That afternoon Howard Stinley spent the longest time thinking about what young Tommy King had said about the Bomb. He thought about what a megaton meant, how it meant that some of those bombs had a million tons of dynamite and more, that that in itself amounted to some billions of pounds of dynamite, and that just one stick would level the parking lot out there in front of their building where the witch that ran their ward had her Skylark. Jesus, it was terrible to think about. It boggled the mind. King had said that if just one of them hit Manhattan they’d all be leveled, even out here in Jersey, and Tommy King knew what he was talking about because he had worked on them the three years he spent in the Army. It was the first time Howard Stinley had given the whole thing a thought let alone his full concentration, and it was giving him a headache, but then it was easier than thinking about his son. Jesus knew, nothing could bother his son, not even a billion of those megatons, where he was, that is if Jaimie Stinley was anywhere, anywhere at all, and then for a few minutes he couldn’t see the cars in the parking lot across the street, and the trees were blurred, and he remembered that yesterday was Father’s Day.
He always had trouble with Father’s Day, but this one was the worst. The Recreation lady, nice enough as she was and a good piano player and maybe a good lay, was discussing the meaning the day had for each of them, and how she knew it, he didn’t know, she might have been reading his chart, but all of a sudden she started in on how Howard Stinley had lost his only son the year after that son had come home from the Marines and was a New Jersey trooper, about how Howard would be spending his Father’s Day with a lot of memories, about how he kept Jaimie Stinley’s photo in the trooper uniform over his bed, as if they all did’t know that much, and about this and that until he could feel the tears coming despite himself just when he thought he had it all contained, most of it anyway, behind him.
Then he started thinking about the Bomb again, and then Tommy King stepped out on the porch, big strapping man that he was, and saw him sitting there and came over and faked with the left and shot a good right cross just past his chin the way he said he’d been a boxer, and Howard was feeling just a touch better, a whole lot better when young Tom in whites sat down and leaned back and told him about how they were fixing to cut the witch’s tires if she kept on riding them but to keep that totally silent.
It was hard enough to lose a wife to cancer, one you loved so much you never went out and cheated on, lost her first day of the spring after twelve years of marriage, and you went on anyway and raised your son like a fragile jewel and minded your first wife’s wishes not to put him into boxing though he grew up strong as a bull and fast, God was he fast, so gentle really, never hurt a fly, but not taking any nonsense from the tough guys he ran with or chose to avoid when he had better sense. And you raised him, and just when you were proudest, he stops to help a motorist on the Parkway and they plow into the back of the parked car going maybe eighty, and stone dead, all he lived for vanished, just like that.
Hell, it was his own fault. He had told everyone on the ward the story, so it was no news for the Recreation lady. He had told Timmy King here about the way he got in the Buick and drove all night and then all the way back and climbed out and sold his business and dropped the second wife and everything else but a suitcase of clothes and took his first boat to the Far East and kept on going for three years, just juicing it up to kill the pain and traveling and not really knowing what it was all about anymore, and waking up in the night and cursing Jesus and the Virgin and all the Saints and the Catholic Church for letting his little boy die. It was his own fault. He should have learned to keep his mouth shut, should have learned it years ago, and he couldn’t curse anybody for what the Recreation lady brought up on Father’s Day.
“You know what you look like in profile?”
Howard hadn’t quite heard what the young man was saying. He leaned closer and asked for a repeat.
“You look like a god damn penguin.”
“There it is. I’m out here minding my own business, and you come out here and insult me. You hate me, don’t you?”
“I don’t hate you. I despise you.”
They sat there a while in silence. What he had never told anyone was how he came back from Shanghai three years later and was eating dinner at his sister’s and halfway through Jaimie was suddenly there on the wall above his sister’s head in a gray suit and smiling in a way he’d only seen on statues of Jesus, and how the picture was there for over three minutes. He had never told anyone about that until just now, just now telling Tommy King who for some reason didn’t laugh or make light of it, surprising guy that he was.
“I just think he was trying to tell you he was all right. He just wanted you to know he was alive somewhere and that he was all right. Probably he wanted you to get on with living, that’s all. Start up your world again.”
Somebody called him to lift a patient, Tommy, just as he was starting to make some sense, and then Howard was all alone on the porch until Helen Redmond came scuttling up in her chair with the legs gone but a nice figure for her age, over seventy. He liked the way she had her hair just then, the short bangs, and he often wondered what it might be like to make love to a woman missing her two legs below the knees, if it’d be macabre or something, or maybe something you’d get used to. Hell, he himself wasn’t much of a bargain with his game leg and emphysema.
“You still think Tommy’s a fag?” he said.
“I KNOW he is. Everybody knows that.”
“Big guy like that? He must go over two hundred.”
“They come in all sizes.”
That night he lay awake for an hour praying that Tommy King’d stop being a fag. He prayed as hard as he could and said a few Hail Marys with it, but finally he gave it up just like all his other prayers, gave it up with the same empty feeling that God didn’t give enough of a damn to keep his son alive, was he going to make a heterosexual out of Tom King? Was he going to straighten out the very awful fact that the blacks were taking over every sport you could name except some of the fag ones in England, that there would never be another Marciano, not ever, world without end, let alone a Dempsey, a Tunney, not to speak of basketball where you saw a white face you were lucky. No, Tommy King was just like the rest of them except for his kindness and what he knew about things, especially the Bomb. Thing was he didn’t walk like a fag, not a bit of it. Probably in his genes. The world was getting stranger by the minute. Someday he’d get lucky and wake up and not be in it anymore. Let the minorities have it all. Even his memories. When those were gone where would his son be then?