Vital Signs by Jen Michalski


“Can I help you?” he asked, wondering if the man sought the former occupants of Arthur’s bungalow.

“Dad, it’s me.” He removed his mirrored, Peter Fond sunglasses and surveyed Arthur’s attire. “Dude, you’re wearing shorts.”

“It’s hot.” Arthur replied. He motioned inward from the doorway. Once they were inside, Arthur did not know what to say. He figured he’d let Erik do the talking. “Want a beer?”

Erik shrugged and dropped his duffel by the stairs. Arthur wondered why children always assumed they would have a place to stay at their parent’s, regardless of the distance, physical or emotional, between them, Arthur yanked two cans off of the plastic latticework holding them together and nodded outside.

“The breeze is better out there,” he explained. “I suppose I’ll have to look for an air conditioner soon.”

Erik probably didn’t even know what a window unit felt like, Arthur surmised as they sat on aluminum folding chairs outside. Even the summer house at the Vineyard had central air conditioning installed in 1977. At least he probably was accustomed to cheap beer.

“Mom told me about your little break with reality,” Erik said finally, picking at a dark, curly hair on his knee.

“Is that what she called it?” Arthur laughed. “Leave it to Julia to be dramatic.”

“Well, you have to admit the whole thing is a little whack for you.” He took a sip of the beer, tapping his feet absently. Arthur had always wondered if he was slightly ADHD. “I mean, you were the distinguished man about town.”

“Well, we know how dull the calculated life can be, right?”

“Are you worried about, like…retiring and pensions and stuff?”

“I have enough saved up. I live frugally. If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out. Habit…is not living. It took me a long time to see that, I guess. It doesn’t look as if it took you long, though.”

“Oh, this.” Erik nodded down at his tie dye. “I had met this girl. It’s a long story.”

“It’s always a girl,” Arthur nodded.

“I don’t know. You grow older, things don’t mean the same as they used to. College is different than high school, Dad. You know that..”

“Indeed I do.” Arthur adjusted in his seat. Every word, as it always had, was extracted laboriously, as if it had to swim through jello to get to Erik and back to him. Should he ask Erik about school? About the girl? About anything? “What…do you want?”

“You always have to get right to the point, don’t you?” Erik smiled and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. Gauloises, Arthur noted. Some things, perhaps, did not change.

“Well, I was never good at small talk. I choose to be a bum, not a Buddha.”

“I dropped out of school.” Erik blew a cloud of smoke across the porch. “I haven’t told Mom yet. She’ll kill me.”

“What do you want me to do?”

“I was hoping to stay with you a little while until I figure out what to do.”

“You’ll have to get a job. I make nine dollars an hour doing landscaping; I can’t afford to put you up.”

“You think maybe you can get me a job with you?”


“You sure he’s your kid?” Hank studied Erik through the window of the truck. “He don’t look nothing like you.”

“He took after Julia,” Arthur answered as Erik passed two cups of coffee through the window. Arthur held onto the lid as Erik climbed into the bed of the truck between some cement blocks and a bag of soil, bouncing the cab heavily and waking up Buster, who lifted his head off of Hank’s thigh. They all had been working together for three weeks, slowly streamlining their routine from chaos to a sometimes-temperamental family sedan. 

“I’m gonna drop Erik off at the lawn job over on Claremont---you or I will pick him up in two hours and drop him off at the other lawn job on Addison, all right? You and I will do the brick job.”

“That’s a pretty big job for Erik. What if he’s not done in two hours?”

“He’ll be done in two hours. He did that job on the Jonesway faster than the both of us could do it, remember? Besides, that’s the only way we’re gonna make this work---three guys and one truck, that is.”

Hank had considered Erik strictly seasonal, maybe Arthur as well, depending on how much snow they received in the off season---Hank had a snow plow affixed to the front of his truck and did shoveling for the companies out by the airport. Arthur had not questioned Erik too extensively on his plans, even as Julia had seemed to call the house every other day demanding to know why she hadn’t received a registration bill for the next semester. Arthur only watched his son work, his expression as lax and smooth the cement blocks he laid into a garden plot last week. He was a quick learner and physically strong for someone whom Arthur had not considered blessed with physical prowess. Arthur did not know if they needed to communicate so much as be together, which perhaps relieved the both of them. Their work required no analysis, only co-operation. It was a silent truce after years of strained antagonism. Arthur wondered whether Erik, finally under his tutelage, would begin to blossom. But into what?