Lots of couples get divorced. Plenty share custody of their kids. Life goes on…but not always smoothly and perfectly.This short story, which covers about one hour on an average Sunday afternoon, first appeared in an issue of the literary journal Potato Eyes. Divorced or married—does it ring any bells for you?
Danny’s Trans-Am pulls into the driveway; he’s late. He’s done something to the muffler, from the deep, throaty sound of it. He always has time for that car, but did he remember to feed the kids while they were with him this weekend?
“Mom!” Brandon shouts, letting the screen door bang shut on the heels of his words. “We’re home, Mom.”
You let the spoon slide from your fingers back into the bowl of refried beans you’ve been stirring. Brandon’s at the stage where he’s always starving and Bethany’s at the stage where she’ll only eat one thing in the world—right now, its bean-and-cheese burritos. Knowing your ex-husband’s habit of bringing the kids back to you hungry, you want to have something ready when they get home.
Dabbing canned beans and pre-shredded cheese onto doughy circles labeled “soft wraps” kept you from going crazy while you waited. You set everything out methodically, lining all the ingredients up on the counter, dragging it out as long as you could.
You hate it when Danny has the kids; hate the empty rooms, hate the moment when he walks the kids to the door, hate to look at his grin that draws everything down to the tight, unbearable friction of the seam of your blue jeans against your principles.
You take a deep breath and tighten the pony tail you combed your hair into earlier, remembering how much Danny always liked that style. You ease a cautious middle finger under each eye, smoothing away any mascara that drifted into the creases, not letting yourself wonder why you needed makeup to make up a few burritos on a lonely Sunday afternoon.
“Hey, Mom,” Brandon rounds the corner into the kitchen. “What’s there to eat?”
“I’m glad to see you, too,” you tease, reaching for Brandon to give him a hug. He’s been eleven for two weeks, and says he doesn’t do hugs any more.
“Did you have a good time?” you ask him, after Brandon squirms out of your arms and readjusts his ball cap.
“Yeah, pretty cool,” Brandon mutters, looking down at his shoes.
“And…?” The word trails off, prompting Brandon to tell you how your ex-husband entertains his kids these days.
“We went to a movie, and Laser Tag, and yesterday we went to see the Catfish play. A ball came right at Bethany and she spilled her drink all over the place,” Brandon continues in disgust. “But Dad found it under the bleachers, after Nadine took Dumbo to the bathroom.”
“Don’t call your sister Dumbo, Brandon,” you say automatically, wondering who the hell is Nadine, and why are you just now hearing her perky, long-legged, probably-Double-D-cup name for the first time?
“C’mon, Mom,” Brandon urges. “Dad’s waiting and Bethany’s freaking about something.” He pivots right, dunks an air ball, and peals out of the kitchen.
You lag behind, your face pulling itself into the expression you save for your ex-husband.
That damned car Danny bought a month after the two of you separated is sitting in the driveway. Red and shining and somehow bad—it almost grins at you.
“We’ll find it, baby,” you hear Danny saying while he holds the driver’s seat forward. Bethany is still in the back, trying to collect all the stuff she takes when she visits her daddy. Her overstuffed purple backpack dangles from Danny’s arm.
Bethany climbs out of the car, head down, sulking. Danny puts an arm around her, says something you can’t hear.
“Mom?” Brandon hollers from somewhere, “Have we got a tennis racket?”
Please, please, don’t let Brandon want tennis lessons, you pray silently. Between soccer camp and both little leagues and Sunflower Girls and food, there’s not another minute or another penny to stretch out for the kids. In fact, if Danny’s check is late again, you’ll be lucky to finish the month with enough money for more beans.
“No tennis rackets, Brandon, but there’s a badminton set, I think.”
Maybe that will distract Brandon, especially if Danny stays long enough to help the kids set up the net and play a couple of games with them.
“Mommy!” Bethany heads for you. At almost eight, she hasn’t reached the same level of sophistication as her older brother and she still expects a hug.
Your arms wrap around her, relieved to have both kids home again. Somehow, you never quite trust Danny to take good care of them. He never means to do the wrong thing, but he doesn’t know how to handle things that aren’t slick and easy. If you’d given birth to a wrench, say, or a socket set, he might have fought you for custody. But kids are a different story.
Bethany pulls away, rubbing the back of her hand across her nose. Her eyelashes are matted with recent tears. “Mommy…” she falters, sniffling. “I lost one of the earrings Nana gave me.”
You glare at your ex-husband over the top of your daughter’s head. It’s his fault, you think; he made this happen. He’s so damn careless with everything—your marriage, your kids, your heart. Doesn’t give a flip for what doesn’t interest him, doesn’t care that your mother set quite a store by those little sapphire chips she gave Bethany.
“It’s okay, honey,” you comfort her, wondering who’ll comfort your mother when she finds out. “It’ll turn up sooner or later.”
Bethany’s face lights up, surprised and pleased. “Thanks, Mom—Dad said you’d probably shit a brick when you found out.”
Did your daughter just say shit a brick? How can Danny have such an effect in just two days? What’s next? Brandon, giggling at your anger through a blue drift of pot smoke?
“That’s not nice, Bethany, and we’ll talk about it later. Go put your stuff up before you say bye to Daddy.”
Her earlier tears are forgotten; her eyebrows lower and she looks at you out from under them. Bethany’s eyes are the same milk chocolate as her father’s; she can melt or freeze with them, just like he always could.
