When I take Max-Yamil to his first Biddy basketball game at the Boys and Girls Club, I realize my mistake. I dress him in the last shirt his father bought before he left for Puerto Rico: an Akademiks tee with fine gray detailing that looks like feathers. But all the boys at the club sport calf length athletic shorts and plain undershirts. Even worse, Max wears fifteen dollar light-up sneakers from Target. These boys skeeter down the court, wheeling and weaving so fast you can barely follow the blur of their feet. Their shoes without exception: late-model Nikes with swooshes that gleam as if polished.
Since Max’s dad left neither Mike nor I can say no. Baseball? Yes. Boy scouts? Yes. Midnight fishing at the canal? A second scoop of ice cream? An old canvas tepee in the living room? Yes. Yes. Yes. When he comes into our bedroom past midnight, arms outstretched, I no longer shoo him back. We ride our bikes everywhere. One Sunday, Mike brings him to the shop where he makes a bracelet out of an old bike chain. “I’m learning how to fix wheels,” he says to me when they get home.
On Fathers’ Day, we shoot three straight miles down the canal path to my parents’ house and I pedal until my legs are numb. When Max’s father called that afternoon I just let it ring.
The first time I ever brought Max’s father to my parents, we stopped at the shoe store on the way. He had just sent the woman he was living with back to Puerto Rico. She had a son. Max’s father walked up and down the aisles rubbing the bridge of his nose. “Estes,” he said, pulling a pair of Air Jordan high tops off the shelf, boys size nine. That night I wrapped the shoebox in brown paper and wrote the address and the name PURULA DUARTE across the top.
My father grills salmon and we sit in the backyard drinking lime seltzer as Max launches baseballs at his pitch-back. “Pop fly!” he yells when they bounce toward the treetops. He will only sit down at the dinner table long enough to eat dessert. “Why don’t you wish Grandpa happy Fathers’ Day?” I say. Max looks up from his cake and stabs his fork at he sky. “Happy Fathers Day, Grandpa,” he says. He turns his head. “Happy Fathers Day, Mike. If you were a father.”
It’s dark when we start for home and Mike has forgotten his bike headlight. The first part of the pathway is wide open and street lights spill over to make a kind of twilight. But soon we enter a wooded part with branches that reach over our heads like arms. “Mike,” I call. “I think we should stop.” In the distance I hear two loons trilling. “No, Mom. It’s OK.” In front of me, I can see the faintest outline of Max’s curly head bobbing as he pedals. “Follow the lights on my shoes!”
The box arrives when Max is at the grocery store with Mike. I recognize my son’s name and the return address but not the handwriting. I tear off the brown paper and fold it into squares before opening the lid. The shoes,black with white laces looped skater style, perch on shredded packing paper like fragile eggs in a nest. They are a size and a half too small.