Hothouse (10 page)

I stand for several minutes on the rock where my father and I fished. I sit down for several more minutes on the rock, where DJ and I fished, the water snapping around me and the rock to get to where it's going. I stand up again, for several more minutes on the rock where we fished, with the water rushing around and past me, and I look all around, and listen, and finally collect up the two fishing rods and make my own way. Away for good from right here.

US AND THEM

The newspaper says Mrs. Helen Kotsopolis's cat, her blue-gray slink of a cat, has been found. He was lying across some of the rubble of the old house he shared with Mrs. Kotsopolis for years and years. They interviewed one neighbor who thought it was twenty years. He had wandered, after the fire, on his own for a remarkable amount of time for a cat his age. If you spread his nine lives over those years, he'd averaged a little over two years per, but by the time he came back and stretched out across the rubble of the house he shared with Mrs. Helen Kotsopolis all that time, he was all out.

I thought it was really something, that a woman was interviewed in the newspaper about the life and death of one slinky blue-gray cat.

Mrs. Helen Kotsopolis's condition remains unchanged.

“Right,” I say when my mother starts telling me about something that sounds like it's supposed to have big meaning. “Board of inquiry, right. There was a board of inquiry.”

“It's standard, with the fire department, when there are injuries or fatalities. There is an investigation into what went wrong so that lessons can be learned, to assess whether human error on the part of personnel contributed, or whether the tragedy was unavoidable in the circumstances.”

The words may not be amounting to a whole lot for me, but the approach is giving me shivers. This is a lot more than I need on the first day back at school.

“Ma, why are you sounding like somebody off the news while you're right here, talking to me? This is me.”

“I know. I know it's you, Russ.”

We are sitting over an unusually rich breakfast for a weekday. Waffles, sausages, homemade blueberry muffins and fresh smoothies, likewise produced this very morning in this very kitchen and containing at least eight different ingredients. I know, because I see the peels and pits and cores sitting on the cutting board in front of the blender. I am being extra fortified for something.

“It's ongoing, this inquiry. They are still working on it, might not be finished for a while yet.”

“Okay,” I say, nibbling carefully, sipping carefully. “Is that it? I mean, you said this is standard procedure.”

“Standard.”

“Okay, then. Why do you seem so bothered?”

“I just … wanted you to know. To be aware. And I want this all to be over. That's all, son. We just need this all to be over. Now. Finally. Just over with and behind us. It's time. And, too, I wanted to make sure you were aware, that it's not quite over yet.”

“In that case, you can relax, you've done the job. I am aware. I'm not completely aware of what I am aware
of
, but I am aware. And now I should probably get going, because Adrian is expecting me.”

“Of course. Adrian. He's a good friend, isn't he. He's a good guy, Adrian. I'm glad he's your friend.”

I get up from the table, wipe my mouth, and haul my stuff to the sink, giving my mother a questioning look all the way.

“Just leave all that there,” she says, “I'll take care of that.” She's got the time since the private school she teaches in starts a week later than my public one. And since I resent that, I will let her do the cleaning up.

“Cool,” I say, then, kissing her on the head I add, “you might want to have a second glass of that smoothie. You don't look all together.”

“Thank you,” she says. “I think I will. Have a great first day.”

It sounds like an order. A gentle one, but an order, still.

The walk to the bus stop is the same old walk. And on my way I pass the same old DJ on the other side of the street, heading for the other bus the other way.

It's not same-old, the way we stand awkwardly on opposite curbs staring across at each other.

“I have your fishing rod,” I say. “I'll get it to you.”

“No hurry,” he says. “I don't fish.”

He smiles, so I take it as a joke. I wave, he waves, and we move on.

“So, looking forward to it?” Adrian asks as we bump along on the bus toward a new year.

“Actually,” I say, “I am. Been looking forward to it for a while now. Not that school is such a treat, but I just want to, you know, get on with it. You know?”

I turn to face him even though we are a little too close for that sort of thing. But it was one of those statements that, unless you see a guy's face you can't tell if he really gets it.

“I think I know what you mean,” he says. “I guess I would feel pretty much let's-move-on if I had the time you've had....”

“Yeah,” I say. “Thanks. And it's not just like, I want to get busy. I also want to get going. We are seniors now. Real life coming. Time to get to work on it for real.”

It is clear Adrian has been thinking about this as well, but maybe not in quite the same way as me. “Yeah,” he says with a big sigh, “I know.”

“You still thinking you want to study to be a vet?”

“Well, yes. But I was thinking I want to make a fool of myself at college for a while first.”

“First?
First
you have to get into college. Then you can make a fool of yourself. Then you get to the vet part.”

“I know. That's why I have biology honors. Sigh.”

We are pulling up at the stop nearest school.

“You thinking more about what you want to do?” he asks me as we get off the bus.

“No,” I say.

“No?” he asks, stunned.

“I mean, yes, of course I'm thinking more about it. I'm thinking about it all the time, in fact. But I'm not thinking anything new. I'm a firefighter. I'm going to be a firefighter, you know that.”

“Oh,” he says, somehow no less stunned. “You're still …”

“Of course I'm still …” I say. “What kind of a dumb question is that?”

“The dumb kind, I guess,” he says, slapping my back good and hard.

