The Next Step
Mother and Daddy are always fighting when Teddy gets home. They fight about Daddy being on the road, as a jazz pianist, or Mother wanting to become an actress. How hard it is to pay the bills. Never do they argue about Teddy and how to parent properly. He’s a shadow in the corner. Then again, he’s not home all that often.
He has friends, and they go to movies and imagine themselves being detectives, hunting down criminals, interrogating them with the no-nonsense brusqueness that will earn them respect. They ride bikes and imagine what it means to be famous, to distinguish themselves from the rest. They relish these chances to assume other identities, to wear their fathers’ oversized trench-coats and traipse down Fifth Street. Sometimes when he wears Daddy’s coat, he imagines that he’s on the road, playing piano, like he is, imagines people being moved by Daddy’s music, people with their own little lives. He can’t help but wonder why Mother is so upset.
Today, Teddy goes to get himself a snack. He is twelve, brown-haired, with a foppish haircut and a hawkish nose. He has come from piano lessons, where he’s been trying to play Debussy’s “Claire De Lune” a piece his parents used to love once, when they were young. His parents are there, in that little blue-walled kitchen with the calendar and the china-blue plates, and the little wooden cupboards. It smells like grease and cigarette smoke and soap.
“Damn it, someone’s got to keep an eye on the house,” Daddy says, sorting through a stack of sheet music. He is growing a beard, an uneven mass of hair upon his chin.
“Well, why don’t I go on the road? You can deal with the house.” Mother pours herself a martini, lips pursed. She has a thin oval face and wide, owl-like blue eyes. “I’m stuck at home, Dick. I have to keep this house together, like some goddamn queen. I have to clean up, plan the dinners and all that, while you play jazz and have your fun.”
“Well, Margaret, that’s your job. You knew what you were getting into when you married.”
“No, Dick, I didn’t.” She arches a narrow eyebrow. “You went off the rails, with your plans. You always said your fame was around the corner. We’ve been married fifteen years, Dick. Where’s the fame? The big house? Don’t tell me. I know. The agents don’t recognize your unique playing technique. You can’t accept your limitations.”
“Go fuck yourself, Margaret.”
Mother notices Teddy and motions for him to join her. She brushes a strand of hair from his face, and frowns.
“Teddy, darling,” she says. She smells like reefer and waxy lipstick, which Teddy finds oddly soothing. “Answer a question for Daddy. Don’t you want Mother to be happy?”
“You don’t have to old sport,” Daddy says. “There’s no need for nonsense.”
Teddy looks between them, at Daddy in his black turtleneck and rakishly turned beret, Mother in her lavender dress, with her sleek blonde hair. Their eyes bear into him, wearing a kind of tense expectancy. This is the first time they’ve paid attention in weeks. Regardless of how he answers, he’ll displease someone, setting their lives into a downward spiral. He doesn’t know where they’ll end up and that scares him. Divorced? Divorce is one of those words that he hears whispered by housewives, as though it’s an illness. He doesn’t want people looking at him funny, as though he’s a freak. Adults do that anyway.
At least now, he thinks, these arguments have a certain consistency, an oddly comforting thought. Besides, he doesn’t know where he’d end up. Maybe in boarding school, a place that seems as frightening as the Soviets.
“I guess. I have homework.”
Mother shakes her head.
“Great,” she says. “Is that all you can say? Who looks after you when your father’s having fun? Is that all? What if I left, Teddy? You wouldn’t care, would you?”
“Don’t pay attention.” Dad pretends to smile. “She’s just blowing things out of proportion. Like always. You’re my son, Teddy.”
“Tell me, Teddy,” Mother says. “What would you do if I left?”
“Jesus, Margaret. Enough.” Daddy winks at Teddy and turns back to his music.
“Well?” Mother looks out the window, and then back to Teddy, as though she might leave.
“Would you have a party? Would you bring your buddies over and take over the house?”
Teddy hangs his head, looks outside the kitchen window. A car sputters loudly. A mother and son walk down the street, lined by little rows of identical frame-houses. The son takes his mother by the hand. She makes a face at him, their laughter rising into the little kitchen. He doesn’t know what they’re laughing about, but it must be something light, inconsequential and yet something wonderful to their lives. Maybe something the boy’s teacher did or said, or how a friend got in trouble. Maybe they’re joking over things the boy did when he was younger, like running around naked.
“Great,” Mother says. “That’s your wisdom. Go ahead and do your homework, Teddy. I thought you could be an adult You should be able to help your old mother out. Go on.”
