I am a man at home folding his wife’s delicates. Russell is my five-year-old son and he has a thick black mustache. Three weeks since my mother-in-law’s funeral. Five weeks since I was fired. Russell’s blighted the living room with the spy kit’s guts: a code-breaking book, a fake passport, a folding wallet-sized installation that pops into a set of binoculars. I assess the boy and the mess of the kit, fight the urge to pull Meg’s things to my nose and fill myself with the last time I knew her. We are going broke and I stand bewildered before my disguised son. I promise myself I’ll solve something by the end of the day.
Russell stares at me through massive dark sunglasses with mirrors on each inside outer edge so he can monitor the goings-on behind him. They teeter on the tip of his tiny nose. He slides them back into his eye sockets and leaves greasy gray fingerprints on each lens. “I am a spy,” he says. He twirls one end of the mustache like he’s fixing to tie me to a railroad. He removes the mustache from his lip instead.
I shape the wired cups of Meg’s warped bra, fold it in half. I remember a time she’d have ripped into me for not drying her good bras on the line. She’s stopped caring, though. “What’s your mission,” I ask.
“To find the rocks of all and everything.” He reapplies his mustache. It’s crooked. He looks like a miniature male stripper reassembling the tear-away elements of his phony cop costume.
I stack Meg’s bra atop another bra, next to a pile of her underwear, next to a pile of Russell’s underwear. I consider the heap of clothes to come and figure I can finish later. The laundry becomes another unfinished “in-the-funnel project” as I once called them in the private sector. Our Toyota’s rusted alternator is in the funnel. The running toilet’s in the funnel. I’m living in the funnel.
“You should work on that disguise,” I say. “The rocks of all and everything? Big deals.”
“Will you play with me?” he asks. “I want to know and play spies.”
Know spies? He should remember. We pored over the spy kit’s exhaustive encyclopedia. I added the latest intelligence, the news and its leaks, its torture, its explosive underwear. No shoe-phones. No gimcrack MacGyver gizmos. Tradecraft. Spies don’t really care about flashy vehicles or impressing exotic women at the baccarat table. They hide their intentions and weaknesses in pursuit of the most classified information. I am his jobless father, the nerve-center of all things cool and good and strong, and I am responsible for feeding him what he needs. How to identify a target, interrogate that target, and save the world are central to my directive.
I remind him. “Stop telling people you’re a spy first of all. Develop a backstory, something that ingratiates you with the people on whom you are spying. These are the basics of clandestine operations and intelligence gathering. They’ll eat you alive if they discover your true identity.”
“Who?” Russell asks. “Who will eat me alive?”
“Oh, jeez,” I say. “Where to start? Taliban. The Russians. Fifth Columnists. Illuminati.”
“Are you kidding me?” He yanks the sunglasses from his eyes to accentuate his disbelief.
“I would never kid about your identity,” I say.
* * *
Our troubles began, as all bad times do, in March, a month so god-awful we celebrated its being half-over with a day of mass-sanctioned drunkenness. It was then Russell and I found the spy kit. Before that March, Meg’s parents, Ginny and Papa, lived happily on the opposite coast within Sunday-dinner distance of Becca, Meg’s sister, who elected to never leave her hometown.
And as if delivered by a minion of tidy Shakespearean fate, Meg’s mother woke up one morning and couldn’t speak. The doctors ran the diagnostics and dug into her skull to slow the rot the CAT scans revealed. This worsened the prognosis. Meg’s father cursed the surgery, claimed it “gave the disease more air.” They sent Ginny home, paralyzed and mute, to be plugged in and fed through tubes until the inevitable.
Meg’s decision to fly back was immediate. “What else am I supposed to do, Andy?”
I wanted to say, “Recognize that there’s nothing you can do.” I wanted to say, “Life is for the living.”
But I didn’t succumb to my instinct to explain how much simpler Ginny’s death would make matters. Call it Darwinian pessimism. Call it evolutionary optimism. Whatever it is, fatherhood amplified it. The sheer mass of garbage that domesticity heaped upon me was suffocating. And once the kid arrived? Forget about it. Life was now an obstacle course of cheap plastics and play dates.
“You need to be with your mother,” I said to my wife. “I’ll handle me and Russell.”
