Part Two. For Part One, click here.
I pushed Vic’s kid down Court Street, stopped every few strides by another stroller, double-wides, more often than not. Benny kicked at the stroller’s footrest and shouted out things that I could not understand and did not trouble myself over.
In the first store, I had to wedge the stroller at the front, near a display window, and scuttle after the two-year-old, removing things out of his hands and whispering, “Don’t touch, now. Benny. Don’t touch.” A sales clerk watched us with a cold eye the entire time.
I picked up a tiny replica of a Dr. Seuss tree made from pines that were said to grow in Morocco. My stomach actually turned and the taste of bile rose into my mouth when I noted its price. “Don’t touch,” Benny shouted to me. “Want a tiny tree from Morocco?” I asked him. “Naw,” he said. “The clearance items are in the back!” the clerk called.
Back out on Court Street, the sun had fattened and its weight rested on me. The kid and I walked by bistros and coffee shops where groups of friends leaned across tables to hear each other above the noise of passing cars and puckered their faces when a vehicle belched out an excess of fumes. In a neighborhood where every storefront begged your attention to its wares, I could see how Vic could afford to give her son so little. Her husband was renting himself a studio in Manhattan, Vic told me later, and had left her to cover the expense of the brownstone and child care that—all but one or two days and nights per week—fell upon Vic. Damn shame, this plight of hers. I had been interested in her for quite a while, but this situation with her kid complicated things.
On the sidewalk at a table with a red felt cloth stood a man selling wooden figurines. Toys of men with swords or riffles or scabbards were poised, some with their clumsily carved arms raised as if to signal to the others. I pointed to the toys and held up one finger. The man named his price, which delighted me because I could actually pay it. Benny viewed the toy in silence for a moment after I handed it to him.
The sun pressed down on our walk back to Vic’s brownstone. Benny started crying over nothing in particular and the soldier slid down, forgotten in the stroller by the kid’s side. When Vic returned in another two hours—the day cooled, the child soothed and washed and fed once more—she asked me whether the kid had napped. When I told her that he had not, Vic shrugged and told me that that was probably why he had fussed in the afternoon. “Oh, it could have been a lot of things other than the nap,” I had hastened to say.
“Yeah, but it was probably really only that one thing,” she told me. “There isn’t a huge list of possibilities,” Vic had said. “It’s really predictable.”
Now, we were sitting next to each other on her couch with the windows in her living room open to let in the fall night. I could smell the decaying leaves, even though we were up on the fourth floor.
When I asked her how the meeting had gone, Vic shook her head and took a drink of wine, a Spanish red that tasted pretty good to me, given its price. “I don’t even recognize this man anymore,” she told me.
“Oh yeah, it’s that bad. He just saunters in wearing this golfing outfit and aviator glasses, reeking of cologne and beer at 2:00, and he’s so impatient the whole time we’re in there. Impatient and condescending. He tells me, he says, ‘Oh, Vic, you keep the Brooklyn apartment as long as you need. Whatever you and Benjamin need.’ Which is bullshit because we can’t afford to stay here if I’m the only one paying rent. And he knows it. So, yeah. I don’t know what to do.”
I moved closer carefully, holding my wine glass in the other hand, and put my arm around her and gave her a squeeze. I didn’t say anything because I had no idea what to say. We leaned our heads together and stared at the wooden Mid-Century Modern coffee table. I’ll admit that I felt some comfort in that quiet moment feeling the warm red wine in my chest and smelling the fall through the open window. But it was comfort on the edge of tension, the calm before the storm, the storm being the tiny human sleeping in the other room.
“The hardest thing,” Vic finally said. “Is that this can never end decently. It has to end in a charade. Something that’s not even dramatic enough for an interesting movie.”
That was my cue, I felt, to tell her about Devin, my girlfriend who had secretly produced an album that had been signed. “It’s a good movie for someone else,” I sighed. “For me, it’s kind of humiliating.”
Vic’s mouth hung agape. “I think it’s a pretty good story all on its own,” she said. “I mean, if she becomes famous, you’ll have been the guy who helped her out.”
I shook my head. The nice guy? That was never the guy who anyone wanted to be.
The kid’s bedroom door opened and he walked out rubbing his eyes. He stared at the two of us and Vic shook my arm off her shoulders and stood up.
“I want a story,” he said.
“Come here, baby,” Vic said. She motioned to space between her and me and the kid trotted over and climbed up next to her. When the kid came closer, we could see the markings the cheap toy soldier had imprinted on his cheek while he slept, though Vic and I both declined to mention its significance.
I knew that I would have to leave soon, that nothing would happen tonight with Vic and I, but I stayed on for a few more minutes just to hear how Little Bear turned out.
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