Every day at three a young man on his bicycle rides by. Sully wants to meet him, but doesn’t know how. He reminds him of his son, whom he has lost.
Of course, this isn’t true about losing his son. As far as Sully knows, his son lives in Pasadena. He works as a medical assistant and has a wife named Claire and, as he wrote in his last letter five years ago, a dog named Pepper. The dog is a Jack Russell terrier, which Sully thinks means the dog is small and snappish, yapping and lunging to no point, since it can easily be tugged back on a leash. A very apt pet, as Sully imagines it.
In the letter, his son requested his father not write him. He said he’ll no longer write his dad because he’s realized, since becoming sober, that many of his problems stem from his childhood, and in order to retain the clarity he has found, he must break ties with his past. He’s sorry to say it, he wrote, but their relationship is dysfunctional, and it’s from his father he learned many of his bad habits. “Maybe after enough time has passed we can have each other back in our lives,” his son concluded. “But not now.”
Always fragile, his son. Moody because he felt misunderstood. But who among us is understood? Sully remembers watching the boy strikeout in baseball, shaking his head furiously, pink flush creeping up his neck as if the fault were the umpire’s and not his own, then stalking back to the box only to throw his bat down before sitting, head bowed. His heartbreak loud, demonstrative. And when his mother died, this tendency became exacerbated. He cried for weeks, although this grief—unlike his other various melancholies—was pure. Sully felt that despair, too—like a hole he could jump into and fall and fall.
But this business about being sober. In his late teens, around the time his mother died, Sully’s son acquired a dependency on prescription pills. But was it addiction? No, it was a numbing of pain that went on too long. He didn’t need to attend all those meetings, nor cast so much blame. Sully admits he was tough. He also admits he sometimes drinks too much, which can make him hard to be around.
But it’s insult to insinuate his son’s habits are molded from Sully’s own. Sully doesn’t take pills. He’s not a small man pretending to be big, faulting others for his mistakes. Nor are mistakes things you accept—what his son wrote, blather and bullshit. Mistakes are things you rectify. Sully had to crawl up out of his own sadness. He had to curb his tendency to belt back too much scotch.
For all this, he wishes he and his son could spend time together. Real time, not the glassy–eyed time they had years ago when he knew his son was stoned out of his gourd but said nothing because it wasn’t his issue to solve. His son had to make something of himself and have that be entirely his doing.
But has he? Ignoring his father is not solving a problem. Although stopping taking drugs is a good start, so maybe there’s hope.
Sully sits on his porch with his book, nursing his thoughts. It’s two forty–five, and the man will bike by soon. But old–fashioned bikes are very popular in Huntington Beach, and several times in the last few minutes, he’s glanced up only to see young couples or children loitering by on wheels. Just now it’s a young girl pedaling past the fantastic houses, salmon and orange and cream–colored stone with glass windows that span entire rooms.
His neighborhood has become upscale. When he bought here decades ago, it was still affordable. Then he could look out and see oil rigs—ugly and industrial—but also the ocean, roiling and thick with waves, wide and unending. Now he lives among sunset–colored homes interested in outdoing themselves, an opulence–off, a game of excess to mask the boredom within. He’s surrounded by ornate patio furniture, wrought–iron curlicues that can’t be comfortable, and fountains that splash and gurgle, tempting to small birds. His neighbors are slim women in oversized straw hats that must be stylish but to him look like sombreros. They wrap themselves in scarves and wear sunglasses and putter in the few square feet of garden they’ve not paved in stone. Most grow herbs, which Sully suspects they never eat. They sit outside as he does, and they usually read magazines or talk on phones. Their lacquered nails glint crimson, and they, like him, always have some drink on hand. During the day he drinks tea or iced water. At night he drinks wine or, if the night seems too big, gin.
Sometimes they look up and smile faintly, puzzled by this grizzled man in his late sixties sitting in a plastic chair, book in hand. Sully’s smile back is also faint, since he’s not that friendly with strangers. But these women he thinks of as compatriots because he knows their secret: they are profoundly bored. They bask in ennui as if it were sunlight, or soak in it as if it were bathwater.
