By BOB JOHNSON
The night Barack Obama was elected president, Roger Sinclair and his family gathered in his living room to watch the results come in. And there Roger—lifelong Democrat, city councilman, local party chair—drank a bottle of Merlot and elbowed his granddaughter Emily in the cheek, breaking her orbital socket.
Before the incident, the evening had been a happy one. Roger’s son Joel and daughter-in-law Colette were as rapt as he by the momentous events. All agreed that John McCain (a patriot, to be sure) was mired in the past, while the young candidate from Chicago—his beautiful family, his dazzling smile—represented an optimism the country hadn’t seen in a generation.
“It’s a return to Camelot,” Roger said, lifting his glass, though Joel’s and Colette’s puzzled faces told him they missed the reference.
But when the hour grew late, when her parents remembered Emily had school in the morning, when Roger’s wife Gail began tidying up, a deep loneliness came over him. Soon the young folks would drive away, the cheerful hubbub go silent. To salve his unease, he began to wrestle with his son.
Roger was fifty-eight years old and drove every day from his comfortable home in Mount Moriah, Indiana, to the Toyota dealership in Fort Wayne, where he roamed the new car lot, prospecting for customers. He had a large head and quick, birdy legs, and when he talked with you, he trapped you in his gaze and didn’t let go.
Joel was taller by half a foot and in his early thirties, yet he’d never objected to roughhousing with his father.
The bout escalated as the men rolled to the floor. Roger’s head was pinned beneath his son’s arm, his fist about to drive into Joel’s gut, when he felt a small body leap onto him from behind. Gail said later Emily only meant to join the fun, though something in the attack—the silence of it, the abruptness—made Roger think otherwise. She was almost seven and, for reasons he didn’t understand, had never warmed to him.
His fist drew back as Emily leaped forward and his elbow struck her above the right cheek. The blow, damp and splintery, shocked him to his core. His granddaughter tumbled away and began to scream, and Roger stood in the center of the room crying, “Oh my goodness, oh my goodness.”
It was all he could do. His tongue slurred over the word “goodness,” so it came out minus the “d,” and in that moment he knew, of all his life’s embarrassments—like when Ronny Nussbaum had pulled his pants down during a school trip to Chicago, or the time he’d walked in on his mother-in-law naked on the toilet—hurting Emily would haunt him to his dying day.
“I’m sure she’ll be okay,” he cried as Colette hurried the girl to the kitchen, where Gail was filling a bag with ice. He glimpsed Emily’s face and saw her cheek was already swollen. “I’m sure—” he began again, but a quick glance from Joel stopped him.
At the hospital, Roger and Gail waited while Joel and Colette disappeared with their daughter into an examination room. Tortured by the silence, Roger announced he’d seen a similar injury when he played basketball in college. “The guy was back on the court in a week,” he said. “You just have to give it time.” He noticed a young couple watching from across the room, and he rolled his eyes theatrically. “You won’t believe what I just did,” he called, but stopped when his wife’s fingernails dug into his wrist.
Soon a doctor appeared and asked to speak to Roger and Gail privately. “Your daughter-in-law told me what happened,” he said when they’d found chairs in his office. He was Indian or Pakistani, with mournful eyes and a lilting, diffident way of speaking. “You understand that an injury like this, to a child I mean, requires I follow a certain protocol?”
“Of course,” Roger said. He leaned forward and fixed the doctor in his gaze. “You should know I’m a city councilman and close friends with Chappy—I’m sorry, Dr. Charles Lantz—the chief of thoracic surgery here.”
The doctor looked at his notes. “Your granddaughter has a fracture of the lower eye rim. The break is not severe and will heal itself in a short time.”
Roger buried his face in his hands. “Oh, thank you, thank you.”
“Now, please. I’ve been told that you and your son were fighting when the injury occurred?” Roger lifted his chin and stared. The doctor’s eyes were unblinking, his lips in a thin smile. “It is required that I ask.”
