In his aisle seat near the front of the plane, Felix concentrates unsuccessfully on a crossword in the airline magazine, half-finished by a previous flyer. All the easy clues have already been answered and now he needs a six-letter word for a muzzle-loading tool. The third letter is M. He stares at that M, a bit dazed, doing his best not to think about what happens when they land in Atlanta. Rattling the ice in her cup, Laura leans over his magazine and peers down at the puzzle. “Ergo,” she says and points at twenty-seven down. “Ramrod,” she says and points at his M, and then, pointing somewhere else, “Pandora.”
He looks at that particular clue. First woman. “You think it’s Pandora? I was thinking it might be Evelynn. Eve was just a nickname, right?”
“Adam and Evelynn, a lovely couple, we really need to have them over for dinner some night soon. I hear Adam’s a terrific gardener. I hear Evelynn likes apple pie.”
Felix closes the in-flight magazine and tucks it into the seat pocket. He looks around for a new distraction. On the television show Felix works for, Pets!, Gonuts the CGI Hamster has this thing he is always saying before climbing onto his metal wheel and running mindlessly. “Don’t get so stressed. You got to wheel it out.” Felix provides the voice for Gonuts. He doesn’t love recording different iterations of the same phrase week after week, but he has to admit the little furball is onto something in this case: Life is not easy and without distractions you can make yourself crazy.
He munches on some dried apricots and asks Laura to close the blinds since the sun is so bright and hot across their laps. Her jean shorts are wedged high and her pale knees glow like two beautiful snowy peaks, the crease of her legs a tight valley. If he wanted, with the aid and cover of a blanket, he could walk his hand right up that valley. Would she resist? Probably. Not that she always insists on decency. There was the time in the changing room at Nordstrom. There was the night in the chair on the roof of their apartment building. But he won’t slide his hand between her legs—a neanderthalic impulse, his mother would have called it. The fasten-your-seatbelt light blinks. The overhead bins rattle.
“I’m not going to finish this drink,” he announces, his whiskey and soda hovering near his lips. He has Laura’s attention. That’s all he wanted anyway. She watches him, amused, as he tips back the cup, the ice crashing into his teeth, the liquid draining out. “I’m not going to push this,” he says and pushes the overhead button for the stewardess. “I’m not going to order another drink and fall down drunk on the tarmac like an idiot.”
“Tell me more about these red tights,” she says and crosses her arms. “Does Hank wear them to bed too? I don’t get it. When does Bet wash them?”
Felix shrugs. “I don’t think he lets her wash them. That’s part of the problem. They’re stinky, I’m sure.” Hank, Felix’s four-year-old son, is obsessed with a pair of red tights from last year’s Halloween costume when he dressed up as a strawberry. In a few weeks he will start kindergarten, and Bet, his mother, is concerned about what the other kids might say. “Did you ever do weird stuff like this when you were a kid?” Bet has asked Felix on the phone. “I’ll bet you did. Hank is funny—just like you. The other day I found gravel in his juice cup. I asked him why and he said he likes his juice on the rocks. Can you believe that? Where do you think he got that from? When you get here, be sure to ask him about the sprinkler and the frog. It’s his best bit. You won’t regret it.” Bet is always doing this, insisting that Hank is funny, as if otherwise Felix would stop believing the boy was his.
Felix is a comedian, though he hasn’t told a joke onstage in almost a year, not since he started lending his voice to Gonuts on Pets! A huge hit with kids, the hamster has his own lunchboxes and T-shirts. Felix is not especially proud of the show. The jokes are too easy; the laugh track irks him. When people ask him what he’s up to, he often doesn’t mention the show and says only that he’s developing some new material, something he hasn’t done in years, not since the Keep Your Hands To Myself tour that took him to Atlanta, where he met Bet. She was at a table close to the stage. She was a barista in a coffee shop near the university, a student there in fact, though Felix only learned that later when she called to tell him about Hank—or about the bundle of cells that would eventually become Hank.
There was never any expectation that Felix would relocate his life to Atlanta (and he certainly didn’t ask her to join him out west). But without any lawyers having to get involved, he started mailing her monthly checks, checks that sometimes Bet didn’t even bother to cash. She didn’t need the money. The checks were purely symbolic. Her father worked for a certain soda company—that’s what her father was always calling it, a certain soda company—and she moved back in with her parents once Hank was born. With their help, Bet was able to finish school and get a job in a gallery. Ever since Hank’s birth, Felix has been flying into town three or four times a year for long visits.
But now, after not dating anyone seriously since the birth, Bet is getting married—to someone named JT, the heir to a carpet-cleaning business—a “good man,” according to Bet. Felix is prepared not to like him. And though he usually makes these trips alone, Laura volunteered to come along to provide moral support, to help him get through the engagement party.
Laura is emphatic that she never wants any children of her own, but the fact that Felix has a son does not faze her. “How many women did you sleep with while you were on the road?” she asked him when he first showed her a photo of Hank on his phone, as if she was calculating the probability of other babies in other cities. This was on their second date, at a Mexican restaurant, fajitas sizzling on a metal platter between them. Felix wasn’t sure how to answer her question. Too many women and he was a sleaze but too few and he was inadequate. He settled on six and flashed three fingers on each hand. Laura nodded and announced, matter-of-factly, that six was a number she could live with. Ten months later, they are on the verge of a more encompassing merger—of door keys, of bedsheets, of utensils, of wireless internet accounts. Strangely, none of this scares Felix at all. He doesn’t know if he has Laura or his upcoming thirty-ninth birthday to thank for this sudden blip of maturity, but he is ready to embrace the change.
