Joey didn’t want to come, but I told him he didn’t have a choice because this was our weekend together and this is what I had planned. And then I immediately regretted forcing it on him. “It’ll be fun,” I promised. Joey was twelve, too smart for his own good and an early-bloomed brooder. He turned to the passenger window and watched San Diego recede. “Ever been to Laguna Beach?” I asked. Barely audible, he reminded me he’d been many times as his Aunt Joan lived there. “I bet Mom and Aunt Joan never took you to one of those fancy restaurants on the cliff, did they?”
“Then we’ll stop there for lunch. How’s that?”
We drove on in silence, something we did without strain.
“This is bogus. I don’t even remember what he looks like,” said Joey after a while.
“Don’t be like that.”
“Is he bald?”
“Does he have ear hair?”
“Must run in the family,” I said, putting my hand on his knee. “Hey, remember when we moved him up to Oxnard?—you were about seven—and after we unloaded the boxes, we went and played miniature golf? That was fun, right? We had ice cream.”
“Yeah,” said Joey. “That’s fun. If you’re seven.”
As we closed in on Laguna I said, “Listen, Joey. Remember my friend Bill?” Joey liked Bill and I hoped this news would alter his mood. “Well, he’s going to meet us for lunch. Would that be okay?”
Joey shifted in his seat to face me.
“What bullshit,” he said.
“You make it all seem like you’re taking me someplace special but really it’s just to meet Bill.”
“They don’t have to be mutually exclusive, Joe. It can be special for you and we can see our friend.”
“Stop it, right now.”
His mother has spoiled him, I decided. It’s fucking Laguna Beach, you little prick. My old man would have stopped at a gas station where I’d get an RC Cola and a bag of Bugles.
We arrived at the restaurant ahead of Bill and took our table on the terrace. I ordered myself a chardonnay and a virgin strawberry daiquiri for Joey. He wasn’t talking to me so I had space to study him. The contours of his neck mimicked his mother’s: slender and graceful; as he turned to look out to sea, his pulse faintly flickered at me. I looked hard to see my imprint on him, but nothing was showing today.
“You know what he called me growing up?” I asked. Joey didn’t move. “Tink. I can’t remember him ever calling me by my real name as a kid. It was always just … Tink.
“Why Tink, you ask? Good question, Joe. For a long time, I didn’t know myself. I think I even thought it was my actual name, like a second name that only he got to use. Then one day my mom told me that it was because on Grandpa’s first and only attempt to change my diaper, he shouted at me: “You stink!” to which I replied: “Tink?” Joey blew his bangs from his eyes.
“I’m sorry you never got to meet Grandma Betty,” I said. “You’d have liked her. And she would have adored you.”
Our drinks arrived just ahead of Bill, who approached Joey from behind and put his hands over his eyes. Despite himself, Joey smiled. After the game of guess-who, Bill unblinded Joey and handed him several packages of Japanese rice candy. Bill and I hugged and he placed a hatbox in the empty chair.
“How you been, Joey?” said Bill. “It’s been a while. I hope you’re not too old for rice candy. You used to really like that you could eat the wrapper.”
“I still like it a little bit,” he said, tearing into one of the packages.
“Why don’t you wait until after lunch,” I said.
“Ah, come on Dad,” chided Bill. “Loosen up.”
“Yeah,” echoed Joey. “Loosen up.”
Bill looked great. As usual. He smelled even better, that smell he used to leave on our sheets and pillow cases, that I would drink in mornings while he showered. A smell I thought I would drink every day into old age.
“How’s things?” he asked.
“Things are okay. Yeah, things are fine. How about you? How was summer in, where were you? Vermont?”
“New Hampshire. Fantastic. Beautiful there. Have you ever been?”
“I have not been. To New Hampshire, or Vermont.”
Bill talked about his latest project but I only took in snippets—“On set, Jane could be a real bitch—pardon my language, Joey…” When we first met I was taken with Bill being in the industry “—plays a crotchety retired professor—actually the character reminded me a lot of how you’ve described your dad…” But then the novelty of that bloom exploded from too many lines of coke up Bill’s nose, too many indiscretions. “I think you’ll really like it.”
