Along with STOP and END and DANGER, Sam’s brother taught him to recognize a few other words and phrases, such as FRIEND OF THE COURT. They were the people Sam paid child support to every month. They, in turn, sent it to his ex-wife, Ember. His brother had told him, “If you ever get a letter from them, call me right away, and I’ll come over and help you with it.” But Pete had moved eight hours away for a new job. So, when it came to reading, Sam was now on his own.
When he didn’t reply to their letter, the Friend of the Court sent more. And more. The only problem was that he couldn’t read them. But he knew they had to do with his support payments.
This was all his fault, he knew. He had been mad because Ember just couldn’t seem to get to their meeting place on time or missed their appointments altogether. So he decided the money would end, too. He had a right to see Destiny on a regular basis, and since Ember wouldn’t listen to reason, he figured the checks were all he had to bargain with.
He had been planning to withhold the support checks for only a little while — just to bring Ember to her senses — but then he’d had the accident. He’d been on the line, passing a truck panel to his neighbor, but the guy was flirting with the girl next to him and took too long to reach for it. The next thing Sam knew, another panel was coming straight at him. He slipped as he tried to reach for it, messing up his back in the process. He was out of commission for weeks, which meant he got only 80 percent of his pay. The joke, once again, was on him.
There was a college kid at the plant who was taking a break from school to save up some money to go back. Sam thought he’d ask him for help with the Friend of the Court letters. Matt seemed like a nice kid — he was majoring in special ed after all — and for that reason alone he thought he could trust him.
“Hey, Matt,” he said, the next time he saw him in the cafeteria. The kid was new and usually sat by himself reading a book. “Look, I got some papers from the court I really need help with. They have to do with my visitation with my kid.”
Maybe it was the way Sam held the envelopes out to Matt, as if he was presenting a damaged child. The boy took one look and seemed to understand. “Sure, sure, I’ll help. Do you want to look them over here?”
“No. Not here. Let’s go out to lunch tomorrow. I’ll pick up the tab. That’s the least I could do.”
“You really don’t have to do that,” Matt said.
“I don’t have to, I want to.”
So, the next day they drove out to a strip mall in his truck — all paid for, he said to the kid, to let him know he could afford lunch — to a place he figured none of the other men would be. He didn’t want anybody to see him being read to like a child.
They walked to a booth at the back of the restaurant where they could have some privacy.
The boy pretended this kind of thing happened every day. He tried to look casual, like there was no shame in this.
The waitress came over and said, “You boys ready yet?”
The boy spoke slowly, pretended to read the menu aloud to himself. “Let’s see … Fish sandwich. Catwich. Flame-broiled …”
Sam jumped in. “How’re your burgers? They any good?”
“I have one practically every day for lunch,” she said, tapping her pencil on her little green pad.
Sam closed the menu and gave it back to her. “I’ll have a burger. With lettuce, ketchup, and mustard. And fries. Your fries good?”
“The onion rings are better.”
“Sold,” he said. “And a Coke.” That was the way to handle that.
The kid looked uncomfortable. Probably worried about Sam picking up the tab. “I’ll have the same.” The way he said it, like he just swallowed a bug, made Sam laugh.
“Sure thing,” she said, looking from one to the other.
Sam waited until she was out of earshot and slipped his hand into the big manila envelope he’d brought with him. “Okay,” he said. He pulled out the letters and set them on the table like he was laying out a row of hunting knives and making the kid select one.
“O-key dokey,” the kid answered, like he was trying to make a little joke, but when the boy said that, Sam began to think he hadn’t picked the right person. The little freckles on his face, the careful way he laid out his paper napkin on his lap. In fact, come to think of it, there were times Matt didn’t seem too bright for a college boy, but he was the only person Sam had now.
“I need you to tell me what these say,” Sam said. “Basically, I don’t know which way is up with all this crap. I had them all in order nice and neat, and then they slipped off the table. I put them back the best I could. Now I got a hell of a mess on my hands.”
“Well, this shouldn’t be a problem,” Matt said in a voice a little too loud for Sam’s satisfaction. He pointed to an envelope. “See, you look at the date on the envelope and then … ”
Sam looked out the window. “I can’t see the dates. I need new glasses. That’s why I can’t read what they say.” But he knew the boy knew this was just an excuse.