When the stewardess brings him his second whiskey and soda, he takes a long sip. Two gigantic hands descend from above. They latch on to the top of Felix’s headrest and pull it back like the arm of a catapult. Ready, set—when the man stands and releases the chair, Felix is rocked forward, some of the whiskey splashing over the plastic rim of his cup.
“Watch it,” Felix says to the man, who’s crouching beneath the bins. The man clears his throat and says nothing. Where is Felix’s apology? He glares up at the guy through the gap between the headrests. “Buddy, you made me spill my drink.”
“Your what?” The man has a face like tapioca pudding.
“My drink,” Felix says. “When you stood up, you made me spill it.”
“Oh,” the man says. “Sorry, didn’t hear you. My ears are no good with the pressure. These headphones are pointless. I turn the volume up all the way, and it’s just noise. All these movies to choose from, and I can’t hear a word of dialogue. Plus I have to stretch every twenty minutes. Ever heard of DVT? If I don’t move around enough, I might get an embolism.”
“By all means then,” Felix says, “run a few laps.”
“You’ll have to excuse him,” Laura says to the man. “He’s been a little edgy this morning.”
“Flying will do that to you,” the man says. “They don’t make it easy, do they?”
“They don’t,” she says, reaching for the inflight magazine, and then she starts back on the crossword puzzle without further comment.
Has Felix been edgy this morning? Even if he has been, this man doesn’t need to hear about it. Quietly he says to Laura, “He bumps my seat and you ask him to excuse me? What’s that all about?”
She pats his arm. “Here’s something good: You don’t know how to feel about the mother of your child getting married to another man, and you’ve brought me along because you want me to be a part of your life, and I love you for that. Here’s something bad: Part of you doesn’t want me on this trip.”
This technique of hers, the something-good-something-bad, is from a book she read years ago. She swears it is the key to strong communication, but Felix doesn’t care for it. Hearing something good doesn’t mitigate the bad. The bad is still just as bad.
“I do want you on this trip,” he says. “All parts of me want you here.”
“Okay,” she says. “I’m glad to hear it. And here I am. I’m here.”
A miracle: The plane lands three minutes earlier than expected. They don’t have any checked bags. Unlike his usual visits, when he rents a car and stays for the entire week, they can only be here for the weekend. Both Felix and Laura have to be back on Monday for work on Pets! She does makeup for the show and two others on the network. Down the long sunlit terminal, floor to ceiling windows above and on all sides, he drags their shared green roller suitcase across the hard white floor. Felix can imagine the distance between heaven and Earth like this, bright and spare and seemingly endless. Laura strolls a few feet behind him, giant white sunglasses on her small face, pink oxford shirt knotted over one hip. At the bottom of an escalator, they pass between two sliding doors, and Felix scans the crowd for Bet’s dad, Mr. Ash, who was enlisted to pick them up and chauffeur them to the hotel, the Commodore, Felix’s usual haunt on these trips.
Mr. Ash is in his sixties but not yet retired. Maybe he never will be. In his work for a certain soda company, he often jets off to New Delhi and Shanghai, defending the company brand in places where trademark laws aren’t always enforced. Save for the wire-frame glasses always at the end of his nose, Mr. Ash has the look of an elderly football brute. The first time Felix met the man was right here in the baggage claim, the screens flashing arrivals, the swishing of so many suitcase wheels across the carpet. Bet was there too, of course, her belly round under a T-shirt, black hair cut shorter than Felix remembered it. Mr. Ash towered behind her like an Easter Island statue. It was the moment Felix had dreaded most ever since Bet’s first phone call about the Hank-in-progress.
“So you’re the comedian I have to thank for all this,” Mr. Ash had said, unsmiling, and then stuck out his dry freckled hand.
“So you’re the dad who probably wishes my plane had crashed,” Felix answered. Felix has a knack for saying the exact wrong thing. He says things defensively and impulsively. Partly it’s what initially drew him to the stage, a place that rewards otherwise aberrant behavior.
“Is that him?” Laura asks now and points toward a sharp-chinned man with fine brown hair. He is holding a piece of paper that says Felix Penn in Magic Marker. It isn’t Mr. Ash.
“Felix?” the man calls out. “It’s got to be you. Bet told me to look for a middle-aged pirate.” An old line of Bet’s—she used to tease Felix about his gray-flecked beard and earring. “I’m JT,” the man says and crumples up the paper. “Mr. Ash got held up at work, and Bet asked if I could come get you. So, here I am.”
“Nice to meet you,” Laura says. “And congratulations.”
“Yes, congrats,” Felix says.
“Thank you. Thanks. I’m out in short-term,” he says.
JT leads the way through the double doors and into the sunlight, his red polo shirt tucked tightly into his neatly pressed khaki pants. The white van at the end of the lot is his. Across the side: Jones & Sons Carpet Cleaners. “The back is full so we’ll have to all sit up front in the cab.” He opens the passenger door. On the dashboard is a coiled brown and gold snake and, in the driver’s seat, a yellow one with an open mouth and vicious red fangs. “Rubber,” he says and tosses them on the floorboard.
“Why do you have those?” Laura asks, climbing up first and sliding toward the floorboard transmission.
“Oh,” he says. “Kind of a joke. I work in some rough neighborhoods. We like to say it scares off the criminals. Are you hungry? You need a snack before tonight?”
“We ate some on the plane,” she says. “So, are you excited about the wedding?”
