Many nights, the boy dreamed about naked farmers that were in a calendar that was stashed in his father’s bottom desk drawer. The calendars were sold every year to raise funds for the National Farmers Union in England, and each month featured a different farmer at work, without his clothes. His father had grown up in the Devon countryside, and the boy wondered if maybe he knew one of these guys. They cradled lambs to cover themselves, or chainsaws or milk buckets, like it was part of their job, the way they went about their work every day. At the end of the boy’s dream, invariably one of the young men would give him a sexy smile and reach out to help him up to his tractor, and they would drive off to go haying. Then the boy would wake up and know he was in his bed and not on a tractor, and that this was the suburbs of Fort Worth.
His father had moved back into the house only a few months ago. A copy of Esquire Magazine came in the mail one day, forwarded from the apartment where he’d been living while he and the boy’s mother were separated. His mother waited until his sister and brother were out of the room and then flipped through the magazine as though she expected to find smut instead of a style and culture guide for the sophisticated American male. “I don’t know why he has to look at this.” Then she stashed it underneath a stack of House & Garden magazines in a cupboard. The boy wanted to ask what she meant but he didn’t. She might think he was asking because he wanted to see it, too.
He could never imagine his parents lying together, naked.
His father began to spend more time at his law office, working late almost every day. A few months later, just after the boy turned 14, his father moved out for the second and final time.
Mostly, the boy kept to himself. To his sister and younger brother, it seemed as though he was always moody, and then he would be in a rage all at once, for no reason at all. They told their mother that they couldn’t stand to be around him. He found an ad for a military academy in the back of his mother’s Family Circle. There was a picture of a smiling clean-cut young cadet. “Help your son realize his full potential.” He placed the opened magazine on his desk, hoping she would see it and realize how unhappy he must be. She never did.
Things didn’t change much with his father gone. He and his sister and brother continued to live with their mother where they had always lived, in the same neighborhood. Same church, same school. Same people he had always known. Jonetta, their housekeeper, continued to show up for work every morning at 7:45. When his mother came home from work, Jonetta would have dinner on the table.
He began to take the bus downtown some mornings instead of going to school. A block from his father’s law office, past the alley and then the barbershop, was Nick’s Famous Hamburgers, an open-air, boardwalk-style place where you could sit outside at the counter and eat a burger or a grilled cheese sandwich or a banana split. The pawnshops, a dress shop, a barbershop frequented by black men, and then Al’s Tailor Shop were further along Main. Men with nothing better to do, meeting up in alleys for a smoke. Oil men, businessmen, and stenographers passing back and forth all day long. Underworld thugs and mobsters, he suspected, and judges, cops, and lounge singers in all kinds of dodgy hangouts a block over, on Commerce Street.
Over time, the boy came to know these brick-paved streets and the mix of people who passed through on a regular basis. This became his world. Sometimes he stopped to nose around grubby pawnshops, with wobbly stacks of household and personal articles that had been traded in for quick cash. He’d go into Barber’s Bookstore on 8th and Throckmorton Street, where there were thousands of books, shelves of them, up a dusty staircase, spiraling up every which way. An hour or two would pass and he’d never know it. When it rained, he ducked into movie theaters. On occasion, he would slip into his father’s law office for a brief moment and then leave without anyone seeing him, not even the receptionist. His father never knew he was there.
Once, a man sat down next to him in Murphy’s Grill and bought him a hamburger.
And then one day he saw his father leave his office building in the middle of the afternoon. Instead of crossing over for the courthouse like he usually did, he started walking at a determined pace up Throckmorton Street. The boy followed.
After several blocks, his father stopped at Monnig’s Department Store where a lanky young man in the corner display window stood amongst naked mannequins. He wore a black turtleneck. The young man had just begun to dress a mannequin in a pencil skirt and a pastel blouse when he realized the boy’s father was outside the window. They pantomimed a greeting through glass.
Just then, a young woman appeared from the store. She wore sandals and hooped earrings. She must be an artist, the boy thought. She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, smiling, happy to see his father. He looked happy, too, open in a way the boy had never known him to be. She put a hand around his waist and touched her head against his shoulder.
The young man in the turtleneck came outside, too. “That calendar you gave her is up on our bulletin board,” he said. “She tells everyone you’re Mr. July.” His father laughed, draping his arm around her in a carefree way and touched his lips to her temple. Then they crossed the street, easy with each other.
The boy just stood there in the middle of the sidewalk, staring, in shock. He hated him for leaving them and finding another life. He would tell him that, too, face-to-face.
He caught up with his father and the young woman as they were going through the revolving door of a hotel. Moments ago he had been ready for a showdown but now he didn’t know if he would be able to go through with it. He was afraid he might not be able to get the words out.
When he pushed through the revolving doors he stepped into a bare lobby, stripped of furniture and all ornamentation. Even the Deco wall sconces were gone. A crowd of people moved about, all of them holding clipboards. From bits of conversations, the boy learned the hotel was about to be demolished. All of the contents would be up for sale.
