In these old New England courthouses, there are unmarked doors which lead to unisex bathrooms, or a waiting area, or possibly the judge’s chambers. At night, the lights are all turned off and the front door is locked, but there is no security system, and the single-paned windows make it easy to get in and out, such as at the Wequaquet County Courthouse, where earlier today Judge Walter Featherston ruled that I was unfit to share custody of my two children because of my current income of five hundred dollars a week and the houseboat I live in at the harbor, where, inside the hull, I’ve installed two hammocks and hooks for buckets so the children can throw up when the wind shakes us. And because, as he put it, “You appear to me an uneven man.”
I certainly did not do myself any favors when, after my ex-wife, Lisa, reported how I’d snuck into the house one night and slept in my son’s bed, I jumped up in court and yelled, “I paid for that fucking bed!” Judge Walter Featherston banged his gavel. He’s that kind of judge. And he said, “One more outburst, Mr. Healy. One more.” I was quiet. Then I started pulling at my hair, just yanking out big clumps and dropping them on the floor. It hurt, but I was quiet, so it wasn’t an outburst, and the pain in my head calmed me some.
So maybe I am uneven. Who wouldn’t be? I love my children. I don’t want them to think of me as a failure, or a crazy person. I want them to know that it’s okay sometimes to fail, and it’s okay sometimes to go a little nuts. How else will they be able to process all the desperate faces on a city sidewalk?
Lisa is dating a thirty-year-old garbage man named Tim. He’s got long red hair that he keeps wrapped in a rubber band against the back of his head. He’s lean with bony shoulders and what I’ve heard called a soul patch, an arrow of manicured hair just beneath his lower lip. The first time we met, he was wearing a suede jacket over a white T-shirt. Something about that jacket, or the soul patch, or the fact that he’d given my boy, Davie, some plastic Toy Story dolls he’d found on a dump run, I don’t know, I hit him in the face. Not a haymaker, just a quick jab to stun him, and he took it, and I respected him for taking it. I said, “Let me give Davie presents, Chief. You just worry about pleasing my wife with your freckle-spotted dick.” Lisa dumped her cup of coffee on my lap, and the two of them left the diner where we’d agreed to meet, thinking that because we were in public we could somehow be civil toward one another.
I’ve come back to the courthouse tonight, thinking the judge might be working late and I can finally talk some sense into him, man to man, cock to cock. Because don’t we both know what it’s like to be made crazy by a woman? You don’t need to pass the state bar exam to figure out what makes most men lose their minds.
I switch on the lamp on Judge Featherston’s desk, then go to the closet and put on one of his robes, which is a bit small on me and smells like VapoRub. I sit at the desk and try the drawers, but all five of them are locked. On the desk is a hardcover biography of JFK, a silver gavel paperweight, and some Post-it notes with phone numbers and reminders on them, such as “Don’t Forget the Wine!” and “Kisses for the Mrs.” I wish I’d remembered to kiss Lisa every day. I do remember that when she went vegan, her breath began to smell very garlicky. She was eating a lot of hummus and microwavable quinoa burgers. I wish I could remember the last time we kissed, the last time we really kissed, I mean in that way where it’s hard and soft and we press our bodies against each other and hold each other’s faces and keep our eyes closed after we part and are completely present, satisfied, and unafraid.
Judge Featherston has a bottle of Macallan 18 on his desk and a couple of glasses that look as though they’ve been drunk from that afternoon by at least one woman—the pale-faced prosecutor my wife hired, possibly, because there’s a deep-red lipstick smudge on the rim and I remember, just as we were heading into the courtroom, the prosecutor smiling broadly at me, that same color lipstick on the front of her teeth.
I haven’t had a drink in thirteen years, which is something I’m proud of but which, despite the many AA meetings I’ve attended, not to mention a trip to Santa Fe to participate in a men-only sweat lodge, has left me perpetually on edge. I used to smoke before my kids were born. I used to run before my knee surgery. I used to golf before I realized how stupid it was.
“You need to find an outlet for all that anger stored up inside you,” my sponsor tells me.
“Okay,” I say. “Find me an outlet.”
