by Barefoot Bob
A confirmed bachelor discovers something new
Lionel Mercer stood gazing at the motley bunch of animals that compose the menagerie at Kendall Park and wondering what he was doing there at such an un-godly early hour of a Saturday morning. Mercer was having a problem these days, but he wasn’t quite sure what it was. All he knew was that the problem had been clinging to him, and it felt somewhat like a moist raincoat heedlessly left on after the sun comes out. He began t notice a faint tingling sensation on the nape of his neck—not really unpleasant, just strange. It was similar to the feeling he had this morning at the conclusion of Kitten’s Kartoon Korner. His sister Denise had just snared her three year old son on his second lap around the couch.
"Look, Alan. Uncle Lionel has a jacket on. It won’t hurt you to wear one," she told her energetic son.
Lionel had noticed a certain tone of legality in his sister’s voice, residue from a recent divorce court: Whereas, the party of the first part having duly witnessed the party of the second part with said jacket on, the party of the first part shall herewith obtain one. Then she again reminded Mercer that he didn’t have to take her son Alan to the park if he had something better to do. No. He didn’t have anything better to do. And that’s when the tingling started.
"Can I have your whiskers, Uncle Lion?" asked Alan. He hoisted the boy up and tiny fingers went for his chin. Alan looked a little confused at the touch of a clean-shaven face, and he wasn’t the only one confused. Mercer was accustomed to a growth on Saturday morning—along with a sour stomach and headache. It surprised him this morning, because those things were conspicuously absent. His eyes were clear from enough sleep and his fingers relatively calm. He took the boy’s hand, anyway, and rubbed it vigorously on his chin. Returning it to Alan’s own dimpled cheek he said: "Here are some whiskers for you, sir."
His buddy Hawk had telephoned last night from there favorite watering hole, The Purple Toe. He said he found a spare, a blonde from Toronto, and that Mercer should get there, pronto. Mercer had told Hawk that he really didn’t feel like going out. He told him he would rather just stay home and pop some popcorn. Popcorn? Home alone on a Friday night? What was that all about? True he was spending more time with Alan these days—especially after the boy’s father, Alex-the-Awful, had left town. He had even read a book on child care: How to raise kids Without Rotating Your Crops, or something like that. And it wasn’t like he planned on bringing the kid up himself, like some kind of surrogate father. He knew that Denise would find somebody kind, loving, and/or wealthy for that.. But here he was, spending another Saturday morning with Alan.
Suddenly Mercer noticed that the boy had both hands cupped with dirt. He was drawing a bead on a Rhode Island Red that had wondered close to the fence.
"Put the dirt down, Alan." He tried to sound as firm as possible, but he noticed his voice lacking it’s usual forcefulness. Alan dropped the dirt when he saw his uncle coming. Mercer brushed the child’s blackened hands and received, in return, a look befitting a halo salesman. "That’s a good boy, Alan," he told the boy. "What would your mother think if you buried that poor chicken alive?"
They proceeded along the fence, the boy taking at least three steps for every swish of Mercer’s sneaker strings. It was a marvelous Spring day. A recent shower had zapped Kendall Park into a giant Easter basket,: lush green and stuffed with candy-fresh breezes. A good day for man and boy. But the time they reached the peacock, Mercer was obsessed with the idea of glandular upset. Perhaps that could explain his apparent waning interest in the fair sex? He had been a bit irritable. Maybe he should see a doctor. He imagined Doc Zwinski leaning over him with his professionally cemented eyes, saying something like: Mr. Mercer. You have an idiopathic endocrine fluctuation culminating in the symptomatic craving for popcorn and the respectful smiles of young children.
"See the peacock, Alan?" After pointing him in the direction of the bird he fumbled with his camera—trying desperately to forget the lisp that had mysteriously entered his speech. He shook off that possibility with the most masculine sounding "No!" he could summon.
"No?" Alan asked, meekly.
"I didn’t mean you, Alan. Go ahead. It’s okay to look at the pretty peacock." He reassured him with an affectionate pat. The peacock took one look at the camera and went into a well-choreographed stage production of Finnian’s Rainbow, starring itself in both title role and scenery. Mercer took pictures from various angles, feeling like a press agent for Kendall Park. The bird, having concluded with the grande’ finale’—a brilliant display of colors—folded down like an overused box of crayons and stretched it’s neck. The fabulous fowl actually seemed to be listening for applause. Mercer laughed. The first time that day.
