Emerging form the bathroom some 20 minutes later I felt slightly more human having showered and shaved, and tiptoed over the dogs again, pausing to flip on the computer, then set about getting dressed as it booted. The first dog, a Great Dane, grunted and stretched from under his blanket as I tugged on my socks and went searching for pants. I clicked on my email icon and then resumed buttoning my shirt, the dog in my face to hurry me up so he could go outside.
Satisfied that all my junk email was deleted and other mail answered I powered it down, gave Billy a kiss on the forehead and headed for the door once more, which brought both dogs to life. The beagle charged self-importantly ahead of his larger sibling, but the pause on the landing did him in as the Dane nearly trampled him in his haste to be first in line. Once in the kitchen I opened the back door and hooked the Dane to his lead and sent the beagle out while I started the coffee and assembled my lunch. The beagle began howling outside and I ran to the door.
"Shut up, dumbass!" I hissed while he wagged at me. "Come here. I said come here!" He stood stubbornly about five feet away wagging his tail while I threatened from the porch. I took a step towards him and he took a few steps towards me, but once he saw that I had stopped he did too. I was in a Mexican standoff with my dog.
I strode forward and snagged his collar, guiding him in the back door. The Dane crowded us both thinking that the other dog was getting attention and he wanted some too, he was so jealous. I fed them, placing their food dish in the basement with their other pillows for the day, or until Billy got up. It occurred to me I didn't know what his hours were today.
I poured myself some coffee, and put the rest of the pot in a thermos, grabbed my lunch and laptop and gathered them all at the door. Billy was coming down the stairs, hair mussed and sleep still laying claim to most of his brain.
"Morning," I said giving him a small peck, "What time are you working today?" I asked.
"I have to be there at eight, it's truck day," he replied, "I need some orange juice," he said heading for the kitchen.
"I'm going, I'll see you tonight," I said as I tossed the strap for my laptop over my shoulder and then grabbed my lunch and coffee.
"Okay, love you," he called from the kitchen.
"Love you too," I said as I headed out the door. My truck sat at the curb, and I call it a truck because calling it an SUV sounds stupid to me. It's a two door Explorer, you call it what you want, ok? Personally I don't like Fords, but the price was right and it's better than being in sneaker mode.
The ride to work was uneventful, traffic moving along at a manageable pace, and I pulled into the parking lot next to the boss's truck, and he actually had a pickup. I wandered in and up to the mezzanine level to set my things down at my desk. Salesmen were on the phones and I had beaten the Controller to work, my friend Sandy. I was the Information Systems Manager, but only invoked the title when answering the phone or trying to fix something that wasn't working. Other than that I worked in the accounting department, and I hate math.
Sandy walked in a moment later and I went to sit in front of her desk to inquire about her weekend, which was usually colorful. Her kids were a constant source of angst.
"So how was your weekend?" I asked.
"Oh, don't ask," she replied with a chuckle.
"That good?" I asked.
"Chris didn't come home last night, I don't know where he is," she replied with a tired sigh.
Chris was her son, and my buddy since he was about nine. I grimaced knowing that this was a sore spot between them, he being eighteen and stretching for freedom, and Sandy trying to maintain some modicum of authority. The meeting was announced on the main level and we went downstairs to find a seat and try to absorb our corporate wisdom for the week. Sometimes something useful came out of it, but more often it was a reminder that cash was in short supply and we should make everything stretch as much as possible. Suggestions were asked for in ways to save money, and since a few people had been let go during our 'right-sizing' effort no gallows humor about firing someone was suggested.
At eight the meeting was called and Sandy and I trundled back upstairs. I began working on distributing the reports from our end-of-day program, and then began using that raw data to make the days status report.
That's when it happened, at eight ten on a Monday morning the whole world changed for me. My phone was ringing, an internal call which usually means some minor repair, someone forgot to turn on their monitor or something similar and they don't understand why their screen is blank.
"Information Systems, this is Dave can I help you?" I ask.
"Dave, it's Mike. There's someone here to see you, he's a lawyer. Can you come down here?" He asked.
