Paul didn’t stir when Sheila got up or when she found Matt asleep in the hallway. It was sometime after midnight, according to her bladder. Matt was sitting with his back to the wall, head on his knees, in his underwear without even a tee shirt, right beside the door to the room he was renting—“renting,” Paul would’ve said, since he hadn’t paid them in months, ever since his meds ran out.
Sheila went ahead to the bathroom, and Matt was still there when she came back. She nudged him with her foot, but he was out. She found his pulse and went back to bed. When Paul stirred as she got back into bed, she told him about it.
“Must be something wrong with his room,” she said.
She fell immediately back to sleep, but Paul lay there for the next five hours, worrying.
* * *
In the morning, when his alarm had blared him into something passing for life, Paul went and stood over Matt, who’d fallen onto his side and curled up in a fetal position on the floor. He resisted the urge—more a thought—to kick him, and instead opened the door and stepped over him. This had been the girls’ room, Paul thought bitterly. There were still crayon marking on the wall in some spots. Now, there was no obvious damage, except for the stale glue smell, the trash, the clothes and things piled haphazardly. The room wasn’t on fire or flooded, but the vibe it had once had was changed. He scanned the walls and as much as he could see.
“There’s a raccoon,” Matt said right directly into Paul’s ear from behind. Paul screamed softly and turned on the boy, who looked exhausted. But he always looked that way.
“In there.” Matt pointed to the closet.
Paul turned on the light instead of saying that he didn’t believe Matt.
“Careful, sometimes they’re rabid,” Matt said.
Paul opened the closet door and peered in. It was mostly empty, since Matt preferred to pile his clothes in the floor. He saw some woods shavings in a back corner, though.
“I need a flash—“ Paul was interrupted when he tried to stand back up and cracked his head against Matt’s jaw because Matt was hovering right behind him. “Fuck!” Paul said. He put a hand to his head and turned to see that Matt’s nose was bleeding.
“What happened?” Sheila asked. Matt went to her like she was his mother, Paul thought, but at least it meant the boy would stop following him around for a second.
* * *
“I don’t think his nose is broken,” Sheila said later, downstairs. “Did you get the raccoon out?”
“There’s a hole, there, leading outside,” Paul said. “I plugged it up with some wood from the basement.”
He slapped together a sandwich and put it in his lunch bag.
“I’m running late,” he said. She gave him a peck on the cheek.
“You can fix it when you get home,” Sheila said.
* * *
Sheila called him periodically at work to give him updates on Matt. He’d been afraid to go back into the room until Sheila went in and reassured him that the raccoon was gone. She had to check under the bed.
“Jesus,” Paul said.
“Well, it’s jarring, being woken up like that,” she said.
“We never saw a raccoon,” Paul said.
“You said there was a hole,” Sheila countered.
“There’s a hole, but it’s small,” Paul said. “I don’t know if a raccoon made it.”
“Well, he saw something, or he thinks he did,” Sheila said. “I don’t blame him for being upset.”
“Is he upset?” Paul asked. “I’ve never seen him be anything other than soporific.”
“Depression is real, Paul,” Sheila said with that patient tone that made him want to throw walnuts at squirrels.
“I’m aware of that,” Paul said. He bit off any more of a response. This isn’t the fight he wanted to start. “But at a certain point, he’s got to either do something about it or start cultivating lichen on his clothes.”
“That’s true,” Sheila said. “Well, he’s resting now. His nose stopped bleeding. I don’t think we need to go to the hospital.”
“I thought we decided that this morning,” Paul said.
“He had a relapse about an hour ago,” Sheila said.
Of course, he doesn’t have insurance, Paul thought, which means we’d have to pay for it. He wanted to make a biting comment about how Sheila was so close with her former students since she quit teaching, and that was closer to the fight he wanted to have. But he was at work, and he was tired.
“All right,” he said. “I’m glad he doesn’t need to go to the hospital. Tell him I’m sorry I bumped into him.”
“Oh, he’s fine,” Sheila said. “He knows it was an accident. It’s funny, he’s actually been up and around a lot more, today. How’s your head?”
“Fine,” Paul said. Actually, it kind of hurt, which meant Matt was probably really in pain.
He hung up and stared at his computer until she called back an hour later to tell him that Matt was back in his room, asleep, and she was thinking about ordering more weed.
“I’m at work,” he said.
“It’s legal in DC. We live in DC,” she said. “And do you really think they’re monitoring your phone?”
“We have so many hats already,” he said.
It was legal to have weed but not technically legal to sell it, in DC, so the way they got around that was to sell other things and then gift the weed along with them. Sheila’s favorite service was a milliner who would sell designer hats (with a bag of weed). The problem was they now had a whole closet full of hats.
