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Archive for December, 2005

Holiday Rush

After dinner on Christmas Eve, I was sent to the living room to enjoy my bourbon, my belly full of burritos, my ears full of accolades. Family tradition: the chef is not allowed to clear dishes.

Bernard and his daughter Julia commandeered that task. He was stationed at the sink as she shuttled dishes from the table. Meanwhile, Lucy commandeered Julia’s husband Aaron and headed to the attic.

The kids were told to stay downstairs for a while. As long as a few pipe hits, at least.

I was soon joined by “the boys,” Richard and Paul. Jason sat with his uncle Richard, who dropped an arm on the boy’s shoulder. Bucky pulled up chairs for herself and her girlfriend Linda, who had joined us for dinner. Linda is a sweet lady, and an artist. Bucky tended the fire as we talked.

Everyone knew to gravitate to the living room for the next traditions of Christmas Eve.

Ever since Jason was a toddler, we’ve gathered to sing “Twelve Nights of Christmas” and to read “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.”

Richard took the lead in establishing this tradition, singing loudly and reading Clement Clarke Moore until Jason was old enough to take over that duty.

Every year, we make some of the same jokes. For example, we sing “Twelve Nights” from an illustrated book. Richard always points out that one of the Eight Maids a-Milkin’ bears a resemblance to Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

He always embellishes his extension of Five Gold Rings.

We enjoy these corny touches.

The dishes rinsed and in the dishwasher, Bernard pulled up a chair. Julia headed upstairs to join her husband and sister for a “break.”

It was about nine thirty.

Collie sat between his brother and uncle Paul. “Do we have to sing this year?” Collie groused, crossing his arms in mock complaint.

“Yes sir, we do,” I said. “And you have to sing loud and like it.”

“No way, not me.”

“It’s a tradition, and you better love it, mister.”

Paul tickled his shoulder. Collie giggled.

“Dad?” Lillie whispered. “Where’s Mom?”

Bucky overheard. “Yes, where is she? Are we waiting for her?”

“She’s upstairs, Mother,” Richard said, with an air of admonishment. “She’ll be down.”

“Oh, upstairs, huh.” Bucky knows the score. “Well, we don’t want to wait all night. We have”—she dropped her voice to a loud whisper—“things to do.”

Jason smiled.

“We know. Mother. So Linda, what are you working on?”

We talked. Paul put another log on the fire. Ten o’clock came and went. Lillie counted her gifts again. Collie’s eyes drooped.

“Now, where is Lucy?” Bucky said, interrupting conversation. “Should I go get her?”

Not a good idea. Lucy would not respond well to entreaties from her mother or ex husband. I appointed a messenger. “Lillie, would you go to the steps of the attic and tell your mom that everyone is waiting on them?” She ran off. I heard her laugh upstairs. She came back to the banister.

“Mom said ‘get a grip,” she laughed.

Julia came down to join us.“What are they doing?” Bucky asked. “Can’t you make your sister and husband come downstairs?”

“I can only control my husband,” Julia said, looking at the fire. “He’s on his way.”

Collie looked up. “If Mom skips the singing, can I skip it?”

I took a breath. “I don’t think she will skip it.”

“Well, this is boring, just waiting,” Jason sighed.

Aaron came downstairs. “Any word from Lucy?” Richard asked.

“She says we should get started without her. She’s putting on lipstick.”

Bucky looked at her watch. “God, it’s almost eleven.”

“Well, we’re not waiting any longer,” Richard said, flipping through “Twelve Days.” “Look,” he said, holding up the book. “It’s Sandra Day O’Connor.”

Bernard and I laughed on cue.

I was annoyed; I guess we all were.

“Mom’s not here, so I don’t have to stay.” Collie leapt up and went to the study.

“Me too!” Lillie followed.

“Kids, where are you going?” Paul called. “We’re getting started.”

“Let’s just go ahead.” I said, handing Jason his copy of Clement Clarke Moore. “Do us proud, son.”

He began to read. Lucy came downstairs as Jason threw open the sash to see what was the matter. She sat, avoiding eye contact with everyone. She crossed her legs, tucking her hands between her thighs, extending her arms so that her shoulders nearly covered her ears. Her freshly painted lips were pursed into a tense smile as her son read.

“ . . . But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,

‘Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night.’” We applauded his rendition. I heard Collie and Lillie giggle at the door behind me. They were spying.

We sang our way through twelve nights of gift giving.

Afterward, I explained the Epiphany to Julia, who never understood why there were twelve days. Richard noted that adding up all the gifts given during the course of the song numbers three hundred and sixty four.

“That’s a year, minus one day.” Jason added.

“Right?” Richard said. “Coincidence? Or conspiracy?”

Lucy stood. “Okay kids, time for bed.” The kids kissed us all good night, and followed their mother upstairs.

Traditionally, the adults remain together for a while, until the kids are asleep. There is the traditional passing of the peace pipe, as Lucy’s family gets stoned together. This is always fun to watch, as some are practiced stoners, and others smoke only on this occasion.

Last year, stoned, they sat speculating on the physics of shortwave radio.

Then Santa arrives. I am usually coached through the assembly of Hot Wheels and train sets. This year would be different.

“Well, I’m exhausted.” Bucky stood. “I’m going to bed.” Linda stood to leave. Bernard and the boys stood to follow.

“Not staying for Santa?” I asked.

“There’s not much to do,” Bucky said. “You can handle it, right?”

“Sure . . .” The truth is, I had no idea what Santa was bringing. In years past, Bucky would contact me in October, pressing for a list of the kids’ Christmas preferences. She knew to bypass Lucy, who hated being asked about Christmas before Halloween. We would put together a list, run it past Lucy, and Bucky would order everything, having it sent to her house to await the big night.

This year, Lucy took care of it.

Julia and Aaron helped her to bring up the loot as I tended the fire.

They made one trip.

“Need help with the rest?” I asked.

“No, that’s it,” Aaron said.

I looked at the assembled loot.

One football jersey each for Collie and Jason. A Batgirl action figure for Lillie. An alarm clock for Collie.

“That’s it?” I was, frankly, incredulous. “That is just lame! You can’t come downstairs Christmas morning and find an alarm clock waiting.”

“Is it bad?” Lucy looked worried. Oh, now she speaks.

“We can fix it,” I said, rummaging under the tree. “Just, please, go wrap the alarm clock.” She took the box and left. Julia followed. “Aaron, let’s move these piles to the center of the room,” I said.

“Okay, what, one pile for each kid?”

“Yes.” I unwrapped gifts that had been marked “From Dad.”

I had a secret weapon this Christmas. Bridget had taken me shopping.

For weeks in advance of our combined outing, she had shopped on her own. She was armed with the children’s sizes and quizzed me about favorite movies and books. Bridget can shop for bargains like no one I know. Without spending too much, she had delivered a carload of presents before the holidays.