Soon his reason for coming in here didn’t matter in the same way as it had before. He went upstairs to the Crystal Ballroom where buyers were sorting through silver-plated coffee pots and sugar bowls, china, carts for room service, all sorts of sumptuous paraphernalia. Fifteen floors worth of beds against one wall, mattresses, 294 clock radios, 294 portable TVs from all the rooms. Identical club chairs and coffee tables. The entire décor of the hotel dismantled.
In an adjoining ballroom, the boy discovered dozens of desks and nightstands. He began going through desk drawers, opening and closing them one right after the other, all down the row of nightstands even though he knew they would be empty.
He took the stairs, six more flights above the ballrooms, and he found the room he was looking for. This was the room where the president spent the final night of his life. The boy was sure of it. The next morning, JFK left Jackie there and went down to the Crystal Ballroom to give a speech, and then out in the parking lot in front of the hotel to give another speech, just a few hours before he was assassinated in Dallas. He and his father had watched the news coverage all weekend. On Monday, school was cancelled, businesses closed all over the country. The two of them sat on the sofa watching the president’s funeral on TV. His sister and brother were bickering in another part of the house. They were too young to understand any of this. His mother stood in the doorway of the kitchen, drying her hands, watching, too.
The boy went through the door. He couldn’t believe it; he was standing in one of the most infamous places in history. Now it was empty, only imprints of furniture on the carpet. He wandered around, looking for signs of how the furniture might have been arranged. So many people had tramped through that it was hard to envision what the room had looked like.
He wandered into the bathroom and turned on the shower, watching water hit the tile and swirl down the drain.
The boy could remember his father driving him to school on the morning it happened. He was in seventh grade. They were listening to the car radio, and the announcer on WBAP joked about the elaborate breakfast preparations in the Crystal Ballroom. The chefs boasted that they had scrambled hundreds of eggs. He and his father had a laugh when they pictured this.
Now his father was in a different house, driving a different route to work in the mornings.
The boy was drawn to the window. His father and the young woman were standing in the parking lot, eight floors below, looking up at the hotel. He stepped back quickly, hoping they hadn’t seen him.
He was sitting in the back booth in Murphy’s Cafe, having a chili cheese dog when he heard the bell over the door. In a moment his father sat down across from him.
“Kind of late for lunch, isn’t it?”
The boy nodded. He could barely swallow.
His father didn’t say anything at first. He watched the boy then looked off, toward the front of the cafe.
“Nothing,” the boy said. How could he tell him when he didn’t understand it himself? He kept gazing at the table. “Nothing’s wrong.”
“Did something happen?”
The boy was afraid if he said anything, he might not be able to sit there without losing control.
“You can tell me.”
No one knew his father didn’t live with them anymore, not even his cousins. His mother didn’t want any of the family to know. People on their block and at school, church, even the milkman, no one appeared to notice that his life had become a secret.
“I think there’s something wrong with me,” he said. His voice barely made a sound.
His father kept perfectly still, looking at him.
“What do you mean?”
The boy stared at the swipe of chili across his plate. His legs were quivering against the cracked vinyl seat.
His father asked him again. “What do you mean? What makes you think that?”
Because something in me is not the way it’s supposed to be, the boy was thinking.
Now the silence was filled with chit-chat of customers at the counter.
“Look,” his father said. “I know it’s confusing right now. It is for me, too. I haven’t been happy for a long time.”
The boy looked over at the tabletop jukebox.
“One day I just realized it,” his father said. “But it has nothing to do with you or your brother and sister.” His father reached across to take his hand. “There’s nothing wrong with you. You turned out just fine.”
He knew his father could see he was crying.
“I saw you at the hotel,” his father said. “You were following me, weren’t you?”
The boy shook his head.
“I was looking for some furniture.”
“Me, too,” the boy said. His father smiled and then he did, too. “For your new house?”
“That’s right. You’ll have a bedroom when you come visit, and your sister and brother will, too.”
His father stared past the phone booth into the middle distance.
“You come downtown sometimes,” he said finally. “I saw you in my office a couple of weeks ago. Our paralegal saw you over on Commerce Street.” He frowned as though trying to figure out how to say this. Finally, he looked at the boy again. “You can’t be wandering around that part of town all by yourself. I don’t want you doing that.”
“Because it’s dangerous?”
“Yes,” his father said. “It could be dangerous.”
The boy nodded, the two of them sitting there a moment.
In a while, they left Murphy’s Café and walked down Houston Street, toward the courthouse. It was nearly five. Every afternoon at five, for as long as the boy could remember, Jonetta had dinner on the table when his mother got home from work. And then his father had come home and they would have dinner right away, either chicken and dumplings or minute steaks or Frito pie, routine meals. Afterwards, there would still be enough light for his father to drive his sister, brother, and him over to the lake, where they would climb out on the huge concrete slabs of the jetty, so far from the shore they couldn’t hear any voices but their own.