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Authors: Edward Lee

Operator B (5 page)

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“Careful,” Wentz warned. “Once they grab you, they don’t let go.”
Pete stared fascinated into the styrofoam box. “I didn’t even know they got this big, Dad.”
Wentz pulled the station wagon into the driveway. “See, Pete, your old man’s not as dumb as he looks. I know a guy in the Coast Guard who had to chart part of the Chesapeake for the government a few years ago, and they have this thing called thermal sonar. That’s why we went to the West River estuary, ‘cos this friend of mine, see, his sonar picked up thousands of really big crabs out there. No one knows about the place except me and him.”
“Cool,” Pete enthused. “Thermal sonar.”
“Come on. Your mother’ll never believe it.”
Wentz grabbed the crab traps while Pete brought the box. Wentz felt strange walking up the driveway of the quaint Alexandria colonial, a house he’d bought a decade ago and had soon thereafter moved out of when Joyce divorced him for familial negligence. Wentz deserved it, of course. He’d promised her three times he was retiring—then canceled his retirement papers. He’d scheduled vacations with her and Pete, then simply didn’t show up. The last straw had been the time he’d promised her he was getting Christmas week off on leave time, then turned around to volunteer for special duty when he’d heard Test Command was looking for sign-ups for a variable-wing mini-fighter.
What a tubesteak I was,
he thought now, lugging the gear into the garage. War was one thing, but joyriding was no reason to snowjob your family. In truth, Wentz didn’t want some other stick-jockey to fly something that he hadn’t. He’d been jealous, so he’d abandoned his family.
Yeah, what a dick…
The out-processing counselor had made some pertinent points. Coming off twenty-five years of military service might mean some serious adjustments. And Wentz knew that he’d have to put any former bitterness aside or this simply wouldn’t work. It was
Joyce
who’d agreed to give him this last chance. The rest lay with Wentz.
First thing on the To-Do List is stop being an asshole,
 he thought.
That’s why he hadn’t said anything to her on Friday when he and Pete got home from the baseball game. He was pissed off royally when he’d learned that Joyce had told Pete he was bluffing about his retirement. But then he remembered what the counselor had said, about compromise, about making an effort to see the past from
Joyce’s
viewpoint.
What right do I have to be pissed off about anything?
he realized.
She’s the one giving
me
the chance. What did I ever do except let her down for ten years? Nothin’.
So he’d said nothing about it.
“Damn it, Pete,” Wentz said. “What’s all this garbage in the garage? You know, you could do a better job keeping this place clean.”
Pete looked dumbfounded at his father. “What? I cleaned it last week. There’s nothing wrong—”
“Don’t talk back to your father, son.” Wentz pointed. “Like that tarp over there. Looks like you just threw a tarp over a pile of garbage. What’s under there?”
“I don’t know!” Pete exclaimed at the accusation.
“What’s under there? You hiding something?”
Exasperated, Pete pulled up the tarp.
“Oh, wow, Dad! Thanks!”
Propped up on its kickstand was a brand-new Honda XR800 dirt bike.
“It’s the latest model,” Wentz said, “and wider tires for better traction. Ninety horse-power; you’ll definitely be kicking up some dust. Just remember, you can’t drive it on the road.”
“Thanks, Dad!” Pete rejoiced, hugging his father. “You’re great! Can we take it out now?”
“Let’s do the crabs first. Then we’ll take it out to Merkle’s Farm.”
Pete was ecstatic. But it wasn’t just that Wentz had bought his son something he wanted; Wentz looked forward to showing Pete how to maintain the bike, how to heed the safety precautions, how to assume the responsibility of owning it.
Father stuff.
“Mom!” Pete shouted when they stomped into the kitchen. “Dad got me that Honda dirt bike! It’s the best one they make!”
Joyce Wentz half-smiled, leaning against the counter. Statuesque, long chestnut hair and noon-blue eyes. “I hope he got you a helmet to go with it.”
“Of course I did,” Wentz assured. “And knee and elbow pads. I also told him he could pull wheelie’s in the back yard. That’s okay with you, right, honey?”
“Funny guy.”
Wentz kissed his wife on the cheek.
“Oh—jeeze,” Joyce blurted. “No offense, but you guys smell like low tide and—”
“Cat food, right, Mom?” Pete answered.
Joyce paused through a queer expression. “Well, yeah—”
Wentz slapped his son on the back. “Like I was telling you, Pete. Your old man’s not as dumb as he looks. It’s a little trick I picked up when I did TDY at Whidbey Island. Puncture a can of cat food with an ice-pick and put it in the trap. On the west coast, the watermen all use cat food as crab bait instead of chicken necks.”
“Well,” Joyce remarked, “I guess cat food smells better than chicken necks… So just how many crabs
did
 you catch? Last time you guys went out, you brought home two crabs.”
“Check it out.”
Wentz smiled when Pete opened up the styrofoam box. Joyce nearly shrieked when she looked inside.