That night, Bridget and I had wrapped for a couple of hours before deciding to have sex, leaving the rest for me to finish.

With Aaron’s help, I arranged the gifts. No professional window dresser could have done better. “Nice,” Aaron admired.

“Thanks.”

We stood looking at the bounty when Lucy and Julia returned with the wrapped clock.

“Wow,” Julia said.

“You want ‘wow,’” I smiled. “It’s Christmas!”

Lucy nodded, smiling. We turned out the lights. Aaron and Julia drove to their hotel. Lucy went upstairs.

I poured a bourbon and turned the tree back on. I sat among the gifts, watching the embers burn.

The next morning, I woke in the study to hear the kids whispering about the presents.

It was six thirty.

Lucy came down the stairs. “Look at all those gifts!” she said.

I pulled on a t-shirt adorned by the assembled Peanuts gang from “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” and joined them.

(Bridget had thrown the shirt at me as we shopped at a Target in New Jersey. “Nine ninety nine. You are wearing this on Christmas morning.”

I tossed it back. “I don’t wear logo t-shirts.”

She gave me a look and threw it in the cart. “Don’t think, just do what I tell you.”)

The kids shook boxes. The boys put on their jerseys. Lillie played with Batgirl.

Lucy made coffee.

We had to wait to open presents. Family tradition: we open gifts only when everyone is assembled.

The uncles and aunts were due at nine.

When Bucky came down, she put out a spread of bagels, cream cheese, capers and lox. The kids ate. They were very patient.

I made more coffee.

Aaron and Julia arrived. Finally, Richard and Paul joined us, just before nine. They joined the adults in the kitchen, preparing mugs and plates in advance of the imminent orgy of wrapping paper.

Lucy joined the kids in the living room. Lillie ran into the kitchen. “Dad, can we open presents now?”

“In a minute, baby, as soon as the grown ups are ready.”

“Aw!”

“We’re almost ready now, Lillie,” Richard said, stirring his tea.

“Oh, you can get started,” Lucy called from the living room. “You’ve waited long enough. Come on!” Lillie ran to the living room, already awash in the sounds of tearing paper.

Bernard looked at me, quizzical. “Can you wait one minute, please?” I called. “It’s just a moment!”

“No, they don’t have to wait,” Lucy called. “You rushed me last night, so I can rush you this morning.”

Richard shook his head, his jaw dropped. He looked at me. “Did she really just say that?” he asked.

“Cool!” Collie shouted. “A new game! Thanks, Uncle Richard!”

“Uh, you’re welcome . . . ” Richard called back.

Collie didn’t hear.

He was already tearing into a new box.

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Dinner Plans

By tradition, I cook dinner on Christmas Eve.

This tradition dates back to before the kids were born.

When I first began to Christmas with Lucy’s family, just after college, we were six: Lucy’s mother Bucky, her father Bernard, her brother Richard, his boyfriend Paul, Lucy and me. If Bucky had a girlfriend at the time, another chair could always be found.

Lucy’s stepsister Julia was then in her teens and still preferred to spend Hanukkah with her mother, Bernard’s second ex wife. Bernard’s third and current wife Christmased in Paris with her son.

At the time, the traditional dinner was lobster. Once she got the water boiling, Bucky would call me into the kitchen. “I don’t mind dropping in the lobsters,” she explained. “But I need you here to talk with so I don’t think about their demise.”

So she and I would chat as the lobsters met their fates, our voices drowning out their death rattles. I’d stay to melt the butter.

As our numbers grew, it became expensive and impractical to serve lobster. So one year, I offered to make burritos and margaritas. The menu worked and the tradition took hold.

Bucky keeps the original shopping list I prepared that first Mexican Christmas Eve in the back of a cookbook. Each year, I arrive to see that everything has been purchased in advance—right down to the precise amount of raw chicken, not an ounce more or less.

Around six, Richard and Lucy built a fire.

“Collie?” I whispered.

“What?” he whispered back.

“Can you help me cook dinner?”

“Yes,” he smiled. He thought a moment. “But that means Jason can’t help, right?”

“Right, just you and me.” He nodded happily. “C’mon, then let’s get to work.” I took his hand.

“Now wait a minute,” Bucky said, standing. She took up her vodka. “What do you need me to do?”

“I think we’re all set, Bucky,” I said, as she followed us to the kitchen. I’ve been cooking in this kitchen for most of my adult life.

“Well, look, I want to show you where everything is. The vegetables are by the chopping block, the rice is by the stove, the beans are over here . . .” She opened the refrigerator. “And here are the cheese, the chicken, the sour cream . . . and the salsa is over here by the chips . . .”

I closed the refrigerator door behind her. “Okay, great,” I said. “We can take it from here.”

“Well, which knife do you want to use?”

“Do you recommend one?”

She opened a drawer. “I just sharpened this one, it’s the best, but you may want this smaller one.”

I looked in the drawer.

“Collie, you want to take the big sharp one and I’ll use the small sharp one?” Collie looked at me, deadpan.

Bucky removed her glasses. “Well, my dear, he can’t use that knife; he is a mere child!”

“He’s kidding. Right, Dad?” Collie said.

“Yes, I’m kidding.” I scruffed his hair. “I’ve got your knife right here.” I handed him a butter knife from the silverware drawer. “This will be fine for chopping mushrooms.”

Collie took the knife as though it were his father’s light sabre.

“Now, what do you need me to do?” Bucky asked.

“I think we’re fine, thanks. It’s very simple.”

She looked around. “Well, I’ll make margaritas, then.”

“That’s a fine offer—I didn’t think of that. Collie, let me show you how to cut these.”

I put out a chopping block and piled the mushrooms. I showed him how to cut the stems, flip the heads and slice them.

“Got it?”

“Yes.”

“Show me.” Collie cut into a mushroom. “That’s perfect, but for one thing. Always cut away from yourself, like this . . .”

“Oh shit!” Bucky exclaimed.

I looked to see her holding the blender carafe, confused.

“What happened?”

“Oh, well, I stupidly poured in the tequila without checking the bottom . . . and it wasn’t screwed on . . .” Tequila streamed onto the counter.

I grabbed two sponges. “Here, let’s clean it up. No big deal.”

“It’s just a stupid waste,” she said, wiping the counter.

Collie stopped cutting to watch. I squeezed a sponge in the sink, and returned to help.

“Oh, I’ve got this, I’m fine,” she said. “You’re cooking, I can make drinks.”

“Okay, you seem to have the situation under control.”

“Yes,” she laughed. “Now that I know to screw the goddamn blender in place.”

Collie looked at me. “Let’s see you chop some more, son. Remember to cut away from yourself.”

“Like this?”

