Things change... well, some things do.
Martin finished signing the check for the utility bill, assembled all the paperwork together and sealed the envelope.
Carly dashed into the little den, adjusting her flawless seems. "I have to get to Rita's buyer's club invite-a-friend thing, remember? I won't be home till a bit late... those things always run late. Jared wants to hang out with his friends tonight, but I told him to ask you, O.K.?"
"Sure, That would be...."
"I didn't have any money on me; I told him to ask you."
"Seems the only time he talks to me anymore is when he wants money."
"Martin," his wife sighed, fluffing her honey-colored hair with her fingers, "Your son is fifteen. He doesn't talk to me much, either. That's pretty much the way it is."
He nodded his agreement, she waved a goodbye, and rushed down the hall, keys jingling as she swept through the front door.
Putting the envelope in his out box with the rest and closing the checkbook, Martin turned out the desk lamp. Through the window that looked onto the back yard, the moon was rising, peach sherbet-colored and huge and full, and silhouetted against it was Jared's old tree house, held fifteen feet above the lawn. Martin remembered how ambitious a project that was to build, and how little he trusted his own carpentry skills, but he pulled it off somehow. A better tree house could not be found for miles. He and Jared had journeyed to some amazing places without leaving the yard; well worth all the lumber and smashed thumbs. He wished he had that time back - and that Jared back.
"Stop that," He scolded himself, "Live in the here and now." But his eyes, and his heart, were drawn to that black shape against the moon.
He wondered, after eight years, what condition it was in, considering no one had been in it for a couple of years or so. Finding the battery-powered lantern in the hall closet, Martin drifted out the French doors, off the deck and into the dark back yard. It had been a cool and dry March for Florida, and the grass crunched under his shoes. The lantern wasn't needed to find the big oak at the back of the lot, but he used it to inspect the ladder to see if it was sound, and it appeared to be. He grabbed the lamp in his teeth, and with automatic movements he climbed the ladder and was through the hatch quicker than he had expected.
The floor was solid and it held his weight well. In the glow of the lamp, the large wood roaches scattered. He opened a window to let fresh air in and the unpleasant mustiness and odors out. It seemed larger years ago, and was definitely cleaner and more pleasant.
Only a few toys were still on ledges and shelves, and a few homemade signs and posters were thumbtacked to the walls or had fallen to the floor. A table still stood under the east window with papers on it. The top page was a club membership roster, full of the names of neighborhood kids he recognized, and he missed having them around the house, and hearing them scream and dash about. He remembered from them that kids had their own set of ethics and rules of engagement, usually unwritten. Yet they also brought back to his middle-aged mind the wild power of the juvenile imagination. They gave him energy and kept him young when they were around, and he felt older, more tired, just thinking about it.
It was foolish to want things that were long since gone - Martin told himself this often. That's the kind of thing his Dad did, looking through old high school yearbooks, living in the past, or an imagined version of it, instead of living his life. He wasn't his Dad, he wasn't.
With the lamp he could see some of the wall art: pictures of tanks and soldiers, a list of club rules, a shield cut out of cardboard with a lion on it. From the floor he picked up a colorful page, rolled into a tube, that he remembered to be a treasure map.
"Hurry, Papa, We have to bury the treasure and leave before the King's ships trap us in the harbor."
"Bury the treasure deep, now."
"Bury it deep. Aye, Cap'n"
"Pop, what are you doing up here?"
The familiar voice of his son jerked Martin back to his present life. Jared was fifteen again, his shaggy brown hair failing to hide his soft cherubic face from the lamplight.
"Oh, I'm just...," Martin mumbled as he placed the treasure map on the table and tucked his shaking hand into his empty pocket. "I thought...." He contemplated inventing a lie about hearing a sound coming from the old tree house, but chose otherwise. "I thought I would just come up here. Wanted to look around."
"I haven't been up here in a while," Jared said, climbing the rest of the way through the hatch and cautiously testing the plywood floor with the worn jungle boot on his right foot. "You should have set off a bug bomb first."
