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I’M DRIVING TO WORK WHEN a blue pickup slams me from the right, sending my car skidding across the road. I think about one thing: Justin’s face, that cute gap-toothed grin, then brakes squeal and an SUV hits me on the other side.
My heart’s pounding and the steering wheel is digging into my thigh. I turn my head. No neck pain, but when I touch my cheek, I wipe away blood. My wrist throbs. I manage to shove open the mangled door and stumble onto the pavement.
A guy says, “Hey, man, you all right?”
“I had the green … I’m late …” I gesture at the pickup truck a few yards away, the driver slumped across the dash. “What the hell was he thinking?”
Traffic is stopped all around us. A lady in a parka climbs out of the crumpled SUV. My car looks like it hit the wall in a NASCAR race.
The police and ambulance arrive, sirens blaring. While the paramedics check out the pickup driver, Miss SUV loudly announces she’s not at fault. A fresh-faced cop scribbles on a pad as she talks.
The same cop then takes my story. He doesn’t care when I explain how I’m on probation at work for being late twice this month. His older partner joins us and says, “At least you’re insured, Mr. Lewis. That guy,” he jerks his head toward the pickup, “no insurance and a suspended license.”
The EMTs take me to the hospital. The doctor wraps my wrist and butterflies the cut under my eye. “You’re a lucky man, Mr. Lewis,” he says.
Lucky? My car’s totaled and the guy’s uninsured. I’ll be lucky to afford a moped.
As I leave the hospital, I call my supervisor. Before I can speak, he tears into me. I cut in, tell him about the accident and that I’ll be in tomorrow, then press the off button.
That afternoon, I hit three used car dealers before settling on a 1996 Pontiac Grand Am. Maroon, with a grey interior. Piece of crap, but it’s all I can afford.
Friday night, I drive over to pick up Justin. Best part of my week. Actually, he’s the best part of my life. Funny, smart, a real nice kid. Only one I’ll have, too, since his mother talked me into a vasectomy after he was born. Now he’s eleven and I get to see him two weekends a month and four weeks in the summer. Fatherhood lite.
It’s been a year since Susan divorced me, and she’s already pretty serious about another guy. Ron. Ronald. Ronald Robbins. Apparently, Ron drives a BMW. “Well, good for Ron,” I said when Justin told me this.
Justin’s waiting on the sidewalk, bag in hand, when I pull in to the parking lot. He grins as he yanks open the passenger door. “Nice car, Dad.”
I snort. “It’s no Beemer.”
Justin shrugs. “I like it.”
I hand him a pack of Oreos as we head to my place. Junk food drives his mother crazy.
“What’re you gonna call her?” Justin asks. The kid has a thing for naming cars. My old car, the smashed one now sitting in a junkyard, he named ‘Duke’.
“Haven’t thought about it,” I say.
“How ’bout ‘Bertha’?”
“Sounds right. Fat, beat-up, and ugly as sin.”
Bertha backfires. “Guess she doesn’t like it when I talk about her like that,” I say. Justin laughs, so I continue. “A car with an attitude—just what I need to cap off a bad week.”
“‘Nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so’,” says Justin.
The kid’s lost me. “What?”
“We’re reading Hamlet in English class,” he says. “Mr. Foster’s making us keep a journal for a week to see if that line applies in real life.”
“Yeah? Sounds like that gratitude stuff your mom spouts. She gets it from Oprah.”
Justin gives me a sideways glance. “You are pretty negative, Dad. When things happen, you say it’s the other person’s fault.”
“That’s because most people are idiots.”
“Like the guy who smashed into you?” He wipes chocolate from his mouth with the back of his hand.
He pulls another cookie from the package and takes a bite. “Can you think of anything good about the accident?”
“Well, let’s see. I almost lost my job. Spent the morning at the hospital. I’m out five hundred bucks because my insurance won’t cover the cost of old Bertha here.”
“But you walked away from a bad crash. That’s good, Dad.”
I ruffle his hair. “That’s because I’m tough.”
“And you’ve got Bertha.”
“That’s not good,” I say.
“I like her better than Duke.” He runs his hand across Bertha’s cracked vinyl dash, then reaches to turn on the radio.
“You have to bang it,” I say. “Like this.” I smack the radio with a closed fist and the music blares. I turn down the volume, and hits of the sixties crackle from the speakers for the rest of the ride.
