I should tell you where I found the workhorse model. In “The Getaway Car,” Ann Patchett talked about one of her professors who required students to write one story a week. Later in the essay, Patchett said writing (and rewriting and rewriting) articles for magazines made her a workhorse.
Oh, and I should tell you I used a first sentence I posted months ago. Go find what’s languishing in your notebook or files, waiting.
It Happened Like That
The photo Tim showed me was creased, a line from hair to chin. He pointed to the man’s cupid lips and then to his own. “I think this is my father,” he said.
“Where’d you find him?”
“In my mom’s underwear drawer.”
I blushed. Tim knew his mom did that to his friends. She had Tim when she was sixteen and anyone who didn’t know thought she was the older sister. He punched my arm. “Sorry,” I said. “You want to know what else I found?” he asked. I shook my head. I’d gone through my own mom’s underwear drawer once, big white cotton flags you could send up in surrender, nesting nude bras. Mrs. Hayes picked up Burger King on the way to watch our soccer games. She made Tim let me choose what to watch when I was at their house. Knowing she wore boring underwear or lacy bits, either way, I’d die.
“What makes you think he’s your dad?”
“Look at us!” Tim held the picture up, tried on the somber gaze of the man. I shrugged. “It is,” he said, “You know it is.”
“Then who is he?”
“You don’t know his name.”
“You tell your mom?” I said that just as Mrs. Hayes pulled up in Carl’s Mustang. Tim put the photo in his backpack, put a finger to his lips. Mrs. Hayes leaned across the front seat and opened the door.
We were fourteen, the summer before we started freshman year at St. Peter’s. We were skinny kids, two only children who’d made one another siblings in elementary school. In sixth grade, Tim told me Carl wasn’t his real dad. He’d only just found out, overhearing a conversation between his mom and Carl. He looked like he was going to cry. It was a bad time for Tim to find out his dad was not his father. He started calling Carl Carl.
Later, in college, Tim told me how dumb he felt. “I should have known as soon as I did math,” he said. His mom married Carl when Tim was a toddler and he had no memories of life without a dad. In sixth grade, whenever Tim got mad at his mom he screamed about the lie he’d been living. It wasn’t a lie, though, just a kind of fragile armor. They had the same last name. Carl tickled and wrestled Tim. The two of them went fishing up north. Carl didn’t change. He was always kind. After one fight I was there for, Tim and Mrs. Hayes ran to their rooms, slamming doors, leaving Carl and me at the kitchen table. Carl sighed, slumped a little. He dished casserole onto our plates, bowed his head in silent grace. When he looked up he said, “Sometimes I forget. He looks like me, you know?”
Tim did look a little like Carl. The same coarse straw colored hair. Wiry build. I wondered if that was what Mrs. Hayes saw in Carl, a good substitute.
A year or two before we started high school, Mrs. Hayes met with a class of tenth grade girls. She talked about the holiness of marriage. She emphasized abstinence with her own teen pregnancy as a prop. This one assembly proved popular enough with the school administration that Mrs. Hayes was invited back each spring. When we were sophomores, Mrs. Hayes told Tim she wouldn’t go if he didn’t want her to. “Everyone knows, Mom,” he said. Neither of us were dating girls anyway. A year later when Tim got a girlfriend, Katie stopped his hand at her waistband. “Your mom,” she whispered, “Made me sign a purity pledge.”
Tim told me about that when we were in our first year of college together. Our childhood fantasy of sharing a room worked out okay at first. The day we moved in, our moms took us out for lunch while my dad and Carl built the lofts. The two of us were sitting across from the women who’d made us both dinner, cheered equally from the sidelines, put up with our shit, as my mom said. Mrs. Hayes would never say “shit.” The diner was full of parents having last lunches with their kids, all the years gone to this minute hoping everyone had said enough of the right things. I kept looking around, at the girls. I hadn’t gotten a girlfriend in high school.
“Hey,” Mrs. Hayes said. She smiled when I turned to her. “Be careful, okay? Watch out for each other.”
Tim liked to drink. This was something I knew but hadn’t been a part of in high school. This was our one split, that and Katie. But now Katie was in Green Bay and Tim had unpacked on one side of the room. The first weekend, he found a group heading to a frat party. He didn’t ask if I wanted to go along. I had this stabbing pain, like maybe we shouldn’t have roomed together, maybe he wanted to do his own thing after all. But when he returned at one in the morning, drunk, I understood why he needed me in the room. I knew his story. I didn’t mind listening to it again.
He’d gotten his father’s name from his mom. He’d begged for years. He punched a hole in the garage drywall. He’d picked the filing cabinet lock. Finally, his mom relented. She said he probably wouldn’t find Alan Smith. She’d barely found him.