“They’re
huge
,” she commented.
“Half a bushel,” Wentz added. “We’d have caught more but we didn’t have a bigger box.”
“I have to admit, I’m impressed,” Joyce said.
“You’ll be even more impressed when we’re cracking these suckers open,” Wentz guaranteed. “Pete, put an inch of water in the pot and pour in a cup of vinegar. Then lay in the steamer tray.”
“Okay, Dad.”
Joyce curled her finger at Wentz. “We’ll be right back, Pete.”
She took Wentz by the hand into the dining room. Wentz paused to look at her, and thought,
Jesus, what a beautiful woman. What did I do to get this lucky?
Last night, they’d made love for the first time in a year. It was wonderful… probably more for Wentz than for her; he hadn’t exactly been the Man of the Hour, more like the Man of the Minute. They’d fallen asleep wrapped up in each other; Wentz slept dreamlessly. The only dream he wanted was in his arms.
He was about to kiss her, tell her he loved her, when she pressed a hand against his chest. Suddenly, she didn’t look pleased.
“So what’s with this dirt bike?” she sternly asked.
Wentz stood duped. “It’s something he wanted so I bought it for him. What’s the big deal?”
“The big deal is you can’t
buy
 your son.”
Wentz’s gazed thinned. “I’m not trying to
buy
 him. He worked hard and got his math grades up, so I gave him a dirt bike. What, a father can’t give his kid a present?”
“Not an
absentee
 father,” Joyce countered.
Careful,
Jack warned himself.
Look at it from her side.
“The absentee part ends on Monday when I retire.”
“Don’t you get it? Giving your son presents whenever you decide to come around isn’t
being
 a father.”
Bust my chops a little more, why don’t you?
 But, still, Wentz remained silent, like a scolded child.
“It gives him the wrong impression about things, Jack.”
“I thought he deserved it, that’s all,” Wentz said very slowly. “For getting a B in algebra.”
“That’s not how it works in a
family.
 Don’t you think you should’ve talked to me about it first?”
“Yes, you’re right.”
“Don’t you think
we
 should’ve given him the bike, Jack?”
“Yes, I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking.”
Everything she said made sense, of course. It always did. Wentz had no idea how to be a real father because he’d never been around to assume the role. He was just a guy who stopped by every now and then, bringing presents.
She faced him, her lips pursed, her arms crossed under her bosom. “If you really are going to make a go of this, Jack, you’re going to have to do better than this.”
As hard as Wentz wanted to keep it all in check…he couldn’t. Suddenly he felt attacked, and the instinct to defend himself shattered his better judgment.
“Fine, great. I’m an asshole, I’m a prick. I’m an
absentee father
 who buys his kid presents to cover up his guilt. But contrary to what you obviously believe, I really am going to try to make this work. It would really be nice if just once you could give me a break.”
“I won’t even respond to that,” she said.
He couldn’t help it now, he couldn’t reel it back in. “And you know, it really
fucks
 me up when you trash me to him.”
“What are you talking about?”
Wentz nodded cockily. “The other day when we went to the baseball game, he asked me if I was
bluffing
about my retirement. He says
you
 told him that.”
Joyce’s cold eyes didn’t blink. “Considering your track record? What else am I supposed to think? And yesterday someone named First Sergeant Something-or-other called and said you were promoted to brigadier general.”
Wentz stalled. “Oh, yeah, Top. They gave it to me after I made my last flight. I forgot to tell you because it honestly slipped my mind.”
“You get promoted to
general
 and it slips your mind?”
“It slipped my mind because it’s not important to me. It’s no big deal. It’s just typical Air Force ploy; they give you a big promo as bait to get you to sign up for one more hitch.”
Joyce smirked. “But
General
 Wentz isn’t taking the bait, huh?”
“No, General Wentz is not. And at noon tomorrow, General Wentz will be
retired.

Her rancor seemed to drift off. “I just wish I could believe that. I believed it in the past and look what happened. How many times?”
Bottle it up!
he commanded himself.
Keep your mouth shut!
But he couldn’t. The arrogant fighter-jock wouldn’t allow it.
“Well, honey, I’m really sorry about that little thing we had called the Gulf War, and I’m really sorry about the classified orders I got reassigning me to Nellis and Tonopah, but there’s not much you can do about it when you’re on active duty.”
“You could’ve gotten that waiver you were telling us about,” Joyce reminded him.
“Certain kinds of classified orders prohibit early-out waivers—”
“It broke Pete’s heart.”
That’s all she needed to say. It was like a guillotine falling. It ended the argument before it ever really got started. Wentz wanted to kick the wall, knock things over, bellow out loud, but then he realized why. Because he couldn’t hack the truth; he was too selfish to admit it. Oh, yes, Joyce had every right to treat him like pondscum…because that’s what he was until he proved otherwise.

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