He ran a finger around the inside of his collar before ringing the doorbell. It was unseasonably warm for this time of year, he noted. The door opened.
Hiya, Chief! Long time, no see! Cmon in. He offered Mildred a wan smile and stepped past her into the living room.
So, are you ready for this? she asked him with a grin.
Not really, he said, hoping shed take it for a joke. But Mildred knew him far too well for that.
Look, Chief, its gonna be o.k. Just remember, he really wants to meet you. Youve got nothing to worry about here. Youll do great.
Of course. Its just
Just what, Chief?
Oh, Lord, I suppose I owe Daniel one hell of an apology, dont I?
Yeah, she chuckled, I guess you do. Turnabout is fair play and all that. On the other hand, look at it this way. You were, what, 12 or 13 when Daniel finally caught up with you?
Something like that, maybe younger, I dont know.
Well, he had good reason to be worried. At that age you couldve knocked him down and done the funky chicken all over him. But this little guy, the most hes gonna be able to do is kick you in the shins and hide behind the couch. And, while Ill admit the kid can scoot when he wants to, your legs are longer than his. I think you can handle just about anything he can dish out, right?
Right, he said, not feeling certain of that in the slightest.
Buck up, Chief. Its gonna be just fine. She threw him a smile and went to the foot of the stairs. Harry! Hey, kiddo, cmon down here. I got somebody for you to meet.
He had a scant moment to brace himself, and then he was facing his son. The child stood poised at the top of the stairs, a sturdy youngster in a blue T-shirt and jeans. He looked at Mildred.
Cmon down here, kiddo. Mildred held out an encouraging hand and the boy trotted obediently down the stairs and took it, his crystal blue eyes seeking out his father in curiosity.
Ah, well, Im here to pick you up.
Uh-uh. My Mommys comin to pick me up.
Well, Mommy sent me, you see. She thought you and I should get to know one another.
Uh-uh, the boy repeated, this time looking alarmed. I go home with my Mommy, not you! He ducked quickly behind Mildred, who looked totally confused.
Now, how can Mommy come pick you up, his father asked in a calm voice, if I have her car here? The little face peeked out at him from around Mildreds arm.
No you dont!
His father nodded toward the picture window. Its right out there. See for yourself.
The child hesitated for a long moment. At last his curiosity got the better of him and he darted to the window. Looking out, his small shoulders slumped and he turned to face the two adults.
How come you got my Mommys car?
She wanted me to pick you up.
No! The little boy suddenly dived back behind Mildred. I not go with you! No!
Hey, Little Chief, hey! Mildred began to pull him out from behind her with a worried frown.
Mildred, its o.k. Relax She gave him a doubtful look, but subsided.
Harry, you know what?
What? His son eyed him with suspicion.
I bet I know whats wrong. You just dont want to get into a car with a stranger, right? The boy gave a solemn little nod. And thats fine. I wouldnt want you to just get into a car with someone you didnt know. So you know what I think we should do?
I think we should call Mommy and let you talk to her yourself. What do you think?
Harry twisted around to look up at Mildred. Can we? Can we call Mommy? Right now?
She shot his father a dubious look and then nodded. Sure, honey. We can call her. She picked up the phone and dialed it, then handed Harry the receiver. There was a brief pause.
Mommy? Its me, Harry. Yeah, Im o.k., Im at Auntie Mildreds. An Mommy, theres a big man here an he says Im gonna go with him an I said yeah, but No! I dont wanna! Yeah uh-huh Yeah well, o.k. His face clouded over. But I dont like it!
He slammed the receiver down on the table and faced his father, small hands braced on his hips. Mildred replaced the receiver and gently rubbed his back.
So, what did your Mom have to say? she asked.
She said I hadda go with him. She said he was gonna buy me ice cream. She said we were gonna be friends.
Well, you dont sound too friendly, Sport, Mildred noted.
I dont like him!
Thats all right, Mildred, his father said, laughing gently. As long as he likes ice cream.
