Marina was always the one in the family who knew how to fix things, whom to call in case of emergency, intuiting and implementing plans of action faster than Greg could even register a need, but she took her savvy and her Rolodex with her when she moved downtown, and now, with his son Marcus at boarding school, days away from completing his first semester in Groton and returning to Chicago for the winter holidays, Greg was alone and had to figure out how to improvise. There was a crack in the long driveway that faced their big old house in the suburbs, and he had no idea what to do. How hard could it be to arrange for something, call a guy, a twenty-four hour patching service? If you were Greg, it was practically impossible. When he came home last night and discovered the crack, he forewent microwaving dinner and instead effaced with scotch he poured over stale ice. He fell asleep crumpled on the couch in his gray suit and green tie and shiny black shoes.
This morning, chagrined, but clearheaded, he entertained the possibility that maybe the situation wasn’t a big deal and that he’d just overreacted. What if every driveway fractured in the winter and he’d just failed to pay attention to pianissimo? In an attempt to absent the Kabuki-grade amplification that his ineptitude effected, he put on his coat and gloves over his robe and went outside on disinterested reconnaissance. He found that overnight the crack had quadrupled in size, in depth, and now couldn’t have been more mezzo forte. It seemed to stick out its menacing tongue and bear serious teeth. Greg bent down, and though careful not to get his knees wet from the piled snow, he hovered close enough to see it clearly: the crack was a grand fucking canyon. So much for it’s no big deal. He traced the surface, beginning where the groove started, noting the stress marks with the edge of his thumb. He pulled out a scaly fragment of the debris and studied it for a moment before flicking it away.
Greg didn’t go to the office the morning Marcus came home. After the limo dropped the boy and his suitcase off, and Greg ushered him in and out of the cold, they exchanged a few pleasantries before Marcus lost interest. But he didn’t leave, didn’t go upstairs to watch TV or nap or god only knew what. Greg watched as his son surveyed the house in which he grew up in big sweeps. He imagined Marcus as a child running around this very house, every gesture a grand one. How many times had he taken the stairs from the preceding floor two at a time, practically swinging off the banister, the same banister he laid his hand on now? How many entrances had he made with an operatic flourish only a young child could pull off without feeling self-conscious?
“Are you going to sell the house?”
Things were different now, Greg could tell by the way Marcus spoke, but the boy still more or less resembled himself, the way Greg last saw him, almost three months earlier. Same blonde hair frozen in place with a compound that smelled vaguely of thyme, a gray Lawrence Academy T-shirt, jeans with frayed windowpanes out of which exposed knees pushed forth, and an argyle sweater, a thumbhole in each of the sleeve cuffs, tied around his waist.
“Dad, it doesn’t even look like you live here. You haven’t gotten any new furniture.” Greg froze. “All that’s here is what Mom left behind.”
Father and son pantomimed and grunted through the next few days. Greg began to feel guilty that he was squandering irreplaceable time with his boy, and so Tuesday, after he returned from the office, after he’d finally worked up the courage to suggest to Marcus that they do something together besides eating pizza and Singapore noodles in front of Nick at Nite reruns, he said, “So, maybe we could go look for a tree?”
“Sure,” Marcus said with a slight nod, a glimmer of interest. “Why not?”
Greg recalled many trips in his pre-divorce fatherhood to this very same parking lot, which was fenced with a chicken wire and demarcated by the big signs reading “Christmas Trees! Fresh! Huge!” at the far ends of the plaza in downtown Wilmette. The parking lot normally served as overflow for a bank and a Starbucks and dry cleaner and a deli, but for a brief spell in December was transformed by the magic of tree-proffering elves. Floodlights plugged into buzzing generators kept things bright while the sky was nothing but blackness. The shoppers moved and touched and poked and prodded and pushed and dragged trees too heavy to carry. Everything and everybody seemed nervous and unsteady and in a hurry to simultaneously get in and out of there, as though a collective consciousness intuited they were all seconds away from disaster, but still had shopping to do.
Greg made perfunctory evaluations, but really had no idea what to look for. Marcus, headphones blaring, looked bored.
When they returned home, a huge Kentucky fir strapped to the roof of the Volvo wagon, and in the back six bags of garland, tinsel in long ropes, ornaments arranged in neatly stacked boxes, and blue and white and red and green reels of icicle lights from the warehouse club, and barely enough room for the suffocating silence between them, they sat in the car for a minute. When Greg turned the engine off, the quiet was even more conspicuous.
“What’s wrong?” he asked his son. “You’re being weird.”
“Weird?” Marcus asked, without looking at him.
Greg swept an open hand around the car filled with Christmas. “I thought you wanted this."
“Why are you so hung up on that stupid dent in the driveway?” Marcus blurted.
Greg replied sharply, “It makes me mad. I don’t like it. I don’t know.”
