The frigidness of the banks marble floor against Paul’s cheek was softened by short hot breaths, sweet from the waffles that he had eaten earlier.
A tiny hand gave his a squeeze. He squeezed back, three times. Boots squeaked, muffled voices clamored over an alarm, an elderly woman by a fake ficus tree started sobbing.
“Da?” Caleb whispered, his voice shaking.
“Just keep your head down and close your eyes.”
They turned their heads towards the banks floor, uncomfortably flattening their noses. Paul's tongue ran along the inside of his cheek, irritated and raw from nervous chewing on the inside. He ushered in blackness from his eyelids with the faint taste of iron in his mouth. One more squeeze.
Paul had never experienced anything so pure and emotion inducing as when his newborns hand wrapped around his thumb. This sweet-smelling infant with matted black hair, pressed against his chest, felt like holding warm laundry. He struggled when the nurse removed the child from the room to check blood sugar levels down the hall. He remembered how the minutes seemed to carry the weight of hours.
The responding police officers began to clear the bank. A wiry officer with a thick roll of caution tape in his hand motioned for Paul and the child to follow the tellers and bank managers.
“ Please wait outside to the right of the bank entrance sir, we’re going to need to ask a few questions.”
Paul was antsy. The large clock on the bank wall reminded him he only had less than two hours with Caleb. This wasn’t the plan, the day was supposed to be a haircut, waffles at Roscoes, a quick stop at the bank, hay rides at Dreamscape, then back to Canoga Park to his mothers.
“Will it take long?”
“Please follow the tellers sir.” The officer said dismissively, avoiding eye contact.
He was carrying Caleb with his right arm, the child’s head burrowed into his shoulder. He was big for a five-year old, long and cumbersome. Paul’s right hand started to fall asleep, he pushed through the revolving door with his left.
Outside, the glare of the afternoon sun was merciless to the eyes of the crowd shuffling out of the bank. The wailing of sirens added to the usual cacophony of rush hour traffic; A Red Hot Chili Peppers song was blaring out of a jeep stuck at a nearby traffic stop, a man pushing a tiny food cart honked a bike horn.
Paul shielded his eyes with his left hand, unintentionally saluting the gathering of police officers and reporters.
A female officer approached him.
“Excuse me sir. I’m Officer Hubbell, with the Los Angeles police department and I need a few minutes of your time.”
She spoke with assertiveness.
“What time was the robbery?”
“ I...um, 3? 3:30? I think…”
“What color was the robber’s hair?”
“I couldn’t see.”
“What did the robber say to the teller?”
Paul’s attention drifted to the woman who was crying in the bank. She had a camera inches from her face. She was putting on a show for the news network, gesticulating wildly, spittle flew towards the microphone. Passerbys necks craned to get a better look at the noise.
“Excuse me sir?” The officer forced Paul back into the present.
“What? Oh. Yeah.. I couldn’t hear, we had just walked in.”
Feeling strained, Paul shifted Caleb. He lost his grip and the child slid to the ground. His t-shirt felt wet and warm where his son’s bottom half was. Caleb looked up with cloudy eyes. His pants were damp and clung to his legs, his cheeks reddened. Paul noticed and pulled him closer.
“Da? Can we go? I don’t want to be here.”
The cop’s face softened.
“Sir, if I could just get your full legal name and address you’re free to go.”
Caleb was two when Paul and his mom separated. Too young to remember the bad moments; the mean-spirited bickering and false accusations that left both parents holding each other and sobbing. Unfortunately he was too young to remember the good ones; family photos in Griffith Park, long drives along the PCH to see the elephant seals. They were better as friends, still spent holidays together and Paul mailed her a birthday card every year with a used scratch ticket-- an inside joke from better times. Caleb spent three days a week with his father in Los Feliz and four days with his mother in the valley. Paul usually planned a full day of activities two weeks in advance. “A strong finish.” He’d say.
