“This is it,” I said in the direction of the back seat.

“Dada’s house?” Atticus said.

I didn’t answer.

This one was called New Perspectives. It looked just like a regular house from the curb. The mailbox was shaped like a littler house.

When Asa and I first met, a friend of ours did our astrological charts, to see if we were “compatible.” Asa’s had said, “You may need to spend part of your life in institutions.” He had laughed at that, but I didn’t really get it at the time.

I unbuckled Atticus from his car seat. Raisins and goldfish crackers fell all over the floor of the car as he squirmed out. I held his hand as he crossed the street. We were in the San Fernando Valley. It was about 130 degrees out there. “I wanna push the button,” Atticus said, standing on his toes and stretching toward the doorbell.

“Feel free,” I said.

“What’s that mean, feel free?”

“It means go on, then.”

A guy with a mop in his hand let us in, but he didn’t say hello or otherwise acknowledge us. Inside they had a big tv, and some white leather couches, all worn out by people getting their strength back in the aftermath of whatever had qualified them to be here. A girl in sweatpants was arguing with someone on the phone. “I don’t know what fucking exit it is. How the fuck should I know!” she said. She was walking back and forth very fast.

“Your phone time is up,” said the guy with the mop.

“Fuck you,” she said to the person on the other end of the line. The guy with the mop she ignored.

“Your phone time is up,” said the guy with the mop again. He had an attitude like he did this sort of thing all day.

“You’re acting like a fucking bitch!” she said to the person on the other end of the line. “I didn’t even ask you to fucking come here so don’t be fucking pissed at ME!” Then she hung up.

“I wanna go to rehab,” I said. “It’s like you’re on vacation. Everything taken care of, somebody making your meals for you…”

“Asa’s out back,” someone called to us. I couldn’t see who it was because they were in a different room watching a different tv. We went past another tv and another set of couches, and emerged in the backyard, where Asa was standing on a patch of dead sun-bleached grass, smoking a cigarette.

“I would rather you didn’t smoke in front of him.” I nodded at Atticus. Asa put the cigarette out in a coffee can on the ground. There were coffee cans all over the place with cigarette butts in them. Atticus immediately set to work kicking them over.

“Don’t,” I said, but he continued.

Asa was wearing one pink flip-flop and one yellow. They were too small for him and his toes hung over the front. His toenails were painted light blue. He had on swimming trunks and a hooded sweatshirt. He came forward and gave me a hug. “How are you?” he asked.

“Okay.’’

“You don’t seem happy to see me.”

“I’m depressed.”

“I thought you would be proud of me.”

“I just feel really shitty, that’s all. Don’t take it personally.” It was true. I felt as though a huge magnet were drawing me toward the center of the earth, but the ground was in the way, so I was stuck.

I looked around. There was an employee making lunch in the kitchen, which I could see through the sliding glass doors. There was a swimming pool and a basketball court.

“I wanna go to rehab,” I said. “It’s like you’re on vacation. Everything taken care of, somebody making your meals for you…”

“Believe me,” said Asa, “You do not want to be in here. It’s really boring.”

“I’d rather be bored than exhausted,” I snapped.

Asa looked away.

“Hey, let’s put Atticus in the pool,” he said after a minute. “Do you want to go in the pool, Atticus?”

“Yeah!” said Atticus.

“He doesn’t have a bathing suit,” I said.

“Doesn’t matter,” said Asa.

“Is he supposed to be in the pool?” I said.

“It’s fine.”

“Are you sure?”

“Completely sure,” Asa said. By then they were both in the pool.

A guy leaned out of an upstairs window right away, the guy who’d had the mop. “Get that kid out of the pool,” he said. “Our insurance doesn’t cover that.”

“Oh, sorry,” I said.

“Sorry,” said Asa.

“See?” I said. “He wasn’t supposed to be in the pool.”

“Oh, they’re just being assholes,” said Asa. “Do you want some lunch? I’ll go get you some.”

Atticus and I sat at a plastic table and waited in white plastic patio chairs. The ground beneath the chairs was uneven, and the chairs wobbled, and their flimsy plastic legs wavered on the grass clumps. The sun was reflecting off of everything, and I couldn’t find anywhere to look without being blinded by it. Atticus rocked his chair back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. There was a clock mounted on the outside wall of the house. I probably don’t need to mention how slowly the time passed.

Asa came back with a stack of crepes. We began to eat them. They were apple-cinnamon, but then I found what seemed to be a piece of onion in mine. “Is this a piece of onion?” I said, holding it up.

“No,” said Asa. But it was. It was a piece of caramelized onion that hung from the end of my fork like a limp grey larva.

“Yes it is,” I said.

“Is it?” said Asa. “Fuck! How did that get in there?”