“He left before he knew,” Tim said to me in the dark. “Before he knew he had a baby on the way, he was gone. He left.” When Tim talked about Alan or his mom, he’d take long pauses. Sometimes he’d fall asleep in his clothes. Sometimes he’d start talking again and the narrative thread worked into me dream so that I was Tim too, and I was looking for Alan and I despaired that my father had the last name Smith. “Effing Smith! Smith!” Tim said and sometimes laughed, sometimes went sullen at the impossibility of tracking down a man with two common names.
“He’s from Canada,” Tim said, “Which narrows it. By millions.”
Tim put up a map of Canada in our room and started disappearing to the computer lab in the basement, googling Alan Smith Canada. He printed out a list of hundreds. He spent a week narrowing the list by age. This was before Facebook was big so he couldn’t look at pictures. He wasn’t sure it was okay to email or call the Alan Smiths and say maybe they were traveling through Wisconsin nineteen, twenty years ago.
“Mom said he was working, logging maybe. He was twenty-two. Think I can cross off the college professor?” Tim was hunched over a stack of printed pages. It was three in the morning. I had a test at eight. I said that. Tim kicked back his chair and turned off the desk light, stomped into the hall. “Good night, Sleeping Beauty,” he said before slamming the door.
He got a little mean. I didn’t know if it was how much he drank or if it was Alan Smith. I was beginning to think it might be Alan Smith, the nature part growing in thick like Tim’s torso filling out. He didn’t look much like Carl anymore.
Every other weekend Tim drove across the state to see Katie. After first semester, I waited for those two or three days of solitude. One Friday night a group of Tim’s friends pounded on the door. A couple of them were already swaying. When they found out Tim was gone, they insisted I come along. “The phantom roomie,” one of them called me, putting an arm around me. We stopped briefly to pick up two girls, each of us doing shots, crowded between two bunks and laughing hysterically. It was like a movie I’d seen.
We walked to a dumpy frat house on the edge of campus, paid five bucks for a red Solo cup, and walked single file down warped steps to the hot, damp basement. I got drunk quickly because I didn’t know how not to. I leaned against a cool cement wall and watched the people around me pair off, disappear. Soon was the only one there who wasn’t in the frat. The guy who’d been pouring tiny shots all night told me they were going to turn the lights on. “Won’t be pretty,” he said, “I think a few people threw up.” I went into the cold night. I wasn’t as drunk as I’d felt in the basement. I put my hands in my pockets and made my way back to the room where I stood in front of Tim’s map and looked at the stars he’d drawn over all the possible addresses his father kept.
The next weekend when all the guys came for Tim, one of them said, “Hey, Phantom, you gotta come along. Come on.” Tim looked at me and shrugged. A couple of beers later, he leaned into me and shouted above the music. “I’m sorry! I was such a dick! I don’t know why!” In third grade, I ate a wood chip from the playground because Tim said he’d do it after me. When I swallowed the last of it, Tim looked very sad and said he couldn’t do it. Maybe he’d always been a little like this. “That’s okay!” I yelled back. We didn’t talk about Alan Smith all night.
I didn’t get a girlfriend that year. And Katie broke up with Tim. We packed up for summer, two boys who’d finally gotten to share a room. I was going home to work with my dad but Tim decided to take a road trip through Canada. “You can come, if you like,” he said. I thought about it. I really needed some cash. “You think you’ll find him?” I asked. He shrugged. “What’ll you say?” Tim grinned. “’Daddy? Is that you?’ Scare the fuck outta him.”
He called me twice. The first time, so pleased I thought he’d found the Alan Smith. “No, no. I wish. But this guy, this Alan Smith was really nice. Doesn’t look anything like me. He’s a First Nation. I don’t know how he got a name like this.” The second time, a little whispery, from a pay phone in a vestibule. “I think it’s the Alan Smith. I got a picture.” Later we’d look at that picture – not even the full profile of a man – and the creased photo from his mom’s underwear drawer and go back and forth how likely it was the same man. We saw what we wanted to see, given the night. Both photos were tacked on the map.
Mrs. Hayes and Carl surprised us one Friday afternoon. They’d gotten a letter from Tim’s advisor. Tim wasn’t doing well. I wasn’t in the room when they showed up. My stomach goes ice to think what Mrs. Hayes thought when she saw the map, that long ago stolen photo. By the time I got back from my afternoon class, Mrs. Hayes was sitting on the futon, her face splotchy from crying. Carl stood by the window, looking out at the parking lot and a row of trees beyond. Tim was at his desk.
“Did you know?” Mrs. Hayes asked me. I looked at my shoes. “I told you to look out for each other,” she said.
“He just wants to know,” I said, the first time I’d ever talked about Alan Smith with anyone other than Tim.
“He knows enough,” Mrs. Hayes said. Even crying, with smeared make up, she was beautiful. It reminded me of something mean my mom said, about how Mrs. Hayes was only invited to speak to the St. Peter’s girls because she’d made it through pretty.