“Perfect.” I chopped peppers, then onions. The chicken poached as broth bubbled for the rice. There was a crash behind me.

“Oh, damn it!”

Ice was scattered on the floor. “You okay?” I asked.

“Yes, now I’ve dropped an ice tray. What is with me?”

“Need a hand?”

“No, I can manage this.” She snorted. “You’d think I never made a drink before.”

The crash brought Paul in from the living room. “Look at you, Collie. Nice work. Anything I can do to help? Oh, there’s ice on the floor?”

“Yes,” Bucky said, stooping to pick up a cube. “I’ve dropped the ice.”

“Oh here, I can get those,” Paul said, bending to one knee.

“Thanks. I’ll get another tray and make the margaritas.”

“Are these mushrooms good, Dad?”

“They are great, son, thanks.”

Bucky finished the margaritas as Paul took down the glasses. Bucky poured them and added lime wedges. “One for the chef,” she said, setting a glass by my side.

“Thanks, honey.” I lifted the glass. “Cheers.”

“Well, I don’t have a glass yet, but cheers.” She laughed and put a hand on my shoulder.

Paul and Bucky distributed drinks in the living room, where the fire was settling nicely.

I moved Collie to his next task, grating cheese. Uncle Aaron offered to help. I stirred the peppers and onions. I added Collie’s mushrooms.

She’s changed, I thought. Hasn’t she?

Bucky is scared to death of Alzheimer’s. Her mother had it. Her grandmother had it. Bucky has always been eccentric, and she’s always been a lush. When things go awry, she has those excuses. Maybe she was just missing part of the conversation, she could say to herself. Maybe she was a bit in her cups, she could say.

But she knows: after decades of joking about her drinking, she is now using it to cover other things. It’s different.

We’ve all dreaded the possibility of Bucky with Alzheimer’s. She is so physically strong, and so accustomed to being in control. It will be so hard for her and for us.

I stirred.

Well, not us, I mean. For them. When Lucy dumped me, she took away one set of my parents. Lucy rarely consults me about our kids. I doubt she will consult with me about her mother’s health. I certainly have no legal authority to deal with Bucky’s health care. That will be left to her children—her son Richard and the daughter who hates her. Even as she hates me.

I stirred.

I sipped my margarita. “Five minutes to dinner!” I called.

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My sons were watching football with their grandparents. Their grandmother shouted at the television as the Giants blew it, again. Jason despaired about the Falcons.

I sat in the living room playing Uno with Lillie.

The Christmas tree glowed with white lights. Ella Fitzgerald sang the Rodgers and Hart songbook. “I get too hungry for dinner at eight . . . ” I sang along.

“Dad.”

“I go to opera and stay wide awake.”

“Dad.”

“I never bother with people I hate. Help me, Lillie!”

“No.”

“I’ll just have to sing it louder then . . . that’s why the lady is a tramp.”

She rolled her eyes. “Dad, it’s your turn.”

“Again? Okay, green five.”

Lillie drew a card.

“Lillie?” her mother called from the sun room. She was splitting one of the two copies of the paper with Richard and Paul.

“What, Mom?”

“Do you want to go to the carousel?”

“In a minute, I’m playing Uno with Dad.”

“Okay. Finish that, and we’ll go with your uncles.”

“Okay!”

Lillie returned to her hand.

“Ha! Draw four and the color is . . . blue. Do you have any blues, Dad?”

“And how. Don’t start me talking; I could talk all night.” I tossed down a card. “Blue three.”

Lillie studied her cards. “Hey Dad, do you want to go to the carousel?”

“Sure, that sounds fun.”

“Hey Mom, Dad is coming to the carousel!”

There was a pause. “Okay,” her mother shouted.

“We can try to get the gold ring,” Lillie said, putting down a blue seven. “It’s special.”

“That’s right, the brass ring means a free ride.” I discarded a red seven. “Uno!”

Lillie looked up at me, her tongue in her teeth. She put down a red six. I tossed a red four. “I win! I win, I win, I win.”

“Whatever, that’s two games for you, six games for me.”

“And five dollars you owe me.”

Lillie lifted a bare foot to my face. “We aren’t playing for real money, Dad,” she giggled.

“Can we change the bet and say we are? I didn’t know I was going to win.”

“No, that’s not fair.”

“Fine. Fine! Maybe you can just give me five dollars anyway?”

“Dad . . .”

“Fine, I’ll just gloat.” I reached for her shoes and socks. “Let’s get ready for the carousel.”

I called to the other room. “Lucy, we’re almost ready.”

“Okay.”

I heard chairs move. Richard and Paul passed through the room to the coat closet. I handed Lillie her coat and put on my own. Lillie threw her coat on the floor, upside down. This shows her the right way to put it on. Lucy passed me without looking up. She sat on the futon to watch the game.

“You coming with us, Lucy?” I asked.

“No, thank you.”

She sighed, as if uttering those three words offended every fiber of her being.

By mid afternoon Christmas Eve, I had noticed a pattern. Lucy wasn’t speaking to me.

If I entered a room, she left the room. If I spoke to her, she answered in the fewest possible words. She never initiated conversation with me.

She was employing the silent treatment.

While we were together, even before we married, this was a favored tactic. I could ignore it at times and enjoy the quiet eye in the storm of a fight. But eventually, I would panic. What if the kids noticed Mom wasn’t talking to Dad? What if the neighbors noticed?

If people knew, I fretted, they would know we aren’t normal.

Two years out of my marriage, I am less concerned. This is Lucy’s family. They know we aren’t normal. She was free to take whatever bizarre turns were dictated by her moods and mental health. I was free to remain unaffected by her hostility.

“Okay, Lillie, you ready to go?”

“Yes, all ready.”

Lillie ran ahead as I walked with her uncles.

“Nice to be outside,” I said. “Rather chilly inside.”

“Yes, it was pretty nippy,” Richard said.

I bought two tickets at the carousel. I rode behind Lillie, as she wanted, so that I could watch her reach for the brass ring. We waved at the uncles at each rotation. They always waved back.

We didn’t catch the brass ring, so I bought two more tickets. We missed again.

“Ah well,” I said. “We rode twice anyway!”

“Yeah, and on random horses!” Lillie exclaimed.

“Awesome, right?” I didn’t know what it meant to ride on “random horses,” but she liked the idea, so I played along.

We walked home along the bay. We passed a candy store. Outside, Santa Claus was playing a banjo. Lillie pointed to him.

“Hello, little girl!,” Santa called. “You are so beautiful with your red hair!”

Lillie grimaced and stiffened her back. She walked on.

“Such a beautiful little girl!” Santa called to the three men behind her.

“Thanks, Santa,” I called back, waving. I leaned to Lillie and whispered,“Think that will shut up the old man?”

