The afternoon he left home for good, Stephen Greenwood knelt on the carpet, clutched the arms of his seven-year-old and bored into his gaze with eyes as hard and serious as drill bits. Max let his head fall and lolled it like a narcoleptic until his father's voice found just the right note, and then he lifted his face to the man. "Nothing's changing," Stephen exhorted with a fervor that encouraged and alarmed the boy.
Three years later, a year before Stephen ceased his twice-monthly, three-hour roundtrips from San Francisco to the grassy suburb he had fled, he learned from his ex that Max — skinny, vulnerable, prone to tears — was being bullied. Enlarged and charged by the urge to protect, Stephen endeavored to teach the boy boxing. "Balance," he said in the seclusion of a stand of trees in the park in which they spent every other Sunday, punctuating the point with an evangelical thrust of his finger. He had grown his hair long shortly after leaving, and when he bounced on the balls of his feet to demonstrate the art of boxing, his hair swished like a horse's tail across newly-toned shoulders. "You look like a Spartan," said Max with a smile aimed shyly at his dad's chin. Stephen raised the edges of his plunging moustache and cuffed his son's head affectionately; but to his surprise the boy swatted his hand away and made two fists which he pressed to his face grinning like an elf either magically lethal or powerless and bluffing.
When Max was seventeen–six-foot-two, doughy thin, with hair dyed coal-black and nails to match, and a driver's license and his mother's car — he determined to start seeing his father again. His mother had advised him to forgive his father for his own sake if not for the sake of his dad; and besides, she added with a shrewd expression, child support would end at eighteen, and wasn't it wise to get in good with your father? Max nodded out of respect for his mom, but his decision was prompted mainly by tales of a city where boys had black fingernails.
The man who greeted Max at the door of the studio apartment was not the feral figure of the boy's childhood but a mild presence who blushed and shyly lowered his gaze — once penetrating, now uncertain and small — from the appraising stare of his son. Uncertain how to greet his son — handshake, soul shake, bro hug, kiss? — Stephen tried a bit of each, so that the greeting resembled the grappling of beginning dance partners. A few awkward moments later, Stephen thrust a wooden plaque at his son and eyed him hopefully —but Max's arms remained limp at his side, and he smiled slyly beneath lidded eyes. "Check it out," Stephen repeated with affected casualness undermined by a note of desperation. His moustache drooped at Max's flat affect, and a reciprocal smile rose on Max's lips as he enfolded the plaque in long slender fingers. "It's shiny," he said.
Stephen nodded. Friends had warned him: seventeen. "It's shiny, true. And it has an inscription." He recovered the plaque and gazed at it as if at a prayer book:
To Dr. G, for helping us see the beauty of song.
Love, Ms. Kendrick's Klass
A smile bloomed on a father's face. "I had them all singing Beatles songs, Maxim! Fifth graders. Can you imagine?"
"Imagine all the people," Max slurred.
"Lennon reference, that's my boy. Man
." Stephen squeezed himself down into the workstation between the couch and the small free-standing garage-sale bookcase that separated his living and sleeping areas. "Look at this, Max-A-Million Bucks."
Max looked at the computer screen as directed, but the wordplay drew his gaze back to the years when he was a fresh-out-of-the-box kid whose dad showered him with nicknames like confetti on a conquering hero and bandied rhymes and puns with him like birthday balloons.
Stephen looked up at his son the way a ten-year-old in a starting-line go-cart shines up at his dad. "It's my YouTube channel, Circus Maximus. For my songs."
"`Twould seem to be." Max's lips separated slightly, like flower petals at dawn.
Mindful of the advice that he not sound critical, Stephen observed in a carefully calibrated tone: "You've still got that great sardonic–"
"Har! Hey Maxim, look: sixty-seven subscribers."
"Hey, Stephen, look: Some graying hippie wannabe stole your guitar."
Stephen jerked his head back but let the jibe go. "This fan
— guy's from Australia."
"He looks twelve
, man. You sure it's even legal to talk with him?"
Uncertain how to read his son's comments or his cryptic expressions, Stephen addressed the computer. "This girl–young woman here–is from England, man."
"They've got Internet there?"
. Listen, dude, are you ready to roll?"
"Sure dude, if it's French."
"You can't stop that, can you?"
"You can't top that, Shamu?"
"Hey," Stephen said with mock indignation, "I'm not even five pounds overweight." He patted a stomach that was flat from dissolution rather than design. "Let's head to my gig."
"Where I'll dance a jig,"
mumbled Max with a self-conscious grin.
