The summer after my mother left, my father began selling our household on evenings and weekends. We were still on Lincoln Avenue at the time—a single-story adobe just south of Los Angeles—and when he directed clients, he liked to say that it was the place losing to the grapefruit tree. “The roots are cracking open the front of the house,” he warned, “and the grapefruits fall everywhere. Watch your step.”
He wasn’t lying: the front yard looked like a model universe with planets splayed across grassy sky. The effect of the fallen fruit was unnerving—my mother used to say that whenever we pulled into the drive, she felt as though our home had been plundered or rearranged, different from when we were last there—and collecting them was one of my first-ever chores: a race against lazy feet and the flock of parrots that migrated through our neighborhood, blurry and restless in the sky.
When the first client arrived, she regarded the yard somberly. “I think I made it through unscathed,” she said, holding up the underbellies of her shoes before shaking my father’s hand.
“You’d better keep your voice down,” he said, conspiratorial, “they don’t like hubris.”
She nodded her head seriously, narrowing her eyes and speech. “Noted,” she said, smiling and following my father into the living room. The month was nearing solstice and when he closed the door, the stillness of late days muffled the air. The woman shifted and swayed. “Do we start now?” she asked in an entirely new register, glancing at me on the couch. “Should we go on ahead and start now?”
“I suppose we should,” my father said, releasing his arms from across his chest like a puzzle solved. With one arm, he gestured toward me. “Would you like to meet our son?” he asked, smiling at the space between us.
My father talked me through the idea before implementing it. In April, we were closer than ever, communicating with an openness that was unparalleled in my thirteen years prior. At the dinner table, we discussed the dreams he had about my mother, her new boyfriend, Riley, and the entire extended family that had been so swiftly pulled from him. In each, there was death, in most, graphic death.
“Do you think that missing someone this much can make you into a psychopath?” he asked, pouring a can of chili into a pot.
“Of course not,” I told him. Even then, I could see how much the dreams scared him. He’d never been an angry person, let alone a violent one. I tried to tell him that I trusted him by sitting there while he went over the details, raking their violence across our imaginations. If I ever felt guilty indulging him—these were my people, after all—I would remember that it wasn’t them he was wanting dead, but the thought of them. This made it easier somehow.
My father had never been close to his own family. They were wealthy, Catholic, closed off, and he used to say that they’d never found a shared language to talk about breakfast, let alone emotions. A few years before my parents’ divorce, he submitted a cartoon to the New Yorker titled “Black Sheep Blues” that showed a mass of bodies huddled for a photograph; in the upper right hand corner, there was a distant figure holding a hand out to them but the photographer was yelling, “Just a little farther and the shot is perfect.”
The rejection came in a small envelope and he taped both the cartoon and the note up above his desk. “I suppose it’s really more sad than anything,” he said, shrugging.
My mother loved it though, always bringing it out to show friends and family. She began calling my father her little black sheep whenever he was out of sorts, an endearment that curdled the day that she told him that she was leaving, that the family he’d taken as his own was going with her. I imagined that it was this newly revived black sheep who dreamt all that death.
We talked about other things, too. I was fourteen and late to puberty, dizzied with worry that I would never have armpit hair, a deep voice, girlfriends. My father would say that there was no one way to be a boy, that he had been concerned about chest hair through his early twenties but that it had only grown when he’d forgotten about it entirely. We were both surprised by our candor, but my mother’s unexpected departure had hit certain switches that left us desperately open. One morning, I told him that I had had my first ever wet dream and we both laughed until our faces hurt, still entranced by our new lucidity. Afterward, he suggested I throw the underwear into a load of whites he was doing, an intimacy that made me blush.
The idea to market us as a temporary family came after my father saw a television special about Cuddle Companions, a company that offered paid cuddling sessions for reduced rates. In the space of an hour, he laughed at the idea, pretended to spoon one of the large feather pillows on the couch, and pantomimed the voice of a woman who used the service weekly. By the end, though, he was quiet and intense, focused fully on the screen.
“I think I have a thought,” he yelled into the kitchen, where I was microwaving a frozen lasagna.
“Let’s hear it,” I shouted back. We were collegiate in those months, more peers than anything.
He walked into the kitchen and looked at the rotating meal. Outside, clouds made the yard and its grapefruits bleak and cluttered and through an open window, I heard someone yell something about tax evasion. My father continued staring at the food.
“What do you think about this,” he said, measured and cool. “What if we offer a service where people can pay to be in our family, but only for a few hours.”
