They heaved the two chairs off the back of the truck and carried them into the living room. Just the chairs alone filled up the space and David wondered how they would place the couch so there would be room to walk from the front door to the small, lightless kitchen at the back. He spent a large portion of his day walking across a furniture showroom, moving customers from living room set to dining room set, trying to anticipate tastes. The arrangement of this room bothered him, the crampedness of it all, the low ceiling, the single doublewide window that looked out onto the street. He hated Culver City with its long stretches of industrial buildings and cheap houses. The way the Sony building towered over the entire scene. He wondered why his son chose the neighborhood.
He turned back from the doorway to look at the chairs. The chairs, though, the chairs were nice. Square, low slung leather jobs that you’d find in big living rooms, living rooms in better neighborhoods. The leather was black, gleaming, and he’d paid a stockboy to oil them up before he loaded them into the back of the truck. David knew they were too nice for his son, but he could keep them forever, pass them down to his son as long as they were maintained. He got fifty percent off with his store discount and the rest was on a payment plan in Omar’s name.
Omar returned from the fridge with a beer and handed it to his father. There was something dismissive in the gesture, like he was handing a beer to another young man. David thought that his son should notice the gray hair every time he approached, defer to his fifty-five years with small gestures. But he knew he was missing something now. Felt his power to attract leaking out of him the past few years, like he’d lost some feral smell that came from the pores. He felt smaller around others, his bones tender. Even the white stubble on his cheeks felt softer than before. When he was younger he’d hardly seen the kids at all, Omar and his brother, but when he did show up they were always there at the door, waiting to wrap their hands around his legs, swing from his arms. There was something like gravity that pulled women to him, other men, his children. Nameless. But, he knew it had been there, and now it was gone. Now he came bearing compliments, bearing gifts, like furniture, trying to guess people’s needs.
They sat down on the gate of the truck, looking out onto the street.
Omar looked to his father’s profile, the sagging chin.
“Well, what do you think? I know it’s small but the rent is cheap.”
“It’s not bad,” David told him. “But you can’t have any plants in there, not enough light.”
Omar laughed inwardly, that his father would be concerned with such precious things.
“Elias was the one who watered them, anyways.”
He said it before he thought, wished he could take it back, pull it back into his throat and bury it in the dark of his stomach. They had avoided the topic the entire way back to the house. Omar leaving his younger brother in Minnesota, packing up and leaving him there.
David watched the cars passing on the cross street–they were less than a block removed from the traffic of Santa Monica Boulevard. He knew that if he lived there he could not sleep with the noise. When he was younger it all sounded like waves to him, like water, but now it was just motorcycles and cars and trucks. He wondered about the neighborhood where Elias lived.
“Does your brother have enough for rent? How will he pay it?”
Omar pulled a long swallow from the beer.
“I paid a month in advance for him. He’s a big kid now. He’ll figure it out.”
David’s jaw tightened at the paternal sound of his son, as if Omar knew what it meant to be an adult. As if he knew how vulnerable you were at any age.
“It just seems like he might be lonely out there. Did he have any friends? Friends that he could count on?”
“I don’t know. A girl he hung out with a lot.”
David smiled at this.
“So he’s got a girl?”
When Elias was five he’d gone through a long period of shyness, of quiet. Hiding in small spaces in the house. David couldn’t imagine him chatting up anyone, let alone a girl. Omar, though, was a slugger. He’d always worried that there was something too independent in Omar, too confident. He had a way with everyone, just like he did now. A handsome kid who disappeared for long stretches into the neighborhood, ignoring his mother’s calls. He’d often come back with something that didn’t belong to him. A bike. A football. Neighbors would eventually come knocking on the door. David remembered standing on the front lawn, well after dusk, waiting to beat the kid. Omar came from down the street walking slowly in the blue black night. His father moved to the walkway that led to the front door of the house. In the pale yard light he could see the boxing gloves his son held, years too big. The boy had the shadow of bruises across both cheeks and under one eye. Omar squinted up at him, raising the gloves. David couldn’t tell whether he was holding them up for show or moving them just out of reach.
