Weekend Fiction: Chances

Cyrus sat in the St. Louis County Courthouse next to his son, Octavian, and wondered what he could have done to save them all from the angry, disappointed look on the judge’s face when she asked his other son, Francis, to explain why he tried to rob the plaintiff as he entered his house.

Francis kept his head down and said quietly, Because I needed to get high, ma’am.

The plaintiff, a tall, thin, suited black man named George Davidson, whispered something to his lawyer before standing up and asking if he could make a request. The judge, took her glaring eyes from Francis and agreed.

I’d like to ask that Mr. Munroe not be sent to jail, your honor, he said.

They all turned to look at him and Cyrus held his breath.

I have a niece and, well, she’s addicted to drugs. I cannot even fathom the pain that my sister goes through. They tried a lot of things, but nothing seemed to work until last year, through their church, they got her into a treatment program and she seems to be making it. I realize this is a little out of order, but I’m wondering, since I was the one that Mr. Munroe tried to rob, if I could request that you sentence him to a treatment center instead of a prison?

Francis leaned over to his lawyer and said, Is this cat for real?

Cyrus grabbed hold of Octavian’s hand.

The judge’s fierceness folded into worry as she turned back to Francis and said, Mr. Munroe, you know that you and I have been here before. And both of those times you asked me for a second chance. So, technically, this would be the third time you got a second chance.

Francis hung his exhausted head and said, Yes ma’am.

Octavian leaned into Cyrus and said, I’m late for work. You want me to call Bones so I can stay?

No, Cyrus said. I’ll see this one through.

Octavian rubbed his father’s shoulder and said, This could be good, Pop. I don’t think Frankie would handle prison very well. He stood up and looked long at the back of his brother’s head before he walked out of the courtroom. His footsteps echoed in the silent courtroom and Francis turned to watch as Octavian pushed out of the swinging doors.

Francis didn’t look good. His skin was ashy and dirty. He had an angry cut above his ear that was crusted and yellow. His nails were bitten to the quick and the cuticles, which he now chewed on, were bloody.

Cyrus could no longer philosophize it away as Octavian had once accused him of doing. If he didn’t do something real, something other than think on it, Francis was going to die. Francis would never agree to go to treatment, but the judge could make it so he had no choice. In the back of his mind, Cyrus felt himself return to hope - that elusive emotion he’d spent less and less time with lately. Maybe in treatment they could get Francis to hit the mat hard with all those demons of his, lock them up in a good full-nelson.

Cyrus used his own felt tip pen to sign the papers that said he would deliver Francis to St. Augustine’s Treatment Center in O’Fallon, Illinois the following Wednesday. He and Francis drove home in silence. At the door the apartment, Francis stopped and asked Cyrus if he wanted him to stay someplace else.

Cyrus didn’t tell Francis that he had no intention of letting him out of his sight until Wednesday. But he did push the door open wider and said, Why don’t you go on in and take a shower? I’ll make you something to eat. After that, we can talk about what happens next.

Francis nodded and ducked inside. Cyrus could hear him in his bedroom, opening drawers and closets. He wondered if Francis was surprised to find that his clothes were still there. Cyrus hadn’t had the will throw them all out on the street as he had threatened to do after came home to find Francis walking out the back door with his father’s pearl handled letter-opener.

Where the hell do you think you’re going with that? Cyrus had asked. Cyrus’s held the armload of books he was bringing home from the library between them like a shield.

Francis held the leather bound box to his chest. I’m going to show it to a friend of mine, Francis said. He does appraisals. I thought…

Give it to me, Cyrus said and using the books, he backed Francis into the apartment. Inside, he put the books down on the table and said again, Give it to me. He could hear the rage tremble in his voice.

Francis handed it to him and Cyrus opened it. The letter-opener lay unharmed on its bed of dark green velvet. Cyrus snapped it shut and Francis jumped.

Get out of here, Cyrus said, barely able to make his words into a whisper.

That’s cool, Francis said and as he moved around Cyrus, he gave him a shove – a small one, but unmistakably a shove and under his breath he said something along the lines of, Fuck you old man.

Cyrus turned quickly to face him. Don’t come back, Francis, he said. He put the letter-opener down next to the books and followed his son to the door. Don’t come back even if you’re clean.