It's a funny thing, coming into the school grounds first day of class every September. It's like coming home and leaving home in one move. Because, obviously, we are ending the summer, when we were home all the time and with our families, and going to the kind of institutional world that is the school with its schedules and rules and demands and structure and bosses—both teacher types and students.

But it's also coming home—if your school is half decent which ours just about is—because we are joining up again with mostly the same people we scattered from a couple of months before, who are mostly the same people we joined up with the year before and the year before that. And even if we have been bumping into half of them here and there throughout the summer, when we bump here again at school … I don't know, there is something both old hat and special about it at the same time that makes it a tiny bit thrilling.

And it's our last first day. Beginning high school's big finale. This all blows apart after this. And DJ is right—rough but right—the time is now to get on with life.

Hanging out, greeting folks in passing, Adrian and I manage to be about the last to enter the building at the bell. I feel it when folks give that small extra smile, the slap across my belly as they pass. I feel it, I understand it, I appreciate it. I file it. We are moving on, in our ways. Nearly everybody is inside now, headed for the big assembly that will let the games begin. Adrian and I push off the wall just as Montgomerie passes in front of us.

Montgomerie is just one of those guys. He's not fat, but he looks like he is anyway, y'know? His face is kind of swollen, a little pink, always like he's very stressed or exhausted by something. He has this white kink of frizzy hair, and is always wearing clothes that are too big, as if he buys them anticipating a growth spurt that doesn't ever arrive.

Montgomerie's father is a cop, and cops and firefighters know each other mostly. Montgomerie's father and mine knew each other. My dad never liked Montgomerie's dad, and I never liked Montgomerie. We've never been friends, though we have mostly coexisted peacefully enough. We went to the same schools forever, so there were the early school years when he thought it was a hoot to make firefighter jokes, about the fire service being a sort of Little League police department for guys who weren't tough enough to be cops. That stuff fizzled out after the time Montgomerie's dad made the papers for being caught skiing while he was on extended disability leave. My dad made the papers a few times for stuff like bravery and service to the community and saving a life or three and when that happened relations with Montgomerie would worsen for a while but we got through it.

So, as he passes, Montgomerie gives me a smile.

Montgomerie hasn't smiled in my direction since third grade. And that was only because I threw up my lunch.

You might think under the circumstances, it was a diplomatic smile. The silent tribute like the others I've been fielding.

No. It was not that kind of smile.

It's gotten embarrassing now.

Every year of my life I can remember, since I was tiny, my father and I have gone to the ancient department store downtown around Christmas to get our portrait picture taken, holiday style. In the 1960s, I'm sure this was quite the thing to do, and quite the happenin' place to do it. But the place, frankly, is tired now and so, frankly, am I. The department store is on its last legs, decidedly has-been and waiting for somebody with a few bucks and a nice condo idea to come and buy it out of its misery. They still do the whole Christmas display in the windows with trains that don't run anymore and elves that don't wave anymore and a star of Bethlehem that does not lead anybody anywhere anymore because it has turned from white to amber before everybody's jaundiced eyes. It's more depressing than if Christmas were canceled altogether and replaced with a famine or something.

Not in my father's eyes, though.

“It never changes, does it?” he says as we climb up out of the subway to take in all the faded glory.

“If you say so, Dad,” I say. I should be doing better, but this year, more than ever, I am having trouble. I am too old for this. I don't want to hurt his feelings, but I sure as hell would like him to catch on on his own. This is not cool. It's not like Ma is surprised anymore, really. And I don't think she'd kill herself if we didn't come home finally without the full ten-print festive selection that results in nine unused photos and one eight-by-ten mortification for me.

He doesn't catch on, though. Even though we are, really, two very grown men now, he shows no sign that he is ever going to catch on to the lameness of this until the wrecking ball actually shows up passing through our Christmas portrait one fine year.

“Remember the shoes?” he asks.

It's as traditional as Ho Ho Ho.

“I do, of course,” I say. I don't strictly remember the shoes because the shoe episode happened when I was about a year and a half old. But I remember the echo of the shoes because he has been retelling me the story faithfully since I was old enough to just about remember the event, so there is an unbroken connection of something like memory.

“You had no good shoes for the picture, not good enough anyway. So we were going to buy some, right here. Only they didn't have any proper picture shoes, not quite, except the one pair …”

A little too small.

“… Just a little too small. Not so small you couldn't wear them for twenty minutes of photo time. But they would be useless after that …”

So we stole them.

“So we stole them, temporarily. Put them right on your little foots, sat for beautiful portraiture, then returned them to the toddlers department with nobody any the wiser.”

“Ah, we were sly,” I say.

“We were sly,” he says. “You need anything this year?”

“My shoes are fine, Dad.”

“That doesn't matter. You're hardly going to have your big feet up on the table this time, are you? That shirt, maybe, could be a bit more festive. What do you say, for old time's sake—”

“We are not stealing a shirt, Dad. Not even temporarily.”

He couldn't possibly be surprised that I said that. He could not possibly have thought we would do that. But he goes silent, in that way that I know I have hurt his feelings, and I feel bad, trailing after him as the Christmas music plays through the near-empty store and we take the escalator up to the portrait studio.

He has partly bounced back by the time we have navigated through ladies' night wear, to the orphaned little corner where the studio hangs on.

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