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Jan/Feb 2010 Fiction

The Gulf Between Us

by D. E. Fredd


It would be hard to say which of us has screwed up Zack more. If I were to blame Denise for his obsessions and phobias it might sound too self-serving. Since our divorce seven years ago, she has had primary custody. The parade of "uncles" that have flitted in and out of the home cannot be good. Dee is highly strung, something of an alarmist. Spilling a glass of milk gets the same emotional and verbal outburst as seeing a puppy run over.

But my hands are not clean in the matter. I've just left the U. S. Navy after twenty years, most of it on carrier duty during the Gulf conflicts so my contact with Zack since we had him has been limited. I send gifts and cards and, when I'm in the states, I stop by. Admittedly, I could have done more.

But I feel uncomfortable around him. As he grew I thought it would get better, but now he's coming up on eleven. During my short visits the past few years, he's been even more distant. Dee says he's that way with everyone. Talking with him is like striking up a conversation with someone about to undergo oral surgery.

At least Denise and I are on decent terms. On my last leave, I spent a weekend with them. I slept on her couch, and we kicked a soccer ball around in the back yard as a family. It was nice, but it was tough to tell whether Zack enjoyed it. Dee and I both felt he'd rather be somewhere else.

Temporarily I'm living in my parents' old house in Townsend, Massachusetts while looking for a job. I'm fifteen miles from Zack. I was an aviation weapons officer. Not much call for that in civilian life around here. I've got a military pension so money to sustain a modest life style is not an issue.

Denise talked my ear off the other night. Dee wants me to stay in the area so I can be near Zack. He needs a male figure in his life. Perhaps I could substitute teach. She has a friend who does that. She's obsessed about "the talk" fathers have with their sons concerning sex. She can't bring herself to bring the subject up.

He's not doing well in school. The other kids pick on him. He's been taken out of the regular class room and put with a special ed teacher, Mrs. Logan. She's the only one he relates to and even that's a stretch. Basically, he sits in the back of her room and does what he wants which often involves taking copious notes from various web sites on the computer. His back pack is filled with manila folders and yellow pads devoted to arcane projects he's into, one of which is war history. Perhaps that is my influence. He is very much into copying out the opening pages of novels. He loves literary classics, the kind where the first letter on page one is a scrolled, ornate thing. He will sit for hours like a sixteenth century monk and, using magic markers, recreate the design.

He's been tested for autism and it was ruled out. Dee thinks he has obsessive-compulsive disorder, but the school psychologist isn't sure yet. He is a cleanliness freak of the first order. Kids torment him by touching or blowing on his food in the cafeteria or pretending to cough and sneeze on him. Isolation in the special education room is the only way to get him to go to school.

Denise and I have come up with a plan. His birthday is coming up. A trip, just he and I, will foster a male bonding experience. Dee has scouted a family resort, Indian Head, in Lincoln, New Hampshire. I recently bought a motorcycle, and Lincoln is a leisurely three hour drive from Massachusetts. There are plenty of kid activities he might like. I agree to do it, but it's Dee's job to sell him on the idea. He hates to leave home in general and his room in particular.

 

I am seeing Karen Robichaud. She is ex-military too, a surgical nurse now working full time at Nashoba General. We're both in our late thirties and battle savvy from enough past relationships to better know how to survive another. I can tell from her voice she's upset about not going to Indian Head. I got back stateside a month ago. She and I have never been away together. For the past year we have been aficionados of cyber-sex. She'd like to get to know me better. She wants to meet Zack. She asks me what he's like. I respond by saying, "He's not your typical eleven year old which certainly wins the understatement of the year award."

I think Karen may harbor thoughts of Dee and me getting back together. I admit I've thought about it. I enjoy it when I'm with Denise and Zack, my family such as it is. The sound of saying the phrase "my son" also pleases me.

 

I have high expectations for my weekend with Zack. If we leave by seven, we can get to Polly's Pancake Parlor by ten. It's a tourist trap, but I think he'll love the atmosphere. We can't check in until three so they'll be plenty of leisure time to explore the Kangamagus Highway and hike along the boulder-strewn Swift River.

When I pull up on my bike, he is huddled on the porch clutching his backpack as if it were a life preserver. He cringes when I rev the engine a few times. Dee comes out with a big smile on her face. She is hoping her enthusiasm will rub off on him. It doesn't. I hop off and proudly show him the helmet and leather jacket I got him for his birthday. He accepts the helmet begrudgingly and slips the jacket on over his ragged Red Sox sweatshirt. My gifts are way too big. Dee helps out by saying what expensive presents daddy got for him, and he'll grow so fast that soon they will be too big for him. I put him on the bike. He is in rag doll mode. However you place him he sort of stays. I offer to put the backpack in the rear storage but he'll have none of it. He's brought along a medium-sized stuffed animal that is somewhat the worst for wear having only one button for the right eye. The military personality in me wants to grab it from him, toss it the garbage and tell him to shape up or ship out in rather graphic language. I compromise and we tuck it next to his chest as I zip up the jacket.

