DEAR ABBY: My son recently got in touch with me after almost four years of absolutely no contact. We had a falling-out years back, and neither of us could seem to put things behind us at the time and move on.
His mother (my wife) died 3 1/2 years ago, and he barely made it back for the funeral.
He called after all this time to ask me for money. It seems he has fallen on hard times and needs my support. I am not sure I am in a position financially to help him, as I am nearing retirement and concerned about my own expenses. I also feel a little resentful that after all this time, the only reason he called was for money.
I’m afraid if I don’t help him, I will lose him forever. But should I give him money as a way to keep him in my life? I am torn about the situation. I want to be a good father and help my son, but what does that mean? — UNSURE IN NEW YORK
DEAR UNSURE: If your son is without a job, help him find one if you can. But do not jeopardize your retirement. Much as one might wish it, money can’t buy love. Until you and your son iron out what went wrong in your relationship, such an investment would not bring you the return you are looking for.
Malcolm woke up, as he did most mornings, to the sound of braying. Drunken braying, if there was such a thing. An experienced person could always tell the difference between a respectable donkey and one that was in his cups. And at this hour! The birds were just warming up, broadcasting their calls out to indifferent or sleeping ears. Grey light was just beginning to ooze through the skylights. It must be–
“Four-thirty,” a voice chirped from the speaker hanging out of his kitchen wall, delicately tethered by only a few wires.
“Are you still here, asshole?” Malcolm asked, staring at the ceiling.
“I’m always here,” came the response, followed by a particularly juicy hiccup. He heard a bottle skitter across the floor, kicked by that klutz, no doubt.
Malcolm rose from the warm spot his body had made on the plastic floor, and held on to the edge of the Formica counter to steady himself. He was relieved to see there was no wet spot of any kind under or on his person this morning. He looked across the clutter on his counter–ignored paperwork, magazines, dirty mugs, food wrappers–into the living room at his visitor.
“Do you ever wonder what it’s like to sleep in your own bed, Herman?” he asked.
“I hear it’s overrated.” An annoyed ear flick, a shuffling of feet, a twiddling of the thumbs of his creepy hands. Malcolm knew what came next. “Are you giving out refills, or what?” Herman picked up last night’s mug and jiggled it at his host, who lurched forward automatically to take it.
Malcolm hunted through a few of his flimsy particle board cabinets. They were filled with mostly empty boxes of stale crackers that he didn’t remember acquiring and odds and ends like wrenches and a dented party hat from some mandatory fun.
And a stock boy vest. Malcolm could not bring himself to think of it as his stock boy vest anymore than he could think of himself as a stock boy.
The last cabinet door he opened came off in his hands. He stared at for a moment, noticing the still-attached hinges with their protruding, stripped screws, before sliding it carefully into the gap between the stove and the counter.
“Coffee,” he said. That’s what was needed here. He remembered that he’d last seen it under the sink.
“Vodka!” Herman countered from where he slumped on Malcolm’s inflatable sofa.
“Did I ever tell you that my father made coffins?” Malcolm asked. A distraction: Herman was always up for one of those. Malcolm fished the can of coffee out. The lid was gone. He wondered where the lid had gotten to. It was important for some reason…
“No, you never did,” Herman said, rolling his eyes. He grunted and rolled around on the sofa, making its rubbery surfaces squeak lewdly.
Malcolm took a deep breath. He felt the story, often told, spinning up from a deep, old place. Sometimes he wondered that he could remember events that happened more than 30 years ago better than what happened last week.
“My father learned how to make coffins from his father. He would retrieve the wood himself from the distrohub, choosing the highest grade of wood for each one. He made coffins for rich men with custom inlays and would do the carving himself. It took so long that they were often paid for years in advance.”
“And you almost took up the trade yourself….”
“I almost took up the trade myself, but Mother had other plans. ‘I see something in you, Malcolm. You’re special.” He aped a mother’s voice, but realized it wasn’t what his mother sounded like. It was more like a television mother. A nice one. Herman liked it when he did voices. It was, at one time, one of Malcolm’s talents. He’d had a few good years giving voices to animated bears and whatnot. It was easy work with a script in front of you and no need to comb your hair, if you didn’t feel like it that day.
“I hired a coffin from your father but I don’t know where it is anymore,” Herman said.
I do, Malcolm thought. He made a non-committal reply and put the coffee pot on.
“I think you should just skip to the part where you met me,” Herman said. Malcolm made for the living room to do his customary pacing while he was waiting for his coffee to finish, but was pushed back by an appalling smell Herman had made. He opened the front door instead.
Malcolm looked out his door at the courtyard before him, morning sunlight streaming through the ficuses, and saw that the streetlights beginning to snap off. The small birds that always managed to get in sang feebly in the bushes, their chirps bouncing off pillars and walls. He heard the sounds of his part of the Village waking up: bottles clanging in collection bins, whoop-whoops rolling around keeping an eye on things. Mrs. Thomson across the way yelling at her poor deaf boyfriend.
The hologram in the center of the courtyard flicked off news and onto a pop singer, shirt hanging open, wailing into a microphone. They kept fixing the imaging base and Mrs. Thomson’s boyfriend kept smashing it again. Malcolm sighed and retreated from his doorway.
Coffee. Yes, that was the thing. Malcolm poured himself a cup and waited for it to cool. It seemed like all his life was now was waiting, just like when he was a kid, before he’d had his big break.
“Something almost happened,” he said.
