UNITED STATES—“It’s nearly noon.”

“That’s amazing. I hadn’t realized,” Suzanne said.

“Sunday morning evaporates.”

Everyone was clustered at the door of the café and Daniel had to go. They were standing and staying and he was going. It had reached the point—there was a precise millimetric point every day when it was no good anymore, and he had to go.

Then Peter came into the café, and everyone said hi to Peter.  Peter stopped near the doorway and started to give Daniel a backrub.

“That relieves the strains,” Daniel said, resenting that his departure had been foiled by Peter. The massage felt so good, so soothing. Peter’s hands and long fingers kneaded away the knots of strain—now suddenly tangible in the moment of fleeing.  Can you be grateful and resentful at the same time? That was Daniel’s state.  A bearded stranger among the new crowd looked up at Peter and Daniel and who knew what he was thinking about Peter’s custom of giving a friendly back rub to anyone whom he sensed needed it most.

The new crowd could think whatever they wanted to think. There was motorcycle Bill—one of the old gang—sitting at the counter with his half glasses and crossword.

“Well,” Daniel stammered, “I’ve got to get back to Crockett.”

Bill knew Crockett from when Daniel used to bring him in a stroller.

By mentioning his son compulsively Daniels was opened a window onto his own impoverished social life. His son merely had replaced his ex-wife as a point of reference at the point of their divorce. As if he had to prop up his life on somebody, anybody, and blame them for the disorder.

“You could care less about me,” Suzanne said with a sardonic wave of the hand.

“I have to be there for him,” Daniels said. “I have to at least act like I care about the tyke.”

The line at least got teeth showing from Peter and Suzanne. Daniel looked over and caught Bill glaring at him, haggard and quizzical, looking up from his reading through the clear-framed reading glasses. The look stung. Daniel regretted to his marrow having sold truth for wit so cheaply.

“I at least I have to act like I care” was no more true than the sun is black. The experience of having a child was foreign to Bill and he could not know what it meant to say things that you didn’t mean about a child. Daniel saw in that split-second an appalled Motorcycle Bill. But that flip comment was kind of a release, a very necessary one, to take away the strain that builds up, particularly between him and that a-social, soft, sedentary being—his son—who had been officially labeled with a condition the boy himself called “assburgers,” a label Daniel himself would have been worthy of in his own childhood had there been a psychiatrist nearby.

Daniel went home. Even before he got home, he paid for that brief release: the flippant words weighed on him more and more. Of course Daniel cared for Crockett. What he wouldn’t have done for him. That shocked look of Bill’s weighed on him, though. It gnawed at him. And Daniel wanted to go to sleep, before seeing his son again, and wake up and let it be Monday morning already when he would see Bill again, after leaving Crockett at school. He wanted to see Bill again and atone for his irresponsible comments.

Monday came, and Daniel pushed the door open to the café.

“You know I didn’t mean it,” Daniel said.

“Mean what?” said Motorcycle Bill.

“That sometime I have to act like I care for Crockett.”

“Huh” Bill said with his face.

“You looked at me yesterday when I said I sometimes have to fake that I care for Crockett. I could see the shock in your face. Remember I was standing by the door, Peter was giving me a shoulder rub. I feel pretty bad about what I said about the tyke—“

“Daniel,” Bill said, setting aside his crossword.  He ran his fingers over his own closed eyelids, remembering.  “I was thinking about clue to the Guardian crossword. It was the last one, 4 down. I always get down to the last word and never finish the puzzle. I get stuck. The clue was ‘snatch baby and invite reprimand.’ Ten letters, the seventh a T. I got it because of you. ‘Tyke to task.’ ‘Take to task,’ snatch baby and invite reprimand. It’s a British crossword. First puzzle of theirs I’ve finished in a year.”

Grady Miller is a humorist. He lives in Hollywood. His latest book is “Later Bloomer: Tales from Darkest Hollywood.” (Amazon)

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Hollywood humorist Grady grew up in the heart of Steinbeck Country on the Central California coast. More Bombeck than Steinbeck, Grady Miller has been compared to T.C. Boyle, Joel Stein, and Voltaire. He briefly attended Columbia University in New York and came to Los Angeles to study filmmaking, but discovered literature instead, in T.C. Boyle’s fiction writing workshop at USC. In addition to A Very Grady Christmas, he has written the humorous diet book, Lighten Up Now: The Grady Diet and the popular humor collection, Late Bloomer (both on Amazon) and its follow-up, Later Bloomer: Tales from Darkest Hollywood. (https://amzn.to/3bGBLB8) His humor column, Miller Time, appears weekly in The Canyon News (www.canyon-news.com)