“We were roughhousing,” Roger said. “Like fathers and sons do.”
“I’m sorry. ‘Roughhousing’ is?”
“Wrestling. Play-fighting.” Roger looked at Gail, who was twisting a tissue in her fingers “Maybe that’s not something people do where you come from, but we were play-fighting.”
“And you were drinking also?”
Roger sat erect. “Yes, I’d had some wine, but that has nothing—”
“Excuse me.” The doctor stood. “This is my colleague Mrs. Wilson.”
A woman had entered the room and stood at Roger’s elbow. She was short, with close-cropped gray hair and a sweater made of many colors of yarn. Her earrings were tiny dolphins.
“Now, Mr. and Mrs. Sinclair”—Mrs. Wilson sat and opened a notebook—“how did Emily come to be hurt?”
“It’s outrageous,” Roger said as Gail drove them from the hospital. “Did you hear that woman asking the same questions over and over, like she was hoping I’d slip up?” His wife held the wheel rigidly and said nothing. “Can you believe Colette told them Joel and I were fighting, that I was drunk?”
“Both are true,” Gail said.
“Ah, right on time with the support. The loyal helpmate. Et tu, Brunhilda.”
“And invoking Chappy Lantz was inappropriate. He’s my father’s friend, not yours.”
“That is demonstrably false,” Roger said. “Dr. Lantz greets me whenever I see him. We play in the same foursome often. We ate lunch in the clubhouse just the other day.”
In truth, he and the old surgeon played golfed together at their country club only when the starter’s clipboard happened to pair them, and they’d shared lunch a single time, when Gail’s father, in a rare moment of beneficence, waved Roger to their table. Lantz might nod when they met on the practice tee, though he showed the same heavy-lidded courtesy to everyone, from the board president to Jimmy the locker room attendant, eighty years old and the great-grandson of slaves.
“I only know,” Gail said, “that the instant we find ourselves alone you choose to caterwaul about your treatment instead of worry about Emily.”
Roger twisted, his face close to hers in the darkening car. “God in heaven, don’t you dare. I feel awful about what happened.” He turned and huddled against the window, his breath making a tiny oval on the glass.
The road followed railroad tracks on their right, and soon a train overtook them, its rusty bulk rocking between pavement and rising moon, the final car identical to the one before. Roger had always loved the caboose, before technology erased it from the scene. The men in the windows—the rumpled jackets, the waves, the pipe smoke—had always reminded him of his father, who’d died when Roger was a boy.
“I’ll never get over it,” he said, his voice catching, “hurting someone like that.”
“Your granddaughter,” Gail said. “You hurt your granddaughter.”
At home, Roger sat in his office and watched the president-elect greet supporters at Grant Park in Chicago. Reports estimated the crowd at 100,000, and as the camera swept the kaleidoscope of faces, the banners proclaiming hope and change, it found a grizzled and weeping Jesse Jackson. The civil rights leader had been with a dying Martin Luther King on a Memphis balcony, forty years before.
“You’re remembering his dream, aren’t you?” Roger whispered, and as he dwelt on old men and their dreams he began to weep also. He thought of his own hero, Bobby Kennedy, martyred that same awful spring, and the young senator’s stirring plea for calm the night King was shot.
“Even in our sleep, pain falls drop by drop upon the heart,” Bobby had told a grieving Indianapolis audience, “until, in our own despair, comes wisdom…”
Roger had listened to those words on the radio with a girl he’d just met, and he never thought of Bobby without also thinking of her.
Her name was Frances, though he’d always called her Franny. They’d been divorced for a lifetime, and he doubted she would recognize him now. Yes, he’d become heavy and gray, but more than that, she’d known him before, when he was…. He dabbed his cheeks, struggled for the words.
She’d known him when he was someone else.
