It begins with envy, with Kent’s colleagues going on about their miraculous children—the Eagle Scout, the homecoming queen, that walleyed nerd with the full scholarship to MIT. Kent has grown old in this teachers’ room, nodding politely at the accolades of other people’s children.
“My son got into Yale,” Kent says, in the middle of a colleague’s story about his daughter’s book deal.
“You have a son?”
“You never mentioned a son.”
“Or a wife.” The colleagues roar. Kent isn’t known for geniality, doesn’t smell like he wants friends. He fails students for misspelling mediaeval, for thinking Beowulf was an actual wolf.
“Oh god. A wife.” Kent laughs, forgetting that he is the joke. He’s already wondering whether his newly minted son can study art at Yale. He wants an arty son. A prodigy. A son who’ll make his colleagues want to scrap their own and start over. A son to covet. But he’ll have to be so careful. What if one of his colleagues’ kids gets into Yale? And where is Yale anyway? Kent needs to do some research, which means a trip to the seniors’ center where the Internet is free.
“What’s his name?”
“David.” Kent cringes. He’d have chosen Garrison or Roth—something arty—if he’d had time to think.
After weeks of no one asking even one question about his Yale-accepted son, Kent announces in the teachers’ room that David has chosen to go by—get this—Roth at Yale. “His first name,” Kent adds when no one reacts, “is Roth.”
“Roth David Meade,” someone says. “Sounds like an artist.”
“You’re damn straight it does.” Kent beams.
Several months later Kent mentions that Yale is treating Roth very well—Roth, his son—in case anyone in the teachers’ room still cares, which they really don’t. Except maybe Gail. Gail, a full professor of contemporary poetry, has a nondescript child getting her MFA at another local state university.
“How’s Roth assimilating?” Gail is slurping microwaved mulled wine at the dean’s “holiday” party. “An artist, right? I’d love to see his work.”
“So would I!” Kent says. Sadly, Roth has developed into a temperamental, insecure artist who’ll never share his work before it wins a prize. “But he’s making the best grades at . . . Yale!” Kent shouts over the crowd and “White Christmas”—which is really all that matters: that Kent finally has a son named Roth, an artist, who’s excelling at a university no one at this “holiday” party, including himself, can afford.
But then, around a year later, out of playful curiosity, Gail finds Yale’s online student directory. She’s searched and searched for a Roth David Meade, and is it possible that Roth is pulling a fast one on Kent, that maybe Roth, the artist, is stoned and drawing caricatures on the beach in Key West? She called only because she cares, knowing what Kent—a state university professor of a dead language—earns and all.
“He’s on scholarship.” Kent hangs up.
Now Kent has to look up art scholarships, but this is easy and fun now that Kent has mastered the Internet, so much fun in fact that Kent has spent most of the last two years at the seniors’ center creating Roth. Thanks to Photoshop and Kent’s weak footing in ethics and morality, he now has galleries and galleries of his son. A young guy on Facebook named UtahBart looks a lot like a Roth—lanky but fit, sunny but dangerous—and takes loads of pictures of himself.
Roth, although of course excelling at Yale, is a junior by now, so Kent needs to start mapping out eventualities in case someone—Gail—becomes suspicious: Roth the artist boycotting graduation, Roth marrying a large man in Norway, Roth dying after demanding that his ashes be strewn on the grave of some obscure artist in a private ceremony somewhere unfindable in Scandinavia. But then Roth himself gets a summer internship in Salzburg.
“Austria’s a mecca for world-class artists,” Kent announces in the teachers’ room.
“Oh!” Gail shouts. “We’re going to Austria in August. We can meet Roth!”
Gail is a pain in the ass. Roth definitely isn’t the type of artist who’d tolerate the company of contemporary poets. Kent doesn’t even bother telling Roth about Gail’s plans, not that he’s had the opportunity: Roth hasn’t called in who knows when, though he’s promised to call at 6 p.m. every Friday.
In September Gail apologizes up and down the street, says she spent August drunk off her butt at one wine festival after another in the Steiermark. She’s crushed that she didn’t make it to Salzburg.
