NOT MY SON
by Franklin Klavon
Eight in the morning, Donny Ballmer walked through the shop at Ballmer's Welding, a cup of coffee in his hand. The bay doors were open and the smoke of arc welders drifted through the air as six men fabricated roof trusses with structural steel. Donny stepped out the back door and scanned the parking lot. He counted eight vehicles, mostly pickups, and knew he had a full crew today. He also looked at the scrap bins overflowing with rusty iron and decided to call the scrapyard. But the real reason he lingered, toeing the crumbled blacktop behind the brick building, was the temptation of the bottle of Tennessee whiskey under the seat of his convertible.
Issue #77 soundtrack: Sally Fowler "Oh The Digger"
He turned quickly and headed through the shop before desire grabbed him by the throat. He'd promised himself he wouldn't drink today, his head still throbbing from last night, and the longer he contemplated the bottle the more alluring it became and the greater the enticement to sneak out to his car for a swallow.
In the drawing room, Sid Fuller, the shop foreman, examined blue prints. The door was propped open and Donny walked in. "Sorry about last night, Sid," Donny came up from behind and patted Sid's shoulder. Sid, a skinny, bald man, looked up from the drawings. Donny sipped his coffee. "I don't know what got into me. I guess I thought you were being unfair to Rita. But she's your wife, and I should mind my own business."
"Forget it," said Sid, a faint bruise over his left eye. "It was mostly my fault. Seeing Rita's ex in that bar last night fuckin' ripped my guts out. But as a friend I will say this— you need to bridle your temper, Don. When you're drinking, you're a madman."
They shook hands. Donny slapped him on the back and then walked across the shop toward the front office. He shielded his eyes from the glare of the welders. The smell of molten metal and the clinking of steel lifted his mood. In the office, his secretary, Frances, typed at the front desk. A buxom, mid-thirties brunette, she looked up from the computer monitor and glanced at Donny; he was a big man with a big belly and a reddish beard. "You have a visitor," Frances said, her eyes shifting toward the young man seated in the lobby.
Donny looked through the dusty sliding window into the lobby, then back at Frances. "Who is it?"
"He wouldn't say. He just asked for you." She smiled. "He looks like family."
"Great." Donny gulped his coffee, threw the cup in a waste basket, then entered the lobby. "May I help you?"
The young man, tall and lean, stood from his chair. "Are you Donny Ballmer?" He spoke with a northern accent.
"That's right. What can I do for you?"
"My name's Fred. Fredrick Torrent. My mother's name is Janie Torrent."
Donny fumbled in his breast pocket and lit a cigarette. "Good for you. State your business, boy."
Fred held out a photograph, his hands shaking. "This is me when I was a baby, and this is you." He pointed to the thin man holding the infant in the picture. "My mother told me you're my father."
Donny looked away and picked a fleck of tobacco from his lip. "You're mother's a liar."
"This is you in the picture though, isn't it?"
"Sure, that's me. That don't prove shit."
"But—" Fred's voice trailed off as he looked at the floor. "Look, sir, I don't want anything from you. I don't need money. I took a train all the way from Michigan just to meet you."
Donny looked at Fred. He was a good-looking boy. He had Janie's eyes. Donny puffed his cigarette, exhaling smoke as he replied, "You should have called. We have phones in the Carolinas." Laughing, "I could've saved you the trip." Fred, unable to respond, hung his head. "You're not my son!" Donny's voice boomed. "I don't care what your mother says."
Donny held the door, and Fred left the lobby, his shoulders hunched. After that, it rained a couple hours, and Donny tried to keep himself busy with paperwork, but his mind kept wandering to Michigan. At midday, Frances went out for lunch. "Fran, what're you doing for lunch?" Donny asked as she headed to the front door.
"Buying a hotdog across the street."
"Will you get me one?" He handed her a couple bucks.
"Not going out today?"
"Too much on my mind."
"Something to do with the visitor you had earlier?"
She smiled and walked outside, her high heels clicking.
Early afternoon, Fred returned carrying a backpack. He chimed the bell on the counter in the lobby. Donny looked up sharply from his desk. "I'll take care of this," he told Frances. He went to the lobby. "Still in town?" he said to Fred.