“Um, well, never mind about that.” The boy looked over the envelopes and shuffled them like some kind of magician, his lips pursed. “Ah,” he lowered his voice, “they’re from the Friend of the Court.”
“I know that,” Sam said. “What I need to know is what they say inside. I have a little girl. Destiny. Her mother left me and took her, and now I pay support money to the Friend of the Court every month. Some friend.”
“So, how do you write the checks?”
His brother had given him a bunch of envelopes that were addressed to the court, and each month he went to the post office or a bank and got a money order for the amount owed. He could sign his name, the letters high and wide, like a child’s. “And I print Friend of the Court on the line where you put the payment information.”
The waitress came back with their food. Both men sat silent.
“Anything else I can bring you?” she asked, her eyes resting on the envelopes.
Matt scooted them under an elbow.
Sam smiled and said, “No, thanks. I think we’re fine.”
They waited until she left.
Matt tentatively opened the envelope at the top of the pile and began reading. “Samuel Jacobson, 1320 …”
“You don’t need to read that part. What does it say after that?” He pointed to the huge block of words on the page. “What does it say here?”
The kid nodded, looking happy to be given guidance. “Okay … ’” He scanned the letter. “Basically, it says you’re behind in your child support payments and that visitations will stop completely until you make a payment and set up a schedule to pay the rest.”
“Could you read it all?” Sam said.
So now, they settled in to how this would be done. The boy went through the letters, one by one. The news wasn’t good. By the third letter the kid seemed to be comfortable at his new job, just delivering the message.
When they were done, Sam gathered up the envelopes from the table and stuffed them back into the big envelope. “I do thank you,” he said.
“For what?” the boy said, sitting back. “This is awful. I feel bad. I hate to give you such bad news.”
“I can handle it.”
“But you can’t see your little girl until you catch up with the support payments. This is terrible. And all because you were laid up. They should know that. They obviously don’t.”
The boy grabbed his burger. “I wished you’d asked for my help sooner.”
Sam felt he could take offense to that, to the word “help.” But what did it matter? The boy was right. He was helping him. And he did need help.
“Would you like me to call them for you and explain?”
Sam shook his head. “No, that’s okay. Now that I know what those letters say, I’ll call. I have to call myself.”
Ember was one of the few people who knew he couldn’t read. They’d met in high school, and in no time she figured out what scores of teachers hadn’t been able to see or didn’t care to. She had left him a note on his locker to meet her after school at her house, and when he didn’t show up, she’d been really hurt. “How could you just blow me off like that?” she said the next day at school. She was trying not to be mad, he could see, but her eyes were welling up with tears. He didn’t want to lose her, so he told her. He was worried he’d still lose her, but instead she turned all motherly toward him, touched his face and said, “It’s okay. Don’t worry about it. Look, your secret’s safe with me.”
Ember always told him he was smart. “I know you are. Everybody knows you are. I’ll help you.”
He couldn’t do the in-class writing assignments, and for that, his teachers made excuses. He was just a little hyper. He couldn’t sit still. He was a boy, after all. They let him turn in his papers late.
So Ember would come over after school and coach him, but, with his parents and brother at work, their after-school meetings usually led to other things.
She ended up writing all his essays for him, reading assignments to him after school, and covering for him with friends. They got married the summer after graduation.
Despite his problem with reading, he thought his and Ember’s relationship had been pretty good. She took care of things that needed to be read the same way he fixed a flat tire or maintained the car and the house. But when Destiny was born, he had to leave the important things to Ember, like reading the directions on medicine bottles or the notes from daycare. But out of the blue one day, she asked him, “What if something happens to me? How would you deal with having to take care of Destiny?” He told her he’d make do, he had before he met her and he did it when she wasn’t around. “Making do isn’t good enough when you have a baby, Sam,” she had said, and he saw something change in her after that. She was less patient with him, quicker to judge.
“The problem is that you’re stubborn, Sam,” she started saying. “Just plain stubborn. You’d learn to read if you just put your mind to it.”
