• Jeremiah Minihan

Fiction: At a Distance

Photo Source: PxFuel

Joe grumbled a little as he slowed the car down. He knew that the sports fields would be crowded with kids at this time of the afternoon, but the sign said the speed limit was five miles an hour. That was ridiculous.

Still, the roads were dirt and bumpy -- they hadn't gotten the volunteers to do the grading yet. And the bottom might fall out of the tin can he was driving if he went any faster.

He had looked online, and he knew where Billy's team would be. The place looked pretty good. Some old miser had given the town the acreage for the sports park (as long as they named it after him) and each year more land was developed for soccer and baseball fields.

Joe would stay in the background as he usually did, not hiding exactly, but out of sight. He never knew how Billy was going to react. The boy might be pleased to see his father, but he also might be surly or angry. Billy was sixteen, after all, and you had to accept all of that. As he climbed out of the car, Joe looked at the other parents and smiled. Some of the parents looked like kids themselves. Joe had gotten some energy back after he had cleaned himself up. Still, with his gray hair, he could have been someone's grandfather.

He had papers to correct, but he could do that later. For now, Joe focused on the need to see Billy as often as he could. Joe had assigned visiting times, of course, but that was only what he was expected to do. He made an effort to make the most of his time with his son, something he should have done before. Maybe then things would have been different.

Joe had accepted the divorce, but what else could he do? There were warnings, but no catastrophic events like a fight or an arrest for drunk driving. At that point, Candace was not the firm but supportive spouse. She was falling herself. Joe got help then -- he had to or the school would have tossed him overboard. The final parting was more amicable than either had expected.

But there was Billy, who was twelve at the time. The kid had a good support system in school, as the therapists say, and the counseling helped.

And Joe, alone now, continued with the rigorous schedule he needed.

Joe looked up at the brief burst from the whistle. Billy took his place with the other players. He played different positions, but never the goalie. As any parent would, Joe admired his son. The boy was as tall as him now, and he had the bright, clear complexion of someone who stays active.

Suddenly, Candace approached Billy. Joe had to admit that Candace looked pretty good for a woman of forty nine. She had not exactly gotten heavier than when they first married, but she had filled out. The cheeks and lips were fuller. Still, some heft in a nurse was not a bad thing. Maybe it was a necessary thing.

Candace and Billy were arguing. Joe could not hear what they were saying, but he felt troubled, and he started to blame himself. This was his normal pattern. With all that he had done, shouldn’t he take responsibility for everything?

As Candace turned away from Billy, the game started. Joe knew little about soccer: he only wanted to follow his boy. Billy seemed to be upset. Joe wanted to stride across the park and hug his son, but he could not. That would be wrong in so many ways.

It was nearly seven, and the game rolled on. At least there was a fixed time period, and Billy seemed to be playing well. At this time of the evening, Joe missed the drinks, but he could never go back to that since one drink always led to more.

And there was no one to go home to. Joe envied Candace. She had found Andrew quickly, and they had married as soon as the divorce was final. Stability, at least for Billy, was important.

Long shadows deepened now, dark patches against the grass. In better days, he and Candace had gone together to Billy's morning games and practices. They had held tightly to their cups of coffee, hoping to derive some warmth from the steam.

A tall man walked slowly toward Candace, whom he embraced and kissed. Then he pulled away. Andrew had the military bearing from his time in the navy. Joe was not sure what Andrew did now. Joe had gone to their wedding, an encounter that was not as awkward as it might seem. Joe was sober then, but he was treated as though he was a thin bit of china.

Andrew waved to Billy. The man seemed stern, and he looked as though he could give Billy a smack when necessary. But that would never happen. Candace would never allow it.

The game ended with the "good game" team slaps, and the players turned toward waiting families.

Billy seemed to be joking with Candace and Andrew. Candace gave her son a playful push. There was no disagreement now. Joe found himself smiling at the three of them. He wanted to approach them or to at least wave.

Suddenly Andrew pulled Billy close and began to ruffle the boy's hair. Joe wondered what Billy would do since he knew that his son hated such intimacy. Teenagers are like that.

But Billy bent his head toward his stepfather and put his arms around the man's waist.

Joe was not sure what happened next. He knew that the three of them left with the other parents and players. Joe stood silently, telling himself that it made sense to wait until the other cars had thinned out. And he knew that he dreaded getting back into his car to face what would come next.

Jeremiah Minihan lives in Rochester, New Hampshire. He has taught school and worked as a software developer and project manager in the insurance and banking industries. Jeremiah writes short stories and essays and has published stories in Pif Magazine, Dark Dossier, Yellow Mama, Blood Moon Rising, Theme of Absence, Bewildering Stories, Literally Stories, Literary Yard and CommuterLit.