by Nickalus Rupert
I am not the kind of mother who tolerates disappointment, so when my son Diego emerged from his depression long enough to request a full-on “bash” for his ninth birthday, I listened with interest. Diego wanted the whole works—a bouncy Camelot castle, a hand-carved ice sculpture of a murderous movie clown, and one of the more in-demand toys on the market. It’s been almost a year since his father’s accident, and although I’ve always had faith that Diego would pull through, it’s still comforting to see him dragging his heels toward normalcy. I haven’t heard my kid laugh since Eid’s funeral service, when the priest accidentally said “rashes to rashes” instead of the usual line. I explained to Diego that while the holy man may have been tipsy, he was definitely not drunk. I advised my son to avoid laughter of the mocking variety because it puts distance between you and God and your fellows.
“Dad wouldn’t have laughed?” Diego said.
“That’s beside the point.”
Diego is still mastering the art of friendship, so his party ends up more “bump” than “bash.” In fact, only two kids show up. They’ve got wheat-blonde hair, these kids, and they seem to speak only Dutch. They do a solid half hour in the bounce castle, pause to scoff at the ice clown, then go inside and eat a few helpings of nuclear cinnamon-flavored birthday cake. They Uber home before Diego can open their presents—a gift card to Bennigan’s and a coupon for organic cat food. Diego’s right to be disappointed. He hates Bennigan’s, and our cat Paulo won’t touch the fancy stuff.
I deflate Camelot, dump the ice clown in the backyard, and pack what’s left of the cake in the freezer. By then, Diego’s already tired of his gifts—even the ones I bought. I lift the newly opened Pocket Soldier from a mound of dirty clothes. It’s heavy for a toy, and outfitted with futuristic helmet and fancy composite armor. The soldier stands nearly as tall as the enormous can of RhynoBlüd Energy Drink that Diego asked for but still hasn’t tasted.
“This was expensive,” I say, dangling the soldier upside-down by his leg.
“It’s depressing,” Diego says. “All he talks about is how bad it sucks to watch your platoon get their heads popped off by the alien horde.”
“That’s fair,” says the Pocket Soldier. “I guess they’re not the most kid-friendly stories.”
“Honey,” I say to Diego, “did you have to put batteries in this thing, or—”
“No, ma’am,” says the Pocket Soldier, “nothing like that.”
“Are we supposed to feed you?” I say.
“I’m not one to impose,” he says. “Maybe just an occasional lick of water, some crumbs from the table. I wouldn’t mind tucking into some of that cat chow if it’s all the same to you.”
The soldier’s eyes look nothing like the doll’s eyes I remember from girlhood, and his leg feels warm in my grip. You can see little scars beneath his chin. You can see where his hairline has started to recede beneath the helmet, and where he missed a spot shaving. He gives off a dark, woodsy musk that I can’t account for.
I set the Pocket Soldier on Diego’s dresser, and the little guy sits, legs crossed, as if awaiting orders.
“Maybe this one deserves another chance,” I tell Diego.
Diego bites into a slice of red-hot cake, fires up his TV, and gives a nod to say he’ll think about it.
I head to the backyard and crack off the ice clown’s nose, which ends up making the perfect gin and tonic cube. I’m sitting in my favorite chair watching a TV marathon about people who make contact with dead loved ones, when the Pocket Soldier climbs onto the armrest.
“I’ve seen this one,” he says, staring at the screen. “That lady’s dead father ends up singing to her through a cannoli.”
From his front pocket, the Pocket Soldier removes a tiny pack of cigarettes and lights up. There’s very little smoke, but you can still smell it. Not very futuristic, plus he keeps taking envious glances at my cocktail.
“Shouldn’t you be hanging out with my son?”
“Those Star Wars movies give me wicked flashbacks, ma’am.”
Eleven months. Losing a spouse sucks for reasons you wouldn’t suspect. It’s been ages since I’ve been to a seafood restaurant, on account of Diego being allergic and I’m not the table-for-one sort. You lose your passport to the adult social pipeline—the higher-end cafés, the newly opened wineries, the stuff that’s meant to fulfill the illusion that adult life is rich and satisfying.
On TV, a bereaved woman converses with her dead husband through a piece of decorative driftwood. This one spikes a nerve. Eid was a tree surgeon, and after he’d hacked the wrong limb of a three-hundred-year-old live oak and taken his final tumble, I spent my evenings walking through the woods in search of tree-carried messages. All I ever found was a squatty oak whose trunk forked into a heart shape, but if you ask me that’s not much of a sign, and hardly worth the scorching case of poison ivy I got for my efforts. For a full week, I sat in my room watching blow-‘em-up movies and applying calamine. “Message received,” I’d muttered, counting pustules, seeing if maybe they’d connect to form constellations. Meanwhile, all this TV woman has to do is whisper into a dead branch and—presto!—instant closure.
