Dear Mom and Dad,
I’m sorry I wasted the money you saved up for my college tuition. I’m sorry Mr. Trout called you to complain about my work performance. Sorry about the basement.
Alan didn’t know exactly what Tod meant about the basement, other than the general mess he’d made of it since he’d moved back into his old bedroom down there. He hoped it wasn’t something more specific. But he was touched and surprised at Tod’s apologies for the other things.
“Regina,” said Alan, kneeling by the king-sized bed and tapping his wife on the arm. “Regina, look what Tod left for us.”
“I think it’s a trick,” said Regina after reading it.
“It could be he’s reaching out to us,” said Alan.
“You fall for it,” said Regina as she got out of bed and headed for the bathroom. “And then I’ll help you punish him when the other shoe drops.”
Alan could feel paint flecks that had chipped off of the basement walls adhering to his bare feet as he descended the steps to the basement where Tod was sifting through a pile of wet laundry he had spread out over the surface of the uncovered pool table. Tod was wearing a t-shirt and a pair of blue basketball shorts that hung down to his shins. He hummed something tuneless and abrasive. For the first time, Alan noticed a roll of fat bulging around his son’s waist. It looked unnatural, like a prosthetic spare tire under his t-shirt.
“Hey, Tod,” said Alan to the back of his son’s carelessly shaven head. “Did you slide a letter under our bedroom door last night?”
“It wasn’t me,” said Tod without turning around. He began to pick through a wad of his damp socks.
“Well, ok, I didn’t really mean ‘did you put a letter under my door?’” said Alan. “I know you did. I meant, ‘do you want to talk about it?’”
“It wasn’t me,” said Tod again. He turned around with his wrinkled Diamond Food work shirt and khaki pants in his hands. “What did the letter say?”
“It was an apology letter,” said Alan. “From you.”
“Apology for what?” asked Tod.
Alan attempted a fatherly you-know-for-what look, but Tod was as impervious as he had always been. Alan didn’t want to lapse into his old refrain, but he did anyway. “Tod, you’re twenty-four-”
“I’m twenty-five,” said Tod.
“What? No you’re not, you’re twenty-four-”
“I’m twenty-five!” shouted Tod and he stormed around the corner into the laundry room to throw his work clothes into the dryer.
The next morning a new letter had been slipped under the door. “Regina, listen,” said Alan, sitting up in his sleeping bag on the floor while Regina stayed burrowed under the comforter on the bed. “Dear Mom and Dad. I’m sorry I pretended to not know about the letter. I’m sorry I yelled that I’m twenty-five. I know I’m twenty-four. I’m sorry Mr. Trout called you again about my behavioral problems at work. Your son, Tod.”
“Our son is really messed up,” said Regina. “Want to flip a coin to see who takes the blame for this new thing?”
“You try talking to him,” said Alan as he rolled up his sleeping bag.
“No,” said Regina. “I don’t want to encourage these kinds of stunts.”
When Tod got home from work, Alan was waiting for him in the kitchen, sitting at the table and eating a bowl of chocolate cereal. “How was work?” he asked by way of preliminary remarks.
“Sucked,” said Tod. “Mr. Trout lost his mind at me.”
“Great,” said Alan. “Now he’s going to call me again. What did you do?”
“Nothing,” said Tod as he dumped his lunch box into the sink, fork, plastic baggies, and all. “He’s just mad all the time ‘cause his wife makes him sleep on the couch and then he takes it out on me.”
Alan stirred his cereal around in his bowl. All of a sudden it was too sweet for him. “How do you know his wife makes him sleep on the couch?”
“It’s easy,” said Tod. “He thinks he’s good at hiding things from me but he’s not. He’s stupid.” Then Tod disappeared into the basement, clumping down the steps like a man without knees. It was a full five minutes before Alan realized he’d forgotten to ask about the second letter.
Alan didn’t want to read the following morning’s letter out loud to Regina, but she heard him rustling the paper down on the floor and asked, “How’s this one? Are his composition skills improving?”
“More of the same,” said Alan in a way that must have sounded suspicious because Regina stuck her head over the side of the bed and narrowed her eyes at him. “What does it say?”
