The sun was in Frank’s eyes as soon as he went outside. Shyly winking at him behind the quiet neighborhood’s oak trees, the bright light made him sneeze. The morning was sharply cold, and it was still early enough for the dew to cover every surface. The windshield on Frank’s rusted Cutlass was dirty and cracked. Frank shuffled to the end of the driveway to pick up the morning’s paper. The minimal effort still had him breathing heavy by the end. His robe, faded blue and tattered like a Union soldier’s uniform, stretched across his three-hundred pound frame as he bent down. He scanned the headlines with little interest, his mouth open and panting behind his shaggy graying beard. The picture at the bottom of the page caught Frank’s attention, black and white and grainy against the damp newsprint. Huh…Miguel made the Chronicle. When he got to the caption, he stopped breathing. Firefighter Dead in Omaha.
The last time Frank had spoken to Miguel was a little over two years ago. They had met for lunch at a deli Frank liked. It took weeks of Frank calling him before Miguel finally consented to meet him on his lunch break. The restaurant was a little crowded, and Frank had found a booth towards the back. He scanned the crowd, looking for the face he’d only seen in photographs, at least for the last thirteen years. Miguel stepped in, tall and clean-shaven. The women in the restaurant immediately noticed him as he looked around the room. His skin was sunburned in places, and tan lines in the shape of sunglasses formed a pale robber’s mask around his deep brown eyes. As he made eye contact with Frank, he looked uneasy, like someone stepping off a carnival ride. Miguel walked to Frank’s booth purposefully. Frank tried to stand up, but his huge belly caught the table, wedging him in the booth. He gave up on that idea, and smiled at Miguel. His teeth were stained with coffee, and his beard did not disguise his sagging jowls.
“Have a seat, son. It’s been a long time.”
Miguel sat down and took his hat off, revealing a short military haircut.
“How have you been? I heard you were a firefighter for the city.”
“Yeah, for a couple years now. I like it.”
There was an uncomfortable silence for a few moments. Miguel sighed.
“How have you been, Frank?” he asked, in a way that made it clear he did not much care. Frank didn’t notice.
“Oh, pretty good. This and that, you know. I’m off probation, and I got a job working security down in the warehouse district. Say, you want a Reuben or something? Maybe some coffee?”
Frank motioned to the waitress. She grabbed the pot of coffee on the counter to refill Frank’s cup. “You folks ready to order?”
“A coupl’a Reubens, more coffee, aaaand…what are you drinking these days, Mikey?”
“Miguel,” he replied fiercely. “I’ll take a Bud, if you have it.”
“Sure thing, hon.” She quickly walked away, leaving Frank and Miguel alone again. Frank was wearing his best shirt, a discolored but cheerful button-up that had probably fit him at one time. He looked unhealthy, sweating just a little more than would be expected in the air-conditioned deli. Miguel was wearing a tight gray t-shirt that showed off his fit physique without appearing vain. He wore a class ring and a tattoo of some kind could be seen just under his sleeve. He looked around at the other patrons of the restaurant, carefully avoiding Frank’s beady, pleading eyes. A father and son were seated together on the far side of the deli, away from Frank and Miguel. The boy was about five, coloring on the placemat with a red pen while his father talked on his cellular phone. A plate of cold macaroni and cheese was in the middle of the table. The boy looked at Miguel for a few seconds, unsmiling, and dropped the pen underneath the table. Glancing toward his father (who was talking loudly about the difficulty of finding parking downtown and how he clearly deserved a parking space but instead it went to that rat Jenkins), the boy crawled under the table and started playing with the day-old meatballs he found there.
“So…are you still playing soccer?” Frank asked, scattering Miguel’s thoughts like seagulls. Miguel adjusted his wristwatch. Twelve-seventeen.
“I played through high school, and I go out every now and then with the guys from the station, but…not as much as I’d like.” He shifted around uneasily.
“You know how it is.”
“Oh, sure,” Frank replied, not really knowing how it is at all.
“Listen, I’ve got to be out of here by a quarter of. We’re drilling at 1:30 and I can’t be late.”
“Okay…isn’t there anything—“
Frank was interrupted by the return of their waitress.
“Alrighty, here’s your beer, and…here are your sandwiches. Anything else?”
Frank responded, “Not for me, toots. You, son?”
Miguel winced twice, both at the word son, and that his father had actually used the word toots in a real-life situation. “I’m good, thank you.”
Frank took a bite of his sandwich. Too much sauerkraut, but other than that it was pretty good. Miguel looked at his doubtfully. Frank started talking again.
“Like I was saying,” he said with bits of rye bread stuck to his teeth, “isn’t there anything you want to—“
“Oh, I forgot. We’ve got a special on pecan pie today.”
It was the waitress again. Ordinarily, Miguel would have been angry at the interruption, but this time he was grateful to delay the awkward conversation Frank wanted to have. Frank did get angry.
“NO pie. Thank you very much, now shoo!”
The waitress scowled and paced away in a huff.
Shoo, thought Miguel, who the hell says “shoo”?
“Who the hell says shoo?” he asked.
“Who the—never mind. What do you want?”
“I want to talk to you. I want to know if there’s anything you want to ask me.”
“Anything. Life, philosophy, the world…women.” At this Frank grinned a conspiratorial grin he thought was wolfish and knowing, but which was actually quite inappropriate and disturbing. Miguel decided to ignore the fact that a man who was out of breath from eating a sandwich wanted to advise him about women.
