The day before Gus has to give the Commodore his answer, he doesn’t leave the bedroom. He curls his knees as close as he can to the fetal position without pinching the nerve in his back. He’s never felt so sorry for himself. He misses Christie. He wishes he could talk to her about what is happening in his life. As he thinks of her, he reaches down to the pump between his testicles. There it is—a reminder of her. He presses on it and his penis inflates. He doesn’t think he’ll ever find love again. Christie was it. Then he presses the deflation valve, the fluid returns to the reservoir, and his penis deflates. Unconsciously, he begins to pump and release. Again and again. Pump and release. It is oddly soothing, oddly not-at-all-arousing.
Early on Saturday morning, he wakes up to someone yelling his name.
He jumps up in a panic, hoping he won’t find another fire, and smacks his head on the door frame on his way out to the deck.
His son, Bradley, is standing on the dock, wearing a blue suit, a white shirt, and a red tie. Slap some white Keds on his feet and he could work for the Commodore, Gus thinks. He rubs his aching head with one hand, rubs his eyes with the other, and says, “Quit calling me by my first name. I’m your daddy. Show me a little respect.”
Bradley steps onto the boat. His suit hangs perfectly. It seems not to be touching any part of his body. “Put some clothes on, please,” Bradley says. “You’re going to get yourself arrested.”
Gus goes inside, and Bradley raises his voice to speak to him through the door. “I know you’ve been calling. I’m here to tell you that Penny and I are moving.”
The news gives Gus pause, one pant leg on, one off. “Congratulations, son. Where are you moving to?” He runs to the bathroom and splashes some water on his face and begins combing his hair back.
“She won’t let me tell you.”
“Seems a little harsh.”
He comes outside still brushing his teeth and spits off the side of the boat. “I hope you helped your mother sell that house for a good price. You know I bought that house.”
“Yeah, I know. You took us to court over it, remember?”
How many times did he have to tell Bradley that it wasn’t the house, but the principle of the house that made him go to court. He felt the courts should decide. They had. And not in his favor. So why couldn’t everyone just move on? “Listen, I was hoping we could begin to put that behind us, what do you say?”
Gus nods. He’ll take what he can get. He gargles some mouthwash, spits it into the harbor, and watches little fish come to the surface to eat from it.
He turns back and sees that Bradley has disappeared into the cabin. When he reemerges, he is brushing soot from the shoulders of his suit. “What happened here?”
“Just a little fire. Nothing much. Everything’s fine.”
“Doesn’t look fine. Looks like you torched the place. Glad you’re still alive.”
Gus lets that statement hang there for a few seconds. Philip, who has just woken up, walks straight to Bradley, who scratches him on the brown spot above his rump. Gus smiles as Philip’s left hind leg starts pawing at the air. The big guy’s in heaven.
“Well, I appreciate your coming by,” Gus says. “Keeping me in the loop enough to know that I’m out of it.” He fidgets with the superglued chair, but it doesn’t move. He doesn’t know what to say, so he says, “Did I ever tell you that you were a mistake?”
“More times than I care to remember.” Bradley forces a laugh and looks up at the sky. “You continue to be my measuring stick of how not to be a father.”
This is it. Before he loses his son’s attention altogether, he needs to say the thing he’s been thinking about for the past few days. He needs to explain why he’s been calling. So he just jumps in. He tells him that the Commodore has made him an offer he doesn’t think he can refuse. He explains what it will involve, how he’ll be leaving, how he doesn’t know where he’ll go or whether he’ll be coming back.
“You’re getting the boat fixed up for free?” Bradley shakes his head and starts pacing. His buzz cut seems to be standing on end, straighter than it was a moment before, as if reacting to an electrical current. “You’re unbelievable.”
Gus wants to tell him it’s not about the money. He wants his son to stay calm. He doesn’t want this to escalate into an argument. “But hear me out for a second. I have some real reservations. This fire last week really has me thinking a lot, and some things are worrying me.” Here goes. “What happens if I die? How will you know?”
But Bradley is still frustrated. “I read the local papers.”
“So you’re not moving too far away?” His son looks at him, and sees that he’s slipped up.
“Besides, I’m not worried about you dying, Dad. You’re never going to die. You’re too much of an asshole to die.” He looks at his watch and tells Gus he has to get going.
The conversation has failed to go where he wanted it to go. He’s now realizing that he wanted his son to give him a reason to stay, a reason not to take the offer and disappear from his life, but his son is not making this argument.
To keep from getting choked up, he asks another question. “Where are you going all spiffed up on a Saturday morning, anyway?”
“My son’s baptism.”
The news hits Gus hard. “You have a son?”
“Almost forgot.” He hands Gus a photograph of a newborn in a blue hat.
“What’s his name?”
“Listen, Penny says I’m not supposed to tell you. I’m going to catch some flak for taking that photograph out of the house. She has a nose like you wouldn’t believe.”
He turns to leave and then turns back. “By the way, what happened to that woman you were with at the trial? She seemed to be standing by you. Can’t she take care of your so-called funeral ceremonies?”
“She got cancer. Had to break it off.” This of course is not at all how it happened, but he couldn’t very well tell his son that he’d been dumped. He couldn’t very well tell his son that he could not satisfy the loveliest woman he had ever met.
“You don’t mean that,” Bradley says, and he challenges Gus by looking at him steadily. “You can’t possibly mean that.”
“You’re right,” Gus says, but doesn’t offer an explanation.
His son reaches out his hand and wishes him good luck. It’s a formal departure, but Gus will take it. As he walks off, Gus notices that, like him, Bradley wears out the soles of his shoes on the outsides first.
He lights a cigarette and stares at the photograph for a long time. The boy’s eyes are wide black peas, and his bootied feet are drawn up in the air. He is reaching. For what? For whom? Gus dares to think that the baby is reaching for him. He has a grandson.
Philip lumbers over and drops his enormous head on Gus’s lap. “Look at him, Philip,” he says. He flips over the photo. “Says here he was six pounds when he was born—weighed about as much as your balls.” Maybe Bradley’s wife was right. Maybe he shouldn’t know where they live. He might mess the kid up.
And then he realizes something. Here, right in his hands, is everything he ever needed. A blank slate. An audience. He retrieves the piece of paper from under his pillow and scratches out the whole thing. He’s starting over. He’s been going at this obituary thing all wrong.