Francis, who was already four steps down the stairs, walked back up and stood towering over Cyrus.

Here’s the thing, Pop, he said. I’m not going to get clean, as you say. I’m not. You might as well accept it, because I have. I can’t be clean. I love getting high too damn much. Always have. There ain’t no threats you gonna make that are going to change that.

Then look for your stuff out on the street, Cyrus had said. I’m putting it out tonight so you better come get it quick before your other crackhead friends show up and take it.

But Cyrus hadn’t done anything. Francis’s clothes were still folded neatly, right where he left them.

* * *

Cyrus heard the shower turn on and he went into the kitchen. He pulled out the foil-covered plates of left-over food he’d cooked that weekend. Cooking on Saturday was the way things had been done in his wife Cordelia’s house. When she was alive, Saturdays were magical days. Cordelia in her bright red and orange apron, flour coating her fingers as she made cornbread and catfish. Cyrus’s specialties were collard greens and braised pork chops, mashed potatoes and barbeque. Octavian’s task had been to play all his mother’s favorite records - Luther Vandross, Minnie Ripperton, Sam Cooke. Francis was in charge of the table. Meticulously ironing the tablecloth and polishing each piece of silverware until he saw his own reflection bent sideways in the spoons.

After Cordelia died, Cyrus thought about giving up the cooking. But then, when Saturday came, he got down the mixing bowls, the cast-iron pans. He pulled out the boxes of macaroni and began to grate the cheese and when he did, he felt her over his shoulder, shaking her head because she preferred to slice the cheese thinly, because he never did cut the garlic right. Now, nearly ten years after she died, Cyrus still cooked with Cordelia on Saturdays. He still put on Luther and could hear her singing along, begging to hold someone tight, if only for one night, as he soaked the black eyed peas and measured the cornmeal.

Cyrus put a plate down at the small kitchen table and motioned for Francis to sit. Francis gathered his long body into the chair and delicately placed the cloth napkin across his lap. Francis picked up the fried catfish and gingerly put it on a slice of white bread followed by some onion and two slices of pickle. But when Francis reached for the hot sauce, he knocked it over with his shaking hand.

Cyrus said took the bottle and poured the hot sauce for him.

Once Francis had some food down, his hands stopped trembling and he picked up the glass of cider and emptied it. Cyrus could see more of Francis’s golden brown color begin to come out from under the gray pall, more of the light in his hazel eyes that watched Cyrus clear his plate and run it under the hot water.

I know that you’re not my real father.

For a moment, Cyrus thought that he’d simply heard the dark words in his head. That the running of the tap water and the humming of the refrigerator were playing tricks on him, but he turned and saw those same hazel eyes penetrating him with the truth and Cyrus knew Francis had spoken the words aloud. He steadied himself on the counter and hid his own shaking hands in the blue and white plaid dishtowel before he sat down. Carefully, because now Cyrus was a body of flesh exposed, his heart open and raw.

When did she tell you?

You remember how, at the end, she just started talking? Telling all types of stories?

I do, Cyrus said.

It was then. That day you caught me drinking over at Ivy’s.

I remember that.

That night she told me. Told me I should know about my real father because he died of a heroin overdose. She said that, you know, liking to get high and drink and all, could be hereditary. Said I needed to be more careful or my messing around could bring me real problems one day.

Why have you not said something to me before? Cyrus asked.

She said I shouldn’t. Said it would hurt you and that you had been and would be the best father to me. Better than my dad would have been if he lived. She said, and I’ll never forget this, that any man can shoot cum out his dick, but not every man has the strength to be a father. Even less have what it takes to be a father to another man’s child. I’d never heard her talk like that, you know? Anyway. I guess she thought it was the right thing to do. Francis paused and pressed his fingers into temples and closed his eyes and said, Still I wish she hadn’t told me.

Why’s that? Cyrus struggled to say.

I think she told me to warn me away from drinking and drugs, but for me it was more like she gave me an excuse. From then on, I could always tell myself that it was in my blood. Shit, I even told myself I was supposed to die that way. I don’t know if it would have happened anyway, me getting all strung out and all if she hadn’t told me, but I guess there’s no reason trying to figure that out now. I went ahead and followed right in my father’s footsteps.

I’m your father, Cyrus said. The words came out filled with anger even though he hadn’t meant them to.

