Grant sensed trouble. The marriage counselor had told him he was supposed to work on being tactful. He wasn’t supposed to justify his rudeness by calling it “honesty” anymore. Instead, he was supposed to find less offensive ways to be honest. But so far it had been very difficult for him to do this, especially under pressure, so he decided that in this case, the safest course of action was to lie. “Yes,” he said, hoping that by some miracle the subject would go no further.
“Of course we are,” said Wanda, and she reached into an open cardboard box on the bedspread in front of her and produced a white t-shirt with a picture screened onto the front of it of their 9-year-old son Jameson with his distinctive over-smile and the discolored blotch that had been on his face since birth. The words “I’m Proud of My Unique Son” were printed across the chest of the t-shirt above the picture.
“That’s yours,” said Grant as if phrasing it as a statement instead of a question would make it true.
“We both have one,” said Wanda. “This one’s yours.”
“What size is it?” asked Grant. He was grasping at straws.
“Your size,” said Wanda. She tossed the shirt at Grant. He let it hit his body and fall to the floor. “Pick it up and put it on,” said Wanda. “We’re wearing these shirts to Jameson’s little thing at school tonight.”
Grant removed his tie and dress shirt. He picked the t-shirt up from the floor and pulled it over his head. He looked at himself in the mirror hanging on the closet door. His son smiled back at him aggressively as if baring his teeth in preparation for a fight over an animal carcass.
“Don’t you feel even prouder now that you have it on?” asked Wanda.
Grant didn’t feeler prouder. In fact, the shame he felt over having such an ill-behaved son was now compounded by the shame of wearing a stupid-looking t-shirt that proclaimed his pride in a son that no father in his right mind would be proud of.
“Why does it say ‘my unique son’ on it?” asked Grant. “Why doesn’t it just say, ‘I’m proud of my son?’”
“It’s an acknowledgment of Jameson’s troubles, in a way,” said Wanda. She had changed into her t-shirt too, which was exactly like Grant’s but a few sizes smaller, and she stood next to him, admiring the pair of them in the mirror.
Grant wanted to say that it was more like an excuse than an acknowledgment. He thought that an apology would have been more appropriate. Maybe a shirt that said, “I apologize for my ill-behaved son,” that’s what they needed. These shirts seemed almost confrontational, as if they were designed to breed resentment and pick fights with the other parents. If it had been up to Grant, they would have gone to Jameson’s little thing at the school incognito, slipping in and slipping out without any of the other parents ever knowing who they were or why they were there. And he probably could have talked Wanda into such a plan, or something close, if Jameson’s participation in the little thing at school hadn’t awoken something in Wanda that Grant now realized must have been pride. Every time Wanda heard Jameson practicing in his room, belting out lyrics about the death of the world’s oceans, she put her hands on her hips and smiled in a way that seemed to indicate that she had no prior relationship with Jameson, that he hadn’t been putting her through the wringer every single day since he was born. Grant didn’t understand how she could let herself be duped like that. But he hadn’t known just how thoroughly she’d been fooled until he saw the t-shirts. And by then it was too late.
Grant made them late to Jameson’s little thing at school on purpose to prevent people from seeing the shirts until the reception that was supposed to take place after the little thing. Wanda was terrified that they were going to miss the death of the oceans song she’d heard Jameson practicing even though the program they’d received in the mail clearly indicated that it would be towards the end of the night.
The lights were dim and the auditorium was full of people. A lone spotlight shone on the stage, but the curtain had not yet been lifted. An usher directed Grant and Wanda to a pair of seats near the back between a beaming, overweight father who appeared to be attending the little thing by himself and a pair of grandparents who, even though there were still no kids on stage, looked at Grant and Wanda as if they’d just set off a string of firecrackers during the saddest part of a young person’s funeral.
The single father nodded a greeting at Grant and said, “I like the shirt. Is that your son? Is he in the program?” Grant didn’t know what to say to such stupid questions so he just said, “Yes.”
