Three and a Half Paths to Happiness: fiction

Ben Hoffman


The day after Ricky’s thirteenth birthday a present came in the mail from my ex. There was no return address on the package, but it had a North Carolina postmark and was overloaded with stamps commemorating Robert DeNiro’s roles as assorted psychopaths and gangsters, so Ricky and I both knew it was from Ricky’s dad.

Plus, it smelled like alcohol.

“Mom, that’s just your imagination,” Ricky said. “Maybe he’s stopped.”

Ricky was excited: yes, the gift was late, but only a day late, which meant technically Mark had remembered it before Ricky’s actual birthday. This was the first birthday since we left Mark and moved to San Diego three years earlier that he had even sent a gift. It was difficult, after all, to mail a present from a bathtub filled with vodka. He’d have to get out of the tub and get dressed. Last year for Ricky’s birthday Mark had taken the trouble to telephone, which he could do from the bath. On the phone, he had called me honey and asked for the Birthday Boy. I told him not to call me honey. I also pointed out that it was May 1st and Ricky’s birthday was in April.

“I’m not drunk, honey,” Mark had pleaded, though he was, of course. His words were skipping off each other. I could hear his hand sloshing through the tub.

That was last year. Now it was a new year, and Mark had sent a gift, and a card, which I made Ricky open first. Snoopy was eating ice cream on the cover, and it read:

Hey, buster! Saw this and thought of my little man – not so little anymore, I bet. Guess what else – I’m coming to see you guys! Just have to take care of a few things here first. Til I see her, tell your mom I you-know-what her. Keep hitting those bookaroos, Dad

I could see Ricky’s hopes rising, bouncing up through his wobbly little knees. Incredibly, my hopes were rising too. Maybe this time Mark was actually getting better. Maybe this time we would be a family again. I should have known better. I had been a highly controlled individual since I stopped drinking. I monitored – which meant limited, really – my eating, my sleep, my fun, and my hopes, most of all as they related to Mark –a newer version of Mark – reappearing in our lives. I gently reminded Ricky that his dad had promised he was coming two years before; he made it to Memphis, where the bar next to his motel was advertising 2-for-1 mojitos. What I should have done was taken Ricky by his freckled, oversized ears and screamed at him (at myself), “Abandon all hope! Your dad will always let us down!”

But when I saw how sloppily the gift was wrapped, I couldn’t help myself. I pictured Mark’s hands shaking, messing up the scotch tape a few times before he got it right. I remembered the way they shook loosely when he used to dance, like they weren’t connected to the rest of him. I imagined the three of us together again, going to the zoo, imitating the hippos. Ricky’s tiny pale hands were shaking, also, as he unwrapped his gift. Mark had given him a self-improvement book. Three and a Half Paths From Adolescence to Adulthood: A Teen’s Primer for Success. On the back was a yellow sticker, on which someone had written in black pen $0.75.

“Well,” I said. “At least he knows how old you are.”

Ricky took the book up to his room. Left untouched for the rest of the afternoon were the Mario Kart game I got him and the reduced-fat chocolate cake I had baked. I had a quarter-slice and played solo. I kept crashing against trees and penguins and spinning off into brick walls. I was recalling that with Mark, even temporary sobriety was no guarantee of sound judgment. In fact, it unleashed some inner stores of cruelty that were usually suffocated under all that liquid. Sometimes I wondered if it was only the drinking (on both our parts) that got us through eight years together. I wanted another quarter-slice. I drove faster, more aggressively, trying to crush little Luigi beneath my wheels.


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