I assumed it would be a lamentable but brief spell, a few days helping her sister and her father comfort Ginny, change Ginny, and moisten Ginny’s immobile, cracking lips with wet towels and Chapstick. But Ginny held out nobly, robbed of speech and motor control, mined of her essentials. Those few days became a week. And that became two weeks. Our nightly phone calls were dismal affairs. Meg hid in a room of her parents’ house with the phone. She lowered her voice and wished aloud that her mother would get it over with and die. Then she backtracked, apologized, and envisioned all of us moving west, my getting a transfer with one of my company’s many subsidiaries, her cashing in favors with members of her hometown network. If Ginny could live indefinitely in her compromised state, we were going to live around her in that state.
I withheld so much during these calls, particularly the obvious bits about our jobs, our mortgage, and our debt. If moving across the country to attend a private liberal arts college is a leap, moving back with a kid in tow is a launch. Neither is cheap. And every night I withheld more. Her job—so kind, so full of caring people and a complete spate of benefits—granted her the paid personal leave she banked over her five faithful years. Because she works in human resources, they believe in investment-in-people practices.
Cable television isn’t as kind. I managed installers and sellers of subscription packages, a position so needless, I retrospectively question the ethics in the company’s creating it at all. When he interviewed me, Stan Gabbert, the regional VP, made special note of my humanities background. Combined with my sales experience, he speculated I’d make a great communicator and problem solver. Gabbert questioned how long I could maintain interest, however. “You need to stay interested,” he said. “It’s important to stay interested.”
Gabbert didn’t know I was content to have a desk, business cards, and a higher salary. I found the act of earning money without having to do much interesting. I could have maintained interest in that forever.
But forever doesn’t exist. After Meg left to take care of her mother, Russell and I botched the rhythm of morning preparation. I was habitually late to work and had to depart early to rescue him from daycare. Gabbert noticed. He warned me that corporate had an eye out for this behavior. As Meg’s stay lengthened, Russell’s sleeping became erratic and he migrated into bed with me. Neither of us slept. Every morning was torture by tantrum and sunlight. It was around this week Gabbert dropped hints that I should explore the market. Corporate had a hit list. By the end of that week, Russell was an inconsolable, hollow-eyed asshole who couldn’t make it through a single night without pissing my bed. I recall catching a whiff of urine—probably on the seat of my pants because sitting in the wet spot had become my de facto morning bed-piss detection technique—as Gabbert told me I should begin making arrangements. My downsizing had nothing to do with my dying mother-in-law, nor did corporate disparage my temporary travails as a single parent. They couldn’t discriminate on these grounds because I didn’t tell them; at that point, blaming my circumstances would have sounded desperate and weak. They were eliminating the position. That was the issue. Everyone above and behind me was entrenched. I deserved better, something more interesting. I was smarter than all this. The severance package would see me through Halloween. And, really, everyone’s out of work. Every plot’s subtext is a crumbling economy.
I’d been unemployed five secret days by the time Meg decided to leave her mother and return home.
* * *
The rocks and all of everything call for a man of great resolve and imagination. We sit at the kitchen table and brainstorm. Laundry can wait. “Give me a made-up name,” I say. “Something good for a spy.”
“Spier,” Russell says.
“No. A man’s name.”
“But the mailman has a proper name. Does mommy call daddy ‘Cable Man’?”
“She calls you Andy,” he says.
“Andy is a man’s name,” he says. “I am Andy. The spy.”
“How about a kid’s name? Like one of the kids at school.”
“Right. But she’s Korean. You’re not Korean. The bad guys won’t buy a Korean girl’s name on a boy like you.”
“Russell,” Russell says.
“That’s your name. Make up a name. A new name. But a real name. Something that one person might name another person.”
“Okay. Fine,” I concede. “Let’s go with Fireball. Last name now.”
“Fireball Spy,” Russell says.
“But see? The purpose of a fake name is so villains don’t know that you’re a spy. That’s the key to spying. No one can know. If the villains say, ‘Oh, that’s Russell acting like Fireball Spy. He’s a spy,’ the gig’s up, you understand? A good fake name sounds like a real person’s name (but not your name), a regular person’s name (but a white man’s name because you are a little white boy and you want to be believed) and that regular man’s name should sound as if that regular man is completely uninvolved with the enterprise of spying.”
“Pete Macaroni,” Russell says.
“Jackpot!” I say.
“Jackpot Fireball,” Russell says.
“No. Jackpot means you have a good name. Pete Macaroni is perfect. Tell me more about Pete Macaroni.” I grab a pen and a legal pad from my resume-building workstation. Pete Macaroni will have a life, a job, a story that dulls the curiosity of killers, thieves, power-hungry CEO’s, planet-toxifying multinational conglomerates. Pete Macaroni will not break character. He’ll stay in the game. “Tell me more,” I say.
