by Colton Green
Black clouds lean over the green sink of Van Cortlandt Park. One hundred feet above Broadway a gust bangs at my window screen, sprinkles turn to pounding rain and I get lost daydreaming on an L-shaped charcoal couch. During the downpour, my sister Linda calls from Los Angeles.
“Have you talked to your son?”
“Leon or Roy?”
“Roy’s in trouble.”
Linda talks fast. “Roy called Mom from Oregon this morning. He told her he went out with friends last night and he was the designated driver, but he got in an accident. He asked Mom not to call you. He needs five-thousand dollars for bail.”
“When Mom told him she didn’t have extra money, he promised to pay her back right away. He was using his one phone call. And then he said, ‘Okay, how about two thousand?’ When Mom told him she couldn’t, he cursed and hung up.”
My head gets hot. I remember myself away at college making foolish mistakes, unaware of the impact on other people.
“Mom’s sure it was Roy?”
“She was expecting his call and said it was his voice. I tried calling him, but it goes straight to message.”
“Expecting his call?”
“Mom left a message Thursday to thank him for her birthday card and when he called back yesterday, she was at a church meeting. So, he left a message that he’d call today. When she asked about Portland, he said, ‘Grandma, I can’t talk about that now. I need your help.’”
“Okay. I’ll make calls and let you know.”
“Call Mom first, her feelings are hurt. Remember how she and Roy bonded when he stayed with her and Cliff last spring?”
How could this happen? Hadn’t I taught all the things that would keep him safe? I made sure to start when the boys were young. Roy, with his walnut locks and mischievous aqua blues, and big brother Leon with the dark waves and wise hazel greens, were in pre-K and first grade when it felt like the right time to have a talk.
“You know boys, not everyone in the world is nice.”
They gazed up with eyes the size of flying saucers and Leon asked, “Do you mean like Lord Zedd in Power Rangers, Daddy?”
“Listen guys, if a stranger ever approaches you after school and tells you that there’s been an accident and that Mommy and Daddy told them to come pick you up, don’t you say a word to that person. What you do is run as fast as you can to the nearest grownup you know, because we would never ask a stranger to pick you up from school in a dark sedan.”
It was wrong to add the dark sedan, but I felt the need to make sure the boys got it. I didn’t consider their feelings or what was age appropriate. My blind spot got in the way and the actor in me went too far. The idea of a stranger kidnapping them had been enough. But these lessons don’t come out perfect. Parenting isn’t Broadway dialogue by a Tony Award playwright. It’s guerrilla filmmaking with simple props and scenes shot spontaneously. No one’s yelling And, action! Every move you make is action, and then it’s time for the next scene. No take-two. Only life, with all its blocking mistakes, missed entrances and forgotten lines.
The boys turned to each other, close to tears. Leon asked, “Daddy, what’s a sedan?”
Roy piled on. “Yeah, Daddy, what’s a sedan?”
If parenting is anything, it’s theater. When an actor loses their place onstage and “goes up,” three seconds is an eternity. Improv rules dictate you must say something. Anything will do. I decided to manage the attention of the two-man audience by describing a brief history of the internal combustion engine, the concept of ignition, how a spark is like miniature lightning, how a piston’s job is to transform pressure generated by the burning air-fuel mixture into an explosive force that powers the crankshaft, and how the driveshaft turns the wheels. I drew it in pencil. My mom’s an artist, so I knew how—the up and down and back and forth and round and round as the boys leaned into each rendering, eyes curious and alert, their little bodies pressing against me. I diagrammed a horseless carriage, its initial open-air design and later closed-body sedan. I explained the first car to use the term was a Studebaker in 1912. How cars were named after men like Henry Ford, Walter Chrysler, Louis Chevrolet and Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac. After places like Malibu, Monte Carlo, mythical El Dorado and the French Riviera. After animals like the Impala, Jaguar, Mustang and Road Runner.
Road Runner was Roy’s cartoon. “You mean animal legs really can turn into wheels?”
Leon laughed at the funniest thing he’d ever heard. Roy beamed. We hugged in a huddle, their innocence fleeting. They’re only little for a little.
One November Saturday morning when Roy was fourteen, months after the separation, he was late to the soccer team bus across town but didn’t care, wouldn’t leave the apartment. I came down to help from my studio sublet ten blocks uptown at the corner of 81st and Columbus Avenue, across from the Museum of Natural History.
When I walked into the living room, his pace was doot-da-doo.
I asked, “Why not just be a good teammate?”
Roy scrutinized the parquet floor. “Look who’s talking.”
I didn’t see that he was calling for help, didn’t know how to read the cues. I was focused on a child’s game when I should have focused on a whole life. I thought of the coaches and players waiting. I thought of the bus driver. I was stuck in a blind spot I didn’t know I had. I told Roy that the team depended on him.