“Why is it such a big deal to you?” his son pressed.
“Marcus,” Greg sighed. “It’s my—it’s our—goddamn house.” He turned away and spoke to the window. “Why can’t I have things that start out nice and stay that way?” He was so close to the glass, a fog circle formed in front of his mouth, and so he faced Marcus, who now turned the opposite direction.
“Why,” Marcus breathed, “if it’s so important to you, can’t you just fix the fucking crack yourself?”
Often Greg was confronted by questions for which there were no answers. These questions always threatened to break him, knock him down, shatter him into a million flinty pieces. But he never cracked, not outwardly. He’d just smile and wait it out. He could withstand a lot. Moore and McMillan at the other end of the conference room whispering in their secret partner language. The college kid interns peering over his drafting table and then snickering in the break room too loudly about how derivative his work had become. Marcus balled up on the floor, laughing because he was high, laughing because of how ineffectual, how much of a non-father he realized Greg was, the night he and Marina—really Marina—decided to send their boy away. No matter what happened, no matter how he felt, he could grit his teeth and pull himself together, even if it meant occluding. He’d shown no emotion when Marina leaned over him, naked, screaming, punching, spitting, after she issued the ultimatum: If you can’t do something, this marriage is over. Don’t just lie there and live in your head. Come into the world. This used to be yours, remember? You’re not useless. You gave up on your son, and now you’re done with me, is that how you want this to go down? Goddamn it, Greg. What is going on in there? But didn’t she know him well enough to see, without him having to point it out, that there wasn’t anything left inside, that a for-lease sign hung in the opacity, that it had been months, years, since he’d even lived there? It was the last in a long series of fights over his gradual retreat deeper and deeper into futility—how had a desire to avoid the arduous and intractable escalated into an affront against his wife that was actually capable of wrenching them apart?—and though he knew he was blowing his final chance at keeping his marriage together, he refused to cry or apologize or even avert his eyes then. He just stared until everything turned into halos and starbursts. When she finished—Maybe we’d better just start planning an exit strategy now and save ourselves—the only thing left to do was flee, but he couldn’t even do that. Marina, as usual, took care of the leaving for him by exiting herself, and so here he was, upright, mobile, held in place with the shellac of superficiality, but a pile of rubble beneath the surface, a complete mess in a way nobody could see. Nobody except Marcus.
Greg took off his cap and the sharp air blew through his desiccated beige hair, burning his scalp. It wasn’t just the tree that made him feel like a failure. It wasn’t the crack. It wasn’t this Christmas break. It wasn’t that Marina was gone. His eyes itched and burned the way they did when he caught Marcus in the throes of the fabric softener incident all those months ago. Greg thought he’d never get the black-and-white images of busting Marcus, the chorus of giggly, pimply boys behind him, a thin half joint smoldering on the windowsill, leaving a greasy burn in its wake that still remained, and all the subsequent still-frames of tense meetings and fraught negotiations with the school and the counselor and, finally, each of them pressed against an opposite door in the back of Louie’s cab on a wordless trip to the airport, Marcus’s ticket to Logan in Greg’s shirt pocket, sticking out absurdly like a clown’s handkerchief, out of his head.
Late that night, in the corner of the living room, before a backdrop of icy windows, stood a majestically resplendent Christmas tree. Ponderously and thickly decorated. Almost cloying. Not an inch of green exposed except where you’d want it for the necessary contrasts. Needles and branches hung heavily from the weight of so much garland and tinsel and ornaments, the room awash in blue and silver and gold and red. The tree presented itself to the world proudly, certain of its inherent prominence. Everything shone brilliantly. Tiny lights, red, white, and green, clung to each other, pulled away from each other, string after string of them, each connected to the other, tying Greg and Marcus’s decoration composition together. Though there was distance between the bulbs, some flashing, others trailing, they still had a sense of unity, of continuity. Greg stood beside his son and patted his back, but as much as he wanted to, he felt no pride over what they’d accomplished. He was wobbly from exhaustion and drinking too much this week and not eating enough. His vision blurred, his planned speech garbled inside the slosh, but he felt like he should say something and so he coughed and shook his head.
“Well, what do you think?” he asked the boy.
“It looks like . . . our tree,” Marcus said. Though he might have meant something entirely different, Greg clung onto this simple expression and couldn’t let it go.
Hours after Marcus had gone upstairs to bed, Greg put on his boots, his thick winter coat, and the wool cap with those stupid earflaps he couldn’t stand. He looked at his handwritten note again: Concrete is tough, but it can crack because of settling, moisture, or extreme temperatures. Wider cracks require a little more work to prevent them from reoccurring. 1. Wearing safety glasses, use a hammer and a cold chisel to deepen the crack. 2. Brush away loose debris with a wire brush. 3. Mix a patching compound specifically made for concrete, following the label instructions. He stopped reading there and folded the paper back up. He’d figure out the rest on his own.
