Father and Son

by Frank Thomas Smith

"Balls," said the queen, "if I had them I'd be king."
And the king laughed, because he had two.

Father and foster son looked at the doughnut display and made their selections, Kenneth powdered sugar and Carlos chocolate. They found a place at the counter that wasn't in a direct line with the blast of the air conditioning blowers, where Kenneth ordered coffee for himself and a Pepsi for the boy. Carlos was shorter than his foster father, but had broader shoulders that tapered to a narrow waist, whereas that part of Kenneth's anatomy had recently become more expansive. Carlos's skin was naturally caramel-colored and the brief stay in Puerto Rico had made it a shade darker. He tried to keep his strong black hair slicked back with gel, but swimming in the ocean had released the curls that now cupped his head. Flaring green trousers with the cuffs turned up over his ankles, blue suede shoes, a black T-shirt with the sleeves and most of the sides cut away, and an earring dangling from his left earlobe completed the picture. "It's impossible for me to stay here in Puerto Rico, Daddy," he said with his mouth full of doughnut.

"Nothing is impossible," Kenneth replied. "You mean that you don't want to."

"What would I do here? And what about my music?"

Kenneth did not consider what Carlos did with his electric guitar to be remotely related to music, but he swallowed a caustic comment and said, "Music is universal. There's plenty of opportunity for that here."

"Yeah, like cha-cha-cha. And what about school?"

"That might be a problem," Kenneth admitted, "but isn't your interest in school rather sudden?"

"I'm interested in school," Carlos said. "Trouble is school isn't interested in me."

Kenneth had to smile, not only at the boy's irony but also in recognition that he was right. He would have liked to do well in school but, despite early efforts, he had never been able to adapt to the system and the teachers had made little effort to adapt to him. A dyslexic condition didn't help matters.

"I wish my mother wouldn't let Héctor watch television so much," Carlos said, changing the subject abruptly as he often did. "It's on from morning to night."

"Before you came to live with us you watched television continuously," Kenneth said. "Your mother didn't realize how bad it was for you so she certainly doesn't realize now how bad it is for your brother."

"I could imitate a machine-gun to perfection --rata-tat-tat," Carlos said smiling broadly and, as always, charmingly.

"And you were a walking advert for junk-food."

"I know, I looked like a skinny water rat. That's what Mommy said."

"I thought she said like a starving cat."

"Yeah," Carlos agreed, "but who wants to look like a starving cat?"

"Rather a skinny water-rat?"

"Sure, man, that's got class. Don't you see the difference?"

"Well...yeah, I guess so."

Carlos laughed and clapped Kenneth on the shoulder. "Maybe there's hope for you yet, Daddy. Hey, I used to shit in my pants, didn't I?"

"Uh huh." Kenneth blew on his coffee, although it was no longer that hot.

"Why, do you think?" the boy asked.

"There was no physical reason."

Suddenly Kenneth remembered the other thing and wondered if now would be the time to tell Carlos. "The doctors said it was all mental."

Carlos frowned. "Why mental?"

"Insecurity, I suppose, what with your mother dragging you around the world with her, locking you in hotel rooms at night or leaving you on the street at all hours of the night while she worked."

"What an asshole. What kind of work did she do?"

"She danced in bars." Kenneth suspected that Carlos's mother did another kind of work as well.

"Oh." Carlos swallowed the last of his doughnut and washed it down with a swig of Pepsi. "What kind of dancing? I never saw her dance."

"I don't know, I never saw her either. Barroom stuff, I guess."

"Probably topless," Carlos said. "I wouldn't put it past her."

The sat without talking for a few moments, until Carlos said, grinning, "Hey, Daddy, do you think I'm still insecure?"

"No," Kenneth smiled. "Rather the opposite."

"Well, that's good, ain't it?"

"Maybe, but it's getting you into trouble."

"You mean with Mommy?"

"Yes. Personally I don't care how late you stay out and I'm not there anyway since the divorce. But Mommy does care and you don't respect her wishes."

"How can I? It would make my life impossible."

"There you go with impossible again," Kenneth said. "If you don't obey the rules of the house you make life impossible for the others, especially when you're insolent to top it off."

"I could move out, man."

"Really? Where to?"

"Lots of places, Jan's for instance. Hey, Daddy, you got a fag?"

Kenneth touched the breast pocket of his polo shirt and shook his head.

"There's a machine over there." Carlos pointed toward the entrance.

Kenneth called the waitress and handed her a five-dollar bill. "Could you please give me change for cigarettes?"

"I have to open the register special for that," the girl said. She wasn't surly, just matter-of-fact. "If you want to pay your bill now, I have to open it anyway."

Kenneth handed her a twenty. When she came back with the change, Carlos picked up the necessary coins from the counter and went to the machine and got the cigarettes. He opened the pack with the scythe-like nail of his pinky and laid it on the counter in front of his foster father.

"You can keep them," Kenneth told him. "I'll just have one, I'm cutting down."

"Thanks, Daddy. Got a match?"

"You realize there may be a problem with the immigration authorities," Kenneth said after taking a deep drag on his cigarette.

"Why's that?" Carlos asked, smoking with Kenneth's gestures.

If you don't live with us -- with Mommy that is -- you're not a foster child anymore. You might have to leave the country. Anyway, your mother seems to want you back now."

"Is that why we came here?"

"You wanted to come, remember?"

"I only wanted to come here 'cause I didn't have no place else to go on vacation. Besides, my mother's an illegal alien. I wouldn't be allowed to stay here either."

"She's thinking of going back to Venezuela, I understand."

"I wouldn't need a visa there -- right?"

"No, you're a Venezuelan citizen."

"So if I leave the States I can only go there -- right?"

"I guess so," Kenneth said softly, determined not to let this degenerate into an argument.