For consolation, the Pocket Soldier tells horrible war stories and offers me a tiny cigarette. He’s very generous.
“The only thing they forgot to put in my box was some coinage,” says the Pocket Soldier. “Not that I’d need a whole lot. Just a couple bucks for coffee, maybe some basic toiletries.”
His laughter sounds a little desperate, but wheedling aside, he’s very respectful, very dignified. He doesn’t climb onto my lap until I invite him for the third time. Against the pastel light of the TV, the Pocket Soldier is very handsome, and I can feel the heat wicking from his thighs. I let him sink his canteen in my cocktail glass and hold it under until the bubbles stop.
“I do have my uses,” he says. His eyes swim down my neck, my chest.
“Meaning what?” I ask, bending down so we can whisper.
“You’re a lot bigger than I am,” he says, staring between my thighs. “Use that big imagination of yours.”
Weeks of gin drinks, up-tempo sex, and an assortment of tiny pills the Pocket Soldier calls “disco biscuits.” His bedroom voice is impossibly loud, and he gets rowdy in a way that Eid never did. Even though he’s supposed to be from the future, the Pocket Soldier doesn’t have any kind of communicator, so I buy him a camera phone, which doubles as a flatscreen TV. We send each other naughty pictures while I’m at the office. Eid was always too timid for that sort of thing, but I think he’d have wanted me to feel pleasure again. I think he’d be happy to know how my heart rushes to take an upskirt pic right there at my desk. He’d probably laugh at all the camera trickery the Pocket Soldier uses to make his equipment look halfway respectable.
Diego is less than supportive. He withdraws to his room, where he won’t have to hear the Pocket Soldier’s booming voice. I drop by Diego’s room every evening after dinner, and I can’t help noticing that he’s cleared his shelves of all wind-up robots and action figures.
“You’re dating a toy,” Diego tells me one evening.
“I know,” I say, practically levitating, “and I wish I’d thought of it a long time ago.” I stalk the perimeter of Diego’s bed, dancing as I go, and picking up dirty socks between my toes.
“It’s embarrassing,” he says. “And they made it way too real—too lifelike.”
“Lifelike?” I say. “He’s alive, isn’t he?”
Diego begins to answer, then strokes Paulo’s fur against the grain. “Whatever it is,” he says, “it’s a bad toy.”
“The soldier stays, kiddo. And that’s final.”
I order a large mac-and-cheese pizza for Diego, then it’s the Pocket Soldier and me at the movies, watching everything but the screen. We giggle like teenagers as he tears at the head of a Swedish Fish, salmon-large in his miniscule hands. And then he’s in my lap, with my purse covering the action of his very busy, very strong wrists. With each moan, another parent shoots me a disapproving look and motions toward his or her children. It’s not until the second act that I realize we’ve wandered into a children’s flick.
We ditch the movie, and it’s the Pocket Soldier and me at Cold Stone, our teeth aching in the sugared air as we hem and haw over different flavors. He opts for a free sample of toffee-infused ice cream smeared on a plastic spoon—such an adorably Pocket Soldier sort of choice. And then it’s the Pocket Soldier and me at The Velvet Panther, where we fill his canteen with a variety of boutique-style cocktails. Our talk grows dirty with drink, and before long he has to move from my lap to the bar top so he can whisper filth more easily. He invites me to picture how hot he’d look wearing a custom-tailored Armani jacket with nothing underneath. It’s on sale at the toy store, he says, but only for a limited time. That kind of talk gets us both very torqued up, and from her disapproving grunt and the hyper-aggressive way she towels the empty beer glasses, our bartender makes it clear that we’d better take it outside.
In the car, I can’t help running my fingers over the front of the Pocket Soldier’s armor, which gets him bellowing and swearing vulgar oaths about what’ll happen when he gets me home. His talk becomes dirtier yet when I swing into the toy store’s parking lot.
“The jacket?” he says. “Better pick up some rubber panties while we’re here. You’ll need them when you see how positively fuckalicious I look.”
I kiss his neat little mouth and explain that I’m letting him pick out a house of his own, which will stay in the den—a kind of neutral zone between Diego’s room and my own, so things won’t feel quite so sudden for Diego. The Pocket Soldier squints at me for a moment, then nods like this was all part of the plan. He runs his tiny hand between my thighs with such authority that my eyes water. His dexterity is stunning. For a moment, the upwelling of pleasure washes my dead husband’s name right out of mind.
