Robert Robert Robert
When the mother comes back into the room after paying the babysitter, her son is still there on the couch, the back of his head and shoulders a silhouette against the bright television. He is four. It is Saturday, his night to stay up as late as he wishes. The woman’s husband, the boy’s father, dressed in evening clothes, sits in the easy chair to the side with his glasses on and a newspaper. He has loosened his tie. A small lamp lights the paper and his fingers.
Two hours ago, the woman’s husband was charming at the restaurant, at the head of the table, thanking his managers for the year, the jump in sales. The firm rented an entire dining room, and from the fourteenth-floor windows everyone could see sparkling Boston under rain. Waiters with wine bottles stood to the side until her husband’s speech was finished, then moved forward to fill glasses. Candles made amber light in the wine. Voices rose with appreciation for her husband, a burst of applause for this recognition, this evening out. She, the wife, was charming too, her egalitarian hand on the forearms of other wives, leaning forward pleasantly to listen to other husbands, knowing that later these couples would discuss how successfully they had maneuvered themselves into her favor.
She and Robert drove home by the coast. They had operated smoothly together all night, but the act was done and there was no need to speak or fill the air with small talk. She watched his hands on the steering wheel, the cut of his jaw, steady adjustments of eye. It was fall and dark and storming and you could see the white of waves below the curving road, on the rocks.
Now the woman stands beside the modern rosewood table. She removes her earrings, tilting her head, and takes off her heels. She has given the babysitter a generous tip. She puts her thin purse into a top drawer of the table.
Rain dashes against the house, and the windows are dark and wet. The television light flickers over her son. The film is black and white; cars are going at that 1940s speed, a little too fast to be realistic. Orchestral notes fall dramatically. Inside a forbidding mansion, a man holds a gun up to another and fires. The second man sinks to the floor. He raises his hand, a last, feeble defense. The shooter stands above him with menace, and the brass of the orchestra moans with despair.
“Robert,” her son says anxiously. “Robert. He’s going to kill him.”
The father puts down his newspaper and watches the television. His glasses reflect the advance of the shooter, the glint of the gun. He brings the newspaper up again.
The gunman grins. The orchestra builds to a crescendo. There is something terrible, the woman thinks, something awfully black, about the scene.
“Robert. Robert,” the boy says. “Robert?”
“He’s not going to kill him,” his father says. “That’s just acting.”
The mother glares at her husband. She thinks Hell. She steps forward and strokes her son’s hair. “You don’t need to see this, honey. We can turn it off if you want.”
Her son looks at her with wet, unfocused eyes, then shakes his head no and turns back to the screen.
“It’s a movie, Rebecca,” her husband says, behind his paper. “Let’s not make a federal case out of it, all right?”
A detective steps through the doorway. He pulls his revolver and fires. The bad guy grimaces, holds his chest. Victorious music plays. A pretty woman comes into the room, her hands to her face, her dress impossibly pristine. “There, see that?” the husband says, with the paper still in front of him. “All finished. Now let the kid watch his movie.”
Oh Goddamn it to hell hell hell, the mother thinks. She removes her silver barrette and shakes her hair out angrily. She goes to the bathroom for aspirin. The light in there makes her head pound. The names of various products scream at her from the cabinet. She takes off her makeup and bathes her face in cool water, trying to concentrate on this tiny submergence and not on the faint, frantic sounds of machine guns and violins down the hall. She pats her face dry with a towel, and holds the cloth against her forehead with her eyes closed. When she comes out again the actress, in another sweeping dress, is kissing the detective. They are on a veranda and fireworks are glittering high in the night sky. The actress has her hand on the back of the detective’s neck, bringing him close. They move their heads around passionately.
“Robert,” the boy says. “Robert. Robert Robert Robert. How come they’re doing this?” His father keeps on reading.
“Robert,” the woman says, with a long, measured breath. “Our son is talking to you.”
Her husband sighs and puts down his newspaper and looks at the television. His glasses are two infinitesimal screens, two small squares of kissing light. “That’s what people do when they like each other,” he says. “They’re just kissing.”
The boy stares at his father, a profile of curiosity that makes the woman suddenly, strangely dizzy. It is as if the house were rocking and falling beneath her. Her husband, taking off his glasses, looking at their boy, seems momentarily startled as well.
The woman watches the two of them. She watches them turn again toward the screen. Then she watches her husband put his glasses on and press his lips together and, with a brusque shake, straighten out the crease in his newspaper and bring it up to read. She watches him carefully wet the tip of a finger and prepare to turn the page.
An earlier version of this story appeared in Entelechy International.
JOSEPH HURKA teaches creative writing at Tufts. He won the Pushcart Editors’ Book Award for his memoir, Fields of Light, and recently published a novel, Before. His forthcoming short story collection is titled Light Wings.