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CALIFORNIA STORY Short Fiction

War Babies

January 21, 2007|Kaui Hart Hemmings | Kaui Hart Hemmings is the author of "House of Thieves" (Penguin Press) and the forthcoming novel, "The Descendants," to be published in May by Random House.

"This is your third time," his dad says. "I don't get it." He looks at Chris, then focuses on the road. His dad has beady ferret eyes that Chris didn't inherit, and thin little lips that he did. He's always happy, yet he also has a skeptical look, like he can't quite understand what he's so happy about. Even these days he's happy. Chris would be a very angry person if he had to pick up his son from detention and his wife had had an affair and a baby with another man.

"Can we go to 7-Eleven?" Chris asks.

"No, I'm afraid we can't. Sorry. No 7-Eleven."

Chris laughs because his father sounds just like he does on TV when someone asks him for a letter. No, sorry, I'm afraid there's no T.

"What's so funny?" his dad asks.

"You know what," Chris says.

His father is a mystery, the way he can be so patient. Only once in Chris' 14 years has he seen his father snap at someone. This was a few weeks ago. They were in Brentwood, coming out of a baby boutique where his dad had bought Chris' new sister a soft pink blanket. The saleswoman said Brangelina and Tomkat had also purchased this blanket. Earlier he had heard her say to a customer, "If your friends have an ugly baby just get it some gorgeous clothes!"

When they were walking down Barrington to their car Chris saw a few guys with McDonald's cups in their hands, and he had a feeling they would say something to his father. If they were carrying Snapples or bottled water they probably wouldn't say anything, but they had drinks from McDonald's and that usually means something. "Hey!" one of the guys yelled. "Can I get an 'S'?" He was wearing flip-flops and a visor, his shirt tight across his chest, his jeans loose around his waist. He looked like all the guys in

this neighborhood--rich and poor at the same time, like they could either work at a drive-through or produce music videos. His father didn't banter along and say, "Here's an S, coming atcha." Instead he mumbled that they needed to get home.

"What," the same boy said. "I get no love? What about a vowel, man. Can I get a 'U'?"

His father stopped and turned. "Why yes," he said. "You can get a big screw U."

Chris didn't know what surprised him more, his father yelling or buying a present for the stupid baby. Actually, the baby is OK. Dumb as knuckles, but OK. She'll grab for a toy and Chris will hide it and she'll forget about it in a second. Or when he puts a mirror in front of her face, she doesn't even know she's looking at her own reflection.

"Have you ever had sex with Anna?" Chris asks.

"She's married." His father waves in a driver entering his lane.

"So?" Chris says.

"So you don't do that when you're married."

"Mom did." Chris stares at his father and tries not to blink. He wants to catch him looking angry or sad, but he looks amused.

"Did you ever try?" Chris asks.

"No," he says. "She's a dear friend."

"I don't see how she can do that job for so long."

"Same reason why I can do mine. Actually, she may be retiring. We need to find a new letter turner, or toucher. I forget she doesn't turn the letters anymore."

"I'd have sex with Anna."

"Spin again," his dad says.

Chris has never spoken so casually with his dad until recently, and he likes it. He has realized that he either can't or won't lie, and this realization has opened up all sorts of opportunities. The other day he started asking different sorts of questions--"Have you ever tripped on acid?" and "Have you snorted cocaine?"--and was shocked when his father said yes to both. Still, despite his honesty, Chris feels there's something he's not saying. Something small, but important.

"You still haven't told me why you've been in detention so much lately," his father says. "What were you in for this time?"

"Why?" Chris asks. "Are you pissed?" His father doesn't answer, and his expression doesn't change. He looks as if he's listening to a slightly amusing comedian that he hadn't planned on liking.

"Not running," Chris says. "In our timed mile I hid behind this blue mat. The mat people land on after they leap over a pole with a pole."

"I know what you're talking about," his dad says. "Pole vaulting."

"Why do people do that?" Chris asks.

"People love sports and games," he says.

"So I hid behind it, and then I joined in on the last lap. Someone ratted me out. I don't know who. Probably Tim. He's such a spank."

"Why didn't you just run?"

"It's a ridiculous thing to do," Chris says.

"I don't know. I used to run a lot."

When his mother asked for a divorce, remarried two months later and then was mysteriously five months' pregnant on her wedding day, his father said the same thing. "I don't know. I don't know about all of this." When Chris asked if it was his baby, his father said, "No. I can't make those anymore."

His dad drives past the 7-Eleven.

"You can let me off here, you know," Chris says. "You don't have to take me all the way. I know it must be hard for you."

"Don't be silly," his father says.

"Have you ever had sex with a contestant?" Chris asks.

"No. You seem to forget I have, or had, a wife."

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