By Josh Malacki
Sitting quietly on the couch, Colby shifted his gaze from the baseball game to the clock below the TV. It was almost 9:30, which meant it was almost bedtime. He peered to his right to sneak an anxious glance at Dad. As usual, Dad was in his recliner. As usual, he was holding a glass filled with ginger ale and that strong brown stuff. And as usual, he looked like he would be asleep soon.
At 9:30, Dad would tell Colby to go to bed. Dad was strict like that. It made Colby mad. Dad always enforced bedtime on school nights, but he never asked about school, not about homework or anything. He didn’t help with the book report Colby had to write last week, or the fractions worksheet he had done for homework today. Could Dad even write a book report? Did he even know how to reduce fractions? Probably not.
Colby didn’t hold that against him, though. He knew Dad wasn’t stupid or anything. Mom had explained to Colby that Dad had grown up in a time and place where things were different. And Pop-Pop wasn’t a very involved father, so Dad was sort of on his own, even as a kid. That’s why Dad was the way he was – sort of hardened, kind of grumpy, a little rough around the edges. But Mom never would’ve married him if he didn’t have a soft side.
Still, it wasn’t fair that Colby always had to go to bed at 9:30. He wasn’t even tired. Dad’s the one who was tired. It wasn’t fair that Colby had to go to bed just because Dad was falling asleep. And so sometimes he resented Dad for falling asleep so early. But Mom had told him many times how hard Dad worked every day, so he understood, as far as a nine-year-old boy could understand, that Dad’s tiredness was a testament to that hard work.
He knew that the work Dad did, the work adults did, was important. It was important because money was important. And he knew money was important because Mom and Dad worried about it a lot. Sometimes Mom got extra worried about it, and then they would fight about it, because Dad got offended that Mom was so worried.
Colby returned his focus to the baseball game on TV. There wasn’t much else Colby and Dad did together besides watch sports. Colby couldn’t really talk to Dad about anything else. If he was scared or sad about something, he had to go to Mom, especially if he might cry. He never wanted to cry in front of Dad. But Mom understood when he cried, and she’d give him a hug and hold him until he felt better. Dad didn’t understand crying, and he never gave Colby hugs.
But Colby loved watching the baseball games with Dad – even though the ones on Sunday afternoons seemed more fun than the ones at night. On Sunday afternoons, Dad knew so much about the game: he could point out all the heads-up plays, the base-running mistakes, the players from the past who the players on the screen resembled. The night games seemed different, though. Dad didn’t make as many keen observations. He mostly just complained about the umpires.
But Colby still enjoyed the night games, too. Dad was just tired at night because work was hard. And maybe it had something to do with the strong brown stuff in his ginger ale. It was like beer but different somehow. Sometimes, if Colby was sitting on the end of the couch closest to Dad, he’d catch a whiff of the brown stuff. On Sundays, though, Dad drank beer instead of the brown stuff. Colby liked that better because Dad would say, “Go grab me a beer from the fridge. I’ll time you,” and Colby would race to the fridge and back and impress Dad with how fast he was. But only Dad was allowed to touch the brown stuff.
Tonight the Pirates were playing the Dodgers. Colby was glad the Pirates were at home. If the game was in Los Angeles, it would start late, after bedtime, and he wouldn’t get to watch any of it. Then he’d have to ask Dad who won the next morning. Dad always knew.
It was the top of the seventh inning. The score was tied 3-3 but there was trouble. Big time. The Dodgers had runners on second and third with no outs, and their clean-up hitter was up. Colby was nervous. There was no way the Pirates could get out of this jam. He glanced at Dad to see if he was nervous too, but he couldn’t tell. Dad looked pretty tired. He’d be asleep soon.
Back to the game. The clean-up hitter struck out! Colby almost jumped but restrained himself. It was only the first out, after all. The Pirates were still in a pickle.
But then something amazing happened. The next batter hit a fly ball to left field. The left fielder caught it, the runner on third tagged up. The throw to the plate – a collision – out! A double play! The inning was over, the score still 3-3. Colby turned to Dad to share in the joy of the magic act that had just been orchestrated, the brilliant, unlikely escape, but Dad didn’t seem to react. And this wasn’t just any ordinary play.
