Steve said, “What’s this?” picking a piece of paper out of the top of the trashcan.
Mark looked, “It’s from the school.”
Steve studied the paper: “Do something wrong?”
“No,” Mark said, “It’s for a conference. When you go talk to the teacher. “
They’d lived in the new place almost nine months now. Fifth grade was alright; he’d made some friends. Before they moved in, Steve brought Mark over to show him the building. They didn’t have the keys yet so he drove into the back alley. “Up there,” Steve pointed. Mark‘s eyes followed Steve’s outstretched arm. Each apartment had a rectangular window and next to it, a tiny frosted bathroom window. He could see the distorted outlines of shampoo bottles huddled on the sills. “Two up and two over,” Steve had said, “That’s us.”
Steve still looked at the paper. “Why’d your mom throw it out?”
Mark shrugged. Diane had never been to a conference. Mark had seen other parents at them. He’d walked by classrooms while the teacher and someone’s mother, heads bent together, would be sitting at a desk, looking down at some papers. Mark searched for an acceptable reason. “She’s too busy, I guess.”
He knew it was a made up answer, some kind of way to explain his mother’s actions without someone saying, “What do you mean?” Or “How come?” Like when he told the manager she was sick or sleeping. Or when grandma called and he said she was out. Steve knew what all those words meant.
A few weeks after they received the conference notice, Mark found Steve in the kitchen, wearing a black suit instead of his jeans and work shirt. His hair was combed straight back; usually, he wore it loose and tucked behind his ears. Mark watched as Steve measured out the coffee, then poured in the water.
“Is there a funeral?” Mark asked.
“No,” Steve said, “It’s conference day.”
“Sure,” Steve said, but he looked nervous.
Mark considered this as he put two slices of bread in the toaster. Soon the kitchen would smell good: toast and coffee. Mark liked to watch Steve in the morning. The careful way he rinsed their dishes, folded the towel and hung it on the oven door. Everything done deliberately like he didn’t want to forget or take anything for granted.
“What about work?” Mark asked.
“I’ll make up the hours,” Steve smiled, tapping his forehead, “I’ve got it all figured out.”
After breakfast, they got into Steve’s battered Toyota. Mark looked up at the building as they backed out of the carport.
Two up and two over. That’s us.
Steve stood awkwardly in the doorway of the classroom, his arms a little long for the sleeves of the suit jacket. “Welcome,” Mark’s teacher called out, patting her hair, “I’ll be right with you.”
He and Mark entered the room, the desk and chairs looking suddenly small compared to Steve. Mark’s teacher moved a stack of papers off her desk and indicated for them to sit down. “I wasn’t quite expecting you..” she trailed off, looking through her desk drawer and pulling out a manila folder with Mark’s name written in big letters on the outside.
Later, Mark tried to remember everything that had happened. It seemed like she spoke to Steve for a long time, pulling out homework assignments, tests, and artwork from the folder, placing them on the table between them, smoothing out the wrinkles. Steve examined each item, nodding his head as she spoke.
“He’s good in math,” she said, “He’s in the advanced group.” Steve looked at Mark and raised his eyebrows. Mark felt himself blush. “If he keeps this up, he’ll do very well in middle school,” she said. “They demand more there, “ she added, “But I think our boy can handle it.” She smiled at Mark. Our boy.
On the way home from the conference Steve pulled into a Burger King. “Let’s Celebrate.”
The cashier handed Mark a large paper cup and he went over to the soda dispenser, filled it with ice, then pushed each spigot, combining all the flavors. “We used to call that a Kamikaze,” Steve said behind him, “How’s it taste?”
They got a table by the window. Outside, cars and trucks hurried by but in the red cushioned booth with the bright lights overhead, Mark felt oddly insulated; the thick glass muted the traffic sounds as if everything outside was a movie playing with the volume turned low.
Steve refilled his coffee at the counter and returned to the table. He looked strange still wearing the conference suit but Mark was getting used to it. He noticed other people looking at Steve too and he wondered if they thought Steve was his dad, if they just assumed that he was.
Steve leaned across the table and stared hard at Mark. “Here’s the plan,” he said. Marked waited. “You work hard,” Steve said, “You keep on working hard. I’ll keep working hard.”
Mark took a long drink. The cold burned down his throat and into his stomach. He could taste Root Beer and Sprite, a hint of Orange Crush. “This tastes awful,” Mark grinned, “It tastes really, really bad.”