“I think we can get Santa on sexual harassment,” Richard said.

“You know Santa was talking about me, right?” Paul called ahead.

Lillie spun around. “Yeah, right. You don’t have red hair! You’re bald!” She laughed.

“Ooh, burned you!” I said. “Snap!” Paul ran his fingers though his hair and grimaced. I quietly did the same.

We walked home, entering the house through the kitchen. “Dad! Dad!” Collie called, running to me. “You have to be nice to Jason.”

“Why on earth would I want to be nice to Jason?” I said, unzipping Lillie’s coat. “What’s he done for me lately?”

“He’s sad because the Falcons aren’t going to the play offs. Come on!” he took my hand.

“One second.” I kicked off my shoes and put my coat in a chair.

Collie led me to Jason. He was watching the Giants, late in the fourth quarter. When he saw Collie tugging me, he lowered his face in feigned despondence. His lips curled at the corners.

“Oh my poor baby!” I cried. “So sad, and so much life to live!” I crawled across the futon to him.

“Hey, you are blocking the view,” Bucky chastised.

“What do I care of that? My baby needs me.” I took his face in my hands.

“Sweet Jason, it is a tragedy,” I said, furrowing my brow. I pulled him to my bosom. “You will never, never recover from this.” He laughed. “You are scarred for life.”

Collie joined me in hugging his brother. “Poor Jason!” he moaned. “It’s too, too sad!”

“Will you please move?” Bucky asked, straining her neck. “It’s the fourth quarter.”

“Sorry,” I said, standing out of the way. “Lucy gave up on the game?”

Collie piped up. “She went on a walk with Aunt Julia and Uncle Aaron.”

“Ah.”

I exchanged a look with Uncle Richard.

This was her third or fourth “walk” of the day.

She must be stoned out of her gourd, I thought.

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Grandmother’s House

“Boy, this traffic is something, huh?”

“Yep, it sure is.”

“I’m worried about getting to the airport on time.”

“I think we’ll be fine.”

“I don’t know, this traffic is really something.”

“We’ll be okay.”

Being with my ex father in law transforms me into a Pollyanna. In any given situation, Bernard can generally find the tunnel at the end of the lights. Driving into rush-hour traffic on a holiday weekend fit his expectations of life’s little miseries. I put on Leonard Cohen.

After nearly two hours of bumper-to-bumper traffic, Bernard parked at the airport lot and we went to meet his son Richard and his son’s ex boyfriend, Paul. They exited the gate moments after we arrived. “Great timing!” I said, kissing Paul.

“We’ll never get those suitcases into the car,” Bernard said, hugging Richard.

“I know, they’re huge, but they are the only bags we have,” Richard said.

“Well, couldn’t you pack together?” Bernard asked.

Richard and Paul exchanged a look. “No,” Paul said, with finality. We wheeled the enormous bags to the rental car. Bernard popped the trunk.

“As you see, it’s full of je ne sais quoi.”

“Oh, we can make it work,” I said, unloading the wrapped packages. “Let’s get your bags in first.”

“Let’s try stacking them,” Paul suggested.

“I think they will work vertically,” Richard argued.

“Well, let’s try your way first and see, then we can try my way.”

“Okay.”

I busied myself with moving small gifts to the back seat. There were already enough chefs in this kitchen.

Bernard shook his head. “I was sure that wouldn’t work. Can you try putting one in the back seat?”

“We can, Dad, but let’s try the other idea.”

“I don’t think those bags will fit in the trunk.”

“We’ll try.” Paul hoisted one bag and wedged it vertically against the other. It didn’t work.

Richard pondered. “Well, what if we stacked them the other way? I think my bag has bigger wheels, and that may have been the problem.”

Paul nodded. “Good idea.”

It didn’t work. “I think you need to put one bag in the back seat,” Bernard repeated.

“May I make a suggestion?” I asked.

“Please,” Paul said.

“What if we placed them side by side, flat, like this?” I said, abutting my hands as a visual aid.

Richard nodded. “That’s going to work.”

“I dunno,” Paul said. “But let’s try.”

It didn’t work.

Ten minutes later, we were back on the road. Bernard driving, me in the passenger seat, and the suitcase in the back seat, pushing Richard to Paul’s side, as close as conjoined twins.

“What do you think?” I polled, ejecting the CD. “How about some Johnny Cash?”

“How about some Joaquin Phoenix, singing as Johnny Cash?” Paul joked.

“Heresy, and so close to Christmas.”

“As if. I’m Jewish.”

I flipped ahead to “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down.”

Richard and Paul met at a party in college and soon fell in love. They moved in with one another. After graduation, they moved to New York. In Lucy’s family, they were referred to as “the boys.” I first met the boys in their Greenwich Village apartment, when Lucy and I visited New York.

Paul liked that the apartment afforded regular sightings of Matthew Broderick, a neighbor. “The kid from ‘War Games?’” I asked.

“He’s very talented, you know,” Paul said, sagely.

“And Paul’s got a crush on him,” Richard teased.

“I just admire his . . . talent,” Paul smiled.

About the time Lucy and I got married, the boys moved to Los Angeles. Lucy and I brought the kids to visit them there. Paul liked it that lemons grew in their backyard. “Can we eat them?” Jason asked, handing one in his baby brother, a toddler in diapers.

“No, I don’t think that would be a good idea,” Richard said.

Jason snatched back the lemon as though it were a grenade. Collie cried.

“Here,” Paul said. “Here’s a chip. You can eat this.” Collie sniffled and took the chip.

Jason hid the lemon behind a cactus.

About the time that Lucy dumped me, Richard dumped Paul. “Why?” I asked Richard. “You’ve been together so long.”

“I just don’t think it’s what I want to do with my life,” he answered.

Bernard took the news badly, blaming himself. “If I had stayed with their mother, my kids would still be in relationships,” he said.

He had walked away from his first marriage when Lucy was four and Richard was two. He is now in his seventies and ending his third marriage.

“Our break ups weren’t predestined,” I said. “It’s not your fault you raised impulsive children. Anyway, their mother is a lesbian, so getting divorced made sense.”

“Yeah, that’s my fault too. If I had stayed married . . .”

“I’m not sure that would have been for the best, Bernard.”

Richard and Paul are no longer boyfriends, but they remain best friends. Paul accompanies Richard to every family function. They are still “the boys.”

As we drove to his mother’s house, Richard told us stories from his life and work. Paul would interject if he saw a sign requiring commentary. “’Suffolk County Vein Center.’ What do you think they do there?”

“Do they sell weather vanes?” I asked.

“No no, the kind in your body.”

“I don’t want to examine that too closely,” Bernard said. “This reminds me—though I don’t know why—but can you call your sister? We wanted to touch base about the traffic before they left.”

“I thought Lucy was driving the children out in the morning,” I said.