Colby wasn’t overreacting here. Sure, he used to jump from his seat every time a ball was hit in the air, even when it just turned out to be a lazy fly ball or even an infield pop-up. But now Colby was an experienced enough baseball viewer that he could tell right from the crack of the bat where the ball would go. Now Mom – sometimes she’d watch a few innings – was the only one who hopped out of her seat over lazy fly balls, and Colby and Dad would roll their eyes and chuckle at her, the amateur baseball viewer that she was.
But a big play at home plate like that – how could Dad not react? He didn’t even seem happy that the Pirates got out of the inning. Colby plopped back and sulkily crossed his arms. How come sometimes Dad didn’t care about baseball and sometimes he did? He knew a lot about it. Colby wished Dad would coach his team, and then all the other kids would see how much Dad knew about baseball.
Dad came to most of the games but didn’t coach. Except that one game last year when the team needed a third base coach for a couple innings because Coach Rob was late. Dad helped out then. In the second inning, Colby singled and stole second base. Then, even though he had never done it before because it was really hard to do, really risky, he stole third base. Dad gave him a big pat on the back when he got there. Having Dad down there on the field made Colby feel like a celebrity. It would be the coolest thing in the world if Dad coached the team.
Mike Leffinger’s dad coached the team, and so everybody thought Mike was special. Mike always got to bat leadoff, even though he wasn’t even fast. Dad said leadoff hitters should be fast. Mr. Leffinger would always say, “C’mon, Mikey, get us off to a good start,” and then Mike would usually swing at the first pitch and ground out or something. Dad said leadoff hitters shouldn’t ever swing at the first pitch. If he coached the team, Colby could bat leadoff, and he’d make sure to never swing at the first pitch.
But Dad didn’t coach the team, didn’t show any interest at all. And that’s why Colby would do what he was going to do tonight. He had devised a plan. Soon Dad would tell Colby to go to bed, and Colby would obediently get up and head to the stairs – any defiance could spoil his plan. But he wouldn’t go right to bed. First, he’d do something he’d never done before, and it would force Dad to show a little bit more of that softer side.
But he had to make sure he listened. Even though it was a tie game and he wanted to stay up, he wouldn’t argue. He would be a good boy. He couldn’t do anything to make Dad yell. Dad was scary when he yelled – but he was only scary the way thunder was scary. He raised his voice sometimes, but never a hand.
Except for that one time. He had been really mad at Alison, Colby’s older sister. Colby never knew exactly what Dad was mad about. All he could tell was that whatever Alison had done, she had almost gotten herself in big time trouble. Colby was in his bedroom. It was late. The bathroom was in the hall between his and Alison’s rooms. Dad stood in Alison’s doorway and yelled at her for a long time. Alison kept saying, “Oh, why do you even care?” and “You don’t even care anyway, Dad!” and Dad just got angrier and angrier. He turned into the hall toward the bathroom. He pulled the bathroom door with his left hand and punched it with his right hand five or six or maybe ten times.
They were angry, vicious punches. The door was all splintered, and blood dripped from Dad’s knuckles down the back of his hand and his forearm. Colby could see it all because he never slept with his door all the way closed. Dad’s hand stayed raised and balled up in a fist like he was going to punch the door more, or punch something else. Colby watched the blood trickle down Dad’s arm and stop as it dried in his arm hair. He prayed that Dad was done and he wouldn’t punch anything else. And finally Dad relaxed his fist, he lowered his hand, and it was over.
That had been scary. The image of Dad’s bloody fist stayed with Colby – his fist seemed huge, like it was too big for the rest of him. But the next day Mom told him he better fix that door. And so Dad got a new door and put it up himself. And Dad and Alison never had any more fights like that. Colby was startled by the clinking of the ice cubes in Dad’s glass. He looked over and saw Dad lowering the glass from his mouth. The ice cubes slid down to the bottom. Dad turned his head toward Colby and issued his command: “Time to go to bed.”