I leaned against the counter and took a long sip of root beer. My mind worked to realize what he meant, frantic to be past the phase of asking for further explanation on adult matters. “Interesting,” I said, nodding my head.
My father turned to me, eyes alight. As he moved around the room, I noticed the physicality of his body in a way that I hadn’t before: the way that it stilted through the world like a wooden puppet, the frequency with which his hands touched his mouth. “I’m thinking that it might work like this: someone pays to come over for the evening and gets to interact with us as though we are their family. They can even tell us if they have certain preferences or expectations—so long as they aren’t too demanding—and we’ll playact for a few hours.”
He sat down at the table, grinning.
“You think there are people who would want to do that?” I asked, knowing how uninteresting our life was. A single father and an underdeveloped child. A small house with cracks up its front like axillary veins, yard full of sun-softened grapefruits.
My father nodded. “Never underestimate the power of loneliness.”
Through dinner, we talked about other matters. My mother was back from a vacation with Riley and was wanting to discuss custody. The neighbor’s lawn had soured yellow. I had hardly passed a recent algebra test. As I washed the plates, though, I returned us there, asking what was in it for our lives.
“What do you mean?” he asked. “It’s easy money with endless demand. Plus, it’ll bring some new life into this house.” He shrugged, looking around at the walls as though there were something readily ugly there. “Wouldn’t that be nice?” he asked. “Some new life in this old place?”
I nodded, though I would have agreed with him regardless of what he said. This was our second month in the house alone; my mother had just been touring Europe with Riley—Budapest, Vienna, Prague—and had sent a half-hearted postcard saying that she was sorry I wasn’t with them but hopeful that her note found me well. I had chosen my side and was going to stand by it.
The first client came almost two months later and the night went so poorly that I was sure the whole thing would be called off. After shaking my hand, the woman—Sandra was her name—shadowed my father into the kitchen, where he was working on dinner.
“So how was work, Sandra?” he asked.
I followed them into the room and saw her wince. “People actually call me Sandy,” she whispered, splintering the room into false parts.
“Of course.” He smiled. “How was work, Sandy?”
She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and touched my father’s arm. “It was good,” she said, placing each word carefully. “Very good. You know that coworker I hate, Levi? He was caught with a collection of bondage porn in his desk and was fired on the spot.”
My father widened his eyes. “Wow.”
Sandra’s face dropped and she brought her hands to her temples. “Oh no,” she said. “Was that inappropriate?” She conceded another look in my direction and then turned back to my father. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s okay to say around him.”
While my father worked to appease her, I was impressed by his graceful ease. He softened his body, affirmed her with a laugh and joke about my Internet history, and handed her a glass of red wine in one fluid movement.
“It really is okay,” I said when she seemed to relax again. “I’m going into ninth grade.”
She sighed and drank the wine, leaving a slight streak of purple on her upper lip. Everything seemed easier when we were speaking beneath the curtain, whispering off-script; after another sip, though, she straightened her back and said, “How was school, honey?”
As the night continued, I tried to track time by watching the rising shadows on the kitchen walls. I figured that she would leave once the sun finally sank beneath the horizon but the summer made the light interminable. In truth, I was surprised that she hadn’t left already. The conversation was calcified and frazzled, never relaxing into its own nature. Whenever a term of affection was used, it fell on the table like a heavy hand flopping.
“Should we watch some TV?” Sandra asked. “We could watch some TV and eat ice cream?”
My father nodded. “I think I’m going to be turning in in about half an hour but we could probably fit some TV in. What do you think, Caleb?”
I tried to plead with my eyes, to affirm that this person was functioning in our house as well as a broken robot, but my father held his gaze, insisting on civility.
“Sure,” I said. “TV sounds good.”
Sandra smiled at me quickly and then turned to my father. She beckoned him with a hand and then clasped it beneath her chin. “I was thinking that this could also just be parent time,” she said, voice channeled and quiet. “He can go to his room and work on homework and we can enjoy some time just the two of us.” She bit her lower lip, eyes glistening in the light cast by the ceiling’s fluorescents.
Despite my reluctance toward the whole thing thus far, I felt jilted and betrayed, written out of scene like a secondhand character. My father nodded, agreed, and asked if that was okay with me.
“Sure, whatever,” I said, face reddening with anger and embarrassment. I left the table and walked to my room, slamming the door and feeling childish.
Our walls were thin and through them I heard Sandra apologizing. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I think I was just more excited about the adult relationship, not the parenting.”
When my father shook me awake later, I was disoriented, his body an amorphous shade against the wall.