“Pete Macaroni,” Russell says and taps his temple, “is a spy.”
* * *
Ginny died when Meg was in midair. I received the phone call two hours before driving to the airport. I had time to prepare for the scene, leave Russell with a friend. Somewhere between the gate and baggage claim, she fielded the voicemail from Becca. Becca held Ginny’s hand and assured Meg that all was peaceful and right. Ginny was with the angels now and Becca had aided her ascent.
Meg silently wept the entire one-hour drive home. I dropped her off before retrieving Russell. I did my best to explain jet lag and why mommy couldn’t see him until breakfast. He made it into our bed sometime in the dark morning and peed all over us. Meg didn’t seem to notice or care.
She awoke determined to handle her mother’s passing in the most dignified way possible. I stripped the bed, stuffed the sheets in the washing machine. She paid lavishly for flights on the Internet. I refused to review the costs, content to let the fear and the balance fester with interest on the credit card. We’d be leaving on that night’s red eye. I piled our funeral clothes, my duffel bag, and Russell’s dinosaur backpack loaded with books, toys, and coloring accouterment atop her suitcases. I hadn’t unloaded them from the night before.
“You called work? They’re okay with this?” Meg asked. It was the last acknowledgement of our permanent life I’d hear for some time.
“Of course,” I said. “Of course.”
I imagined the end of Ginny’s suffering would be a relief. But upon landing we found Meg’s family had plunged into a state of collective madness. Her parents’ house was now too big. Papa suddenly needed one wing of a duplex, needed everyone else to purge his current house of its stuff, and needed old friends with whom to discuss Vietnam. Disposal consumed everything. In different conditions, I could be quite handy in hauling and dumping. But Meg’s connection to her family was something I couldn’t understand, being the single child of a divorce. Genetics and circumstance designed me to love getting rid of things.
It should also be noted that covert unemployment and a festering ire stirs something in a man, something primal, a caveman’s instinct to wade into strange caves wielding fire and club. In that state, everything a widower owns is crushed, smoldering, on sale, or in a landfill.
No, I was smart enough to see that unless I wanted to compound the chaos, my job was to entertain the boy. So, in the corner on a box of cookbooks, there we sat, Russell and I, pretending our people knew how to negotiate the majestic bureaucracy that inserts itself into the doings of normally sensible people when a loved one drops off the mortal coil. I tried to explain why certain keys on Ginny’s and Papa’s piano made muted pings rather than full notes. We played twenty questions and guess my number. We played hide-and-seek in grandma’s backyard, a game comprised almost entirely of our taking turns crouching behind the corrugated metal work shed or under an upturned wheelbarrow.
Meg morphed into a colonialist collecting idols before heading back to the motherland. This sweater. She had to have this sweater. Ginny had worn it in the photograph they’d be placing next to the urn at the service. Becca and Meg raged about that sweater. A friend of their mother’s had knitted it from seemingly random spools of the glitter-flecked thread found in elementary school craft buckets. And she’d knitted it poorly. A real nightmare, this sweater. But you know how these things are. Ugly stuff in meaningful situations.
Russell and I soon found refuge. Meg’s folks were at the tail end of a generation that valued not owning clutter, but organizing clutter, classifying clutter, building businesses committed to storing, shelving, boxing, and selling clutter. Their attic was something from a late-night reality show. Towers of relics and paperwork spiraled from dingy nests of fiberglass foam insulation. Ginny designated this corner for antiquated modes of time consumption she’d collected from the thrift stores and estate sales. When we found that corner, we discovered where birthdays and Christmases would have come from had she lived. Erector sets. Log cabin sets. Build-Your-Own Storybook Illustration sets. And the spy kit. And while everyone fought over the silverware, music boxes, invalid gym membership IDs and that rotten sweater, the home health aides dismantled and wheeled out the life support, and Russell and I studied the spy kit’s encyclopedia. We learned about Civil War spies in hot-air balloons, about double agents and secret messages hidden in eccentric tattoos. Espionage carried us through the hymns, through Galatians 5:16-26, through Russell’s calling the cemetery “a stadium of miracles with stories sticking out of the ground,” through deviled eggs at the V.F.W. reception, through the winning of the sweater. It carries us still.