Malcolm looked down at his glass and, just as it always did at this juncture, the guilt hit him. And just as he always did, he quickly dismissed it. This is how you cope with working a job you hate 50 hours a week. How else can you cut the cord between today and tonight, round off the edge between tonight and tomorrow? And, shit, two or three highballs? A drop in the ocean Pop drowned in every night. And Pop sure as hell never sat and watched a ballgame with Malcolm.
Malcolm glanced to his left at the kid on the couch. He liked watching the games with the kid, but baseball always made him think about Pop, and watching baseball with the kid made him compare himself to Pop. Pop was ill-tempered and distant. He was never really around – eh, he was around but not involved. Did Pop attend any of Malcolm’s baseball games? Nope. He wasn’t even at the Little League Championship, where Malcolm pitched the whole game – they let you do that back then – and didn’t give up a run.
The other kids hoisted him up on their shoulders, and it was the proudest moment of his life. Pop wasn’t there to see it. But he was Pop, and he was mostly a decent man. Malcolm sometimes felt like he didn’t really know him, like Pop was just a guy who lived in the same house and occasionally drove the family around, but such sentimental regrets were unmanly, so Malcolm did his best not to dwell.
Yeah, Pop, he was all right. He had a bad temper sometimes, but he never really laid a hand on anyone – at least not in a harsh way, not in a violent way. He’d spank Malcolm as punishment now and again, but he seemed to do so out of a sense of duty – as if he had to do it, as if someone else had ordered him to do it. He’d execute the deed in such a routine way. Not that he seemed to feel guilt – just an annoyed detachment.
There was more sadness than anger. But once in a while, when Pop was really hammered, he’d go on a little rampage, stumbling around the house, looking for a fight – not really a fight, but an argument, a target for his drunken airing of gripes. And if Mummy and Malcolm managed to avoid him, he’d look for a fight in the fridge, or the dishwasher, or the washing machine – he was comically similar to a child searching for an Easter basket. Malcolm could almost laugh at it now.
He took an impatient gulp of his highball. Now he was annoyed with himself, annoyed at his tendency to excuse his own shortcomings by comparing them to Pop’s. All things considered, Pop was all right. He was just from a different era. He had it rough growing up. Grandpap used to beat Pop’s ass, beat Uncle Jim’s ass, beat Uncle Will’s ass; he even smacked Aunt Patti and Grandma around sometimes.
Grandpap seemed by all accounts a vile piece of shit, drunk and incorrigible and abusive – if you were within five feet of him you could smell the gin oozing from his pores; if you were within two feet of him you could smell the gin and you might get smacked – but Pop usually defended him. One time Malcolm heard Mummy say something to Pop about Grandpap, refer to him as “the asshole,” and Pop got really defensive, really mad.
That was Mummy for you. Being critical of Grandpap was probably her way of trying to make excuses for the way Pop turned out. She did her best to love him, and to make sure Malcolm did, too. She did anything she could to keep the family whole. She was the glue, the safety net, all that – she was amazing.
But Pop, he never really got involved in much at all. Not even birthdays. Malcolm and Mummy would be in the kitchen, there would be cake with candles, they’d sing and blow out the candles and open a present or two. And all along Pop would just be down in the basement watching a baseball game and sipping tequila.
There was that one time, though. It still felt like a dream every time Malcolm remembered it. Pop came home with a strange look on his face, a sort of uncomfortable half-smile. Malcolm was in the living room watching TV. Pop stood awkwardly hiding something behind his back, unsure how to initiate anything with Malcolm – they rarely had any conversations at all. Pop said something like, “Hey, I, uh, I got something...here.” He brought his right hand forward and revealed a brand new baseball mitt. He didn’t hand it to Malcolm – doing so would be too sentimental, too theatrical.