A lawyer? Why would there be a lawyer there to see me? Unless he's from my ex wife for some reason. "Okay Mike, I'll be right down," I replied slowly. I crossed back to Sandy's desk to retrieve my coffee cup and then walked back down to the main level. The fellow was wearing a dark suit, pressed nicely and looked pretty professional to me, with the possible exception of his battered brief case. He was balding on top, combing a few hairs over the top of his head in an attempt to hide it.
"Mr. Collins?" he asked while extending his hand. I nodded and he continued, "My name is Raymond Swota, I'm an attorney. Is there somewhere we can speak privately?" I nodded uncertainly and led him to the conference room some fifteen feet away. I motioned him to a chair and then took one myself before speaking to him.
"What is this all about?" I asked, and somewhat harshly I might add.
"I was retained by Jennifer Tower's estate. Do you remember her, Mr. Collins?" He asked quietly. I knew the name; almost ten years ago or so, but couldn't see the relevancy now. He reached up and scratched his nose while I responded.
"I knew a Jennifer Towers a long time ago, maybe ten years. Haven't heard form her since," I replied, leaning back in my chair a bit.
"Miss Towers passed away last week, and I am the executor of her will," he said in a steady tone, very formal while he continued to scratch his nose.
"Oh, I didn't know...I'm sorry," I said feeling awkward, "But what has this to do with me?" I asked.
"Well, that is actually the purpose of this visit," he said, moving the scratching finger to the right ear and rooting about with reckless abandon, "According to Miss Towers, at that time you two were involved intimately. She said you separated over a matter of infidelity."
I stiffened a bit before replying. "I'm surprised she said it, but yes that's true. What of it?" I asked.
"Forgive me, I know this is beating about the bush a bit, but I think you'll understand shortly. Her indiscretion led to your relationship ending, that is correct? Shortly after a school break in which you were snowed in at the college for a few days?" He asked while mercilessly subjecting his ear to a probing that bordered on the ludicrous.
"Yes," I said tersely. "Her ex boyfriend showed up shortly after I left and she spread her legs again. So what? It's ancient history," I growled.
"Yes, well, ten year old history at any rate. Miss Towers gave birth in November, the third of that month. Her long time companion left her over the child due to it not being his, which a blood test confirmed," the lawyer droned while moving from the interior of the ear to the side of his neck where a small cut appeared to have scabbed over, probably from shaving, but his restless fingers scrabbled for purchase on the scab.
"Ok, still, where does this concern me?" I asked, growing a bit disgusted with his behavior.
"You were last intimate in February of that year, is this correct?" he asked quietly while releasing his neck and allowing a tiny spot of blood to be visible on his neck before swabbing it with the back of his hand.
"Yeah, I guess so. Sure, what of it?" I asked somewhat defensively. I react poorly to lawyers, I always feel as though I'll get wrapped up in some trap laid with words and I'll set it off completely unawares until it was too late.
He lifted his briefcase to the table and opened each latch, the scuffed case creaking with its worn hinges. For some reason my stomach felt as if lead were weighing it down and my breathing seemed to slow down. He reached in and withdrew a folder, placing it one the table, and then closed the briefcase with a loud click, and replaced it on the floor. He then opened the folder and sifted momentarily for a document, then seized one paper from the pile and offered it to me.
It looked official, that lacy printing on the outer edges, and as it drew closer I could see it was a birth certificate. For a boy, Joshua Taylor Collins, born on November third in St. Peter's hospital just across the river in Albany. I looked in confusion until I reached the father's name, where I saw David A. Collins in clear printing.
"Are you nuts?" I asked him, "What are you trying to pull here?"
"Not a thing, Mr. Collins. I think you'll agree the timing is pretty darn close, and the blood test proved conclusively the only other man she had relations with was not the father. Sherlock Holmes once said something to the effect that once you have eliminated all other options, whatever you are left with, no matter how improbable, must be the answer," he recited as he withdrew a handkerchief from his left pocket and blew his nose mightily before leaning back in his chair.
I was dumbfounded, to say the least. I couldn't be a father! I'm a gay man. True, I went through a phase of hiding and denial, but I know who and what I am now. How could this happen? Ok, well I know how it happens, but oh man, what was I going to do?
"Mr. Collins?" I felt my arm being shaken and I looked at the lawyer who was clutching his handkerchief tightly.