“The name,” I said. I heard myself say Alan Smith. “Maybe he would like to know he has a son.”
“Would you? After twenty years?”
“I don’t know.”
Carl turned from the window. “I would,” he said, “But we came here about the grades. Tim, we’re worried about you. That’s all.”
“What did I do?” Mrs. Hayes said to Tim. “You have a dad. You went to a good school. What are you doing?”
“Mom. I’ve said it. I just want to find him. I love Carl –”
“But what did I do?” Mrs. Hayes’s hands were fists in her lap and tears ran down her face again. Tim got really still. I knew what he was going to say. He’d said it to me after nights of drinking. What his mom did. He said, “You fucked a transient man six years older than you, Mom.” Carl took a step forward. I think Tim wanted to be hit. Mrs. Hayes slid from the futon to the floor, kneeling at Tim’s feet, her hands covering her face, sobbing. When she stood up, she looked at Tim and said, “I wouldn’t take it back.”
“You didn’t have to say it like that,” I said, after. Tim stayed in his chair, clenching and unclenching his fists.
He dropped out at semester. I returned from winter break to find a Korean roommate. The next year I moved off campus and invited Tim to come back, take a job in LaCrosse. By then, he’d decided to get his commercial license and drive rigs across North America. For a few years he emailed occasionally. He came to my wedding, sent postcards from places I’d never been. When I moved my family to Colorado, I emailed our new address but didn’t hear back. No postcards. A few more years went by like that. When we went back to Wisconsin, I drove by Tim’s house. I didn’t see Mrs. Hayes or Carl. The last time I’d spoken with either was at my wedding. When my parents bought a house in Phoenix, we had no reason to return to my hometown.
My wife answered the phone one Saturday and put a hand over her mouth, passed the receiver to me. It was Mrs. Hayes, telling me that Tim died yesterday, an accident north of Winnepeg. I listened. I couldn’t speak. When I hung up I found my wife already booking a plane ticket. My parents flew to Wisconsin too, the three of us staying at the Holiday Inn. Mrs. Hayes asked if I’d speak at the memorial. Tim didn’t want a mass. I don’t remember what I said. I had an idea before I went up, a few lines on a piece of hotel paper, but I can’t remember if I said what I wanted to. I said he was a brother. When I said that I looked out at Mrs. Hayes and Carl, the two people who might have loved him more than I did.
I hadn’t missed him as much as I could have. Being in our hometown again, that made me remember what I lost. He was a brother. I kept thinking that. And I saw him everywhere. By the fourth day, I wanted to go back to Colorado, to my own wife and boys. I didn’t want to keep seeing Tim. I felt like I’d said goodbye years ago. I thought Tim would live on wherever he was, driving lines across a map, drinking black coffee, reading paperbacks in his bunk. I pictured him like that, away and alone, but alive. Now that he was dead, I didn’t want to see him at all. I’d rather he stay the brother I found in grade one.
It would’ve been rude to leave without saying goodbye to his parents. I parked the rental in front of their house and rang the doorbell. I couldn’t remember ever ringing the bell before. Mrs. Hayes answered. She stepped aside and I went in to the house that’d been my second home all of my growing up. They had a new dining table and living room set. The pictures on the walls were the same. A new TV. Carl got up from the recliner, extended his hand. “Appreciate what you said,” he said. I nodded. He gestured for me to sit and Mrs. Hayes went to the kitchen for drinks.
“Laura was hoping you’d come by,” he said, “She has something to show you.”
Mrs. Hayes came in with a tray, sodas and glasses with ice cubes. She pushed aside a stack of sympathy cards on the coffee table. “Here you go,” she said and smiled. She wasn’t wearing any make up and that made her look softer.
“Laura, I said you had something,” Carl said.
“Oh. Yes, I do. Just let me.” Mrs. Hayes poured half a can of Pepsi in a glass and handed it to me. She came back a moment later with an envelope. I set my glass down. The letter was handwritten, Tim’s cramped print. He found Alan Smith in Sudbury. He was sure it was the right Alan Smith because one of the sons looked like Tim. I could feel Mrs. Hayes watching me. Tim decided not to approach his father. Having found the Alan Smith, he wrote, he wasn’t sure which line of the many he’d rehearsed would come out of his mouth. After a day thinking, he left Sudbury, having only driven by the Smith house a few times, catching glimpses of his father’s life. He ended the letter saying he wouldn’t contact Alan Smith but if you want to, here is his address.
I turned the envelope over to check the postmark. A couple of years ago. “Did you?” I asked. Mrs. Hayes shook her head. “I wish I had,” she whispered. Carl said, “I didn’t think it was a good idea.”
“I didn’t think so either, at the time,” Mrs. Hayes said, “But now.”
