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The Ha-Ha

Why am I here? Is it only that Sylvia telephoned so desperately after midnight, and I stood listening by the answering machine as she asked me to take Ryan? Or something bigger? Because before the sun has burned the dew from the grass, here I am. I pull into the driveway and turn off the engine, and Sylvia, who's been standing on the stoop waiting, steps toward the truck. Her sandals slap the flagstones as she approaches.

I should have realized only a truly serious binge could force Sylvia into rehab, but still, I'm shocked by her appearance. Her blonde hair is slicked back so tight that the waves seem painted on her skull, and her face is puffy, especially in the soft patches under her eyes. She has lines where I don't remember seeing lines before and a sore budding on her lower lip. Nevertheless, she's made an effort to clean up. Her white shirt's freshly ironed, and as she leans in the window of the truck, I can smell mouthwash.

"It won't be that long," she says flatly, and licks her cracked lips. Beneath the pale skin of her face, the muscles look clenched, and I wonder how long it's been since she slept. "Just a tune-up, get me on track. I doubt I'd even do this except my harridan of a sister is making it so - and I'm sort of at my wits' . . ." She shakes her head sourly. "And if it is for the better - who the hell knows? Because for a week I haven't left the house for fear of being away from my - not to take a walk or get him to a movie, let alone work. I couldn't bear to crash. But I mean it absolutely: a tune-up. I'm not looking for a makeover, and I really don't plan to impose him for long. I don't - I don't think I'm a hard case." At this, her eyes well, and I take her hand. She sighs irritably. "After all, Howie, isn't it your problem, too, in a way? Who knows if I'd even be in this spot, but for you?"

I drop Sylvia's hand. I'd love to tell her her pressed shirt has done nothing for her disposition, but instead I just glower at the shut garage door. And Sylvia knows, even through her come-down haze, that she's blundered. She stares glassily at the asphalt driveway until at last I shrug curtly and bark out, "Sh-cke!" It's the best I can do.

"Okay, fine," she says. She knows the score. "Well, I appreciate your coming on such short notice. And we're almost ready. Hang on, we'll get this show on the . . ." To head off another silence, she goes back in the house.

I get out and wait on the fender. It's neither true nor fair to say I'm to blame for her predicament, but I have a long history of letting Sylvia call the shots. And it's not an unappealing notion, her falling apart over me, though in truth, I don't think her situation is so bad. Sylvia's one of those small-time users who does a fair job of managing her cocaine and keeping her kid fed and clothed, and even if she has missed a day or two of work, I think she might be satisfied with the life she's got. I suspect that for a lot of people coke is like a chronic disease or a handicap or injury from which they don't fully recover; if they're smart, they patch around it and keep on going. So my bet is Sylvia will be home the day after tomorrow. She'll realize it's her lot to love getting high, but there are worse afflictions, and the minute she realizes this she'll call me to bring Ryan over. By the time we get there, she'll already be buzzed, and maybe I'll stay awhile. Maybe she'll be grateful or affectionate or dismissive, but nothing will change. Her life - and mine, to the extent it revolves around hers - will start up again at virtually this same point.

I watch a delivery truck pull in next door, and a couple of dogs bark. Over the years I've done my own share of recreationals, primarily hallucinogens, but I never liked snorting for the way it made me aware of my head. Finally I abandoned the drug realm altogether. I don't think Sylvia's forgiven me for not developing a habit myself, but she wouldn't change places with me.

There's an eruption of shouting from behind the screen door, then silence. The houses in this development are pastel-colored boxes, and I remember a remark of Sylvia's the day I helped her move in. She said she never thought she'd be living in a Silly Putty-colored house, and I wondered if she remembered how the corn used to cover this area when we were kids, and how we once drove out this way for a picnic. Now there's a red Chrysler parked in the street by her mailbox, with a jumble of ratty suitcases and shopping bags alongside, and as I look at the car and the bags, I wonder why Sylvia even bothers keeping track of her expectations. The world takes a shit in your mouth, I could tell her, and you swallow it whole. If you're waiting for compensation or payback, forget it - or else I've got a lot due for what happened to me. I think again of her saying I'm part of her problem, and I glare at the screen door. Hell, I'm not even to blame for Ryan, but here I am.

Sylvia reappears, accompanied by a gray cat and a well-groomed social services type. They don't look up when I stroll over, so I touch Sylvia's shoulder, and she darts me an anxious glance. "You two know each other," she says. "My sister Caroline, my interventioneer."