But how to become interested in something? It’s a heavy task, one he hasn’t found a good solution to. Although books do help. Sometimes he wants to call out to them the title of a particularly engrossing novel, but the smiles he receives are scattered and brief, birds taking flight, and there’s never time for actual conversation.
Today, he’s been outside since lunch. On the table next to him sits a mug empty of tea and a barely touched glass of water. The book he’s reading is big and Russian, and he likes the way this Russian author thinks—his scope is large and encompassing.
He ought to do more. Sometimes, he thinks he should call up his old company—he was among a dozen electrical engineers offered early retirement, a good package he’d have been stupid not to accept—to tell them they don’t have to offer him much money, but he’d like back his desk. Work has its virtues: the discipline of it and the absorption that comes from completing discrete tasks. Other retirees welcome people at super stores, or they volunteer at churches. But Sully wants no job that requires him to be cheerful. And he doesn’t believe in religion, so he has no church. He could take up more outlandish activities—deep–sea fishing or racquetball—but these do not interest him enough.
Here we go. Putting his book on the side table, Sully leans forward—being on the second floor means needing to look down to see the young man. Sully can’t remember first noticing him, but now watching him has become part of his day. This afternoon, he wears a plaid shirt and jeans, even though it’s warm, and has sunglasses perched on his head, which means Sully can see his light eyes—from this distance he can’t tell if they’re green or blue. Sully traces him down the street—Avocado Avenue, not at all aptly named—until he’s out of view. He always goes straight, and there’s something satisfying about him traversing a straight line.
The young man’s face looks determined, but not overly strained. He keeps his chin up, his eyes focused far ahead. Sully guesses he’s in his late twenties or early thirties, which makes him around his son’s age. His son has never displayed this strong calm, though, and so maybe this man doesn’t resemble his son so much as show him what his son could be. Maybe if this young man and he had dinner or drank tea together one afternoon, Sully could investigate his character more and understand better how he’s come to be so assured about life.
Sully wants to talk to him—much more than he does these surrounding glamorous women—but doesn’t know how. Picking back up his Russian novel, he thinks how this desire has grown more acute to him of late.
If he called out hello, he might appear strange. However, if the gesture were received as he intended it—innocuously—it could be the start of something. He sips from his water glass. Tomorrow, he’ll try waving. One wave, if it doesn’t work out, will not ruin everything.
The young man wouldn’t replace his son—Sully isn’t that simple in his thinking. But he might want the same things Sully wants: to play chess and drink tea in the afternoons. Hot tea, even if it’s hot outside, with two cubes of sugar to mellow its black pungency. And then to read books and afterward to eat a meal and discuss what they’ve read. There doesn’t need to be a lot of conversation, just a little. Sully would ban two topics outright: no discussion of current affairs and no talk of old love. After dinner, they could drink white wine, which Sully has a fondness for.
Sully reads outside until the sun begins to melt into the water, causing the light to simmer pink and the houses to turn deeper shades of themselves, and then, bringing his glassware and Russian novel with him, goes to prepare dinner. His house is slow shadows and a wavering stillness, an undulation that if directly searched for is not there and yet is there. And so even though the light outside is not lost, he turns on a lamp so the place will seem more solid, more uniform.
Although he’d never thought this possible, Sully has become a late riser. It’s ten now, and he’s brewing coffee and making toast, frying eggs in butter. For years, he rose at six, quick to shower, shave, guzzle a mug of black coffee, while his wife in her bathrobe, less than half–awake herself, made him eggs. They’d sit quietly reading the newspaper, she nursing a cup of coffee as he ate. When he finished, he’d squeeze her hand good–bye, then rush out to beat traffic. Often he drove through a gray–blue light similar to twilight—a dim not–time—to arrive at the office, where halogen took over. He really only saw late afternoons, the early side of evenings. He fell asleep around ten and then began again the next day.