After dinner, we turn on the TV to watch Mythbusters. A fire’s roaring in the fireplace. Justin takes a pack of Pop-it Snappers from the side table drawer and starts tossing them in the flames. I throw a few and we smirk at the little explosions. “Kind of like firecrackers in the fire pit,” Justin says. Our show starts, so we sit back on the couch and settle in for the night.
Saturday, we dig the BB guns out of the shed and shoot tin cans off a tree stump. It’s really cold, so we ditch the outdoors and play Xbox instead. I’m beginning to dread sitting outside at the baseball game tomorrow, not to mention the drive into the city. But I’ve already sprung for the tickets—nosebleed seats are all I can afford. Justin’s quick to point out the good side. It’s the Cubs, Wrigley field, and the two of us.
Sunday afternoon, bottom of the sixth, the Cubs are down 5 to 2. Sosa’s at the plate, with runners at first and third. If anyone can belt a homer, it’s him.
“I’m freezing. Can we go?” Justin asks.
“No,” I say, watching the pitch. Strike one and the crowd groans. “We could tie it up. Drink your hot chocolate.”
Sosa slams it to right field and I jump to my feet. The ball sails over the wall. I yell with the rest of the crowd as the players round home plate.
The next batter strikes out, and it’s the top of the seventh.
Justin’s huddled in his seat, his jacket shrugged up around his jaw, and this weather’s making my bum knee ache. The kid’s right. It’s too cold, even for the Cubs.
“All right, buddy, let’s go.” I haul him up by his elbow as he grins.
The wind whips our backs while we walk to the off-site parking lot. I climb into the car, put the key in the ignition and turn it, but the motor doesn’t start. I crank the key again. Nothing. “Oh, for Pete’s sake. The battery’s dead. C’mon.”
We scramble out of the car. A gal in a long black coat and red hat is walking down the sidewalk, so I wave my arm. “Hey, excuse me, Miss.”
She turns toward us, her face covered by a red scarf. I pull Justin in front of me so she can see I’ve got a kid; I’m not some weirdo accosting her. “Our battery’s dead. We need a jump. Can you help?”
She walks a few steps closer and says, “Justin? Is that you?”
“Yeah. Who’re you?”
“It’s Mrs. Bernouli,” she says, pulling down her scarf and flashing a mega-watt smile.
“Oh, hi, Mrs. B.” Justin looks at me. “Dad, this is Mrs. B., from the school library. Her daughter Libby’s in my class.”
“Please, call me Dawn.” She shakes my hand.
“Murphy Lewis. Pleased to meet you.” I mean it. That smile lights up her whole face. “Were you at the game?”
“Unfortunately, no. I was visiting my sister. She lives three blocks from here,” Dawn says. “So, you two are having battery trouble, and on such a cold day? Let me get my car.”
A few minutes later, Justin helps me hook up the jumper cables. “Attach positive first,” I remind him.
“I know, Dad.”
“Now I see where Justin gets his interest in mechanical things,” says Dawn. “He’s always looking for ‘how to’ books in the library.”
Bertha roars back to life. I thank Dawn, and Justin and I drive away.
Justin says, “Mrs. B.’s really nice.”
“She seems to be.”
“She’s not married. You should ask her out.”
“Oh? You couldn’t mention that back when I could’ve gotten her phone number, huh?”
“You could call her at school.”
The kid’s got an answer for everything.
I turn on the radio to catch the rest of the game. It sputters, so Justin kicks the dash. We high-five when the Cubbies clinch the win. After a stop at Mickey-D’s for a celebratory dinner, we head to his mom’s place. When I pull into their apartment complex, Justin says, “So, was today good or bad?”
“Good because I was with you and the Cubs won. Bad because I missed the end of the game, and I’ll probably have to spring for a new battery for this piece of junk.”
“He doesn’t mean it, Bertha.” Justin pats the dashboard. “Turn it around. It’s bad because the Cubs won, so now our hopes are up and will be crushed later. It’s good we left early and the battery died, because you met Mrs. B.”
“I’m probably not her type.”
“But maybe you are,” Justin says. He slams the door, runs up the stairs, and gives me a wave. I roll down my window to wave back, and he shouts, “Thanks for taking me to the game, Dad.”
The apartment door opens and Ron ushers him in. Ronald Robbins. At nine o’clock at night.
