Dad, Do You Have to Smoke?

Visitation weekends are an anxiety experience for Baldwin, punctuated by sheer bliss. Baldwin is in his 50s and lives in Mission Hills. His little boy is 32 years old. Since 2003 he has registered bipolar into the red, now reading schizophrenia after having metered past schiz-affect some two years ago. Danny Baldwin lives in Oceanside, a block from where his mom works at a corporate job for a lawn-furniture manufacturer. Driving west on 78 on this Friday evening, all Baldwin can think about is his first stint in rehab after Danny’s diagnosis and Baldwin’s subsequent public intoxication charge at some chain restaurant in Mission Valley he does not recall.

The therapist, a black man named Figg, asked the group of men, “How many come from a divorced couple?” Three out of five raised their hands. Baldwin’s parents had stayed together, though the young Baldwin had often prayed for a divorce, even a death (he confessed this 40 years later to a priest he never saw in a North Park confessional), so he sat back. He watched Figg lift a sheet of blank typing paper and say, “This is what divorce does to a kid,” and ripped the sheet pretty cleanly in half. One guy, about 40, wept into his hands, and the whole session was about him after that. Baldwin now remembers how he had laughed, maybe aloud, and muttered glibly to himself, “It ain’t me, babe.”

Now, eight years later, as he pulls up to Dan’s building, the image of his son as two half sheets of paper seems ridiculous. Father and son will talk about moving in together again over this weekend, make some sensible choices; Danny sounded fine, in that stable phase between manic and emotionless. It is his birthday.

The light in North County is different, he thinks as the sun sets toward Japan — more watery, if that makes any sense. Baldwin thinks of amniotic fluid for some reason, and this is accompanied by a phrase he hasn’t thought of in decades: meconium staining. It was why Dan was turned away at Lennox Hill Hospital on another Friday night three decades ago and sent downtown to Beth Israel, where they had the right machine or something. The phrase meant that his son had shit in the womb. Baldwin grins, shakes his head.

“Hi, Dad. Do you have to smoke?” Dan’s not smiling, but he seldom does. His eyes seem darker than the hazel Baldwin remembers. It’s on the birth certificate.

“No, not right now. I won’t if you say the word.” His son, every bit of 300 pounds, had dyed his hair blue a month ago. It appears a kind of cocktail-lounge-pianist henna now, and something in the young man’s voice alarms Baldwin. “Is your mom coming? Because I brought some steaks.”

“Any minute. I’m starving. There’s nothing here.” Baldwin hears this constantly and goes to the refrigerator. It is empty except for bottled Arrowhead and two-liter Mountain Dew and Pepsi. His son has again thrown out everything: mustard, fruit, and butter, all kinds of stuff, to present a picture of hardship. He would later claim they were expired. Baldwin says nothing.

“Dad, there might be a girl coming over. I’m kind of embarrassed.”

“What? Really?” This could be bad. Danny hadn’t been in the company of a woman his own age since shortly before he was beaten by her former boyfriend stalker, launching his son’s mind across the parking lot of Pizz–Orama in Vista.

“She’s a porn star.” His son points to the computer screen: MySpace, where Cherry X. Flaymz and her crow’s feet grin at Baldwin from cyberspace.

“Dan, man. This is a goof, man. She’s in L.A. and she’s a pro. She’s not coming, buddy. No. Look, let’s...”

“Dreams don’t come true. Not with you, Dad. Right? You’re a failure, so dreams don’t come true.” He’s fuming, strangling fistfuls of nothing. A knock at the door. “Come in.”

“Hi, Dan. Hi, Bob. I’ve got some groceries.” Anne immediately senses it’s going south. “What’s up?”

“I have a girl coming over, and Dad is ruining it.”

“What?”

Baldwin explains briefly. His son simmers.

“Your dad is...”

“He’s always right. You hate him and he’s still right!”

“Nobody hates anybody. Calm down.”

Danny propels himself several feet toward his mother. Baldwin steps between them, faces his son — “Whoa, whoa!” — who reaches past him, grabbing his mother’s necklace.

“That’s Grandma’s. Stop it! You’re hurting me!”

“You’re making Dad mad.”

“I’m not mad. Look at me, I’m crying. What’s wrong? Stop this. Don’t hurt her.”

His right arm is around Danny’s shoulders in a hug, and his left arm grips his son’s wrists. He is trying to pull them away from Anne’s fingers, which are at her throat, clutching the broken necklace. He says, “You don’t want to do this. Please.”

“This family is going down. See?” He commends his full weight to his parents. Everyone is sinking to the linoleum. “Dad can’t support me. You can but you won’t. You have thousands and thousands of dollars and you won’t! You see? This family is going down and you won’t stop it!”

Baldwin fights tears. His ex-wife no longer bothers. When her former husband frees their son’s wrist from her sweater and fingers, she lunges backward, reaching with her left hand toward her son’s shoulder for balance. Danny lies between them as they try to extricate themselves from this brutal, comic posture. A man and woman, the man in his late 50s, the woman in her early 60s, are poised over the large bulk of their prostrate son on the floor and vainly trying to stroke, lift, pat, cradle, extend hands, and at the same time free themselves.

Anne manages her way to her feet. Baldwin waves her toward the door. “Go, go. Call them. Do it.” Danny gets to his feet and bounds after her, but Baldwin stops him at the head of the stairs beyond the front door. Other doors are closing, slamming, or slowly creaking shut in the summer night with the whimper of whipped dogs.

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