unexpected intrusions of beauty
His daddy’s a hero.
Everyone tells him so, but it doesn’t matter – he knows that already. He may only be six, but he’s not stupid. He knows his dad is brave and strong. He knows because in all the pictures of them, his dad is smiling wide and leaning in, and he feels safe. The monsters under his bed are no match for his dad – even if Adam, who’s eighteen and in college and makes fun of him for having a nightlight, says that monsters aren’t real. They are real, and he’s not taking any chances. He’ll take the nightlight out when dad gets back.
There are other, strange pictures on the fireplace, too. Ones where his dad is wearing an outfit he sees in a lot of movies; the actiony kind where guns go boomboomboom and fire eats up the ground while people run around. He wonders if his dad ever runs around yelling words that his mommy tells him not to say like the people in the movies do.
“Mommy,” he asks his mom one day, “Where’s dad?” It’s the middle of summer and all his friends are playing baseball with their dads. He’d ask Adam, but Adam’s been a bad mood lately, throwing around words like douche and bitch that get him a disapproving glare from mom.
“Dad’s not home, Johnny,” his mother says.
Well, duh, he thinks, and rolls his eyes. He keeps trying to tell them that he’s all grown up, but no one ever listens to him. Dad’s not home. What is he; four? Dad’s never home. Dad will come back, he knows, in the winter, and they’ll hug and Adam will stand awkwardly and hand him a beer and then Dad will give them their presents and say Merry Christmas and Johnny will try to say you’re here, that’s my present but maybe Adam’s called him a wimp too many times because the words always get lost along the way and come out as thanks, Dad instead. And now it’s summer, and he has no one to play baseball with, and he misses his dad, and there are monsters under his bed.
“I know,” he says, patiently. “But where is he?”
Mom puts on her I’m-a-grown-up face. “He’s fighting,” she says, like it’s rehearsed and all one word. “Fightingforwhat’sright.” And then Mom’s I’m-a-grown-up face falls into Mom’s I’ve-been-watching-Titanic face, so Johnny goes back to his room and vroomvroomvrooms his racecars instead.
Johnny starts playing baseball with Alex and Josh, even though sometimes they yell mean things and try to cheat. He doesn’t care, though. One day his dad will come back and show them who’s boss, and it won’t be that loser Josh.
Except one night, Johnny gets home and his mom is crying. He almost rolls his eyes –Titanic again? – but then he notices that his mom isn’t watching TV, she’s at the kitchen table.
“Mommy?” he says. He’s quiet now, because his mom looks scared and sad and he can hear Adam’s sound system playing loud music from all the way upstairs in his room and he doesn’t know what to do to make his mom feel better. Because now that Adam’s grown-up and dad’s fightingforwhat’sright, he’s the man of the house. That’s what his teacher says, anyway.
“Mommy? Are you okay?”
She smiles at him, watery and red eyed. When he gets married, he wants her to be just like mom, someone who can smile and make him feel better. “Dad’s not here,” she says.
He sighs. He can’t wait until he turns seven and people stop thinking he’s a baby. “Duh,” he says. “It’s not Christmas yet.”
But then his mother makes a face and he feels like he’s said something terribly, terribly wrong and his mom blows her nose and he thinks he might start crying, too. “No, honey,” she says, and her voice sounds hoarse, like she has the flu. “I don’t think Daddy is coming home this Christmas.”
He blinks. “Well, where is he?”
Mom looks at him. “He’s…” – and she pauses. He waits for it, waits for her to say fightingforwhat’sright like she always does. But it doesn’t come. “He’s… he’s free,” she says.
His mom isn’t making any sense. He’s free? Free from what? He smiles and nods, because that’s what he’s supposed to do. He’ll ask Adam later. Maybe Mom is just VMSing or PNSing or that thing that Adam said once that got him the sternest look of all, the one he and dad call the Mom look because they are what his mom calls “terribly uncreative people.” He’s not actually sure what that means, but from the look on Mom’s face, he’s pretty sure it’s not a good thing.
He walks up to his room and makes sure the nightlight is plugged in and don’tlookdon’tlookdon’tlooks his way past the bed and picks up the red car, the one he got as a present last year from his dad. He’s free, he thinks, and rolls his eyes. Mom is just having a bad day. Dad’ll be home for Christmas. He always is.