Gary sat across the table from his nine-year-old son, Jordan. The restaurant was crowded, noisy. They’d ordered dinner and were both busy on their cell phones: Gary answering a text from his current girlfriend and Jordan using both thumbs to play a video game.
Gary ended his message, set down the phone, and watched his son’s eyebrows knit in concentration. Jordan’s expression reminded Gary of his ex-wife to whom he had been divorced for almost two years since shortly after he admitted to having an affair.
Gary asked, “So, how was school?”
Jordan shrugged. His eyes didn’t leave the screen.
“Didn’t you have an end-year test yesterday?”
Instead of replying, Jordan smacked the table with an open palm, then resumed the rapid movement of his thumbs. Gary’s cell phone pinged; he glanced at the series of emojis his girlfriend had used for her reply and smiled. A waiter came by with their drinks: draft beer for Gary and a Shirley Temple for Jordan.
Gary took a sip and looked around. Their table was in the bar area and the same muted baseball game played on several mounted televisions nearby. An attractive younger woman smiled at him from a stool at the bar. She looked vaguely familiar to Gary; he gave her a slight nod in return and instinctively clenched his biceps. He was still wearing his exercise gear from work: shorts and a sleeveless T-shirt advertising the name of the gym where he was a personal trainer. His last client had asked for some extra time, so he’d been late to Jordan’s Little League game. It hadn’t really mattered since the game itself cut into his visitation hours. He’d watched it from the right field fence near where Jordan played his required two innings. His ex-wife had sat in the bleachers and left once Jordan was taken out of the game. He and Jordan had driven over to the restaurant after it ended, Jordan in his uniform with his ball cap on backwards.
Gary watched his son shake the phone as he manipulated it. He was small and thin for his age, almost waifish. He gave another exasperated gasp.
“Tough one?” Gary asked.
Jordan shrugged again.
“Which game is it?”
His son turned the phone so Gary could see the screen’s images of weapons and destruction with numbers at the bottom.
“Looks like you’re scoring points.” Gary kept his tone hopeful. Nothing had been said on the way over about Jordan striking out without swinging at his only at bat or dropping the pop fly in right field. If they had more time together, Gary thought he could help his son improve, but that wasn’t possible.
Jordan gave a grunt in reply, then turned the phone around and began playing again. A collective cheer rose from portions of the bar at something the home team had done on the television monitors. Gary exchanged small smiles again with the woman at the bar, and then recalled helping her with her curling technique on free weights at the club. She’d had her hair in a ponytail then instead of down like she wore it now. She’d told him her name was Denise. He squeezed his eyes shut at the memory of how she moved in her spandex tights.
A few minutes later, the waiter set down their meals: chicken strips and fries for Jordan and a salad for Gary. Gary started in on his and Jordan put aside his cell phone long enough to dip a few hunks of food into ketchup and eat them. They both watched a television monitor as they ate.
“See the way that batter was aggressive on the first pitch?” Gary said. “Pitcher almost always throws a first pitch strike.”
Jordan nodded, but his expression was flat. He didn’t look at his father as he bit off the cherry from his drink and chewed hard on it.
“I’m just saying,” Gary continued. “Can’t hurt to be ready to take a whack when you get up there.”
He watched his son roll his eyes, push his plate away, and resume the game on his cell phone. Gary returned to his meal and watched a heavyset man dressed as a clown move among the tables blowing up balloons and twisting them into shapes for children. He stopped by their table, held out a balloon towards Jordan, and raised his painted eyebrows. The boy ignored him.
“Hey,” Gary said. “You want him to make you something?”
Jordan’s thumbs didn’t stop moving, but he shook his head. The man made a sad face and moved away to another table.
“That could have been fun,” Gary said. “You could have brought something home for your mom. Maybe a flower. She likes flowers.”
Jordan kept one thumb moving on the phone and used the other hand to lift his glass and take a long, slurping suck on the straw. Gary sighed through his nose and thought back to bringing flowers to his ex-wife. He’d done that almost monthly until after Jordan was born and she turned all her attention his way. He shook his head remembering how all-consuming Jordan became for her and how little time she had for him.
Gary glanced at his watch and finished his meal quickly. He put money on the table. “Come on, big guy,” he said. “Got to get you home by eight.”
He kept a hand on Jordan’s shoulder as they rounded the bar. Before pushing outside, he gave Denise a last glance. She smiled again and raised her hand to him; he returned the gesture and felt a familiar jolt of excitement. The stool next to her was empty.
In the car, Jordan fiddled with the radio until he found a song he liked, then sat facing the passenger window bobbing his head to the beat of it. The drive to the apartment wasn’t long; the song was just ending as they pulled up in front of the building where Gary left the car idling. Jordan hopped out and lugged the expensive gear bag Gary had bought after him. They looked at each other.
“Listen,” Gary said. “It’s my weekend with you, so I’ll pick you up Friday after school. Thought we might go to the batting cages.”
“All right, forget that. How about bowling then?”
Jordan gave him a thumbs-up, slammed the car door closed, and scampered up the walk.
“Love you!” Gary called after him.
The boy didn’t turn around. As he opened the apartment door and disappeared inside, Gary realized that Jordan hadn’t spoken a word while they’d been together. His shoulders slumped. The curtains were drawn at the front window, so he couldn’t see the interior, but he imagined the smell of the sandalwood candles his ex-wife liked to burn most nights, a fragrance Gary had grown to associate with home and family. His cell phone pinged and he saw his girlfriend’s name flash across the screen. He didn’t pick up. He turned the phone over and thought instead about returning to the bar and lowering himself onto the empty stool next to Denise. But for the moment, he did nothing. He just stared at the outside of the apartment, still and silent in the evening’s gloaming.