The café in the Richmond, mere blocks from the sea, was deep and narrow and brightly lit. In the roomy front were thick hardwood tables; in the slender midsection, an upright piano and a scaled-down drum kit and a worn love seat and an upholstered chair; in the back, a cozy nook in which underfed middle-aged scholars read by the soft glow of small table lamps. The walls featured black-and-white photos of the neighborhood and watercolors by neighborhood kids; on the bookcase were paperbacks and beaten board games. Stephen held the door open and beamed at the scene, funkier than Starbies or anything else in his hometown burb, which was his son's hometown too. "Cool, is it not?"
"I don't know. Is it naught
"Dude, you are something."
"In that case, I'm aught
you are caught!"
Max arrested his smile as if suddenly conscious of the painful unhipness of their old rhyming games, and covered it over with a haughty mask.
"Let's eat," Stephen said, noting the retrenchment.
Max, when standing, slouched like a question mark, but was half a head taller than his dad even so, and he gazed over his dad's head at the menu board. "Ummm," he mosquito-droned, "umm umm umm umm.." The counter-girl smiled appreciatively at Max's schtick and the discomfiting effect it had on his dad. "A bowl of Our Famous Onion Soup
," Max declared at last, "and a big cuppa joe."
"You drink coffee?" Stephen queried with raised brow.
"Extra large," Max told the girl, who wore the signature adornments of her generation — nose ring, tattoo (red roses, green vines climbing up the throat) — but was cool with the dinos of Stephen's generation who sat in the place like magpies all day and all night. Stephen wondered whether his son liked the girl, or liked girls at all — for his nail polish and soft skinny frame and languid demeanor suggested gayness to Stephen, though he remained unsure of the code even after ten years in town.
"And a glass of red," Max slurred into the graying hair that thatched his dad's ear.
Stephen smiled at the jest but Max stared earnestly into his eyes. With a confidential hush Stephen said, "I'll let you have a sip of mine, old pal." Seeking confirmation from his man-boy he added: "A little sip couldn't hurt, right?"
"Not at all, old boy."
As soon as they sat Stephen raised his wineglass in salute to his son, but Max curled long fingers around his dad's hand in the manner of a Golden Age film star cupping a leading man's hand for a light and deftly maneuvered the glass to his lips. He drank long and hard. Stephen widened his eyes, and Max laughed huskily and expulsively at his consternation.
"You're blowing your image, man, getting all excited like a square from the burbs." Max had emerged from his squeaky-voiced stage with a baritone that he loved to show off.
"Hey, raising your son right, I see!" rasped Ruddy Rod into Steven's ear. He was in the midst of a six-week coke binge, and unruly tendrils of cocaine-white hair reached out from beneath his black bowler like weeds desperately seeking light. He had lately quit the last of the scores of short-term gigs that had been his working life, and lived on a crafty disability claim and the proceeds from selling grass around the corner.
"No," said Stephen. "I mean yes, he's my son. But as for the raising him right —
"Horseshit," said Max, with a collegial glance at Rod's encouraging grin. "You're raising me fine," words belied by the mockery in the smile he directed at Rod.
Rod's protuberant eyebrows — twin snowbanks with antennae — quivered at the discord between father and son, and he fixed shining eyes on Max as if to imply that a bond more potent than that between Max and his father existed between Max and himself. "Your father talks a lot about you," he suggested with a grin to provoke.
Max lowered his eyes and smiled demurely.
"And I've written
about him, too," Stephen hastened. "You'll hear that tonight."
Rod leaned in on Max like a barfly imposing wisdom by force of will and a hint of menace. "And they're good
," he intoned, pressing Max's slender forearm to the table and squeezing as if to test Max's vital force.
"I can't wait to hear `em," Max told the table. "He used to sing me to sleep in the old days. Solid gold days," this last with a private smile at his dad akin to those which he would discreetly share with his father at seven to proclaim his allegiance when Mona would press her hand to her forehead and deride with ever-growing panic Stephen's talk about moving to San Francisco to plug into music
and meet colorful people
and discover myself
. Stephen thought he recognized the supportive expression but wasn't quite sure, for he had removed his glasses in anticipation of the show. Before he could make sure, Rod leaned heavily in between the two.
"Man, your kid looks like Lincecum, with all that long hair. Plus he's got that wise guy grin, like he knows something we're too old, or too screwed up, or too old and
screwed up to get, you know what I mean? Didja get him his Let Timmy Smoke
t-shirt yet, or are you gonna plead poverty like you always do?"
"I didn't, and I'm not —–"
"You're not?!" Rod faked astonishment. He straightened up and burlesqued perfect posture, and tapped his nose theatrically to show Stephen that he understood the role he was to play. "Of course
you're not. Hell no
you're not! Don't smoke grass, Maxwell Silver Hammer. Your father is right." To Stephen he added, "I'm going out back to not smoke myself."
