In the morning Jack arrived for the playdate with his three kids. Jack made a lot of money, but this didn’t impress me. You shouldn't think it impressed him, either, but his job got him lots of free booze and so he was happy about that. He gave some to me as he came in the door with his boys. It was in a crisp, new carton like the kind I usually saw behind locked glass cases. “Our best stuff,” he said as I took off my kitchen apron. He pointed out some spelling errors in the warning label on the back of the bottle. “According to the Sugeon General, this beverage may be harmfil to pregant women.” A common problem when you’re French and have to write copy for an American liquor distributor, I thought.
Jack sold liquor to support his family. Americans think this is uncouth and unseemly. That is because Americans don’t know how to drink like the Europeans. Jack bought all his booze in France where they know how to drink like civilized people, on café terraces in the spring on Boulevard des Capucines next to old men in berets and fascist litterateurs and expat Princeton boxing champions who don’t want you to know they are Jewish. The French learned how to make wine from monks. The monks made this wine and it was all they had to cope with the fall of the Roman Empire. It was also good for coping with playdates. Later, the European Union was built by a cognac salesman. That was something I planned to tell my kid, as soon as he got old enough to ask me what it was that I drank for breakfast every morning.
Jack and I punched each other in the face a few times the way we had on the Italian front and then turned the kids loose. Junior was shy that morning. He was unsure what to do because most of his friends were girls. They were all quirky little blondes and all very cute, and they liked him because he didn’t smash things or run around like a blinded toro the way the other boys did. That’s the way he was. The little girls let him play with their hair and let him pull their hoodies down over their eyes and taught him how to scream with a nerve-cracking high pitch like they did, and I hated that. But this morning he stood back and held my leg. This is why I wanted to teach him how to box, but he was still too young for the punching bags. Jack’s kids spread out like a special ops force equipped with toy-detecting night goggles. They found every toy box Junior had and opened them and spread the toys in bits and pieces all over the area rug so that soon they were all mixed together and I would have a tough time not sucking them all up into the vacuum cleaner later that afternoon. Junior looked up at me and said, “Daddy, this is boring.”
“Get back in there, kid,” I said. Junior was good with girls but if you gave him half an hour he could fit in with the boys too. After a while, when Jack and his three boys were gone and I was straightening the art on the walls and pulling the colored pencils from the ceiling, he would tell me he really liked having lots of cousins, which is how he said that liked playing with boys. Most of his cousins were boys, which is why he said it that way.
It got quiet after a little while and I went upstairs to see what was going on. Junior was on his parents’ bed with all the boys, and they were sitting quietly flipping the pages of books or stacking cards or pushing a small ball up the front of a pillow and waiting for it to roll back and hit them in the face and make them laugh. They had made some art and had glued little wooden colored sticks to the pages and Scotch Taped them to the door, which was closed. This meant that Junior’s parents’ bedroom was now the 'Boys Club' and you could only enter after knocking.
“Knock knock,” I said.
“Who’s there?” Junior asked from behind the door.
“Cargo,” I answered.
“Cargo who?” Junior asked again.
“Car go honk honk, “ I answered again. They tried to muffle their laughter but I could hear them. I knew I had said the right code, and if you didn't open the door after someone gave you the right code, things could get really bad.
Then the door opened, the way it does when you know the password to get into one of the speakeasies on Clark street. Little Solomon was in the middle of the bed holding the ball he had been rolling up the pillow. His forehead was red and I could tell that this was where the rubber ball had hit him when it rolled down from the pillow. But the rest of face was flushed too. He gurgled something I didn’t quite make out so I asked him to repeat it. He gurgled again more clearly and then I understood. I shouted down the staircase to Jack.
“Hey Jack, Solomon says he needs to go potty!”
Jack bounded up the stairs three at a time the way he used to when we had dodged the fascist bombs in the mountains of Andalusia. He took Solomon into the adjoining bathroom and sat him down on Junior's plastic potty. He lifted little Solomon like a bag of flour with one strong arm and pulled Solomon's shorts off with the other, lowering him slowly onto the plastic throne to make sure the boy was positioned properly. It was a warm spring day but I hadn't opened the windows yet and so soon Jack started to sweat through his plaid shirt. Little Solomon did his job and a few seconds later the whole third floor smelled like a stockyard.
Something about the smell made me want to run away the way I always wanted to run away from the stockyards but I knew this was weak so I stayed with Jack. The smells made you want to escape but you had to stay put otherwise you would never be able to look anyone in the face again. I remembered the times fishing with Jack in the Upper Peninsula, when Jack had pulled up a big northern and had it thrashing on the line out in the middle of the lake and I'd reach into the back of the canoe for the net, the two of us working in silent understanding without saying a word and doing what needed to be done in perfect balance so the boat wouldn't swamp. I handed Jack the wipies.
"Do you just throw the dirty ones into the trash can?"
"Yeah, that's fine," I said.
"The bowl is kind of a mess. I wiped it up with the wipies. Do you do anything else to clean it?" he asked.
"Don't worry, I just swirl a few drops of bleach with some warm water and use a brush to clean the bowl. You can just wash Solomon's hands and I'll take care of the bowl."
"Thanks," said Jack.
"No problem," I said.
We went downstairs when we were done with little Solomon. The boys were ready to go outside now so we found some soccer balls and put all the boys into their windbreakers. For the first time that year the air blew warm and even though the grass was still brown and the trees were still bare you could already see the first buds and knew that soon spring would come. We came to the square in the high sun of mid morning and I rolled the soccer balls down onto the grass. I watched the boys run away from me, kicking up the dust leftover from last winter, chasing after the soccer balls like a herd of bounding antelope racing trains across Nebraska.