Al and Rob
In all the years he’d been drinking down the Legion, Albert Silver had never quite been able to shake the feeling that he didn’t belong. He knew that the guys there loved him, loved him for his off-color jokes, for the way he kept a party going when he was spinning records, and, of course, for his ability to throw a nearly perfect game of Cricket when their darts team was in danger of losing bragging rights to some dive bar over in Lowell. He knew that they didn’t hold it against him that the war had ended just a few weeks before his number came up, that he was as welcome here as anyone else with a paycheck to blow on a Friday night, vet or not. But he took little comfort in their acceptance of him. He remembered what he had said to his older brother when he went off to serve—“So long, babykiller!”—and, by extension, wasn’t it what he had said to them all? If they knew what he had said, would they still be as understanding? Or would he be out on his ass?
Albert finished his Bud and set the bottle down. Across the table, his brother ashed the last of his Parliament Lights into the neck of his own empty bottle. Robert was the Silver that should have been the hero here at the bar. He was the one who had served with them, who had done his duty. But Robert was also the sort of guy who sauntered into a working-class bar in a thousand-dollar suit, the sort of guy who drove a Jag into parking lot full of Fords and Chevys, the sort of guy who, when you asked for a light, handed you a matchbook inscribed with his self-proclaimed title, “Auto King of New England.”
“You want something else to drink?” asked Albert.
“I’m all set,” said Robert. And of course he was all set, because he was a somebody in this town. And somebodies didn’t get wasted in public. After all, they couldn’t afford to lose their cool in front of potential customers. No, they only got shitfaced at home, where the recipients of their tirades, of their slaps and their insults, would keep things quiet.
Robert crushed the last of his cigarette into the tray, then rubbed his hands together as if trying to shake off a chill. He asked, “You heard about Veronica?”
Albert nodded. He had heard. From his daughter Ashley, of all people, who didn’t even go to the high school yet, whose classmates used the gossip that their older siblings brought home as further ammunition in their seemingly constant war against her. ‘I hear sluttiness runs in families,’ one girl was supposed to have said, ‘and seeing as you’re never going to get a boyfriend with your looks, you should consider yourself lucky.’
“I’m thinking of putting my foot down,” said Robert.
“Gonna force them to do it right, if I have to. The kid seems like he’s willing to do the right thing. It’s Veronica who’s giving me trouble.”
“Well, she’s only seventeen, Rob. What do you expect?”
“I expected her to know better than to get herself into the same situation her mother and me got ourselves into. I expected her to have learned from her brother’s mistakes and realized where this kind of life gets you.” Robert paused. “Well, all I gotta say is: she may not have lived up to expectations before, but she damn well better live up to expectations now if she expects one bit of support from me.”
“Lyd feel the same way?” asked Albert.
“I don’t care how Lyd feels, or what Lyd thinks. She hasn’t lived up to expectations neither. You think she ever really tried to instill in our daughter what could happen to her if she screwed up? You think Lyd ever really tried?”
No, Albert thought. Lydia had probably never tried instilling any such thing in her daughter. Because, the truth was, Lydia didn’t see things the way that Robert did. She didn’t look back at the evening that resulted in her son as a mistake, even if she hadn’t exactly wanted to be at that party, or in that bedroom, or with this man. And she didn’t view the surprise arrival of her daughter some five years later as an accident, although they hadn’t planned for her, and had, in fact, been planning for some time apart. Lydia, in her own quiet way, was every bit the good Christian that Robert loudly proclaimed himself to be. She had faith in God’s guiding light, in His grand design. She saw blessings where Robert saw curses.
“This ain’t the sort of thing you usually bring up in public,” said Albert.
“Well, I wanted to talk about my options without someone blowing up in my face. I figured you’d keep it down, that you wouldn’t want to make a scene.”
Albert shook his head. “I wouldn’t have made a scene in private either, Rob.”
Robert nodded. “Yeah, I suppose you wouldn’t have.”
“You don’t tell me how to raise my kids, and I don’t tell you how to raise yours,” said Albert. “That’s always been our agreement, right?”
“Sure,” said Robert, taking a drag.
“You gonna kick her out if she says no?” asked Albert.
Robert nodded slowly, letting the smoke spill out from his nostrils. “Gotta give kids ultimatums. They don’t understand much else.”
“Where do you think she’ll go, if you kick her out?”
Robert shook two fingers at Al, the stub of his cigarette clutched between them. “I thought you weren’t going to tell me how to raise my—”
“Don’t get bent out of shape here. I’m not telling you anything, Rob. I’m asking you something.”
“Yeah, well, you got a way of asking things,” said Robert. “Makes it sound like you’re passing judgment.”
“This is about Matt, ain’t it?”
“Simmer down. You’re getting a bit loud. Remember, everyone you meet is a potential—”
“Don’t give me that shit!” Robert spat. “You think I shoulda given him a second chance? You think I shoulda brought him back into my home, that godless, ungrateful little faggot? I kicked him out outta love, Al. Outta love!”