“My mother loved hats,” Sheila said the last time she’d ordered some. They brought it right to your door, which Paul couldn’t argue with. But it was expensive.
“You never wear hats,” Paul said.
“No, but I like to look at them.” She inhaled deeply and then offered it to him. He shook his head.
The thing was, it helped relax her. She’d been on edge since she quit teaching toward the end of the last school year. It had been a hellish year of butting heads with a new principal. A lot of teachers had quit, but a lot of teachers always quit.
“The system is so dysfunctional, you can’t point to any one element, like a bad principal, and say ‘this is the thing.’ It’s all the thing,” Sheila had said.
It was right after she’d quit teaching that they started taking in strays. The first had only stayed a couple nights. One transgender student had been kicked out of her house by her parents and stayed there until she moved to another state to start college. These were all valid needs, and Paul didn’t mind being helpful, especially if it made Sheila feel like she was contributing to something good in the world, but then came Matt. Matt had been there for six months. He was in between semesters in college but didn’t seem keen to go back. He’d been on meds when he came, but he got those on discount with the healthcare he got as a student, and that had run out, or he’d just quit taking them; it was hard to get an answer out of him. He didn’t seem like a bad kid, but he was in a rut.
He wasn’t the only one.
* * *
Inside, Sheila and Matt were watching Netflix and giggling. Paul went around to the side of the house where Matt’s room was. It looked like he’d done a solid job of plugging up the hole that morning. There was no sign of a raccoon, now, which didn’t necessarily mean anything. He kept thinking about what Sheila had said on the phone—that Matt had been up and around a lot more.
He looked around the outside of the house and then explored the shed in the back and the tree beside it, looking for signs of the raccoon. He found one of Joanie’s stuffed animals. No idea how it had gotten out there. He hadn’t spent a lot of time out here of late, since the girls had moved off to college. He’d had all these grand plans of projects to build, things to fix and improve. The yard back here was overgrown with kudzu and weeds. No wonder a raccoon had come in the house. It couldn’t tell the difference between the house and nature.
This was the first time he’d found Sheila and Matt on the couch like that in weeks, Paul thought. She always called him at work with schemes and updates since she’d ‘retired.’ The hat call had been the last of the day. She usually called him at least once or twice more.
Back in the shed, he held Joanie’s stuffed animal. It was a gray little bear that more resembled a wombat. He used to tell her and Tabby stories about it at bedtime, that its owner was a little girl who tried to mail it back home to Australia so it could be with its family, but due to all these mix-ups at the post office, it kept ending up in different places. He’d describe the places and get them to figure out where it was in the world, like if there was sand and hummus.
It was so ratty, now, it kind of looked like a raccoon, Paul thought.
* * *
Paul went to the living room with them to watch TV—Sheila and Matt sharing a bong, Paul in a barrel chair to the side. He’d wave the smoke away from time to time, but he tried not to do it when anyone was looking.
They watched a Godard film about a French housewife who was secretly a prostitute. Matt kept talking over the thing, about the color palate, the composition of the shots. Paul excused himself when he couldn’t take it anymore, went into the kitchen and out through the back door, and stood in the shop again, feeling the wombat’s fur in his hand.
* * *
In the morning, he found Matt on the hallway floor again. He stepped over him, went in the room, and got the wombat from the closet. He hid it in a box in the top of the closet.
“I don’t see anything,” he said to Sheila when he came out. She was standing in the hall, frowning down at Matt. Paul put a hand on her. “We’ll figure this out.”
She nodded and drew him into a hug.
* * *
Ever so slightly, Paul tried to steer Sheila’s conversations toward Matt moving out without actually saying it. When she said he wouldn’t go back into the room, Paul said he didn’t know where else Matt could sleep.
“He’s too long for the loveseat,” Paul said. “He wouldn’t be comfortable.”
“I don’t know if he’ll even stay in the house,” Sheila said.
“Well, security is important,” Paul said.
When she called back later in the morning to say he was up and around, Paul mentioned the nebulous meds situation.
“I’m not saying his feelings aren’t valid,” Paul said. “But he’s agitated and unhappy. It might be time to look into getting help.”
Sheila couldn’t argue.
“Look, I would be glad to pay for him to go to therapy,” Paul said. “But we’re stretched thin. We’ve got two sets of student loan payments.”
“I could tutor more,” Sheila said.
“In the house? With him walking around in his underwear?” Paul asked.
“He’ll wear pants,” Sheila admonished. Paul retreated, realizing he’d overstepped.
“You’ve got enough stress,” Paul said, instead.
“It would feel good,” Sheila said, a finality in her voice Paul felt almost giddy to hear.
“Be nice if Matt could find something to give him some stability,” Paul said.
“It would,” Sheila conceded.