“Whose gloves are those?” he had asked him.
“They’re mine now,” Omar said.
David had moved and watched the boy go inside.
The man looked as his son drank from the bottleneck. His eyes followed the line of a thin scar running the length of his right cheek. It was milk- white like a scratch. Like maybe he could rub it out with spit, or the sweat from his bottle of beer. Just like the bikes, the boxing gloves, Omar wouldn’t tell him where it came from.
“I thought you both were coming back. The couch is a pull-out.”
He said this in a quiet voice.
“Maybe we could call him before I leave. Couldn’t be too late there.”
Omar put the bottle down and leaned back on his hands.
“My phone’s not working yet, Dad.”
David knew this was a lie. He’d checked the line the first thing after they’d arrived.
“I just thought it’d be nice for us all to talk.”
He didn’t want to push it, though, felt Omar growing tense with the idea. It was like prodding an animal with a stick. There was no way to bring them closer, you just pushed them from side to side, or further away. But how would he bring Elias back? He had nothing to offer. Dependent on the goodwill of his stubborn twenty-two year-old son. The brothers, he thought, were the only opposites in their lives. The only attractors. If they were magnets, he was wood. He was rock.
He wondered what had pushed them apart. Elias had never left his brother for long. Even when their mother had moved them to Chicago and Elias had pleaded to come back, because he thought he missed his father, it didn’t last. Elias was used to sleeping in the same room with Omar, and so he never slept, stayed up entire nights sitting in the dark. David finally bought the child a ticket and sent him back to his mother, back to his brother.
Omar was already on his feet.
“Maybe we could carry the couch in now, Dad?”
The streetlights were coming on and Omar scooped up the four bottles of beer.
They pulled the couch off the truck bed carefully and carried it to the front door. It was awkward, the springs and joints shifting every few feet. Omar stumbled clumsily against a bottle of beer he’d placed on the floor, cursed as he scrambled to regain his grip. When they set it down it was in the wrong spot. And there was a cruel deep scratch across the length of the armrest on Omar’s side.
“The damn thing has so much conditioner on it that it slipped.”
David felt the anger growing in him, deep and jagged, as he looked at the tear.
This couldn’t be his life at fifty-five, he told himself. Omar would not bring him this, like a stolen toy from the neighborhood, a deep ache to see his children. The impotence he’d drown in knowing that they had to come to him. He wanted to reach out and strike the kid somewhere flat on his body like a leg, or an arm, somewhere that would hurt for a few hours but let him land the blow squarely, feel the satisfaction of that kind of hurt. But he knew the days of punishing his children were gone. He yelled loudly, an anger he heard in his head:
“Jesus! That won’t work. He won’t come back if this is how it is!”
Omar stood there, his mouth open in a question.
“Who are you talking about?”
David’s voice boomed again:
“Your brother won’t come back if this is how you give it to him! You’ve had it for an hour and it’s ruined.”
David banged his fist on the doorframe and pointed to the couch.
“Will he sleep here now!? Where will he sleep?”
Omar fell back into one of the chairs, eyes wide but low, aiming somewhere at the old man’s feet.
David walked out the door to the truck.
It was finally dark and the cars on Santa Monica moved in a lull. He looked up at the Sony building in the distance and pulled desperately on a cigarette. Gradually the rage fell out of him, and he thought for a moment that this too his body couldn’t contain. He remembered the phone calls from Elias in Chicago, his voice small on the other end. How the child asked how his toys were, his friends, as if maybe David played with them while he was away. When Elias had come back for that short time he’d told his father that Omar always dialed the long distance number for him, even thought he’d catch hell from his mother every time. He felt a sudden sense of shame wash over him and wondered how long it would last. Of course he’d get them back. Omar, then Elias.
David opened up the door to the truck and pulled out a soft cloth, a bottle of leather oil. When he walked back into the apartment Omar was there bent over the arm of the couch, rubbing the tear with spit. His shoulders shook slightly and his father knew that he was crying.
David handed him the bottle and the cloth.
“Here, use this,” he said. “Go gently.”