Francis looked up.

I’m your father, Cyrus said again, more softly. You are my son.

Francis sat back in his chair and said, But let’s be honest. It’s different with Octavian than it is with me and you know it. Thing is, when she told me, I wasn’t even that surprised. I always felt like you loved him better, and after she told me, at least I knew why.

Does Octavian know? The words came out fast. Cyrus knew it was the wrong thing to say, but he’d said it anyway. He had to know.

Francis let his eyes rest on Cyrus again and said, Nah, I never told him. If she had wanted him to know, she would have told him herself.

Francis, Cyrus began.

Francis held up his hand to stop him from saying anything else. His open palm just like Cordelia’s, the brown lines, sharp and deep. It’s okay, Cyrus, he said.

Cyrus swallowed the taste of humiliation on his tongue and folded his own brown hands in his lap. Please don’t call me that, he said.

It’s okay, Pop, Francis said and stood up. He stretched his long arms as if he’d just put down something heavy and said, Don’t worry. I won’t tell Octavian. He walked out of the kitchen and into his bedroom, closing the door carefully behind him.

Cyrus sat alone in the kitchen and remembered how he once felt it was his calling to raise Francis who was so prone to viciousness and impulsive tenderness and set about it the way he had been raised by Jackson. But soon Cyrus realized that hours of reading were out of the question seeing that Francis could never sit for longer than two minutes and so their time was spent instead at Cardinals games and on fishing trips down the Merrimack River – where, miraculously, the child sat silently in the front of the boat with a preacher’s patience waiting for a bite.

Cyrus remembered that when Cordelia announced she was pregnant, Cyrus was as ecstatic for Francis as he was for himself. They decided to take Francis to brunch at the Wash U Faculty Club to tell him the news. They had agreed that Cordelia should be the one to tell him, but as soon as their food was served, Cyrus blurted it out.

Francis held his fork over his plate, the maple syrup dripping slowly off the suspended bite of Belgian waffle, and said, But why?

Cyrus explained how, all he’d ever wanted was a brother or sister. Now Francis would never feel the loneliness he felt as a child.

I’m not lonely, Francis said matter of factly. I don’t need anyone.

When they brought Octavian home, Francis gave his baby brother a glance and announced, His eyes sure are big, and went back to reorganizing his baseball cards. It became obvious to both parents that what Francis announced that day had been true. He didn’t need anyone.

Cyrus, on the other hand, had never needed anything the way he needed Octavian. Cyrus was consumed wholly by his infant son’s tight-gripping hands, his soft, downy ear lobes, the smell of his milk breath. And it wasn’t until Cordelia shook Cyrus and said, Remember, you have two sons, that Cyrus came out of it to find Francis taller, his chest and arms more like a young man’s than he remembered. Cyrus took Francis by the back of the neck and pulled him into an embrace. He pressed his face into Francis’s gold curls and smelled the hair lotion Cordelia rubbed into his scalp. That day he made another vow. He vowed that he would do everything he could so that Francis would never know how much more he loved his own blood than the one he’d sworn to love.

The refrigerator started in on its hum again. Apparently, Cyrus spent all this time convincing only himself that he had convinced Francis. He felt an odd sense of relief that it was over. Like he, too, had just put down something heavy. But then he picked it back up as he realized that all those years had passed and, as far as Francis was concerned, Cyrus was just a liar.

Cyrus walked to the closed bedroom door. He would apologize to the boy, tell him how hard he tried, tell him that he loved him. God knew he loved him. It may have been different with Octavian, and easier, yes. But there was no doubt that he loved Francis. He knocked on the door, but there was no answer. He knocked again, and his old friend fear reared its withered head and told him that Francis wouldn’t be there when he opened the door. That the window he’d snuck out of so many times would be open and he would be gone. But when Cyrus opened it, he saw Francis asleep, knees curled to chin, hands folded under his cheek. Same way he’s always slept, thought Cyrus, the same furrowed brow, the same weighted breaths.

Mathea Morais was raised in St. Louis, MO and earned a degree in Literature from NYU. Her work has been published in “Arts & Ideas” magazine and “Anti-Heroin Chic.” She lives on Martha’s Vineyard where she teaches English and creative writing to children and young adults.

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