"Alan. What do you think of the pea…cock…?" A lump formed in his throat as he stared at the spot where Alan should have been. He squinted the length of the meandering fence, clear back to where it angled off and dipped down a hill. There were plenty of kids, but none of them were in the shape of Alan.
"Alan," he called out. On impulse he hastened for a suspicious looking clump of trees. Panic flooded his mind, carrying with it the debris of terrible images. Sirens. A hospital. Denise’s sharp voice: "Can’t you be trusted with a three year old?"
"Damn!" He tripped over a beer can but continued undaunted.
"Alaaaaan." He got the attention of several kids and their brow beating parents. But where was Alan?
He was about to form a search party when he saw a familiar spot of red, over by a maple tree. It was Alan, all right. He felt thankful that Denise had made the kid wear his windbreaker. The tiny red jacket shown like a tail reflector in the bright morning sun. A long sigh exorcised the tension. Mercer dabbed sweat from his forehead, relieved.
As he jogged towards Alan, he tried to remember the chapter in the How to book—the one on discipline. He knew the boy should be taught not to run away like that, for his own safety. But what to do? Should he spank him? He’d never spanked anyone—with the exception of Rachel Nemitz, that night at the party when she lifted his gold tie tac with her teeth and than bit him when he tried to retrieve it. And she had laughed through the whole thing. Discipline? He decided to leave that sort of thing up to Denise.
Alan stood frozen with interest. When he saw his uncle coming, he became excited, side stepping.
"What’s this, Uncle Lion?" he squealed. "What’s this?" He was examining a squirrel. And the squirrel, on hind legs, nut in mouth, was examining him.
"Squirrel," Mercer said, carefully.
"Sqr’l" said Alan, and grinned at the attempt.
Mercer raised his camera. But before he could squeeze off a shot, the squirrel decided he’d over-stayed his welcome and dashed for the tree. Alan staggered after it, but the animal had quickly disappeared.
"What’s this?" said Alan, patting the tree.
"Trrreee," said Mercer. Alan swiveled on one foot and gazed up into sun-coated branches. "Trrreee," he mocked with a toothy grin.
The tingling sensation came back to his neck. Now the boy was entering the What’s This? Stage, when everything in the physical world, from fireplug to firefly, needed a personal introduction from the uncle he adored—Uncle Lion. This made Mercer feel important, indeed—nearly as important as the night he won the silver jigger at the dance contest at The Purple Toe.
Alan was attempting to insert his foot in a knot hole he’d found in the tree. He tried first one foot and then the other—finding it difficult to maintain balance at the same time. On the verge of falling or crying—whichever came first—he looked at Mercer and said politely, with a puckered mouth. "Up…" Mercer laughed. "I think you’re a little young to be climbing trees
When he went over to lead the child away from the tree, he noticed someone sitting cross-legged on the grassy slope the other side of it. It was a young woman in blue jeans and a striped halter. She was hunched over a book with her back to them. But he noticed she had thick, chestnut colored hair. Mercer, checking an impulse to turn on his practiced charm, re-focusing his attention on Alan, who had embarked on another naming spree.
"Dandelion." What would Hawk think? How could he let this one go by?
"Can." His tongue had become thoughtlessly mobilized to the naming.
"Root." Now Alan covered the other side of the tree.
"Hair." Then it dawned on him "Hair? No, Alan… Don’t pull the lady’s hair!"
Alan released the grip he’d put on the lady’s hair. A head turned, and Mercer found himself staring into amused eyes. The woman put her book down and rolled over on an elbow. "Hi," she said to Alan. "Do you like my hair?’
Alan backed up, frightened, as the woman gathered a length of her hair and held it out for him. "It’s okay, sweetheart," she said. "Would you like to touch my hair?" Alan looked for approval in his uncle. When Mercer nodded, he decided to accept the woman’s offer. The camera clicked, freezing an image of a small boy with a pink, fistful of hair.
"Do you mind?" Mercer apologized for both the interruption and the camera. "Not at all," she assured him. "It should make a cute picture." She brushed her hair back with thin, tanned fingers. She was obviously proud of it. Mercer found her quite attractive, in a healthy sort of way. She had an early Spring tan and clear complexion that suggested much time spent outdoors. The natural curves of her body seemed to personify Kendall itself. And Mercer thought she belonged there as much as the maple tree.
"He certainly isn’t shy," she remarked. "It must be nice to have a child that isn’t so shy."
"Shy," chirped Alan.