Look, why dont you run upstairs and get your stuff and Ill get those cookies ready, o.k.? Mildred smiled encouragingly and, with one last backward glare, the child bolted back upstairs. Mildred sank down onto her couch, shaking her head.
I dont understand it, Chief. I mean, I didnt think hed take it like that.
Well, he hasnt taken anything yet, Mildred, has he? His father gazed at the empty staircase with a look of near wonder. No ones really told him anything.
But you will, Mildred said gently. She stood up and headed for the kitchen. Id better get those cookies ready. We baked, she added over her shoulder.
A few minutes later she was back, with a paper plate covered with foil. The sound of small sneakers was heard on the stair and Harry bounded down, clutching a small overnight bag and a stuffed monkey. He pulled up next to Mildred and eyed his father warily.
I got Joji, he said defensively.
So you do, his father noted. Hello there, Joji.
Hes not talking to you cause he doesnt like you, his son informed him. Auntie Mildred, my picture!
Oh! she said, I almost forgot! A moment later, she placed a large sheet of newsprint into his anxious hands. It contained a smallish blob of colors near the center of the page that had once been red and blue and green, but, after being gone over and over with a wet brush, were closer to a variegated grey.
Thats a nice painting, his father remarked.
Its for my Mommy! came the sullen answer.
And Im sure shell be very pleased with it. He leaned over and gave Mildred a peck on the cheek. Thanks, love. Ill talk to you later, o.k.? Dont worry.
Mildred handed him the plate of cookies.
No! Auntie Mildred! Mine! Gimme! But his father was tall and the cookies remained just out of reach.
Mildred watched him head down the walk towards the car, his son leaping at his heels. Shed been right about the advantage those long legs would give him, she realized and closed the door firmly behind them. It was out of her hands now. She found herself wondering if Joe was home and picked up the phone again.
She fluffed her hair experimentally and twisted left, now right, in front of the mirror. Perhaps the dress was a bit much. She was, after all, planning to arrive during happy hour, and the dress was more suited to later in the evening.
But it went so well with her new shoes.
Grace sighed and flicked one finger against her mascara. Dried at last. Now all she had to do was survive the wait. Another hour or so. Of course, what would it hurt to arrive just a little early, she wondered. Happy Hour started at four, didnt it? No need to wait till sunset. She wasnt a vampire, after all.
And besides, she reasoned, it would give her more time to scope out the pickings. And the competition.
She checked her watch. Still, just a bit too early. She settled on the couch, deliberately ignoring her silent phone. If Reggie hadnt called by now, he wouldnt. And the TV Guide was more interesting than a conversation with him anyway. Shes just spend some quality time with a magazine and then shed find somebody new to spend the rest of her quality time with.
She checked her watch again, and opened a magazine.
Whoever had designed the straps for a childs car seat, he reflected grimly a short time later, could have given the Marquis de Sade a run for his money. And his squirming son wasnt helping in the slightest.
Finally, he untwisted the last strap and freed the child from the infernal contraption. Harry slithered quickly out of the seat and, avoiding his fathers helping hand, jumped out of the car and stood on the sidewalk, looking around him with curiosity. His father shut the car door with a certain extra emphasis.
Hey! We gotta take Joji!
Oh, yes, of course, his father agreed quickly. He had already discovered that Joji was A Very Important Person and must not be ignored. He crawled in over the car seat and retrieved the stuffed monkey from its precarious perch, nose down on the floor, feet up on the seat.
With Joji safely in his arms, Harry was willing to trot obediently at his fathers side, but he kept both hands tightly wrapped around the stuffed monkey, offering his father only a cold shoulder to steer him by.
The pair rounded a corner and nearly collided with another pedestrian.
Sorry about that
Its o.k. The man took a second look. Hey! How goes it? And Harry, I see youve got Joji with you!
Hi, tecive Jarvis. Harry said with friendly confidence. Were gonna get ice cream, me an Joji!
Really? Thats sounds cool. You guys have fun. Good seeing you again. The tall young man sketched a brief wave and continued on his way.
Thats my friend. Harry told his father.
