A padded foot creeps then the creak of a door, small. Blankets are tugged with tentative hands—the softest knock—and then a whisper.
“Can I sleep with you?”
A dreamer’s mumble, a rustle of sheets, a sigh and then an exasperated, “Again?”
“Please? I’m scared.”
Another sigh and a superhero cape whoosh of blankets being thrown back.
The father climbs inside, wraps himself around his son.
In the morning Robby makes smiley face pancakes, with blueberries.
“You need to sleep in your big boy bed, Dad.” Robby hands his father a plastic-handled knife and fork. Ladybugs dot the knife handle, bumblebees spot the fork. The yellows, blacks and reds all disappear inside the oversized grip of his dad’s dad-hands.
His father pauses and then stabs the pancake face in its blueberry eye. “But it’s too big now.”
“You’ll get used to it.”
“I don’t want to!” he yells, slicing up Mr. Pancake’s face, cutting like a crazed butcher. The frenzied scrapes of knife against plate scream into the kitchen. Robby yells, “Stop it!” His dad slams his knife and fork onto the table.
Bits of Mr. Pancake face fly. The knife flips and falls to the floor bringing the ladybugs with it. The fork spins and stops. It points at the destruction like this is what you’ve landed on.
Robby smacks his dad hard, across the cheek. “We don’t behave that way!”
There is a silence that sucks the moment clean, places it on a tray, and passes it around so that there is no mistaking what it was.
His father hangs his head and starts to cry.
Robby’s small frame relaxes and he hangs his head as well, puts his hand on his father’s arm. “I’m sorry, Daddy. I’m sorry.”
At work, Robby’s daddy’s boss finally talks to him about the pajamas.
“You just can’t keep wearing them every day, Phil. I mean, it’s been weeks. I think we’ve been more than understanding.”
Phil is slumped in one of two chairs that sit in front of his boss’s desk, looking at his hands. They pull at the red cuffs of his sleeves, restless.
Phil’s boss sits up, straightens, trying to make himself tall in the silence. “I’m getting a lot of complaints. People are uncomfortable. They don’t want a grown man dressed in superhero pajamas fixing their computers.”
“What if I just wear the Superman one?” Phil says, hopefully.
“Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Hulk. Phil, you just can’t wear any of them anymore.”
“Superman saves things,” Phil says.
He looks at his boss and then at the credenza behind him. Frames stand in a perfect cluster. His boss with his arms around a pretty woman, a pretty woman with her arms around his boss, their smiles stretched and overdone, taunting. The overt affection feels obscene to Phil, flaunted. It tells him, look what you don’t have. Anymore. He wants to knock them down, pretend they never happened.
“You two look very happy,” Phil says, head motioning towards the squares, rectangles.
His boss watches as Phil stands, pulling the blue material down to cover his belly. It’s a struggle.
“I hope she doesn’t work for a handsome man.”
His boss rises, opens his hands. “I’m sorry, Phil. Really, I … ”
Phil spins and leaves, the apology lost in the red whip of his cape.
When he gets home Robby is at the dining table doing homework, tongue pressed between his lips.
“Hi, Daddy, how was your day?”
Robby’s dad throws his bag onto the table, hard.
“They won’t let me wear my heroes anymore!”
Robby releases a breath he didn’t know he was holding, puts down his pencil and stands. He has warned his dad about his “heroes.” He knows grown-ups aren’t supposed to wear pajamas to work but in the beginning, after she left, it was the only way he could get him to even leave the house. His dad would just lie around, not even sit, just lie. It scared him. It was like he had lost both of them; one of them by walking out and the other by falling.
Robby remembers that first trip to the grocery store, the first time they had to do it themselves, his dad a portly Spiderman pushing a shopping cart, repeating Robby as he read from the list they’d made before they left.
“Toast!” his dad said, pushing the cart along, ignoring the stares from other shoppers. “They don’t sell toast Robbs! You have to make toast! We have to buy bread for toast!”
He said it like he had discovered something important, and it was then Robby knew he had to learn to be a grown up.
“We talked about this, Dad.”
“I know! I know!”
“You’re lucky they let you wear them for as long as they did.”
His dad mumbles another “I know” and the defeat in his voice pulls his son to him. Robby wraps his arms around his dad’s middle, presses his head against the S on his chest.
“You can still wear them at home, Dad,” Robby says with a squeeze. “We can wear them together.”
“I love my heroes, Robb. My heroes help me.”
He wants to tell his dad that he’s had no help from heroes.
He wants to tell his dad lots of things.