“No, that was last week’s plan. It was updated so that they come out tonight. Didn’t you get the memo?”

“No one tells me anything.” Of course Lucy had not told me. If she told Bernard, there was no reason for her to waste breath on me.

Bucky came to the door when we drove up. “Well, you made good time,” she said, her arms wrapped to her torso for warmth.

“The traffic was unbelievable,” Bernard said. “Unbelievable.”

“Why didn’t you take the Sunrise?”

“We did take the Sunrise. I think Four-Ninety-Five would have been faster.”

“Not at rush hour, Bernard . . .”

“Hello, Mother,” Richard kissed Bucky as he carried gifts inside.

“Hi, Richard. No, if you take the Sunrise, you pass all those bottlenecks at exits in that county.”

“Hi, Bucky,” Paul kissed her as he passed with another stack of gifts.

“Hi, Paul. So what you have to do is take the Sunrise, get off the LIE before Lynbrook, at least, and then get back on the LIE near that exit, the one past the McDonalds.”

“Hi, Bucky,” I said, kissing her cheek.

“Hi, Henry. Do you know the exit I mean?”

“Not really,” Bernard said, stacking gifts on the car roof. “But c’est fini, nous somme arrives, n’est-ce pas?”

“No Bernard, it is not ‘fin-ee’ if you plan to make this trip again.”

“Well, that remains to be seen. We could all be dead this time next year.”

“Well, that’s a cheery thought,” Bucky laughed.

She returned to the kitchen to find me and the boys scavenging for booze.

“Which of these bottles should I open, Mother?”

“Now, wait a minute, that wine is for dinner, and we aren’t eating yet.”

“What are we waiting for? It’s after nine.”

“Are you hungry?”

“We’re starving. We haven’t eaten since breakfast.”

“We were offered those lovely sausage patties on the flight,” Paul reminded him.

“Ugh, disgusting.”

“Well, I’ve made the sauce and the pasta takes ten minutes, so go ahead and open the wine, the one with the beige label. Paul, I’ve got Heineken for you and Corona for Henry.” She put on her glasses to turn on the stove.

“Actually, I’d prefer wine,” Paul said.

“Me too,” I added.

“What?” she took off her glasses. “Well then, who is going to drink this beer, I’d like to know? I don’t think I have enough wine for the weekend if no one drinks beer.”

“I brought wine,” Bernard reminded her.

“Yes, but that’s expensive. We can’t drink that all.”

Richard put a hand on her shoulder. “Mother, we’ll get wine,” he said.

I turned on the stove.

Over dinner, Bernard talked about the riots in Paris. “It makes no sense,” he shook his head. “No sense. They are burning their own neighborhoods. Why they don’t get on the Metro and burn the arrondissement quatorzieme is beyond me. It’s like Watts. It makes no sense.”

“Bernard,” Bucky asked. “Do you ever see Tony Lewis?”

“I haven’t seen Tony Lewis in years.”

“Well, I know that. I don’t mean socially, I mean on TV.”

“Who’s Tony Lewis?” Richard asked.

“My dear boy,” Bucky began, taking off her glasses. “Anthony Lewis is only one of the most famous . . .”

“Mother, please. I know who Anthony Lewis is. I just didn’t make the connection to the name ‘Tony.’”

“Well, that is short for Anthony.”

“I’m aware of that, Mother.”

“We knew him in the Hamptons,” Bernard said. “Years ago.”

“Well, have you seen him on television?” Bucky asked.

“Sure.”

“Isn’t his hair ridiculous?”

“I thought Tony was bald.”

“Well, he is bald on top, but he has hair on the sides. He should keep it short, but its long. He looks like Bozo the Clown.”

“Smart fellow, though, Tony.”

“Smart enough to have a better barber.”

By ten thirty, the boys and Bernard were gone, having retired to nearby hotel rooms. I kissed Bucky good night. She told me where to find the bourbon.

Knob Creek. Lucy’s brand. I poured a drink.

Lucy was expected to arrive at eleven. I assumed the kids would be zonked, and I would carry them to bed.

At eleven oh one, Lucy opened the front door. “Hello?” I called.

“Daddy!” Collie ran in and leaped on me.

“Hey Dad.” Jason said, offering his head to be kissed.

“Come on, Lillie,” Lucy said at the door. “Your dad is here.”

She ran in. “Daddy, Daddy!”

“Hey, baby!”

I must be living in the past to think I would be carrying sleeping babies from the car.

I sat with the kids, asking about their trip, and their days at school. Collie was excited to talk about a class party that afternoon. Lillie kept interrupting with something about a bear.

“Okay kids, that’s enough,” Lucy said. “You need to get to bed.”

“Yeah, I’m really tired,” Jason said.

We took the kids upstairs. Lucy took Jason and Collie to brush teeth while I put Lillie in pajamas. She was in a very silly mood.

“Shh, keep your voice low,” I said. “Your grandmother just went to bed.”

She widened her eyes and whispered, “I don’t care.” She laughed.

“You better start caring, else she’s gonna chew you up.” I chewed on her belly.

“Okay Lillie, your turn,” Lucy whispered from the door.

I tucked in the boys, kissing them and reminding them that tomorrow would be Christmas Eve. Collie giggled. I tucked Lillie into bed.

“Good night, children,” Lucy called from the door. “Go to sleep now, okay?”

“Okay, Mom,” Collie said.

“’Night,” Jason mumbled into his pillow.

“’Night Mom, ‘night Dad,” Lillie called.

I tuned out the lamp and left, closing the door. The door to Lucy’s room was closed. I went downstairs and freshened my drink.

I sat on the futon in the study, already made as my bed, and turned on the television.

Darlene Love would be singing on Letterman. Jay Thomas would throw a football at a meatball on a Christmas tree. Holiday traditions.

I took a sip and held it in my throat.

I heard Lucy in the kitchen, around the corner. The freezer door opened. Three clinks sounded in a glass. The door to the liquor cabinet squeaked. Liquid glugged. Bottles clanked. The cabinet door squeaked again.

Lucy’s shoes crossed the kitchen and climbed the stairs. The door to her room closed with a quiet click.

Letterman was in his monologue.

Half an hour, I swallowed. I took another sip, and held it on my tongue.

Half an hour, during which my family arrived and we put the kids to bed. We did not exchange a single word.

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Fish Bowl

My ex father in law Bernard is staying with me. He woke up early the other day, still jet lagged and living in another time zone.

When I woke, I poured a cup of coffee, added cream and sugar, and sat with him. We talked about the transit strike, then in its second day, and plans for the holidays.

I got up to make my second cup of coffee. Bernard returned to his newspaper. I settled into my chair and looked out the window. It was a clear morning. The fog in my mind was lifting as I prepared to work.