“He wasn’t even there,” Kent says. In August Roth flew to Copenhagen with his circle of prodigy friends. “See, here’s a photo of Roth walking into Amalienborg like a king. And here’s Roth lounging on a rock next to the Little Mermaid, squinting into the sun because he forgot his sunglasses. I told him to remember his sunglasses.” Kent leafs and leafs through the photos. “Didn’t I?” Long after his colleagues have returned to their classes, Kent’s still staring at photos of his son, wondering why he never calls.
Kent turns Jeopardy! off, puts the phone in his lap. He’s sure this was the deal: that Roth would call at 6 p.m. before he left for his bar shift at Heorot, a pub popular with the undergrads, especially the Old English majors, the only ones who get the joke. But today Roth hasn’t called, and Kent can’t find his son’s number. He’s getting up to look for his address book when the telephone rings. It’s not Roth. It’s some woman saying he’s got to come back to work, he’s been MIA for two weeks. She says mid-terms; she says Beowulf. She says no one knows Old English. She says—. Kent hangs up because Ah! here’s the address book and Roth’s other name is David, so he looks through the address book for David . . . Meade, his last name is Meade. Kent laughs. Well, of course it is.
In lieu of a David, Kent calls another Meade in the book, a man who says he’s Kent’s goddamn brother and Kent has lost his fucking—. Another Meade is a woman named Meghan, who calls him Uncle Kent, says she doesn’t know Roth or David but would love to meet them, says she’d love to meet Kent too someday, says time heals all—. Time doesn’t heal a damn thing; how well Kent knows this.
It’s 6 p.m. again. Kent’s having another one of his desperate moments trying to remember his own son’s voice. If Roth would just call. Just for a second so Kent could stop imagining the worst. “Anything,” Kent says as the phone rings. It’s someone named Gail saying some university needs forms signed by the nursing home. She says pension; she says disability. She’s coming over with the forms before visiting hours—. Kent must have gotten the days mixed up. Roth will call tomorrow, which might be Saturday or Thursday—Kent’s not great with days—but 6 p.m. he knows because that’s when Jeopardy! ends and his dinner appears on a tray where there’s almost always a doughy roll.
Six p.m. The telephone rings. It’s Roth. As always. He’s sullen—he’s an artist—but it’s still a blessing to hear his airy baritone. He has no friends. He’s not an asshole, but he can’t smile and nod when people are dumb. He’s lonely, and it’s all Kent’s fault for making him come here. He’s got this job tending bar, which scares him for a lot of reasons but mostly because he makes four hundred dollars a night doing something that’s not his dream. But how else can he pay for Yale? He’s always working, always drunk, and there’s this guy—
“Oh, come on.” Kent laughs. “A little work never killed anyone.” Kent had to pull a few drafts to pay his own way through school. Roth says he wishes he were dead, wishes he’d never been born. “Don’t say that,” says Kent, but Roth has hung up.
It’s always 6 p.m. Roth is always on the phone. He hates life, hates everything. He’s stopped going to class. Artists don’t need Yale. They just create, just rip something from their souls. He’s done with measuring angles, sick of geometry. He wants to come home but doesn’t know where that is. He can’t remember the last time he left the pub. He’s exhausted and afraid. “Yes, afraid,” he says when Kent laughs. “There’s this guy,” he says. “He comes into Heorot, gets really smashed, and rants about how we’re all just elitist pansies, says he’s going to show us the horror of being alone, says one night he’s going to come in and mow us all down. The owners throw him out, but he comes back. He keeps coming back. Daddy,” Roth says, “are monsters real?”
Yes, Kent thinks, they are. He sees them on the tiny TV hanging in the corner of his room. Another bar, another monster. “They hear the revelry in the hall,” he says, “and they are overcome with envy. They won’t quit until you’re riddled too.”
Roth is already full of holes. He doesn’t say this, doesn’t have to. Kent knows his son like he knows himself. His son needs someone to hold him. And that’s Kent, but Kent is so far away. “I’ll come,” he says, but Roth says it’s a bad idea. Kent is too old to fight monsters.
There’s a commotion on Roth’s side of the phone, but Kent keeps his son talking, says he’s not alone as long as he can hear his father’s voice, says he’s sorry about Yale, says he only wanted the best.