“Caleb,” he said, “you fell asleep and it’s only 9 p.m.”
I remembered Sandra, the banishing, the handful of pity glances she had given me. “Is she still here?” I asked.
My father laughed. “No, thank goodness. Not the easiest person to talk to, huh?”
“Not at all,” I said, willing the smile off of my face. I wanted to be angry with him, to believe that he had expelled me like a bad smell—easily, swiftly—but when he did an impression of her mannerisms, I fell into laughter.
“Sorry if that was weird for you,” he said. “But on the plus side, we made two hundred fifty dollars and I’ve got fifty reserved for the unwanted son.”
I shrugged, but the relief of having him there again beside me, speaking and acting normally, was immense.
“You’re my number one guy,” he said, hitting a stack of money against my forehead.
The parade of clients happened much like the weeks of summer: both passed subliminally, accumulating a mass only when considered after the fact. June only happens so quickly when July arrives, leaving those warming days heaped and untidy in a pile; so, too, went the people through our house. After Sandra, my father said that we would see how the next two bookings would go. Then, mysteriously, we had a pattern and a schedule and had been parts of fifteen different families by the middle of July.
Apart from certain inevitable hiccups, our process was much more refined. My father’s vetting procedure was thorough and by the time anyone appeared on the front porch—commenting, always, on the grapefruit tree’s occupation—we knew almost exactly what they were wanting, how they would be, and how long they would be there for. He created a form for them to fill out and we would spend hours in the living room combing through the applications.
“This person seems interesting,” he said once, holding a sheet out to me. Empty pints of ice cream were tipped against the carpet beside a box of pizza. Music drifted through the house from the kitchen. We were both lying on the carpet beneath a spinning fan.
“I’ll be the judge of that,” I said, scanning over the details quickly. “He has a moustache.” I pointed at the photo, shaking my head.
My father laughed. “You can’t be serious. That’s your reason to say no?” He pulled the paper from my hands and read from it. “He’s thirty-eight, works in journalism, has a degree from NYU. And he’s handsome.”
“But he’s wanting the close friend situation,” I said, indicating the checked box.
“Well handsome friends never hurt. Plus, who knows where things will go? I think I’m going to call him tomorrow.”
I tempered a rising flare of anger. “I thought you said we would decide together?”
“And we do.” He pushed himself up from the ground, groaning. With one hand, he grabbed both pints of ice cream. “When your opposition is a moustache, though, I have veto power.”
The man came the following week. The three of us played ping-pong and talked about the stories he was working on. I could tell that my father was pulling toward him in a way that breached the normal territory—lowering the guises he usually maintained, becoming terse with me when I indicated, with a glare, that he was breaking protocol.
The three of us sat on the front porch watching the sunlight loiter on the higher palms. The air was dry and dusty, unadorned by rain for almost four months.
“Hey Caleb,” my dad said, picking at a sliver of peeling paint on the railing. “I think it’s time you call it a night.”
“But it’s early,” I said, trying to ignore the client’s stare.
My father turned to me and tilted his head toward the door.
I walked through the house and emerged on the other side, shirt sticking to me with incensed perspiration. I tried to recall the night’s conversations, to see where I might have misspoken, compromising the client’s experience. My father had higher expectations of them—no one stayed beyond their allocated time and no one violated the borders we had mutually established (physical intimacy, mostly, but also questions about my mother, our past, the way we lived our lives now)—but he also had his requirements of me. Charm, flexibility, politeness.
Beneath my hands, the grass was knotted in small loops. I pulled up handfuls of green and scattered them across my legs. Anger was a relatively new sensation in my body and I liked seeing the impulses it created. Even as the night cooled and sky forfeited its light, heat swelled in my chest, making my lungs ache with an odd satisfaction.
My father found me later. “What are you doing out here?” he asked, sitting beside me.
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” I said, voice stepping out as though on a high wire. “You kicked me out but I was doing fine. He liked me.” My fury deflated into a limp balloon and now I struggled to re-inflate its latex, concerned that another effort to speak would bring on tears.
My father put his arm around me. “Of course you didn’t do anything wrong,” he said. He sounded surprised, uncertain. I could smell someone else’s aftershave on his neck. “That was selfish of me. That was for me. You were great.”
By this time, my mother was reemerging in my life like a downed buoy making its way to the surface. My father had told me that when she left him for Riley, she had forfeited parental responsibility as a sort of consolation. “I’m not saying she doesn’t love you,” he said, crow’s feet raw and ruddy, “but I am saying that she’s choosing another life.”