Last fall he invited me to a cooking class that he and his wife attend twice a month, where they learn to prepare four-course meals native to specific regions around the world. The first workshop I went to we made a roasted fig dish, duck breast, and crème brûlée. Nothing came out right for me. I had no beginner’s luck. The chef told me to eat what I’d made. He said it was important for me to taste my mistakes. If you’re an angry person to begin with, eating your mistakes tends to get you angrier. The first two classes were free. After that I told my sponsor I needed to find something else. He sprinkled cinnamon and sugar on one of the churros he’d deep-fried, wrapped it in wax paper, and handed it to me.
“Eat that,” he said. “It’ll make you happy.”
And it did, for the two and a half minutes it took to eat it. After that I felt sick from all the sugar and grease. On the boat that night I filled up one of my kids’ buckets.
Taking on a hobby is nothing more than passing time at something you’re no good at, so I started to think about what I was actually good at. I thought I’d been a good husband and father and lover. If that was true, I could have made Lisa happy and the kids would come by more than twice a month and I wouldn’t fall asleep most nights with my dick in my hand.
What I really want to find out is what Judge Walter Featherston meant when he said I was an uneven man. Did he mean I’m an odd man? Or did he mean I’m more of a man or less of a man? A lesser man would have left the cold winters and pale white faces for a warmer, sexier habitat. And if it wasn’t for the kids, I would be in San Diego or Miami Beach. I’d live easy, sleep on a hammock, fish the warm waters, grow a beard, get fat, and never know what it’s like to want to be somewhere else. Maybe an even man doesn’t fantasize so much about living another life. Maybe he isn’t full of regret and resentment and remorse. Maybe he’s come to terms with his simple life. He makes love to a divorced woman, picks up other people’s garbage, and plays with another man’s kids. Once in a while he buys himself something he’s saved months for, like a pair of waterproof boots or a suede jacket from the Brooks Brothers outlet.
With my smartphone, it’s not hard to find where the judge lives, three miles away in one of the mansions on Southbay Drive. The walk there is pleasant. The wind is soft and I can smell the sea. I’m calm now as I approach his doorstep. I know I’m crossing a line, but somehow I also don’t think it’s unreasonable to bother the man while he’s eating dinner.
Look, I’ll say, I love my kids. Davie is plump and pimply and can’t throw a baseball with either arm. He needs his dad. Who else is going to teach him to throw a ball? Shelly, my seven-year-old daughter, has a tough demeanor, but sometimes when she’s on the dock, looking out at the sea, I can tell she feels very small and alone, because she looks small and alone, and because she said once, “Daddy, the ocean makes me feel small and alone.”
Their mother tells our children they’re bright, beautiful angels. She says not to worry, they’ll see when they get older. But guess what? If they think they’re beautiful and bright and shouldn’t worry, they’re going to get pummeled when they’re older.
I ring the doorbell and hear the puny, unmistakable bark of a Pomeranian from the other side of the door. It’s constant for a minute or so. Then I hear a man’s voice: “Oh, Christ, shut the hell up, you.” Then quiet. Then the dog is whimpering, possibly from a kick, and it clatters off.
The door opens. Panic takes over. I don’t know what’s reasonable. I don’t know what to say. So I pull Judge Featherston over the threshold, twisting his arm behind his back, and turn him around. He mutters and moans as I walk him down the hallway toward the dining room, where I can smell buttered carrots and peas, a roasted chicken with potatoes, even the faint linen scent of candles lit for the event, which is supper for the well-off—an hour or so of chewing, drinking, chatting, the ultimate release at the end of a day thought earned.
When I round the corner with Judge Featherston’s arm still pinned against the small of his back, Mrs. Featherston stands and takes the carving knife in her hand. The way she holds it, straight up in her fist, she looks as harmless as a child with a popgun.
“Put the knife down, Margaret,” Judge Featherston says.
“Walter. Oh, Walter,” she says and drops the knife, then shouts, then is screaming-shouting, because the blade turned over and sliced the top of her foot, where blood is now seeping through her sock and spreading to her toes.
Oh, God, I’ve bungled it, I think. That’s the word—bungle.
Judge Featherston starts toward her, but I hold him back.
“Have some heart, Healy,” he says. “Let me help her.”
Mrs. Featherston limps around the table.
“Sit back in the chair and pick up that napkin,” I say.
Mrs. Featherston takes short, quick breaths, and I’m not sure she’s altogether with us.