It was way too arctic for precision. Greg could barely maneuver the heavy tub of concrete or the silver tools he laid in a crude semi-circle around his small makeshift workspace. Nothing was level—the driveway slanted; who knew?—and he slipped and spilled and implements rolled and he quickly lost control of the entire project. He couldn’t even see what he was doing. The station wagon shielded him from the elements somewhat, but it wasn’t enough. He was damp from the snow and his body shivered, resisting this. As a precaution, he looked to the house. The lights from the new tree blurred together and pulsed against the fog of the window, like peppermint breath, as though a warm fire burned inside, like a heart, understanding what he was doing outside, cold, wet, trembling, entreating him to return, offering forgiveness. He tried to apply a thin layer of concrete to the crack but the compound wouldn’t stick to anything except his hands or the other parts of the driveway in embarrassing gray chunky drips the neighbors would be sure to make fun of. He cursed loudly, but it didn’t matter; nobody was around to register dismay. More concrete mix spattered and spilled, and as it resisted capture, pieces of indistinct shape congealed. He had no chance to come up with a plan of attack; he couldn’t keep up. Greg regretted coming outside. This whole thing was a mistake. I have to stop, he chanted inside his head. I have to stop or Marcus will see.
The concrete Greg poured that had started to set at jagged, imperfect angles almost immediately was now frozen in place, didn’t stand a chance of being reckoned with. He stood outside himself and appraised the driveway wreck. He then pictured the scene as his own father, the taciturn village pharmacist who never failed at any domestic challenge, and tried to imagine how he’d fix this. His own father, a man he never felt particularly fond of, forty years younger, now down on the ground and trying his best to flatten out the disorder desperately, pounding and scraping and prodding, but nothing seemed to work for him, either. Despite his practical knowledge, he too would have reached the point where this clumpy oatmeal would start doing what it wanted to do, as all controlled things eventually do. It didn’t matter how carefully Greg had planned, or not planned, how much forethought went into his patting and pressing, and when that failed, more indignant striking and slamming the trowel into the bumpy, impervious half-solidified mess; the concrete still was going to move the way it wanted to, until it would find its place and yield no more, setting the way it was destined to set long before Greg came along to spill and misjudge and curse and wobble, long before the crack even first pushed its way into his once-impenetrable world. Marina was right. Greg couldn’t handle anything, with or without her in his life. The night after Marcus left for Groton, Greg came home from work to an empty house he’d dreaded for months and drank until he couldn’t stand up; he awoke hours before the alarm, buried under a mountain of sheets and blankets and comforters, the room freezing, screaming at a dream about Marcus, about Marina, still angry about the divorce—didn’t she know they’d both failed?— and, in the plum apricot light that gauzed through the blinds, covered his eyes, tried to understand what they’d done, what had happened, what would happen, the future as blank and dark as the world was from the bedding sarcophagus in which he was entombed.
Now he felt undulating, a physical presence behind him, wet stentorian breathing loud enough to discern through the wind, but instead of fighting, instead of evading, he submitted to it. Trees shook and swayed furiously, branches whipped around, smacking at invisible things. Marcus didn’t say anything then, just wiped tears from his eyes with his sleeve. His bottom lip trembled and his hands moved forward and backward, as though of their own accord. Greg withdrew from his hunch. He had to brace himself against the car when his knees buckled and his feet started to slip under the ice, and Marcus reached toward his father slowly, extending an unsteady hand, while trying to keep himself from falling with the other shot behind him. Greg wasn’t expecting the grip of their hands together to be very strong, but it was a lock, and it was real.
“You’re a good boy,” Greg said, in the voice he remembered he used to have when Marcus was growing up.
“And you’re a good dad.”
Inside the house, Greg accepted the mug of cider Marcus offered to heat up for him without hesitation. He pulled the drawstrings of the fluffy green bathrobe close to his body, trying to get warm. His teeth chattered.
“Couldn’t sleep?” Marcus asked. He grinned while his father shook his head. His hair was still casting droplets onto the table. Marcus returned to his place on the couch, before the fire. Greg sat beside him. The heat seemed to blaze hotter than he’d ever noticed before.
“The crack—” Greg began.
“It’s okay,” Marcus whispered. His eyes met Greg’s.
They sat together and drank cider and didn’t say anything. Before long, the sun began to emerge from a far off point in the sky. The snow stopped falling not too much longer after that.
-- Charles Blackstone is the author of The Week You Weren’t Here, a novel, and the co-editor of The Art of Friction, an anthology. His short prose has appeared in Esquire.com, The Wall Street Journal.com, Modern Luxury, The Journal of Experimental Fiction, and the&NOW Awards: Best Innovative Fiction. He is managing editor of Bookslut, teaches at the University of Chicago’s Graham School, and lives in the city.