“I can’t wait. I’d do it tomorrow if I could.” He walks around to the driver’s side as Felix joins Laura in the cab. When he’s behind the wheel, he says, “Bet wants the real deal, though—flowers, big white tent, all of it. Can you imagine me in a tux?”
Felix doesn’t take the bait. The van rumbles to life. JT grips the vibrating stick shift and reverses out of the space. Felix has his window down, and once they are on the highway, the warm air blows pleasantly across his face.
“It feel good to be back South?” JT asks him. “You’re from around here, aren’t you? Originally, I mean.”
“Not from Atlanta,” Felix says. He grew up in North Carolina but hasn’t lived there since college and no longer considers himself much of a Southerner. He has aunts and uncles he doesn’t visit and who probably dislike him. His parents live in other cities now, Pittsburgh (his mother) and Phoenix (his father), each with different partners. They’ve started entirely new lives for themselves. “A second chapter,” his father called it once. “A page-turner, I’m sure,” Felix said to that. Growing up, his parents had never seemed terribly unhappy. His father had opened doors for his mother, and she’d rubbed his neck when it was sore. Sure, his mother would look away disgusted whenever his father belched into his hand or complain about his habit of never filling a gas tank more than three-quarters; and yes, Felix had once overheard his father call his mother “sexless” to a group of his cigar-smoking buddies, a word his father would pretend to not recognize when a nine-year-old Felix asked for its meaning. That his parents had so rarely argued with each other would later make Felix wonder if the marriage had all been a charade for his sake, an idea that made them seem less like parents and more like actors in a bad play about parenting.
The brown and gold snake is under his foot on the floorboard. He grabs it by the tail and makes it slither up Laura’s bare leg. She slaps it away playfully.
“You know,” Felix says, “I used to have an uncle who kept a rubber snake in his truck.”
“That right?” JT asks.
“Yeah, he said it scared off black people.”
JT is quiet, both hands on the wheel. Laura shoots Felix a quick but discernible look: Please don’t.
“Why are you looking at me like—” Felix begins. “Oh come on, I’m not saying that’s why JT has a rubber snake in his van.”
“It’s definitely not why,” JT says.
“Right, exactly, and that’s not what I meant. The snake just made me remember about my uncle. That’s all.”
“Your uncle sounds like a lunatic,” Laura says.
“He wasn’t all bad. He taught Bible class to the sixth graders. He used to take me deer hunting.”
“I can’t imagine you hunting deer,” Laura said. “I can’t imagine you hunting anything. You get queasy at the grocery store looking at the meat behind the glass. You get this funny face—” Her eyes go wide and her lips part a little, like she’s watching a spaceship land. “I always think you’re going to pass out right there in front of the butcher.”
“Ha. Ha,” Felix says. “We both know that’s not true.
“You’re funny,” JT says, and Felix has to peer across Laura to see that JT means her and not him. He is accustomed to this. People always seem disappointed to discover that he—a comedian!—is not particularly funny in most situations. Tell us a joke, people sometimes request, and his mind goes empty, not even a single knock-knock joke to be found (not that he’s ever told a single knock-knock joke). “It doesn’t work that way,” he usually tells these people, and that it does work that way, for some comedians, is a source of not a little anguish.
JT drops them off at the hotel and says Mr.Ash will be by in an hour to get them. The engagement party is the next day and tonight the family will eat together at the Ashes’ house. Upstairs in the hotel room—sand-colored wallpaper, white fluffy bedspread, a remote control at the end of the bed—Laura strips down for a quick shower. Felix flips through the channels on the flat screen and then joins her in the bathroom to examine himself as she towels her hair dry.
“You’re a real piece of work,” she says. “What possessed you to say that about your uncle?”
“About the snakes?” He pastes his toothbrush, then hers. “It’s a true story.”
“Who cares if it’s true? Truth has nothing to do with it. It’s not a great way to start any sort of relationship with the guy.”
“Don’t you wonder, just a little bit, why he had the snake on the dash? It wouldn’t surprise me if—”
“Felix.” Her hair is a damp frizzy explosion of blond. “You don’t mean that.”
“If you feel that way then I suggest you keep your mouth shut about it. Give the guy a chance. You shouldn’t always assume the worst about people. The last thing you want is to make an enemy of the man who will be raising your son.”
They are talking to each other’s reflections. Felix glances at his own. Geez, Gonuts sometimes says, You look like you just swallowed a furball. The furball: that JT will eventually be closer to Hank than Felix ever could, that Hank will come to think of JT like a father. It is inevitable. The kid is only four, and JT will be the man in his underwear at the breakfast table on Saturday mornings. With proximity, intimacy. Felix will be just some ghost on a phone line.
He stands behind Laura and presses himself to her moisturized back. “This is why you’re good for me. You’re the only one who calls me on my bullshit.”
“I love you, but you’re your own worst enemy.”
“That’s why I need you here. My enemy’s enemy is my friend.”
She bumps him away with her butt and smiles. “Go change.”
He slides into a pair of dark jeans and puts on a gray blazer. “I’m not going downstairs to sit at the bar,” he says. “I’m not going to drink as many whiskey sours as I can before Bet’s dad gets here.”
“Be down in a minute,” Laura calls from the bathroom.
The bar, Felix discovers, is empty. None of the little glass bowls have any nuts in them. Rod Stewart rains down from the overhead speakers. Felix sits down on a stool and drums on the bar’s wooden lip. “Helloooo,” he calls, but no one emerges through the door between the liquor shelves. He considers hopping the bar and grabbing a bottle of whiskey and a glass. He doesn’t require any ice.