"Joshua is currently with his grandparents. They do not necessarily approve of their daughters decision, and I should mention that they don't approve of much. According to Miss Tower before she passed, they didn't approve of her not telling you about the child. Now they don't want you to know, unfortunately for them the law doesn't work that way. Joshua is enrolled at the Lansing Elementary School, his grades are above average and he shows a high degree of intelligence. He is ten years of age, eleven soon enough as you can see. I have all his records available at my office.
"I know this is a shock to you Mr. Collins, but may I say congratulations?" He held out his hand to me. I slowly reached out and grasped his hand, wondering where this one had been.
"I'm a father," I said.
I went to the coffee machine after Mr. Raymond Swota had left, if nothing else to be moving. Arrangements were that I was to go pick up the boy, my son, that evening after work. I wasn't sure I could handle that. What does one do with a ten year old? What do they like? Are the Power Rangers still the big toys to have? What if he's scared of dogs? Does he wet the bed? Can I clean up vomit? Can he use the bathroom on his own? Well, he's ten, that's old enough isn't it?
I walked back towards my desk and passed Sandy, who got up and seated herself in front of my desk.
"So give, what was it all about? Is everything ok?" she asked.
"I dunno if ok is the right word here. I mean, everything just changed in a few minutes flat," I said in a stunned voice.
"Mike said the guy was picking his nose down there, he's not your lawyer I hope? He'd make a good impression in court, wouldn't he?" she giggled.
"God no, not mine," I said as I leaned back in my chair. "I dated this chick a while back. Rich fixed me up because she was sure thing, a friend of his girlfriend at the time. She was nice enough, and we dated. She did turn out to be a sure thing and we were probably together for a month or two. That February she was in school in western New York and I went to see her. We were pretty much snowed in and spent about the whole week in bed.
"Right after I left her ex showed up and he plowed her too, and then she told her friend, Rich's girlfriend, who told Rich and that's how I found out. So I dumped her."
"Ok, sounds like that was the smart move," Sandy replied.
"Yeah, only here's the kicker. She gives birth in November of that year and her boyfriend leaves her because a blood test confirms he's not the father. So she keeps the kid knowing she only banged one other guy, but never tells him. Now she just died and guess what? She thinks it's a good time for him to get to know his Daddy," I said with more than a little anger in my voice.
"Wow. It's hard to picture you as a parent, especially after I've seen you wrestle with Chris. I mean I have to tell you two to take it outside!" she said with a grin.
"It really pisses me off, though. She kept it from me. What right did she have? And now he's dumped on me totally unexpectedly. I don't know what to do with a ten year old!" I grumbled.
Do what you did with Chris at that age!" she said standing up, "You guys always managed to have fun." She retreated across the room.
Sure, do what I did with Chris, that's what I'd do! I set about the days work busily, and before I really realized it it was late afternoon. I finished up the remaining tasks and shut down my computer, then walked around the sales floor shutting down printers and a few monitors that had been mistakenly left on.
"Coming lady?" I asked Sandy as she hastily scribbled a note. We were the last two here so I thought I'd try and prod her to go home instead of letting her sit here till all hours. She liked her job, but I have often told her I think a lot if it has to do with that she has more control here than at home. The calculator doesn't sass her back.
"Yeah, I'm done. I'm tired too, I'm ready to go home!" she said as she reached for her purse and cigarettes. I crossed the room to my desk and shouldered my laptop and picked up my empty coffee cup and inserted it in into my lunch bag, then carried the whole works to the front door where the alarm was set before we stepped outside.
"So you going to take him for pizza or something?" Sandy asked.
"I was thinking that might be a good idea, plus I'll need kid stuff for his room. The spare bed in there is no bed for a kid and he'll want some posters or something I guess. I don't know, I think pizza's a good start though."
I headed up interstate 787 and made a left onto 90 West as I headed deeper into Albany. Reaching the exit for the Slingerlands, I took the ramp and went west again, deeper into the residential portion of Albany. I was on side roads until I reached my destination in a middle class suburb with hedges in front, well trimmed, and a late model sedan in the driveway on the right side of the house. The house was a common setup, three pillars holding the porch roof up with wide stone steps in front. I took a deep breath and mounted the steps. I was reaching to press the doorbell when the front door opened and a slim, handsome woman with steel grey hair and a hawkish nose glared up at me.
"I haven't seen you in a long time," she remarked through the screen.