“I’m sure I will.”
“I’ll get you both premiere tickets if you like.”
“I like,” Joey smiled.
“So, the hat…” I said.
“Ah yes, the hat,” said Bill, reaching for the box. “Here’s the thing about the hat…” He assured us it was authentic, in that Fonda, at the very least, had tried it on, but that the original had been given to him by “Kate” and had been Spencer Tracey’s. “So costume made ten replicas. This is one of them. Sorry, I can’t tell you what scenes this very hat might have been in, if any.” He handed me the box, and I peered inside. It was just an ordinary looking fishing hat, hooks and lures where they ought to be.
Our food arrived. I had let Joey order the softshell crab sandwich even though I suspected he wouldn’t like it. He took a bite; said it was all right. He turned to look at the water again and a gull swooped down and snatched the crab, right out from between the bread. Joey’s eyes got huge and the table next to ours exploded with laughter; Bill stood and applauded the bird’s pluck. “Did you see that?” Joey asked me. “Did you see that?” Joey asked the next table. “Bill, did you see that?” It was great to see him excited. The waiter said he’d never seen anything like it, and offered Joey a replacement. Joey said he’d have a cheeseburger instead.
Joey got into the car as Bill and I said our goodbyes. As we hugged, he whispered to me: “When you went to the restroom, Joey asked if I was your boyfriend.” I pulled away and studied if he was joking. He wasn’t.
“What did you tell him?”
“The truth: no. Now, if he’d asked if I had been your boyfriend, well…”
“Goddamn Jill!” I said. “I knew we should have told him sooner. I knew he’d figure it out. Goddamn her!”
Back on the road, Joey twisted to look at the hatbox in the backseat. Then he looked at me. “What’s with the hat?” As soon as he asked, I knew this had been the reason I had wanted Joey along: to ask the question so that I could tell the story. It felt a little unfair and underhanded to give Joey a job, but here we were.
“To hear Grandpa tell it, and he told it often, when he was a boy, he was very best friends with Henry Fonda. Or, as Grandpa would say, ‘Hank.’” I could hear Dad’s voice in my head.
“Skinny thing,” he would say. “Sickly looking, really. We met in the Boy Scouts, Overland Trails Council, Grand Island, Nebraska. Hank was a lot shier than I was, and slower too, so I took him under my wing, so to speak. Together we won the pine car derby three years running; and I made sure he earned all of his badges right alongside me, even it meant getting passed over the first time. Once, we got lost together on a camping trip, and we found our way back just by using the stars. But, then my old man got us moved to Sacramento, and Hank and me lost touch. Otherwise, I’m sure we’d’ve remained lifelong friends.” He always gave a thoughtful pause here. And then, conspiratorially, he would add: “You know, I made Eagle Scout. Hank’s biographers claim he did too, but that’s just a bunch of Hollywood propaganda. On his own, he didn’t have it in him.”
“So, we’re driving all this way to bring him a hat Henry Fonda might have worn once? Why?”
“Because that’s the kind of thing you do when you care for someone.”
“Or are you trying to get someone to care for you?” asked Joey, his too-many-smarts showing. “I don’t know. To me, it feels like a bribe. Is he rich?”
“Then I don’t get it.”
“You will someday,” I said, and I swear I could hear his eyes rolling back in his head.
Dad didn’t answer his door, so Joe and I walked around the pool to the management office.
“Hi. We’re looking for Joseph Isherwood. Apartment 1F.” The woman behind the counter frowned and looked at us over half-glasses. “We knocked, but he didn’t answer.”
“His son and grandson.”
“Is that so. I just assumed Joe didn’t have any family.”
“He’s expecting us.”
She looked at the clock over her shoulder. “Too early for him to be in the recreation room. I’d try over at Mugu.” Over the half-glasses, she read my look. “Mugu Bar. Three blocks down. Take a right. You can’t miss it.”