Carlos thought for a moment, then said, with finality, "I don't wanna go there."

"You won't have to, don't worry."

"Hey, Daddy, why do they say that?" Carlos asked, pointing to a sign on the wall behind the counter, which read NO HUNDRED-DOLLAR BILLS ACCEPTED.

"First time I've seen that," Kenneth said. "It must be because there are so many counterfeit hundreds around that they take the easy way out and don't accept any."

"There's so much of that shit around?"

Kenneth pressed the empty coffee cup between his palms. "There's something else I meant to tell you when you're older, but maybe now is the best time after all."

"Shoot, man," Carlos said and offered him another cigarette, which Kenneth accepted.

"Do you remember the operation you had when you were eight? I think you were eight, maybe nine, Mommy would know."

"Yeah, I remember," Carlos answered. "What was it all about?"

"When you were born your testicles didn't lower to where they should have been. They didn't descend from inside your body. It's no big deal to correct it, a relatively simple operation is involved, but it should be performed as soon as possible or the testicles are weakened by the body's heat. Your mother didn't realize that of course."

"Why not?"

"Probably she never noticed."

"Never noticed! How could she not notice that I had no balls?"

"She's a very simple woman, Carlos."

"Stupid, you mean." He lit another cigarette.

"Whatever. Anyway, we took you to the hospital and the operation was performed. "

Carlos watched his foster father intently. "So what did you want to tell me?"

"You were already eight or nine years old, which is late." Kenneth searched for the right words. "The doctor said that it's...that there's some doubt that you can ever have children." He went on more rapidly. "Of course that's only his opinion, but he meant that in general, only in general, if the operation is performed so late the effect can be that the child, the person rather, can become sterile, not impotent, only sterile."

Actually the surgeon had been more explicit. He had given Kenneth the impression that he didn't consider it particularly tragic for the world that Carlos would never be able to reproduce.

"No kids!" Carlos stared at the cigarette butts in the ashtray for a few moments, then said, "Well, I wasn't planning to have any anyway. What's the point of having kids in a fucked-up world."

"But it can be important for a woman," Kenneth said.

"Yeah, I guess so."

"You can have yourself examined at any time. I don't know whether now is more opportune or if it would be better to wait a year or two, but we can ask. They make a sperm test, or count, something like that."

Carlos was silent and Kenneth couldn't think of anything else to say, so he suggested they leave. "By the way, I won't be here on your birthday tomorrow so here, have a ball." He handed the boy a hundred-dollar bill.

"Hey, thanks, Daddy." Carlos kissed Kenneth on the cheek before putting the bill in his pocket. "I won't be able to blow it in this joint." He laughed. "Too bad."

"The car will be like an oven," Kenneth said as they walked across the parking lot to the rented car. Carlos nodded. His eyes were on the concrete in front of his feet. Kenneth hoped he was only thinking about what he would do with the hundred dollars.

* * *

Fours years later Kenneth, who had been transferred overseas, was in the States combining a business trip with visits to his grown children, all college students, except Carlos, who somehow made a living as a rock musician. He had already been to Ann Arbor where his youngest daughter was studying, then Los Angeles to see his son and now New York, where he had spent some time with his youngest daughter, Jeannie, a medical student, and briefly visited his ex-wife.

Now it was Carlos's turn. They were finishing lunch at a sidewalk table of a Thai restaurant.

"Hey, Daddy, you remember that time in Puerto Rico when you told me I'd never have kids and you gave me a hundred dollar bill for my birthday in that dump where they didn't accept hundred dollar bills?"

"I said probably not." Kenneth drew on his cigarette.

"Yeah, well, I'm a daddy now."

Kenneth was used to being shocked, or at least surprised by Carlos, but this took a few seconds to sink in. "What do you mean?"

"I visited my mom in Puerto Rico again last year." He took one of Kenneth's cigarettes from the open pack on the table and lit up. "She's legal now, by the way, because my brother Héctor was born there so he's American." He blew a perfect smoke-ring and watched it rise and dissolve. "Anyway, I met a girl there and banged her. I thought nothing would happen because of what you told me and now I'm a daddy." His smile flashed. "Who says I got no balls?"

"Are you sure it's yours?"

"Of course I'm sure. What do you think I am, stupid?"

"What are you going to do?" Kenneth asked, avoiding an answer.

"Do? I send them some money and I'll visit them now and then -- just like you, Daddy."

"Where do you get the money?" Carlos asked him, ignoring the dig – if dig it was.

"The group's doing pretty good. Hey, we're playing in the Rat's Cellar in the Village tonight. Why don't you come?"

"Well, actually I was leaving tonight."

"C'mon, Daddy, some of the songs are mine -- two in English and one in Spanish. The public creams over us, especially the girls."

Kenneth frowned. The choice between a comfortable aisle seat in Swissair business class and the raucous Rat's Cellar was appalling. "OK," he said. "By the way, what's the baby's name?"

"Kenneth. What do you think of that, Daddy?"

"That's nice, Carlos, real nice, man"

"It's great. Hey, maybe Jeannie'll come too if you ask her. She says we're too loud, but how does she know if she never heard us?"

"You're not loud?"

"I didn't say that, man." Carlos laughed and clapped Kenneth on the shoulder.

"I'll ask her," Kenneth smiled. "Maybe you can tune it down a decibel or two for our benefit."

"Great. Hey, I gotta go to rehearsal." He kissed Kenneth on the cheek and stood up. "See you later, Daddy, we start at one."

Kenneth watched him swagger off and finished his beer. He felt a sudden surge of undeserved happiness. He paid the bill, leaving a generous tip for the smiling Thai waitress, and went back to the hotel to phone his daughter Jeannie, change his plane reservations and have a short nap to prepare for a long night.