“Okay, Mr. Harrington, would you be so kind as to read this list aloud for us?” Dr. Spencer handed me the script.
I cleared my throat, which seemed more phlegmatic than usual, our one o’clock appointment coming just after a lunch with my brother at Frank’s Oyster Bar.
“I’m sorry… I made a mistake… Please forgive me… I was an idiot… I don’t know what I was thinking… You are my partner and best friend and I respect you… I don’t know what I would do without you… I am a better person because of you…”
I hesitated before the next statement: “In the future I will try to be more respectful of your feelings.” It actually said In future, which sounded too British, so I added a the. Then I continued: “Our relationship is important to me and I want to give it a higher priority… I have made some mistakes, but I hope to do better.”
Dr. Spencer seemed satisfied but Julie looked miffed.
“What?” I asked.
She looked at the doctor and said, “Did you hear the dismissive tone in his voice?”
“It is merely an exercise, Mrs. Harrington. Some people—men particularly,” he said, looking at me over the top of his reading glasses, “have trouble verbalizing their feelings, especially anything that makes them seem vulnerable. This exercise is designed to help clients get used to hearing the sound of their own voice expressing sentiments that would help them in their relationships, if only they were able to put them into words at the right time. Sincerity is not a requirement at present.”
Dr. Spencer looked down at his notes, and I stuck my tongue out at Julie, who bared her teeth at me in response.
“Then why do I have to read them?” she asked.
“Each person in the relationship must read the list to the other every time we meet. I think it is helpful whether you are already a good verbalizer or not. I have been told by other couples that this one item was the breakthrough for their reconciliation. Most couples don’t end up in counseling unless there is poor communication. I considered making you memorize them. Then you could recite them to each other every day, whether there is a need to or not. But then it would become quotidian and lose whatever power it has—so, for now, you don’t have to worry.”
I scrutinized the diplomas on the wall and focused on the master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Seton Hill University. I wondered if there even was such a place—there’s a Seton Hall University with a basketball team, but Seton Hill? I got out my smartphone and did a quick search on the Internet.
“Are you playing games, Scott? Checkin’ your in-box?” asked Julie in a snide tone of voice.
She looked at the doctor and said, “We’re trying to save our marriage and he’s playing Angry Birds.”
“I am not!”
“What are you doing, then? Let me see.”
“Nothing. None of your business.” I put my phone away.
“Communication’s not his strong suit,” Julie explained semi-confidentially to the doctor. “Especially listening.”
“I heard that! I’ll bet Roger is a good communicator,” I responded. I turned to the doctor and whispered loudly, “He’s my competition.”
“Roger is a good communicator,” Julie declared. “It’s his job!”
“He wears makeup.”
“He’s a television personality!”
“He paints his fingernails gray.” I changed the subject. “So, Doc, are you happily married?”
“No. I’m not currently married but I have been happily married twice.”
“Twice, huh? Isn’t that like the three-hundred-pound physician running a weight-loss clinic?”
“If you must know, my first wife left me for a woman after she decided she was a lesbian. My second wife wanted to pursue a career in church ministry, which I found incompatible since I am an atheist.”
I turned to Julie and whispered, “Is that the best you could do?”
The doctor released a heavy sigh. “Mrs. Harrington, if you will be so kind as to read the list, please.”
“Here goes. I’m sorry… I made a mistake… Please forgive me… I was an idiot… I don’t know what I was thinking… You are my partner and best friend and I respect you… I don’t know what I would do without you… I am a better person because of you…”
“She’s going too fast.”
“Please don’t interrupt your wife. Continue.”
“In future I will try to be more respectful of your feelings.”
“The future. This ain’t England.”
“Mr. Harrington, you are wasting valuable time. If you wish to make any progress this week, you’ll have to be more cooperative.”
“In future I will.”
“You see what I’m up against, don’t you?”
“You have my sympathy, Mrs. Harrington. Since your husband brought it up, why don’t you tell us about Roger? That seems to be a sore spot.”
“Roger and I work together at WAPG. He’s one of the anchors for the weekend news. We are friends and that is all. He is not ‘the competition.’”