For those first two months, her actions corroborated this claim: there was the extended vacation, the loss of contact, the way she spoke of Riley whenever we talked. My abandon found solace in my father’s, hemming her into a person that I hardly knew or liked. When she died in my father’s dreams—car accidents, HIV—it almost seemed justified.
Part of me knew that this was unsustainable, of course. Historically, I sought my mother when I needed comfort, memorizing the number of her office and cell phone by the time that I was six. On my first night in her new apartment, she sat beside me on the pullout futon and promised that they would be buying a house in Pasadena soon and then I’d be able to stay with them half of the time.
The room was filled with plants—philodendrons, jade, jasmine—and the soil’s musk felt suffocating. I knew that I had stayed closed off all evening, analyzing Riley for his faults, for all of the things he didn’t know about my mother: the way that she relished fried food or liked her shoes to make her feet look bigger than they were; the number of times she had seen The Green Mile or rubbed rosemary through her hands so that her palms might hold the scent.
I still couldn’t deny the warmth between them, an energy so foreign to my father and his clients that it took me a moment to recognize what it was. When Riley called my mother “sweetheart,” the word sang, seamless and melodic. It was clear that they were trying to arrange themselves differently, to open the store of energy to include a third, but the apartment was still decidedly theirs. They had a shoeless policy, a series of abstract paintings in the hallway, a small cactus they called Speckles. And then there was my father: southbound, single, forsaken. I imagined that they were each privy to my movements in the new space: the way I didn’t fit for my mother and Riley; the way I shouldn’t fit for my father.
By the time I was going to sleep, I was embarrassed by how easily I had relapsed in her affection, asking her to lie with me for five more minutes again and again.
“How’s your father?” she whispered against my hair.
“I don’t want to talk about him,” I said, afraid that his name would expose my conflicting alliances.
If there hadn’t been so many clients in so little time, I wonder if I could remember them more clearly. The procession was constant and so heterogeneous that the remainder is mostly an assortment of detail, untethered to any one night. From June to early September, we saw men and women of different size, race, age, demeanor. For the most part, they all seemed to want the same thing: a normal evening spent in our household, dinner and dessert and small gestures to suggest that this was no aberration but routine. An unplotted family on a normal summer night.
One woman spent an hour of her time trying to teach me how to juggle three smaller grapefruits; one man began crying as he hugged my father goodbye and then stumbled around our yard for almost twenty minutes, collapsing each fallen grapefruit beneath his boots. The next morning, my father sent me to collect their corpses, fleshy and limp like roadkill. But most clients maintained a banality so supreme that almost nothing amounts in my memory—conversations about work, frustrating parents or siblings, prior travel. I sometimes asked my father why they came, what possible motivation they could have, but he would usually just shrug.
“I imagine it is a bit of a recharge for them. A quick plug-in to something that feels good.”
“We don’t really do anything for them, though,” I said. Not once had I felt as though I’d moved someone, that I’d impressed or flattered them. Not when I was a son, a nephew, a family friend.
“It’s not about us,” he said. “They like us because they can imagine what they want on us. We’re like pieces of paper that they color in however they want.”
We were in the bathroom and my father was shaving his legs for a man who hoped he might dress like a woman. In the bottom of the tub, hair amassed like a carpet of spiders.
“Isn’t that weird?” I asked. “Doing all of this for someone else?”
My father shrugged. “I like it. You get to create a mutual experience in the process. I already told you that this”—he gestured toward his legs and the wig hanging on the door handle—“was my idea. The client said that feminine dress would be favored but didn’t demand it. I got to choose how I wanted to get myself ready.”
Earlier that day, we had gone to the consignment store and gotten my father two floral dresses, the wig, shoes, blush, lipstick, and he was undeniably excited, telling me about the times he had dressed in drag in his twenties. I tried to emulate the excitement, to give myself over to this night’s situation. I was exhausted by the nights of acting, though. Their hollowness pulled energy like a vacuum, leaving me depleted by the time the clients finally retreated to the real world.
When the client arrived that night, my father kissed his cheek, leaving a red oval behind dark stubble. The client had stated that he was indifferent to a child and so I sat on the living room couch, teaching myself how to knit a beanie. I only looked up when I heard the man apologizing.
“It’s not that you don’t look good,” he said. “The dress is really pretty. It must be something on my end.” He was heavier and slow-moving, reminiscent of a person underwater. My father—so adaptive, so versed in the needs of others—stood still, disappointment sculpted on his face. When he pulled the wig off, the man suggested that they could be brothers and my father nodded, moving toward the sink and splashing water on his face.