Justin’s words stick in my head. Maybe the dead battery wasn’t such a bad thing, because Dawn did seem nice. But I’ve only been on three dates since Susan left. I waffle for a while, then call Dawn at the school. To my surprise, she agrees to go out with me next Saturday. I try flipping that between good and bad. Maybe she’s got a great body. Maybe she’s a psycho. Maybe she’s great, but thinks I’m a moron. Too much thinking, it makes me wish I hadn’t called her.
Over the next couple of days, I notice Justin has a point, my first reaction is usually negative. I blame my parents—with a name like ‘Murphy’, all my life I’ve dealt with Murphy’s Law.
On Friday, the car won’t start again. By the time I get a jump, I’m late for work. I think about calling but decide just to show up. I figure it’s harder to fire someone in person. I’m wrong. It takes my boss under a minute to hand me my last paycheck and point me towards the door. Not even Justin could find the good in this.
Since I have all this free time, I head to the auto shop for a new battery. The guy offers to install it, but I’ll save the labor charge and do it myself later. I lug the forty-pound monster out to my car.
Saturday night, I take Dawn to my favorite steakhouse. She laughs at my jokes and we swap single parent stories. She mentions meeting Susan at one of Justin’s school events. I open my mouth to vent but Justin’s assignment echoes in my mind. I bite my tongue instead and say the only possible good thing I can think of right then: “We had our differences, but I wouldn’t trade having Justin for anything in the world.”
Dawn smiles and says, “I know what you mean, I feel the same about Libby.” When she asks about work, I tell her my company had to cut back.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “Can I at least pay for dinner?”
“No way.” I reach across the table and rest my hand on hers. “I asked you out. This is my treat.”
Dawn doesn’t pull her hand away; she just changes the subject. Turns out she’s a Cubs fan, too. At the end of the night, I get a kiss and a promise for a second date.
By Monday I’m hitting the pavement, filling out applications and leaving my résumé all around town. The story’s the same, no one’s hiring. The possibility of long-term unemployment dampens my relief at finally being out from under my old boss’s thumb.
Still, thinking about Dawn puts a grin on my face. For kicks, I try switching perspectives. She’s too good for me, it won’t last. Maybe her kid’s a nightmare, would be a bad influence on Justin. The ‘bads’ come easy, but surprisingly, my heart’s not in them.
When I get home from job hunting Monday evening and call Justin, he drops a bomb. Susan and Ron are getting married. They’re moving to Ron’s house, an hour away. “Put your mom on,” I say.
“She’s at the grocery store. She’ll be back in a few minutes.”
A new father. An hour away. She couldn’t even call?
“What?” I say. “I mean, wow. Big news. You okay?”
“All right. Uh … how was school?”
He says something but I can’t focus on his words. “Really? Huh,” I say. “Hey, Justin, I’ve got to run. I love you.”
“Love you too, Dad.” That, I hear.
I grab my keys to go give Susan a piece of my mind. As I wait at the light by a strip mall, I notice a blue neon sign. Pet Palace. I swerve into the parking lot. Inside, I ask for the biggest, most hairy puppy they have. The sales guy shows me a furry black one with big paws. He says it’s a cross between a Labrador and a Poodle—a Labradoodle. Apparently a mutt is as expensive as a pure-bred if it’s called something ridiculous enough. He tells me it will be good with kids and that since my son hasn’t been around dogs much, that’s important. The guy also asks if Justin is allergic to animals. I have no idea. He gives me this look and sells it to me anyway because “Labradoodles are hypoallergenic.” Who knew?
The pup wriggles in my arms, licking my face as I bang on Susan’s door.
She opens it. “Oh good grief, Murphy, what is that?”
I push past her into the apartment.
Ron stands up from the couch. “What’s going on?”
Justin’s all over the puppy, petting it and wrestling with it.
“It’s for Justin—a ‘don’t forget me when you move’ gift.”
“He’s awesome, Dad!”
“Get it out of here,” says Susan.
“No,” I say. “You don’t want it, you get rid of it. And explain to Justin why you’re getting rid of the dog his father gave him.”
“Some father you are,” says Susan.
“You’re lecturing me on responsibility?”
Ron steps toward me. “Look, Murphy, I know you’re upset.”
“Stay out of this, Ronald,” I say.
Susan puts her hand on Ron’s arm. “It’s all right, Ron.”
“Don’t do this,” I say. “Justin likes his school, his friends, this place.” I gesture around the apartment, knowing that’s a huge stretch. “Don’t take that away from him.”
“You mean, don’t take him away from you.”
“Fine. Don’t take him away from me.”
She crosses her arms. “This isn’t about you.”
