EVERYBODY NEEDS SOMETHING
By Melanie Pappadis Faranello
Thanksgiving was in a couple of months and Sal considered who he might call on the occasion he’d ever have his son for a holiday—Christmas, or New Years, or the boy’s birthday, if it were to fall on Sal’s allotted day, Wednesday. His parents, many years gone, weren’t an option, and his ex in-laws certainly didn’t want anything to do with Sal since the divorce, not that they ever wanted anything much to do with him.
“You know what there needs to be?” Sal said now to his friend Mac.
The two of them sat in Mac’s pawn shop, stretched out on opposite facing recliners. They were having an afternoon beer. Mac’s wife Bessie, who usually worked the store along with Mac, had gone home early, and when Mac called up Sal on the phone with the news of the recliners and beer, Sal didn’t hesitate to join.
“What’s that?” Mac answered, taking out another cigarette from the pack in his shirt pocket. Bessie didn’t allow Mac to smoke in the store, saying it stunk up the merchandise, but rarely did anyone ever come into the store anyway.
“There needs to be an organization,” Sal said, pronouncing each of the five syllables of the last word for emphasis.
“An organization, huh?” Mac said, pulling on the cigarette.
“Yeah, like a service, someone you call up if you need a relative for the kids. A grandparent or an uncle. Someone to stand in, you know, borrow, like for the day, Easter dinner or whatever.”
“We’re a pawn shop, not an organization,” Mac said, drawing out the final word like Sal had done.
“I know you’re a pawn shop for Christ’s sake. I’m talking about borrowing. You know, like a rental.”
“A rental relative.”
“Yeah! That’s right. Rent-a-Relative.” He made a sweeping motion with his hand up in the sky like he was reading the words in lights.
“Rent a relative,” Mac said shaking his head with a small laugh.
“You’d be surprised, I bet a lot of folks need something like that these days.”
“A lot of people need a lot of things,” Mac said, dragging on his cigarette, “These days.”
Sal turned his thumbs around one another, crossed his outstretched legs on the recliner. “The kid’s got an honor class this year.” He looked up at the tiled ceiling, at the thousands of miniature holes.
“That’s what his mother says anyways. Three months already since I seen him.”
“Well,” Mac said, “Better than three years.”
Sal was silent. The judge had warned three years for repeated drunken offences before Sal’s lawyer got him off with probation and license suspension.
Mac said, “Can’t say it wasn’t a good summer.”
“Yeah.” Sal took a last drink from his can of beer. “It was summer.”
“You gonna be late already, it’s three o’clock.”
Sal jerked the recliner’s footrest down and wiped off the front of his jeans. Mac remained stretched out like he was sunbathing.
“Say hello to Bessie,” Sal said. “And ask Jerry if he’s playing cards tomorrow night. He’s been out a few times.”
“Yeah.” Mac reached over the side of his recliner and stubbed out the butt of his cigarette.
Sal stood with his hands planted on both hips. “You’re gonna burn this place down you keep doing that.”
“What, you in cahoots with Bess now?”
“You don’t gotta be in cahoots to see burning ash on wood makes yourself a fire. I got a honor kid, you should listen to me,” Sal said tapping his forefinger against his temple.
“Those genes came from more than one place, you know.”
“It’s three o’clock,” Mac said looking at his watch again. “Go get your kid.”
“You got a hundred clocks hanging all over these walls. They all say a different fucking time.”
“They’re for sale.”
“Well, they don’t work so well if you ask me.”
“Three o’two,” Mac said. He reached into his pant’s pocket and removed his car keys. He tossed them across the room to Sal.
Sal caught them with one hand.
Mac lifted his chin, “Go. You’re fine.”
Sal stopped at the door and said, “You know who’d else use a service like that?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “Petey,” Sal said. “Both his parents are gone. And the wife’s, too. And his kids are still young. Who’ll they have for Christmas dinner? Think about it…Rent-a-Relative.”
“Yeah, all right, get out of here.”
“They got Big Brother, don’t they? Maybe Big Sister, too?”
“It’s the Boy Scouts you’re talking about.”
“I’m not talking about Boy Scouts. It’s a thing. Big Brother. Like what we’re talking about here. You stand in, you know, mentor a kid.”
“You want to mentor a kid?” Mac laughed. He was about the only person who could say something like that and laugh and not make Sal want to punch his lights out.
“I’m talking about when you need someone, for the kid, you know, to show up, do something nice,” Sal said.
Mac just shook his head.
“I bet a lot of old people out there would be wishing for something like that.”
“Yeah, the grandparents whose own children don’t want them. Ha!”
“Ah, you don’t know anything. Maybe their children are, you know, somewhere else. Hell, or what about the old people who never had any children, you thought of that, wise guy?”
“It’s five after. You’re gonna be late.”
“Why you so bothered about being my time keeper?”
“You asked me to tell you when it’s three. Now I’m telling you. It’s three o’five. Buy back your goddamn watch if you want to know the time.”