“Felix,” Mr. Ash says. He is standing at the entrance to the bar in a dark blue suit, his red tie loose. “I thought I might find you in here.”
Felix isn’t sure if he should be offended or not. He settles on not.
“I’d offer to buy you a drink but”—Felix gestures at the bar—“it’s like The Shining in here. Do you get that vibe? Red Rum.”
“I was told you were bringing someone.”
“She’s upstairs. Down in a sec.” Felix taps on the bar. Then scratches his face. Then lets his arms hang. He can’t seem to find the right thing to do with his hands. “Excited about the wedding?” The easy question.
“Of course I am. So long as Bet is happy, I’m happy.” He sits down at a table and kicks out one of the chairs for Felix. “I won’t lie. JT isn’t exactly who I had in mind for her. But then again, neither were you.”
“Please, tell me how you really feel, Nick.” Felix rarely uses Mr. Ash’s first name. Even now, after all these years, it feels indecent. He sits down across from the man. “But it did happen kind of fast, didn’t it?”
“Has it been that long? I feel like I only heard his name yesterday.”
“Selective hearing, I guess,” Mr. Ash says.
Neither of them says anything for what feels like minutes. “But the thing about Hank is,” Mr. Ash says, as if continuing some conversation that has been playing out in his head, “he’s really a sweet kid. And smart. I’ve already got him reading. It’s incredible. And he’s taking piano lessons, did Bet tell you?”
“He played ‘Baa, Baa, Black Sheep’ for me over the phone the other night. Not too shabby.”
Felix knows all about the reading and the piano breakthroughs and about Hank’s recent gummy-worm addiction. Bet—dependable, lovely Bet—keeps him informed. Her name for these updates: Another installment in the Adventures of Hank. Mr. Ash is a recurring and popular character in Hank’s adventures, the one who makes Hank the three-layered grilled-cheese sandwiches for dinner, the one who brings home new sodas from all over the world. Though Mr. Ash had naturally been upset to discover that his daughter was pregnant by a foul-mouthed comedian, one who had no intention of “doing the right thing” (not that he would have been much happier if she’d done the “right thing” with Felix), Mr. Ash fully embraced his role as a grandfather. He loves Hank, and for that Felix is of course grateful.
“How’s Susan doing?” Felix asks. Bet’s mother has rheumatoid arthritis and recently had her knee replaced. “She back on her feet yet?”
“She’s still on a cane,” he says. “You should have seen what they replaced her knee with. She’s a real bionic woman now. They’re doing the other one after the wedding. You know, I think once this wedding hoopla is over with, Susan won’t know what hit her. I don’t even think she realizes yet how different things will be once Hank and Bet are out of the house.”
Felix nods. Out of the house. Part of his anxiety about the wedding stems not from the fact that Bet and Hank are moving into JT’s house but that they are moving out of Nick and Susan Ashes’. He can’t help but wonder if this change will somehow put the boy at a disadvantage.
“How far away does JT live?”
“Little less than an hour. Just outside of town. It’s not going to be easy.” He seems more wistful than Felix has ever seen him. He uncrosses his legs. His eyes narrow. “So, Bet tells me that show of yours is really taking off. I confess, I haven’t seen it yet, and I don’t claim to understand half of what they put on television. But that must feel good? Some validation after all these years?”
“Sure,” Felix says, “I suppose so.” Though he in no way considers his success on Pets! a validation of his hard work, he doesn’t want to squelch that idea for Bet’s father, who until this moment has never offered Felix a single encouraging word regarding his career. Early on in their relationship, after too many drinks, Mr. Ash once let it slip that he thought Felix was a silly man, not at all serious, one of those types who complained about everything but never did anything. “Well,” Felix said to that, “I’ve actually considered jumping into the soda industry. I have an idea for a soda that comes in a baby bottle. Get ’em started early, right? First, though, we might have to wipe out the milk lobby.”
“Do people really think you’re funny?” Mr. Ash asked. “Because I don’t see it.”
“Honestly, I don’t either,” Felix said, which like all good jokes was grounded in truth. Throughout all of it—the club circuit, the bit parts here and there on bad television shows, the one-hour comedy special that almost happened but didn’t—Felix’s career had bumped and bounced, but the closest he might ever come to mainstream success was as Gonuts the CGI Hamster, whose most popular catchphrases are increasingly difficult to voice without feeling a little sick.
When Laura comes downstairs, finally, they leave the hotel in Mr. Ash’s car. Laura sits in the front passenger seat. With the air conditioning on full blast, Felix can’t hear their conversation, but Laura is smiling and nodding quite a bit, her hands prim in her lap. Prim is not an adjective Felix frequently associates with Laura. Vivacious maybe. Vital. Voluptuous. Felix is stuck on Vs. For the dinner she has changed into a conservative blue dress that falls just below the knee, but she still has on her giant white sunglasses.
The Ashes live in a three-story house with dark colonial shutters on all the windows and squat dome lights planted in the mulched beds on either side of a brick sidewalk that connects the circle driveway to the front door. Susan comes out first on her metal cane and gives Felix a frail hug, then hugs Laura. Bet comes outside next, a new pixie haircut, eyes bright and blue. Felix has been slightly uneasy about this moment, about introducing these two women, Bet and Laura, past and present, and he watches them examine each other surreptitiously while they make small talk, moving toward the house. Hanging behind the group for a brief moment just outside the door, Laura squeezes Felix’s arm and mouths the words she’s very young before moving ahead of him into the foyer.