I signed on my computer and took a sip of coffee.

Instant messages exploded across the screen. People we gossiping: I had posted about a recent date and it seemed that everyone I knew wanted the latest.

I put down my cup. The fog lowered.

Instant messages such as these are not at all uncommon. I date a lot of people. I write about it in a blog that most of those people read.

On the positive side, my blog keeps me honest. I’m open and transparent. Putting my romantic life on display means that there are few secrets. Everyone knows everything.

On the negative side, I can’t determine how people will respond to what they read. Sometimes there are hurt feelings. And sometimes I am annoyed by prying questions.

It’s the price I pay for going public. Any other man would keep his mouth shut and run around behind his lovers’ backs. Not me. I broadcast my life as a cad. Normally, I take the good with the bad. But on that particular morning, I was in no mood for it.

I wanted to turn down the volume on all this chatter. There are times when I don’t want to live in a fish bowl.

The transit strike had afforded me an opportunity to slow down and take time for myself. Last weekend, I raced around town, hopping in and out of beds as I made the rounds before the holidays took over. The transit strike clipped my wings, but offered something else: time alone.

I realized that I needed that above all.

This weekend, I am keeping the tradition of spending Christmas with my ex wife and her family. Her divorced parents. Her brother and his ex boyfriend. Her sister and her new husband.

Another eXmas.

I will spend days inside a house filled with people I see annually. Most of what they hear about me these days comes from my ex wife, who has been hateful to me for months.

There will be many questions about my life, my career and my romantic prospects. I have been rehearsing responses that change the subject.

Everything I do or say will be noted by my ex wife. I don’t care to open my life to her, or to hear the way she compulsively criticizes me at every turn.

Like this: when my parents were visiting recently, my mother asked me, apropos of nothing, “Hank, how tall are you?”

“I’m five ten.”

“No,” Lucy said. “You are five nine.”

“I think I’m five ten.”

“Five nine,” she insisted, as if she were confronting the biggest liar she knew.

“Guess I’m five nine, Mom.”

She argued something so trivial as my height—which is, by the way, a verifiable fact. We can determine the answer with measuring tape. There is no place for argument. If anyone really cares.

The holidays will be filled with such moments. But not everything can be predicted.

Last Christmas, to my absolute astonishment, Lucy and I had sex. Two nights in a row. I can’t imagine that will happen again. Of course, I couldn’t imagine that it would happen last time.

I don’t want it to happen. Still, there are condoms packed in my bag.

I can imagine what she will think if we start to have sex and I produce condoms. She will think I planned it.

I am not planning it. I just have to be ready for anything.

I can also imagine what she will say if she offers sex, and I refuse. She is bitter and angry now. She will be furious to be rejected.

My heart races as I think about it.

As this week began, I was understandably anxious about Christmas.

The transit strike shut down my social life. I canceled dates and generally kept to myself.

Just as well. I didn’t want to deal with people. So I got snippy when my blog became a source for speculation and anxiety.

I wanted a few days away from my fish bowl before I swam into the currents of my ex wife’s family.

It is now a little after two. In less than an hour, Bernard and I are heading out to Lucy’s mother’s house. We will stop at the airport on the way to pick up her brother and his ex boyfriend. Lucy will drive out with the kids tomorrow.

And so this is eXmas.

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Bus Driver

Seven eighteen.

“Dad, it’s seven twenty,” Jason shouted from the living room.

“Seven eighteen,” Collie corrected from my bedroom.

“Danks, dat’s fibe,” I shouted back. “D’ime ammost dube wid Diddie’s ‘air!”

“Please hurry, Dad,” Jason begged. “I can’t be late.”

I took the hair ties from my lips and looked at Lillie in the mirror. “Do you hear? We need to finish this.”

She sobbed. “Okay. But it hurts!”

“I’m being very careful, sweetie.” I held a clump of Lillie’s hair in my fingers—tight, so that there would be no pressure on the roots—and gently combed out the ends.

“Ow!” she said, watching my arms in the mirror. “That hurts!”

“Sweetie, please close your eyes. You are just watching so you can fake cry.”

“I’m not fake crying!”

“Okay, okay.” I held a clump of hair and ran the comb near her head, out of view of the mirror.

“Ow!”

“Okay, okay, that’s enough. I didn’t even touch you.” I put a tie in my lips, and quickly braided a strand from the front to back. I tied it off. “Brush your teeth and let’s get your shoes.” Lillie sniffed and picked up her toothbrush.

The boys sat on the couch, looking bored in coats, shoes and backpacks. “Won’t be long,” I said, taking Lillie’s shoes from the niche by the door. I untied the laces.

“It’s seven twenty five,” Jason sighed.

“Seven twenty two,” Collie corrected.

“We’re fine. Lillie? Can you join us please?”

“I have to poop!”

“Great,” Collie said, throwing up his hands. “Now we’ll be late for sure.”

I held up a hand. “Collie, please. Lillie, wash your hands when you’re done. We’re waiting.”

She closed the bathroom door. “Okay!”

Seven thirty two.

“Lillie, come on please! We need to cross before the light changes.”

“Can you hold my backpack?”

She fumbled with the hood of her coat, the wind blowing her hair into her face. A taxicab stopped a few feet from her, revving engines for a right turn, as if my daughter were just another speed bump.

“Lillie . . . okay, give it to me, but cross the street, please. Hold my hand.”

“Dad, I’ll get the bus,” Collie shouted.

“Run like the wind, son!”

Collie jumped in the bus and waved from the door.

The kids stepped into the nearly empty bus and headed to the back, as I’ve taught them—always move to the back to allow room for more passengers.

“Good morning,” I said to the driver, pulling out my wallet. I smiled as we made eye contact.

The driver was a handsome young man, with long dreadlocks. “Good morning,” he nodded.

My MetroCard dinged off its final fare. I made a mental note to refill my card before picking up the kids that afternoon. I returned the card in my wallet, adjusted Lillie’s backpack on my arm, and headed to the back of the bus.

“Sir? Excuse me, sir?”

I turned. “Yes?”

The driver caught my eyes in his rear view mirror. He jerked a thumb. “You got to pay fares for them.”

“No, I don’t. We never pay for kids.”

“I don’t care what you never do.” He tapped the fare box. “Read the rules.”

I adjusted Lillie’s backpack and returned to the front of the bus. On the side of the fare box was a list of regular and discounted costs.

Midway down the list was the relevant regulation. I read it aloud.

“It says ‘Up to Three Children Traveling With An Adult, Free.’ I have three children. So we’re good.” I turned. An elderly passenger raised an eyebrow to me. I shrugged.

“No, that’s not all. Read the fine print.”

I looked back. “’Children up to forty-four inches.’ So? My kids aren’t that tall.”

“That one is.” The driver jerked his thumb again.