Turning away and taking a deep breath, Julie forged ahead. As it approached 2:00, she asked, “Dr. Spencer, our family has a vacation scheduled for next week. We made plans months ago and would lose our deposit if we canceled now. Do you think it wise for us to go on a trip together while we’re in counseling?”
“Well, certainly that could be a challenge. The experience might bring you closer together, but there is an equal chance that the endeavor would be detrimental. You have children, don’t you?”
“Yes. Three boys, and one is a special needs.”
“Well, I see no reason to punish them. I’d say go for it.”
We left the office together in awkward silence.
“I’ll have to come back home to pack for the trip,” I said.
“I realize that. Why don’t you come over Sunday afternoon and bring your dirty clothes. We’re supposed to be at the beach house by five o’clock on Monday.”
Sunday came and I moved back home with several grocery sacks full of dirties. It felt good to be back after my three-week stint at a local hotel during our separation—especially good to have someone else do my laundry. Unfortunately I had to sleep in the guest room.
The next morning I was up at seven, and the house already reeked of toast. I found out later it was Pop-Tarts as our two oldest, Mark and Davy, were chowing down while they watched what passes for cartoons these days. Somehow I never envisioned my offspring being enthralled by a sponge. The youngest, Josh, was still asleep. Julie was armed with to-do and to-pack lists and single-handedly accumulated the mountain of vital necessities for our sojourn. I drank my coffee and read the paper as she stuffed the minivan precisely to the brim. I’ll give her that—the woman can pack a car. I’d filled up the gas tank the night before and checked all the tires. As soon as I tied the kayak to the top of the car, we were cleared for takeoff at oh-nine-hundred hours.
Julie was on the verge of breaking a sweat and said, “Could you get Josh and put him in the car seat? I’m going to the bathroom. And don’t wake him up if you can help it.”
Josh was a forty-pound bundle of cuddliness. I had missed the boys terribly, and it was nice to be part of the family again. I managed to get him situated in the car without waking him up. Two points for Dad!
Our trip commenced with a punctuality that we seldom achieved. All was well and visions of the seaside settled into my inner slideshow. That is, until Davy tried to grab one of the video-game devices away from his older brother, stirring up deeply held prejudices against sibling hegemony. At age seven Davy was almost as big as his older brother, Mark. Sometimes size was the great equalizer. Other times, not so much.
Josh woke up with vocal cords and lungs on full power and arms thrashing. This, for the record, was an hour after we left, forty miles down the interstate.
“Mark, honey, hand him Mr. Blinkie, please,” said Julie.
“Where is it?”
“It’s got to be back there somewhere. Davy, do you have it?”
“No! Why does everyone blame me?”
“We’re not blaming you! Can you help us look for it, please?”
I was beginning to feel uncomfortable when Julie looked over at me and asked, “You did get Mr. Blinkie when you picked up Josh, didn’t you?”
“You didn’t get it? The one thing that can keep Josh happy for the next seven days and you forgot it?”
We turned around and headed back to the homestead in tense silence. I was doing my best to get us back in timely fashion when blue lights and a siren pulled us over.
“Busted!” yelled Mark.
I rolled down the window as the officer approached and handed him my documents.
“Mr. Harrington, I’ve got you going eighty-one in a sixty-five-mile zone. Plus your right blinker is on.”
“Yes, Officer. Of course, there was a downhill stretch there with gravity and inertia exerting some additional force, and we might have been getting some draft pull from that eighteen-wheeler up ahead that’s probably going ninety.”
“So your brakes aren’t working?”
I looked away at the dashboard, withholding comment.
“Excuse me while I go check out your license information.”
“Officer!” Julie chimed in before he backed away. “We’re in a hurry to get back to our house to get our son’s favorite toy—he’s autistic and he needs his toy to be happy.”
“He seems fine to me.”
“Well, the toy has blinking red lights, and that’s why we have the blinker on. Plus your flashing blue lights seem to pacify him as well. Turn off your lights and see what happens.”
The officer returned and I turned off the blinker. Josh, no longer mesmerized by the flashing lights, began to moan, flail, and knock his head against the car window with a frightful, dull rhythm.
“Okay, people, I’ll give you a warning this time—it looks like you’re on vacation. But slow it down a bit from now on. You’ll still get to your destination.”
