The summer before Miles started kindergarten, the family was invited to dinner by the Millers, a couple who lived a few houses down the street. Mr. Miller was a police officer and Mrs. Miller a nurse, which often required them to work strange hours, even late into the evening or overnight at times. They had a young son, nearly identical in age to Miles, who would frequently be left with a babysitter or a family member all night. According to the stories, age was about the only thing the boy had in common with Miles. It was no great secret around the neighborhood that Billy Miller was a monstrous child, prone to violence and fits of temper that were nearly impossible to predict or control. The Millers had quickly burned through almost every available teenage girl in the neighborhood, and there were very few left who were willing to take on the task of sitting for Billy Miller. The boy had also been booted from every day care facility in the town, and now they were at the mercy of asking Mr. Miller’s somewhat aged mother to watch him each day. She too was beginning to wear under the strain, and soon, the Millers felt, one of the two of them would be forced to leave their job in order to watch the boy, as they were nearly out of options. The Youngs were not exceptionally close to the other family, and thus when they received the invitation to dinner, they suspected a hidden motive, a desperate plea for help from the Millers. They dutifully, but not joyfully, accepted the invitation, agreeing in advance that their help would extend no further than advice for the couple, and that they would have to decline should they be asked to watch Billy.
The Millers greeted them at the door. If they had just looked at their mouths, the Youngs would have seen smiles on the faces of the couple, but looking into their eyes they saw instead ache and weariness.
“This must be little Miles!” Mr. Miller said, roughing up the boy’s hair. Miles winced and began fussedly repairing the damage. “Welcome! Come on in!” He extended a hand to each of the Youngs in turn as they passed the threshold of his house, and Mrs. Miller did the same. Once the Youngs were inside Mrs. Miller began hustling about, making last minute preparations to the seating area, fluffing pillows and neatly arranging coasters on the coffee table that were already neatly arranged. She scurried off to the kitchen, offering drinks to the Youngs.
“Wine? Beer? Iced tea? Mrs. Young?”
Mrs. Young smiled politely. “Karen, please. And just tea will be fine for me.”
“And for you Mr. Young?”
“Please, call me Jack. And I will take some tea as well.”
She had already disappeared into the confines of the kitchen., and the sound of eager glasses clinking with eager ice could be heard in the entryway.
“Jack, Karen, come in, make yourselves at home!” Mr. Miller instructed, so the Youngs found their way into the living room and sat close together on the edge of the couch, legs together and feet on the ground, backs away from the sofa. Hardly had they done so when Mrs. Miller was arriving with glasses of iced tea for the pair. She set them gingerly down on the coasters and slid them toward the Youngs, ruining the arrangement she had made just moments before. The Youngs thanked her politely and smiled, and Mrs. Miller hurried back into the kitchen to make final preparations for dinner. Miles had meanwhile sat down on the sofa as well, assuming the same posture as his parents, and was looking at the ground silently.
“Dear,” called Mr. Miller, a bit too sweetly, “perhaps Miles would like some lemonade or a soda?”
“Oh my!” she exclaimed from the kitchen, and flurried back into the living room. “How could I forget! Miles, would you care for anything to drink?”
He looked first at his parents. “May I have some lemonade, please?”
The Youngs smiled at their son, and Mr. Miller noticed something different in it than the one they had offered to him and his wife, but he could not place what it was. “Certainly, you may, son,” said Mr. Young.
“Well!” exclaimed Mrs. Miller. “What manners for such a young boy!” Rushing off again, she repaired to the kitchen to fetch the boy a drink. “Frank?” she called. “Anything?”
“A beer would be good. No glass.”
The Youngs waited patiently for her return while Mr. Miller settled into a recliner that nearly faced the sofa. He leaned back and crossed his ankle over his knee and sighed.