Describing his relationship with Bet to others—particularly to women his own age—Felix has learned over the last few years to omit certain details. For instance, that Bet was a sophomore art history major when he impregnated her. Why mention such a thing? There is no need to vilify himself unnecessarily. She looked young then, too, yes, but not that young, and he certainly didn’t need to convince her of anything. She was a more-than-willing participant.
But there are other details he omits. He has not told Laura about what happened the winter after Hank was born—when he flew down to Atlanta for a two-week visit with his new son. He was staying in a room at the Commodore but after the first two nights, since he was already spending so much time at the house, Mrs. Ash insisted that he stay in one of their guest rooms. That way Felix could find out what it was like to rock a six-month-old back to sleep at 3 a.m.—a gift, she said, that no new parent should be denied. Mr. Ash, in particular, seemed giddy setting up the baby monitor in Felix’s room.
The crying began sometime just after midnight. Felix did his duty, creeping down the hall and peering in on the little red-faced crank who shook his tiny arms like they were meant for flight. Felix hoisted him out of the crib and nestled down in the rocking chair across the room, humming a little Van Morrison. The Van Morrison worked nicely. Hank calmed down, his eyes heavy again, but when Felix tried to deliver him back down into the crib, Hank went off like a car alarm.
“There’s a trick to it,” Bet said, small face in the door. Felix wasn’t sure how long she’d been watching him. “Do what you were doing before.”
He sat back down in the rocking chair and started humming the horn section of “Into the Mystic.” Bet, in a loose and ghostly nightgown, hovered near the crib. When Hank quieted down again, she motioned for Felix to bring him over. At the crib, she told him to blow gently on Hank’s face while lowering him down.
She nodded and smiled. He blew gently, and Hank’s nose scrunched up like he might sneeze. But when his butt hit the blanket, he actually stayed quiet. In the hallway, Felix asked her what that was all about.
“I have no idea why it works, but it does. I figured it out by mistake.” She blew gently in Felix’s face. “Feels nice, right?”
He kissed her. Later he wouldn’t remember what exactly had prompted him to do it. Maybe it was her blowing in his face. Maybe it was a quick but powerful feeling that all of this was theirs—this baby, this life, this house, this nightlight shining around their bare feet. She pulled him into her bedroom, next door to the baby’s. She lifted her gown and stretched back on the bed. He kept his feet on the floor and leaned toward her, arms on either side of her shoulders. It was different than their first time at the hotel, almost a year earlier—less hurried, less boozy—and as he finished, he said it, or something like it, like or love or, the old Annie Hall joke, luff. But then again, maybe he hadn’t. He might have only sighed pleasantly. No, he’d certainly said something. He kissed her on the shoulder and said he should probably get back to his room. “Okay,” she said.
The next morning, at breakfast, he avoided eye contact with all of them. The Ash family whirled around the kitchen, dishes clattering as they unloaded the washer, discussing plans for the day, a Saturday, and Bet breastfed Hank at the table. Watching the three of them, Felix felt like an intruder. He had an impulse to run, but he finished his cereal and then showered, whistling into the steam.
They spent the day Christmas shopping. In the car, Mr. Ash asked Felix if he even believed in Jesus, and Felix said, “Jesus … Jesus … didn’t he drum for The Beatles before Ringo?” Mrs. Ash looked back at Felix, scandalized. “Sorry,” he said. At the mall, he wandered through a toy store alone with Hank, who seemed to like the lights and colors and not much else. Then they went to find Bet and discovered her in the neighboring department store, checking the tag on a mannequin’s jacket.
“You like it?” she asked. “I think I could wear it in the spring.”
“Let’s see it on you.” With Hank gurgling in his arms and Bet wrestling the jacket off the mannequin, Felix forgot, just for a moment, that this wasn’t his everyday existence. She bought the jacket, and they strolled through the mall together, like any other couple, hands on the stroller.
That night she snuck into his room after her parents were asleep and climbed into bed. On the monitor they could hear Hank breathing through the fuzz of static. She was on top of him, and he certainly wasn’t resisting. “You okay?” she asked. He wasn’t sure what to make of that and shrugged up at her: Yes, he was okay. When they finished, she fell asleep on his arm and didn’t wake up again until Hank started crying in the early hours, milky light in strips across the bedspread.
In all, this happened three more times before Felix flew home. She would sneak into his room and stay until Hank’s first morning fit. She did this without ever asking what it meant or where it was leading. Each time, afterward, Felix felt more agitated, as if the stakes were that much higher, though he tried not to show it. What was he doing? Possibly he cared for her more than he’d realized. He began to doubt his initial decision to stay on the West Coast. He even entertained notions of bringing her back west with him. His apartment would be too small for both Hank and Bet, but he could find something more suitable. If he really wanted to, he could make this work, couldn’t he? When Bet drove him to the airport, she gave him a short kiss and asked him to text when his plane landed.
“Maybe you and Hank could come and visit me sometime,” he said, and when she nodded, he added, “to see how you like it out there.”
Had he been too subtle? Not subtle enough? He couldn’t tell. Her cheeks were pink and she smiled uncertainly. “Okay,” she said.
On the flight home, he tried watching a movie but couldn’t concentrate. He folded the vomit bag into tinier and tinier squares. He drank three whiskey and sodas. The woman sitting beside him asked if he was feeling all right. Felix wasn’t sure. “I used to be the same way,” the woman said. “Have you ever listened to the black-box recording from a plane crash? Don’t. They’re all on the internet. It’s addictive. It’s always Oh God or Oh shit or Oh no the flaps! Religion, panic, or blame. Every time I fly now, I think, Well, that’s it. There’s no possible way I’m going to survive this.”