He knew putting his mind to it wasn’t the problem. He remembered being in first grade, with all the other kids around him who were picking up words — all of a sudden, learning how to read. Sounding the words out, then smoother and smoother like planing wood the sounds turned into words, the words into sentences. It was like, one by one, a switch within them was being turned on. But it never was turned on in him. He waited for it but it never came. The words still looked like squiggles. He had a good memory, and that saved him. He could hear something once and remember it, then repeat it when it was his turn to read. He was a good kid, and that saved him, too. His family moved around a lot when he was in elementary school. His father just didn’t seem to be able to keep a job. “Last hired, first fired,” he always said. Sam went to a lot of different schools, sometimes moving in the middle of the year. Their neighborhoods were usually rough ones, and the teachers didn’t want trouble. For that alone, he was passed from grade to grade. He was held back only once, and that was the year he had mono.
He let Ember try to teach him. That was a disaster. He couldn’t stand to see her cringe when he stumbled or missed a word, a look of utter disbelief on her face. He knew she was trying to be supportive but her face got tighter and tighter as she tried to make it look as if she wasn’t ashamed for him, her mouth finally becoming a thin line, as if she was sucking in the words she wanted to say so they wouldn’t escape.
Sam called the Friend of the Court to explain his circumstances. He was back at work now. He’d catch up on the payments. He wanted them to make out a new payment schedule. But no matter what he said, the woman who answered the phone would say only, “Put it in writing.”
When he saw Matt, he told him, “You were right. We have to write a letter.”
He and Matt met the next day, the same routine. This time, the boy brought along a pen, paper, envelopes, stamps.
They got the table at the far corner again.
“Lucky for us they don’t get much business,” Sam said.
The waitress came for their order. “You writing a book there?” she asked, pointing at the pad of paper with her pen.
“I broke my glasses,” Sam said. “My nephew here has to read my paperwork for me.”
After she left, Matt said, “So, should I call you Uncle Sam now?”
They waited until the waitress gave the order to the cook and tended to a new table, far from theirs. Matt said “Shoot” and picked up pen and paper.
“I know how to do this,” Sam said. “I know what she told me, the Friend of the Court.”
“What did she tell you?”
“That’s my business,” Sam said.
Matt pushed the pen and paper away. “Sam. I’m supposed to help you and you won’t fill me in on the whole story. What she said matters. It matters in how I put things down for you.”
Sam said nothing, just stared.
Matt lowered his voice. “It’s just that I can’t read your mind, you know.”
Sam fumed, got out his lighter, the one his brother gave him for Christmas years ago, when he had the motorcycle. The silhouette of a beautiful woman’s body, the curve of her spine like the letter S, so perfect, hair so long, and the HD for Harley Davidson fitted tightly behind her like a dress she’d just taken off that still held the shape of her body.
He wanted a cigarette but was trying to quit. Besides, you couldn’t smoke in restaurants anymore, which was probably a good thing. He kept opening and closing the lighter.
“That’s a beauty,” Matt said.
“Here.” Sam handed him the lighter. “Have a look.”
“Do you ride?” Matt asked, handing it back.
“I used to,” he said. “Ember made me give it up when she had the baby. One of the hardest things I’ve ever done was to sell that bike. The only person who offered me what it was worth was a guy who had hardly ever been on a bike. Can you imagine? The only thing that made me feel better was all the stuff I bought for Destiny with it. We did her room up real nice. Even started a little college fund for her. That made me feel good.”
Matt looked at him. “Maybe we should write about that in the letter. What you just said.”
“I just mean … it’s so hard. I’m not trying to find out your business. You know,” Matt said, leaning forward. He looked around for the waitress and said, real low, “You know, there are classes for … ”
Sam thought the kid was going to say, people like you.
“I could teach you,” Matt said. He started to get enthusiastic, rearranging the papers all over the table like it was his own little desk. “I’ve been thinking I wanted to get back into doing some volunteer work.”
“Volunteer work?” Sam couldn’t believe his ears. He wasn’t a man asking for a favor any longer. Now he was an entire charity project.
“Sure, I’d be happy to do that for you.”
It was the words “for you” that really killed Sam. For you.
Matt kept his voice low. “When I was in college, I volunteered in this literacy program, teaching people how to read. I know how to do it.”
Sam looked at him. Matt’s eyes were light brown with little flecks of green in them. He’d trusted the kid this far and he hadn’t failed him. Maybe he could trust him with this.
“Do you know your alphabet? Your letters?” Matt asked.
“Well, that’s great. That’s a great start. Some people don’t know their letters. So you’re starting from a good place.”
The next thing was hard for Sam to say. “I know the letters all right but I can’t seem to put them together into words.”
