The pure blue sky peals in Barton’s ears like a single note from a church organ, harsh and unrelenting enough to shatter the thick glass of the picture window of his second-story apartment. On days like this, traumatic tinnitus accompanies the sunlight, but it also brightens the front half of his living room, and silhouettes the heads of his two children, Ellie and Carl, who are sitting across from him.
In the one-bedroom walk-up Barton has occupied since he and Sharon separated, all the furniture is rented, except for the grey La-Z-Boy, which catches halfway towards the reclining position. It has always caught, and for this reason Sharon never used it; she parted with it for the same reason she parted with him; it was not—how did she put it?—fixable. Sitting is as tortuous for Barton as standing: just below his right hip socket, re-jiggered with titanium and plastic, the femur is graced by a half-dozen metal screws; the reconstructed pelvis has fewer—but longer—screws, poorly positioned for sitting. Reclining in the half-bent La-Z-Boy provides the relief that traditional chairs and flat beds cannot. He coaxes the unfolding parts past the catch, and listens to the sky.
Facing him in the rented couch, his children sit, legs dangling and nervously kicking, waiting for him to begin the promised story time. Ellie is four, with Sharon’s curly blonde hair, which she is twirling with the forefinger of her left hand, a habit she picked up from her mother. She has a hopeful expression on her face. The sulky expression belongs to Carl, who is seven, and although he has Barton’s long eyebrows and brown eyes, his skin is darker, more naturally tan—like Sharon’s. In most of the photos from Basrah of Barton and his platoon buddies, everyone is shirtless but Barton.
The couch the children are sitting on is long, clad in slick, sticky orange vinyl, and has thin cushions that do not give. There are no rugs or lamps in the room. There is no desk, no other chairs, no bureau; only the TV stand upon which a flat-screen RCA sits. The ceiling fixture in the kitchen behind Barton is on, but neither it’s dim radiance nor the natural sunshine reaches him, and he remains in shadow. It has been several minutes since Barton turned off the TV—still warm—but two hours since Sharon dropped them off. Barton is unaware of the passage of time, having given up on watches and clocks months ago, when Sharon took lawful custody of the children.
When his kids arrived, Sharon had stayed in the car, had waved them onward through the rolled-down passenger side window, had made Carl promise to remind their father that this visit, unlike the previous ones, had to be short. Barton had opened the door before they were halfway up the stairs; each child had given him a quick hug as they entered, and ignored the box Barton pointed out was to be used for storytime today. As he rushed towards the TV, Carl had squawked something about having to go back soon, and before Barton could reposition himself into the recliner, both Ellie and Carl were seated on the sweaty couch, with their faces slightly tilted, two masks of contentment bathed in the screen’s glow. After a while Ellie lost interest and had laid her head sideways, which is when she first discovered the bag.
They are as unaware as Barton how the allotted time has long since passed.
—When are you going to tell us a story, daddy? asks Ellie.
—Soon, sweetie, says Barton. I’m thinking.
—Why’d you turn the TV off? says Carl. It’s a complaint, not a question.
—I want you guys look at the stuff in the box I brought out, says Barton.
—What’s in the bag? asks Ellie.
Between the couch and the La-Z-Boy Barton has placed a topless 10”x10” cardboard box, full of photographs and memorabilia. Under the belly of the La-Z-Boy is a small brown paper bag, the kind Barton once used for his children’s school lunches, which he had not meant for either of the children to see. Ellie has been eyeing the paper bag since the TV was turned off, and has ignored the box. Barton understands this—because the box is open, and the paper bag is not. Because she is so young, the possibility that mysteries could unfold to reveal horror or disappointment has never occurred to her. She whispers to Carl, who bends over to take a look. Unimpressed, he sits up again, legs still kicking nervously, and picks at the palm of his right hand with the fingers of his left, ignoring both objects.
—OK, then. Daddy’s going to start storytime, says Barton.
—Mom’s gonna be mad, snarks Carl.
Ellie claps and sits up. Carl rolls his eyes.
—Why do you do that? says Carl. Why do you say daddy like you were somebody else? It’s weird.
Ellie sits still.
—It’s not weird at all, says Barton. You know, it’s like when your mom says your dad this and your dad that when she’s telling her stories about me. Or when she talked to Ellie about Carl, and says, Your brother is in the doghouse, young lady!
Ellie and Carl look at each other and smile.
—Funny, right? Barton continues. Not funny ha ha, because it’s not. The thing is, we don’t ever want to think badly of the people we love. She’s really mad at Carl, but doesn’t want to be. So she says your brother instead of his name.
—So does that mean you’re mad at yourself? says Carl, and he is onto something there, thinks Barton. He considers responding to his son, but Carl’s smirk puts him off.
Ellie looks at Carl because she knows he’s just being a jerk. Her father does not seem mad at himself at all. She is content to wait for what she hopes will be a funny story, or several funny stories.
—What kind of stories today, daddy? asks Ellie.
—Well that’s what the box is for, guys, says Barton. The stories go with the pictures in the box. I have a story for every picture in the box. All you have to do is pick one, or two, or more.
—What about the bag? asks Carl. Is there a story about the bag?
Barton is angry with himself for not having hidden the bag. He had placed it there so he wouldn’t have to get up again.
—No. The bag is for something else. It’s for later. Ignore the bag. Why don’t you both look through the pictures, OK? Pick one and I’ll tell you a story about it. Any picture, any one you choose, there’s a story.