For some reason, Mercer felt compelled to explain, "Well, he really isn’t my kid," when Alan bounded for his leg. "Hi, Uncle Lion!" he exclaimed, as if he hadn’t seen him for years—all three of them.
"Oh. Your nephew," said the woman. "Then that explains it."
"The naming. I overheard you: ‘stick, leaf, can…’"
"Hair," he added.
"Yes… Hair," she laughed. "It was all so patient…the way you kept answering his questions… Most fathers I know would have been driven up a ‘trrreee’ by now." But uncles have the luxury of returning a child to there parents when things get too tiring."
"I guess you’re right," said Mercer. "But I can’t imagine ever getting tired of Alan."
Alan was being surprisingly quiet and attentive, as if he expected something more exciting to happen than peacocks and squirrels.
"I’m Lionel Mercer," he said, offering his hand. He felt peculiar talking to her about kids. ‘Never talk to um about kids,’ Hawk always said. ‘Next thing you know ya got a dozen of ‘um and workin’ two jobs tryin’ to support um.’
"Janet Flemming." She accepted his hand daintily but shook it with remarkable strength. Mercer put his hand behind his back and stretched tender fingers. Janet Flemming, thought Mercer. What a wholesome sounding name.
After a few moments of deafening silence, their voices broke into harmony, and their words collided in mid-air.
"Do you come here often?" They laughed. He motioned a go ahead.
"Do you come here often?" she said, and laughed some more.
"Is it my turn now?" he said, and grinned.
"Yeees," she chuckled.
"We’re going to need a traffic cop to direct this conversation, you know."
"I knooow," she squealed.
"Well… Anyway… Yes, I do come here often," said Mercer. Interesting. I’ve driven through this park many times. But I never fully realized how beautiful it was until this Spring."
"It is nice," she remarked, looking around. Then she sighed. "I guess Spring makes us all feel better."
"Uh-huh," He said. He was thinking, enough of this small talk. He glanced at her hands to confirm the absence of the wrong kind of ring—a private property ring. "Alan and I are going to have some lunch soon. Would you care to join us?"
She peeked over his shoulder and motioned. "Looks like your little nephew is having a lunch of his own."
"Huh?" He turned around. Alan was stuffing a dandelion in his mouth. Mercer trotted over and extracted the mushy yellow. "Hey, kid. We’ll get some real lunch later, okay?"
"Ever had dandelion wine?" he asked her, as he came back with Alan in tow.
"No. I don’t drink."
"Don’t know what your missing," he said.
"I get high enough on clean air and sunsets," she said, and took a deep breath. "Mind if I tell Alan a secret?"
"Be my guest," he said.
"Her lips were at the boy’s ear, and then his eyes rose like twin moons. The two of them giggled at the secret.
"And what, may I ask, is so funny?" He tried to sound as casual as possible.
"Oh, that’s a secret," she reminded.
He delighted in noticing how both she and Alan had to part teeth to make room for a full smile. A special aura of charm emanated from them, and reached out for him with persistent fingers.
"How about it?" said Mercer.
"Oh. You mean lunch… Well, I don’t know…" Their eyes locked into a steady gaze. This was it, thought Mercer. The moment of judgment. This was that precarious moment when the seed of relationships either grow or die in infertile soil. He knew that he must maintain eye contact—strength of character and all that self-confidence stuff. Very deep.
"I’d rather not. But thanks anyway," she said. Her voice was assertive, not apologetic.
"I suppose you have another commitment," said Mercer.
"Um… No," she said.
"I see… Well," he said, trying to hide the disappointment. His head snapped back from the sound of his ego crashing into a solid wall. A cold silence permeated the air. Then a crow flew over and squawked into it. His lower lip began to tremble.
"Potty, Uncle Lion," Alan cut in.
Mercer felt a tug at his pant leg and looked down at pleading eyes, but it didn’t seem to register. Then he looked back at the woman. A slight frown wrinkled her forehead.
"Potty!" Alan cautioned. He tugged at his pants in a way that could not guarantee further etiquette. Mercer scanned the park for a restroom.
"I guess I’d better heed his warning before this turns into a sticky situation," he told her. He hoisted the boy up and carried him football style for a few yards, then halted. "Going to be here awhile longer?" he asked, unable to camouflage the hope in his eyes.
She urged him on. "Take care of him, Uncle Lion," was all she said.
He returned from the restroom as quickly as possible. But doubt materialized in the empty shade. She was gone. He carried Alan around the park until he became a hulking heap of slumbering nephew. At the cement foot of Joseph P. Kendall he realized he was searching for her.
