Vital Signs by Jen Michalski
That afternoon Arthur and Erik went to the Bend, the home, according to Erik, of five-dollar pizzas and pitchers during happy hour. To Arthur, tired of eating hamburgers and canned soup, pizza sounded the equivalent to filet mignon. They entered the small, stale-smelling bar where baseball games flickered on the televisions and Rolling Stones songs played on the jukebox.
“There was a place like this out at school,” Erik commented, lighting a cigarette and dragging an ashtray across their knobby, varnished wooden table. “When’s the last time you had pizza, old man?”
“Probably one of your birthday parties,” Arthur found himself chuckling. What terribly boring affairs they had been for him. What a terrible bore Erik’s formative years had been for him. He hated to think it, and here he was, chuckling as if it were an old joke. Perhaps things would get better. The more he thought of himself as a father and less as a university professor, he supposed, the more he thought of himself as Arthur, whoever that was, things would change, one way or another. “I can’t remember if I liked it or not.”
“Everybody likes pizza, you freak.” Erik smirked and waved over a waitress. “Can we get a double-meat pizza and a pitcher of beer?”
“When did you start smoking?” Arthur asked when the waitress left.
“I don’t know; a few years ago. Out of boredom. My roommate smoked. You would have met him if you ever came out to visit.”
“Ah, but would you have wanted me to?”
“Dunno. Maybe. I supposed it couldn’t have been any worse than sitting through those dinners with Mom.”
“She missed you an awful lot.”
“She suffocated me.” Erik blew a ring of smoke. “I had to get away to grow my balls back. So how did you meet this Hank guy?”
“Yeah? And he hired you? He must have been impressed with your resume.”
“Apparently. Actually, I had to beg him to take me.”
“Well, do you like it?”
“The work? It’s hard, and it’s honest. It’s different. I like to feel like I’ve done something when I climb into bed everyday.”
“Are you sure you’re my dad?” Erik laughed. “My god, if you just lose your marbles like this, I’m not looking forward to middle age.”
“Maybe you’ll probably become a college professor then,” Arthur smiled. Dad. It was a strange word to hear, to touch and feel its permanence, unlike the ink on the paper that it had been for so many years. The steaming pie arrived, and they dug in. Erik sung along with songs on the radio, nodding his head with a mouthful of dough and tomato sauce, lighting a cigarette and smoking after every couple of slices. Arthur let the beer hit his throat and wash away the greasy, lumpy cheese. He looked at the waitress, a young girl who may have been in one of his classes for all he knew, and found her attractive. He found the humming banter and staccato laughter comforting. On the way back from the Bend, walking on the soft, fragrant grass in the park near the house, Arthur, slightly buzzed and feeling light on his feet, grabbed Erik’s baseball cap and flicked it across the field.
“You’re asking for it, geezer.” Erik bend over to pick it up. Erik’s ass was a funny sight to Arthur, something he had not been accustomed to seeing much. He lifted up his booted foot and, with a swift push, knocked Erik to the ground.
“Well, looked who kicked your ass, boy,” Arthur snickered, and took off running toward the house before Erik got up, hearing only his own gasps of breath, the whishing of the trees above, and a string of obscenities from Erik’s mouth.
“I don’t want him staying with you anymore, Arthur. Send him home to me,” Julia complained one evening. Arthur watched as Erik stood on the porch, shirtless, smoking a cigarette and watching the neighbor’s daughter. “He’s going to get the wrong idea.”
“What idea would that be?” Arthur asked, stirring a pot of canned spaghetti sauce. Unfortunately, neither he nor Erik brought any cooking skills to their living arrangement.
“That he can just give up, settle.”
“Are you suggesting that I’ve given up?”
“I don’t know what you’re doing, Arthur. I just know I don’t want Erik to think of you as an example.”
“Well, he didn’t think of me as a good example for the past twenty years. I don’t think he would start now.”
“That’s not true, Arthur. He’s always looked up to you.”
“Julia, Erik and I have never had a good relationship. I accepted that. Why can’t you?”
“Are you having one now? Now that you’re one of the boys?”
“I don’t know what we’re having. We’re just here together.”
“Well, from now on, I want you to be the father you never were. Stress to him the importance of an education, Arthur.”
“Erik’s an adult, now, Julia.” He turned down the stove burner. “He can make his own decisions.”
“I don’t want him turning out to be a bum.”
“Julia, Erik is not going to excel in academics. He never has. He’s never had the interest in research, in studies. He’s not the way I was. If he’s willing to work hard and make an honest living, there’s nothing wrong with that.”
“Arthur, that’s not true. He just needs encouragement. He needs you to encourage him academically. I really wish you hadn’t done this now, Arthur.”
“Been so selfish.”
“Should I have waited until I died?”
“Very funny, Arthur.”
“I’ll talk to him, Julia, okay?”
“That’s all I’m asking, Arthur.”