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.”