Retirement has given him time to explore the day’s rhythms, and his own. Without an alarm, it turns out, he’ll sleep until nine or ten, and then he’ll laze an hour with coffee and the paper, still in his undershirt. When his wife died fourteen years ago, he learned to cook for himself, but it was cooking against the clock in the mornings and in the evenings, fatigue preventing him from accomplishing much. As did despair, at the outset. For the two years his wife was gone and his son still lived at home, Sully made dinner. But he was indifferent to appetite, and his son was often out skulking about, not appearing for the evening meal, so Sully would leave the pasta he’d made with canned sauce in a pot on the stove. In the mornings, Sully would check the pot to see his son had usually eaten some and had left one dirty fork in the sink. He appeared to eat standing in front of the stove, which was depressing.
Eventually Sully became a better cook, and now, in the last two years since he’s ceased working, he’s actually become quite good. Cooking is the closest thing he’s found to having a job, since recipes are projects: the trick is to execute them well, with attention to detail and some basic skill. Now in the mornings, he varies his eggs. Most recently he’s learned to poach them, using white vinegar in a simmering pot.
And at night, he’s deft with steak and much better with pasta sauces, fresh made, his own. He’s not tired in the evenings the way he used to be. In fact, the night stretches long, luxuriating in its unfolding, and after he’s cooked and eaten his meal, he sits with wine watching sports or movies. And then sometimes, he’s still not tired, and he sits in the dark and lets the moonlight coming through the windows keep him company.
He’s almost never to bed before midnight and usually even later than that. And then he wakes to full fleshy light. Being slow in his waking, he can’t decide if it’s dissipation or not.
After breakfast, he goes outside with his book. Lunch comes late, generally around two. He prepares himself a sandwich and makes tea, and then it’s back to the balcony, since within the hour, the man on his bike will pass by.
Some days he walks along the beach, watching kids play volleyball or tread out into the shallows of the ocean. Or he drives to small shops to pick up groceries and books. Occasionally, he arranges a fishing trip for himself, but these days begin very early, and he doesn’t like being in such close quarters with strangers. The idle chitchat seems banal and comes from his mouth in awkward clumps. He’s lost the ease of the water–cooler conversation. Sometimes, too, he has dinner with old colleagues. They talk about a project that sung right along even though all thought it would fail, or the manager who cursed them day and night and then ended up getting fired. Sully begins these meals optimistic, but the stories and gripes are always the same, and by the time he goes home, he’s muddled with his old life, which is no longer his. Memories are important, but they must not be the foremost things. To let that happen is to fall into a trap. It’s a trap, for instance, he thinks his son has fallen into.
Today he brings out his water glass and Russian novel. Out here, time is slippery and slow, but books let him mark the passing of time, and while they take longer and are more difficult than recipes, they are also projects. He keeps a list of books he’s read, and if he likes an author, he makes a point to try to read more of him. He’s reading Tolstoy now, and after this, since he likes him, he’ll read more Tolstoy. How his work friends would laugh if he said the next book he plans to read is War and Peace. He’s tried bringing up books, but his friends are suspicious, thinking he’s trying to place himself above them, when of course he isn’t. It’s just that recently he’s realized books have lots of good things to mull over. People remember their school days, when they didn’t have enough life under their belts to figure out what authors are talking about. School should come later in life, he thinks. Adults should take classes in reading books only after they’ve turned thirty. Then we’d become again a society of readers.
He has these thoughts and no one to tell them to. He’s sitting with his book. The air has sea salt in it and a slight wind, the sky fat with blue. He thinks how his son used to despair over his classes, another failing he blamed on others, citing bad teachers and a poor learning environment. Sully thought then he didn’t try hard enough. Now he thinks his son was reading books too young, and that if he tried again, he could see the inherent richness that was inaccessible before. Sully would send his son a list of books to read, if his son accepted his letters.
As Sully thumbs open his novel, it occurs to him: if he and this young man end up talking, he could give him a reading list. He looks about the right age to begin.
As he stares out at the turquoise brimming over the roofs of sunset homes, he considers that he’s seen the midday sky all his life—if not during the weekdays, then during the weekends—and yet he doesn’t remember it at all. It’s as if parts of his life didn’t happen, or he didn’t consider them until now. Now the day’s progression interests him, the waxing and waning of light, the shadows receding or lengthening. The day’s middle feels unyielding, and yet the sun inevitably moves west, bringing the evening. And then midnight and the stillness it imparts to everything around it. He goes out to his balcony, hearing sleep, hearing the small wash and lull of waves. The world seems bigger to him, more stretched out, more infinite.
