.
"Did you say you were sorry?" Bill asked.
"I did," John said. Eventually he had.
"Did you, Mommy?"
"I'm not sure I did. I was kind of mad at him."
"She did better than saying she was sorry. She was my friend even after I wasn't so nice. Your mom's a pretty good friend to have."
"Oh," Bill said.
Just like the game last month against the Vikings, the first quarter started out pretty boring with the Packers ahead at half-time. By the time they left at the end of the third quarter it was 21-0.
"I must be bad luck," Bill said when they were settled back in Claire's car.
"Nah," John said. "There's no such thing. The Packers and Bears games are always tough. The two teams have been playing against one another for like seventy years so the players are always pumped for the two games they play against each other. They've won a few this season."
"I know," Bill said.
"You want to come in and watch the rest of the game?" Claire asked when they got to her house.
"Are you sure?"
"You're the one who has to drive home afterward."
"Sure," he said. He opened the door for Bill as he'd done at the restaurant.
"Bill, you and Justin go on upstairs, get ready for bed, and brush your teeth. I'll be up in a few minutes to tuck you in."
"Okay, Mommy," Bill said.
"Justin, you brush your teeth, too, just like Bill tells you. I'll check when I get up there."
"What do you say to Mr. Bender?"
"Thank you for dinner, Sir," Bill said.
"Thank you," Justin said.
"Sure," he replied.
"I'll show you where the TV is and go get them settled into bed."
"There's a fridge if you want a beer or a pop. Mom probably has something to mix in with the pop if you wanted something like that."
"I'm fine," he said.
"Okay," she said, handing him the remote once she'd turned the TV on. "I'll be right back."
"Looking for something in particular?" She'd caught him checking out her basement after he'd gotten a pop out of the fridge behind the bar.
"No. It's just been years since I've been down here."
"Mom and Dad didn't change much."
"Well, they probably figured with grandkids there was no need to."
"Yeah, I guess. So, how are the Bears doing?"
"Not scoring twenty-one points in fifteen minutes."
"Too bad. Oh, you did get a pop, good. I'm glad you made yourself at home."
"Yeah, I was going to grab you one, but I wasn't sure what you wanted to drink."
"I'll just have some water. Those two glasses I had at dinner were my limit for the day."
"No pop either?"
"It's the caffeine."
"Oh, right," he snorted with a shake of his head. "Obviously I'm clueless. You could've gotten water or juice or something at dinner."
"I kind of wish I didn't have to do this again. And it's okay, a glass or two aren't going to hurt me."
"Do you wish you didn't have to do it again?"
"I don't know. The looks I get at school now that I'm showing. I can't be sure people are being nice to me anymore because they actually like me or just feel sorry for me."
"They can't do both?"
"I don't know. And that waitress tonight."
"What about her? She was fine."
"She probably thinks the kids are yours."
He'd thought of that, too, especially after she'd asked him if he was the one who'd taught Bill how to color when she'd seen John helping him color a picture. John couldn't remember the last time he'd colored. Grade school? Bill had asked him to, though, and despite some common perceptions about him he wasn't a monster or a complete asshole. A kid who just recently lost his dad wanted him to color with him. He could do that.
"That's her problem for presuming, not yours."
"Yes, but you mentioned me going out on dates. I think about these things. I don't want every waitress to think that."
"You aren't planning on taking them with you on dates, are you?"
"No, of course not."
"I wouldn't think you'd do that until, well, you thought the guy should meet them."
"Well, right, eventually I hope I would want to."
She shifted on the couch a little, setting her glass of water down, and breathing in sharply.
"Yes, he's just moving."
"Oh," he said. "He?"
She set her hand on her stomach and moved it around. He looked away after a couple of seconds, feeling as if he was kind of intruding on something he had no business being a part of.
"I don't know that, I just say he."
"Does Bill know you want a daughter?"
"Bill wants another brother."
"I got that earlier, yeah."
"You were nice to him, thank you."
"You don't have to thank me for being kind to your son."
"Well, thanks just the same and thank you for dinner. I could have paid for ours."
"Thank you for coming out. About this Mr. Bender thing."
"It's how I'm raising them, John."
"I get that, but I hear Mr. Bender and I think my dad's behind me or something."
"I'm sorry. I don't mean to do that."
"You think of something better."
"John would be fine with me."
"You planning on being around that much? There's very few people I allow them to call by just their first name."
"I'm not going anywhere, Claire."
"Does Amanda know you're here tonight?"
"You may want to let her know you want my boys to call you John."
"It's my name."
"It's very informal, implies familiarity."
"I hope I'm going to be familiar to them."
She yawned, rubbing her stomach again.
"I should let you go to bed."
"I'm sorry. This is the latest I've been up since we drove here."
She laughed. "Yes, I'm lucky to be awake later than Justin."
"You should've said something."
"It's one night. I can handle it."
He stood, setting his empty pop can in a garbage can behind the bar. He returned to the couch and offered her his hand.
"I'm perfectly capable of getting up. I'm not that big yet."
"Wow. Did I say anything remotely like that?"
"No," she said.
"You just look like he – or she – may be giving you a hard time so I thought I'd offer you help."
"Thank you," she said, taking his hands. He let her do the work getting off the couch. "I'm sorry."
"Don't worry about it. You look good, by the way."
"I think you need glasses."
"My eyes are just fine. I mean, you look pregnant, but you look good. Evidently it suits you."
"Too bad this will be the last time then."
"Well, yeah," she said, looking at him as if he was crazy. "I've already talked to my OB about getting my tubes tied after I've had this one."
"What if you meet someone and want more?"
"Three is enough!"
"Your doctor agrees with this?"
"She said she'd recommend waiting a little while."
"I think she may be right. I mean you're only twenty-eight."
"And, again, three is enough."
"So you meet a millionaire and could have more without money being an issue?"
"Put like that…"
"You should maybe put it off."
"You know any single millionaires?"
"Not off the top of my head."
"That's too bad."
She opened the front door, turning on the porch light. She flipped the switch that controlled the lights further along the driveway near where he'd parked.
"Get some sleep."
"You, too. Drive safely."
"I will," he said. He leaned in and kissed her cheek. "You make cute kids."
She laughed. "Thanks."
She stood in the doorway, watching as he got in his car. She turned out the exterior lights once he started driving away. He imagined she would make sure the door was locked and everything before going upstairs.
He had about an hour to think about the night and whether he'd done a very stupid or a very good thing by going over there tonight. He still wasn't sure by the time he'd pulled onto his driveway and into his garage. At least she was talking to him and hadn't walked away from him tonight mad. That was something at least.
Story ©Susan Falk/APCKRFAN/PhantomRoses.com