The phone rang late last night, woke me up from a dead sleep. My wife Grace rolled onto her side and told me not to answer, that it was probably just Syracuse University trying to sell us ad space in the alumni magazine for the nine-millionth time. I told her, No, this feels important. So, I picked up and got Denny. His voice warbled as he spoke, a wheel loose on its axle. He insisted that I meet him somewhere, anywhere, immediately.
I rolled out of bed and threw on some jeans and a hoodie, told Grace I wouldn’t be long. He probably just needs money, I continued. Couple hundred bucks, tops. He doesn’t know many people in Chicago anymore. Besides, he’s a grown-ass man. Can’t ask his folks anymore.
Grace sighed and pulled the comforter up over her face. Don’t give him a cent, she said, muffled by the layers of down. He’ll be like a dog at the dinner table the rest of your adult life.
She's never let me forget about the last time Denny asked for money. Six months ago I floated him some cash, thinking I was helping him make rent or keep a student loan from going into default. Turned out Denny was two-hundred and thirty-seven dollars shy of the eight-hundred he needed to buy an English bulldog from a breeder up in Wilmette.
I’m sure this time’ll be different, I countered.
Famous last words.
When I got to the L&L Denny was one of two patrons at the bar, watching NHL highlights on Sportscenter. I saw three empty Stellas lined up in front of him. I wondered how long he’d been there, if he'd called any of our other friends before he got ahold of me. When he saw me approach he got up off his stool and greeted me with a hug. He held on for too long, per usual.
Look at you, he said. All grown up.
We’re the same age, dickhead. And, you saw me two weeks ago.
I ordered a round and pulled up a stool next to Denny’s. I braced myself for The Problem, hoping our conversation wouldn’t dredge up Problems Plural. Instead, Denny just talked business, told me about the world of IT consulting and how he’s usually the only non-Asian on any given project and, yes, he knows how bad that sounds but it happens to be the truth. How the money’s good while it lasts but the problem is that it never it lasts. How his current gig requires him to live out of a Hampton Inn in downtown Hartford. How he’s already racked up five thousand miles this quarter from Chicago to Connecticut every week. How he’s going to cash in all his Rewards Points once he hits six figures from flying back and forth and fly around the world. How he'll make The Balkans his last stop so he can track down this Croatian woman he met at a Linux conference in Newark last month. Et cetera.
This all sounds great, I offered. Living the dream, Den. But I thought you said you had a problem. Because if you don’t...
Denny took a swig of his Stella, did one of those annoying ahhhs after swallowing.
Thing is, I’m gonna have a kid. And I think it might come out retarded.
I got the whole story, how Denny and Harry Kwon from the Bloomfield project went out for Happy Hour on a Friday, just to throw darts and kill a pitcher or two. How they met some community college chicks and got to talking UConn women’s hoops and how it’s sad that the Whalers aren’t around anymore and how surprising it is that parts of Hartford are so ghetto because it’s, like, Connecticut, you know? How a couple drinks became several and how the Hampton Inn was right there. How he’s still paying off the TV he broke when he pushed it off the stand so he could fuck Lacey on top of it, ankles on the shoulders and everything. How weeks later he got a phone call from a terrified local, crying into her cell about how she’s sure the baby’s his because he’s the only guy she’s been with since she broke up with Marcus and that was four months ago. How she’s keeping it, end of discussion.
That’s it? You called me down here for that?
I expected Denny to get pissed but he didn’t. He just dissolved into himself, like he was about to slip right through his stool and the floor and into the cellar. Hole up there for a decade or two.
I’m sorry, it’s just... What makes you think the kid is going to come out retarded? Does she...
Denny returned, snapped back into place like a push-button umbrella.
Right. Lacey. Does Lacey have a family history or something?
She was drunk. She was drunk when she conceived.
And what? That kid’s gonna come out fucked up.
I told Denny that wasn’t necessarily true, that I’m no doctor but pretty confident that the problems he’s concerned about arise when a mother drinks during development, not conception. Asked him what percentage of the world’s population he believed could be reasonably attributed to Mommy and Daddy being completely shitfaced before, during, and after coitus. Seventy, eighty? Told him it doesn’t even matter because it’s grade school that fucks you up the most anyway, because that's when you realize that as long as you have the parents you do, you'll never stand a chance because your life's in the hands of two complete lunatics until you hit eighteen. If you're lucky.
Trust me, I continued. You’ll do more damage to that child than any vodka tonic ever could.
Denny grabbed a handful of popcorn from an unattended basket to his right.
That’s fatherhood, friend.
I held up my empty Stella up for the bartender, desperate for a re-up. As he excavated two new beers from the ice trough I took out my cell and texted Grace, told her not to wait up. This was going to take awhile.
I dragged Denny to the corner of Belmont and Clark to hail him a cab, his arm thrown across my shoulders Weekend at Bernie’s-style. He could barely talk, let alone stand, and I didn’t want him passing out on the Red Line only to wake up alone and penniless on the South Side. I let maroon cab after maroon cab pass us by, on the advice of a friend-of-a-friend whose own recent maroon cab experience resulted in him getting the Christ kicked out of him in an industrial park in the West Loop. When a white cab pulled up to the curb, I poured Denny into the backseat and gently rested his head against the window. I gave the Polish cabbie thirty bucks and Denny’s address, told him not to fuck with my friend because I’ve got his badge number.
Hey. Fuck you, boss. I am a professional. Besides, your friend? He is not my type.
The cabbie winked, threw the cab in gear when I told him to sit tight. I grabbed the lapel of Denny’s peacoat and yanked him upright, turned his head to face me. His bloated cheek felt cold against my hand.
Look at me, I demanded.
Denny’s eyelids retracted and I saw the full extent of his drunkenness, red and glassy.
It’ll be fine. You’re a fuck-up in a world full of ‘em. Just don’t be one of these island types, okay? Ask for help. Beg if you have to.
Denny blinked once, let his heavy head fall forward just enough to let me know he’d heard me.
He’s all yours, guy.
I slammed the car door shut and watched the cab speed west on Belmont, heading toward Bucktown and Denny’s two-flat. I sighed and tried to wrap my head around the idea that I’d be referred to as Uncle Nate in about eight months. It didn’t take.
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