Vital Signs by Jen Michalski


Arthur hung up the phone and motioned Erik inside. He watched him pull on a threadbare Frostburg University t-shirt on and ease fluidly into the seat across from him.

“Miss school?” Arthur asked, passing him a plate of toast with butter and garlic salt.

“Nah. It’s only been a month,” Erik answered, grabbing two pieces. “You were there twenty years. Do you?”

“Yes, sometimes. A lot, actually.”

“Then what are you doing weeding lawns?”

“You shouldn’t let your life get too comfortable, too easy.”

“You’re not going to lecture me, are you?” Erik shot a look across the table. All Arthur noticed was Julia’s eyes---dark, animated orbs that were flat and hard rather than deep and absorbent, like his own.

“Who’s talking about you?”

“I came here because I thought you might understand.” Erik took a gulp of milk. “I thought maybe since you weren’t busy being the head honcho anymore you could help me out.”

“With what?”

“I don’t know. Just understand where I’m coming from.”  

“I think I understand.” Arthur sopped his bread into his tomato sauce. It was watery and slightly acidic, but he supposed he would have to get used to it. “I didn’t particularly want you here, but it’s okay now that you are.”

“Why did you say that?”
“Because it’s the truth,” he answered, his voice hurt with surprise. Should he have sugarcoated his thoughts, fathered them up, whatever that meant?

“When Mom said you lost it, I finally felt like we had something in common, you know?”

“Insanity is not a bond to forge,” Arthur laughed, and so did Erik. “Do you like the landscaping business?”
“Not really. I mean, the tan is nice. But I kind of wanted to get into television or something, you know? Like on one of those reality shows or something.”

“Oh.” Arthur dropped his napkin on his plate. “I kind of felt…maybe we could grow Hank’s business, maybe buy it from him in a few years. I know I’m thinking ahead, but if you really don’t want to finish school, it’s a good, solid income for a young man. It’s good to plan.”

“Thanks, Dad, but I was just thinking of hanging around through the summer, you know, scrape some money together.” Erik stood up and entered the kitchen, where he burped softly and poured another glass of milk. Arthur watched the way his bare feet gripped the floor, his toes curling slightly under, ready to spring to action. “I mean, that’s what I’ve decided. Can you see me, waddling around like Hank in fifty years?”

Arthur did not answer. Blake pawed at his ankle for a table scrap, but there was nothing that Arthur could offer him.

“I’m glad you let me stay, Dad.” Erik sat down and heaped another serving of spaghetti on his plate. “This is the first time I really felt like we could be buds.”


“What are you gonna do?” Hank shrugged, flicking his butt out the window. “He’ll come home broke in six months. We might need a hand then--it’ll be spring.”

“I never understood him then. I understand him less now.” Arthur gazed into his coffee.

“Well, he probably don’t understand you either. Nobody understands nobody.” Hank pulled out into the road, and Arthur dimly saw the car in his side mirror, but there was nothing he could do. The truck spun in a half circle, spilling coffee on Buster, who leaped up onto Arthur. When they came to rest, Hank got out and inspected his side of the flatbed, which was dented in a foot, a Hyundai sticking out of it like a kabob..

“Ah, shit.” Arthur watched as he turned to the driver of the other car, a frightened teenager who touched his head several times as if to ascertain whether it was still attached. “What, you didn’t see me coming?”

Arthur dabbed the remains of the coffee out of Buster’s coat and let him out of the car, where he relieved himself on the neighboring sidewalk. Arthur remained in the cab. Although his back hurt a little, he was certain that he wasn’t hurt badly. How to explain, then, the torrent of tears that flowed from his eyes onto his cheeks, the heaving from his chest? He bent over, trying to keep the spasms from overtaking him. Suddenly Hank was by the passenger door, cuffing his shoulder.

“You all right Arthur? Where does it hurt?”

“I don’t know.” He shook his head. “Everywhere. But I’m fine, really. Just a little shook up.”

“Well, don’t you worry any more about it.” Hank gazed off toward their intended destination. “We’ll get it fixed. Just in time for the snow! Let it roll off, buddy. These things happen.”