They walked several blocks towards where the car was parked. Caleb was bow-legged, refusing to let his legs touch, straddling an invisible pommel horse. He trailed several feet behind his dad, his heels lit up when they touched the sidewalk. Fellow pedestrians mostly laughed— barring a few disapproving head shakes. He couldn’t bring Caleb back to his mother in this condition but all of his clean clothes were in his dresser and there wasn’t enough time to double back in LA rush hour traffic.
“Da, I have to pee.”
How do you have anything left in there? He thought. Frustrated, he dragged his son into a strip mall donut shop, Donut USA. Most of the booths were empty except for a teen couple staring at their phones near the bathroom. He pulled at the handle. The door didn’t budge. He noticed the printer paper sign with a large handwritten notice “Bathrooms for custemers only”
Paul sighed with exasperation. He was fried. Completely drained. It was tempting to collapse on the dirty white tile— throw his arms back and pout. He envied his child’s ability to throw a public tantrum and have it be accepted by society as normal. He looked down at his son who had tucked his hands between the space in his legs and was rocking and forth on his heels. His shoes were still blinking.
Begrudgingly he put a wadded up five dollar bill on the counter next to a plastic container with melting ice and half warm orange juice. The middle-aged woman working the register seemed as unenthused about life as he was currently.
“I’ll take a cruller and the keys to the bathroom please.”
The lady grabbed a pair of tongs and removed a donut from the plastic case behind her and put it into a paper bag with a smiling donut on it. It was a bear claw but Paul lacked the motivation to correct her.
She returned his change and produced a worn out twelve-inch broom handle with the key attached. The handle, like everyone in this donut shop, had seen better days.
He was at his parents house in Omaha when his girlfriend called him in a panic. The baby was breech, they were going to try and flip him in a week. Him. He was having a boy.
Caleb’s pants slid around his ankles as he sloppily peed into the toilet. The fluorescent lights made the bathroom seem dirtier than it was—they filled the room with a dull hum. Paul bent down and wrestled the pants around the luminescent footwear then off his half-naked progeny. He motioned to the sink with his head.
“Wash your hands.”
The child complied as Paul waved the pants under the motion sensor of the bathroom's hand dryer. It sputtered awake and started breathing hot bathroom air over the wet pants. After a few passes the dryer fell silent.
“Da I’m cold.”
“Just one more minute buddy.” He reassured Caleb while he started up the dryer again, shaking the pants vigorously and rubbing the wet spot with the palm of his hand. He deemed the pants wearable, they dressed and exited the bathroom. The dryer restarted itself as the door opened.
The teen couple were still on their phones-- they were side sitting now. Paul set the donut bag and a couple napkins on the table in the booth behind them and removed the bear claw. Caleb sat on the opposite side, looking small for once in the large yellow booth. They tore the donut into shareable chunks and each placed a piece in their mouth. This was the closest to normal he’d looked all day; his eyes were less puffy and maybe it was him just chewing but Paul thought he saw a smile.
“Da, why did the man take all the money?”
Paul swallowed. “ He must’ve needed it bud.”
“Were you scared?”
“A little. Were you?”
“No. I knew you’d protect me.” He had sugar caked around his mouth. He closed his eyes for a moment.
“Do you think he had a family?” Caleb’s face twisted inquisitively.
“ Of course. Everyone does.”
“Is he someone’s dad?”
Paul stopped chewing. “Yeah, he’s probably someone’s dad.”
Caleb nodded, he was happy with that answer. It made the bad man a little less intimidating and more human.
The dulcet tones of an NPR host was the soundtrack to the lavender and cyan sunset that was visible in Paul’s rear view mirror. Route 101 was surprisingly clear as he shifted the car into fifth and passed the Getty museum. The abrupt change in gears shook his son awake in his booster seat.
“We’re almost to mom’s.”
“Would you rob a bank for me?”
Paul swallowed hard. “Yeah...I would.”
Caleb’s head slumped forward, he was asleep in his booster seat as the car accelerated through the hills towards the San Fernando valley.
“Every. Single. One.”