His neighbor comes out to her balcony, squawking on her phone, and he looks down at his book so as not to appear to be listening. He’d like to tell his wife some of the things he’s noticed or thought about recently, but he’s lost some of his habit of missing her simply because he’s had to, because he couldn’t get through his days otherwise. And while he’d like to tell her about books, or the expanse of the world broadening with the chance to contemplate its contours, he also thinks she wouldn’t understand. This isn’t a slight. He’s begun to believe we need our experiences shared so our later recountings can be understood.
Which is why we need companions, he thinks, trying to find the paragraph he left off at. In a bit, he’ll go in for a light lunch and then come back out so that when three arrives, he’ll be ready. Today’s the day he’ll test out a wave.
“Hello!” Sully is horrified with himself. As he raised his hand, he realized the angle was all wrong. The young man wouldn’t see it. And time was short—the man just passing the balcony—so Sully decided to call out.
Confused, the man glances up, raising one hand in brief salute, then looks back to the street, since he needs to continue maneuvering his bicycle. Before the wave and after Sully shouted, the two briefly caught each other’s eyes. His eyes are green, Sully thought. And he does not smile when surprised, which is nice. He simply looks.
And then the man is gone and with him, Sully’s pleasure. His embarrassment rises. His neighbor, who’s been sunning herself, turns to look over the rim of her sunglasses at Sully.
But then she’s back reading her magazine and pretending the encounter never happened. He goes to get more water, filling his glass from the tap. In his kitchen he can think better. He initiated something. When he returns to his chair, he finds pleasure in his reading and a calm sense that there might yet be new events in his aging life.
The next day, Sully wonders if he’ll have to shout again, but no. The man is looking up out of the corner of his eye. Sully waves, and the man waves back, an open palm moving through the air. He smiles a little, as if this is a funny courtship ritual, and he doesn’t know how to handle the flirtation. And then he’s gone, leaving Sully once more a mix of silly eagerness and wan self–criticism. The excitement, though, gets the better of him, and when the next day comes, he waves again. And again and again for a straight week. He wonders a little at the habit, how habits can erect themselves simply through one initial change.
One night he sits with the intent of writing his son a letter. He knows his son doesn’t want a letter, but he thinks maybe he’ll write it and crumple it up at the end. They do that sometimes in the books he reads. He’s finished dinner and is nursing a glass of wine. He’d been considering opening a bottle of gin, but if he does, his resolution to write might lessen, or become another act entirely, something more demonstrative than he desires. Right now he has the idea he could express himself, write something reasonable.
From a kitchen drawer, he dredges out a pen and notebook. Sitting back down, he reaches for his wine. He wants to say something about not letting the past have too strong a grip on you and having optimism for the future. And to tell his son to pick up some books—the good kind, not the dime–store novel stuff. Part of him, too, wants to apologize for his coldness during those years and explain that it was a coping mechanism and not one he would’ve chosen for himself if he’d been allowed to choose.
When his wife died, Sully went from taciturn to almost silent. He guesses his son found this punitive, but it was more he was absent from himself, and by the time he came back, his son was taking those pills and had that void in him too. He guesses his son stopped being his son when he was around sixteen.
He taps his pen against the paper. Fourteen years is a long time in some respects, but he hopes the differences between them aren’t irreconcilable.
Sometimes they fought, too, and so maybe Sully should apologize for those fights. When he wasn’t silent—and this went on for years—he was angry. His son ended up at a community college because his grades, already weak, fell dramatically after his mother’s death—something Sully doesn’t blame him for. His own work suffered too. But while in college, his son took even more pills, and sometimes when he came home to visit, his eyes would be rimmed pink like a rat’s. He was pale, sweaty. He would not eat. Sully remembers once sitting across from the boy, who just picked at his food, hardly managing a bite. Sully took a roll, ripping it in half and spreading it with butter. He asked his son if something was wrong with the food, and his son slumped, as if answering would take everything out of him.