“Listen to him, dear,” Judge Featherston says.
She sits and picks up the napkin, one of those thick, cloth ones used only to wipe the corners of your lips.
“Now press down on the cut,” I say. “There’s going to be a lot of blood, so don’t look, okay?”
Pulling off her shoe and sock, she exaggerates the look-away, twisting her neck and shutting her eyes so tight her lashes nearly disappear.
“We need to clean it out, Healy,” Judge Featherston says. “She doesn’t want an infection. She doesn’t want to lose her foot.”
“Lose my foot?” Mrs. Featherston says.
“She won’t lose her foot,” I say.
“You’re not going to lose your foot, Mrs. Featherston.”
Now she’s crippled with panic, nearly frozen in the distorted position of someone falling from a rooftop.
I push Judge Featherston against the wall, turn, and bend over, pressing the napkin down harder on Mrs. Featherston’s hand. She’s got so much adrenaline going she doesn’t even feel it.
Then Judge Featherston is on my back and we’re flying around the table. His feet kick over the wineglasses, the candelabras, the platter holding the roasted chicken and potatoes with the skins still sizzling. Because he’s so light, and his cries are so childlike, I can’t help but feel a slight shiver of joy, the same as when I give the kids piggyback rides around the boatyard.
Finally I fling him off my back and wave the knife until the Featherstons have retreated to the far side of the room. I stamp out the candles and pick up the chicken and set it back on the platter, but the potatoes, carrots, and peas have rolled everywhere.
I toss another napkin to Mrs. Featherston, because the first is all bloodied now, and truth be told I’ve got nothing against her, nor, truth be told, against her husband. He’s just doing his job—granting certain rights based on tampered narratives devised by lawyers who know how to mangle the story of your life in five minutes or less.
Pooped, I sit at the head of the table and put the knife where I can reach it if necessary.
Judge Featherston has an arm around his missus, and his other hand is applying pressure to her wound. I take out a handful of pills from the pocket inside my jacket. Some are Advils, others are Xanaxes, and one is a purple, diamond-shaped muscle relaxant that looks big enough to take down a horse.
“Here, give her these,” I say, handing Judge Featherston two pills. “Ibuprofen. I swear.”
She swallows the pills, then closes her eyes.
“Let’s see how bad it is,” I say.
Judge Featherston lifts the napkin. Some of the cloth is stuck around the wound. I remember those days playing pickup basketball, bashing heads and busting elbows. Blood on your shirt was a badge, whether the blood was yours or not.
Mrs. Featherston takes one look at the cut and passes out.
“Oh, geez,” Judge Featherston says. “We need to get her to the emergency room.”
“She’s over-excited. My kids get like that all the time.”
“Do you think she needs stitches?”
“I can’t tell. There’s too much blood.”
“What were you hoping for coming over here like this?”
Suddenly I can’t remember. Maybe I wasn’t hoping for anything. Hope is the wrong word.
“Look,” Judge Featherston says, standing up, “nothing’s ever the way we want it to be. I learned that early on. That’s why I got involved in the law. The law is the closest thing we can get to the middle. And it isn’t even close.”
I tell him to sit back down. Mrs. Featherston is still out cold, pale as a topsail.
“Listen,” I say, “I’m going to do you a favor. We’re getting your wife to the hospital. All right?”
“How is that doing me a favor?”
“If we spend all night shuffling through the past, we’ll still never get at the real reason behind what’s happening here. Let’s get her in my truck.”
Mrs. Featherston’s head is resting on my leg and the judge is holding her foot up like a trophy as we drive to the hospital. The cloth napkin is scarlet. There are a few streaks of dried blood down the judge’s arm. He reaches over and strokes her hair.
“We’re close,” I say, somewhat consolingly.
“This is going to end badly for you,” Judge Featherston says.
“You’re probably right about that.”
“Days go by, years, and then out of the blue, something like this.”
“For some people every day is like this. For them, the stranger sort of life is the calm one you and Mrs. Featherston have together.”
I don’t see the speed bump ahead, and the tires compress and spring when I hit it. Judge Featherston grabs hold of the dash and Mrs. Featherston’s body jumps and turns on its side. Suddenly her boob is hanging from her blouse. It’s not a bad boob, considering her age. She has a small, brown, inverted nipple. When Judge Featherston sees it he quickly covers it with his hand. Then, dropping his wife’s foot again, he adjusts her blouse. Mrs. Featherston’s eyes pop open and her head jolts into the steering column.