* * *
Matt had mentioned his parents, who he didn’t get along with, and a sister who lived in North Carolina. That evening, Paul pressed him casually for more info. Near as he could tell, the parents wanted Matt to go back to school, but Matt didn’t like college.
“Sometimes we have to do things we don’t like to do,” Paul said.
“You sound like your father,” Sheila said.
“That’s not nice,” Paul said.
She stuck her tongue out at him.
“Think about where you want to be in life and make a plan to get there,” Paul said.
Matt excused himself to go to the bathroom. Paul felt his face redden under Sheila’s stare.
“I love you,” she finally said. “Come sit by me.”
When Matt returned, he’d been relegated to the barrel chair.
* * *
The next day, Sheila called to say she was starting with a new tutee that afternoon.
“That’s quick,” Paul said.
“I reached out to Laura from Forrest Hills,” she said. “She had someone right away who needed math help. Looks like a couple kids.”
“Are you going to be okay to drive?” Paul asked.
“She’s coming here,” Sheila said. “Matt needs a ride at the same time we’re scheduled, but we can get him an Uber.”
“Where’s Matt going?” Paul asked.
“I’m not sure. I think a job interview.”
Paul didn’t believe that for a second. “Does he have money for an Uber?”
“We can handle a cab, Paul,” Sheila said.
“When is it? I have a ton of leave,” Paul said. “I’d be happy to swing by and drive him.”
Sheila put her hand over the phone as, Paul assumed, she asked Matt. “Okay,” she said.
* * *
Matt wouldn’t say where they were going. He read directions off his phone. But he kept getting distracted and not saying them until it was too late. Finally, they pulled up outside the Department of Human Services.
Paul parked, considering his words carefully. Matt stayed in his seat, looking out at the parking lot, the dreary building.
“Do you have an appointment?” Paul asked, finally.
Matt shook his head and mumbled something Paul didn’t try to decipher. Matt was making no moves, so Paul opened the door and got out. Matt followed a moment later. He followed close on Paul’s heels.
“You should leave your phone,” Paul said. “I’m not sure if you can bring it in. You can’t in the courthouse.”
Paul walked around him and unlocked the passenger side door.
“Here,” he said, holding a hand out.
Matt reluctantly offered his phone. Paul put it in the glove box and closed and locked the door.
* * *
Inside, Matt actually made an effort. Paul had assumed he was there to apply for welfare, but instead, he followed the signage for mental health services. Paul had had the foresight to bring a book—a poetry collection. He opened it in his lap while Matt chewed his nails, filled out paperwork, ran his hand through his hair, and waited for his name to be called. When it finally was, Paul put a hand on the boy’s wrist.
“Would you like me to come in with you?”
“No,” Matt said without making eye contact. “Thanks.”
“This is a really good move, Matt,” Paul said. “Even if it doesn’t seem like it.”
Matt nodded again and pulled away.
* * *
After, Matt came back and sat beside Paul without speaking. Paul finished the poem he was reading and then looked at him.
“Do you have another appointment?” Paul asked.
“No,” Matt said. “I’m all set.”
Paul blinked. “Then why are we sitting here?” Paul said. He got up.
“I don’t know,” Matt said.
“Did you get what you needed?” Paul asked as they walked back to the car.
“I think so,” Matt said. “I should be able to get meds and everything in a few days.”
“That’s great,” Paul said.
Matt grunted and looked out the window. “If they work this time.”
“We should celebrate,” Paul said. “Want to get something to eat?”
“Sure,” Matt said but offered no suggestions.
* * *
They went to a Chinese place Paul knew Matt liked, even though the food was only passable.
“So what’s the plan?” Paul asked as they were waiting. “Get on meds, then what?”
Matt studied the table. He was skinny, twitchy. Paul felt a moment of fondness for the boy, or at least a pleasant pity.
“How’s your sister doing these days?” Paul asked.
“She’s fine,” Matt said.
“You two getting along?”
“Yeah,” Matt said.
The one or two syllable answers were irritating Paul.
“You ever think about moving in with her for a while, till you get on your feet?” Paul asked.
Matt nodded without looking up from the table.
“Or going back to college?” Paul suggested. “You know, I dropped out of college for a while.”
Matt looked up for the first time since they’d sat down.
“Really?” he asked.
Paul nodded. “I went to a state school for a while in Jersey. It was like being at assembly. So I dropped out and worked for a while.”
“Why’d you go back?” Matt asked.
Paul opened his mouth and closed it. He took a drink of water. “I saw that, without a degree, I wasn’t going to be able to make any real money. I don’t mean get rich. I mean enough money to live. You know what I mean?”
Matt shook his head.
“Right now—it probably doesn’t seem like this—but life is…not as hard as it will be. You’ve got, what, rent, food, utilities? When you get older, you’ve got a lot more expenses. If you get married and have kids, that’s even more. I realized that I needed a career. Or at least something steady with benefits. It’s harder today than it was when I was coming up,” he added. “That’s why college is even more important.”