On wobbly legs, the Pocket Soldier and I finally head inside the toy store, where we settle on a cute three-bedroom dollhouse with a back patio and a working mock-marble fountain.
“It’s a little—modern,” says the Pocket Soldier after his first walkthrough. “Don’t they have anything bigger?” He throws open a pair of thin plastic windows and leans over the balcony railing. “Maybe something with Victorian turrets?”
“It’s only temporary,” I say. “We can always upgrade later on.”
The Pocket Soldier heads downstairs to tap plastic floorboards with his boots and mutter about shoddy plumbing.
It’s family discount night at Captain Shawarma, and God love them, the Greek brothers who run the place are pretty open-minded about what constitutes a family. Diego, the Pocket Soldier, and I take a four-top, even though the Pocket Soldier prefers to sit in his own tiny recliner atop the table. Mounted there in his little chair, he looks very respectable, even if he is a little tipsy. Today’s Saturday, and we’ve earned ourselves a drink or two.
We’re electric with gratitude, except for Diego, who’s always kind of glum. He gathers his hoodie around his face like he’s embarrassed, but whatever. At his age, everything’s an embarrassment, and I’m a parent, not a goddamn storybook mage. The Pocket Soldier keeps taking comically huge mouthfuls of hummus and smacking his lips to break Diego’s gloomy demeanor, but Diego’s unbreakable.
Just as we’re tucking into our shawarma, I lock eyes with a severe-looking woman who could only be Madison, from the office. They’ve all been clamoring to meet my new boyfriend, so I wave her over to our table. Madison only stares at her plate. Jealous! Of my gorgeous boyfriend, my family-in-progress. Both of Madison’s kids have the face of a seahorse. I’d like to tell her right now—how I’ve always hated her. By now, the Pocket Soldier has brought out a pack of his miniature beer, which probably violates a house rule. He hops down from his chair to lap at a little saucer of herb-infused olive oil. When he’s finished, he dips his hands and uses them to slick back his hair. So much panache in this little guy.
“Tzatziki!” the Pocket Soldier keeps shouting, mispronouncing it differently each time.
“Sweetheart,” I say, glaring toward Madison’s table, but the Pocket Soldier gives me a look to show that he’s more than willing to cause a bad scene if I push him.
During dessert, Madison tries to brush past our table without being noticed. I scoot my chair into her path, my pulse rushing at the promise of confrontation. So what if my new boyfriend’s a little short? So what if he gets animated when he drinks? Maybe Madison wouldn’t be so judgmental if her boyfriend got her off more frequently. But this woman’s teeth are too small and her bangs are off and it turns out she’s not Madison at all.
On the drive home, the Pocket Soldier and I get into a screaming match over the dollhouse Ferris wheel I was supposed to buy. He’s sitting on the center console, and even though the passenger seat is wide open, Diego sits in the back with his face pressed to the glass. Only now do I notice that my son’s hoodie is full of holes. I scoop up a medium dose of disco biscuits and swallow them with three or four of the Pocket Soldier’s beers. We haven’t been clothes shopping since well before Eid’s accident, but I’ll do better. The Pocket Soldier pats my thigh, our argument already forgotten.
Before it’s a full month old, the steps of the Pocket Soldier’s dollhouse are cobbled with little crushed beer cans and cigarette butts, and, on the worst nights, with the Pocket Soldier himself. He’s prone to taking “night missions,” as he calls them, and I’ll find him raving senselessly on the front steps, or peeing into his fountain, or playing nightmarish melodies on Eid’s marimba with his combat boots.
One night I pass by Chez Pocket Soldier to find the swimming pool I installed for him floored with chicken bones, candy wrappers, and various dollhouse furniture that’s not up to his elite standards. Even the tiny jet ski he begged for has gone belly-up. It probably doesn’t help that his diet consists mostly of beer, cat food, and energy drinks. I look through his living room window, and I can see where the walls are marked with little tongues of scorch—plasma burns from his own rifle.
Someone has dumped a pair of Barbies in the Pocket Soldier’s driveway, right beside his brand-new Ducati-style motorcycle. These dolls aren’t half as sophisticated as the Pocket Soldier—they can’t even blink. I pick one up, find the initials KS marked on the back of the neck. Used dolls? I can’t imagine where he would’ve gotten them—it’s not like he can just head to the thrift shop all by his lonesome. Then, I notice that the motorcycle’s frame is bent out of line, the handlebars warped. He promised he’d be more careful. It’s only a battery-powered toy, but it wasn’t cheap. I glance from dolls to bike, bike to dolls. There’s a sequence waiting to be unraveled here, but what?