Teddy hears voices, a discordant stream. He makes out the words, but their meanings are indiscernible, like they’re speaking French. He wishes they could pretend, like other families, pretend that everything was neatly packaged in their lives, the routines, the way they lived, all of it. He’d rather have pretend parents tell him they loved him, a pretend mother to come in at night and ask how his day was, while she blows spires of cigarettes smoke, like a movie. He’d love a pretend mother who smells like perfume when she hugs him, who makes him feel like the world is a distant, irrelevant entity. He wants a pretend dad to teach him how to jazz up his musical skills, and tell him how proud he is that his son’s following in his footsteps.
The pretend parents aren’t forthcoming. In his little room, with the view of that huge oak tree with the skeleton branches, his Hardy Boys books, and his Baby Ben clock ticking softly on the nightstand, he thinks of this. He recalls a time, when he was little, when his parents seemed to be together. They’d laughed over music and movies. His mother had always kissed his father, called him “our own Erroll Garner.” But even then, he didn’t know where he’d fit in. They’d gone through the rituals of loving him then, but he’d detected a kind of awkwardness, as if they couldn’t even pretend.
The only way to bring out the pretend parents is to do something, something big. Teddy knows friends who’ve tried to run away. No one takes that seriously, though. They just kissed and hugged them, and punished them right after. Maybe he should steal some of Mother’s reefer. That’s not enough either.
The meek might inherit the Earth, but the aggressive inherit the moment. That’s what Daddy always said every time he went out on the road, playing in those mysterious bars and pool halls, in little unnamed towns. Teddy needs to inherit the moment. He looks out the window
Teddy’s room is part of a little gable on the second-floor. He slowly crawls out his window, and onto the narrow ledge at the base of that gable, hands gripping the wall. He takes small, tentative steps until he’s standing just above the gutters, looking out at the little town.
He tries to imagine who he’s escaping this time. Would they be jewel thieves? No. Kidnappers. Kidnappers who don’t know what the hell to do with the child, A child whose parents are out their worrying somewhere. He pictures them weeping in some dark police station, the mother clutching a handkerchief. Maybe even a loving sister there. Teddy’s always wanted a big sister. To make it perfect, his mother would faint, and have to be revived by a burly cop. The father would be out traversing the highways, the motels, the hidden dives, swerving between death and determination. The thought of his parents like this makes him want to laugh and cry.
He finds a foothold where the roof slopes to the gutters. He wishes it was higher, but he likes it. He sits up there for an hour, watching the dusk wash over him, the sky painted in broad swishes of lavender, pink, and orange, the moon rising slowly, deliberately. The town laid out, the lights flickering over the jagged hillsides like a kind of gentle torchlight procession.
Silhouettes move around in the houses, women and men, and children playing with their toys, television screens flickering blue in the dusk, a palette of soft lavender, bright orange and pink. Teddy wonders what kinds of lives these people lead, wonders if they ever fell in love like his own parents, then fell out of it. He wonders how this is possible, how people can transform themselves, so slowly. He wonders if he’ll be like them too, with his own wife and children. He thinks he won’t have them, but who knows? Will he be a piano player like Daddy? A lawyer or businessman, like his friends’ fathers? He doesn’t know. It frightens him.
An hour later, his parents are outside, pointing up at the roof. Or the people who claim to be his parents. Watching him. He wonders what they’re thinking. They keep shouting at him, telling him to get down. They don’t have time for the bullshit. That just gives him a sort of resolve he hasn’t known. He wishes he could go higher and higher, until everyone is just a small speck beneath him.
“Teddy,” Mother shouts. “Get down here. I don’t need this now. Not now, darling. Not with all this, all right? Your father’s already worn me out today.”
“We can talk, old sport,:” Daddy says. “Just get the hell down.”
He takes a step forward and shakes his head.
“What about me?” he says.
Mother’s lips form a gaping O. His father grips Mother’s arm. They shout, at each other. At him. He picks up “bad mother” and “bad father” but they’re together, watching him. Wondering what his next step is.
About the Author:
Mir-Yashar is a graduate of Boise State University, with a BA in political science. He currently attends Colorado State's MFA program in fiction. His short-stories have been published or are forthcoming in The Fat City Review, Postcard Shorts, The Bookends Review, Apocrypha and Abstractions, Microfiction Monday, The Turk's Head Review, Monkeybicycle, Blue Lake Review, The Molotov Cocktail, Brilliant Flash Fiction, FRXTL, Extract (s): Daily Dose of Lit, the NewerYork Press, The Linnet's Wings, The Linden Avenue Literary Journal, and Straylight Literary Magazine. He lives in Fort Collins, Colorado and loves The Big Lebowski, playing the piano and going for walks.