‘There’s bacon and eggs if you want it.’ She gestures towards the stove.
The man pulls out a chair. ‘I’ll just have coffee.’ His cigarettes are on the table. He flicks a finger at the bottom of the pack, bringing one out, and lights it. The ashtray has been emptied but not cleaned. He places the lighter on top of the pack, then straightens it. ‘Listen, Lauren,’ he says. ‘About last night.’
‘Don’t.’ She holds out the frying pan. ‘You sure you don’t want any?’ As he waves his cigarette in dismissal, she empties the contents in the trash. ‘Eat up,’ she tells the boy.
His protest is weak. ‘Aw, Mom.’
She ignores it. Her elbow sticks out at a sharp angle as she dumps the frying pan in the sink. It sizzles.
The man pulls on his cigarette. ‘You know you don’t have to go through with it. We’d manage.’
‘That’s what his father said.’ Her shoulder indicates the boy. She keeps her back to the table, scrubbing at the pan. ‘A month of dirty diapers and broken sleep and he was gone.’ The frying pan hits the side of the sink. She rinses it off and gives it a quick dab with a dishcloth before returning it to the stove.
The kid’s head is bent forward, inches from the cereal he has hardly touched. ‘You’re not my dad,’ he mumbles.
Unsure of his meaning, the man hesitates. ‘I am for now,’ he says. It seems a safe enough claim. He taps his cigarette against the ashtray. Coffee, he thinks. He puts his hands on the table to push himself up.
But Lauren is ahead of him — she has finished clearing up and pours them both a cup. ‘Tyler will have to stay home,’ she instructs him. ‘I may not be out in time to pick him up from school.’ Some coffee spills as she hands him his. ‘There’s leftover pizza in the fridge. There should be enough for you both.’ She unties her apron and drops it over a chair.
‘Will you be able to drive after they’re done?’
‘Can’t see why not.’
They sip at their coffee in silence. He stubs out his cigarette, lights another.
‘Remember the lilacs?’ he asks.
‘Never mind,’ he says. ‘You’d better be on your way.’ He empties his cup and takes it over to the sink, along with the ashtray.
She joins him. ‘A hug?’
He holds her. Over her shoulder he can see Tyler. The kid is looking away.
‘If you should change …’
She places a finger on his lips and frees herself to go and get her coat. Passing the boy, she gives him a sideways cuddle. ‘See you tonight,’ she says. And she is gone.
The man spends the rest of the morning tidying up. He strips the beds, theirs and Tyler’s, hangs the sheets out the window, turns the mattresses over. He gathers Lauren’s clothes, but not certain precisely where they go leaves them on a chair. Unhappy with the result, he transfers them to another chair, folding each item to form a neat pile. Tyler, who must have trashed his cereal as soon as there was no one watching, stays in the kitchen with a coloring book and a set of felt-tip pens. Had Lauren told him to? In it are pictures of spacecraft, robots, aliens. The man hears him fire a gun. ‘Pow! Pow! Pow!’ When he looks in on him, he sees him point a pen at the roach motel by the stove. ‘They check in,’ he whispers. ‘They check in …’ He bends his head to the right for a better aim. ‘Pow! Pow! Pow! Pow! You’re dead.’
‘You can’t read yet, can you?’ asks the man.
‘Some.’ The kid goes on firing.
When Lauren brought him home in the spring, she’d made no mention of Tyler. Had he taken even a casual look around, he would have seen signs of the boy everywhere, but he didn’t — in two days, they hardly left her bed. In fact, she didn’t refer to him until she had to collect him on the Sunday. ‘He’s been with his granny,’ were her words. She’d wanted a weekend to herself. Seeing that he’d stayed on, it had been the only one. How many had there been before him?
‘Where does your granny live?’ he asks.
The kid has his nose in the book. Is he nearsighted? ‘On the farm.’ He uncaps a black pen for the robot’s handgun.
Tyler shakes his head. ‘They have chickens.’
He should have found out from Lauren.
Deciding that the sheets have aired long enough, he makes the beds before he proceeds to sort out his belongings, few as they are; his backpack, still in the hall, held them all. A glance at his watch tells him he should heat the pizza. It is gone twelve o’clock.
Tyler has finished the picture he was working on. The colors make each shape stand out. He nods.
The man lifts down two plates to heat the pieces separately. ‘Remember the time there was a fly trapped in the micro?’ He opens the door for Tyler’s, having changed the setting to high. ‘We couldn’t figure out where the buzzing came from. It sounded like the whole thing was about to explode. Amazing that it survived.’
‘It hit the window like a bullet.’ The kid’s eyes sparkle. ‘The fastest fly in the world.’
They had searched the floor afterwards but found no trace of it. Perhaps it had ended up on one of the strips of flypaper that hung in the kitchen well into September.
‘Here’s yours.’ The man has shifted book and pens to the side. He slides the plate down in front of the boy, adding a knife and fork and a glass of water, to get him to tackle his food while he is in a good mood. He sets the timer for his own. ‘Eat now.’
And the kid does.
But halfway through, he interrupts himself.
‘Your name’s not Detroit, is it?’
‘Mike’s brother says it’s a place.’
Tyler pokes at the corner of his mouth with the fork.
‘So why does Mom call you Detroit?’
‘She’d seen some program about it.’
‘It was just an idea she had.’
The kid gives him a blank look but doesn’t pursue the matter. They finish their meal in silence. Having cleared the table, the man washes the dishes, dries them, puts them away. Tyler has disappeared. He finds him in his room, staging a fight between a knight and a dinosaur.
‘Let’s go for a walk,’ he suggests.
They set off down the road, past the abandoned farmhouse, their nearest neighbor, where he’d cut a few twigs of lilac after a row, a conciliatory gesture that brought its own reward. Now the bushes are empty of both flowers and leaves. ‘You cold?’ he asks.
Tyler shakes his head.
The man slows down; the kid, he realizes, is half running.
They pass the barn, which looks more derelict than the house; it must be decades since it was last used. A circular wire corncrib at its side, a giant birdcage, is equally deserted. This part of Wisconsin is old farming country with little to recommend it, except to the die-hard few.
They move on to the Anderson place.
Having returned on his own, relieved of his charge, the man debates with himself what else he could have done, but finds no feasible alternative. Besides, where is the harm? He’d sensed the instant they approached the house that the kid had known what was coming. He must have been left with the Andersons before. He will be fine until Lauren is back.
And she? He tightens the straps on his backpack and hikes it onto his shoulder. A heave, and it is in place. He opens the door. For her, relief will be mixed with a sense of guilt, where the blame will ultimately fall on him — more easily if he is gone.
The kid, when he left, wouldn’t look at him. His lips had moved. ‘What was that?’ the man had asked, unable to make out the words. ‘Will you still be Detroit?’ was what he heard. But Tyler chose not to repeat it.
Detroit. As the house recedes behind him, it comes to him that he never was. Whichever view you took, he wasn’t it. He shrugs, then quickens his step. Ahead lies the road by which he had arrived. He will go on from there. Traveling frees the mind when you have no set destination.