“There’s nothing wrong. I’m just not that hungry.”
This sounded like whining and made Sully mad. He ate his roll, then moved on to the rice and vegetables he’d prepared, the chicken he’d gone to the trouble of roasting. He ate with his eyes on his son, not looking at the food.
“Fine! Think what you’re thinking about me!” His son pushed back his chair, standing, shouting. “I don’t care what you think, anyway. You don’t know a fucking thing about my life!”
“I know you’re the type of man who comes into his father’s house and does not eat. I know you’re the type of man who sits there sweating and then jumps up swearing. I know—” The slow chant emerged from him monotonous and terrible, like the tolling of a bell—and distant from his actual thoughts, which were angrier still and yet more tinged with sympathy and sadness. He felt worry he didn’t know how to express.
“You don’t know!”
“You’re high,” his father said. “I know that too.”
“Fuck you!” His son looked left and right, as if afraid phantom policemen would jump from the kitchen. Then, strangely, he sat back down. He picked up a chicken leg and began gnawing on it, making himself grotesque. His mouth full, chicken fat glistening on his lips, he said, “Look at me, Dad. I’m eating. Look, look, look.”
Sully left the table, going to his bedroom. A few minutes later the front door slammed with such force, it seemed the house would give way. Sully lay on his bed, staring at the ceiling. It didn’t make sense; it felt like shouting curses into the wind, and he tried to think why they were both so angry. The wormed–in bitterness of losing his wife, his son losing his mother, but there was more, and it was so difficult to pinpoint what it was and therefore so hard to figure out how to make it better.
Sully drinks more wine. He doesn’t want to write how they each remembered their sorrow and anger best in one another’s presence. Is it better, then, they remain estranged? No—in his heart Sully does not accept this, because it means neither of them is capable of change, when both of them are. Maybe this is what Sully will write: he’ll say enough time has passed, and they ought to try again. They’ve each had time to become better than they were.
This is what comes out instead:
Son, there is a man on a bike who reminds me of you, and you should see him so you can see the good I think you have in you. I wish you would come to dinner. I would like to have you and your wife over. I understand that you may not want to, but I think we could try and that it could be pleasant. I have become a good cook now and your company would be much appreciated.
It frustrates Sully that his last sentence is not graceful. He’s not even sure how the pieces relate to one another, and he knows he’s masked himself in saying “your company would be much appreciated.” Instead of crumpling up the letter, he tucks it into the notebook, which he puts back in the kitchen drawer. Tomorrow, he’ll try again. He refills his empty wine glass, bringing it out to the balcony, where he sits listening to the breaking waves.
Around midnight, Sully moved on to gin, pouring himself a tumbler, neat. As he drank it, the air gathered around him in soft spells, and he grew heavier and heavier and more morose. He thinks he made it to bed around 3:00
Now it’s eleven, and he’s cranky. He’s broken both egg yolks, which he hates, but will not throw the eggs out, since that’s wasteful. He’s drinking water to clear his head. It’s his own fault that he’s addled, and as penance, he’ll spend less time lazing and more time reading Tolstoy. He’ll also consider how to write a better letter to his son.
But outside, he struggles to concentrate. His head is slowly reverberating, and the air is dry on his lips. He regrets the gin. On her porch, his neighbor speaks loudly, feverishly into her phone, examining her nails as she talks. They glisten the color of blood.
Around two he goes in for more water and a sandwich. Coming back out, he sees that swallows have descended on another neighbor’s fountain, diving and swooping, a bothersome, restless flutter. He moves slowly through a chapter about men working in fields, sweating as they scythe hay, and he regrets how lazy he’s become.
He wishes he had fields to work in. Maybe he’ll start a garden. Years ago, his wife cleared a small portion of their front yard, just as all the other women on the street did, although she preferred flowers to herbs. Sully has never touched it, and now it’s just a patch of weeds. He could grow chives and basil, maybe some dill, and he could cook with them. This is a good plan, a good task. Tomorrow he’ll go to the store to buy fertilizer and investigate how one makes things grow.