Sal held up his hands in surrender. “Thank you. You’re a fine old friend, old friend”
“Why don’t you just call me Grandpa. You can rent me right here for free. Grandpa Mac.”
“Ah, fuck you.”
“Fuck you, too.”
The door dinged as it shut behind him.
Driving Mac’s Buick to the middle school to pick up his son, Sal considered his idea and wished he were the type of person who knew how to take the leap from getting the big idea to making something of it. But already fifty-two next month, he’d known himself for too many years, and he thought this was one of the overlooked benefits of being younger—the ability to think “just maybe” about things you knew you’d never do. He knew himself too well now, for better or for worse.
Mac was right, he should’ve left a few minutes earlier. The school bell had already rung, and the kids had been released, and the enormous hive of look-a-likes swarmed like bees, moving every which way, colliding, and making a good amount of ruckus. Sal stopped on the far end of the field and surveyed the grounds from there.
It was his night. He got Wednesdays. That was what the judge gave him and he took it. No arguments. Wednesday. To Sal it sounded like a beautiful nugget of gold. He’d do with it whatever a nugget of gold should be done. It’d been a few years since he’d gotten to see the kid on any regular basis. This was a new thing, this weekly Wednesday, and Sal wanted to do the right thing with it. He was and had always been the kid’s father, and he would continue to do so on Wednesdays. He would serve the probation, wait out the suspension. He would get another job, soon. Maybe Larry at the garage would let him do some hourly work. Those guys were always packed over there and he did know a thing or two. For now, the tides settled, files closed, and the answer was Wednesday—a nice solid day smack dab in the middle of the week.
But he’d surrendered the past three months of Wednesdays since his ex-wife took time off from her pant-suit job to take the boy places–to see the grandparents, celebrate his birthday—give the boy a regular family-type of summer vacation, one that Sal agreed the boy should have even though Sal didn’t agree with the dingbat showboat of a guy she hung around with now. Sal made sure knew he better than to pretend he was anything more than nothing to the kid.
And anyway, summer always made Sal flare a bit. And well, since honesty served no other purpose than to tell yourself the truth about things, he knew what he wanted to do with it—stay out late with Mac and Jerry playing cards on summer nights till dawn, find his spot at O’Donahues bar and drink with the folks he came to know there, talk to a few girls, most who wouldn’t want to go home with him except the one who came alone and wore her leather jacket and smoked one clove cigarette after the next on her stool at the end of the bar, who said her name was Lizzie, though to Sal it sounded like a lie. And then there was Milly, when she worked behind the bar, but that was a different story altogether being that they’d known one another for years and it was just something they did, every now and then, like company. Something both of them came away clean from, neither of them leftover with any feeling other than what it was. So that was summer.
But now it was September, and the flowers were starting to fail, the branches beginning to sag, and there were leaves on the ground but the weather was still hot, and it was that transitional time between the seasons when one felt great change just around the corner, when the smell in the breeze shifted just enough to announce time to start wrapping things up, time to move on. It all made Sal a little uneasy.
Sal was late. He stood in the middle of the large field and scanned the swarm of kids moving out in all directions. Best thing to do, he thought, was just stay put. Be a landmark. Don’t move. He had no idea where his boy was. All of them looked exactly the same. He began to panic. He was sweating and he cursed the glare from the sun making his vision melt. And then he felt someone walk up behind him. “Hey,” the boy said. And there was the kid, standing right there next to him.
“Ahoy!” Sal grabbed his son and pulled him in tight. The boy’s arms dangled limply by his sides, and all Sal could feel in the embrace were the zippers and canvas of the kid’s backpack. “You found me,” Sal said, letting him go. His nerves settled and he blew a deep exhale, nodding at his decision to stay put, he could navigate the storm, be captain of the ship.
“You’re not hard to miss,” the boy muttered without looking at Sal. “You look like you’re gonna pass out.” He fiddled with the two straps hanging from his backpack.
“It’s hot. Come on.” Sal wasn’t sure how to walk with his son now that he was thirteen. He had an urge to grab the kid’s hand, or sling his arm around his shoulders, but he just slid both hands into his own pockets instead and walked beside him, trying to match his gait.
“I got Mac’s car right up the street.”
The boy nodded, looking down towards the grass. They headed across the field.
“So what’re they teaching you in that big brick building? You people look like your making a break though those doors.”
The boy shrugged.
“You learning something in there?”
They crossed the soggy field towards the street. One of the other kids called out to the boy who lifted his head and shouted something incomprehensible back. His son’s voice was unfamiliar.
Covered with a new veil of adolescent hoarseness. On the verge of change. Sal didn’t know the boy’s friend. They kept walking.
Sal looked at his son’s profile. His head was strained so far forward Sal could see the vertebrae along the back of his neck. He held the loose straps from his backpack like they helped to steer.
“You got a girlfriend?” Sal asked.
The boy kept his head down and picked up his pace. “Can we not talk?”
He had a pimple on his cheek. The boy’s shoulders had begun to bulge with new muscles. He had a suntan.