Joe and I started in the direction the woman had pointed, me self-conscious of the hatbox under my arm, and Joey lagging behind like he was on a death march. She was right: Mugu couldn’t be missed. From the outside it was a rip-off of a Trader Vic’s, only with a flashing neon sign that alternated between a pink hula dancer and an orange Mai Tai.
Dad was sitting at the bar, talking to a woman my age or younger. His back was to me. Us.
“Dad,” I called. The woman he was talking with heard it and looked my way. But Dad didn’t turn around.
“Grandpa Joe!” yelled Joey. “Goddamnit, it’s your grandson.”
He swiveled and looked at us, and then slowly rose from his stool. He looked older but still just as lanky and corn-fed as any character Fonda ever played. He smiled ever so slightly as he looked me in the eye. “Kid’s got a mouth on him.” He looked at Joey. “Goddamnit, it’s your grandpa!”
After the one-armed, awkward hugs, we followed Dad to a high-backed booth across from the bar. We could have gone to a more private table, but I felt like Dad wanted witnesses. Or he just couldn’t be bothered to walk to the back.
“What’ll you have, Jo Jo?” he asked me.
“Water is fine.”
“Give him a scotch,” he called to the bartender.
He looked at Joey. “What about you? Are you a rye man, or a bourbon man?” Joey looked at me.
“He’s a Roy Rogers man,” I said.
The bartender brought over our drinks—Dad’s was still an old fashioned. He asked Joey if he wanted to try it.
“Dad, for Christ’s sake!”
“He’s twelve years old.”
Dad looked at me, and then at Joe. “Of course,” he said. “Twelve years old. How stupid of me,” he said softly. And then louder: “He must have tried hundreds of old fashioneds by now!” He winked and Joey smiled. I felt a wave from my gut. He’d never related to me as he was trying to with Joey. And then I felt a second wave at the thought of being jealous of my own son. “How many girlfriends you got hanging on the line?” he asked. Joey blushed, another of those annoying traits he inherited from his mother.
“Dad,” I said. “I have something to show you.”
“Yeah,” said Joey. “You’re going to love this.”
“Is that right? Well, let’s have it.”
“Not here,” I said. “Come on, let’s drink up and go to your apartment.”
The walk back was reminiscent of the car ride with Joey: mostly silent. Inside the apartment, the guest room door was open and I noticed two fresh towels, neatly folded on the foot of the bed. Joey followed Dad into the kitchen where Dad fixed himself another old fashioned and gave Joey a Sprite. He asked us if we were hungry. “I’ve got some leftover Kentucky Fried, if you’re peckish. Joe opted for a drumstick, but I passed.
“Dad, why don’t you come sit down?” I was already seated on the sofa, next to his chair, the hatbox next to me.
“All right, all right, now give me a minute.” Joe came and sat on the other side of the hatbox, and although he tried his best to hide it, I could tell he was excited about the unveiling.
Dad sat in his chair and balanced his glass on the arm. This was the picture I had of him as a kid, sitting on the sectional in the den, an old fashioned in one hand and the other perching a Lucky Strike over the amber ashtray that, in the morning, it would be my job to empty.
“So, Dad … I was telling Joey, on the drive up, about you and Hank Fonda?”
“Who?” he asked.
“Your old friend. Henry Fonda.”
“Oh. Oh, yeah.”
“The reason I was telling Joe the story was because we brought something very special that I think you’re really going to get a kick out of.”
“We got it from our friend Bill,” Joey interjected. “He’s in the industry.”
“Who the hell’s Bill,” asked Dad.
“It doesn’t matter,” I said, placing the hatbox in his lap. He stared at it.
“What’s this,” he asked?
“Yeah,” said Joey. “Open it.”
He did. Again, he stared. Then he looked up, first at me, then at Joey, and then back to me. I was shocked to notice his eyes began to glisten, and his head began to shake, slowly back and forth.