"I was planning on staying a few days, but now I'm taking the six o'clock train back home." Fred paused, hoping the big man would say something. "I came to see you one last time," he stammered. "I'll never bother you again, sir, I promise."
Donny could see great sadness in the boy's eyes. He could see himself as the same young man, twenty years past. "Let me give you a ride to the station," he said.
Now they were heading across town to the railroad station in Donny's Lincoln. It was still muggy from the morning rain, and they rode with the windows down, Donny smoking. Fred held the backpack on the floor between his legs.
Donny glanced at the boy. "Sorry my car's such a mess. You can't keep black cars clean."
Fred didn't reply.
"When'd you get in town?"
"Where'd you stay?"
Donny cringed. "On Palmetto?"
"I think so." Fred looked at the passing city, the streets wet, the sky grey. Gusts of wind blew the green, leafy trees. "This is a nice area. The hills are nice. It's too flat where I come from."
"Too damn cold where you're from," Donny laughed. "This is where I grew up. I went to school a few miles from here, and all my family's here. I've lived in the Carolinas most of my life." He spoke with a southern drawl.
"What made you come to Michigan before I was born?"
"Work. I worked in a factory making Buicks."
"Is that where you met my mom?"
Donny didn't reply.
"It's just been me and my mom for the last ten years," said Fred. "I had a stepfather when I was a boy, but he ran off. They'd only been married a couple years. Before that we lived with my grandmother. She died five years ago. Mom took it hard for a long time."
"How is ol' Janie?" Donny turned the radio off.
"Fine. She put on some weight, but she lost it all, and now she's dating a guy at work. Clyde Peterson."
"No shit?" said Donny. "I know Clyde. He lived with his folks on Lake Erie. They were hippies, his folks. They threw parties, and that's where we'd all go on weekends. That's where I met your mother." Donny glanced at Fred, Fred's hands on his knees, his long legs hinged. "Back then, no man was good enough for your mom."
"Is that why you abandoned her and me?"
"Huh?" said Donny.
Fred narrowed his eyes. "You took off and left us when I was just a baby."
Donny turned off the avenue onto a side street and locked the brakes. The tires screeched and the front end dipped. "What?" he demanded.
"Listen, slick, I didn't abandon anybody. Tracy Allen, your mom was screwing Tracy. That's your father."
"That's not what she told me. She said you got mad because she wouldn't marry you because you wouldn't quit——"
"Tracy's your father!" Donny cut him off. "Only Janie didn't want Tracy. She loved me. The bitch tried to trap me." Fred swung the door open to climb out, but Donny punched the gas pedal, and the door slammed shut. He squealed rubber around the block, coasted through a stop sign and shot out on the avenue.
A mile up, at a shopping center, music emanated from the loud speakers at a carnival. The Ferris wheel and carousel were empty but turning nonetheless, and a sparse crowd had gathered as the afternoon sun evaporated the clouds. Fred saw a young woman with sunglasses eating cotton candy with a small boy. A whiteface clown leaned against a lamppost, smoking a cigarette. Donny glanced at Fred, Fred's hand gripping the door handle, the smell of greasy food wafting through the air.
Donny cleared his throat. "Look, kid, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to get down on your mother. That was a long time ago." Fred shot him a look, then turned away. Donny was surprised to see a resemblance to his own mother in the young man. "We should stop and get something to eat."
"I just ate."
"Well, how about we get some ice cream." Donny turned in the Dairy Swirl and parked the car. "C'mon," he patted Fred's knee, "I'm buying."
Donny sighed, glancing at the line of people waiting to order at the ice cream window. "I have to get out of the car to buy the ice cream. Will you be here when I get back?"
Fred hesitated. "Sure."
The line moved slow. Donny hot boxed a cigarette down to the butt, waiting impatiently. He came back with two chocolate ice cream cones and handed one through the passenger window to Fred. "Here you go." Fred grunted and took the ice cream cone. "I'm going to sit at a picnic table under the trees," said Donny. He went to the shady trees and sat on top a picnic table with his feet on the bench. Fred sat in the car and licked the ice cream, but the sunshine through the windows scorched the interior. He climbed out and went to the picnic tables, chocolate ice cream running down his hand. "How's your ice cream?" asked Donny.