I give him a quick course on how to lean into a turn. We work out a code—two taps on my right or left shoulder to look at something in that direction; I'll do the same on his knees. Three hard slaps on the back if he wants to stop. I decide we'll make a trial run up the road until he gets the hang of it. I start slowly out the driveway and then ease into the road going no more that twenty-five. He grabs my waist with his little arms, his hand squeezing my ever expanding love handles until they hurt. I glance back. He is clinging to me as if I were the face of a cliff, afraid to look left, right or down for fear of falling. Within ten minutes we are back in the driveway. He is so petrified he won't get off. Denise comes out on the porch. I lift him off and see that he has wet his pants. Dee comes down and takes him into the house.

I wonder if it's not too late to scrap Zack's outing, call Karen and ask her to go up to Indian Head with me. I pull my cell phone out and begin to look for her number when Zack reappears in fresh sweat pants. Denise follows him and wonders out loud if we shouldn't use a car to make the trip. She squats beside Zack, finger combing his hair in a motherly fashion. "Wouldn't that be fun, Zackee? You and daddy listening to audio books in the car like you do when you're with mommy when we go to nana's?"

Zack nods his agreement after some gentle prodding on Dee's part. Evidently the choice between the Harley and my Honda Accord is like being drawn and quartered or opting for a more humane lethal injection. I can see he wants no part of this trip, but I'm not conceding defeat yet. I hop on my bike and tell them I'll be back in a half an hour with the car.

 

He won't ride in the passenger seat. He cites statistics on the death rate for that position. Therefore he and his "Teddy" ride in the back, seat-belted to the max. I try to have a conversation, probing what school is like, his interests and such. It is slow going, but I am patient with his monosyllabic answers. He has the habit of calling me sir. I correct him by saying Dad or Jim is what I prefer. He makes an attempt but gets it wrong fifty percent of the time.

Things go better when he asks me questions. He wants to know if I've ever killed anyone while in the navy. I'm damned whichever way I answer. If I say no, then his eleven year old, World Wide Wrestling Federation mind may typecast me as a wimp. If I say I have, then I run the risk of being perceived as a blood lusting monster. I decide to circumvent the situation by telling him that my job entailed looking at surveillance photographs from spy planes and satellites, assessing targets and briefing carrier pilots on what weapons are best for each mission. There are many follow-up questions here. He seems very interested in aircraft. He takes out his notebook and makes several notations. He holds the pen as if it were a dagger when he writes. It's an agonizingly slow process, and he looks mildly retarded even if I allow for the rear view mirror factor.

After the first hour he opens up. He's like one of those toy cars that you rev the wheels on a rug many times to build up kinetic energy and then it shoots off on its own. He's quite the expert in ancient warfare. He explains the structure of the Roman army. He draws "the turtle" where men line up shield to shield to become a metal box, almost like a tank. He passes the paper up to me and, disregarding seat belt, leans over to add verbal details of elements he couldn't draw in.

I decide to bypass Polly's as there would be a long line at 11:30 AM so I pull into a place called the Wayside Diner. He is reluctant to go in. He clings to me as if I had a gun to his back and we need to walk in lockstep. As I look over the menu, he digs an inhaler out from the depths of his backpack and begins puffing on it. I order the cheeseburger special. He's not hungry. The waitress asks if he'd like a soda. They have Pepsi, but he only drinks Coke. The former gives him "the burps."

When my meal comes I offer him some fries. He cites studies on trans fats and what fried food does to the circulatory system. He's intrigued by the juke box. He knows nothing about the artists or songs. He recently did a report on Mozart so I listen to him spout that out. As I finish up, I express an interest in ice cream. The waitress brings him a small dish of vanilla. One small spoonful makes his teeth hurt. He wants to use the rest room before we leave but after a few minutes he comes back because it smells and is too dirty for him to go.

When we get out to the car he tells me he really has to go. Now I know what Denise has to put up with. I have poor negotiation skills. I'm used to giving orders, but smart enough to know that style won't work here. I present three options: the diner, the woods or hold it. Neither works for him. He fears the woods. Animals will bite his weenie off. Finally I go back inside and ask for a paper cup. In the privacy of the back seat he takes a wizz. At thirty-eight years of age I find myself transporting his urine to the edge of the parking lot and dumping it. A couple walking their miniature schnauzer watches me with interest.

Back on the road he senses my frustration and shuts down again. There is little conversation save for some questions about how far from home we are. He perks up when I ask him what he does during a typical day. Basically, it boils down to going from his room at home to one at school and back home again. He likes to look stuff up. I ask about sports. He enjoys listening to baseball games on the radio, but never plays, doesn't even have or want a glove. He tells me about players who have been killed by getting hit with the ball, Ray Chapman back in 1920 is his key evidence.