“Daddy says it,” she mutters.
Attitude from an almost-eight-year-old is the last thing you need to deal with right now.
“Go,” you jerk your thumb back toward the trailer.
Danny approaches, holding out Bethany’s backpack.
“Hey, kiddo, don’t forget this.” He helps Bethany slip the straps over her shoulders.
“Thanks, Daddy,” she says, ignoring you. “Don’t go until I get back, okay?”
“’Course not,” he smiles down at his daughter. There’s something between the two of them that you’ll never be part of. Bethany will always be her daddy’s girl.
“Lighten up, Amy,” Danny mutters, when Bethany is out of earshot. “They’re kids—not saints or something.”
You look at this man you spent 12 years with—you found out the hard way that marriage couldn’t make him a husband and two kids couldn’t make him a father. He’ll never be anything you expect him to be, except late and thoughtless. You’re grateful for the anger; it outweighs the desire you still feel for him.
You ignore his comment, eyeing his new goatee. “What’s with the chin spinach?”
He grins, stroking his jaw. “Yeah, you know. Nadine’s idea. Said it made me look like I was in a band or something.”
Or something. Nadine sounds like a tall, cold glass of sweet tea on a hot day—to everybody but you. She probably wears denim short-shorts, too, and likes to press up against Danny’s side during stock-car night at the speedway. You keep smiling, but only because your face muscles have frozen in place.
“Found ‘em, Mom!” Brandon shouts, relieving the awkward moment. “Hurry, Death-any! Get your butt out here!” he yells after his sister.
Danny laughs out loud, settling himself on the porch steps. “That boy,” he says, shaking his head.
Bethany re-appears, letting the screen door bang behind her.
“Whatcha got?” she asks as Brandon comes around the side of the trailer.
“Check this out,” Brandon says, handing a beat-up badminton racket to Bethany.
“Gross!” she shrieks, recoiling from it. “It’s got yucky stuff on it.”
Brandon rolls his eyes, picks the racket up out of the grass where it dropped. Before you can say a word, he rubs the racket on his shirt, leaving a dark trail of mildew and spider webs down the front.
“Brandon!” you say, exasperated, “Look at your clothes. What are—“
“Lay off, already, Amy,” Danny says. “It’ll wash.”
Just focus on your son. Danny will be leaving in a minute. He’s already stayed longer than usual.
“It’s cool, Mom. Just watch.”
Brandon gives the cleaned racket back to his sister. He cups a hand to her ear and whispers; she nods in agreement. Both of them are trying not to giggle.
“Me, first,” he warns Bethany, positioning his own racket as if it were a guitar, with the handle in his right hand and the stringed head tucked under his left arm.
Brandon, strumming furiously at the nylon webbing, begins to hum a familiar tune, imitating the jangly sound of a banjo. He pauses, and Bethany mimics his action.
You watch in disbelief, realizing your children are playing “Dueling Banjos” on a couple of badminton rackets.
“Way cool!” Danny shouts, applauding the kids. “We oughta get a tape of you two. Bet you’d win on that video show.”
“Did you let my children watch Deliverance this weekend?” you ask, trying to sound more reasonable than you feel.
“Yeah, it was the late show after the ball game,” Danny admits. “Bethany was asleep by the time they shot the old coot off the rocks, but Brandon hung in till the end.”
“And you thought that that was an okay movie for a couple of kids to sit up past midnight for?”
Danny really looks at you for the first time since he brought Brandon and Bethany back. “Let me guess—you don’t like it?”
“Do the words bedtime or suitable viewing mean anything to you? You’re their father, Danny—not just some guy that wanders in and out of their lives. It’s up to you to take care of them when they’re with you!”
He rolls his eyes in defensive disgust.
“Same old, same old, babe—I’m not gonna treat my kids like some damn Disney flick.” Danny gestures toward your children, scrubbing away at their make-believe banjos and leering at each other like the yahoos in the movie they saw with their father’s full approval. Nadine probably thought it was fine, too. Bitch.
“I’m outta here,” he grunts, standing up from the steps. “I done been paroled from this institution.”
Bethany drops her racket, rushes to him, trying to keep him a minute longer. “Don’t go yet, Daddy,” she pleads.
Brandon hangs back, looking from you to Danny. He’s old enough to remember what it was like when you two were still married; he can’t quite bring himself to trust his father completely.
“See ya, man,” he offers, letting the racket fall to his side.
“Next week,” Danny promises. Nadine’s gonna fix dinner for you. It ain’t gonna be that Mexican crap again, either,” he warns Bethany.
Your daughter looks at you, sullenly, out of your ex-husband’s eyes. “That’s okay, Daddy. I hate that stuff, anyway.”
Your son stands beside you, shifting from foot to foot, wanting you to make everything all right again.
You look at Danny, feeling all the old feelings. There hasn’t been another man in the two years you’ve been divorced—partly because you haven’t wanted to bother, and partly because you don’t want the concept of “mother’s boyfriend” to be part of your kids’ lives.
“Next week,” Danny promises again, his reflection dancing over the waxed hood of his precious car. He folds himself nearly in half to fit into the low-slung seat, starts the engine, and backs out of your driveway.
Bethany waves until she can’t see him any more, and Brandon’s shoulders slump in relief or disappointment.
“Well,” you say, wondering if he was glad to dump the kids and hurry back to Nadine.
“I’m starving, Mom,” Brandon complains. “We haven’t eaten since breakfast.”