"This place always has good ice cream. My father used to take me here when I was a boy." He handed Fred a napkin. "Tell me about yourself. Are you going to school? Do you work? You got a girlfriend?"
"Yeah, I'm going to school. I'm not sure what I want to be yet, so I'm taking—"
Donny's cell phone rang; the ringtone sounded like a flock of crows. He grunted, pulled it from his pocket, looked at it and shut it off. "Sorry about that. What were you saying?"
"No, really, go on."
But Fred turned away and looked across the small park behind Dairy Swirl. An old man with a cane hobbled to a table, while a younger man, though still quite old, followed close behind with two ice cream cones. They both sat down, both wearing straw fedoras. Fred bit into the waffle cone, the ice cream dripping out the bottom. He packed his mouth with several quick bites, finished it off, and wiped the sticky chocolate off his chin and fingers with the napkin. He threw the napkin in a litter barrel. "I have a girlfriend," he said to Donny. He pulled her picture from his wallet. "Her name's Laura."
Donny took the picture, holding the edges with his fingers, and looked at the girl with thick eyebrows and a big chin. She could scare demons out of a graveyard, he thought. He glanced at the back, it was blank, and handed the photo to Fred. "Pretty. How'd you meet her?"
"At the golf course. She was with another girl and a guy, and I was playing through, and they asked me to join them. After that we started seeing each other."
"Oh, you golf? You any good?"
"Our team was state champs in high school."
"What do you shoot?"
"Scratch! I can poke a seventy-five on a good day. I've won a few championships myself. You must've seen the golf trophies in the lobby." Fred nodded, gazing at the two old men eating ice cream.
Back at the car, Donny looked up at the sky. Patches of blue appeared through the broken clouds. "Give me a hand. We'll put the top down." They released the latches at the corners of the windshield and folded the roof back into a compartment behind the rear seat. Fred admired the vintage Continental. The engine purred almost imperceptibly as they idled through the lot. The warm air tossed his hair as they rocketed out on the avenue.
"Do you go to a university?" asked Donny.
"Community college," said Fred. "I've taken most of the prereqs for engineering, but I'm thinking about quitting. Too expensive."
"No, don't quit," said Donny. "You need an education. Otherwise you'll be poor your whole life."
"What do you care?"
"To hell you do."
"Hey! I said I care, goddammit." Donny took his eyes off the road and glared at Fred. "Learn some respect and don't be sassing me. And don't be getting anymore goddamn tattoos. You hear me? You're gonna regret that some day." He turned the wheel sharply and headed east on a two lane road.
"Hey, where you going? The train station's that way," Fred pointed.
"Relax. Your train ain't 'til six. I thought I'd show you the town.
"Take me to the station. I don't want to see the town."
"Too damn bad. You're with me, and I'm going to show you around." Fred grabbed the door handle as they approached a stop sign, but Donny coasted through the intersection and took off. "Would you relax? I promise you won't miss your train." The deserted road zigzagged over small hills. Donny lit a cigarette and stretched, one hand over the wheel. "I want to show you my country club."
They approached a golf course running along the road to the right. "This is Timber Hill Golf Club." Donny took his foot off the accelerator. They slowed down to a crawl. "That's the tee for number sixteen," he pointed with the smoldering cigarette between his fingers. "Par five, six hundred yards dead even. Look at the lake!" He dragged the smoke. "Two hundred yards out. That's the God damndest water hazard on the planet." Fred could see waves on the sparkling pond. "Most guys on the league approach with a 3-wood, then punch it over," said Donny. "But I drive right through. Nine out of ten times I make it, depending on how drunk I am."
"Wouldn't it be safer to go to the right along the woods?"
"You can't get a good lie for your next shot! You have to shoot over a goddamn miniature mountain."