“Jesus Christ,” he said, the words rolling around his mouth like a rubber ball. “Jesus Christ!” he yelled. “What the hell kind of a surprise is this?” he said, carelessly pulling the hat from the box and waving it in front of us. “What in God’s name…” he began, and then he yelped and stood up—“ahhhhh!”—the hatbox falling to the ground. “Goddamnit!” he yelled, “the damn thing bit me. Goddamnit! Now I’m bleeding!” It was true. His finger had been caught by one of the fish hooks, and now the hat dangled from it, blood soaking into the cloth.
“Joey, go in the kitchen and get a towel,” I said.
“Never mind,” said Dad. “I’ll take care of myself.” And off he stormed to the kitchen. “I don’t get it,” he yelled. “Have you ever once known me to go fishing? What kind of surprise is a fishing hat for someone who hates fishing?”
“Dad,” I called.
“You’d think you could have made a little effort. Christ, if you don’t know what I’d like, ask me! I’ll tell you! All this goddamn build-up, for what? A goddamn fishing hat!”
He came back into the living room, the hat now dislodged from his finger. He tossed the hat to Joey and then he slouched back in his chair. Joe and I stood there, not moving. Dad took a sip of his drink and then peeked inside the towel to exam his finger.
“What?” he asked, when he noticed we still hadn’t moved. “Ah, don’t give me those piteous looks. It’s not my fault you never took the time to get to know me.” He looked down at his finger again. “You think I’ll need a tetanus?”
Joey threw the hat at him. It was only then that I noticed he was crying. “You miserable twat,” he said, and Dad lurched forward, but he didn’t get out of his chair. “That hat was Henry Fonda’s. Dad got it for you special because he was your friend. He got it for you because he thought you’d like it, and drove all the way up here on his day off and drug me with him because that’s the kind of thing you do when you care for someone.”
“Joey,” I said.
Dad looked at the hat, now in his lap, and sighed. “So it’s used,” he said. “A used fishing hat. Must be my birthday.”
I picked the box up off the floor and lifted the hat from Dad’s lap. There was blood on it, and that seemed about right. I was so angry, I could barely speak.
“Henry Fonda,” I said. “He was your … friend … so …”
Dad laughed. “You believed those stories? Christ, I didn’t know Henry Fonda any more than I knew the Queen of Sheba.” I looked at him a long time, and he stared right back, a crooked grin on his face that I could only read as arrogance. He was right. I didn’t know him at all. Whose fault was that?
I put the hat in the box and turned to Joey. “Ready?” I asked. Joe nodded. I looked back at Dad and he had lost his grin.
“You’re not leaving, are you? You just got here.”
“Yeah, Dad. We’re leaving.”
As we walked down the hall toward the front door, I glanced again at the two fluffed towels on the end of the guest room bed, and it was only then that I realized that it hadn’t once occurred to me that we might stay over, or that he might have wanted that. I turned to look at him over my shoulder, and his face seemed to possess all of the familiar markings that had told me since before I knew better: you stink. Later I could see it was just sadness and loneliness and bitterness of a life lived without understanding love, but in that moment it was impossible to see anything but utter disappointment in his son.
“Goodbye, Dad,” I said at the door, my hand extended.
“You don’t have to go,” he repeated. When he didn’t take my hand, I turned and walked away.
In the car, Joey and I were silent until well after we’d found our way back to the freeway. But it wasn’t an easy silence this time. Finally, Joey asked: “What are you going to do with the hat?” I thought maybe he was hinting that he wanted it, but when I asked, he said no.
“Then, I guess I’ll give it back to Bill.”
“Why don’t you keep it?”
“Maybe I will.”
“Good,” said Joey. “It’s still a pretty cool hat. Especially now with blood on it.” He turned to the passenger window. “Do you think Bill will keep his promise about the premiere tickets?”
“Bill seems pretty good at keeping promises these days,” I said.
And then I took a deep, long breath. “Joey,” I began. “I want to talk with you about Bill…”