Then he thinks how he’s always deferring activity, and that again is lazy. He checks his watch: the young man will bike by soon, and Sully doesn’t want to miss him, but that’s also ridiculous, and he won’t be owned by his smallness, or what feels to him small.
Going down to his front yard, he investigates the weeds, not sure why he’s never thought to do this before, except that one change can beget another. At once, several things seem first to be occurring to him.
He crouches, pulling at their roots, which are strong. He’ll need to upturn the earth, which requires probably a spade and a hoe. Standing, he dusts some dirt off his hands, when the man bikes by.
He’s looking up for Sully, who’s not where he’s supposed to be. He’s so close! His hair is a mess, and he looks a little younger than Sully had estimated from upstairs, maybe mid–twenties rather than his thirties.
“Down here!” Sully calls when there’s no need to call, since he’s just a few feet away, separated by the curb and the edge of the yard.
The man brightens, smiling and waving directly. He’s whooshing by, already ahead, biking down Avocado Avenue.
“Say!” Sully shouts. He feels his neighbor watching intently. The young man cranes his head around but can’t look back and bike forward at the same time, so he stops, getting off and wheeling his bike to where Sully stands.
Sully is scared, ecstatic. He doesn’t want to appear to be staring, so he reaches down, ripping up a clump of weeds, which he’s foolishly clutching as the man arrives. “Do we know each other?” The sun is still high enough that the man squints. No sunglasses on his head. “The waving?”
“I’ll tell you what,” Sully says. “At first I thought you were someone else, which is why I said hello. But then I thought you seemed like a nice young man, so I decided to keep it up.” He hates that he’s just mixed a lie in with the truth. He holds up the weeds. “I was thinking of starting an herb garden.”
“Oh.” The young man laughs, not unpleasant, but a touch nervous. “I’d assumed we’d met at some point and I’d forgotten.” He looks at Sully’s book. “Weeding and reading Anna Karenina.”
“It’s a very good book. I’m enjoying it.”
“I had to read it in college. I forget all that happened except for that beautiful, doomed woman.”
“That’s the one.” Sully didn’t realize the woman was doomed, although he probably should’ve figured it out given the book has her name as the title.
“Well, I’d better get going.” The man rolls his bike back and forth. “It was very nice meeting you.”
“I was going to ask,” Sully says, “if you played chess.”
The man stills his bike. “Do they play chess in the book?”
“I’ve been thinking it’d be nice to have someone to play with. I’ve not played for years and I miss it. This just occurred to me,” he says. He doesn’t want to come across the wrong way.
The young man nods, putting out his hand to shake. Dropping the weeds, Sully tucks his book under the crook of his elbow, so he can receive his hand. “Jeffrey. I don’t actually play chess.”
“Sully.” The moment is growing strange, pulling like taffy. He needs to end it. “Well, Jeffrey, it’s nice to have met you.”
“You, too.” Jeffrey is climbing back on his bike. He laughs suddenly. “It’s funny, I thought we knew each other.”
“Maybe I could teach you.” So foolish!
“Maybe.” Jeffrey’s grin is easier now that he’s on his bike. “My girlfriend would like that. She plays.”
“Come over tomorrow evening if you’re free. I’ll show you the basics.”
“Sure. You live here?” This question confuses Sully.
“Yes. I’ve got the place to myself.”
“Sure,” he says again. “I’ll come by after work, around eight if that’s good for you. Samantha will think this is a hoot. I’ve told her there’s a man I wave to.”
“Great.” Sully feels dazed. “That’s great.”
“Okay, see you!” Sully watches him bike down the street before remembering he shouldn’t stare. He picks back up the weeds. Tomorrow Jeffrey is coming over.
He catches his neighbor leaning forward in her chair, and he smiles, causing her to sit rapidly back. Sully studies the birds across the way, their bright waves and arcs, the delicate span of their wings as they hover just above the fountain’s water. One zooms off, and he thinks how remarkable to watch something take flight.