I put out my hand. It's perhaps fifteen years since I saw Sylvia's little sister, and in those days she looked like an overgrown cheerleader. Now she's a dressy woman in stockings and a silk scarf tied in a Windsor knot. She takes my hand and drops it, then gives me a smile that's no smile at all. "Could I speak to you?" she says to Sylvia, and the two of them step away. I stare at Caroline, refusing as much as possible to grant her her privacy, and after a minute she turns her back on me. She keeps her voice low, but any idiot could guess what she's saying.

Actually, I'm not a bad choice when it comes to child care, even if no one's asked me before. There's nothing wrong with my intellect or judgment, and my steady gig, maintenance at the convent, makes for a flexible schedule. Living on disability, I'm home a lot, and I run a stable household and keep my nose clean. So I'm a poster boy: a drug-free, contributing member with no record of violent episodes. I'm practically a hero. If I don't utterly love life, so what? I don't know anyone who does. Of course, with my scar, I'm not most kids' preferred associate. I decided years ago I had nothing to hide and threw all my caps away, and as my hair's thinned, the dent in my skull has grown more noticeable. Then there's the language thing, but people learn to deal with that. Anyway, it's my impression that kids like talking but care less about being talked to.

These are my thoughts when the front door opens and Ryan steps onto the stoop: a brown-skinned, lanky guy of about nine, with wide-set hazel eyes, tightly curled hair, and a few dark freckles across his nose. He's wearing a clean white T-shirt with long basketball shorts and big white basketball shoes. I've never known who his father was, but it's not me: his dad wasn't Caucasian. And of course, my time with Sylvia was long, long ago, whereas Ryan was the surprise of Sylvia's mid thirties. I watch him bend to scoop up the gray cat, and I notice that his hair, which was a fluffy halo last I saw him, is cut now in a sharp fade. He's more a black kid than a white. I walk over to pat his head, but he flinches when I raise my hand, so I stroke the cat's chin instead. He doesn't greet me.

Sylvia steps toward us. "Caroline doesn't think I should leave him with you," she says unnecessarily. "Like I have so much choice." She eyes us as though we'll disagree, but it's true. Sylvia's circle is barely larger than mine. Ryan says, "Why can't I go with Aunt Caroline?"

Sylvia snorts derisively, and for a moment this seems to be her total response. Then she snaps, "Don't bust Mama's chops right now, you mind?" and in the silence that follows, I'm embarrassed for both of them. "I'm the one who's out of control," she mutters. Caroline touches her elbow, and Sylvia says, "All right, all right," and places her hands on Ryan's shoulders. "Don't you want to stay in school here with your friends? Rather than having to make up a lot of work? Hmm? Isn't that a good idea?" Kneeling before him, she puts on a smile. "Howie has a great big Victorian house and a nice spare bedroom you'll have all to yourself. And there's lots of interesting people living there. So let Mama get her act together, then we'll have such a reunion, 'kay?"

Ryan frowns. He looks down, mumbling something no one can hear. Sylvia says, "Hm?" then "Speak!" and for a moment he looks defiant. He kicks at a leaf that's fluttered to the flagstones, then carefully flattens it with the toe of a sneaker. In his arms, the cat twitches her tail. At last, he leans against Sylvia and whispers.

Sylvia sighs. "Please don't do this. Howie's known you all your life. He loves you a lot." She speaks so Caroline and I can hear, and I smile at Ryan, but I'm relieved when he keeps his face to her shoulder. It's true, of course, that when he was born I went to the hospital, and I even wept as I held him in my arms. But Sylvia knows I wasn't weeping for joy, and she can't think he and I have much of a bond. I see Ryan when his mother calls me - she wants a couch moved, some wood chopped, the cat brought off the roof - and with a task involved, she makes an effort to be cheerful. As for Ryan, he's polite but aloof with me, and I'm carefully polite and amiable toward him. But love? We don't go beyond neutral.

Sylvia says, "You and Howie will do all sorts of guy things. Whatever guys do." She's being comical, but when he remains impassive her voice hardens. "Anyway, buster, it's what's happening, and it's not open to discussion. So let Caroline take Bindi back to Chicago. That's the most she can handle with her great big job." Caroline steps forward, and Ryan shrinks back, hugging the cat. Sylvia says, "Sweetie, there's dogs at Howie's -"

"Not!" I say. This is one word I can dependably force out. The only dog at our place is Laurel's French bull, who's too chubby and placid ever to mix it up with Bindi, so I nod and reach for the cat myself. But Caroline only hands me an envelope she's fished from her bag. I think I recognize "Sylvia Mohr" written on the outside, but I don't take time to puzzle out all the letters: the address and phone number of the facility, I suppose. Inside the envelope, a business card is folded between three hundred-dollar bills. I wonder how they came up with the figure.