“There are worse ways,” he said. But really, every flight felt like a little death. What died was the place you were leaving and the person you’d been there. The more distance between him and Atlanta, the less real it all seemed to him—the Ashes, Hank, Bet, all of it. The only inescapable constant was himself: miserable, unfunny Felix.
Waiting for his suitcase at the baggage claim back in Los Angeles, he called Bet’s cell despite the time difference.
“Hey,” she said, surprisingly not groggy.
“I’m here and—” His bag approached. “And that’s it, I guess. I’m here now.”
“Good,” she said. “I’m glad. Hank already misses you.” She cleared her throat, and he could hear a door close. “Listen, Felix, I’ve been thinking. About what happened this week. Going forward, I don’t think we should complicate things, you know?”
Felix grabbed his luggage and wheeled it back and forth across Baggage Claim as Bet explained all the reasons why it didn’t make sense for them to be together. She had no intention of leaving Atlanta, and though she’d always care for Felix, she wouldn’t love him, not like that. When she asked him what he thought, he said, that, yes, well, she was absolutely right, it would never work. Only later—weeks later, trying to recall Bet’s exact tone during this conversation—would he wonder if it had been some sort of test. Regardless, they didn’t discuss it again. Whether Bet had told her parents about what happened between them, Felix couldn’t be sure, but they never offered him a guest room again. After that, he began staying exclusively at the hotel.
Hank comes stomping down the stairs after an especially long afternoon nap, looking a little bit like a high Shakespearean actor: red tights, wild brown hair, eyes a bit droopy. Felix holds out his arms for a hug, a little worried that he is about to be rebuffed in front of Laura and Bet and the Ashes. JT, who is apparently a master chef, is in the kitchen preparing a “gourmet” dinner. Hank launches off the bottom step and lands in Felix’s arms. He spins his son’s legs out like a helicopter. They all file into the living room for an early round of cocktails—vodka tonic for Laura, screwdriver for Bet, whiskey for Felix and Mr. Ash, and a seltzer for Mrs. Ash, who rarely drinks any alcohol aside from white zinfandel. They sit in a rough circle, encamped on various pieces of antique furniture: a green leather sofa, the two wingback chairs, the ottoman under the flat screen on the wall.
“Lovely house,” Laura says, taking it all in. “Bet, won’t you be sad to leave in a few months?”
“I will,” she says and squeezes her father’s arm thoughtfully. “But I’ve been imposing long enough. It’s not fair to my parents.”
“We’ve loved every minute of it,” Mr. Ash says.
Felix wonders if it is guilt—for living off her parents, for delivering chaos into their otherwise peaceful golden years—that is pushing Bet toward a man like JT. Her fiancé seems nice enough and is even mildly handsome in a second-place-homecoming-king sort of way, but he is certainly no genius; his face doesn’t suggest much depth. Felix begins inventing a quiz: What book is on JT’s nightstand? Can he name the last ten presidents in order? Who was responsible for 9/11? Though Felix won’t be able to explicitly call it a test, that’s what it will be. Over the course of the evening, he will have to sneak in his questions and keep track.
“So,” Felix says to Bet, “how long has JT been your rug man?”
Laura gives Felix’s hand two quick squeezes.
“His dad started the business,” Bet says. “It’s pretty big. They’ve got three offices now across the state, and contracts with most of the school districts. He’s been doing it ever since he graduated.”
“Ph.D. in red-wine and bloodstain removal?”
“Come see my treehouse,” Hank says, eyes on Felix.
“I’d love to, buddy,” he says.
“I’d like to see it, too, Hank,” Laura says. She stands with her drink and holds out her hand. Hank eyes it suspiciously, so Felix takes it and then offers Hank his other hand. Through the white French doors, they walk out across a brick patio and down the steps into a neatly manicured lush backyard. Hank breaks free and runs down the hill to a grove of slim oak trees, between which, about five feet up, Mr. Ash has constructed a platform. A rope ladder dangles from a hole at its center. Red tights a jostling blur, Hank ascends the swinging ladder and emerges gopher-like on the other side of the hole triumphantly.
“He’s very cute,” she says. “Are we going up?”
“I’m fine down here. You look great, buddy. What do you do up there?”
The boy scrunches his eyebrows. “Different stuff.”
They watch him kick some brush off the edge of the platform.
“So,” Laura says quietly. “Bet.”
“I can see what attracted you to her. She’s beautiful. And young.”
“You’re not going to get weird on me, are you?”
“How exactly would I get weird on you?”
“I don’t know, but the way you just said ‘weird’ felt a little weird to me.”
Laura adjusts her sunglasses and crosses her arms. “I’m curious if sometimes when you say things you ever hear a little alarm bell in the back of your head? Whoop whoop whoop. Do you ever think, Am I saying what I think I’m saying?”
“Alarm bells? I don’t follow. What I say is what I mean. Or what I mean is what—”
“I think you need to take a deep breath and process what’s happening this weekend. Here’s something good. Actually, you know, I’ll just skip to the bad, if that’s all right. Don’t take this the wrong way, but not everything is about you. Not everything is about Felix. There are 7 billion people in the world, and sure, you’re funnier than most of them—you’re in the top three thousand probably but—”
“Two thousand, whatever. It doesn’t matter. My point is that you need to pull your head out of your ass. You get me?”
Felix does not get her. Is she calling him selfish? Self-involved? Delusional? He is ready to argue, but here comes Hank, singing and swinging back down the ladder, his business concluded, whatever it was, the rope swishing circles in the dirt at the bottom.