On Sundays, he used to accompany his wife to the Vons off Atlanta Avenue. She made efficient decisions, always knowing which foods were cheapest and which brands were most dependable. Because she’d been so practical, he’d realized when first grocery shopping alone, he’d never paid attention to her decisions. He almost wept because he couldn’t remember if he was supposed to buy 1 percent or 2 percent milk. He stared through the cold glass at the milk containers so long, some grocery attendant asked if he needed help. “No,” Sully said, grabbing the 2 percent since it was closer. At home, it tasted too rich, and so the next time, he bought the other. Through trial and error, he figured out what foods he’d been eating the last twenty years.
He also discovered he liked certain things better. By mistake he purchased steel–cut oatmeal instead of instant, and it was so much heartier than the overly sweetened mush he’d been eating. So he began experimenting, deciding to try one new thing each week. Artichokes were catastrophic failures. Anise, he found remarkable. Chorizo, capers.
Now he goes to a smaller shop where they have pricier items, but also better produce and meat, and more variety. It’s occurred to him that if his wife saw his current shopping habits, she’d think he’d gone mad.
Today he’s forgone his afternoon of reading—even though it means not waving to Jeffrey—because he’s picking up things for this evening. It can’t be too elaborate, he thinks, wheeling his cart alongside rows of vegetables. Jeffrey may not want to eat, and Sully doesn’t want to alarm him by doing too much. He picks up a bag of spinach, which he’ll dress with lemon, olive oil, salt. Then he grabs a loaf of country French before heading to the butcher counter and choosing two large sirloins, dark red and creamy with fat. He’ll make a quick marinade of salt, pepper, garlic, and again a little olive oil and lemon. He’s learned from cookbooks to take an idea from one course and echo it in the next.
He also gets a sauvignon blanc for himself, although he’ll not serve wine this evening. For tonight, he picks up a top–shelf scotch. He loves the smoky peat flavor, but rarely buys it now, since he drank too much of it after his wife died. But maybe he can change the meaning of scotch for himself, no longer letting it linger as bad memory.
As the grocer hands him his paper bag, he decides to go home now and get the marinade together, then set the meat aside in the refrigerator. If Jeffrey’s hungry, he can quickly cook them. Otherwise, they’ll stay hidden.
As he drives the PCH, the sun dapples the ocean with white fire, and he puts down his shade to block the light. He finds it refreshing to be out on a weekday afternoon. Back home, he puts away the wine and scotch, the spinach and bread, and sets out the lemon. He busies himself crushing fresh garlic and creating a paste with it by adding the oil, salt, pepper, and citrus. He pats down the steaks with this mixture, thinking he’ll make the salad dressing later if Jeffrey decides he’d like salad.
It’s five. Three hours to wait, but he can’t think of it as waiting. He almost decides on a glass of wine, but it’s too early. He retrieves Tolstoy from the kitchen counter and goes outside to read.
Already, though, the outside has become hazy with the dying day, the sun sitting a bloated gold in a slurry of pastels. His neighbor is not out. No one is. The neighborhood is still, the only sound the distant waves. Watching the sun drop behind the houses, he feels—irrationally—that he’s the only one to have witnessed this progression into night, and he goes inside, switching on the lamp near the couch, feeling the living room hemming him in. Nonsense, he warns himself. Outside too big and inside too small. This self–excoriation only partially calms him, and he decides now it’s appropriate to have some wine.
Returning to the couch, he realizes he’s been so preoccupied with food, he’s not thought of how best to teach Jeffrey chess. He should explain that logic is the order of the day, as is thinking ahead and considering all your possibilities.
And where is the chessboard? Setting his glass on the coffee table, he tries the hallway closet, but it contains musty linens and old towels, his wife’s nicer ones. Next he tries the den, but the game isn’t in the den nor the front–hall closet, which holds coats and boots. It’s certainly not in his bedroom, unless it’s under the bed—but, no, under the bed is a trunk filled with his wife’s old sweaters from when she was a young woman living in Seattle, before she met Sully. Then he knows and is stupid for not knowing before.
The game is in his son’s room—either in his closet or under his bed. He and the boy used to play sometimes on the weekends, up until he was around twelve. They’d sit at the kitchen table, and there’d be no talking. Sully was always careful to let him win every second or third game, varying the outcome just enough so his son wouldn’t catch on. He’d determine the best move then choose a weaker one, opening himself up to losing a piece if his son was clever.