“Alright, you want me to ask you something, I’ll ask you something. Here’s something, here’s a question for our little game show. Why did you leave?”
After Frank dropped the newspaper he ran back inside, knocking over a stack of empty pizza boxes and not noticing the roaches that scurried away from their fallen tower. He picked up the yellowed phone, paused to cough and sputter and wheeze from his run up the driveway, and starting dialing. He got two digits in before he realized he didn’t even remember the phone number.
Frank cursed, and went over to his desk. He knocked over thick stacks of papers, scattering old bank statements and notices from creditors. He opened the only drawer that wasn’t stuck and started flipping through business cards and little slips of paper. Larry Cook, insurance agent, no. Glass Doctor Window Repair, no. Sgt. Steve Barnhardt, parole officer, hell no.
Finally Frank found what he was searching for, the folded up slip of paper covered in his own barely legible handwriting. Maria…Frank picked up the phone. He pressed the numbers he hadn’t thought about dialing in years. The world-weary voice that answered, with the slight Dominican accent, took him back decades.
There was silence on the other end for a few seconds. Frank thought he heard a few sobs. After almost a minute, she responded.
“What do you want?”
“Is it true? Is Mikey--”
“Miguel is dead.”
Miguel had just asked the question Frank had been trying to answer to himself for years. The older man nervously took a sip of his coffee, wiped his face with a napkin, and took out his wallet. He withdrew a photograph, a glossy but faded Polaroid of himself looking much younger, with a small boy seated on his knee. They are watching television, and they both look happy.
“Do you remember this?”
Miguel took the photograph, scanned it for a few seconds, and frowned.
“I do. I remember every day we ever spent together. I’ve been carrying this picture around for thirteen years. I tell everyone I meet about my kid, the firefighter. The hero. Can’t that be enough?” Frank looked down at his own chubby hands.
“Come on, Frank, it doesn’t work like that. You can’t just come back here and pretend like we have some kind of relationship. You can’t talk to me about the good old days. You left, and you know what?”
“I never missed you.”
The restaurant was getting busier, and louder. The waitress returned, asked if they needed refills, or anything. Frank smiled politely like he just heard a bad joke.
“I’ll take a slice of pie.”
“Oh, now you want pie,” the waitress asked sarcastically.
“Yes, now I want pie. I can do that. I can change my mind about something.” At this he looked sharply at Miguel.
“Alright, one slice of pie, coming up.”
Miguel looked again at his watch. Twelve-thirty-three. Damn, he thought, why am I even staying here? He looked back up at Frank.
“What is it you want from me? Some kind of dramatic reconciliation? You’re getting old and now that it’s convenient for you, you want a son?”
“It’s not about that. I just want to make up for splitting on you and your ma. How is she, by the way?”
“No. You do not get to ask about her.”
“Hey, I think I have a right to know about my—“
“Fuck you, Frank. You don’t have rights to shit.” Miguel practically shouted that, and the busy restaurant suddenly got very quiet, except for the little boy under the table, who was playing with his silverware now and singing the alphabet song. He got from “L-M-N-O-P” to “Next time won’t you sing with me” before either Frank or Miguel said anything. It was Frank who broke the silence.
“Okay, you’re right. I screwed up, I left, and it’s my fault. I could tell you how hard marriage is, and it is, but that’s no excuse. I could tell you how it feels to have opportunities, big opportunities that you can’t move on because your kid needs stability. I could tell you I’m just an asshole, but you already know that.”
Frank kept going.
“I’m not a good man. I’ve been to jail, I left you and Maria, I don’t pay my taxes. The only job I can get is walking around with a flashlight, and calling the police if there’s any real trouble. I forgot all your birthdays, because I didn’t care. But I’m here now, and I care now, and I want things to be better. I want to know my son.”
Miguel started to say something, but Frank interrupted.
“And don’t lie to me and say you didn’t miss me, and that there’s nothing you want to know. My old man walked out on me too, I know how it is.”
“And you did it anyway?”
“Like I said, I’m an asshole. Can’t an asshole make things good again?”
Miguel sat, and thought. Frank tried to look at repentant as he could. Finally Miguel answered.
“I’m all you’ve got, aren’t I?”
“What do you mean?”
“You don’t have any friends left, all your big plans fell through. You’re just a fat and lonely man looking for someone to make his life better. To feel like he did something with his life.”
“I did do something. You’re a firefighter, Miguel, your job is to save people from danger.”
“That has nothing to do with you.”
“Maybe, maybe not. Maybe the best thing I could have done for you was leave.”
“Yeah, I’m sure that’s why you did it. So I’d become a fireman.”
“Aren’t there second chances? Assholes on TV get second chances.”
Miguel took a final sip of his beer. He looked at his watch. Twelve-forty-six.
“I’ve got to go.” He stood up, putting his hat on.
“But what about—“
“Look, Frank,” Miguel said before looking down at the ground. “You’re not the Grinch, alright? It’s over.”
“Stay out of my life, Frank.” He took a few bills out of his wallet. “I’ll get this. Take care, Frank.”
Miguel walked out of the deli without looking back.
Frank hung up the phone. He paced around his two-room duplex, eating Cheetos and rubbing his sweaty, cheetoey palms on his shirt. It was a T-shirt with a wolf on it, like you get for selling a certain number of candy bars at a school fundraiser. Frank sat down on a wobbly bar-stool and tried to clean his glasses using his shirt, but the greasy cheese powder just spread all over the lenses, making his field of vision an orangy mess. Damn cheese-dust just won’t come off, he thought.