Mr. and Mrs. Young looked about the room in silence, eyes moving but not their heads. It would be rude, of course, to appear to be assessing the home, though in fact that is exactly what they were doing. Mr. Miller was himself staring off to the left, towards the entrance of the home, as if by watching he could make the night go faster, or at least make his beer arrive sooner. The home was tidy, spacious, and well decorated. Across from the pale grey microfiber sofa was a large ornate red brick fireplace, and above it a mantel topped with recent family photos. Each of them seemed to be from some exotic location, and in them the Millers were always having some sort of adventure. There were photos aboard cruise ships, photos of the couple on horseback, and photos of the couple hooked up to ziplines. Billy was in only one of the photos, an obviously staged Christmas photo from a studio session, the couple standing behind him wearing red and green, their hands placed gingerly on his shoulder the way one would carefully touch a student, or a cadaver in a lab. Above the photos hung a large painting, a nature scene of a beach and a small fishing boat far out in ocean, vaguely impressionist in style, but clearly painted within the last few years. To the untrained eye it looked elegant but to the Youngs it seemed gauche and out if place. They each knew the other would have the same opinion, though they certainly would never express such a thing in the presence of the hosts.
Mrs. Miller was soon back with the requested drinks, her face beginning to look tired from smiling, and just as soon had ghosted off to the kitchen to finish dinner. Mrs. Young offered courteously to assist in any way she could, but Mrs. Miller just as courteously declined, and thanked her for the offer.
Something was missing. The house was quite silent, the awkwardness hanging in the air as detectable as the scent of the roasted pork loin and rosemary potatoes that Mrs. Miller was preparing. It occurred to Mr. Young then that Billy had not made an appearance.
“Where is Billy this evening?” It was spoken with as much genuine curiosity as Mr. Young could muster, though of course behind it lay the intent to cut through the unspoken tension and expose the true meaning of the visit. Mrs. Young patted him gently on the leg, her eyes sending covert messages that aimed to discourage him from bringing this up before dinner, but he did not even glance in her direction.
Mr. Miller chuckled, almost inaudibly. “Well, he’s…well, we decided it might be best this evening if he stayed at his grandmother’s.”
“I see.” Mr. Young paused. It was important that he be blunt but also delicate. He did not favor pretense very much, so in his eyes the sooner the subject of Billy’s behavior was broached (and thus what role the Youngs were to play in the remedy thereof), the sooner it could be put to rest. He did not get the chance to continue, however, because while he was still formulating his next sentence Mrs. Miller declared ringingly that dinner was served.
The dinner was quite delicious. Mrs. Miller was a wonderful cook, though the Youngs secretly wondered how she ever had time to learn the craft. Wine was brought out with dinner, and the Youngs, not wanting to appear stiff or snobbish, each accepted half of a glass. Miles ate his food without significant mess, and never once asked to be let away from the table. When he needed something, he said please and when he received it, thank you. When he was finished he thanked Mrs. Miller for “a very lovely meal,” to which Mr. Miller responded with more chuckling and Mrs. Miller couldn’t help but laugh. Throughout the meal the Millers never ceased lavishing compliments on both him and his parents for his behavior, all of which were modestly deflected.
“We truly are just very fortunate,” Mrs. Young would say, though inwardly she was welling with pride. “He has just been a perfect little boy.” She reached over and patted his head, at which he bristled and frowned, and began combing his hair with his fingers feverishly. All of the adults laughed then. “Well, almost,” quipped Mrs. Young, and they laughed some more.
When the plates were cleared, and Mrs. Miller was busying herself with the work of cleaning the dishes, Mr. Young sent Miles off to read the book they had brought for him. The boy returned to the living room, leaving the adults seated around the dining table.
“Forgive me if I assume incorrectly,” Mr. Young began, “but I can only suspect that this dinner was not entirely for social purposes.” He saw no need to postpone the inevitable. Under the table, his wife placed her hand gently on his thigh.
Mr. Miller chuckled softly, and sighed, shaking his head slightly, looking down at the tabletop. “No, you’re right.” He scratched his head. “Laura and I actually wanted to talk to you guys about…well, it would be best if my wife were here for this. Laura, honey, could you come in here please?” The water in the kitchen shut off, and Mrs. Miller removed her apron as she returned to the table and sat next to her husband. “Why don’t you tell them what we were thinking, dear?” Mrs. Miller smiled at her husband, not quite affectionately this time, sending her silent gratitude for the passing of the buck.