"Yes Mrs. Towers, it's been a long time. You still rooting for the Giants?" I asked, recalling that she was a football fanatic.
"Those pathetic jackasses can't tie their own shoes," she snorted opening the door, "Come on in."
"Thank you," I responded as I stepped into the foyer.
"Joshua is at his friend Tyrell's house for a little going away party. They're having pizza," she said trailing off a bit, "He should be home, uh, here soon. I told him you would be here about five."
"Mrs. Towers, this is awkward, maybe we should, uh, take advantage of the time to talk a bit about, well, this situation," I said trying to smile, and she returned it weakly.
"My daughter made many bad decisions in her life, we argued a great deal. I told her to give him up when she discovered she was pregnant. She never forgave me that," she said as she at slowly in a Queen Anne style chair. I took the chair opposite her.
"He was a good baby, she was very dedicated to him and stayed away from me for a few years. Her father passed before you two were involved, but I was still here. Her sister used to call me and let me know if they were all right, and I would send money through her on occasion to help," she sighed. "She wouldn't have taken the money had she known it was me.
"Just a year or two before she got sick she finally called me and we talked for hours. She came home and I took care of them both, but the guilt about her falling out with me and her never telling you was eating her up, so you can imagine my surprise when that idiot she hired told me after the funeral what Joshua's disposition was to be." She looked at me fixedly, "Mind you I was pissed. You don't know this boy and I do, and I don't think she considered his feelings very well. She certainly discounted mine, not to mention that you may or may not be interested," she gave a pregnant pause before charging on.
"I hope you really do want him, he needs a lot right now and I was ready to give it to him, but that was taken away from me. I even had another lawyer look at the will, but my legal options are fifty-fifty at best and, to be honest, I don't want to put Joshua through that," she said calmly. "I'm just trying to be honest from the get go, I don't like to mince words."
I have to admit I was a little rocked, but I couldn't really lay blame on her. Who would want to give up their grandchild when it was all they had left of their child?
"Well, I don't see any reason why we can't be amicable here. I certainly have no intention of cutting you out of his life if that was your thought," I said, and her face showed visible relief, "I am pretty pissed that your daughter didn't even drop me a note to let me know he was alive, that's just downright negligent. I've missed out on ten years of his life.
"Admittedly this is going to take a lot of my time, changes in my life have to be made, but yes I do want him," I said before relaxing a bit into my chair, and believe me Queen Anne's are nice to look at but lousy for sitting in. The screen door banged shut somewhere in the bowels of the house and feet could be heard approaching.
Two boys, roughly the same height, stepped from the back end of the house. One had dark curls hanging down and obscuring his eyes, which he had to swipe away seemingly with each step he took. His olive colored skin glistened with a light sheen of sweat, perhaps from running over here? The second boy had his mothers blond hair and my own darker skin coloring, a light brown maybe from spending time in the sun. His eyes were my brown ones and his grandfathers brow showed clearly.
"Are you Josh's Dad?" asked the boy with the dark curls, who I assumed to be Tyrell.
"I am," I said, standing and extending my hand, "You must be Tyrell."
He smiled as he reached for and pumped my hand, "How'd you know that?" he asked curiously.
"Well, you're famous aren't you?" I asked favoring him with a small smile.
"I am?" he asked with his grin widening.
"Sure, you're Josh's friend, didn't you know that makes you famous?" I asked seriously.
I turned my attention to Josh, who hadn't said anything yet, and he regarded me solemnly with those large brown eyes that seemed to be absorbing everything around them like little black holes. He wasn't smiling at me, he was simply studying me, almost as if he were interested in exactly how I would come apart into acceptable pieces. I decided I should break the tension.
"Hi Josh, how are you son?" I asked him quietly. Small tears stood out in his eyes and made the eyes appear to be bottomless.
"I don't want to go with you," he whispered.
"Joshua!" Mrs. Towers hissed and he cowed visibly.
"No! It's ok, it's all right. This is pretty new so lets just kinda take it slow, ok Josh? What do you say we sit on the couch here?" I asked, trying to settle the boy's nerves. He wiped away the tears and stood his ground. Outside, the distant sound of an approaching ice cream truck could be heard, playing it's song over and over again. I always thought I'd shoot myself if I had to listen to that all day everyday.