I see that, he responded, wondering what difficulties this meeting might present down the road. Hed never felt comfortable around the eternally boyish homicide detective. Jarvis had always seemed a little too sharp for comfort. Still, that was a worry that could be dealt with at a later time. At the moment
This is it, he said, standing under the candy-striped awning. He held the door open for his small son. Inside the shop, two fans swirled overhead. A few late-afternoon patrons sat at small round tables and on the left, the entire wall was taken up with a long, glass-fronted counter. Harry stretched as high as he could to peer inside the case, his eyes wide as he took in the seemingly endless tubs filled with colorful treats. He moved slowly down the length of the counter, trying to see everything.
Near the far end, he stopped suddenly. Whats that? he demanded.
The counterman came over and stood across from him. That, sonny? Thats mint-chocolate chip.
I want that!
You want that? the counterman asked. You got it. Cone or cup?
His father moved in smoothly. Two cups, please, and Ill take French vanilla. Harry, he tapped his small sons shoulder and pointed at a table against the far wall, why dont you and Joji wait over there at that table and Ill bring over the ice cream, o.k.? He watched as his son moved across the room to climb on the pink-striped chair, placing Joji carefully on the seat next to him. Then he turned back to the counterman to exchange a few, quiet words.
A few moments later, he joined his son at the table.
O.k. Harry, heres your ice cream, and, Joji, heres yours. He placed a small bowl of green-tinted ice cream down in front of the boy and an even smaller taster cup in front of the stuffed monkey, much to Harrys evident delight.
Joji! You got your own ice cream. An your own spoon, too!
His father watched, satisfied, as the child dug into his ice cream with evident relish. For a long while, neither said anything. Finally Harry drew the back of his hand across his mouth and looked up at his father.
You like my Mommy, huh?
Yes I do, very much.
The child considered this for a moment.
You cant do that.
Because of what David said.
What did David say?
Davids Mommy had a man like her, too, an then he came and lived with them an then David never got to see his Daddy anymore an my Daddys comin back someday, so you cant like my Mommy. His son nodded solemnly at him, as if the matter was now settled. He spooned more ice cream into his mouth.
Oh, I see.
For a long moment, neither spoke.
But I like my ice cream. An Joji does, too!
His father smiled at the small globs of green dotting the fuzzy face of the stuffed toy. You know what? he asked.
Weve got something in common.
Whats that mean?
That means weve got something the same. We both like ice cream.
Oh. The child considered this for a moment, then resumed eating his ice cream. He looked up suddenly. What kind you got?
Ive got vanilla. Want to try it? The child nodded and his father offered him a spoonful.
Uh-huh. But I like mine more.
Thats good. For a long moment again, neither said anything.
You know what?
Weve got something else in common.
That means the same, right? The child looked up, a small glob of ice cream dotting his own chin, now.
Our name. The child eyed him warily, but he pressed on. My names Harry Chalmers.
Uh-uh! Thats my name! My Mommy gave me it!
I know she did. But its my name, too.
The child considered this mystery while sucking thoughtfully on his plastic spoon.
How come you got the same name as me?
Because your Mommy gave you my name.
No she didnt! She gave me my Daddys name. She said so!
Thats right, he said, and settled back to eat his ice cream slowly, while this sank in. Finally the child shook his head.
You cant have my name, cause thats my name an my Daddys name. You can have some other name.
Oh, but I had it first, you see.
Because, he said, swirling his ice cream with his spoon and carefully not looking at his son, Im your Daddy.
The boy took this revelation in silence, and swallowed three more spoons of ice cream before saying anything.
An you didnt know about me, huh?
Thats right, but youre a very nice surprise.
Thats what my Mommy said! He spooned more ice cream. Mommys smart.
She certainly is.
And then, for several very long moments, both concentrated on their ice cream, saying nothing at all. Finally, Harry looked up at his father.
What do Daddies do?
What do you mean?
Do Daddies play toys?
Oh, I think Daddies do that.
I got lots of toy cars.
Youre very lucky.
Yeah. More ice cream disappeared.
What else do Daddies do?
Well, they take care of their little boys and they teach them things and they love them a lot..
And sometimes they go for ice cream?