“That’s okay. That’ll come next. It takes a little time.”
They were quiet for a while. Then Matt said, “I have a theory.”
“I noticed that the people who don’t want to start with kid books don’t do as well as the other folks. Their progress is a lot slower.”
“I don’t want to read baby books. I want to read real books.”
“Sam, I’m telling you. It’s like our brains are wired a certain way. You have to start out with the basics, sort of train your brain to absorb the words.”
Sam slapped the lighter down on the table. “Look, man. I really just need to have one letter written. My daughter has a birthday coming up in a couple of months. I want to see her for her birthday. I don’t want her to think her father missed her birthday.”
His voice was not going to crack. He made a big deal of reaching inside his wallet to get the money order. Largest one he’d ever bought. He’d catch up. He knew he would.
Matt put the money order in the envelope and addressed it. He nodded. “Okay,” he said. “But if you ever need anything else …” Then he got busy with the letter explaining how much and when Sam could pay.
And now, everything reminded him of his daughter: the toys and clothes she had left behind when she visited, a commercial on TV for a baby doll he thought she might like. He didn’t like the latest doll Ember had bought her. With its Goth, cat’s-eye makeup and torn, slutty clothing, it looked more like a tiny teen hooker than a little girl’s doll. One time, he even thought he saw Destiny on the street on his way to the hardware store and his heart brightened and quickened. He didn’t recognize the woman she was with, but it could have been a babysitter or a friend of Ember’s. The little girl had the same shade of blonde hair, a similar blue coat like the one he got her last Christmas, but it wasn’t Destiny. In fact, he was shocked at how he could have even thought it was her. And he was afraid for a second that the girl’s mother might have worried about the attention he was paying her daughter, how he turned around and smiled at the girl as he passed.
Three weeks after their lunch, Sam called Matt’s name across the lunchroom. Threw the lighter in his direction. Matt almost didn’t catch it, even though Sam had given him plenty of time to see it coming and a straight, slow pitch.
Matt walked over to Sam. “It’s beautiful,” Matt said. “I can’t accept this.”
“Don’t be such a college boy,” Sam said, and Matt laughed.
They sat down together at a table farthest away from their coworkers. Matt asked, “So you’ve seen your daughter? Things are straightened out?”
“Not yet. But the Friend of the Court is letting me send a birthday card to the house. They sent me their new address.” He had bought a card on his way to work, signed it DAD in big, gawky letters, and gave the sealed envelope to Matt to be addressed.
“I can talk to Destiny on her birthday,” Sam said. “And they said that the visits can start again next month. As long as there’s no trouble between me and her mom. Looks like her mom’s accepted the payment schedule.”
“That’s great, Sam. That’s great. And look, if you ever need me again. I’m serious about my offer.”
But with this, Sam got up from the table and shoved off, still smiling, as if he hadn’t heard a thing.
Sometimes Sam felt as if his whole life was one work-around after another. When you don’t know how to read, you memorize the shape of certain letters you need. A teacher hands you a book and tells you to read it out loud, but you tell her you forgot your glasses. You forget your glasses the next day and the next and they just figure out you’re poor and won’t be bringing your glasses anytime soon. The school nurse gives you an eye test, which you flunk on purpose so they still think your eyes really are bad. They refer you to an eye doctor, but you never show up with those new glasses. So, they skip over you during reading time because they don’t want to embarrass you. You pick up a job application and tell the manager that you can’t fill it out right then because you have to take your mother to a doctor’s appointment. You ask politely if you can fill it out at home and bring it back. And they’re fine with that because everybody’s in a rush and they’re just happy to get a body to fill that job. You get your brother to fill out all your job applications, do your health forms, prepare your taxes. When you get hired, you show up on time and you get along with everybody and no one’s the wiser. Now that you’ve been at the plant ten years, there’s no need to look for a job anymore, no more applications to fill out, no letters of introduction to write. Then all of a sudden, there’s this.
On his daughter’s birthday, he sat on his bed all night and waited for her call, phone in hand. He and Ember had had so much fun setting up for Destiny’s birthday parties. She was a good mother. She’d been a good wife, until she wasn’t. Some things break in ways you can’t see and because you can’t see them, there’s no way you can fix it. Sometimes when he looked back at it all, it seemed as if one day Ember was kind and supportive and understanding and the next she was impatient and mean and distant. It was like that light that went on in other kids’ heads when they learned to read. She saw the light, and he still didn’t. And, just like reading, he didn’t even know where the switch was.