“Before we go back inside,” Laura says, “is there anything else I should know?”
“Maybe,” Felix says, irritable. “Probably, yes, there is, but I can’t for the life of me figure out what it might be. How far back should I go?”
“This isn’t funny,” Laura says.
What else is new? They are almost to the brick patio when the entire family emerges through the double doors.
“All of us are going for a walk before dinner,” Bet announces. “It’s been decided.”
The first person to bring up Gonuts the Hamster is JT. He’s not only seen the show but tunes in every Thursday night. They are on a wide and mulchy trail that follows the conservation easement behind all the houses in the neighborhood. JT and Laura stroll alongside Felix. Bet and the Ashes are a few steps ahead. Hank is between both packs dragging a stick he found in the brush.
JT wants more details about Pets! He wants behind-the-scenes dirt. Some of the people at his work, JT says, are in love with the rhesus monkey on the show, the one that’s always stealing and swallowing important things like zip drives and legal papers and car keys. Does Felix ever get to hang out with the monkey? Is it funny in real life, too? Who is the voice of the monkey, because that dude deserves a frickin Oscar—
“Emmy,” Felix says. “And the guy’s name is Joel. He’s been in a few things over the years but not much. You’re right; he’s great.”
JT nods enthusiastically. He asks if Felix could do the hamster voice for everyone, just once, and then he’ll never ask again. He promises.
Through his pocket Felix pinches the hamster (his leg) until it throbs: “Somebody better let me outta this cage,” he says, forming a little bubble in the back of his throat. “’Cause I’m about to wheel these motherfuckers.”
Everyone, except JT, turns to shoot Felix the same look: Hank.
“Amazing,” JT says. “Amazing. It’s so surreal to hear that voice coming out of you. Now, you couldn’t say that on television, could you? You couldn’t say mother-f?”
“What book is on your nightstand right now, JT?” Felix asks him. “I’m curious.”
“People recognize Felix’s voice everywhere we go,” Laura says. “We were out to eat the other night, and the waiter figured it out. But he didn’t say anything to us. He just drew a little hamster wheel on our check. It was so cute.”
“That’s really funny,” Bet says. “You’re famous, Felix!”
“Or at least your voice is,” Mr. Ash says.
“What’s the difference?” Felix asks. “I am my voice, aren’t I?”
“I don’t know,” Mr. Ash says, without turning around. “Are you your anus?”
Their footsteps are quiet on the mulch. Where are all the birds? There should be birds whistling up in the trees. Felix is on the verge of saying something, can feel words inching up his tongue. What he will say, exactly, he can’t be sure, but most definitely it will be the wrong thing.
“In my experience some people are more anal than others,” Laura says then, eyebrows arched.
A short burst of laughter, like gunfire, escapes Mr. Ash’s tight gray mouth. Felix has never seen him laugh that way. Not once.
“What’s anal?” Hank asks.
“It has to do with your bum bum,” Bet explains, a nervous smile. “Hank, that reminds me, do you want to tell your daddy about what happened with the frog and the sprinkler? Remember that?”
Hank nods yes, that he remembers, but then he mutters, no, he doesn’t really want to tell that story.
“Oh come on, Hanky,” JT calls up to him. “It’s such a funny one.”
Hank doesn’t look up from his feet.
“Honey, don’t ignore people when they’re talking to you,” Bet says. “It’s rude. Tell your dad the frog and sprinkler story.”
“Don’t be afraid,” Mrs. Ash says, head turned back. “You can do it, Hank. Remember how it starts? With us turning on the sprinkler?”
The boy throws his stick into the woods, eyes still on his feet.
“Hank,” Mr. Ash says, clearly irritated. “Hank, your mother and Grammy are talking to you.”
“It’s okay,” Felix says, suddenly aware of all those eyes sharply focused on his little boy. He imagines Hank, half-asleep, being led downstairs night after night to a room full of strange squawking dinner guests, all of them demanding he tell the one about the frog and the sprinkler. He imagines these people laughing, and Hank not knowing what it was he said, exactly said, that made them laugh so much. Even if it was the funniest frog story since Mark Twain’s jumping frog, Felix does not want Hank to have to tell it against his will. “Leave him be.”
“But I want you to hear it,” Bet says. They’ve stopped walking now. Through the trees other backyards are visible—trampolines and garden beds, a swimming pool.
“Hank, no one is forcing you to tell the story,” Felix says, leaning toward his son, whose eyes are still trained downward. “It’s totally up to you. Maybe later you’ll want to tell me or maybe you won’t. Either way is fine. Okay, buddy?”
“Remember what happened when the frog landed on the sprinkler?” JT asks. “What happened when we—”
“Drop it,” Felix says, looking hard at JT. “Didn’t you hear me? Lay off him. Can’t you see he doesn’t want to tell it?”
“All right, calm down, no need to be an ass about it, Felix,” Mr. Ash says.
Felix digs the heel of his shoe into the dirt. Here it comes: the wrong thing, welling up in him. “Nick, if I want your opinion, I’ll ask for it.”
“Enough,” Mr. Ash says.
“Does anyone know the story about the old man’s asshole and the sprinkler?” Felix asks. “’Cause that’s a really good one.”
“Not appropriate,” Bet says.
“You don’t have to be here, Felix,” Mr. Ash says. “No one said you had to come this weekend. You chose to come.”
“Daddy, that’s not going to help anything,” Bet says.
“Yes, Daddy, you’re not helping,” Felix says.
“Felix,” Laura whispers. “Stop.”