And sometimes they go for ice cream.
Several spoonfuls of ice cream disappeared into the little mouth.
Do Daddies love Mommies?
Yes, some Daddies love Mommies very much.
An some dont?
Thats right, some dont.
Yes it is.
The spoon dipped into the ice cream, disappeared into the mouth and dipped back into the bowl again.
An sometimes Daddies go away?
Yes, but they always come back. Can you remember that?
Yes, the boy said, nodding solemnly. They all the time come back.
There was a long ice-cream-eating pause.
Do Daddies hit?
No, I dont think Daddies should ever hit their little boys. They get angry sometimes, but they never, ever hit. And you know what?"
If anyone ever did hit you, you could tell. Did you know that?
Well, you could. You could tell your Mommy or your Auntie Mildred or your teacher or anybody at all. And you should keep telling until someone believes you. O.k.?
O.k. But the child still looked doubtful, and his father decided to drop the subject. More ice cream was eaten.
Do Daddies live on the moon?
No, I dont think so.
Oh. More ice cream vanished. Thats too bad.
Yes, I guess it is. The ice cream was almost all gone.
Do Daddies have shoes like mine?
His father leaned over to inspect Harrys small sneakers. Yes, they do, but Im not wearing mine today.
The child slid out of his seat and crouched down beside his fathers loafers. Oh. Those are nice, too. Straightening up, he suddenly looked alarmed.
Hey! He tugged his fathers sleeve urgently.
What is it?
I gotta go!
O.k. His father looked around and finally caught the countermans eye. The counterman pointed at a door set in the back wall and he steered his small son through it. Inside, the rooms only other occupant zipped up, nodded companionably, and left. Harry stared after him, eyes wide.
That man is bad!
He was pee-peein on the wall an thats nasty!
His father looked around in wonderment for a moment, then grinned. It seemed his small son had been too long in the sole company of women. No, Harry, its o.k. Hes supposed to do that. This is a special kind of potty, just for men.
Oh! Harrys eyes were still very wide. Can I use it?
His father looked around again until he spotted a small set of movable steps. Yes, I guess so. He pulled the steps into place and lent whatever assistance was needed. Finished, Harry headed for the door, until his father caught at the back of his slacks.
Hold on, there. We have to wash our hands first, o.k.?
O.k. the child agreed and cheerfully allowed himself to be led to the sink.
A few minutes later, while dabbing at the numerous waters spots on Harrys shirt and his own slacks, he grimly considered the fact that fatherhood was a messy proposition and that mens rooms never seemed to have near enough paper towels. Still, he reflected, holding the door open for his small son, everything was a learning experience. Hed just learned not to turn a faucet on full force in the presence of an excited two-year-old, a valuable lesson, worth remembering in the future.
Youd better collect Joji. We have to be going, he told the child. Harry rushed over and gathered up the slightly sticky stuffed animal then headed toward the door at his fathers elbow.
Daddy, wait! He father paused and looked down at his sons troubled face.
What about Mommy?
Mommy likes ice cream, too. An she didnt get none.
Oh, I see. So you think we should take Mommy home some ice cream, he said, mentally wincing as he calculated what was left in his wallet. So hed live without lunch for the next week. It was worth the price of his sons smile.
She likes chocolate ice cream, his son told him earnestly.
Yes, she does, but you know what?
I happen to know that Mommys very favorite ice cream is Rocky Road. What do you say we get her some of that?
Does it have chocolate?
Yes it does.
He turned to the counterman. A pint of Rocky Road, please. A few moments later, the counterman placed a sealed bag on the counter. He hefted it and looked alarmed.
Sir? Excuse me, I think youve made a mistake. The counterman looked back at him. I only asked for a pint. This is a quart.
The counterman slapped his forehead in mock exasperation. Well, wouldja look at that. Ive gone and done it again. Well, too late to do anything about it now. The Board Of Healthd have my license if I put that there ice cream back in the bin. Guess its yours now. He turned away and began polishing the shelf behind the counter.
Sir? Excuse me, sir? The counterman turned back. I havent paid you yet.
