I made it up to Artie’s office for a mid-afternoon meeting, and walking up to the building I was reminded of a time he took me out for a beer. It felt like a long time ago. The day Ziggy had told me about the deal with the devil. I wondered if I would have turned Artie’s invitation down if I had been trying not to drink? And would that have been a mistake? Figuring out how alcohol consumption and my career prospects fit together was a puzzle I’d have to work on another day, though. Today had other challenges.
Artie met me by reception and we shook hands as usual. No, not as usual, I extended the left and without missing a beat he shook with his left. Before he could make a joke about the accident or the flu or anything else I opened with one of my own, “So when are you going to sign my latest pet project, Artie?”
To my surprise instead of ruffling my hair he rocked back a bit and said, “Working on it,” before moving on to other topics. “Remo arrived just a bit ago. We’re in the conference room on eight.”
We took the elevator to the eighth floor and I can’t honestly remember what business we conducted. Signed some stuff, met some reps, that sort of thing? That was all blown away by what sticks in my mind, which was running into Mel by the restroom. She was standing there by the door, doing the baby hop with that extra wiggle that meant she really had to pee. She looked up hopefully for a second–the oh-good-here-comes-someone look–then realized it was me, panicked, and literally hid her face in shame by turning away from me, turning to the wall.
When did I get so good at reading people? Maybe Mel’s emotions were just that raw and obvious.
I knew when my emotions were like that the last thing I could stand was people rubbing my face in them. So I tried to be nice, you know? The whole “act like nothing happened” thing. Much as I hated being stonewalled by Digger or sweeping toxic stuff under the rug, I knew there were times when you had to employ it just to get moving forward at all.
“You want me to hold him while you run in there?” I said. “I’ve still got one arm that works.”
She turned back toward me, eyes a little red and teary, and had a little battle with herself before the “hand Daron the baby” side won. “Okay. Okay. Just…be careful.”
We both started laughing at that. Because those two words–be careful–after everything that had happened, were just so…beyond anything. I took Ford and sat in a chair in case he got wiggly and kept a grip on his little shirt with my hand so even if he did wiggle he still couldn’t go anywhere. Mel ran into the bathroom.
When she came out she looked sheepish. Ford was playing with my nose and ears like I was a Mr. Potato Head and he expected if he pulled hard enough they might come off.
Before she took him back she folded her hands and shifted from foot to foot. “I am so sorry,” she said, in her Southern lilt that put the emphasis on the word “so.” “I lost my head. I…” She sucked in a breath and looked upward like she that would keep the tears from leaking out of her eyes. It didn’t work.
She gestured to take Ford back. I stood up to hand him over and as I did she started to sob. “It’s.” That was the only word she could get out before she had to gulp air and swallow. “So hard.”
Her words came out in a rush then: “I don’t know what to say anymore, I don’t know what to do, I don’t know what to think!” And then more waterworks. This time Ford started crying, too.
That was when Remo came looking for us. And looked at me, and looked at his crying wife, and looked back at me. “What the hell is going on out here?”
“Oh, now don’t you start,” I said in exasperation. I was so tired of people jumping to the wrong fucking conclusions. “This is between Mel and me.”
“What’s between Mel and you?” He advanced with that angry-papa look on his face. “Anything that concerns you and Mel concerns me.”
“Don’t you pull that patriarch-of-the-family bullshit on me, Remo Cutler.” I didn’t raise my voice; I lowered it. “Mel and I are talking about what happened.”
“Well, and what happened also concerns me, given what happened to you,” Remo said. “I’m still not clear on exactly what went on but you kept Ford out of ttrouble, as I understand it. At risk to yourself.”
“Is that what Carynne said?”
“It’s what Melissa here said.”
“Ah, nice to know that’s what you think of it now,” I told her. “Since at the time you acted like I was an axe murderer.”