“Here’s another one.”

“What is that doing in there?”

“I think they’re in there on purpose,” I said. I excavated some more.

“No!”

“Look, there’s a whole bunch of them. They’re all through here.”

“Who would do that?” Asa shouted. “Who would ruin these perfectly good crepes?” He snatched the plates. “I’m taking this shit back!”

“No!” Atticus said. “Mine!” He grasped at the plate as it went away.

We waited. Jesus Christ, it was hot. The sun was directly overhead. I looked at the clock again. After a while Asa came back, a new plate of crepes in his hand.

“What a stupid idea,” he muttered. “Onions in crepes.” He sat down.

I took a bite. “There are onions in this,” I said.

“Fuck!” Asa yelled. “What the fuck! Why? This is so fucked!”

“Can you not swear in front of him?”

“He doesn’t even know what it means!”

“I feel awful. I think I’m gonna go home.”

“Already?” said Asa.

I didn’t answer.

“I know where we can go,” said Asa. “Come on.”

We headed back toward the building. Atticus stepped carefully along a line of stepping-stones. “Stomp,” he said. “Stomp. Stomp. Stomp.”

“Don’t step on a crack, or you’ll break your mother’s back,” Asa said.

“Don’t say that,” I said.

“What? That’s a fun game.”

“Yeah, well, it’s not your back that’s getting broken.”

“Do you have to be so negative?” Asa said. “Can’t you just be happy? I was looking forward to seeing you all morning.”

The air was doing that thing where it looks all wavy, that thing it does when it’s really hot. “What do you want me to do?” I said. “I came all the way out here, didn’t I? I come all the way out here every week. What do you want?”

“I just thought you would be more supportive,” Asa said.

We arrived at a door. Asa opened it and motioned us in. It was an exercise room, full of weights, and a couple of those exer-cycle things. No one was in there.

“Are we supposed to be in here?” I asked.

“It’s fine,” said Asa.

“I hate getting in trouble,” I said.

“Oh yeah? Funny, it doesn’t seem like you mind it.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Doesn’t seem like you mind it when you’re making out with my friend.”

“We agreed we weren’t going to talk about that anymore.”

“Yeah, you don’t want to talk about that.”

“You agreed, with the therapist, you agreed not to bring that up again!”

“You did it to get back at me. I never did anything to hurt you.”

“Are you kidding?”

“I never did anything to intentionally hurt you. I was only hurting myself.”

“Are you fucking kidding me?”

I was yelling now, but Asa’s voice hadn’t changed. He was sitting still. He was just saying it. He was just saying it again. In his eyes was a hopelessness I had once mistaken for calm. Maybe it was only another habit, the whole conversation.

“Can we not talk about this in front of him?” I nodded at Atticus, who I now realized was climbing unsafely on an exer-cycle.

“You never want to talk about it.”

“We’ve talked about it a hundred—”

The door opened and someone looked in. It was a big angry woman. “What are you doing in here?” she said. “You’re not supposed to be in here!”

“I was leaving anyway,” I said. “I was just leaving.”

“Visiting hours ended half an hour ago,” she said, walking away. Her keys were jingling on a lanyard around her neck. “And don’t let me catch you in there again.”

“Oh, you won’t,” I said.

“Those assholes,” said Asa. “They’re only in it for the money.”

There was one tree in the yard, a lemon tree. We stood near it but it was too small to make any shade. A lemon had fallen off and dried into a shrunken nugget in the patchy grass. I rolled it around with my foot.

“I guess I’ll talk to you later,” I said.

“Wait around for a second?” said Asa.

I waited.

Then he said, “I know it doesn’t mean anything for me to say these things right now, because you’ve heard them so many times before, but I just want you to know that I’m going to help you. I’m going to make a plan with you to pay everything back, and I’m gonna pay your mom back, and—”

“Thank you,” I said. I picked up Atticus.

I looked at the clock again on my way out. I noticed then that the hands weren’t moving at all. There was no point in looking at that clock to know the time, because it couldn’t possibly have given it to me.

“Bye bye,” said Atticus. “Bye bye, Dada.” He waved his hand up and down. “See you next time.”

I turned toward Asa. He looked all hollowed out. He stood in the dead grass, resigned, a long way from home. He put up one hand for me, and he looked into my eyes and held it as long as I looked at him.

“Bye bye.” I said. He didn’t say it back.

 

Laura Heffington
Laura Heffington Contributor
Photographer Laura Heffington’s writing has been published in ‘Chicago Quarterly Review’ and ‘Fifth Wednesday.’ Born in Los Angeles, she lives there now. Her photo book ‘Architectural Tour and Elements of Design’ is available through Big Cartel.
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