He turned away and entered a staring contest with the building across Broadway, refusing to speak or move. I noticed the clock ticking in the kitchen. And then I blew a gasket and said the stupidest thing a father who recently moved out could ever say to his son. “You’re embarrassing the family name!” I really said that. As if that would inspire. As if a boy reeling from his parents’ breakup is concerned with being on time to anything. As if sorrow considers reputation.
Roy turned around, feet apart, chin down, head cocked, eyes on mine, blue a shade darker now, trying to transmit something more important than soccer or punctuality. And then he walked to the hallway, grabbed his soccer bag and said, “Let’s go.” He’d made his point, even if I didn’t know yet what it was.
Together in a yellow cab traversing Central Park in the fog-blue rain, I started to get it. Roy was in a world outside the dripping window, his silence a reminder of my empathy issues. Before arriving, I apologized. He got out without a word and walked to the bus.
Roy was seventeen when I asked him, “How would you describe yourself?”
Ten minutes later: “I’m pretty quiet.”
He really said that. Ten minutes later.
When Roy fell in love with creative writing in high school, he was like the Joyce Carol Oates character Jinx Fairchild, the star athlete who learns that “words on paper” can be “expressions of the soul.” Roy writes on two typewriters: a black Smith-Corona Comet and a red Hermes Rocket. I’m telling you he can lay down some words on paper, that kid. He’s got something to say, but I’m not quite sure what it is. He’s pretty quiet, rarely shares his work. He also discovered clay in an art class—how to throw cups, bowls and vases on a pottery wheel, every piece purposely imperfect. His first job in Portland was at a ceramics studio. The owner wanted every piece to be an exact replica. Now Roy works at an Indian restaurant.
Today’s drama is about how to get an arrest erased from a record. It makes sense that he would be the designated driver. But if he was innocent, then why the arrest? I thought I’d taught the most important lessons to Leon and Roy. Don’t do the drug once. Know who you’re in the room with. Things happen for a reason, but only if you’re looking for reasons. It’s not what happens, it’s how you respond. And don’t get arrested. I’d say, “I should write a book.”
However, is teaching teaching if the person taught doesn’t learn the thing taught?
I remind myself that in startling, life-altering moments the job is to gather information. When I call Roy’s housemate Sadri, he answers walking to anthropology class at Reed College. Does he know about Roy? No, but he’ll call the house and call me back.
Two minutes later my phone rings.
“You thought I was in jail?” Roy sounds sleepy.
“Oh, good. So, you posted bail?”
“Grandma said you called from jail this morning and told her you’d been the designated driver but that you got in an accident.”
“You didn’t call Grandma for money?”
“You can tell me the truth.”
“I just did, but you’re not listening. Want me to FaceTime you?”
My phone rings and there’s Roy on the screen, in his faded-green t-shirt, disheveled hair and cloudy blues looking like he’s just gotten up. Like he’s relaxed after coffee and toast and eggs and ketchup. Like he’s telling the truth on an idle morning in the fragrant forest of America’s Northwest.
“I stayed home writing last night.” Roy yells across the living room, “Hey Mario, was I in jail?” He points the phone to Mario in a mango baseball cap.
Mario says, “No, you weren’t in jail.” They laugh.
“Dad, why didn’t you just call me?”
“Because they don’t let you have your cell phone in jail.”
“I wasn’t there, remember?”
“I honestly believed that you’d be the designated driver. I’m very sorry, pal.”
Roy stares off.
Now he’s looking directly at me.
“I have to admit I’m disappointed. I stayed with Grandma and Grandpa Cliff for six weeks last spring. I helped them every day. And in the middle of Grandma grieving Grandpa Cliff, you think I’d pressure her for money, but not call you?”
“We really got duped, didn’t we?”
“Not ‘we,’ Dad. You.”
“Right. Good point.”
“What happened to know who you’re in the room with?”
After Linda called this morning, I didn’t stop to stare and think it all over. Think about the unique kid Roy’s always been. About how as a small child he never asked for help if he got hungry between meals. How he’d scale counters, pilfer cupboards and raid the fridge to create his own grub. If Roy did something wrong, he was candid as a conscience. More willing to be honest than most kids. If today’s false scenario had been true, he would have called. I failed to gather information from the most important person first. Mom had been fooled by a swindler’s phone call. Linda tried to fact-check Mom and then did her job by calling me. I didn’t do my job. Caught in my blind spot, I couldn’t see how the real Roy fit into the big picture.
“I should’ve followed my own advice.”
“Like you say, it’s not what happens.”
“What I say is, don’t get arrested.”
“You should write a book.”
Before we hang up, Roy looks directly at me one more time.
“You know, Dad. Not everyone in the world is nice.”
About the Author
Colton Green teaches at a public high school in the Bronx. M.A. in teaching English, Columbia University. M.F.A. in Writing, Lindenwood University. Work appears at Tell Us a Story and Children, Churches and Daddies. Colton has been named finalist in contests at Bellingham Review, Blue Mesa Review, Tucson Festival of Books and Cutthroat, A Journal of the Arts.