“What happened?” I asked.
The man was standing in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room. Turning from my father, he grimaced and held his hands up.
“Do you want a margarita?” my father said from the kitchen. I knew immediately that he had made the switch, that he would be able to go on for the rest of the night as a brother, discussing Joni Mitchell and the annoyance of inherited traits. I walked into the kitchen, not wanting him to have to move on. “What happened?” I asked again.
He smiled. “It’s nothing,” he said. “Nothing at all.” I tried to outlast him, to demand a confession of his pain by sheer endurance, but he held his smile aloft until I gave up.
“Sure,” I said, heading back into the living room. The night moved on, of course, but in that interim time—my father standing with his hair pressed down, dress slinking off of his shoulder—it wasn’t at all clear who he wanted to be.
By the middle of September, I spent every weekend with my mother and Riley and on some Sundays, my mother was called into work and had to drop me at my father’s early.
One night, she said she had a question for me. Nights were ending sooner now and the days were bookended by cooler temperatures. As we parked in front of the house, streetlights blinked on timidly, eyelids meeting morning.
“Do you know anything about a service your father is running from the house? Something about people coming and staying with him? A friend asked me about it recently and I had no idea what she was talking about.”
I clenched the edge of my seat and swallowed a thin line of spit. My father asked me not to mention the service to her and I had managed to avoid the subject. When she pulled it out between us, though, the summer months became suddenly humiliating—a menagerie of desperation, definitive proof that my father was unbearably lonely. I hadn’t thought of it this way before, or at least not so explicitly, and the reality made my scalp tingle.
“I’m sorry,” my mother said to my silence. “You don’t have to feel obligated to tell me about your father’s life. I just want to make sure you know that you can talk to me about these things. I just want to know that you’re safe.”
“It’s fine,” I said, encouraging firmness into my tone. “We’re doing fine.”
She put her hand on my shoulder and smiled over my shoulder at the grapefruit tree. “I can’t believe he hasn’t cut that thing down. Those cracks are getting so deep.”
The tree itself was a mere darkness against the graphite sky but the grapefruits were glowing in the yard. The few that had rolled onto the walkway were crushed, dried juices staining the cement; the rest sat brazen and proud, not yet pecked or placed underfoot.
“It’s ours, though,” I said. “The tree is ours.”
My mother pulled her hand back. “Of course,” she said, “Of course it is. You know what”—she adjusted forward in her seat and looked out my window—“it’s been a while since I’ve had one of those babies. Would you grab me one before you go inside?”
I got out of the car and moved from grapefruit to grapefruit, trying to find the kind that my mother liked: ripe to the very edge of spoil. Her request only materialized as strange when I thought of my father inside. He was probably making himself another microwave dinner, reading through applications with agitated hands. More and more often now I thought of him standing by the kitchen sink that night, dress falling and wig dropped at his feet. The image came to me again now—its frustration, its silence—and I wanted to tell my mother of it just so that she might see the calamity of her own aftermath.
I scanned the house with prideful pity. We were the underdogs, the inconsolable, the left for dead. My mother called my name from the car but I kept looking. Where was the word that fell between love and contempt? I wanted to stand beside my father while simultaneously burying his embarrassing solitude, to yell at my mother to leave while also passing grapefruit wedges between us on the hood of her car.
A movement caught my eye. Someone was in the kitchen window and as I focused, I realized that it was a child. He had bangs hanging across his eyes, a pair of glasses that magnified his pupils, and was washing his hands. Behind him, I saw my father’s head and then the movement of a woman’s arm. My head began to itch again and I dropped the grapefruit, pushing my fingers through my hair.
“Are you okay, honey?” my mother said, voice louder. “What’s wrong?”
I wanted to grab the grapefruit and throw it at her, then the kitchen window, and then through each house on the street. The light of the moon was bright and humiliating, casting my desertion in a harsh silver. The belief that my father and I were losing, getting by, and getting better all at once seemed suddenly laughable. The summer of families was not ours; it was his. A cool draft passed over my body—a premonition of autumn—and it summoned goosebumps along its way.
The front door opened and my father stood there, wrapped in light. “Caleb?” he called. “What are you doing here?”
I tried to maintain eye contact but found it excruciating. My breath came through ragged and quick and I feared my voice for its cowardice; words climbed up my throat regardless, as if on their own volition. “I live here,” I said, wrapping my arms around my stomach and staring at the sky. “This is my house, too.”
Rumpus original art by Trisha Previte.