We got back and Julie said she’d go in to get Mr. Blinkie. I protested that it was my mistake and I would get him. Our sheepdog, Samson, jumped against the car, hoping that we were home for good. I entered Josh’s room and found Mr. Blinkie under his bed.
“Hey, little guy. You didn’t think you’d get off the hook that easy, did you?”
Mr. Blinkie had actually been one of Mark’s Christmas toys several years ago, but he was adopted by Josh. He’s kind of a fat, robot-looking thing with a bulbous plastic shell and accordion arms with wrench-like hands permanently stuck in the shape of the letter C. Which reminded me he took four C batteries, so I got a few replacements.
Back on the road we all felt relief, but we were at least two hours behind schedule and already had our first warning for speeding. We found a McDonald’s after about two hours of driving and just did the drive-through to save time. Josh was doing okay and the other boys weren’t acting up too much, what with the sedative hypnosis of video games.
The afternoon passed without incident, but we were going to miss the 5:00 deadline. Julie called ahead and got the entrance code and the instructions for late arrival. By 5:30 we were ready for a meal and a fill-up. Unfortunately we were truly out in the middle of nowhere, off the interstate now and on a state roadway. I spotted a little store and gas station that looked like something from the 1960s. The store had dark, brown-black wood siding with Coke and cigarette signs on the front. A one-wheeled bicycle leaned against one corner of the building, and there was a single, ancient gas pump in the front. It looked like the sort of place that required overalls. I looked at Julie and we decided to give it a chance.
I filled up the car with what I hoped was gasoline. Julie perused the limited supplies on the shelves and collected paper plates, crackers, cheese, green olives, bologna, raisins, and, in a culinary twist, maraschino cherries. We sat around a makeshift table near the back of the store. Julie seemed a little uptight. Plan A had been to get to the beach in time to grill out, but we were well into plan B.
“Mom, is this supper?” asked Davy.
“No, son. When we finish here we’re going to go home and roast a goose. Yes, this is supper, so find something you like and eat it.”
She looked at me and rolled her eyes. The evening sun beaming through the window brought out the lovely green tint that I found so fetching years ago. She handed me a cherry for an appetizer, and I popped it into my mouth—an amuse-bouche!
The kids having gone potty, the grownups had their turn. I was standing by the Coke machine with Josh as we waited for his mom. My thoughts turned to the last big argument we’d had before our separation, and I cringed as some of my hastily worded statements replayed in my mind. As I did so, I witnessed Davy and Mark tossing Mr. Blinkie back and forth over a boulder to one side of the store. “No, no, no, no, no,” I said to myself as Josh and I moved toward the front door. Too late to intervene with fate, I heard the inevitable collision of plastic on rock. Mr. Blinkie’s shell was cracked, a complex fracture of the head and torso, but overall the damage wasn’t as bad as it sounded. The important thing was the blinking eyes still worked.
We arrived about dark and followed the instructions to our rental house. Once we got everything out of the car, we collapsed on the back porch, where we could hear the waves and feel the gentle, salty breeze. A day or so into the vacation, Julie began to relax. I was invited back into the boudoir, and after a few days we even became intimate. It was all kind of fumbly-wumbly, but with a little humor, we got the job done. Just in time too. Somehow I’d forgotten my razor, and I was quickly making the transition from ruggedly handsome to scruffy seadog.
Each night we watched the local news so she could critique the format and setting, since her job at WAPG is assistant producer for the news program. She had decided to go part-time when Josh was born, and even that was a challenge much of the time. Thankfully we were beyond the reach of the home station, and I didn’t have to endure Roger’s painted face.
There’s plenty of time to reflect on things when you’re at the beach. Something Julie said during one of our arguments echoed within my skull: “I don’t need four boys to look after. I need three boys and one man to help carry the load.” That one still hurt. Of course I accused her of always being too serious. I used to be able to make her laugh.
Mr. Blinkie was a good sport about things, even when Davy tossed him into the ocean and he filled up with salt water, rendering him nonfunctional. I found a local hardware store and purchased a flashlight with a blinking red emergency light attached. This got us through the rest of the week, although Josh would occasionally call out for “Mis Binkie.” Josh said very few words, but Mr. and Blinkie were two of them. He was a sweet boy and enjoyed getting to play in the sand. He cared absolutely nothing for the water, however.