Five minutes before Destiny’s bedtime, his phone rang.
“Hi, Daddy!” she fairly screamed.
“Hi, punkin! Oh, it’s so good to talk to you. I miss you.”
“I miss you, too, Daddy. That was a funny card you sent.”
“Was it a funny card, punkin? Did you like it?”
“Why did you send me a boy’s card?”
He felt his smile dissolve and the heat of embarrassment creep through his body like a bad flu. He thought of the drawing of the child on that card. Surely, it was a little girl, with short blond hair, like Destiny’s. That was why he bought it. Because the child looked like her. He thought she’d like that.
He couldn’t read it, of course, but he could make out the H and the B, which he knew were for Happy Birthday. And there were candles and a cake on the front of the card so he knew it was a birthday card. And a big number 6 for her age.
“Snips and snails and puppy dog tails,” his little girl was saying. “That’s what little boys are made of. That’s what the card says, Daddy.” He could picture her pursing her lips together like she did when she was mad.
“Why would you do that, Daddy?”
He felt his whole face contract as if in pain. What could he say?
“Oh, you’re so smart,” he told her. “You’re Daddy’s smart little girl. I played a trick, and you figured it out.”
“Well, of course I did, Daddy! It’s right there on the card. I read it.”
When Destiny was really little and gave him a book to read, he would make up stories to go along with the pictures since she didn’t know how to read yet. He had been so relieved when she started reading in kindergarten. She wasn’t afflicted with whatever it was that stopped his brain from putting simple letters together to make words. He hadn’t passed that on to her, and he thanked God for that. He thought of something he could say to her, another excuse.
“Actually, honey, when I went to the drugstore to buy the card, I forgot my glasses, so I couldn’t see the writing very well. I thought the little girl looked like you.”
“But it’s not a girl, it’s a boy. Why did you do that, Daddy?” repeating herself like she always did when she was tired.
He heard Ember say, “Tell your Daddy goodbye now. You have to go to bed.”
“Goodbye, Daddy. See you soon I hope. I love you.”
He started to say, “I love you, too,” and wanted her to know that the money he put inside the card was for her to buy herself a toy she wanted, but Ember had the phone now. She whispered, “I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. You’re a smart guy. You can do this. Get some help before she figures it out.”
He wanted to say something to her but nothing would come. Then he realized she’d hung up.
He went after his bedroom as if it were a person. It took him no time at all to destroy the living room. The kitchen was harder. And still, with all the pots and pans, the bright things he’d bought at Wal-Mart to live in this dungeon without his wife and only child, it wasn’t enough. When he was done, when there was nothing left to tear up, bend, or wreck, he lay in a heap in the living room. It was only when he tried to get up that he saw the blood. Streaks of it on his knuckles where they’d been cut by some useless belonging he never wanted to see again. He felt a strange sort of sadness, as if a friend had died.
He caught up with Matt after work the next day. The kid was waiting at the bus stop, his backpack hanging off one shoulder, an open book in his hands. Sam offered him a ride home.
As Matt got in the truck, he glanced at Sam’s knuckles. “Jesus, what happened?”
Sam said nothing and stared ahead as he drove. The kid talked about going back to school one day after he’d saved enough money. He talked about his family and a girl he was interested in, but Sam heard only bits and pieces, a few words here and there. They drove all the way to Matt’s apartment before Sam turned to him. It took all of his strength to start the speech he’d been working on all day. But all he could say was, “You’d have to promise me you’d never tell anyone.”
Matt nodded and said, “Of course not. Of course,” as he clutched his book to his chest, his face as serious as if he was hearing the most incredible confession. He reached into his backpack and brought out three small books. Kiddie books. One had ABC on the cover, with an apple, a bird, a cat scattered among the letters.
Matt studied Sam’s face and then said, “Just think. Someday you could read books to your daughter.”
He liked the sound of that. Reading books to his daughter. Sitting on the couch in his apartment with his little girl on his lap just like they used to when she was a baby. They could go to the library together and choose them. They could go to the bookstore. Just like any other family. Just like any other dad. It was something important that cost hardly anything but would mean all the world. The kind of thing both of them would remember forever.
Sam took the books. The kid was smart after all.
Featured image: Shutterstock
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