He padded down the hall and listened to Gail’s snores at the bedroom door, then returned to his desk, where he twice picked up the phone and dialed a number he hadn’t used in years. Both times he hung up before the call went through. He dialed a third time, and when Franny answered he hung up so quickly he knocked the phone to the floor.
He bent to retrieve it and banged his temple on the desk, then held his head in his hands and rocked back and forth. Yes, he’d been reckless and wanting tonight, but weren’t recklessness and want the fires that drove him? Hadn’t it always been so?
Franny would understand.
The next day was warm for early November, so Roger took off work and went to the golf course. He sat over a Danish and coffee in the crowded clubhouse and listened to dark mutterings from other members about the election. Roger was one of only three Democrats at the club, and he recalled similar talk from his youth, how Joe Kennedy’s boys—John, Bobby and young Ted—were more beholden to a pope in Rome than they were to the U.S. Constitution, and anyone who thought differently was a fool.
His thoughts were interrupted by the starter asking if, because Roger was a single, he might round out a foursome with Dr. Lantz and two of his attorney friends. Their usual fourth, the starter said, was with his wife on a river cruise in France.
Roger eagerly agreed, and, as he joined the group on the first hole, sang, “How ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm, after they’ve seen Paree?” The other men smiled, but Chappy Lantz was preparing to hit his opening drive by then, and he straightened and examined the stitching in his glove until Roger was quiet.
Though Roger’s handicap had crept upward as he’d aged, he was still a capable player. He couldn’t hit the ball as far as he once had, but his first shot usually found the short grass. Today, though, contact between clubface and ball sent a shock into his elbow and recalled Emily’s cheekbone breaking. He began to flinch with each swing, and his shots sailed wildly off target or didn’t leave the ground at all. He followed his mishits with laughter at first, but after receiving no like response from his partners, he played grimly on.
Dr. Lantz was famously taciturn on the golf course, though once as they waited for a fairway to clear, he nodded at Roger before addressing the whole group, “I gather our local councilman considers last night a decisive blow for progress.”
Roger didn’t take the bait. Republicans bought Toyotas too, he liked to say, and the world was big enough for everyone.
After the round, he escaped to the locker room and dropped off his golf shoes for Jimmy to clean. The course was wet from overnight rain, and he apologized when he laid the muddy things on the attendant’s counter.
“That’s my job, Mr. Sinclair,” the old man said pleasantly, ignoring once again Roger’s appeals to call him by his first name.
“And you do a damn fine job of it.”
Jimmy spoke in a heavy Louisiana patois, and, though Roger despised it when club members loudly mimicked him to his face—”How you doin’, Jimmy? You fine as frog hair today?”—he found himself doing the same, sotto voce, when the two talked alone.
“Your boy kicked butt last night,” he said, leaning on the counter.
Jimmy looked up. “What boy is that?”
“Obama. I bet you’re tickled.”
“I’m always tickled to be on the topside of the grass, Mr. Sinclair.”
Roger laughed, then ground the heels of his hands into his forehead. “I fucked up last night, Jimmy. Oh man, did I fuck up.” He told the attendant about Emily.
Ordinarily Jimmy sympathized with Roger’s troubles—his putting woes, Gail’s tempers, endless council meetings—but today his rheumy eyes grew wide. “Damn,” he said. “You broke that baby’s nose?”
“Her cheekbone.” Roger slapped the countertop. “What a dumbass, right?”
Jimmy bent to his rag and saddle soap.
“It was an accident,” Roger said.
“I get it. But damn, were you drunk?”
Roger felt a stirring in his skull, like a beetle gnawing into rotten wood. He’d always scoffed when Gail suggested he was too familiar with the attendant, that their frequent chats hurt his standing at the club, that Jimmy was merely hustling him for tips.
“That has nothing to do with it,” he said coldly. “Joel and I were wrestling, she jumped on my back, I didn’t see her coming.” He found a tee in his pocket and pointed the sharp end at the old man. “You wouldn’t have either.”