"How about a bomb pop?" Tyrell asked excitedly.
"Yeah, Ice cream sounds good, what do you say?" I asked Josh, who looked back at his grandmother. "You too Mrs. Towers, lets get something, huh?"
"You go on ahead. With my diabetes I can't have that stuff," she said waving us along. Josh seemed reluctant, but Tyrell pushed him out the door and I followed.
The truck ground it's way to a halt as Tyrell waved madly at it, and Josh seemed to loosen up a bit outside of his grandmother's sight. I approached the truck when the driver was handing the two red, white, and blue Popsicles. I ordered an orange-vanilla bar and paid the driver. They were sitting on the curb so I sat with them as they slurped the quickly melting Popsicles.
"Tyrell, you live close by then?" I asked.
"His name is Ty. Grandma calls him Tyrell," Josh said suddenly.
"You prefer Ty?" I asked.
"Yeah, I once told Mrs. Towers my name was Ty and I thought she'd pee herself," he said with a smile, which quickly degraded to them both giggling, no doubt thinking about that elderly woman doing just that. I admit it, I grinned too.
"OK, so Ty, you live close by then?" I tried again.
"Over there, after that big tree on the left, um, right, um over there," he said pointing vaguely down the street.
"So then, are you busy this weekend?" I asked him.
"I hafta clean my room," Ty shrugged.
"Well, I thought maybe you'd want to have sleep over with Josh on Saturday. You guys can rent some videos and I'll make popcorn. What do you think?" I asked. His eyes widened.
"Josh's gramma said no sleepovers!" he said, disappointment clear in his voice. Josh's eyes were drinking in the whole scene.
I leaned in conspiratorially. "If you don't tell I won't either."
"That rocks!" Ty said hopping to his feet, "Can we stay up till eleven o'clock?" he asked excitedly.
"Can we drink soda?" Josh asked with a trace of a smile breaking into that solemn, serious face.
I shrugged, "Like I said, if you don't tell..." I smiled.
"Ty! It's time to come in!" The voice echoed down the rapidly darkening street.
"I hafta go," Ty said, shifting from foot to foot.
"I'll have Josh call you, ok?" He nodded his assent and began to run down the street, came to a sudden stop and ran back to us. We had just barely gotten to our feet when Ty grabbed Josh in a bear hug.
"Later Josh!" he squeaked and waved at me. Josh waved at him half heartedly and we went back to the house. Mrs. Towers told me his bags were all upstairs and I went to retrieve them, giving them a moment together.
I bundled the things into the back end of the truck and grabbed a pen, then returned to the porch where they were waiting. Removing a business card form my wallet I wrote my home number and asked her for hers, which she gave to me.
"Ok, well we'd best get going. Nice to see you again, Mrs. Towers." I said.
"Vera," she replied.
"I'm sorry?" I asked.
"My name," she smiled hesitantly, "It's Vera."
I smiled broadly. "Pleased to meet you again, Vera."
She smiled a little more and kissed Josh on the forehead, admonishing him to be good. With that we headed down to the truck. I opened the door for him and he climbed up, I told him to fasten his seat belt and closed the door, making my way around to the driver's side.
"Can I ask a question?" came a small, frightened voice from the passenger seat.
"Sure Josh, you can always ask questions," I said, resting the keys in the ignition but not starting the truck. Instead I turned to give him my attention.
"How come you've been gone so long? How come I never met you before?" he asked with a tremor in his voice.
"Joshua, Josh I didn't even know you were born, son," I said, my voice somehow rife with tremors. "Your Mom and I, well, we thought differently about some things and she probably thought it would be easier if it was just you two."
Josh leaned back in his seat, eyes drinking me in. I felt as though he could absorb me with his eyes. "I can stay with gramma if you don't want me," he said softly.
"I do want you, I want you more than anything. If I had only known you were there, I would have come for you Josh," I said softly, but with great conviction and a sense of surprise. I don't think I realized how true the words were until I had spoken them.
"You...You do?" he asked, a single tear tracking down his cheek. I nodded solemnly at him.
"More than anything, bud," and I reached out to him, pulling him to me as far as the seatbelt allowed. I heard a small click and he slid across the console and I held him as he wept softly and tension ran from his small frame. It was then that I really knew without a doubt that I loved my son.