“But you went to St. John’s, didn’t you?” Matt asked.
“Yeah,” Paul said.
“That’s not, like, a…” Matt trailed off. “Not the kind of school people think of as, like, leading to big incomes.”
Paul felt a little color rise in his cheeks.
“It’s a liberal arts school, maybe the most liberal arts school in the country,” Paul said. “Do you know what you learn in a liberal arts program?”
Matt was studying Paul’s face as he spoke and didn’t respond. Paul pressed on.
“You learn how to think and how to solve problems. You learn how to work hard, intellectually, how to organize your work and your thinking. These are the most important skills a person needs at a job. Most other things, you can learn on the job. Unless you’re doing something really technical and specific, but even then, knowing how to think and problem solve is super important.”
Their food came, then. Matt ate his in about two minutes. Paul was afraid to look or lean towards the boy’s open mouth, lest he get sucked in.
* * *
Back at the house, Sheila was sitting on the couch with a big grin. Paul leaned over her and kissed her deeply.
“You taste like MSG,” she said.
“We got you food,” Matt said.
“That was very thoughtful, dear,” Sheila said to him. Paul signaled that he had paid. Sheila gave him a look.
While she ate, she told them about her student.
“I’ve got another one tomorrow,” she said. “And one tentatively scheduled to start next week.”
“Is it going to be too stressful?” Paul asked.
She playfully smacked his leg. “I taught for twenty-five years, Paul,” she said. “I can handle tutoring a couple kids.”
“Well,” Paul said. “We had an eventful day as well.” He waited for Matt to elaborate, but he just stared at Paul. “Matt made some real progress today,” Paul said.
“Oh, really?” Sheila said.
“He’s even been talking about moving in with his sister,” Paul said.
“Excuse me,” Matt said.
Paul smiled as Sheila watched the boy head for the stairs.
* * *
Matt being in his room meant Paul couldn’t plant the “raccoon” doll, so Paul went to the kitchen and started making cookie dough.
“That smells good,” Sheila called from the couch. “You should bring me one.”
Paul did, when they were done.
“I’m going to see if Matt wants to come down,” Paul said. “To celebrate.”
“Be gentle with him,” Sheila said.
“It’s just cookies,” Paul said.
* * *
Paul knocked on Matt’s door.
“Hey, buddy, we made cookies,” he said. “Want to come down and get some?”
Matt didn’t answer. Paul knocked again and tried the door.
“Hey,” he said as he pushed the door open. “Want to come down for cookies?”
He saw Matt sitting on his bed, not moving, and several horrible ideas went through his mind, each supplanting the previous with worse possibilities. But Matt was just poking around on his phone.
He looked up and saw Paul waving and removed his earbuds.
“Cookies,” Paul said. “Downstairs.”
“Oh, no thank you,” Matt said.
Paul glanced at the closed closet door.
“You shouldn’t be alone right now,” Paul said. “Come hang with us for a bit, and then we’ll leave you alone. Otherwise,” Paul added, “I’m going to eat all these cookies.”
“Yeah, okay,” Matt said. “I’ll be down in a sec.”
Paul left the door open and went and stood in his bedroom until he heard the stairs creaking. Then he went to Matt’s room, opened the closet door, and put the raccoon on the floor. He fiddled with it, considered putting it under Matt’s bed, and finally left it on the closet floor. When he stood and turned, Sheila was in the doorway, watching him.
“Uh,” Paul said.
She moved away without saying a word.
* * *
Paul came downstairs, red-faced. Sheila was back on the couch. Matt was sitting with her. She looked up at Paul as he came in. He didn’t know what to do with himself. He sat in the chair without saying a word. Sheila studied his face and then went back to watching TV.
* * *
That night, Paul stayed up cleaning the kitchen and puttering. When he finally worked up the courage to go to bed, Sheila was waiting for him. He sat down on his side of the bed, waiting for the barrage.
“It’s good that Matt talked to his sister,” Sheila said.
“Oh, did he?” Paul said.
“Yeah, he was texting her. She’s going to let him stay with her for a while.”
Paul was quiet, still waiting. Sheila was reading something. It had been a long time since she’d read in bed; usually, she was so stoned, she just passed out.
He lay there, feeling shame, feeling impotent, feeling like an idiot. Finally, she sighed and closed her book, removed her glasses and stuck them on the bedside table, and turned the light off.
“Wombat?” she said.
“Yeah,” Paul said.
She chuckled. “From the beginning?”
“No,” Paul said. “After the first one, though.”
Lying there, in the dark beside, he felt such a rush of gratefulness. It was something he could never repay, he knew. He let it wash over him as she laughed and laughed. Eventually, he was able to laugh, too. And then sleep.