“We’ll probably write a letter, send a picture,” Carl said.
“I could go,” I said. I remembered all the stars on Tim’s map. One must have been on Sudbury. I could change my flight, take the rental up for a few days. I said all of this on the phone to my wife while Mrs. Hayes packed a small cooler with food. It was midafternoon and if I left now, I could make it to Canada before it got too late. Spend a whole day driving east to Sudbury. Meet Alan Smith. Give him a photo of Tim, tell him what his boy had been like.
I didn’t think about what I would actually say. I stopped at a hotel and showered, watched tv until I fell asleep. I left before the hotel staff had finished setting out the breakfast muffins and cereals. The highway was roughed up by winters, stretches of it potholed. I drove through and around little towns. I stopped for coffee at a Tim Horton’s. Around noon I checked GPS. I had at least another six. I wanted to stop. I thought I could finish the trip tomorrow. It was midweek. Alan Smith must work. I couldn’t just show up at his house at eight a.m. anyway. But I continued, made to the edge of Sudbury.
I checked into the hotel and called my wife. I thought about calling Mrs. Hayes, but there was nothing to tell her. I walked down the street to a fast food place and ate a tray of onion rings, had a milkshake. Back in my room, I took a shower and turned on the TV, turned it off. I thought about my boys. And about Tim. A single vehicle accident. I looked at my phone. Ten days ago now. When we were kids, that was as long as we were ever apart, when our families took vacations.
The Smith house was an old two-story with a small porch and cracked sidewalk. I parked out front at seven in the morning, hoping I might catch Alan on his way to work. I watched the front door.
This is how it would go: Alan Smith and his wife would pause their morning. They’d send their youngest son out the door. Tim would be right. I’d see Tim in the boy’s features as he looked from his parents to me, then back at his dad to be sure it was okay to go. After he left, Alan’s wife – Janet maybe – would pour coffees and set out cream and the three of us would sit at table waiting for each of us to stir in the right amount of creamer.
Do you remember a girl named Laura Brillowski? I’d ask.
Alan’s brow would furrow. He’d run a hand through his hair, looking for a recollection. I’d wait a minute. Janet would ask what this was about. From Wisconsin? I’d say, Late seventies, like ’78?
Alan would shake his head. He didn’t remember. He’d apologize because this was clearly important to me. Janet would ask him if this was when he was pulping wood in the U.P. but it was another summer. Janet would ask again what this was all about. Then I’d have to say it. I’d have to say that Laura Brillowski had a son nine months after Alan had gone on, to the U.P. or wherever. That she’d married a man named Carl and they raised the boy as their own.
But Tim – that’s your son’s name, I’d say – Tim found a picture of Alan and then the name of his father. He looked for you for years. He found you, I’d say.
Alan’s hand would be too shaky to pick up his coffee cup. Janet would squint her eyes and ask if I was speaking in the third person, if I was a crazy. She might even half stand to find her mobile buried in her purse.
I’d have to raise my hands a little, show peace. No, I’d say, Tim was my best friend growing up, like a brother. I only just heard he found you. He told his mom – Laura.
Alan would pull a memory from a trip he and a few boys took on a rare long weekend. He would remember Laura’s lips like berries. He would tell Janet it was okay. He hadn’t known Laura’s last name. He hadn’t thought. It happened like things do, kids going to an old cabin on a lake. She was there. It happened like that.
Janet would bow her head. Alan would ask if I brought a picture and I’d show him one of Tim in our first year of college. It looked a lot like the one of Alan Tim kept. Alan would bring the picture closer. He’d put a hand over his mouth. Janet would lean over to see. They’d forget that I talked about Tim in the past tense and I’d have to tell them they couldn’t meet him. And then, watching them sit with that birth and death in the space of fifteen minutes, I would know I’d made a mistake. I’d understand why Tim only drove by the house, caught a glance at the man who’d fathered him and gone on to have more children he loved because he knew them.
Coming in late and unknown, it wasn’t fair. Tim must have decided that. It wasn’t fair to Alan Smith or his wife or his kids. If Tim had never learned this truth, not the worst truth to learn, but one that couldn’t go away, where would he be? Alan didn’t know yet, didn’t walk around carrying Tim. For Alan, it was all done when it happened like that.
The front door opened and a lanky teenager jumped down the step and walked down the street. A couple of minutes later, a woman in a pantsuit carrying an oversize leather bag walked across the lawn in her heels and got into a Honda, backed down the drive and didn’t look my way at all. Then Alan Smith came out and it was like looking at Tim, if Tim made it to sixty. He wore old jeans and a flannel, carried a lunchbox cooler. His pickup grumbled and backed down the drive. Smith Remodeling & Restoration stenciled white on red. I don’t think he saw me either. I sat for a while longer, then programmed the GPS for the long drive back.