“That’s what I don’t understand,” I say, the back of my hand pressed lightly to her forehead. “How am I supposed to believe that you’re objective? The only time we’re even remotely objective is when we’re born. After that, we’re filled with so much stuff we never see the world one way or the other. Every decision we make is predicated on some past event.”
“Well, if that’s true, why should we have any rules at all?” the judge says.
“Exactly.” I turn to stare him down. But Mrs. Featherston’s foot is bleeding across his arm, probably from when I hit the speed bump. “Jesus,” I say.
Judge Featherston drops her foot again. Luckily, she doesn’t wake up this time. In the glove compartment I stash wads of napkins and packets of sugar and Sweet’N Low that I bag on my way out of Dunkin Donuts every morning because fuck them for charging me two twenty-five for a cup of coffee. There’s a half-drunk bottle of water on the floor. I pour some on the napkins, ball them up, and hand the wad to Judge Featherston, but the bleeding won’t stop.
“Don’t worry,” I say. “We’re almost there.”
I hold Mrs. Featherston under the arms like a bag of concrete, and Judge Featherston has her feet spread and hoisted over his shoulders, looking down her dress at the peach he fell for when they were both young and handsome. A nurse meets us in front with a wheelchair, and Mrs. Featherston is pushed through a maze of sickness—wailing children panda-hugging their mothers, hunched-over diabetics with gelatinous faces, people coughing, crying, spitting, screaming, bleeding. It’s a horror show.
Judge Featherston goes with his wife. I’m not sure if I’m supposed to wait or if I’m in trouble, or if I’ll be in more trouble if I leave. I decide to take a moment and catch my breath. In front of the vending machines, I stare at the rows of chocolate bars, candies, and potato chips. I’m thinking about the time at the skating rink last winter when Shelly got her hand stuck in the vending machine reaching for her bag of Skittles. The gate caught her just right. When we pulled, she screamed. When we pushed, she screamed louder. Everyone stopped skating. The fire department was called. I rubbed Shelly’s back and told her everything was going to be okay.
“No, it’s not,” she said defiantly. “You live on a boat.”
So her screaming wasn’t just about her hand, but about me and her mother and brother and other problems with being a seven-yearold girl—it had all been building up for a while. A couple of firemen were able to take apart the vending machine. One of them let Davie wear his hat. Shelly’s hand was skinned. An EMT tended to her while other children and their parents pilfered all the candy and chips.
Later, at the hospital, Lisa charged into the ER with Tim in tow, dragging mud through the hallways with his stupid boots. We finally got Shelly home and in bed. Lisa laid into me for a good half hour, Tim nodding and shifting a wad of tobacco from one side of his lip to the other, after which I went upstairs and sat on the edge of Shelly’s bed and stroked her hair. She was staring at the ceiling like someone possessed.
“Hey,” I said, “did you hear the one about the girl who got her hand caught in the vending machine?”
Shelly turned her head and looked at me with solemn pity.
“Do you believe in God, Dad?” she asked.
“Sometimes,” I said, hardly able to defend any opinion I might have on the subject. “Sometimes not.”
“Ugh. You’re so exhausting,” she said, and I knew it was something she’d heard her mother say about me.
“I’m sorry, honey.”
“Just go away, Dad. Go away on your boat.”
“You know I can’t do that.”
But standing here, I’m thinking maybe I should. Maybe my next five hundred bucks, and the next five hundred after that, should go to repairing the floorboards in the boat. Then I can sail to Miami after all, start over, rig the vessel for charter fishing, fly the kids down, let them swim with the dolphins.
“You run out of quarters, Healy?” Judge Featherston comes up beside me. His breath smells like chicken broth.
“How is Mrs. Featherston?”
“She took eleven stitches. Now they’re running tests to make sure everything else is okay.”
I’m thinking I might be able to get that boat into international waters, with a single piece of plywood, by sundown.
“Come. I have to sit,” Judge Featherston says.
We find a bench under a partly torn poster of a smoker’s lung. Judge Featherston clasps his hands at his waist.
“Can I tell you a story?” I say.