I glare through the living room window. The Pocket Soldier sits pantsless on his kid-leather couch, and the phone he’s hung on the wall blazes with light and lurid motion. No wonder he ditched the Barbies—he’s discovered internet porn. When he catches me watching, he flashes me a wicked grin. I should be disgusted. I really should.
The following night, I find Diego camped out in his bedroom, scouring his face of Sharpie marks. Someone has graffiti-tagged my son’s face with profanity, along with a set of enormous cartoon areolas.
“He waits till I’m asleep,” Diego says. “Says he’s teaching me to have better radar.”
The Sharpied nipples are fading, but you can still tell. Diego takes a break from scrubbing and stretches out on his bed, where Paulo has wound himself into a ball for warmth. Our cat has been buzz-cut from the neck down, so that he resembles a really puny lion.
“I’ll talk to him,” I say. “In the meantime, let’s not give Paulo anymore haircuts.”
“Mom,” he says, staring like I’ve got a molar growing on my forehead, “you should get your money back.” He ruffles Paulo’s stubble. “It’s a bad toy.”
In the background, we can hear the Pocket Soldier shouting Phil Collins lyrics and bashing away at the miniature drum set I bought for him.
“He’s far from perfect,” I say, “but I think it’s good for us both to have a man around.”
“He shot me in the toe with his plasma rifle,” Diego says. “Plus, his jokes are super lame.”
“Imagine what he’s been through, watching those horrible aliens kill his friends.”
“Tell that to my toe,” Diego says.
I head to the kitchen to fetch some isopropyl alcohol or whatever might be strong enough to undo nipples. I find him bathing in my bathroom sink with the Lavender Lush bath bomb Eid bought for my birthday.
“You promised not to mark on my son,” I say.
“Little fucker provoked me,” he says. “Glued up the barrel of my weapon and locked me in the goddamn freezer.”
“And I’m supposed to believe you did nothing to deserve that?”
“Ever been locked in a freezer?” He wipes at his hairless, well-muscled chest. “It’s fucking dark in there. Had to build an igloo from freezer packs and frozen cake.”
“That still wouldn’t explain why you wrote son of Whore all over his forehead.”
“You used me.” He stands now, all eight inches of him, and his voice is so loud it hurts. “Like a goddamn power tool.”
“I’ve done that every night since you’ve been here.”
“I,” he says, “enter you. My fucking choice.” He slaps the water for emphasis, but his arms are too small and weak to sell it. “You don’t force me in. I could’ve suffocated.”
The Pocket Soldier scrambles up from the sink. Suds clear to reveal deep scratch marks from where he’s gotten drunk and brawled with Paulo.
All the way to the toy store, the Pocket Soldier sits in my cupholder and complains that he never got a fair shake, and if only I were less stingy, there would’ve been less friction within our respective homes.
“I bought you a car,” I say.
“An RC Volvo,” he says, grinding stray pennies and dimes with his boot heel. “For ten dollars more, I could’ve had the Beemer.”
I stuff the Pocket Soldier into his box, fold up the receipt, and make my way across the parking lot. The checkout line extends all the way outside—mostly women, a few men. They’re not here for refunds, and many of them appear too perky and well-rested to be parents. Slowly, they take notice of what I’m carrying.
“I’ll pay four hundred,” says one woman, “and won’t ask how many times you used it.”
“I’ll go five-fifty,” says another.
These people should be warned—the ad copy doesn’t mention anything about plasma burns, night missions, or the endless wheedling for better cars, better houses, better jackets.
I try to reason with them. I even hold up the box to demonstrate, but the Pocket Soldier has already slipped free. Arms outstretched, he totters across the parking lot and gropes for another set of legs to climb. I should feel good about this—I know I should. And I should be grateful for the frizzy-haired woman who bends down to scoop him up and then passes me a thick wad of cash—far more than I paid. The Pocket Soldier has been a terrible companion, but he was a companion. Sort of. Wrong as it is, I can’t help speculating about Pocket Soldier 2.0, which they’re probably working on. Maybe they’ll make the next one a little taller. Maybe they’ll understand that realism is not a tail worth chasing. Dumb him down, give him a softer voice, and maybe ditch the firearms. I’ll pay top dollar.
Diego and I end up at a seam-split booth parked in a gloomy corner of Bennigan’s. Somehow, this place is too spacious and too cramped at the same time, and from her halting manner, I can’t help thinking that our waitress is unused to having customers. Her nametag says Jess, and you can tell her hair’s going gray beneath her headband, and you tell from the nervous way she presses her nails into her palms that she needs that tip money. I can’t help wondering if maybe Jess is saving up for a Pocket Soldier, or if she’s got one waiting at home to demand doll-sized bowling alleys and driving ranges and G-4 jets.