It rained hard on our last full day and we were stuck inside. The boys played well together, and Mr. Blinkie was right there in the middle. Mark and Davy created a number of alter egos—Super Blinkie, Bat Blinkie, Godzilla Blinkie. For Iron Man Blinkie Mark sang I am Iron Blinkie! in as low a voice as he could muster: “Has-he-lost-his-mind? Can-he-see-or-is-he-blind?”
“Is that our eldest son singing Black Sabbath?” I asked Julie.
“Relax. It’s only Iron Man. Could be worse.”
“Still, I don’t know if I’m ready for that.” I vowed never to complain about SpongeBob again.
Later there was pandemonium as Josh went into his head-banging and arm-flailing routine. The other two joined in solidarity, each rhythmically thumping against a different wall, arms in motion and at full wail, like some monstrous juvenile rave.
“Knock it off!” I commanded, and surprisingly they did, even Josh. Maybe I was on to something.
The rain cleared out nicely, setting up a near perfect departure day, except that the waves were a little rough. We had to be gone by 2:00, but there was time for one last visit to the beach. Julie and I set up our chairs and umbrella while the boys played in the sand. After a while I got hot and ran into the surf to cool off. I pushed past the breaking waves into the deeper part that was calmer so I could do some actual swimming. No one else was in the water, and after a while I thought I heard a whistle blowing. I ignored it at first but the noise intensified. It turns out the lifeguard was trying to get my attention, waving me back in. I was perfectly able to come in by myself, but he came after me nonetheless. The young man blasted me for not responding sooner and said I was out too far for the conditions. I walked back, beard dripping, to our umbrella.
“Little prickhead,” I murmured to Julie.
“What were you trying to do? Swim to Mexico?”
“It’s called exercise.”
She looked at her magazine for a minute and then spoke.
“You seem to have trouble with authority figures.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Just an observation. You don’t like it when another person exerts their authority over you.”
“Thank you, Joyce Brothers. What I don’t like is when snot-faced goobers misuse their power just because they can.”
“Because you’re not the one in control. You have a need to run everything.”
“Well, you have a need to ruin everything,” I countered. “Last day of our vacation and you have to get all Sigmund Freud on me. You just can’t have a good time, can you? Everything has to be analyzed and dissected.”
“In that case I think I’ll stop ruining your precious vacation and go back to analyze what needs to be loaded into the car.” With that she got her towel, book, and other belongings and left.
“Where’s Mom going?” yelled Mark.
“She started feeling bad. Play a bit longer and then we’ll have to leave.”
The boys protested when I announced it was time to go. We locked up and climbed into the car. Josh squealed at Mr. Blinkie, and I saw that one of the toy’s arms was missing.
“Mark,” I said, “do you know where Mr. Blinkie’s arm is?”
“Would you take the key and go find the arm, please?” I said, dangling the key on my finger and handing it over the headrest. “We can’t leave without it. I’m going to patch him up when we get back and see if I can’t get him working again.”
“Why don’t we just throw him away and get a new one?” he asked impertinently.
I turned around to look at him. “Because he’s our beloved Mr. Blinkie. And one thing I’ve learned lately is that some things in this life are worth fixing.” Julie was staring out her window.
Mark took the key and left reluctantly on his mission. I looked over at Julie, presented the battered, one-armed Mr. Blinkie to her, and, in my best robot monotone voice, recited Dr. Spencer’s mantra: I’m sorry… I made a mistake… Please forgive me… I was an idiot… I don’t know what I was thinking… You are my partner and best friend and I respect you… I don’t know what I would do without you…
Julie lowered her window, grabbed the one-armed robot, and with no remorse showing on her inscrutable face, tossed it out on the ground, where it landed with a sound somewhere between a clunk and a thunk. Mark soon returned.
“I couldn’t find it.”
“Just as well. Get in.”
I started up the car, and we drove away in silence.
Richard Key was born in Florida, but currently lives in Alabama where he works as a surgical pathologist. He has been writing short stories and essays for about nine years. He and his wife Laurie have two children and one cat.
If you enjoyed Mr. Blinkie To The Rescue, leave a comment and let Richard know.
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