Sure you did. You paid me just fine. Have a nice day, now.
Sir! Please, I really havent paid you yet.
The counterman sighed and turned back. Mister, I been in this business 25 years now, and this is the best day I ever had, just watchin you and your son there get acquainted. So I say you paid me for that ice cream. Dont spoil my day now, o.k.?
Yes sir, he said softly. And, thank you.
Thank you, Mr. Ice Cream Man! Harry called out cheerfully, and the counterman smiled and waved as his father led him out the door.
Daddy? Harry said, as his father prepared to do battle once again with the demonic car seat. I like the ice cream man.
So do I, his father said, having finally wrestled the infernal contraption together. In fact, if your Auntie Mildred werent already involved, Id set her up with him. Hes a nice chap.
Uh-huh. Harry observed as his father started the car and pulled away from the curb. But Unca Joe is nice, too. He gived me Joji.
He did, eh? This Joe fellow, he reflected, might bear some checking out. He wondered how much Laura knew about the man shed told him about only that morning, the man who'd been courting Mildred for the past year, then put it out of his mind. He had other things to consider for the evening.
He drove home carefully, thinking about all the changes the past 48 hours had wrought in his life as his son sang an imaginary spider up and down an imaginary waterspout over and over in an atonal drone. At the periphery of his mind, he felt there was something wrong with the song, but he couldnt quite put his finger on it. Time enough for that mystery later as well, he decided.
Hey, Daddy! Do you know the monkeys one?
What monkeys, sweetheart?
Harry threw his head back and began chanting, loudly, FIVE lit-tle MON-keys, JUM-pin ON the BED! ONE fell OFF and BUMPED his HEAD!
Well, it was a change of pace from spiders, he supposed. But by the time he pulled into the driveway at Lauras apartment, the doctor was, for the umpteenth time, warning the monkeys against bed-bouncing in a falsetto shriek, and spiders were looking pretty good again. They didnt shriek at any rate. They just got wet.
After one final tussle with the car-seat, Harry was free. He made a dash for the outside staircase up to Laura's second-floor apartment, leaving his father to struggle along with his overnight bag, his painting, a plateful of cookies and a quart of ice cream.
Mommy! Hey, Mommy! His fathers long legs stretched to catch up, but he was still only halfway up the steep staircase when the door opened and Laura was there, crouched in front of her small son.
Mommy! Guess what?!?
What? she said, smiling broadly in anticipation. He reached the top step and moved over to join them in time to hear his sons next words.
I got to go pee-pee on the wall! An Daddy said it was o.k.! He started to pass her to enter the apartment, then stopped and pointed at his father briefly. Oh! An I got a Daddy, now, too! Then he vanished into the apartment, calling over his shoulder, I gotta go get somethin!
His perplexed parents stared blankly at one another for a moment. Then his fathers face crinkled and turned red. He doubled over, and Laura rose to her feet, alarmed until she heard the first loud hoot of laughter. It was his turn to sink down till he was almost sitting on his heels, rocking back and forth, his hand thrown back, convulsed with laughter.
Will you stop that and talk to me! she demanded.
But it was a few moments longer before he gained enough composure to gasp, If I ever start getting a swelled head about being that childs father, will you kindly remind me that, on the occasion of our first meeting, I came in second to a urinal!
Laura stared at him blankly for another moment, then began to chuckle herself, then gasp and hoot until they were both crouched down in the doorway, rocking with laughter. This was interrupted by a small shower of plastic and metal cars bouncing off their heads and shoulders. The turned to the doorway to see Harry standing there, grinning.
He was going to find out if Daddies really did play cars.
He was sitting on the couch, hands on his thighs, feet together. Pressed, dressed and ready, as his mother might have said. But it was still far too early. That had been his mistake in the past. But it wouldnt be again.
This time he would wait until the moment was right. Until he could be certain. Until she was actually there. Until he could finish it.
But, until then, he would wait. Because patience was a virtue, as his mother might also have said. And it was always important to do the right thing at the right time. This time, he would wait until the right time. No matter what.
And, this time, he would finish it.