* * *
I follow Russell to his bedroom. He lines up every fake animal he can find. He’s methodical and focused about this. The stuffed, the plush, the plastic, the pocket-sized that come fifty to a tube in museum gift shops. “A pet shop for some money,” he calls it. He invites me to pick something from his inventory.
“You mean Pete Macaroni’s inventory,” I say.
“Pete Macaroni’s Spy Pet Shop,” he says. “These are spy pets, daddy.”
A spy covering his true identity by acting like the proprietor of pet shop that sells pets to spies? Bold. I pick a stuffed bulldog in a blue turtleneck.
“That’s Junior Macho,” Russell says. He rips it from my hand and replaces it with a small die-cast metal pony with a tiny chain for a bridle. “Have Horse Butterfly.”
“But I want Junior Macho. He will help me with my next mission.”
“Junior Macho costs too much for you.”
“How much is Junior Macho?”
“One hundred plus one hundred,” Russell says.
“I have that exact amount.” I hand him invisible cash from my pocket. “Junior Macho is essential to my directive.”
“Actually . . . one hundred plus one hundred plus one hundred.”
Russell’s perception is astonishing. Real grown-ups often alter the terms of their agreements for petty reasons. Pete Macaroni does this. Real grown-ups often leave our rationales unspoken, wait for the combustible silence to seep out and stink up the room. We pray to something that nobody walks in and lights a match. Pete Macaroni does this. Russell must see how adults fabricate faces to transact the lifelong secret business of dying. He sees Pete Macaroni behavior every day. Our neighbor is real, a recovering alcoholic who, like every third person on our block and me, is unemployed. I know he drinks again. We hear him argue with his wife and shout slurred lies about his sobriety. And every morning he walks from his front door to the storm drain carrying a plastic shopping bag of empty bottles. He looks both ways, leans down, and rifles that bag into the sewer. That is Pete Macaroni.
Russell’s mother is real, the grieving breadwinner for her husband and son. And after we landed, after the family fights, the attic, the spy kit, and the service, after Russell had calmed himself for some sleep, she sat on the bed with her mother’s sweater and a pair of scissors. We were on our coast now. And I watched her drive those scissors through every glitter-flecked thread until the sweater was a hairy pile of lifeless inchworms. No mania. No tears. Just the steady slicing of a flawed thing. This artifact that proved indescribable pain wins something in this world? It no longer mattered. She’d fought and won and now she didn’t need it. And I walked out of our bedroom without asking why. That is Pete Macaroni.
Pete Macaronis everywhere initiate brutal searches for people to subordinate to their despair. Pete Macaronis realize too late that these people and things are lost and despairing themselves. Pete Macaronis feel shame from that realization, hate that realization, and then must obliterate all evidence of that realization. Pete Macaronis know they are engulfed in an endless vortex of self and have no means to eject. They perform overt gestures equal to the unfeeling space outside. Pete Macaronis act, regret, forget, and survive. Pete Macaroni can match the world’s frozen landscape to the exact degree.
But sometimes Pete Macaroni needs to be tested. He needs to be reminded that we are not untamed animals. Choice hangs in the teeth of our DNA zippers. Repel down into the sewers and retrieve your shame, face the audience to whom you just lied. Remake that sweater, do it with tape and glue if you must but remake it, and wear it right now because you wept for it and won it in a contest not for hand-knitted (frankly not very attractive) sweaters, but for power when you otherwise felt powerless.
I will push back.
“You can’t change the price,” I say to Russell, who stands cradling Junior Macho in his tiny bald arms. “That’s unethical. I may be only a humble spy who needs a pet, but I know other spies and I will tell them not to purchase pets from you. Spying is an honorable profession. But you would know nothing about that because you are not a spy, Pete Macaroni. I’m taking Junior Macho and you’re taking my money. And that’s that.”
Russell stiffens the fingers of each hand into a pair of rigid implements. He pets his cheeks. He tries to stop himself from crying. It doesn’t work.
“Okay. Horse Butterfly. I’ll take Horse Butterfly. How much?”
“Horse Butterfly is free,” Russell blubbers.
He takes Junior Macho to the corner and whispers into his little stuffed ear. I do not know what he says.
Russell composes himself, tucks Junior Macho under his arm, and collects items from around the house. He incorporates these items into Pete Macaroni’s Spy Pet Shop. A carafe, a wedding gift that I’d filled with plastic flowers. A candleholder that I’d made in a college ceramics class. He finds an earwig in the laundry room, scoops it into a round plastic Cool Whip container that once held a dismantled Lego vehicle, and snaps the lid shut.