Stephen's tone conveyed doubt and remorse. "I'm not even sure why I hang with that guy, Max. He's a decent drummer and an interesting guy, and he's a real local character, you know? He's not all that bad if —"
"Forget it, man. Weed's great."
Stephen felt it his fatherly duty to protest, but the subtly shifting changes in his son's countenance puzzled and froze him. "You'll like our songs, Max. At least, I hope you will."
"And I'll hope for a thrill." An impish challenge gleamed in Max's eyes.
Stephen sang and played guitar, Ruddy Rod was on drums, Big Sal was on bass. They started out with three Beatles songs and two Neil Young tunes, and then, with six or eight folks tuned in and approving, they played Stephen's songs. Stephen introduced each with an anecdote about the song's origin or moral thrust while Rod twirled his sticks and grinned madly at the ceiling, and Big Sal uplifted his cartoonishly large crescent-moon chin with the unmoving dignity of a palace guard. "This was inspired by my lost dog," Stephen would say. "This is about Grandma Greenbaum's soulful chicken soup."
"This is for my father, Major Achievement, who famously told Uncle Steven, about me: He's not a pimple on his old man's ass
." Stephen sang with an aching voice and a seeking stare that clanked against the side of his son's downcast
head: Max was texting, and texted throughout. Stephen's voice quivered in response to his son's punching of the keypad, and beads of sweat pushed their way out through the pores of his forehead, their damp warmth flooding Stephen with the sudden memory of the day at 16 when — awkward, zitted, for the most part unfriended — he was forced to make a public service announcement to a classroom full of mocking kids.
He finished and took water.
"Max," he entreated the texting boy, whose smirking gaze was fixed to his phone. "Maxim
," Stephen burst. Max looked up at his dad with the mildly curious gaze of a TV-watcher, and Stephen gazed at a cluster of folks engaged with his music in the hope that they had seen and sympathized with him. "Maxie," Stephen said. "I wrote this song for you." Stephen had spent most of the last year learning to play like Neil Young: his optometry gig, part-time by design, gave him time for his music. He played the song well on the Martin he'd saved for two years to buy.
"For you," he sang to his languorous son,
"to help me sing what I
couldn't say to you,
to find and renew you,
to sing my song loud,
to make my boy proud,"
The guitar's blue-green notes saturating the lyric of a father-son separation and a father's belated quest for redemption. There was an appreciative reduction of chatter as Sal's fat bass notes dropped emotional depth charges and Rod's jazzy brushes softened the palette. Stephen resolved the song with a willowy "for you" as the renascent feeling of fatherhood surged through him. Sweet applause from hearts joined in concord lifted his spirits.
"Maybe we forgot to tell y'all this is a record release party," he said, holding high the CD he had spent eight months recording with a year's worth of savings. "So if you're the sort of person who likes to buy this sort of music, this is the sort of music you might like to buy."
"Or not," crashed Rod's cymbal.
"Buy or die," slurred Max.
Stephen stepped to the table and ceremoniously handed his cd to Max as Rod passed the bowler beneath a scattering of bills which he fluffed like salad greens. Max studied the cd case. "Seeking Home?
" he said. "You should call it, My Son's Art Lessons
, or My Son's Missing Art School Tuition
, or whatever."
Stephen's arm froze at a right angle to his body. A woman with spiky silver hair who had listened intently to the show clasped Stephen's wrist in a hand whose bones showed like bat wings through loose baggy skin. "I'll take one," she said with a compassionate twinkle. "That was wonderful."
Stephen accepted her support and engaged her in a prolonged conversation, for her questions about his song ideas validated his sense identity as an artist. He resolved to mount her twenty-dollar bill on a plaque, for this was the first record he had ever sold. He sold a second cd to the woman's grown daughter, then turned to discover that Max was gone.
His father's cd remained on the table.
Stephen walked to his car under a moonless sky in which sheets of fog jetted in from the ocean. He settled into his cold car and inserted his cd. The pleasurableness of the music and the intelligence of the lyrics consoled him, as did the knowledge that he had created it all, and had done so with professionalism. And was he not, he mused, a professional musician, having just drawn other peoples' hard-earned money from their wallets in exchange for his music? He drove to the corner and rolled right around it, listening to his stuff with reviving spirits. Partway down the block he checked the rearview and glimpsed Ruddy Rod, unmistakable with his bowler hat and jangling gait, flinging his hands up into the air as if tossing confetti over the head of his gangly companion, a tall, rubbery form receding from view who appeared to be Stephen's son — Stephen couldn't tell.