He carries out the nightly ritual
ordained by his mother
by embracing whoever’s there.
He moves among us through the incense of nicotine like a little priest in a pair of hopeful spiderman pajamas.
He tiptoes over the empty beer bottles and bowls of cigarette butts to lay his damp head on our thighs and wrap his squat arms around our legs.
He blesses us all goodnight
in a voice too deep for a boy of only seven. When it’s my turn, I always sit up straight and sober, hide my beer behind my back—ashamed.
The day before, I found him out back on the rickety deck hurling beer bottles left on the ledge deep into the bamboo below. I never knew my real dad, he tells me.
Neither did I, I hear myself say.
He stops throwing brown bottle stones
and cocks his head at me like a dog
as if my confession was a sound that
went beyond the range of normal
7-year-old boy understanding.
I flounder for words,
some sort of comforting cliche
to spread out between us like a bridge.
It takes all kinds of families
to make up the world.
Something neither of us believe.
Yeah I know, he says, going back to his bottles. He doesn’t mean it. He’s just agreeing with the adult because that’s what is expected of him.
That’s what is always expected of him.
Later that night,
his mother tells us he’s been accepted into the gifted program at school.
She is proud, sloshing her words
around like liquor in a glass, as if her Alabama genes had anything to do with it.
As if on cue he enters in the dark flowing robes of Darth Vader.
He holds up his saber like a staff above us. His newest father laughs and grabs it from him, hitting too hard in his red wine state. But the boy hits back and knocks off his glasses.
We hoot and holler. He runs to his mother. She looks at her red faced man feeling on the floor for his glasses.
Then she looks down at the boy, his arms around her leg–sends him to bed without saying his prayers.
He hugs me as he walks by and says goodnight. I hold on too long, clutching at the corner of his robe. He pulls away and cocks his head at me. I flounder for some comforting cliche.
It will get better. You’ll see. These things take time. Something neither of us believe.
Yeah, I know. He says in a voice too deep for a boy of only seven.
But he doesn’t know and neither do I. But that is a confession we keep to ourselves. Because it’s what’s expected. It’s what’s always expected.