He announces, “Junior Macho is on sale for free.”
The earwig in the Cool Whip container is now one hundred plus one hundred plus one hundred. Its name is Junior Macho Junior. “He will crawl into the villains and kill them,” Russell says. “He is real.”
* * *
We had unpacked. We were in our bed, in clean sheets. Her back was to me. Russell had been asleep for hours already, tucked in across the hall. I knew he’d be joining us within a few hours and I’d need to arrange a shield from his restlessness, a dam to keep me dry. I collected the decorative pillows from beside the bed, stacked them atop a body-length pillow that I’d stretched across a beach towel.
I said to Meg, “I left the cable company.”
I told her it was my choice and I’d negotiated for the severance package. “Figured I’d be gone by the first of the year anyway,” I said. “The economy’s cost us so many subscriptions.”
“You shouldn’t have done that, Andy.” She didn’t turn over.
“Family’s more important than cable television.” I reached my hand across my new pillow wall to her bare arm. She pivoted her shoulder to escape the touch.
“Did you think about how that would make me feel?” she asked.
I admitted that I didn’t. “I didn’t want to burden you,” I said. “The timing was weird. I was spread so thin. It seemed like the right thing to do.”
I don’t know what I expected. Maybe I picked the wrong moment to fish for her interpretation of another crisis. Still. It wasn’t the worst time for a brainstorming session, maybe some creative accounting. She could have recognized that in my new temporary role as the primary at-home guardian, I’d be theoretically saving childcare dollars. She could have been positive, maybe referenced the research that suggests homemakers are worth six figures. I could mop the kitchen, iron pantsuits, cook things, and pack lunches. We would save money with homemade sandwiches. No more fast food. We would be healthier.
And so much of how we were going to behave hadn’t been discussed. When can I tell jokes again? When can I have sex with you again? Are my laughter and my release justifiable needs in this context? We are responsible for another human being. Russell expects his parents to have answers to these questions, to be finished products. We should have plans for when each of us is immersed in difficult moments, isolated and blind. We should be cartographers when the terrain offers no easy answers. We will try, then. Yes, this is what I expected.
But she said nothing. She went to sleep and left me to brainstorm alone.
* * *
Russell sheds his shoes, his socks, and his mustache. We have snacks: peanut butter wiped through split stalks of celery with raisins on the top. A dance party. We share a nap. We watch television starring vowels and puppets. The day trudges forth as days do.
Pete Macaroni is nowhere. I figure I am the only one who cares. Russell’s alter ego is only play. I am Pete Macaroni. Or it’s a silly name a boy made up one day. We forget about Pete Macaroni’s business acumen, his shady practices, and his problematic facial hair. We forget about his love of animals, his inventory. . .
And I remember. “What say we give Junior Macho Junior some air?”
Based on the condition of the corpse, I am unconvinced Junior Macho Junior was alive at the time of his capture. My scientific experience—admittedly, minimal—tells me his container trapped enough oxygen to keep him upright for at least two hours. I am unsure Cool Whip containers have the same airtight architecture as, say, Tupperware or a glass jar with a locking lid. Or maybe this is the denial stage. The loss of Junior Macho Junior means less than nothing to me. I grieve for Russell, hardening by the day into a cigar-chomping bookie, expecting loss and welcoming it.
Ginny had a service so we must conduct one in the backyard. Ginny had a coffin. Junior Macho Junior needs a coffin. I line an empty travel-sized shampoo bottle with toilet paper and slide Junior Macho Junior inside. Ginny had a plot. Junior Macho Junior needs a plot. We dig a six-inch-deep travel-sized grave in the front flowerbed with a garden trowel. I say some words and sing “Old Rugged Cross.”
“It was a good celebration,” Russell says, repeating what he heard when we buried his grandmother.
“Not bad,” I say. And I think I see who I need to be now. Hold the team together. Keep watch on the boy. His childhood is destined to be strings of bad months, the ends pinched between disappearing people and things. Let him know that this is all part of the cycle, it’s inevitable, and that most of the time things just stink. Turn the loss into a gain, into a story. “We’ll make sure mom and Pete Macaroni hear all about it,” I assure him.
Russell stands dead-eyed and empty. We are far removed from the stadium of miracles where his grandmother is planted, where her story sticks out of the ground. “Pete Macaroni isn’t real,” Russell says. And I do not know if I should agree.