"Well," he addressed the statue. "Joseph P. Kendall, respected business man, philanthropist, and lover-of-natural things… Where do I go from here?" A listless breeze swept by and tickled his nostrils with the scent of rain. He brushed Alan’s hair from his eyes. What was happening to him? Was he losing his touch?
"Awww, is little brother losing his touch?" Denise said, when he told her about the woman.. She settled he plump frame into a kitchen chair and patted her lap. "Come here and tell Dr. Denise all about it," she soothed.
"C’mon, Denise. It isn’t funny," he said. "Hawk thinks I’m going banana’s, and I’ve got this tingling—kind of warm feeling—right here on the nape of my neck…" He stretched an arm around and massaged the spot.
"I see," said Denise She contemplated him with analytic blue eyes. "Does it feel bad?"
Feel bad? The question seemed simple enough, but it confused him. He hadn’t really thought of it as feeling bad—more like pleasant and unpleasant at the same time… like getting a pay raise you don’t think you deserve, or basking on a warm, sunny beach after you’ve called in sick. Ambivalence. Yes. That’s how it felt. Ambivalent.
"It feels…I don’t know…It feels ambivalent."
"Yeah…Like a mixed feeling… I can feel it on my neck."
Denise was smiling candidly at him between buttery fingers and a "Hmmm" cut into him like a chain saw. "Tell me… When did this, uh, feeling start?"
Suddenly a soft rubber ball came bouncing into the kitchen, with Alan hot on it’s trail. Mercer picked up the ball and offered it to him, but the boy declined, climbing up onto Mercer’s lap instead. He hugged Alan.
"The feeling… I’ve been getting it all morning. Let’s see… I guess it started right after your divorce."
"You mean about time you started to take my son away from me," she said, jokingly.
"Oh, Denise. You know how I feel about the predicament you’re in. And Alan…" His voice trailed off.
Her face grew more serious. "Lionel. Do you know how you feel?"
He gazed at Alan, trying to remove the plastic ring he’d found in a cereal box. Then he absently gazed around the kitchen, at the dirty dishes in the sink, at a pair of nylons drying over a heat register, at the rubber ball in the middle of the floor. The place looked lived in all right. Then the sun came out from under a cloud and streamed through a window, painting a golden glow across Alan’s youthful contour.
"Oh, no, Denise. You don’t think that I…"
"There’s nothing wrong with wanting to settle down," she said. "Lionel, you’ve sewn enough wild oats to feed the Kentucky Derby. There comes a time when…"
"No!" he shouted. "Man, I don’t need it." Alan started to cry, and he handed him to her. He got up and paced the floor. "All this business… All this park on Saturday morning and popcorn stuff. All this…this…" He looked at the nylons drying on a heat register. "…this domestic scene is what I need in my life? Like a sore sack of sh…"
"Lionel please," she said, softly.
"Okay… Okay…" His face was crimson. "So Lionel Mercer is finally answering the call the wild armchair. Isn’t it all so simple. Oh, such a pat formula. I merely go find a woman like…like Janet Flemming, with her cutsy nose and her damned sunsets. Then I buy a sturdy pipe and some practical, conservative slippers and teach my kids—Oh, therej would be a dozen of ‘um—to fetch them for me when I get home from the office." He sat back down, but his eyes were still pacing. "And then what happens, Denise? What happens when I get tired of all that marital bliss and head out for Liverpool, England—like your own Alex-the-Awful?"
Denise dabbed tears from her son’s eyes, and her own eyes were glistening. He lowered his voice. "…And leave my kids to tramp around parks with some strange uncle." He stood up, unable to face them any longer. "Thanks, but no thanks." As he went out the front door he head Alan say, "Uncle Lion?"
By the time he reached her chipped front porch steps he had cooled enough to sit down. He noticed a robin tugging a worm out of the lawn. It didn’t have a very good grip on it, but it kept tugging until the worm snapped out of the ground like a rubber band. He followed the bird with his eyes until it flew up to a nest in a tree across the street. The robin dropped the worm into it, and he thought he saw tiny heads peeking out. He took in the scene thoughtlessly, with deep breaths of fresh air. Then he remembered his camera was still in the house. Denise was sitting with Alan on the couch; the camera was draped around her neck.
"Hi, Uncle Lion," she said.
He cleared his throat of the lump that had formed. "Denise. I’m sorry." He sat down beside them and kissed Alan on the cheek. Then he ruffled his hair. She handed him the camera. He thought of next weekend. His neck tingled.