Jimmy’s face went instantly blank, a mask he wore when club members thronged his station, piling filthy shoes on the countertop. “I expect not, boss,” he said. “I expect I wouldn’t have at that.”
“I mean it, goddammit. Don’t get all self-righteous with me.” Roger flicked the tee away and stood panting heavily. “I’m sorry, Jimmy,” he said. “She came out of nowhere. I feel terrible about it.”
“Well of course you do, Mr. Sinclair,” Jimmy said, though the mask remained.
Roger left the club and drove to Walmart to buy a gift for Emily. Gail usually shopped for their granddaughter, and he wandered the garish aisles in a daze, like the monster trapped in the glare of the villagers’ torches. He chose the pinkest, most expensive doll he could find, a suckling infant that made burping sounds, and lurched to the cash register.
Later, he sat on Joel and Colette’s sofa and held out the doll for Emily. She approached him warily, her cheek a purple outrage and both eyes laced with red.
“What do you say to Grandpa?” Joel said, and the girl mouthed a thank you, though she only took the doll when her father nudged her forward.
“We try to avoid gender-specific playthings,” Colette explained. “We don’t think girls are any more nurturing than boys”—she appraised Roger coolly—“or boys any more rough-and-tumble than girls.”
Joel and Colette began to prepare dinner, though they took turns coming and going, never leaving Roger and Emily alone. He brooded over the Sprite Colette had pressed into his hand and asked his granddaughter about school (the boys were mean), what her favorite subject was (she didn’t know), if she was mad at him for making a big mistake and hurting her cheek (no). When it became clear he wouldn’t have a seat at the table, Roger stood and put on his jacket, motioning for Joel to join him in the foyer.
“This isn’t necessary, you know,” he said at the front door.
“What do you mean?”
“This song and dance, making sure I’m never alone with my granddaughter.”
Joel groaned and looked at the ceiling. “It’s what they recommended at the hospital, Dad,” he said. “The CPS people, I mean. They said they wouldn’t pursue things any further as long as you and Emily took a time out from being alone together.”
“What do you mean, ‘pursue things any further’?”
“Charges, Dad. Misdemeanor abuse, or something like it.”
“Oh, hogwash,” Roger said. He saw Colette peering from the kitchen. “Hogwash!” he shouted at her.
“Calm down,” Joel said fiercely, and then, “They were on me at the hospital too. I was part of the fight, I’d been drinking. We have to go along.”
Roger sagged, then flipped up his collar to protect his neck from the night air. “It’s a sad day when a father and son can’t engage in innocent play.”
“That’s just it, Dad.” Joel reached to cover Roger’s hand on the doorknob. “We can’t do that anymore.”
“Can’t do what?”
“Wrestle like that. Colette hates it. Mom hates it.”
“But you love it. You have since you were little.”
Joel’s face clouded. “I used to, yes,” he said, “but you want to do it all the time, especially when you’ve been—” He shook his head. “It’s different now, Dad. It’s like you mean it, somehow.”
“What are you talking about?” Roger cried. “I don’t ‘mean’ anything. I love you. You’re my big, handsome boy.” He lifted his arms clumsily to embrace his son, but Joel shied away, palms in the air.
“I’m a man, an adult,” he said. “What you’re doing upsets my wife, and now you’ve…now we’ve hurt my daughter.” His voice turned husky. “I’m sorry, Dad, but whatever it is you want from me, I can’t be that guy anymore.”
Traffic was heavy as Roger drove home, and he hugged the bumpers of cars in front of him, no matter the speed. Twice drivers hit their brakes to warn him off, but he persisted, passing them in a din of honking. A cold rain was falling, and his cataracts lent a rainbow halo to oncoming headlights that made him sick to his stomach.
He recalled the night before: Colette’s betrayal, the foreign doctor, the woman with the dolphin earrings and a dozen questions. He thought of today: Jimmy’s shocked face, Joel’s hand stopping him at the doorway.
