Steve called up one day that summer and said, why don't you come over -- I'll fix you a steak. We can catch up. Nothing fancy, just a couple steaks and a few sodas. I've been on the wagon seven months now.
Steve had been my dad for five years once.
Yeah all right, I said, sure. Sounds great, I said. Seven months, that's really something.
A long time, he said. It's been a long time, but I'm OK. You can ask your mom to come too, he said, if you want to. I mean, if she wants to come.
I picked up Mom on Saturday, and we went over. In the car, Mom showed me this ring her boyfriend Bob had given her a month ago: two hands holding a gold crown. I said, you're wearing that? and she said, sure, why not?
What does it mean, I said, and she said, who knows?
Steve answered the door. I've got the coals going, he said. I could see he had spent a lot of time cleaning before we got there. I could see the tracks left by the vacuum cleaner in the rug. It didn't look like a place somebody lived very often, but it was nice. It wasn't a bad apartment, really, and it was furnished. And it was near enough to the ocean that you could feel the salt in the wind. It was called The Neptunes and every door had this little gold sea horse on it, right by the number.
I noticed right off that Steve looked older, while my mom looked younger. It had taken her a while after he left, but then she had really gotten it together. I mean, she even bought a dog. An Akita, or something. She'd signed up for classes, started doing kick boxing and even got a tan.
I'm starting over, she said.
Before dinner, Steve asked me things like, Diet Coke all right? I mean, I know you like Diet 7-Up better, but they didn't have any. I could go next door or something, he said. And I said, hey, whatever you got's fine by me. I was noticing that he was tan, too, but it wasn't healthy. There were wrinkles around his eyes and his eyes were red and tired, and I was thinking, seven months. My mom said, ditto, no ice.
I remember, he said.
And he said, what do you think of the apartment? I mean, it's home, right? A place to lay my head. I got a roommate, he said, but he's gone now. He's gone a lot.
And he said, you know what's funny? What's funny is, this place is just two blocks from Zubie's Place. Two blocks -- I mean I could walk there, right? I could walk there with my eyes closed. But I haven't been there, he said. I'm straight now.
I said, that's really great.
It is, my mom said.
For a minute, Steve looked out the window like he could see that bar from here, just waving a hand to beckon him, and knowing he could stand it. Then he said, hey, want a tour? He showed us all the rooms, and they were all as carefully clean as he was. Maybe not brand new, but vacuumed and combed. And he said, hey, I got us some really nice fillets from Farmer's Market. I mean, they're beautiful.
It's amazing what you can find that's beautiful, he said, and he looked at my mom.
Then Steve went to make a salad and my mom sat on a bar stool and they talked. I went over and stood by the stereo -- or his roommate's, I guess, and I just watched. It's funny -- no one listens to albums anymore. It's all CDs now, CDs and tapes.
Play something, if you want, Steve said. I remembered some of that old music -- Loggins and Messina, Steely Dan, some America -- and it made me think of our weekends in the park. We'd just be there, the three of us and our dog, and maybe we'd throw a ball or something. That's all we could afford then, my mom would say. The park and raspberry wine.
But I remember that music playing from somewhere.
And yet, whoever this music belonged to, it wasn't anything I knew. Jazz mostly -- easy listening I think is what they call it. Music that isn't too loud, doesn't jump too fast.
But there were a couple albums, stuffed back between the stereo and speaker. Next to a couple Playboy magazines somebody thought they'd hidden.
And Steve said, hey, you want to play some of that, that's fine. That's good music, he said. And I put on an album -- Neil Diamond, live. It was scratched a little and the music sounded so far away. And Steve looked at my mom and said, now that's old. And then he said, it's been a long time.
Over dinner, I said, you know what I remember? Remember that time, when you guys had friends over -- I was pretty little, but you guys were outside having a barbecue and all you guys were outside? And me and some other little kid were supposed to be asleep? And we woke up and we were thirsty...
And you thought that stuff in the jug was Coca-Cola, my mom said. Steve looked confused, but Mom said, I remember.
And Steve really didn't remember. I had poured both us kids a glass of Coke, but it had rum in it or something, and me and that little kid got really drunk. And he'd started crying because he'd got this really bad headache, and his dad came in and had a fit. Remember? I said.
He said we were raising a generation of boozers, my mom said. You were sick all night.
I don't remember that, Steve said.
During dinner Steve had three Cokes. Then he said, you know what's funny? I'm really good at doing dishes. No I mean, really good. I learned that about myself. And he really was proud. And my mom said, that's great. I mean, that really is. And she wasn't being sarcastic.
What I remembered was all the times we had gone out to dinner together, how they always started out happy and ended up angry. I don't think any of us ever knew what got them started. And I remembered also the nights I'd lie awake and hear them fighting -- Why, why? my mom would say. You have a good home here. And I knew it was something we had done against him that made him drink.
After dinner, we stood outside -- every apartment had this little patio kind of yard to it -- and we just sat and looked at the sky. And we talked about little things, work, school for me, how Steve's old truck had finally given out. Catching up. We talked about Fords versus Chevys. And I was thinking, here we are. Almost a family, and how about that.
Steve said, you know, I tried taking up the guitar for a while. I mean, they tell you to take up a hobby or something. I actually tried macrame too.
And he showed us a plant hanger that he had actually made. And I tried to picture Steve playing a guitar or weaving pieces of yarn. But somehow I just couldn't see it.
My mom said, bet you can play "Stairway to Heaven.?? And we laughed.
It felt real nice out there. Tasting the salt in the air, just talking like real people.
And when we were getting ready to go, Steve said, wait a minute. Got something for you. And he came back with a guitar.
Here, he said. And I looked at him. I mean, it was just a plain-looking guitar, but he said his roommate's dad had actually handmade it himself from scratch. And Steve said, I ain't got a use for that, so if you want it.
And I said, well, I don't know how to play. But Steve said, that's OK, neither do I. And no one laughed.
And then he said, well, if you ever need anything. I mean, either of you. I mean, you know where I'm at. And then we stood there at the door, knowing it was time to go. Steve said, hey, we'll have to do this again.
Yeah, my mom said. And my mom gave him a little hug. Steve said, come here, you, and he gave me a hug too.
And he felt so far away.
It's funny how no one listens to albums anymore. Sure, they show up at garage sales sometimes, but you know they're on the way out.
And when I dropped my mom off at her condo, she said, isn't that something. I mean, you never would have thought.
And I drove the rest of the way home, the old music playing in my head.