The Happiest Place

Fiction by Alexa Mergen

The Christmas Tommy turned 11, he tore the wrapping off a large box to find an I.O.U. buried within. This was the first Christmas after his mother left, and his father still tried hard to win Tommy’s allegiance. The slip of paper promised a spring break trip to Anaheim to visit Disneyland. Tommy Senior also guaranteed one dollar a week for the next 12 weeks, until the trip, to be spent however his son wished. His father watched from where he sat on the floor, his back against the couch. Tommy held the paper with his dad’s tiny printing lined up in the middle.

“What do you think, son?” his father asked, taking a sip of coffee from the red and green mug Tommy had made in art class four years earlier.

Tommy wanted a chinchilla like the one in the window at Main Street Pets. “How do I know we’ll really go?”

His father’s jaw jutted to one side, and Tommy heard him take a breath before he answered, “Because I said so.”

“Okay.” Tommy reached for the package from his grandmother in Fresno, which he knew contained pajamas and underwear.

Later in his room upstairs with the underwear, pajamas printed with blue and red race cars, and the book from his aunt, Mysteries and Riddles, piled neatly on his bed, Tommy reread the I.O.U. He considered asking his father if the 12 dollars could be used for a gerbil or hamster, but decided to see if the money materialized first. He longed for something soft he could pet and talk to while in his room. The cat, Samson, died the month before Tommy’s mother left. Burying it in the backyard beneath the locust tree was the last long afternoon they spent together. Tommy tried not to cry, but when his mother told him they should head back inside and start dinner, the tears fell, and he bit his upper lip. She picked Tommy up, although she was not much taller than he, kissed his check, looked him in the face, and said, “T. J., honey, I know it’s sad, but he wouldn’t have been around much longer anyway.”

Once inside, he pulled the striped photo album from the shelf in the living room and sat at the kitchen table while his mother fried linguisa. When she went into the living room to answer the telephone, he removed the Polaroid of himself in diapers holding Samson, the black cat’s hind legs dragging on the floor, its white belly exposed. Tommy kept the photo in a cigar box with his Swiss Army knife, magnifying glass, and a 20-dollar bill his aunt gave him “for emergencies.” After his mother left, Tommy checked each closet to see what she had taken with her. The album remained on the shelf, and Tommy wished she had it and would notice the photo missing and be sorry.

Although the weekly dollars came sporadically, the trip would happen. On Thursday of the first week of April, Tommy’s father came home with two train tickets in his shirt pocket. Tommy asked for one to take to school and show his friends, but his father said he would lose it. Instead, he gave him a thin, yellow itinerary, and Tommy passed it around at lunch. His friends’ Christmas toys were now broken or lacked batteries, and though popular for his generosity — he always shared food when asked and let others copy his math homework — Tommy achieved his first brief period of celebrity. At home, the underwear that was new a few months ago was as gray as the rest, although the unworn pajamas were bright and fresh enough for another boy. Tommy was grateful to have an event to look forward to. He would have preferred, however, a different travel companion.

As the days lengthened and orange poppies bloomed in the median strips, Tommy Senior seemed to have more hours to be mean. Like his son, who scratched lines inside his dresser drawer counting the days since his mother left, the deserted husband felt trapped by the approach of May when Julie had taken off. His short temper got shorter. He did not drink at home, so Tommy could not predict what set him off storming through the house crying, “Goddamn, goddamn, goddamn, goddamn,” or pulling out a four-by-four from behind the kitchen door, laying it on the table, and hammering in nail after nail, letting out a scream with each blow. But he never hit Tommy, and there was food in the refrigerator, so the boy knew he was fortunate enough.

To avoid his father, Tommy went to bed as soon as dusk fell. Sometimes he left during a commercial, in the middle of a television show.

“Where are you going, Junior?” his father asked over his shoulder.

“Just up to bed,” Tommy replied, rubbing one hand up and down the banister.

“You sick? You better not be, and if you are, blame your mother. Her side was a sickly bunch if I ever saw one.” Then, his father would wave his large hand and say, “Go ahead. You’re not much company anyway,” or “Go ahead and leave me, too. What the hell.”

But Tommy knew his father had loved Mother. He saw it in the faces of the photos in the striped album he now kept hidden in his room. And he figured because he was part of his mom, his father loved him, too. Sure enough, sometimes his father called after him.

“Be sure you get your homework done, son.” Or, “Brush your teeth good.”

Disneyland disappointed Tommy. He had been told by the train conductor that the park is the happiest place on Earth. Yet, before the bus even stopped in front of the gate, Tommy knew this was not so. The girl who sold them their tickets struggled to count the bills and coins the register displayed. The turnstile needed a good shove to pass through, and the cotton candy vendors walked as if their feet ached. Since he was worse than motherless — abandoned — Tommy knew about fake cheer. He received it from the checkout man at the grocery, from his teacher, from the mothers of his friends who tucked him in at overnights as if he were their child, and even from his own father who pulled the cookbook from the kitchen shelf and attempted the porcupine balls Tommy’s mother had made.

“What do you think, kiddo? Dad can cook, too,” he said, as he spooned the crumbly meatballs onto Tommy’s plate.