“It was an accident!” he shouted and pounded the hard plastic console between the seats. He gasped instantly as dizziness washed over him. He looked at his hand in the dashboard light and saw his third finger and pinkie were misshapen. “There you go,” he said. “Dumbass.”
When he got home he went to the kitchen and filled a bowl with ice water. He plunged his injured hand into it and with the other filled a juice glass with vodka. He called for Gail, but his voice echoed through an empty house. He welcomed her absence. It would give him time to collect himself. He’d either broken or dislocated his fingers, but a trip to the same emergency room was impossible. All would keep until he saw their family doctor in the morning.
He sat on a stool and nursed his drink and then saw Gail’s note on the counter.
I’m staying with my sister for a while. I’ll call when I’m settled.
I’ve begged—yes, begged!—you to seek help about your alcohol use and your erratic behavior, but you ignore me.
I think you’re hugely selfish, despite the affection you claim to have for other people. Only a selfish man would fail to notice how unhappy I am, but you never ask me what’s wrong.
I’m appalled by what happened to Emily, but it may finally make you think about others before you act. I pray it does.
PS – Remember to change the newspaper in the birdcage.
Roger read the note several times. Gail knew better. He thought about other people all the time and did his best to make them happy. What she didn’t know was he had spoken to their doctor recently about his mounting anxiety, his jitters when he drove the car, his fear that closed doors at work meant others were plotting his early retirement.
“Your goblins are getting the best of you,” the doctor had said. “It happens to many of us as we age.” He suggested tranquilizers, but Roger dismissed the idea. He wasn’t some old woman, with “spells” and “episodes.”
As for asking Gail what was wrong, Roger had avoided the question for much of his life. To ask was to invite an answer, to ring a bell that couldn’t be un-rung. When he was a boy he’d asked his mother what was wrong, and she told him she was divorcing his father. He’d asked his father what was wrong and heard that God was a cruel trickster, bent on man’s misery. He’d asked his basketball coach and found he was cut from the varsity. He’d asked his sales manager and learned his customer list had been divided by half, the remnants to be distributed among a fresh crop of salespeople.
The last time he’d asked Gail what was wrong, five years before, she told him she’d met someone else. After the affair ended and she came home again, she stared at him over dinner one night with torment in her eyes, and he nearly asked the question once more, but instead he stabbed a slice of pot roast and filled his mouth with meat.
The grandfather clock chimed 11:00 as Roger sat at his desk and dialed the phone. He held his injured hand above his head and was astonished by the electric pain thumping down his arm and into his shoulder.
He and Franny had spoken twice in thirty years—once after he’d lost a job, once during Gail’s affair—but when she answered, he said, “It’s me.”
“Well, well,” she said after a long moment. “Forgotten but not gone.”
He enunciated with great care. “I’m just checking in.”
The line rasped with a snort. “Had a few?”
Roger restrained an urge to snarl. “What are you up to?”
“No, what are you up to? Was that you calling last night?”
He imagined her sitting in the darkness, wearing the mocking smile he remembered like yesterday. “Where’s your husband?”
“Out. I don’t know. It’s none of your business. Jesus.”
Roger leaned his head against the chair cushion, his hand throbbing, his breath seething in and out. “Franny, I’m in trouble.”
“So naturally you call me?” she said.
“I didn’t know what to do. I’m a freak and a danger to everyone else, it seems.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake.” She made her voice comically forlorn, like a ventriloquist’s dummy. “‘I’m a freak and a danger.’”
“I mean it. I have nowhere else to turn.”
She was silent, and he was surprised to hear a dog barking in the background. She had never liked dogs and their ceaseless wanting, preferring the haughty otherness of cats. “What is it?” she said. “What’s wrong?”
He took in a great lungful of air, and the words came in a tumble. “Tell me,” he said, “about the first time you ever saw me. Tell me about that time.”
“No, Roger. You have other people for that stuff. Ask them.”