Hank looks at all of them, confused. Felix pivots and starts back for the house. They aren’t far, maybe 300 yards. He can feel their eyes on his back. Along the trail, at the top of long metal poles, are wooden bird boxes. If he shook one, would a bird fly out? Only now does he remember that he has no rental car back at the house in which to make his retreat. Once he’s back at the house he’ll have to wait for someone to give him a lift to the hotel. More than anything he does not want to turn back around and ask to borrow a car.
Laura catches up with him, her eyes wide. “I apologized for you,” she says.
“I didn’t want to apologize.”
“Never hurts to apologize.”
They walk fast over the trail and then turn left into the Ashes’ backyard. If he continued walking, maybe Laura would agree to wait and ask to borrow a car. She could pick him up down the road.
But Hank. Shit, he never said goodbye to Hank. He could leave something for the boy, a gift of some kind, something that would communicate how sorry he is for bailing like this. He fishes around in his pockets and finds his keys. On the ring he has a small metal hamster trinket, a gift from the network when the show started its second season. Felix spots the treehouse. He could hide it for him up there, a surprise. The rope ladder stretches when he steps onto the bottom rung, bringing it all the way to the ground. It bucks as he climbs, his feet swinging ahead of him.
“What are you doing?” Laura asks.
“Just give me a minute,” he says, head and shoulders through the opening now. He barely fits. When his butt clears the jagged and splintery circle, he sits back and admires the view of the yard. Laura looks up at him, her arms crossed like a none-too-satisfied audience member. Spread across the platform are the bodies of mangled action figures. A small white bucket near one of the tree ballasts contains a dozen rotten crabapples. Felix doesn’t have any paper for a note. He takes out a pen and looks for a suitable place to write a message.
“You don’t have to go.” It’s Bet, calling up to him. She’s standing beside Laura on the ground. “If you really want to, I’ll take you. But I think for Hank’s sake, you should both stay. But Felix, please, take a walk or something. Get yourself together. You’ve been acting strange ever since you got here. And what’s this about the rubber snakes?”
So JT told her. That makes sense. They are together now, a real couple, and naturally they will share such information. They will talk about people, judge them. Felix is one of those people. He is someone for them to discuss, to judge.
“I don’t think Felix meant anything by the snakes,” Laura says to Bet.
“JT was pretty sure Felix was calling him”—her voice drops to a whisper—“a racist.”
“It wasn’t like that,” Laura says. “Not exactly. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not excusing Felix. You’re right. It was very poorly put.”
Felix watches them talk.
“I’m sorry about the snake thing,” he says finally. “I am. And yes, you’re right, we should probably stay. For Hank. I can hang up here for a while and cool off. Go eat dinner. I’ll eat mine up here. I’ll come in for dessert. What’s for dessert? It’s not your mother’s pecan pie, is it?”
He begins etching Hank’s name into the wood beside his knee. He has to drag the pen back and forth, against the grain, to make the ink visible. The others emerge from the woods, and Bet tells them all to go inside and wait there.
“You should send him packing,” Mr. Ash says quietly, though not inaudibly, to his daughter before Mrs. Ash drags him off toward the house.
“Sorry about the snake thing,” Felix says as JT passes.
“All right,” JT says and keeps walking.
The rope ladder shakes. A small head emerges. It’s Hank—small, wonderful Hank up in the treehouse—the red tights stretched thin and transparent at the knees and toes, a somber expression on his face.
“What’s up, buddy?” Felix asks. “I’m not leaving. Don’t worry. The adults were just having … an adult moment.”
Hank gazes down at the half-finished H in the wood beside Felix’s knee.
“The frog,” Hank says and sighs deeply. “It died.”
Felix smiles. He can’t help it.
“Honey, that’s not the best way to tell the story,” Bet says, from below, and then appeals to Felix. “I mean, the frog did die, he’s right, but it’s not as bad as all that. The other way he tells it is actually funny.”
But it is funny. The frog died. Bah-dah-dum. End of frog. Oh shit, oh god, oh flaps: Which was it for the frog? The boy looks up at him thoughtfully, with what Felix wants to interpret as an expression of mutual understanding. He stands and lifts his son off the platform into a high, soaring hug. “You told it perfect,” Felix says. “I’ll bet that frog never saw it coming.”
Hank squeezes. His red legs dangle loose at first, then begin bicycling wildly, ready to touch back down on the platform. “Let go,” Hank says, squirming, but Felix resists. He’s not ready to let go just yet. If he does, those little red feet might carry the boy away at a tremendous speed. Laura and Bet watch from below. Bet has her hands out like she thinks Hank and Felix might both come tumbling down off the platform. “Careful,” she says. “Please.”
“You told a good one,” Felix says and sets his son down gently. The boy smooths out his shirt. “Let’s talk about these tights. What’s going on? And where can I get myself a pair?”
Hank walks to the platform’s edge and steps off. The fall is barely five feet, and Hank is fine. It seems that he does this all the time. He lands on all fours, cat-like, then sprints across the yard. Bet follows him up to the house. Felix approaches the brink, gazes down at the patchy grass. “I guess I’ll jump down too,” he says to Laura.
“Your choice,” she says, “but don’t ask me to take you to the emergency room when you break your ankle. I won’t do it.” She turns for the house without him and climbs the grassy hill to the patio door. Felix takes out his pen and finishes the H and then lays the metal hamster there beside it, a terrible gift. He considers the drop to the ground. The yard is quiet and empty now. A bright glare across all the windows on the first floor of the house makes it impossible to tell if there’s anyone left to watch him.