I offer the money back to Caroline. I can cover the kid's meals, and I won't have it thought that my friendship's for hire. But Caroline tucks Bindi under an arm and waves the bills away, flapping her hand as if I might not understand. Ryan and Sylvia observe this spectacle, then Sylvia snorts again. "Caro," she says. "Howie's not deaf. If you spoke, I bet he'd hear you."

Caroline reddens. "In case of emergency," she says, but now I'm mad. I fling the money at her, and the bills and business card flutter to the ground. The cat yowls, and Caroline winces. As she plucks up the money, a red scratch appears on her forearm. "You can call me anytime," she says grimly, handing back the business card. I'd like to tell her I don't make phone calls.

Sylvia runs her hands down Ryan's brown arms. "You do everything you're told, now. I called the school, left Ms. Monetti a message." Ryan scowls at the road. Sylvia wraps her arms around him, holding him tight for several minutes, and at last he softens and murmurs into her neck. Sylvia sighs, glaring at Caroline. "Satis- fied?" she says. "It must feel damn good, storming in here, uprooting our lives. Because you sure don't give one shit about the cost to me. Or my child."

At this, Ryan pulls away. "Nn-nnng!" he says, and stomps the two steps to the door. He slips into the darkness without a look. As if a gust of wind has blown it, the door slams, rattling the knocker.

"Ryan!" Sylvia wipes her cheek as she stands. She flexes her fingers, then suddenly embraces me, too. "You're always there for me, Howie," she mumbles, and as I touch her waist I feel how thin she's gotten. I doubt she's been this thin since high school, and I remember the bus station when she saw me off. I tried not to cry because she was already sobbing harder than I'd seen anyone cry in my whole life, and I wanted her to remember me strong, in case she never saw me again. But that was all teen swagger; I never really imagined what could happen. The last thing I said was "I'll come back soon," and who knew it wasn't a quick return I should have wished for, but a slow one? A full year's tour of duty, unscathed.

I can't be mad at Sylvia. Touching a hand to her hair, I offer a quick peck to say we'll be waiting, but she's already stepped away. Caroline stands beside the red Chrysler, and with expert gestures she folds Bindi into a cat carrier and places the carrier on the back seat. Sylvia piles the crumpled bags in the trunk and slams the lid, then looks at the house, her hands on her hips. "Ryan!" The door does not open. I scan the three larger windows, plus the small, pebbled window of the bath, and I can see various decorative objects - a dried flower arrangement, a souvenir doll from Central America-but no movement within. Sylvia calls out again and takes a step toward the house.

Caroline says, "Maybe I should get him." She looks at her watch. "No, let's go." Sylvia's mouth twitches, and dark blotches color her cheeks. She looks truly haggard. "Before I change my - Let's just go, goddamn it. If he can't -" She blinks as Caroline starts the ignition, then she slips in on the passenger's side. For a moment, once her door's closed, it looks as if she might call out again. She opens her mouth and leans from the window, then turns abruptly, chin up, and scowls straight ahead. The Chrysler inches forward, and I give a wave nobody sees. Then she's gone.

I turn toward the house, wondering if the boy has locked himself in his room, and what Sylvia expects me to do if he has. But the front door opens, and out he comes, lugging a suitcase with a panel of embroidered flowers on one side. He's put on a dark blue Indians cap, and the visor makes a tight curve across his brow. I take the suitcase from him, checking as I do to see if he's crying, but his face is a single, concentrated frown. He runs back to lock the front door, slides the key under a flowerpot, and climbs silently into the cab. I pull out of Sylvia's road, and when I turn right, toward home, Ryan points to the left. "My school's thataway," he says.

"Not," I tell him. The day his mom enters rehab is one day a kid should be permitted to play hooky. "Na," I say, without meaning to speak at all.

Ryan gazes noncommittally from across the seat. "Are you a retard?" he says.

Excerpted from The Ha-Ha © Copyright 2012 by Dave King. Reprinted with permission by Little, Brown. All rights reserved.

The Ha-Ha
by by Dave King

  • Genres: Fiction
  • paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books
  • ISBN-10: 0316010715
  • ISBN-13: 9780316010719