“Eh?” Herman said, his eyes still closed. Malcolm watched as Herman’s hands ran over his pelt and crawled over his legs, hooves kicking. He hoped that Herman had not brought fleas in again, but it was pointless to say anything. Better just to roll him out of here and have the property management fumigate.
“So Mother took me to the big city for an audition. Bright-eyed children wanted, background in tumbling ideal. That was a big week for me. Father had just decided he could trust me with the planer.” He looked at his trembling hands, untouched by manual labor. He remembered his father’s–the scarred, enlarged knuckles, palms that felt like the sandpaper he worked with.
“Then you met me,” Herman said.
“Not for a couple of years. There were the commercials, and then the Children’s Mystery Hour–”
“Friday nights, seven o’clock.”
“–And then you came as a guest star, a crossover from your medical drama–”
“Donkey Surgeon,” Herman finished. “The start of our friendship.”
“I wanted to talk about Father,” Malcolm said, picking up his coffee.
“He was a good man, which is why I had him make my coffin when I had money. The only man in the whole Southeast who made specialty coffins.”
“Final repose for unique personages.”
Malcolm sensed movement outside. A skinny fellow, barely more than a boy, framed himself in the open door.
“Mr. McKee?” He edged into Malcolm’s doorway, a darker shadow with the glow of sunrise outlining him. He hadn’t seen this boy before. He had bad teeth and those fat modern sneakers that look more like medical devices than footwear, probably provided by management if he was to run errands and messages like this.
“What is it?”
“They want you at 3 p.m. today.”
The boy hesitated, raised an eyebrow. “Yes?”
“Okay.” Malcolm nodded. The boy wasn’t moving and Malcolm stared at him, waiting.
“Mr. McKee? I saw you on Sky History. Your old show?”
“Oh yes?” Malcolm stood up a bit straighter and tugged his shirt down. He wished then he wasn’t wearing yesterday’s clothes, though the boy had no way of knowing he was.
“It was good, sir. You murdered every line.” Before Malcolm could reply, the boy retreated, leaving a streak of shadow, footfalls muffled from the lurid plastic booties he wore, and then nothing.
“Do you want to run lines?” Herman asked him, snapping him back to the room.
“Your appearance today.”
Malcolm shrugged. “It’s just remarks. Not lines. ‘Savings that aren’t a mystery.’ Some claptrap like that and then cut a ribbon, or pretend to cut a virtual one. What time is it?”
“The time is four fifty-three,” the dangling wall speaker said.
“I’m going to be late,” Malcolm said.
He took a large swig of his hot coffee. He felt it all the way to his stomach and he imagined it traveling in one burning bubble like some elevator down to hell. His jaw clicked as he recoiled from the pain of it. He’d be feeling that later. He pulled the stock boy vest out of the open cabinet and remembered then it had something sticky on the front, just below where his nametag was meant to go–cough syrup? No matter, on it went.
“Do you remember–”
“I don’t have time, Herman.”
“The last day of the shoot. You kids were supposed to ride me down by the river.” Malcolm stopped just outside of his doorway, impatient, not wanting to cut him off, but not wanting to swipe in late and lose some of his privileges for the week.
“Which was outside of your contract,” Malcolm said.
“It was outside of my contract, but I needed the go away money for my first wife. Ugh.”
“Do we have to do this now?” Malcolm felt himself shifting from foot to foot, antsy.
“And you slipped! You slipped off the back. Do you remember, Malcolm? And then I slipped, I guess. I panicked. I had a little bit of what they called a–”
“Drinking problem,” Malcolm said. He sat down on the small plastic square that signified what would be a foyer in a more reasonably-sized residence and stared at the cracks and ground-in dirt. He looked out to see Mrs. Thomson watering her plants as she did every morning, humming loudly and tunelessly. He often thought it was a blessing her boyfriend couldn’t hear her, ever. “I landed on my feet,” he prompted.
“And I kicked. Very humiliating. They thought they had zapped that kind of behavior right out of me. But that day I was tight as a tick. I went back to the time before–”
“When you had just one name.”
“The time is now four fifty-seven in the a.m.,” the wall speaker interrupted. Malcolm felt certain it had developed a testy tone, or was at least speaking louder.
“When I was just Pancho, Malcolm! It felt so good to kick.” He stopped then, and looked as mortified as was possible with a face that could only approximate human expressions. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t say that.” He sat up partway then, leveling his head, attempting to make eye contact with Malcolm for as long as he could keep his eyes focussed.
“It’s okay,” Malcolm said.
“But then I connected with something.” Herman ran his hands over his muzzle. His horrible, crawling, superfluous hands that were a mistake, that science should never have given to him, regardless of how much the people didn’t know they badly wanted to see a donkey perform surgery on live television.
“My face. You connected with my face.” Malcolm felt his jaw begin to click involuntarily, as it did when he thought back to that day.
Eleven years old. Episode four. Jaw shattered and then rewired. He had been intervened with and then rebuilt just as Herman had, the difference being that Herman went from being a dumb animal to a star, and Malcolm went from being a rising star to being a trivia question on a quiz show. Herman was given human flesh and he was given metal plates and pins. His father out of his reach, after his mother had taken him to live in the big city to be near the television studios. Why did he never go back? He didn’t remember.
Work–he had to go to work. He stood, making himself dizzy. It was going to be a long day.
“Do you ever think about that? That was so long ago,” Herman said.
“Every day,” Malcolm said to himself, closing his door on his empty apartment behind him.