I tell Diego the whole menu’s fair game—desserts included—and I’ll pay whatever the gift certificate can’t cover. God love him, my kid orders the Hawaiian Chicken and a humble Dr. Pepper with extra ice—nothing more. I order grilled salmon on a bed of ashy-looking mashed potatoes. Diego and I both agree that this place isn’t so bad.
“It’s the Ford Escort of restaurants,” Diego says, eating a big hunk of pineapple.
Our waitress pops her gum and concedes a smile.
With grim determination, we make our food disappear. It’s as if we both have something to prove, though I don’t know what.
“Your dad used to say a meal should be an act of celebration,” I say, checking out the sour green lighting. “Bright voices, bright flavors.”
My son steals clandestine glances at the tacky sports paraphernalia that hangs on the walls—billiard balls, bald racing tires, a goalie’s mask. After a while, even he has to give up on the Hawaiian Chicken—there’s simply too much. From the pocket of his jeans, he takes out the Pocket Soldier’s rifle and examines it against the weak overhead light. As advertised, the barrel’s plugged with glue.
“We could head by the toy store if you want,” I say. “Pick whatever you want, but no soldiers.”
“Thanks anyway,” Diego says.
Using his fork, he strips a metal piece from the innards of the weapon, so that what used to be the barrel now produces a constant blue rose of plasma. I watch as my son presses the lovely flame to a stray pineapple chunk, which blackens and crackles. He moves on to my salmon, which also turns crispy. I prefer to think this has less to do with destruction than a general curiosity about what the world’s made of, but who knows, maybe he’s destined for a destructive phase.
“Rashes to rashes,” Diego says, summoning his best old-man priest voice.
“Not funny,” I say.
He moves on, torching different materials now—the edge of a napkin, the table’s yellowed finish, then one of those cheap peppermints our waitress dropped off with the check. As Diego subjects new items to plasma, he gets an impish smile. His eyelids twitch, his hands quake, and he lists over in his seat like the not-drunk priest.
“You shouldn’t mock,” I say.
“Then why are you laughing?”
Blame the disco biscuits, or maybe it’s carbohydrate overload, or it could be the way Diego swats desperately at the two small bonfires he’s made of my fish and my napkin. It would be difficult to explain why my laughter keeps dragging into a full-on sob. Diego doesn’t cry, he who has probably known all along that we’d be insane not to laugh. His palms are dark with ash, and he’s got the flames mostly quashed.
We’re so loud that Jess charges over to ask what’s wrong. Poor thing, no doubt she’s afraid we’ve found a silverfish or a fingernail afloat somewhere in our bland food, but I’m thinking of the time we all went putt-putting and one of Diego’s wayward balls took a bad hop off a fiberglass owl and hooked backward for a one-in-a-thousand shot that split the upper lip of Eid, who was humming classic rock, and whose head and neck snapped backward with a perfect chicken-like motion that wasn’t at all funny then—nor the blood, nor the chipped tooth.
“Did he tell you I locked him in the freezer?” Diego says. His voice has narrowed down to a wheeze, and he’s still wiping ash from his hands.
Okay, so maybe we’re laughing for different reasons, but the important thing is that we’re in hysterics at the most forgettable restaurant in town, and whatever’s wrong with us must be contagious, because Jess starts to follow our laugh. You can tell it’s forced, but every now and then she loses control and snorts. I motion to the empty chair beside me, I urge her to sit.
“If the manager sees—” Jess says.
I grip Jess’s hand for comfort. She sits among us, and we wait to see what else Diego might burn. Jess can’t possibly get it, but maybe for a moment she’ll find a way to observe her own life through the Bennigan’s kaleidoscope like I have. This woman’s carrying something—if not a loved one tumbling clown-like from a live oak, then maybe a thrill-seeker aunt who fell from a ski lift, or a heart-surgeon mother who keeled over from hypertension, or a tiny ex-lover who laid waste to her credit. Laugh it up, Jess. Tomorrow will leave us devastated all over again, but for now, we’re making one hell of a scene at table five, and we’re big enough to think we understand why.
Nickalus Rupert is a Pushcart Prize-winning fiction writer who spent most of his life near the Gulf Coast. His short story collection, Bosses of Light and Sound, won the 2019 Spokane Prize for Short Fiction, and is available from Willow Springs Books. His stories have appeared in or are forthcoming in The Idaho Review, Harpur Palate, Pleiades, Tin House Online, and many other journals. Find him at www.nickrupert.com.