“Why do you fight?” Robbie asked. He sat in the warm light of the breakfast table, black hair dripping into his eyes.
“Well, to see who’s better,” George answered.
Robbie’s brush paused, then dipped back into the paint. Silver sparkled on the bristles.
“So you can tell who’s better if you win.”
“Something like that,” George laughed.
“But what if you don’t win?”
It was years later now. He knew that. The dreams had come again in uneasy waves that morning, torn him from bed with still-born memories fresh behind his eyes. The smell of hot leather in his nostrils beating his face like a flashbulb. Canvas tearing at his cheek. His son, staring down at him.
George worked his throat as his battered hands searched the wall. Hushed pillars rose before him, black shapes murmuring dust. Finally, the light snapped on. Thirty-nine years of his life leaped back into existence.
“A sixty-fifth birthday,” Maude had scolded weeks ago. “You don’t think the kids would want to come?”
So he’d gotten on the phone from the breakfast table. Keith would come. Diane. Then, after twice misdialing, he’d called Robert in New York. The line rang and rang.
“Hey pop,” his oldest son finally answered. A racket pulsed in the background.
“What’s that noise?” George shouted.
“That’s the city. The sound of progress. What’s up?”
“Well, your mother has told me I’m turning 65, and I thought you and the kids might want to come down in a few weeks.”
“Absolutely. The kids will want to see you.” A strangle of sirens and traffic poured through the handset.
“What was that?” George asked.
“I said the kids will want to see you.”
“Sure sure,” George said. He watched robins flit in and out of the birdhouse he’d built with Maude years before. They bounced on the rests, cocked an eye, exploded away from him.
“Yeah?” George asked, his guard rising. There’d been too many closed doors, challenges at dinner.
“I was wondering if I could have your gloves?”
George sighed in the basement, ran his hand through what remained of his hair. He’d been searching for hours, and the gloves were nowhere to be found. Again and again his mangled fingers had struggled with ties, tape, flaps. Only to unearth half-painted ship models. Measurements for a never-built tree house. A backpack choked with unused trail maps of Alaska, Maine, Vancouver.
He should tell the kid to go to hell.
Maude swished down the stairs with coffee. Her necklace spun in front of a red jacket and black dress.
“Robert just called, they’ll be here soon.”
“Sure sure,” he croaked. Thick with dust, the cracks in his voice surprised him.
She hugged him, kneaded his shoulders. “How are you doing? Want to take a nap before they come?”
“No, no. I slept fine.” She worked between his shoulder blades, and he could see the brown spots on her hands in his minds’ eye. Thick ankles, ropes of veins. There was so much they’d left undone.
“Well, come up out of the basement and get cleaned up, they’ll be here soon.”
The air was still, and he could see the dust flashing through the dim light. Here and there shadows ran against the walls.
“The kid wants my gloves Maude.”
Maude sighed, hugged his waist. “So that’s what this is about?”
George turned to her. “He told me the kids want to see me. Not him. He’s barely my son any more and he wants my gloves.”
“So what are you going to do?”
The boxes yawned around him, expectant. His hands ached. A hint of sunlight crept down the staircase.
“I’m going to find him his damn gloves.”
He worked the kinks out of his shoulders, rolling them back and forth, feeling the cracks and pops as he had so many years ago. The next box swung off its pillar easily.
But it was heavier than it looked, and his back was tightening. The cardboard slipped from his hands and dropped with shatter of metal. Maude leaped back. Armor broke, scattered sparkling in the dim light. Knights flew from their horses, pennants flapping, to crash to a stop at his feet.
George looked at his betraying hands, startled at their thickness. The swollen knuckles, gray hairs around them. He remembered a flashbulb’s sparkle at ringside, a tiny fist touching his bright red glove. Bobby’s face glowing over the picture in the paper.
“Dad?” Robbie asked. He sat at the breakfast table, black hair dropping into his eyes. Rows of half-painted knights marched in front of him. George had been staring out the window, and he lifted it now. A breeze whispered into the sun porch, clearing the air, and he turned to watch his son’s imagination at work.
“Do you know why they wore armor?” he asked.
“For protection! From arrows, and swords and stuff.”
“Could anything get through their armor?”
“Oh, lots of things I guess.” He ruffled his son’s hair, his hands gliding smooth and clean. He picked up a tiny knight to examine his son’s work. The armor sparkled in the sunlight. “I’ll win Robbie. Your dad doesn’t give up.”
Robbie set down his brush and looked up. “I know dad. I know.”