“How long is it?”
“Depends on how I tell it.”
“Give us the short version.”
“The other day, Saturday I think, or maybe Sunday, when it got above ninety degrees for the first time all summer, you remember?”
“Yes, yes. Go on.”
“My children were over that day, and the fan in my houseboat wasn’t working. So we went down the street to the Stop and Shop and just walked around in the air conditioning. After going down a few aisles, Davie, my son, asks me, ‘What are we doing here?’ It was the first time I recognized suspicion in his voice, and it was possible that very soon he would no longer follow me blindly. My daughter, Shelly, had found a friend from school, and they started skipping around the salad bar. Davie says to me, ‘Dad, can I have some ice cream?’ I have two dollars in my wallet and nothing left in my checking account until next week. But at that moment, the only thing I want in the entire world is to buy my son some ice cream. So we go to the freezer aisle and Davie picks out salted caramel gelato, seven bucks a pint—a little over a dollar a scoop—and Davie’s looking at me, and at the gelato, and I’m looking at the price of the gelato and looking at Davie and up and down the aisle. Finally Davie takes the gelato from me and puts it on the rack and says, ‘It’s okay, Dad. I don’t need any ice cream.’ You know what he says when we start toward the front of the store? He says, ‘I know it’s hard, Dad.’ Jesus, my heart. I’d never felt love like that. When the three of us were in the hull, getting ready for bed, telling each other what we were going to dream about, which is something we’ve been doing ever since the kids knew what a dream was, Davie said, ‘I’m going to dream about swimming in a sea of salted caramel gelato.’ And Shelly said, ‘I’m going to dream about swimming in a sea of salted caramel gelato too.’ And they started arguing about how you’re not allowed to have the same dream, and Shelly told Davie she hoped he drowned in his gelato, and Davie told Shelly he hoped she fell through the hole in the boat and drowned for real. And all the time I was thinking how sweet it was, the two of them swimming together in the same gelato dream, even if things had turned nasty.”
Judge Featherston has his head down and eyes lowered during the entire story. Once I finish, he looks up with the gloomy, impartial eyes only judges seem to have.
“So?” I say.
“So what?” he says.
“My kids,” I say.
“What about them?”
“I love them. That’s all.”
He pats me on the knee.
“Think of it this way, Healy. I love my wife. She’s a beautiful woman. But she makes these whining noises in her sleep. Small nasal cavity, that’s what the doctors say. And it gets worse when winter comes, and in the spring, with her allergies…Honestly, it never improves. We’ve tried everything—humidifiers, dehumidifiers, oxygen masks, air filtration stands, even this medieval contraption to keep her nostrils open while she sleeps.”
“Why not just sleep in another room?”
“A while back, when I had a big sentencing the next morning, I slept in the guest room. But the irony is, I slept worse. I missed those noises. I haven’t remembered a single dream in over thirty years. But you see, I haven’t remembered a single nightmare, either.”
Judge Featherston stands and stretches.
“Go home, Healy. Get some rest.”
“Aren’t you calling the police, having me put in jail?”
“Go home, I said.”
After a moment, the Judge’s pardon registers. I get up and shake his hand. I was wrong about him. He is a man who understands what love is.
“I’m sorry about Mrs. Featherston,” I say.
“She’ll be fine,” he says. “We’ll all be fine.”
I drive to the beach and sit with the windows down until the pink light of morning starts to mix with the blue on the horizon. Then I drive to my old house. The lights are off inside. Tim’s garbage truck is in the driveway. The kids’ bikes are on the lawn. I imagine Lisa’s leg wrapped around Tim’s. Davie sleeping with his arms across his chest like a vampire. Shelly with the covers over her head.
Tomorrow I’ll tell them I’m sorry. I’ll shake Tim’s hand and kiss Lisa on the cheek. I’ll ask if we can be friends. I’ll get a better job and take the kids for ice cream. I won’t be violent or dismissive or resentful. I won’t expect forgiveness.
Even if it’s already tomorrow. Even if it’s already too late.
Patrick Dacey is the author of the story collection We’ve Already Gone this Far and the novel The Outer Cape. His work has appeared on NPR’s “Selected Shorts” and in The Paris Review, Zoetrope: All Story, AGNI, and Guernica, among other publications. (updated 11/2019)