“That’s why I’m trying to apologize,” she said, fresh tears pouring down her face. Remo took Ford then and commenced the baby hop: Ford, at least, stopped crying then. “I told you. I was out of my head, half-asleep, didn’t know the situation other than my baby was in danger.”
“You don’t have to apologize for any of those things,” I said.
“You’re right. Because none of them are an excuse for what I said. I don’t know what came over me. I really don’t.” She dabbed her eyes on the sleeve of her sweater. “I swear I have nothing against you, Daron.”
Remo jumped back in, the dumbass. “Mel, what the hell did you say?”
“It doesn’t matter,” I said.
“It does,” she insisted. “I want to tell you, to convince you, that wasn’t me talking. I have nothing against gay people–”
“Mel, what the hell did you say!”
Okay, if he wasn’t going to leave it alone, maybe it was my turn to ask him some questions. “Maybe I should ask you what the hell you told Mel about me.”
“What do you mean?”
Mel knew what I was talking about though. “Oh god, Daron, I was just talking trash. I didn’t mean anything by it. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
“I’m not hurt. None of those words meant anything to me, Mel. But I really wondered what you were thinking.”
“I wasn’t. I saw blood everywhere and freaked out. I regretted it right away. Especially when I figured out where the knife was–” She was still crying but at least could get the words out, until she started hiccup sobbing again.
Remo made eye contact and the next thing I knew he was handing me Ford and putting his arms around his wife to console her. He rocked her to soothe her, her face against his chest. I found myself doing the baby hop, dammit.
I looked at him over her slumped shoulders. “What did you tell her about you and Claire?”
“Nothing I haven’t told you,” he said.
“Because last I heard emotional infidelity doesn’t lead to conception.”
“You know if you were my son I wouldn’t do anything differently.”
Mel thumped him on the chest with her fist. “You wish he was yours!”
“Waitasec,” I said, “Was making me Ford’s godfather a way to make me officially part of the family?”
“You are officially part of this goddamned family anyway,” Remo said, sounding frustrated. “I don’t give a damn about blood. You always have been and you always will be and that’s just the way it is.”
Mel had a fistful of his flannel shirt and she shook it. “That’s what I’m talking about, though. When are you going to stop taking in strays and take care of your real family?”
“Taking in strays–!” Remo recoiled even though he kept his arms around her.
“I’ve been trying to tell you, Remo Cutler, if you want to be be a good father to this child you have to stop trying to be a father to everyone else you meet.”
“I am not trying to–”
“You picked Martin out of the gutter, took Daron in when his home life was hell, got Karen,” she meant Carynne, “out of her mother’s clutches, gave Cray his big break, nursed Louis through his divorce–”
“I try to help those in need. That doesn’t mean I want to be their father figure.”
I was inclined to agree. I never got any kind of paternalistic vibe between Remo and Louis…especially since I’m pretty sure Louis was older than he was. This was the first time I’d heard about Remo helping Martin and Carynne, though. But there was no escaping the fact that he was unmistakably a father figure for me, which I think was maybe closer to the heart of the matter for Mel. Maybe.
Remo, though, was still stuck on the other thing. “But what were you saying about not liking gay people?”
“I like gay people just fine! That’s why I’m apologizing!”
“For what?” he pressed. He kind of tightened his grip on her when he said it.
I didn’t like that. It felt like he was pushing. I didn’t feel he had a right to, I guess. “For nothing,” I said, feeling ridiculous since I was babyhopping while saying it. “For nothing that’s any of your business. Mel, it’s okay. Apology accepted.”
A fresh round of tears sprang up. “I know I wasn’t raised right. That’s hard. And this baby, and everything, it’s hard.”
“I know.” I patted Ford on the back and then she let go of Remo and reached toward me and I thought she wanted the baby back. But actually she was pulling me and him into a hug. And Remo kept his arms around her, too, and so we had a literal Group Hug.
And then Ford started to cry again. I think he was as confused as I was.
(Did you listen to Meg’s new song yet? It posted yesterday! -ctan)