“Yeah, Rob, I sensed a lot of fucking love in the room when you were trying to kill him with your bare fucking hands.”
“Tough love, Al! You gotta be tough with your kids. Tough love!” he chanted. “You think Michael’s ever gonna stop with the friggin’ painting and do something serious with his life if you don’t put some pressure on? You think Ashley’s ever going to lose weight if you keep going easy on her?”
Albert stood up, his chair toppling backwards behind him. “Don’t start with me on Ashley, Rob. Don’t you fucking start.”
The bartender called over, “You guys maybe wanna take this outside?”
“Nah,” said Robert, heading for the door. “I’m leaving. We’re done.”
Albert called after his brother, “Hey, Auto King!”
Robert stopped at the door, and turned around again.
“Don’t forget your lighter,” said Albert, tossing him his ridiculous monogrammed Zippo.
“Thanks, asshole,” said Robert.
“See you Easter?” asked Albert.
“See you Easter.”
Sitting in his rumbling Ford Escort in front of old Phil Gates’ place an hour or so later, waiting for Ashley to finish up her visit with Phil’s kids Robin and Adam, Albert got to thinking, once again, about what Robert had said about ‘tough love.’ Where in the hell had he gotten that from? Albert recalled their parents’ love as anything but tough. He supposed it could have been different for Rob, seeing as Rob was born first, but it couldn’t have been that different, could it? Albert had been around to witness firsthand nearly all of Rob’s spectacular childhood fuck-ups, from the time he cracked up the family car during a cross-town joyride at the age of twelve, to his first weekend bender during freshman year of high school, and never once did their parents react with ‘tough love.’ If anything, the love of Eli and Edna Silver was gentle to a fault. There was never any screaming, hardly ever so much as a raised voice. Punishments were more apt to consist of long, drawn-out discussions about the repercussions of their actions. They still got the old standards—‘When I was your age’ and, of course, ‘Back in my day’—but that was about it. They had never been grounded, or sent to their room without supper, or forced into extra chores to make up for their transgressions. And Eli still had the same way about him to this day, that cool, measured demeanor that his grandchildren took advantage of every summer they spent down the Cape. The truth was that you were never going to get into much trouble with Eli Silver. He didn’t police you; he expected you to police yourself. He thought that kind of responsibility was good for a kid, that it built character. Tough love—well, that didn’t come from Eli Silver, that was for damn sure.
In his heart, Albert knew the truth. Robert disapproved of the way their parents had raised them. Rob believed that he had turned out well, in spite of their parents, and not because of them. He would never say so out loud—that wouldn’t be the Christian thing to do—but he had been thinking it for years, even if he did bring a new vehicle down the Cape every couple of years as “repayment” for their tolerance of his misspent youth. The cars, the smiles, the deferring to Eli during the summers (at least until the summer of the Great Schism)—those were all for show. For a guy who disapproved of the arts as a career, who thought of them as a soft option, Robert’s ability to play a role was astounding, Oscar-worthy even.
The Gates’ dog yelped from behind their chain-link fence as Ashley made her way down the front steps, her face sullen, her shoulders slouched. She opened the passenger’s side door and plopped herself down into the seat. Phil came to the door and waved as Ashley got herself settled. Albert waved back to his old classmate, and then they were off.
Ashley waited until they’d reached the end of Quigley, until Albert had turned on his directional to turn left onto Middlesex, before she lit into him. “Why did you have to pick me up? Why couldn’t I have stayed? We were gonna beat that game! What’s there to do at home? Why couldn’t I have slept over?”
“First of all,” Albert interjected, “it supposed to snow like a bastard tonight and tomorrow, and I want you under our roof and not halfway across town when the storm hits.”
“Fine,” said Ashley. “Whatever.”
“And secondly, I think you’re a little young to be staying over a boy’s house.”
“It’s Robin’s house, too,” said Ashley. “I’m friends with her, too.”
“I understand that,” said Albert.
“But you think I’m going to turn out like Veronica.”
Albert glanced over at his daughter. He wasn’t sure what to say. The truth was that he was afraid of his baby getting pregnant, as he imagined every father of every girl in the whole world must be. He knew that they’d deal with it if it happened, that they’d get through it, that he wouldn’t be throwing her out of his house no matter what. But that didn’t make thinking about it any easier. She was just barely old enough for it to be a rational fear—to the best of his knowledge, she’d gotten her period for the first time just last month—but it was a fear of his nevertheless. Sure, it was possible that her relationship with Adam was entirely chaste. And there was the older sibling there to consider too, the third wheel that would keep the pair of them from taking off to places they weren’t ready to go, but the boy was thirteen. And thirteen year old boys, if he recalled correctly, were a determined lot, obsessed, for the most part, with only one thing. That one thing that consistently got both boys and girls in trouble, and lots of it.