“How the hell could it be? It’s always about you.”
A tear runs down her cheek.
“Oh, spare me the waterworks, after everything you’ve—” I stop when I notice Justin biting his lip.
“We’re still going to have fun, Justin, don’t worry,” I say.
He gives me a small nod, and I turn to go.
“Take that thing with you,” says Susan.
The puppy, I’m happy to see, has pissed on the carpet. “Unless you mean Justin, the answer’s ‘No.’”
I yank the door closed behind me and walk to my car. When I turn the key, it doesn’t start. I pound my fist on the steering wheel—the new battery’s still in my trunk. I try again, over and over. Nothing.
While I dial a buddy on my cell, the apartment door opens and Ron comes out. I glare through the windshield as he walks over to my window. I hang up—my call’s gone to voicemail anyway. “What?”
“Justin says your battery’s been giving you trouble. He asked me to give you a jump.”
I scroll through my phone. Somebody has to be around.
“Come on, Murphy. I know this isn’t easy.”
This guy’s a regular Einstein. “Ya think?”
“He’s still your kid. You’re still his dad. My marrying Susan won’t change that.”
Of course it will, I want to say, he’ll be living in your house, you can buy him anything he wants, you’ll be a big part of his life and he’s all I’ve got—but I stare at the crack in Bertha’s dashboard instead.
“I was wondering,” he says, “if Justin could stay with you for a couple weeks while Susan and I go on our honeymoon?”
“Fine.” I take a deep breath. “I’d like that.”
“So would Justin. He said you guys built a spud gun that launches potatoes over 200 yards.”
“He told you about that?”
“Yeah.” Ron gives me a half-smile. “It sounds pretty cool.”
I don’t say anything, but the pressure in my chest eases a little.
After a few seconds, he says “So, do you want that jump?”
Ron pulls his car around while I get out the jumper cables. This time, no dice.
“I have a new battery in my trunk,” I say. “If Susan’s got a wrench and a screwdriver, I can change it here.”
Ron heads up to the apartment and returns with the tools and a flashlight. He holds the light while I work and makes small talk about an old Corvair he helped his dad repair when he was a kid. I hide my surprise at hearing he actually knows a thing or two about cars.
It doesn’t take long to put in the new battery. I heft the old one into the trunk and slam the lid, leaving my hand on the car for a moment. “Thanks,” I say.
“No problem. One other thing?”
“The dog. Don’t get me wrong, I love dogs. But don’t you think it might mean more to Justin if you have it at your house? It would be something special for the two of you when he visits.”
A lame argument, but I don’t want Susan dropping the pup at the pound. “I’ll think about it.”
Bertha starts right up and I drive home.
Saturday, Justin, the puppy—now named Buster—and I stand by the fire blazing in my outdoor fire pit. The old car battery’s at my feet.
“I still say Bertha’s a nice car,” says Justin. “Look at the good things that happened because of her.”
“Good or bad, depending on how you look at them,” I say.
Justin rolls his eyes.
“Fine,” I say. “On the good side, she got me a date, and Dawn and I are going out again next week. But, Bertha cost me my job. That’s bad.”
“You hated your job. So maybe it’s good thing.”
He’s got a point. And I got a call to interview next Tuesday for a manager’s position at a home improvement store. It’s less money, but it’s a job, and one I think I could do well.
“Anyway,” I say, “her heart gave out at your mom’s. Guess the fact you’re leaving was too much for her.”
“I’ll still see you, Dad.”
“You better believe it.”
“What’s good about this?” He grins.
“You get a big house and a better school. And …” I pause. “And Ron seems like an all-right kind of guy.”
Justin stares at the ground. “He’s okay.”
I put my hand on his shoulder, then gather him into a bear hug. “It’s all right to like him, Justin.” Just not too much, I add silently.
Justin nods against my chest, then starts to pull away. I ruffle his hair and say, “And now you and I have a slobbery dog. I think that’s good, don’t you?”
“It’s great. He’s the best dog ever.”
“Well, let’s knock off the ‘feel-good’ stuff and get to the action. Who wants to see what happens when a car battery’s tossed on the fire?”
“Come on, boy.” Justin grabs Buster’s collar and backs up. “I bet it’s gonna be a good one.”
Whaddya know, the kid’s right again.
About the Author
MICHELLE SOUDIER is an author living near Chicago. When she’s not writing, she enjoys her family, traveling, and Blackhawks hockey.