The road curved to the right, and Donny stopped on a hill. A car came up from behind, and he impatiently waved it past. "See the green beyond the trees." They could see a red flag flapping in the wind. "That's number seventeen. You'll never putt a faster lawn than that sumbitch. Last season in the playoffs, I missed a birdie, and it rimmed the cup and took off down that hill all the way to the cattails." He paused to catch his breath. "And a goddamn goose ate it."
"I swear to God. A Canadian goose."
They coasted down the hill, gravel crunching beneath the tires. "Eighteen's a nice par four, 455 yards. I usually get on in two," said Donny. "And if I make the bird it’s a good sign I'm gonna get laid that night." Fred laughed out loud. Donny pulled in the lot at the clubhouse and stopped behind a car as two men put golf clubs in the trunk. They both looked up, both wearing ball hats and spiked golf shoes. The older man's face was sunburned red. "Hey, guys, I want you to meet somebody," said Donny. "This is my— this is Fred."
They greeted Fred. "Are you a golfer, Fred?" said the man with the red face.
"He's a hell of a golfer," Donny answered. "Captain of the league in high school."
"Where you from?"
"Detroit," said Fred.
"All the way from Michigan, eh?"
"He came to show the old man how to play this game," said Donny.
The two golfers laughed. "You coming in nineteen for a boiler maker, Don?"
"Uh—" Donny hesitated and glanced at Fred. "I don't think so, Al, not today."
They circled the lot, Donny pointing out the putting green and the "nice" driving range. He waved at two women in a golf cart. "That's Denise and Tanya," he said to Fred. "Two fun girls."
Back on the road, they headed northwest through rolling farmland. Donny looked at his watch and thought about the guys drinking beers and shots at the clubhouse. He kept thinking about the tight blouse Denise was wearing. He could drop Fred off at the station and be back in an hour, he realized, pushing hard on the accelerator. The black car surged over uneven road. Fred looked at the big man crossly. Donny glanced at his watch again, eased off the gas, then clicked on the radio. To hell with those women. "You like jazz?"
Fred hesitated. "Sure, George Benson."
"Oh, you like guitar."
"I play guitar," said Fred. "Not jazz, though. Rock."
Donny didn't reply.
They drove past tobacco fields, the radio barely audible over the winding road. Having a son might be alright, thought Donny, I could teach the young man how to weld. But then he thought about the whores and cocaine he'd have to leave behind. He wouldn't be the type of father that corrupted his own boy with recklessness. They approached a gas station outside a trailer park. Suddenly, he needed a drink. He pulled up to the pumps and climbed out. "Wait here. I'll be back in a minute."
Inside, he bought a tall can of beer and went in the restroom. He took a leak and washed his face. "What should I do? What should I do?" he asked himself, looking in the mirror. Maybe it's my duty to be this boy's father? That's all I was good enough for in Janie's eyes. He clenched his teeth and remembered the bitter words him and Janie exchanged the day he left Michigan never to return. "Stiff neck bitch," he grumbled. "She thought she was too damn good for me." The sour smell of the restroom startled him out of his thoughts. He opened the beer, brought it to his mouth, hesitated, then poured it down the sink. He jerked the restroom door open, and it slammed against the wall. With any luck, Fred would be gone when Donny got back outside.
At the gas pumps, Fred leaned against the Continental, his arms folded, a wallet with a chain in his back pocket. Get the hell off my paint job, thought Donny. He went around the car. "Let's go, bud." On the driver's seat lay a gift-wrapped present. Donny looked up. "What's this?"
"Open it," Fred grinned. Donny hesitated, pulled the package from the car and tore off the wrapping paper to find Fred's high school graduation picture in a wood frame. His hair was slicked back. He wore a goofy tie but a warm smile. "Sorry it's just a four-by-six," Fred apologized. "That's all I had left."
Donny felt a sudden impulse to hug the boy, but instead he thanked him and commented on how nice it had turned out. "Looks just like you," he said.
They talked about welding as they drove through town to the railroad station. Donny glimpsed the picture lying on the seat and was amazed at the family resemblance. I'll have to show it to my mother, he thought, and she'll be delighted and eager to meet her only grandchild. But then he thought about her loss, having missed out on Fred's infancy and boyhood. She might never forgive me, he worried, and rightfully so.