We arrive at Indian Head. It's too early to check in, but the main attraction is a tall tower from which one can see for miles. He is afraid. I suggest we just go up a few steps. He climbs five then comes back down. What about if I carry him piggy back? He reluctantly agrees. Half way up he coughs and I smell vomit. When we get back to earth, he is crying. He's sorry for throwing up on me, but he can't help it. It happens when he gets nervous.

At 2:00 PM I browbeat the desk clerk for our room. We check in and he investigates the TV while I shower. When I come out he's at peace with The History Channel's docudrama on Caesar's invasion of Britannia.

By six I am starved, but he won't eat because he might puke again. He tells me that last year he barfed on Mom's friend Carl while being given a horsy ride in the living room. I don't want to know who Carl is, but strongly urge him to go with me to the dining room. I tell him I hate to eat alone.

I'm in luck as they have Coca Cola. He drinks a full glass and is ecstatic over the free refills policy. He wants to know if he sat here all night would they would keep giving him soda. We plumb the legal and moral depths of that issue for fifteen minutes.

I have the prime rib. He won't take a bite but does eye my baked potato. I give him half and he wolfs it down. They have a karaoke machine. A few kids get up and sing. He enjoys it. A woman about my age with huge breasts takes the mike and does a decent rendition of "That Old Black Magic." When the stage returns to silence I bring up the topic of sex. I ask him if he's seen any girls with breasts bigger than the singer's. Surprisingly, he is not shy. Once, when his art teacher bent down, he could see her titties. And mom sometimes doesn't tie her robe when she comes out of the shower. I ask if he's noticed any changes in his body, and he tells me that his right leg hurts even when he's not doing anything. I want to get back to sex, but the bandstand is taken over by a grandfather who enlists the singing aid of his two granddaughters while inviting the audience to join in during the chorus. Zack is enthralled. I put the rest of my baked potato on his plate and beckon the waitress for more Coke. He attacks the potato with relish, using five butter pats and several dollops of sour cream.

By nine karaoke is over with. A band has begun to set up for the evening drinking crowd. I can see he is tired so we go back to the room. It takes him twenty minutes in the bathroom to get ready for bed. He is stunned that I sleep in my underwear. I want to lie in bed with the lights out and talk. He wants to watch The History Channel. It's a repeat of the same program that was on this afternoon, but he needs to watch it again so he can take notes. He sits cross legged on the bed with his notebooks and that stupid way of writing. I roll over reminding him to turn out the lights and shut off the TV when he's done.

I am awakened much later by a strange sound. It's a little after eleven. The toilet flushes. I close my eyes. The toilet flushes again. He comes out of the bathroom crying.

"What's wrong Zack?"

He won't tell me. He crawls into bed and pulls the cover over his head. I get up and go into the bathroom. His pajama bottoms are soaking in the tub.

"Zack, are you sick?"

"I've got the squits. I don't have any extra pants."

He barely finishes the sentence before bolting out of bed, a bath towel around his waist and running by me to use the toilet again.

Ten minutes later he opens the door. He goes back to bed without looking at me. "Maybe we should head back home, Zack."
There is no answer but his sniffling stops. The covers swing back and he pokes his head out. I make up a lie. "I'm not feeling that well either, more of an upset stomach than the problem you have. Maybe it was something we ate?"

He sits up. For once in my life I've said the correct thing. Misery loves company. He thinks it might have been the sour cream he had on his potato. I think so as well, put my arm around him and say, "Boy what a fine pair of campers we turned out to be."

I feed him Pepto-Bismol as we pack. By midnight we are in the car heading home. He cracks the back window to let the air hit his face. He reports feeling better. I pull into a rest stop as a precaution, but he insists he's fine. I get a can of Coke from a machine, and he delights in it. As we press on to Massachusetts, he becomes expansive. This is the latest he's ever been out. Since he really didn't sleep tonight he calculates that he has been awake for twenty hours, just like soldiers who have to keep awake watching for an attack. He tells me about Fort Sumter a propos of nothing.

"The Rebs shot 4000 shells into it and guess how many were killed?"

"I have no idea."

"Guess."

"Nine hundred."

He howls with laughter. "No, silly, the Yankees didn't even have that many staying there. It was none, no one was killed. Can you imagine that?"

I agree that I can't and interrupt the narrative to call Denise. It's three in the morning so, when she answers, I preface my remarks by saying that nothing is wrong. She sounds groggy, but I sense there is someone else in the bed with her. "We're about forty-five minutes away. We have to abort the trip as we both are a little under the weather, something we ate at dinner." He pipes up from the back seat.

"Tell her it was sour cream."

"Zack thinks it was the sour cream on our baked potato that did us in."