“What’s his name?” asked the single father. “My daughter probably knows him.”
Grant didn’t doubt that she did. Therefore he would do everything in his power to avoid divulging his son’s name.
The curtain on the stage came up. The students were assembled on risers with their heels together and their backs straight. Their shirts were tucked in and their dresses were mostly not hand-me-downs.
“There’s Jameson,” whispered Wanda. “In the front row. Doesn’t he look nice, Grant?”
Grant could see how someone who didn’t know better might think Jameson looked nice, even with the blemish on his face, so he said, “Yes, Wanda, he does.” Wanda beamed at him. Grant was willing to admit that this tactful dishonesty certainly eliminated a lot of strife. He took Wanda’s hand and they smiled at each other as the children lurched into their first song. Grant turned his gaze back to the children just as Jameson rushed past the director to a microphone that had been set up on stage for a solo number later in the program.
Wanda’s grasp on Grant’s hand tightened. “No, no,” she whispered.
The song faltered as Jameson seized the microphone, his classmates watching with morbid fascination. The accompanist at the piano played blithely on until Jameson started shrieking, his horrible voice bursting out of the PA system. The sound man cut the power to the microphone but it didn’t deter Jameson from continuing to scream and the horrible noise filled the room even without amplification. The acoustics in the auditorium were remarkably good. The director stepped forward and reached for Jameson’s shoulder, but he shrugged her off and swung the mic stand at her. It whistled past her face, missing her by mere inches, and she staggered backwards.
“Where are this kid’s parents?” shouted someone in the crowd. “Someone needs to stop him! Where is this boy’s father?”
“Lay low,” Grant whispered to Wanda. “We can still sneak out of here.”
“The parents are right here!” shouted the single father next to Grant, leaping to his feet. He pointed down at Grant, his finger aimed squarely at the picture of Jameson’s face on the t-shirt. “That kid’s on these peoples’ shirts! I recognize the mark on his face!” Grant had the absurd thought that Jameson’s picture might come to life and bite the single father’s finger. Other parents were standing up and turning around in their seats, yelling for Grant and Wanda to get their rampaging son under control.
“It’s true,” said Wanda in a loud voice. “He is our unique son! And we’re proud of him!”
Grant was surprised at her bravery. He was also surprised that whatever she had felt that convinced her that she was proud of Jameson had not yet dissipated in the face of his latest outrage.
The director was hustling the other children down the risers and off the stage. The curtain began to close and Jameson, still shrieking, struck at the heavy velvet cloth with the mic stand, sending clouds of dust floating through the spotlight until that was switched off as well and the house lights came up.
“He is our son,” said Grant, standing up and addressing the angry crowd. “But trust me, we’re not proud of him.” He pointed at Jameson and said, “We are not proud of that.”
Wanda hid her face in her hands, which Grant assumed meant she was upset with him, but there was only so much tact he could stand.
Jameson was smashing the mic stand against the wooden floor of the stage, but his energy was flagging. Each scream was a step down in ferocity and volume. Finally he dropped the mic stand on the stage with a hollow thump and collapsed onto his back, his chest rising and falling rapidly as he looked up into the rafters.
The crowd fell silent.
Grant made his way to the aisle and walked toward the front of the auditorium. He stood at the edge of the stage with Jameson stretched out and panting at chest level in front of him. Jameson turned his head and inspected Grant’s shirt, mouthing the words as he read them, the blotch on his face a deeper red than usual as a result of his exertion.
“Your mom made it,” said Grant. “Without consulting me.”
“Is there one in my size?” asked Jameson.
“No,” said Grant. “But you can wear mine.” He peeled the shirt over his head and tossed it across Jameson’s chest.
On the way out of the auditorium, Grant could feel the crowd eyeing his hairy back, the roll of fat around his mid-section, the terrible tattoo he’d gotten on his shoulder blade when he was in the army, the ugly scar from his appendectomy, and the weird cluster of moles on his sagging belly. It was the least ashamed he’d felt all night.