His mother also made a sauce from canned tomatoes, but Tommy said nothing except, “It’s great, Dad. Thanks.”

Now with his hand on the boy’s back, Tommy’s father guided him toward Sleeping Beauty. His father took off his cap as if entering church.

“Would you like your picture taken with Sleeping Beauty?” Tom Senior asked, looking at the clear-skinned girl in the blue dress.

“No, Dad, thanks,” Tommy turned toward the rollercoaster.

“Now, son, she seems like a nice fairytale. Aren’t you?” he asked the girl.

She smiled and tilted her head, her basket held in front of her as she rocked from foot to foot.

“Maybe later, Dad. I’m hungry.”

His father took pride in the fact that his family, the two of them, never went hungry. “No one can say you ever went hungry,” his father would tell him at dinner. “You get your three squares.” Tommy’s father winked at the costumed teen and said to her, “Growing boy.” Then, Tommy and his father bought two hot dogs and drinks.

To please his father, Tommy went on each ride they came to in their tour of the park. If his father waited behind, Tommy made sure to look for him, standing on the lowest rung of the fence that kept the visitors in orderly lines. On one of his last rides, The Octopus, Tommy finally saw behind the rides and storefronts. Bags of garbage overflowed dumpsters, and he thought he saw Snow White with Robin Hood passing a cigarette behind a crepe myrtle bush. But when he turned to look, the car swung, and he ended up facing the other way. He couldn’t see no matter how he twisted his neck.

Their last ride was a miniature train. It had a black engine banded by shiny brass strips. It blew smoke from a smoke stack but ran on electricity. Tigger and the Chipmunks leaned from the sides of the passenger cars as the train slowed to a stop. This didn’t make sense since Tigger was from Winnie the Pooh and the Chipmunks were a cartoon. Tommy caught himself trying to think logically. This was Disneyland, dork, and inside the costumes were people acting happy for their job.

As the train wound through the park, Tommy’s dad put his arm around Tommy’s shoulders. They sat in the last bench seat by themselves. The sun was setting, and it did feel comfortable to push his face into the breeze. Tommy counted 10 bench seats on each side of the aisle. Each seat could hold three without squishing. That meant 60 people could fit in that car alone — his entire sixth grade class. That would be fun! Tommy mastered fractions before the spring break, and now his mind was spinning. He and his dad were two — one-thirtieth of the number that could fill the car. If his mom were there, they would be three — one-twentieth. That sounded like a much bigger percentage. One person makes a difference when counting numbers. He and his dad were two-thirds of a family.

They spent both nights at Aunt Pat’s house. The second night, Tommy left his cousins in front of their computer games in the family room to get a drink of water from the hall bathroom. As he pulled the paper cup from the pop-up dispenser, he overheard his name. He crept a few steps down the hall in his bare feet and stopped to listen to his father, aunt, and uncle talk. Shoulders tense, he remembered his mother telling him eavesdropping is not nice, but she was gone.

“Pat,” his father said in a pleading voice Tommy had not heard, “I’m not saying forever. If you could just take him for a week. June, July, you choose. Then maybe Mom and Dad can take him for a few days.”

“Mom and Dad?” Pat asked. “You’d send him there? Jesus, Tom, what are you thinking?”

“Pat’s right, Tom,” the uncle said. “I don’t think a boy T. J.’s age would have much fun there.”

Through the crack between the doorjamb and the open door, Tommy saw his uncle’s hand pat his aunt’s knee beneath the table. They were drinking coffee.

“It’s Tommy, not T. J.”

“Well, Tom, we’ve always called him T. J. The kids call him that.”

“Not anymore. I don’t want to hear that anymore.” Tommy’s father took a sip of coffee and set the cup down hard, spilling some. “Christ, I’m sorry, Pat.”

She handed him a napkin from the holder. “Don’t worry about it, for Pete’s sake. Do you ever hear from Julie anyway?”

“She called once. A couple of weeks after. Tommy was in bed. Kid goes to bed with the chickens.” He looked at Pat. “He’s a pretty good kid. No problems.” When she didn’t respond, he continued, “J-bird wasn’t crying, but she sounded close.”

“What’d she want?” Pat asked, leaning forward in her chair.

“She, Christ, she wanted to know if I forgive her.”

Tommy’s uncle shook his head, and Tommy saw his eye catch the clock hung on the wall. He gave his wife’s knee another little squeeze. She glared at him.

“What did you say?”

“What was I supposed to say? I asked how she was doing. I told her I loved her. I told her we were still married and always would be in the eyes of God.” He put one hand on top of his coffee cup as his sister held the pot. “Pattie, you were there. We promised to take care of each other. We were a family. What the hell happened? What the fuck did I do wrong?” He wiped at his eye with the heel of his hand, then looked at his hand as if surprised to find it dampened.

Tommy started to back away from the door, but as he did, he heard his father say in a low whisper, so plain Tommy heard it as if spoken in his own ear, “I can’t do this. We’re not going to make it.”

ALEXA MERGEN worked for years as an English teacher, which was a great excuse to read a lot with smart people and to talk about writing. She leads writing workshops and edits the Yoga Stanza blog. This piece was previously published on Go Read Your Lunch on 5/26/14.