I hear a masculine cough on her end. "He's had sour cream many times and it's never bothered him."

"I know. We'll talk about it in a bit. Just wanted to give you a heads up that we're coming back."

There a brief pause. "I appreciate it and, Jim... thanks."

I hang up. "Was she worried about me?"

"You know how women are, Zack, they like to worry about everything."

He laughs. It's the first time he's done it all trip. "Did mom worry about you when you lived with us?"

"It was more when I was away. I don't think she ever understood what goes on in the military or what war is."

"I read a book about the Amazon ladies. They were Greek girls who fought battles."

I listen to him prattle on until sleep overtakes him in mid-myth a few miles from home.

 

Dee is framed in the front porch's yellow light when I pull up. I passed a car on Route 119 which may have been her near-overnight guest. I was always impressed by how quickly she could get dressed and make herself decent in a short period of time. I carry Zack into the house, up the stairs and put him to bed. When I come down Denise has the kettle on for tea.

"Okay, give me the disaster report."

"There's not much to say. He's afraid of everything. He threw up on me during the afternoon and got diarrhea last night. The best part of the trip from his perspective was coming home; that was the only time I saw him relax a bit and enjoy himself. The only bonding we did was when I pretended to be sick as well."

She dropped tea bags into our cups and put some cookies on a plate. One of the few things we had in common while married was the English custom of tea and biscuits. "What are we going to do with him?"

There was no emotion in her voice. It was flat and tired not only due to the hour but more of the constant battle she must have waged every day.

"Have you ever seen him happy?"

"He seems content when he's in his room looking up stuff. Sometimes he'll run down here to the kitchen and tell me weird statistics or stories, mostly about war which is undoubtedly your influence. He might be the only kid close to his age who knows the difference between Sunni and Shiites. His prize possession is a plastic model of that Warthog plane you sent him a few years ago. He wants to be you but..."

She began crying. It was her history to hold emotion in until the last possible minute and then the dam would burst causing a flood. I patted her hand.

"What about food? Is there anything he likes other than Coke?"

She grabbed a paper towel from the roll under the kitchen cabinets and blew her nose in short, quick, unfeminine bursts then sat down. "Every time I take him to my mother's she makes pancakes using buttermilk. They really are delicious, light and tasty. She uses real fruit and maple syrup. He wants them for breakfast, lunch and supper."

I got up and dumped the tea in the sink. "Okay, when he wakes up we'll make pancakes for him. Maybe have him help us."

It was well past five and the sun was coming up, a few rays reflected off the countertop and hit her in the eyes as she turned to face me. "I have no clue how to make buttermilk pancakes and wouldn't even know where to get some at this hour."

I sat back down. "I think Hannaford opens at seven. I'll try there. He'll be out like a light until nine at least. You look up recipes on the net."

She'd stopped crying as suddenly as she'd started. "What if they don't turn out right? Once I tried to make some and they were as hard as trivets."

"It doesn't matter, put enough syrup on anything and most kids will eat it."

"And if it works, what about the day after tomorrow and the day after that? Do we keep making pancakes every morning?"

I stood behind her chair and put my hands on her shoulders. "I guess."

She slumped forward and cradled her head in her arms, her voice muffled. "You don't know what it's like, Jim, day after day. When you put out one fire he starts another one. Nothing's going to work if you're not around to see it through. Today you just got a taste of what I put up with. You drop by a few times a year, stay for a day or two and then go back to the Gulf to keep the world safe for democracy. Everyone shakes your hand, buys you drinks and pats you on the back. It's a great photo op. But multiply by ten what you put up with today, and that's my life—every day. I keep a spare change of his clothes in the car so when I'm out doing errands or at work and the school calls to say he's soiled himself, I can drive right over. I have no life because of him. I came this close to waking up with a man next to me, the first one in over two years, and then you called. So you can make pancakes today, and I'll put on my happy face, but unless you're in this thing for the long haul, I'd just as soon you'd drop off the planet, because it's not fair to him or me."

I stood there and took her criticism. I don't think she could ever know what I saw and went through while overseas, but it was true that I had little idea about her life. And this wasn't the time to debate it. I patted her shoulder. "I'll be more involved; consider me reporting for duty as of right now."

She pushed her chair back, sighed and got up. I think she was going to say something about my use of the word "duty" but stopped herself. "He likes orange juice, but it can't have pulp in it or be from concentrate. And I suppose he told you about the dangers of liquids in plastic bottles."

"I thought it only was Coke in plastic that was an issue?"

"Welcome to my Iraq and Afghanistan, Lieutenant. I'm going back to bed for a few minutes. Wake me when you get back from your foray to Hannaford's."

She gave me a mock salute and trudged up the stairs. Part of me wanted to follow her, but that would be a misguided strategy of epic proportion. Operation Zachary was my only mission for the foreseeable future.

 

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