I looked back to the kids. They looked confused. The elderly passenger looked confused. We were all confused.

In nearly twelve years of using public transportation as a parent, I have never once been asked to pay fare for my children.

Now that Jason is in middle school, he travels alone at times. For this reason, middle schools provide students with reduced fare student cards that are free upon request.

“Jason, can you come up here please?”

Jason trundled to the front of the bus, still wearing his overloaded backpack. “What’s up, why aren’t we moving?”

“The driver says you need to pay. Do you have your MetroCard?”

Jason made a face. “I think so.” He dropped his backpack. His hand fished passed his French book, his Social Studies book, his homework folder, his lunch bag.

The driver sat, watching. The elderly passenger sighed.

“Got it,” Jason said. “What, do I just put it in?”

“That’s right,” said the driver. A virgin fare was dinged from Jason’s card.

“Thanks buddy,” I said as Jason hoisted his backpack. I put a hand on his shoulder and guided him back to his seat.

“Not so fast, sir.” The driver called. “What about them other kids?”

I turned. “You’re serious?”

“Read the rules.”

“I did read the rules. We read them together. My kids are not forty-four inches tall.”

“Sir,” he turned to face me and pointed to the door. “Do you see that, right there?”

“What? The door?”

“No sir, the post, above the handrail.”

“Yes, I see the post.”

“Will we be leaving soon?” the elderly passenger asked.

“Yes ma’am, one moment, I beseech you. Sir, do you see that gold mark on the post?”

I looked and saw a brass notch in the stainless steel. “Yes, I do. Never noticed that before.”

“That mark is forty-four inches from the floor.”

“Okay.”

“Your children are higher than that mark.”

His eyes watched mine. “I really don’t think so,” I said.

“Sir . . .”

“Collie? Lillie? Can you come here please?” Another bus passed us. The elderly passenger sighed loudly.

“Why aren’t we moving, Dad?”

“Good question, Collie. Would you do me a favor and stand by that post? Back up to it; I want to measure you.”

He giggled. “Why?”

“It will make the driver happy. Do you mind?”

“Whatever, Dad.” Collie backed up to the post.

“You see, sir? He is clearly higher than that mark.”

“Well, what do you know, son. You are just over forty-four inches tall.”

Collie giggled.

“Is it my turn, Dad?” Lillie asked.

“Yes ma’am. Collie, step aside and let’s measure your sister.”

Collie stood to the left. Lillie backed up to the post and stood erect.

“How tall am I?” she asked.

“You are forty-four inches tall, young lady.”

“No sir, she is higher.”

“She’s just not. Look.” I pressed down on her ponytail, bringing my hand level with the mark. “What next, do I take out her ponytail to satisfy you?”

“No sir, you pay a fare for the boy.”

“Look, I just paid the last fare on my MetroCard. You made your point. You win. I’m going to sit with my children.”

I guided the kids to the back of the bus.

“Sir, it’s not about winning nothing,” the driver called. He tapped his fare box. “It’s about the clearly stated rules.”

“This is finished,” I called back.

“Can you please drive the bus, please?” the elderly passenger pleaded.

The driver watched as I sat between Lillie and Collie. Jason raised his hands. I shook my head. I looked out the window, my hands folded on my lap.

The driver shook his head and closed the door. He announced the next stop.

“Dad?” Lillie whispered. “Why is the bus driver so mean?”

“I don’t know, Lillie. Maybe he is having a bad day.”

Lillie looked at Collie. “I don’t want a bad day.”

“Me too,” Collie said.

A week later, we hurried to catch the bus to school. There was a longer line than usual. We encountered the same driver.

Jason spotted his distinctive dreadlocks behind the wheel as we waited to board. “Better get my card,” he said, dropping his backpack.

“Yes, thank you,” I said.

Jason boarded and paid his fare. He headed to the back of the bus. His brother and sister followed. I inserted my card for one fare.

“Sir,” the driver said. “You know you got to pay for the other boy.”

I looked at him. He glowered.

“Kids? Can you come back please? We are not taking this bus.”

“Huh? Why Dad?”

“Sir, you don’t need to do that. Just pay the fare.”

“Just enjoy the fares you have already collected from us, on me,” I replied, curtly. “Excuse us, please.” I ushered my children past the boarding passengers. “Exiting, please.”

“Are you getting off?” a woman smiled, stepping back.

“Yes. I can’t allow an officious twit to destroy my morning.”

“I’m sorry you feel that way, sir,” the driver called.

I wasn’t listening. I had already hailed a cab.

“That driver is so mean!” Lillie exclaimed.

“What a jerk,” Jason said.

“Totally,” Collie agreed.

“What’s up with that guy?” I asked, giving the cabbie the school address.

I watched the trees as we crossed the park.

Gosh, did I really use the phrase “officious twit?,” I thought. I must have been angry enough to spit such nails. When that happens, I don’t raise my voice or lash out. Instead, I channel my mother’s sense of justice and my father’s measured calm, later thanking my tenth-grade grammar teacher for insisting that his students memorize lists of vocabulary words. On my scale of angry responses in the heat of the moment, referring to someone as an “officious twit” is equivalent to beating them with a two-by-four.

We had encountered the mean bus driver twice. As we leave home at the same time on school days, and take the same route, we would likely encounter him again. I decided to take my revenge on the mean bus driver.

Once the kids were in class, I paid a visit to the school office.

“Good morning, Ms. Vernon,” I greeted the school secretary.

“Oh, good morning, Henry. How can I help you?”

“Is it possible for me to get two MetroCards?”

“I think so, but do you mind waiting for the school volunteer? She issues those.”

“Thank you, I don’t mind waiting. May I sit here?” I sat on a bench, folding my hands in my lap.

Ms. Vernon sat at her desk and returned to work. “How are the kids?” she asked. “Good?”

“Very well, thanks. And you daughter? You hear from her often?”

“Yes, nearly twice a week,” she nodded. “I kid her that we hear from her more often now that she is stationed near Fallujah.”

“That must be a great comfort.”

She looked at me. “It sure is.”

I smiled.

The principal entered the office, trailed by a fourth grade boy. Both were wearing jackets and ties.

“Good morning, Henry. Are you being taken care of?”

“Yes, thank you, David. Hey there Jeremy! Why are you so dressed up?”

“I’m ‘Principal for the Day,’” Jeremy beamed.

“I thought so. Congratulations.”

“Thanks!”

David smiled at me and looked to the fourth grader. “Jeremy, are you ready for your most important morning duty?”

“Yes.”

“Okay. This is the microphone.” David held a metal device the size of a desk lamp. “I will introduce you, then you are on. Ready?”

“Yes.” Jeremy stood tall.