They drove past Mitch's Tavern. "That's where me and a bunch of buddies like to hang out," said Donny, turning his head to see if he recognized any cars in the parking lot.
"You drink quite a bit, don't you?" said Fred.
"I like to drink, so what of it?"
"My mom warned me about that."
Donny braked hard at a stop light. The whiskey bottle stashed beneath the seat slid out and hit him in the foot. He kicked it back under with his heel. "Look, kid, you didn't come all this way to preach me a sermon did you?" He spit out the window. "If I want a sermon, I can make an appointment with my own mother." At the train station, Donny pulled up front. It was four o'clock. "See, I told you I'd have you here in plenty of time," he nodded toward the clock on the dashboard, then held out his hand. "Good luck finding your father."
"Right," said Fred, climbing out of the car. He swung the door closed and headed into the depot. Donny watched the tall, skinny kid disappear through the door, slumped over, carrying the backpack. He idled the car around the lot, parked in the shade of a maple tree, turned the key off, and lit a cigarette. He thought about Janie Torrent.
She'd worn her hair in a long thick braid the day they met. It was twilight at a beach party, the late summer air cool, a small group gathered around a fire of burning driftwood. A bottle had passed around, everybody smoking reefer. Janie was falling-down drunk by midnight, and Donny cuddled her beneath a blanket in the sand. She conceived that night, the eastern sky pink above the lake. They'd only made love that one time, and after that she refused to see him. On the day of Fred's birth, Donny proposed marriage, and she laughed, calling him a southern hick. She refused his money, and her lesbian lover would later threaten him at knifepoint. It was so long ago, it was like it never happened.
The afternoon passed, and light filtered through the branches of the trees, the sun angling toward the west. In the distance, Donny could hear the chugging engine and whistle as a train passed through town, approaching the station. He grasped the door handle, hesitated, then stepped out of the car. At the front of the depot, he stood in the entrance searching the empty chamber. Three Hispanic ladies in colorful dresses looked up as he entered. In back, Fred slouched on a chair, his legs stretched out, his head against a wall with his eyes closed.
Donny stood over him. Fred opened his eyes. "Uh, I've been thinking," Donny rubbed the back of his neck, "maybe we just started off on the wrong foot." Fred sat up. "What I mean is— you came all this way to meet me," said Donny, "and, hell, why don't you stay a few days?" He sat in the chair opposite the young man and looked at the floor, his hands clenched together, his elbows on his knees. "I'll put you up in a nice hotel, take a few days off work, and we'll play some golf. There's a lot of nice courses around here. What do you say?" They met eyes.
"Okay," Fred smiled.
They both stood, and Donny extended his hand. "I'm Donny Ballmer, how do you do?"
"Fred Torrent." Fred clasped Donny's firm grip. "It's an honor to meet you, sir."
Franklin Klavon has written a novel, Bubba Grey Action Figure, and a collection of short stories, Lemon Wine. His fiction has appeared in Brain, Child Magazine. In a previous life he played lead guitar for Bubba Grey and has produced five alternative rock compact discs. He is an avid chess player and has a Master's Degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Michigan. For more, visit franklinklavon.com.
Courtney Kenny is both an illustrator and painter whose work focuses largely on people and domesticated animals as a subject matter because of the wide array of emotive qualities they allow. Born and raised in Omaha, NE, Kenny earned a bachelor’s degree in Studio Art from Bethany College in Lindsborg, KS. Kenny has been featured in Omaha Magazine’s “Her Magazine”, on the “Morning Blend” (KMTV), Channel 6 News, The Jewish Press, and the Kansas City Star. She has exhibited work in numerous solo and juried exhibitions and received “Special International Recognition” from Upstream People Gallery in two separate juried exhibitions, as well as Best of Painting at the juried Messiah Art Exhibition in 2011. She is represented by Gallery 72 in Omaha, NE. For more, visit courtneykennyart.com.
Sally Fowler is an unsigned singer-songwriter from Northern Virginia. "Oh The Digger" is off of her November 2013 album I Will Cry At Your Funeral. For more, visit the artist on Bandcamp and Facebook.