“Sure, honey.” She turned to face the Youngs, and her words came out slowly, carefully, with a marked precision. It was clear she had rehearsed this in her mind already dozens of times in the days between the invitation and the engagement. “Well, as you may know, our son Billy has been…well, Frank and I both have to work very late sometimes, and we have not had much luck finding a decent babysitter. I’m sure you know how that can be!” The Youngs nodded, even though they had very rarely had to use one, and had very much liked the one they had found. “And Mrs. Miller, that is, Frank’s mother, has been watching him recently for us, but her health is not wonderful, quite frankly, are we are…well, we were wondering if there were any chance Billy might be able to come play with Miles sometime.” It was a half question, with an almost imperceptible lift in tone at the end. When the Youngs didn’t respond immediately, suddenly her words began to flood out rushingly, pouringly, as if she were already deflecting their inevitable refusal. “It wouldn’t have to be very often, and, well, if you can’t do it then I understand, but, well, Billy doesn’t have any friends really, and we thought that maybe he and Miles would get along, and, well, that…” She paused extensively, laboring over the next sentence. The Youngs noticed that they had cleverly avoided asking them to watch Billy, framing it instead as a play date. They had been equally elusive about the subject of Billy’s behavioral problems.
Mr. Miller stepped into the void left by his wife, leaning forward in his chair and gazing intently at the Youngs, resting his forearms on the table and clasping his hands in front of him. “Frankly, Jack, Karen, here’s the deal: Billy is…how can I say it? He’s…well, he’s pretty much a little asshole all the time.”
“Frank!” blurted Mrs. Miller, but he patted her leg to reassure her. Almost inaudibly he said, “They already know. Everyone in the whole neighborhood knows. There’s no sense acting like it ain’t so.” He let out a big nasally sigh as she blushed in embarrassment and cupped a hand around her eyes. “The thing is, you guys have raised an absolute marvel of a kid, and, well, honestly, we can’t seem to figure out how to do the same.” Mrs. Miller was shaking her head in disbelief at his candor, but he continued. “We were hoping that maybe if Miles and Billy became friends, or at least if he spent a little time with you guys that he might, well…that some of that might rub off on him I guess.”
A brief silence followed as the Youngs considered the proposition. Mr. Young, firmly convicted upon arrival that they would unequivocally refuse to bear the burden of this child, now felt that conviction wavering. The Millers weren’t bad people, they were quite sweet in fact, and had been very hospitable hosts. But more importantly, they were just regular people, a couple of neighbors in a bad spot. And after all, what sense was there in raising children to be wonderful and sweet and polite and helpful if you yourself didn’t exhibit the same characteristics when it was required? Mrs. Young was beginning to feel the same way. She had taken up teaching not, as many do, as a fallback, but because she had a genuine passion for wanting to help children develop into smart and well-mannered young people. How could she now refuse the opportunity to help a boy in need of some guidance? The Youngs looked at each other, and simultaneously felt the last strongholds of their prior resolve melting away. They knew, without speaking, that they had to at least try.
Mrs. Young spoke first. “I don’t see why that would be a problem. We would love to have him.” That was probably an exaggeration, everyone knew. “If it gives you a little peace, then it will be nice knowing that we were able to help.”
“Plus,” Mr. Young interjected, “as you say, who knows but that it might do the boy some good? Many times ill temper is a result of loneliness. Perhaps it will be just the balm he needs.”
Mr. Miller threw his arm around his wife, and they smiled together at the Youngs in genuine appreciation. “You have no idea how grateful we are,” he said, then burst into one of his signature chuckles, “nor how scared shitless we were to even ask! I mean, everyone has heard horror stories!”
Mrs. Miller spoke through clenched teeth and a fake smile. “Not too late for them to change their minds, dear!”
The foursome laughed, somewhat awkwardly and somewhat cathartically. It held inside it the memory of other laughter, like the nervous giddy giggle the Millers had let out when they found out one month into their marriage that they were pregnant, or the time Mr. Young had borne home news to his wife that a student had falsified accusations of sexual harassment against him. It was a communal and yet an incredulous laugh, tense and disbelieving, and faded quickly leaving the group sitting in stunned silence.
Miles never once looked up from his book, utterly oblivious to events in the dining room, content to simply exist in the peaceful world of his imagination.