“Good.” David pressed a button on the microphone base. “Good morning, students and teachers. Please rise for the Pledge of Allegiance, read this morning by Principal for a Day Jeremy Meyers.”

I stood, along with the office staff, as we covered our hearts.

David covered the mike and mouthed, Are you ready? Jeremy nodded. David held the microphone to Jeremy.

“I pledge allegiance,” he said, pausing as he heard his voice echoed by speakers and children throughout the school. “To the flag, of the United States of America.” Jeremy breathed in and out. “And to the Republic, for which it stands, one nation, under God, invisible, with Liberty and Justice for all, you may be seated.”

We sat. I smiled at Jeremy. Lillie had recently recited the Pledge while playing school with Collie. He had to tell her that “you may be seated” is not really a part of the Pledge.

The school volunteer came in shortly after the Pledge. She said hello to everyone and went to Ms. Vernon for the morning’s assignments. Ms. Vernon stood and went over an itinerary. I sat, my hands folded on my lap.

“Oh yes,” Ms. Vernon added. “First thing, can you give Henry two MetroCards?”

“Henry!” the volunteer said, grabbing her neck. “I didn’t see you there. You are so quiet!”

“Good morning, Frida.”

“Good morning. Two cards, huh? Collie and Lillie?”

“Yes, please, that’s right.”

She bent to retrieve a file. “How are you? Good?”

“I’m fine, thanks. How’s Julian? Lillie’s so sad he’s not in her class this year.”

She closed a drawer. “I know,” she grimaced. “Julian’s heartbroken. Okay, give me a moment—this computer takes time.”

“Take your time, I’m fine.”

She smiled.

She walked across the office to a desk under the clock. It was eight forty three. She reached around to flip on the Commodore 64. “Just takes a minute,” she apologized.

“I’m fine.”

At eight fifty, she sat at the desk.

The volunteer turned to me. “Do you know their class numbers?”

“Lillie is 1-324, Collie is 4-238.”

“Thanks.” She turned back to the computer.

Nine twenty three.

“Okay, that’s that,” she said, returning the file to its drawer. She pulled out two cards and handed me a clipboard. Can you sign here, and here?”

“Of course.”

“Great.” She gave me the cards and took the clipboard. “You are all set!”

“Thanks!” I tucked the cards into my wallet. “Have a good day. You too, Ms. Vernon,” I waved.

Ms. Vernon rested the receiver on her neck and waved back.

I stopped at the office door to allow Jeremy to pass. He scarcely noticed me, intent on carrying a sheaf of papers to the principal’s office.

I stepped though the school’s front door, and put on my hat.

As I walked through the park, I plotted my revenge against the bus driver. First, I considered my anger. Why be mad at someone doing his job? I was, in fact, impressed at the way he announced each stop in advance. Once we stopped, he asked passengers to step back to make room for others. In doing so, he seemed to encourage us all to look out for one another. He would be sure you did not miss your stop, if you paid attention. We could all ride the bus if we made room for one another. If we cooperated, no one would have to wait for another bus.

Not all drivers care about these things. He did.

And that care gets to the purpose of public service. It really is a special privilege to help people, and to serve the greater good, in whatever way we can. In that, I might have been the bus driver’s biggest fan.

But in confronting me as a parent, he crossed a line. The greater good is served by getting kids to school on time. I do my part by getting my children on his bus at seven thirty. The kids do their parts by dressing and brushing teeth when they would much rather be asleep. The driver does his part by driving the bus safely to our chosen stop.

If we all do our part, we serve the greater good. We all benefit.

The driver goes above and beyond his dedication to the greater good by announcing our stop in advance. The driver negates the greater good by fixating on regulations about the heights of specific children. The driver refutes the greater good when he refuses to do his duty until his authority is acknowledged. By confronting me over fares, he put aside any concern of getting my kids to school on time. He put aside concerns about the elderly passenger’s appointment. He cared only about winning a fight.

He won the fight, but really, he should choose his fights more carefully. I’ll cede any nonsensical battle. You can win any argument that you are foolish for starting.

As I walked through the park, I thought about my free MetroCards. To gain these, I filed some information with the Board of Education. That information would be processed at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Papers would trade hands. Copies would be processed, after waiting in in-boxes to be filed in duplicate manila folders.

If I did my part, these dueling bureaucracies would supply me with a card that sanctioned what I already had—free commutation for public school students.

My taxes at work.

I can’t fix bureaucracies, but I could address my situation with the mean bus driver. I rehearsed a few choice confrontations.

I could give into his insistence on MetroCards for the children, but exact a price when they were used.

Sarcasm. “Thank you for insisting that my children get cards! If not for you, wow, my kids would grow up to be bad citizens! Please thank the nice driver, kids.”

Cruelty. “Bling, bling, bling! More fares for the MTA—I hope they consider that in reviewing your lifetime achievement record.”

Sadism. “Guess I’m your bitch now, huh? You like it when I slip that card in your fare box? Do you? Well, you just drive the bus, baby, while Daddy reads his paper.”

Working out these options satisfied my desire for revenge.

A few days later, we were a minute or two late in leaving home. We missed the bus. “Come on, kids!” I rallied the troops. “Let’s run to the next stop!”

“I’ll run ahead, Dad!”

“Run like the wind, Collie!” Jason followed, waddling under his heavy pack.

As usual, there was a long line waiting. Collie and Jason waved from the end of the line. I waved back, tugging Lillie’s hand as I walked as fast as she allowed. I watched as Collie stepped on the bus, half a block ahead. Collie stepped out again, pointing back at me.

The door closed in his face. The bus took off.

“What was that?” I asked as we caught up.

“It was the mean bus driver,” Collie said, stunned.

“He said he couldn’t wait,” Jason said.

“No problem,” I said. “We’ll get the next bus.” You fucking motherfucker, I thought.

Weeks passed.

Seven thirty.

“I’ll get the bus, Dad!”

“Run like the wind, Collie!”

He stepped on the bus. He stepped out.

He ran to me, palm extended.

Jason dropped his backpack. He unzipped it and fished inside. I reached back to my wallet. I gave cards to Lillie and Collie. I retrieved my own. Jason paid his fare and went to the back of the empty bus. Collie paid his fare and followed. Lillie tried her card one way, then another, until it dinged. She ran to the back of the bus. I paid my fare and followed.

I did not smile at the driver. I did not say good morning. I did not scowl, or make a bitchy comment, or look contrite.

The driver was invisible to me. He’s just someone who drives my bus. He does not deserve my smiles or greetings. He is not worth my anger.

He’s just someone I see, as I do what I need to do. He’s nothing to me.

I collected the cards from Collie and Lillie, and returned them to my wallet. I asked Jason to put his card in a safe place. “Dad,” Lillie whispered. “It’s the mean bus driver.”

“I know,” I whispered. “Get your book and let’s read.”

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