Sully doesn’t remember his son ever displaying more focus. His hair would fall into his eyes, and he’d push it back while studying the board. Sometimes that flush would creep up his neck, but more often than not, he was calm. His mother would watch from the kitchen, standing on the far side of the counter. The game absorbed her too.
He stands at the door to his son’s room. To go in would be a violation of privacy, even now. But what will he say when Jeffrey comes over? Come play chess, but there is no chess? There must be places in Huntington Beach that sell the game, but he doesn’t know where, and it’s too late to go out now. His sweaty palm slips on the doorknob as he enters.
Still the space of a disillusioned teen too caught up in his—initially—made–up misery. The curtains are drawn, rock posters hang from the walls. One wall is painted black: a fight he had with his mother when he was fifteen and no one knew she was sick, but maybe Sully should’ve known, since she gave in when she never would’ve before. His son stopped after one wall and then shoved his bed against it, as if being closer to blackness were somehow more in accord with the space in his heart. On the bureau, an empty fish tank. He’d decided at some point he wanted tropical fish, which was another short–lived thing.
Sully gingerly opens the closet, finding old shirts neatly hung. Rows of sneakers have faint old rank odor but are also orderly. He looks above and below but only finds childhood clothing. Closing the closet, he checks under the bed, expecting Lord knows what—something dissolute and reeking of misbehavior, drugs or vials that held drugs. Sully always tried hard not to imagine. But all he finds are a box of white socks and some comic books. Next to the books are Monopoly, Sorry, and checkers, but no chessboard.
His son took the game with him. Sully stands. Of course. It was his and his right to do so. The room seems so innocent and also so darkly past that he can’t imagine how he’s come to be in it. Like standing in a bad dream. He expects his son, ten years old and hair floppy, to come rushing in, angry his father has searched through his things. He would stop short, his eyes large and dark, and he’d cry out, “Dad!” And with that cry all the implications of guilt and wrongdoing and hurt that his being there has caused—the pain Sully’s created.
He backs out of the room, shutting the door. He wishes he hadn’t done that.
He returns to the living room. He has no chessboard. Well, he’ll explain to Jeffrey the truth: he thought he had it, searched for it, came up short. Surely the young man will understand, and offering him scotch and mentioning the steaks will ameliorate things. They could talk more about Tolstoy. Although Sully’s had a harder time reading the book since he found out the young woman doesn’t make it in the end. He’d been holding out, he realizes, hope.
Going to the kitchen, he pours himself more wine then returns to the couch, turning on the TV to a baseball game. He doesn’t follow these teams but lets the buzz of the crowd and the commentators’ patter wash over him as he drinks.
They’re in the seventh inning when Sully know for sure Jeffrey isn’t coming over. The living room is evening blurred. He’s turned off the lamp, even though he prefers its even light, and is ensconced in the small crests of wavering movement that are and are not there. He’s already had three glasses of wine and decides to hell with the wine and goes to the kitchen to open the scotch. A tumbler in hand, he returns to the couch. He shuts off the game, and the TV leaps into a square of static black, one faint dot of blue at its center fading away.
He’s being weak, he tells himself. He’s giving in to self–pity. The night is thick like wool around him. He sips his scotch, wondering if he did something wrong with Jeffrey, if the encounter was stranger than he’d imagined. Did he ask too much? Or did the young man simply have better things to do? For all that he’s studied him, Sully doesn’t know his larger life. He doesn’t know where he works or where he goes these afternoons. He’s just a man who passes by on a bike. Sully has let the anticipating of a moment exceed the actuality of his days.
He finishes the scotch, the slow burn lingering in his chest. The dark is so dark, he thinks, stretching out on the couch. And it’s always the same.
Janice Obuchowski is an associate editor at the New England Review and also serves on the admissions board for the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. She received her MFA in fiction from the University of California, Irvine, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Passages North, the Seattle Review, and Slice.
Sully appears in our Summer 2015 issue.