“Yeah, sure,” Sal said, picking up his own pace to keep even with his son. “We won’t talk. No more talking, I hear you Kid. People talking every which way all the time about a bunch of nonsense. We’ll go home. We’ll play some cards,” Sal said. They crossed the street and headed up the block past a gridlock of parked cars along the curb. “I’ll teach you a couple tips.”
“I’ve got homework,” the boy mumbled.
Sal looked at the kid again. Everything felt out of his reach. “Yeah?”
The boy nodded.
Sal pulled the collar of his t-shirt away from his neck. It felt as though all his pores were draining buckets of hot lava. A steady stream of volcanic piss streaming down all over him. He hated these times when he knew the judge had been right. He wasn’t well-suited, or whatever the hell it was he’d said. Those things called Truth had a way of creeping their way towards you, no stopping them—bound to find you sooner or later whether you liked it or not.
All Sal wanted was a regular Wednesday with his kid. And here he was feeling the strings being jerked, his ex-wife’s grip, pulling him this way and that. He couldn’t even get the kid to say one coherent sentence or look him in the eye.
“You’re mom tell you to keep your mouth shut or you just still pissed at your old man for all the bullshit?” Sal looked up the block like he was surveying the horizon of what might lie ahead. He didn’t expect the kid to answer. He wasn’t sure which way was home.
Another father unlocking his sports car parked on the same side of the street gave a friendly wave to Sal like Sal was supposed to know him just because of their common function at school pick-up. The man got into his car and beeped the bright red doors for a couple of bored looking teenagers waiting on the curb to get in. Sal didn’t wave back. Instead, as the engine started, Sal held up his middle finger at the flashing tail lights.
“What are you doing?” the kid’s voice rose to a pitch above the hoarseness that made Sal able to hear the timber in his voice for the first time today.
Sal smiled. Maybe they had a chance. It was good to hear his son’s voice. “You know him?” Sal inquired.
“Does it matter? This is my school,” he said, with meaning, with passion, with personality that Sal wanted so badly to know.
The pimple on his cheek was bright red. The boy’s eyes looked wide and wet, a tint of green in the brown, just like Sal’s. They’d play cards. That was something they could do.
“You know it, Kid, this is your school,” Sal bumped his shoulder. “Go on tell me again,” Sal said. “Tell me how it’s your school, just like that.”
“What the fuck?” the boy muttered under his breath.
It wasn’t the phrase so much as the surrendering, the petering out, the downcast gaze that irritated Sal.
“You say fuck now?” Sal said, stopping beside Mac’s Buick. “That’s what’s happening? Your mother hear you talk like that?” Sal didn’t even mean it. If anything it gave the kid gumption, but it was the trepidation with which he said it that provoked Sal. His son retreating right there in front of him.
Sal unlocked the side door of Mac’s car and watched him get in. He slid his backpack onto the floor and just sat there, like he was asleep. Sal wanted to punch the kid just to revive him, though he never would and never had laid a hand. He wanted to hear his voice again, what it really sounded like when it meant it, when it rose to a pitch all his own. How was it possible to miss someone who was right in front of him? This was the kind of crap that made Sal’s head hurt, his vision blur, his chest go tight. The kind of crap no one ever prepared him for. But then again, who’s ever really prepared for anything in life? That’s where his ex-wife got it all wrong; sure she could plan a good party; sure, she never missed a beat when it came to an umbrella or an extra pair of gloves. But really, whoever told her she’d marry one shithead of a fellow trying to make a decent time of things just to end up with a different, even bigger bloghead of a guy who’d keep one hand on her ass and the other on his own lousy bicep just to compare the firmer bulge. Nobody. Nobody told her. So wasn’t that enough to make everyone finally just shut up and be together? You’d think. But no.
Sal gently shut the kid’s door and walked around to the driver’s side. Maybe he’d had one too many beers this afternoon. Maybe it was the sun. Maybe he just needed to bring the boy home and teach him a trick or two. He rubbed his eyes. He thought of his idea again. Maybe this Rent-a-Relative thing would go even further. Maybe if something happened to him, he could set up a nice father to rent, someone waiting in the wings to takeover. Why just grandparents and aunts and uncles? Why not fathers? Sure, it could expand to whatever people might need. Mac had said it himself—people need a lot of things these days. He could scout it out, do the legwork, interview applicants, check backgrounds and all that–after all, you’ve got to think about those things. And give the boy something real good. Something to look forward to. Something to break away towards. Something that’d be good for the both of them if he thought about it long enough.
He started the engine and pointed the car in what he determined was the general direction towards home.
About the Author:
Melanie Pappadis Faranello received her MFA in creative writing from The New School. Her fiction has received various mentions including winner of The New School’s Chapbook Award Series in Fiction and a top twenty-five winner in Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction Contest. Her novel manuscript was a top finalist in Sarabande Books’ Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction and a semi-finalist in The Dana Awards for the Novel. Her work has appeared in Blackbird, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Ampersand Review, Requited Journal, Literary Mama, Contrary Magazine among others and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Originally from Chicago, she currently lives in Connecticut where she teaches creative writing to youth and teens.