Instead he dropped it on the couch next to him. This was the first and only gift Pop ever gave him. He picked up the mitt. His eyes widened and glowed, his jaw dropped. He ran into his room, like a dog given a bone, afraid that if he stood there with it Pop might yank it back. Was there a cruel irony in a father giving his son a mitt but never playing catch with him? Sure, but it didn’t matter. Malcolm knew it wasn’t easy for Pop to make such a gesture in the first place. He always felt guilty about the way he acted that day, a little selfish. It was too late to do anything about it now, of course, but he hoped that Pop knew he appreciated it – he hoped Pop knew he loved him.
Malcolm took a swig and glanced at the kid again. The kid looked nervous. Why the hell was he so nervous? Sometimes Malcolm wondered about him. Last week Jenna said he came home from school and cried about something someone said to him on the bus. She asked Malcolm what he thought. Malcolm said the kid needed to stop being so chickenshit. He knew he shouldn’t have said it, knew he didn’t really mean it. And Jenna scolded him, said men seem to forget how fragile and vulnerable they felt when they were boys. Malcolm didn’t have to think long to know that she was probably right.
Was she right, though? Sure, boys are softer than men. But when Malcolm was a boy, he wasn’t scared to fight. It was normal, acceptable. If a kid from school gave Malcolm shit, Malcolm gave him a bloody nose. Simple. But that wasn’t how things were done anymore. And that was probably a good thing. He didn’t want the kid getting into fights.
But still, there was something about the kid...Was he ungrateful? Did he even realize all the sacrifices that were made for him? How hard Malcolm worked for him? Malcolm knew Jenna talked to the kid about it sometimes, told him about all the hard work and explained to him how Malcolm wasn’t exactly coached on how to be a father. Hopefully the kid understood all that Malcolm did: food on the table, roof over his head, all that shit.
Nothing was given to him: he had come from nothing, scratched and clawed, all that shit. Sometimes he was irritated that the kid didn’t seem to appreciate that – that he didn’t appreciate how much better he had it. But Malcolm knew that this was the way of the world. You worked hard so the following generation could have things just a little bit better, a little bit easier. He recognized this as the natural progression of things, for better or worse.
He looked at the clock below the TV. Almost 9:30. Almost time for the kid to go to bed. He might get mad, having to go to bed during a tie game. But kids need a bedtime. He was just trying to do right by the kid. The kid should be happy he cared. He’ll appreciate it someday. Malcolm didn’t even like telling him to go to bed. Matter of fact, he hated it, hated spoiling nice moments to enforce rules. There wasn’t much he’d rather do than stay up all night watching baseball with the kid. But making him go to bed was the right thing, wasn’t it? Kids need discipline, they need regiment, right? Pop never even paid attention, never gave a shit what he did. And that’s no good.
Malcolm looked at the TV. His vision was blurry. He closed one eye to see better. Runners on second and third with no outs? These assholes were gonna lose another one.
But then something strange happened. Malcolm found himself rooting against the Pirates, hoping the Dodgers scored. If they busted this game open and gained a big lead, the game would be as good as over, not even worth watching anymore, and the kid wouldn’t get mad at him for making him go to bed. Hell, he’d probably want to go to bed. Silver lining. There’s always a silver lining.
No more silver lining. The sons of bitches actually got out of that inning. Seventh inning stretch, game still tied. Malcolm finished off his drink. The ice cubes clinked loudly as the glass lowered. “Time to go to bed,” he murmured regretfully.
Colby nodded and got up from the couch. He walked past Dad in the recliner toward the stairs. He wanted to keep watching the game, but he knew anything less than obedience would unravel his plan. He climbed the first two stairs and stopped.
“Good night, Dad,” he said.
“Hm? Night, Colbster.”
Colby took a deep breath. Dad was nodding off. He’d be asleep any minute, any second. It was time for Colby to execute his plan. He told himself not to chicken out. He told himself to just do it.
“I love you,” he said.
“I love you, too.” Malcolm’s response was automatic, even though he barely recognized his own voice. It was something he wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to say to his son without the words clogging in his throat. But as a response, it was as natural as breathing.
Colby’s eyes widened and glowed. His jaw didn’t drop only because his smile was too strong. He grabbed the response, clutched it, felt it, and scampered up the stairs with it, as if he had to go and bury a treasure, as if to stand and bask in it would make it disappear.