“Um,” said Alan.
“Read it, Alan.”
“Dear Mom and Dad,” read Alan. “I’m sorry Mr. Trout called you about my bad choices at work yesterday and the incidents with the customers and the incidents with everyone else. I’m sorry I tried to spite you by making up the thing about Mr. Trout’s wife making him sleep on the couch. I’m sorry I implied you’re stupid. Your son, Tod.”
Regina was frowning. “He implied that we’re stupid? When was that?”
“Yesterday when he got home from work,” said Alan. “And I think the implication was that I was stupid. I don’t know that you were included.” Alan tossed the letter aside and held in a sigh.
“I hate that he knows about our sleeping arrangement,” said Regina. “However you gave it away, I wish you hadn’t.”
“But he’s interested,” said Alan, sitting up and taking Regina by the wrist, which she tolerated. “This shows that he’s paying attention. He’s aware of us and what we’re doing. We’re important to him.”
“I don’t like it,” said Regina. “Our private business shouldn’t concern him anymore. He’s twenty-five.”
“Twenty-four,” said Alan. “He turns twenty-five in August.”
Later that morning, Alan knocked on Tod’s bedroom door. “Tod? Mr. Trout just called. You were supposed to be at work two hours ago. He said you’re fired.”
“OK,” Tod called through the door. “I’ll just keep sleeping then.”
Alan tried the doorknob and found it locked. He went back upstairs and got out a pen and paper. He sat down on the couch in the family room and smoothed the paper out on the coffee table, writing:
Your mother and I appreciate your letters. If this is how you prefer to communicate your feelings for now, I think that’s OK. Maybe someday we can talk, but for now, letters are OK. It’s true that I’m sleeping on the floor in our room, but I wouldn’t have tried to keep that from you except your mother wanted me to. She has her reasons.
Sincerely, Your Dad.
Alan folded the letter in half, took it back down to the basement, and slid it under Tod’s bedroom door.
That afternoon, Tod emerged from the basement long enough to eat a bruised apple, complain about the overall lack of quality fruit in the house, and return to the basement with an oscillating fan he took out of Alan’s office without permission. He didn’t mention the letter Alan had left for him.
The next morning, Alan awoke to Regina tapping him on the forehead with her index finger. She was sitting cross-legged on the floor beside him and she had a new letter from Tod in her hand. Her reading glasses were balanced on the very tip of her nose. “Nice work, pro-active parent,” she said.
“What?” asked Alan. “What happened?”
“Allow me to read,” said Regina. She held the letter up in front of her and cleared her throat three times, the last two of which were almost certainly unnecessary. “Dear Mom and Dad,” she read. “This is my last letter. It used to be cool, but now everybody’s doing it. Your son, Tod.”
“I had to try,” said Alan.
“Maybe your language was too formal,” said Regina. “Young people like it when you pander to them.” She refolded the letter and set it on Alan’s chest. “Oh, I know, next time you should tell him you got him a gift and then when he opens it, it’s a big, dull self-help book that you’ve already gone through with a high-lighter.”
Alan silently reflected on the fact that he was starting to not miss sleeping on the bed at all.
Alan knocked on Tod’s bedroom door and said, “Tod? Can I come in?” Through the door, Alan heard the low murmur of his oscillating fan. Then Tod came out of his room and closed the door behind him. He was wearing boxer shorts and a hooded sweatshirt. “What do you need?” he asked. There was a spot of blood soaking through a band-aid on his forehead.
“I just wanted to tell you that if you want to give your mom and me more letters, you can,” said Alan. “I promise I won’t respond to them anymore. I won’t even mention them.”
“What letters?” asked Tod.
“All right,” said Alan. “You don’t have to acknowledge them. I guess that’s part of the whole deal. I just wanted to acknowledge my mistake to you.”
“Which one?” asked Tod.
“This mistake of writing you back,” said Alan.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Tod. “Sorry.” But his “sorry” didn’t sound sincere. He went back into his room and closed the door. Alan heard the click of the lock and then, other than the muffled whir of the fan, there was nothing else to hear.