“Please,” he said. “Tell me about Bobby Kennedy. I’ll never ask again, I promise.” He pressed his injured hand to his eyes. “Franny, please.”
He knew she hated when he begged—for love, for forgiveness, for money when his car was repossessed. “You’re demeaning us both by what you’re asking,” she said.
“I know, I know. Please.”
She didn’t say anything for a half a minute, and when she spoke at last her voice was gruff. “It was April, 1968. I was seventeen, a senior at North Side in Fort Wayne. Bobby Kennedy was running for president and we were all crazy about him. I don’t know why, except he seemed so young and hopeful, like he was one of us. Nixon and Humphrey were old gasbags as far as we were concerned, Tweedledee and Tweedledum.”
“That’s it,” Roger said excitedly. “That’s just how it was.”
“We heard he was making a stop at Notre Dame, and the principal said the four of us in honors history could skip classes and drive up to South Bend. I didn’t know it then, but you lived twenty miles away in Mount Moriah, and your school did the same thing.”
“They let the senior boys go. Just the boys. We had two carloads.”
She sighed. “If you’d like to tell the story, I’ll just sit quietly.”
“You’re right. Not another peep.”
“Anyway, the drive took two hours, and when we got to the campus we found out he was going to speak in this weird-looking building like a space ship, where the roof went almost to the ground.”
“The Stepan Center,” Roger said, then bit his lip.
“If you say so. The place was so full we couldn’t get in, so they had loud speakers on the lawn, and when Bobby showed up everybody went wild. His wife Ethel was with him and that baseball player Stan Musial, and I remember being amazed by how gray Bobby’s hair was, how short he was next to the Secret Service guys. We were waiting on either side of a roped-off walkway for him to go into the building, and the next thing you know I looked up and saw this maniac on the roof.”
Roger sat perfectly still, phone tight to his ear.
“The cops saw him and started shouting—this was five years after Dallas, yet I swear nobody thought it could happen again—and the guy laughed and flashed peace signs with both hands. He was skinny with wild hair and his shirt tied around his waist, and he made his way to the archway where Bobby was going in, and he lay on his stomach and reached down as Bobby passed underneath, and the two slapped hands like God and Adam.”
“What happened then? What happened to the guy then?”
“The cops wrestled him off the roof, and the crowd was screaming to turn him loose.” She laughed sadly. “I don’t know why I remember it like this. Maybe because we’d smoked a joint in the car. The sun was bright, and the sky was empty of clouds, like a big, blue dome over all of us: the kids, the cops, Bobby. It was the best day.” She paused. “Six weeks later he was dead.”
Roger found himself smiling hugely, tears streaming down his face. “What did you think of that guy when you first saw him, Franny? That guy on the roof?”
“No, I’ve done what you asked. You got your fix.”
“Tell me,” he wept. “Tell me.”
He heard ragged breathing, as though she’d climbed a steep hill and was gathering herself for a final push over the top. “I thought…I thought he was a beautiful madman,” she said. “The kind of boy I wanted.” She spoke so faintly he barely heard. “The kind of boy I might love.”
Elation flooded Roger like a narcotic. “Oh, Franny, I love you. I was crazy to hurt you like I did. There’s never been anyone but—”
The line buzzed. She’d hung up.
A light tapping made him turn to the window. It was still raining. He watched the droplets run down the glass, and the elation drained from him as water seeps through sand. He turned on the news to a report about Grant Park the day after Obama’s victory party. The expanse was empty now, save for an army of custodians in orange vests, pushing brooms and barrels, sweeping gaudy litter into piles. It was raining there too, and the workers’ shoulders were hunched against the November cold.
The rain grew heavier, rattling the windowpanes. It was raining all over Indiana, the TV report said, and would continue all night, before changing to snow.
Bob Johnson’s stories have been published in Hudson Review, Midwest Review, and Barcelona Review, among other quarterly journals. “Tell Me About Bobby Kennedy” is from his collection-in-progress, The Continental Divide.