“…as if any boy would even think about fooling around with me,” Ashley was saying. “They wouldn’t even think about it, let alone try something.”
“You’re too hard on yourself, Ash.” And she really was. Because, yes, she may have been heavy. She may have even been what her doctor called her: obese. But the weight was only temporary. She still had her mother’s face, that flawless, undistilled, Scandinavian face. And while it wouldn’t launch a thousand ships anytime soon, especially not with the amount of time it spent clenched in a scowl, Albert was sure that, with a little work, it might one day.
“Whatever,” she said, sulking.
“You don’t think there’s any boy out there who’s thought about—”
“You’re drunk,” said Ashley.
Albert sighed. He wasn’t drunk. Ashley knew he wasn’t drunk. But this was her way of ending a conversation. It was one of her favorite tactics. She knew he was sensitive about how much he drank, about whether or not that constituted too much, and she played him like a fiddle.
“I’m not drunk,” Albert told her.
“You’re totally drunk,” said Ashley. “I can smell it on you. You shouldn’t even be driving. Pull over,” she said. “I’ll drive.”
“Ashley, you’re twelve—”
“Yeah,” she said, taking a new tack, “and that means my dad totally shouldn’t be talking to me about boys. If anyone should be talking to me about boys, it should be Mom.” She paused for a moment, and then added hastily, “And I don’t want her to talk to me about boys either.”
“OK,” said Albert. “Fine.”
“We were so close,” she said. “Adam’s probably on the final boss right now.”
“I’m sorry to take you away from your game,” said Albert. “Your mother and I will just feel a lot safer with you home with us during the storm.”
“OK,” said Ashley. “I get it.”
“I’m not trying to ruin your day, Ash. I’m just—”
“You’re drunk,” said Ashley, smirking.
Albert smirked himself, then nodded.
“What about Mom?”.
“She might be stuck at the hospital for a little while,” said Albert. “But the hospital’s safe, too,” he added, as an afterthought.
Ashley bit her lower lip and nodded. “Can I turn on the radio?” she asked.
Albert nodded in reply, Ashley turned on the radio, and for the rest of the ride home they just listened.
Late that night, standing on the porch with the cordless phone to his ear, half-listening to his wife relaying the details of her day—“two sections in the morning… a breach in the afternoon”—Albert marveled at the April snow. This was one of the things he loved the most about life in New England, the sheer unpredictability of it. Snow in April was not unheard of—hell, he was pretty sure it had snowed here in June, once upon a time—but snow like this, driving snow that just wouldn’t quit… well, that was a whole other thing. You could never tell when something like this was going to happen. This was life. Whatever will be will be, and all that jazz. If God had a plan, and Albert wasn’t even sure if there was a God out there to make plans, then the plan was this: let’s see what happens.
Robert could never understand that, Robert, who wanted people to live up to expectations, who wanted everything to go according the agenda he laid out on his desk calendar each and every day. Robert hated the winter in general, and snowstorms in particular. “Bad for business,” he would say. And sure, they were—who wanted to buy a car buried under a foot of snow, after all?—but his real point was that anything unpredictable would be better off done away with. There was a scene in the second Back to the Future movie which Robert constantly referred to when it came to the weather. In the future, the movie suggested, there would be a weather service that regulated all forms of precipitation. And that day, Robert said, couldn’t come soon enough.
If he were Veronica’s father, Albert liked to think that this whole ordeal wouldn’t be an ordeal at all. Sure, the pregnancy was unexpected. But Veronica was seventeen, she was graduating from high school in a couple of months, and the father of the baby was willing to do his share. Veronica hadn’t run off to get herself an abortion; she’d thought long and hard about things instead. The situation, Albert thought, had worked out about as well as it could have.
“So, how was your day?” Michaela asked him.
“Fine,” said Albert. “Met up with Rob down the Legion. Talked about Veronica, among other things.”
“And how’d that go?”
“The kids are getting older, Mikki. Robert doesn’t want to accept it. Hell, I’m not even sure I want to accept it. But the fact is that they’re getting older faster than we’re getting ready for them to be older.” Albert paused, not sure what he was driving at. “Promise me, Mik, that no matter what kind of trouble our kids get themselves into, that we’ll always be there for them.”
“Of course,” said Michaela.
“And that we won’t use threats and ultimatums to make them do what we want them to do, that we’ll let them be who they want to—”
“What’s Rob threatening Veronica with?”
“Just promise me,” he said.
“I promise,” said Michaela.
“You looked outside lately?” he asked her, keen to change the subject, to move on.
“It’s snowing,” she said.
“Like a bastard,” he said. “It’s amazing to watch. So damn random.”
“Al,” she said. “Are you drunk?”
Albert laughed. “No, Mik, I’m not drunk.” He watched the snow fly across the narrow beam of the lamplight, so fast, so determined. Silver streaking across gold. “I’m stone-cold sober,” he told his wife. “Stone-cold sober.”