His Papa sniffed with a shuddering laugh, "Can you believe we used to sleep up here?" He kept his head low to avoid upsetting the spindly spiders in the low sloping ceiling above their heads. "Do you remember how long it took us to build this thing?"
"It was, like, most of that summer, I guess," Jared recollected, "I would wait every day on the front porch for you to get home so we could get to work on it."
His Papa groaned, "I was dog tired for weeks." Glancing about, all the boards and screws were so familiar. He remembered cutting the odd angles and carefully working around the oak limbs that rose through the floor and twisted their way out the walls.
Pointing, as if pushing a button on an old thought, Jared said, "We had to fight City Hall to keep it, right?"
"Oh , the city commission didn't stand a chance when they saw your cute little pouting face. You won the day... made a speech and everything."
"This place was it. I was the envy of the neighborhood!" Jared glowed. "This was a castle, a starship, a submarine, a pirate galleon. All the kids for four blocks around were over here every afternoon."
"I don't think your Mom got a nap for two years."
"And she's probably still terrified I'll fall and..."
"'And break your neck!'" They roared at the same time. Jared stomped with laughter, dust rose and roaches scurried nervously.
They grew quiet, the crickets chirped just beyond the weathered walls, and the tree house swayed very gently in the arms of the giant tree. The full moon had turned to a cool white disc that painted large blueish squares on the floor.
"Why are you 'Papa', anyway?" Jared asked.
"Huh?" The question sounded truly odd to him.
"All my friends' dads are 'Dad'; why were you always 'Papa'?" Martin thought his son looked embarrassed at having asked the question, shuffling one boot and fumbling with a two-inch medieval archer on the window sill.
"I liked the sound of it," his Papa answered, "It sounded honest and nostalgic, like something out of those old TV reruns you snicker at. 'Papa' doesn't sound modern or plastic or synthesized. 'Papa' feels rich and natural to me, like freshly baked bread, like a fine handmade hardwood desk, like an old Andy Griffith rerun. Sturdy, quality, original. And I wanted to be that for you."
"O.K., Pop." Jared rolled his big blue-gray eyes at the low cobwebbed ceiling and put the archer in his shirt pocket.
Martin knew that the saccharin level could quickly become intolerable to his easily sickened teenager, but he decided to further push the envelope: "The day you were born, I promised you I would be home every night for supper. I probably wouldn't be able to give you much, but I would be home. That's what 'Papa' means."
"I can't remember you ever missing supper," Jared said, looking into the dining room window from his childhood perch, "Or missing anything else."
"That was the idea," Martin asserted, "I didn't want to miss a thing. And I still don't."
Jared looked trapped and skittish, so Martin changed the subject: "Your Mom said you were going to catch up with some of your friends."
"Is that O.K.?"
"Yep, and she said you needed some cash," Martin dug about in his wallet and found a twenty, and handed it to him. "Be good, and do good."
"Thanks, Papa; I will." Jared pocketed the bill and climbed down the ladder and into the darkness.
"Hasn't called me 'Papa' in a couple of years," Martin whispered to himself and the spiders, "Maybe that's progress."
Walking out onto the wobbly balcony, he remembered dropping anchor with his son on this very same beach; the ocean pitched the galleon gently about as it had years ago, with an ominous storm brewing to the west and the King's armada on the horizon, bearing down on them, bitter and hungry for a battle.
Jared plodded across the lawn but turned about as he stepped into the warm light that spilled from the French doors of the house. "Permission to go ashore, Cap'n?" he called out, gesturing with a thumb toward the kitchen.
"Permission granted," Martin responded, "Bury the treasure deep."
"Bury it deep. Aye, Sir."
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|Reviewed by David Perry
|A beautifully poignant depiction of a father/son relationship. The high quality description and dialogue, and a panoply of implied emotions reminded me of a good Updike passage, thanks for writing and sharing it. David P.|