On my 50th birthday I received a card from my ex-wife, Gayle. Inside, she wrote — Frank, just stop worrying.
But I am worried, aren't you?
I'm worried about the Ebola virus. I saw pictures on TV. The bleeding eyes, the open sores. It started in Africa, but it could come to America.
I'm worried about flesh-eating bacteria. It can attack and kill before you know what hit you. Am I vulnerable?
I'm worried about weapons of mass destruction. Nuclear weapons. Chemical weapons. Worst of all, biological weapons.
I saw on TV. Anthrax. A thimbleful in the water supply could kill millions.
I'm worried about terrorists. I saw on TV, this woman reporter took a knife and a pistol through airport security and nobody noticed. You can plant a bomb right inside the plane and nobody pays any attention.
I'm worried about being in a building that is blown up.
I'm afraid to go into a post office for stamps. Someone could open fire. Or take hostages. It's happening all over.
I'm worried about a letter bomb being mailed to me. I examine my mail carefully.
Gayle was my second wife. She left me a dozen years ago and moved to a southside Chicago suburb with Sy, a guy-next-door type, but we still talk. We have the boy, Dylan, to worry about. We created him in one of the few moments of unrestrained passion we enjoyed in our otherwise lackluster six years together, during Ted Koppel I think, and now we have to keep him alive. But he seems to be doing everything a 16-year-old can do to thwart our efforts. His drug of choice, Gayle tells me, is cheap wine, and his activity of choice is careening around with his buddies in the ’89 Chevy Beretta his grandmother gave him. His hobbies include mayhem and willful destruction. Stepfather Sy gave up on him long ago. I don't have that luxury.
Gayle called me on the phone. "Happy birthday," she said. "What are you doing?"
"Watching TV," I told her. "The news."
"I'm tearing my hair out here. Dylan is out of control."
"The world is out of control," I said. "On TV right now, as we speak, the state police are chasing some guy down the freeway. Live shots from a helicopter."
"Earth to Frank. Earth to Frank. We're talking about our son, here."
"OK, OK. How's he acting?"
"There's so much hate in him."
"The world is full of hate," I said.
Gayle's silence was an explosion.
"I'm sorry I said that. Tell me more about Dylan. Our son."
"He skips school most of the time, but I tell you, it's worse when he goes. They're constantly calling me."
"I told him to get a job. He'll work at a place for a couple of days and then quit. It's always their fault. Somebody's getting in his face, or picking on him, or something."
"Sy thinks he's stealing from us."
"What do you mean, thinks?" I asked.
"Sometimes it's hard to tell, you know. Did I have one or two twenties in my purse? That kind of thing."
"What can I do?"
"I need a break. And maybe a change of scenery would do him good, too."
Her statement worried me. "What are you saying?"
"I'm sending him to stay with you for a few days when school lets out next week. Maybe he can stay for a month."
"Hold on there," I said. "You've got custody. You wanted it."
"Well, now you're going to have custody, pal."
"I don't know about this."
"It's decided," she said. "Sy is paying for the plane ticket."
"Is this a good idea?"
"The discussion is over. He's coming."
"I mean the flying. Flying can be dangerous," I said.
"Stop worrying about things you can't control," Gayle said, and then she hung up.
I'm worried about flying. America's air traffic control system is badly outdated. Every flight could begin or end in disaster. And security is as leaky as a sieve. I saw on TV.
I saw on TV about E. coli bacteria on hotel toilet seats. Semen and urine stains on bed sheets. They checked expensive hotels all over the country. I'm worried about staying in hotels.
I'm worried about E. coli in hamburger. I saw on TV, they had to throw out 25 million pounds of hamburger. It could have killed us.
I saw on TV this cow in England stumbling around. Mad cow disease. And bird flu in Hong Kong,
On TV they warned about supermarkets selling old eggs that could make you sick. There is no way to tell the old eggs from the good eggs.
There is this thing they call the Super Germ that is resistant to all treatment.
I saw on TV, a doctor said the sun can give you cancer. If you must go out, leave no patch of bare skin exposed, he said.
On the evening Dylan flew to Detroit, the air control system seemed to be working, thank God, and there were no terrorists or bombs on the plane.
I met him at the airport gate, he came slouching out of the tunnel, a decaying backpack slung over one shoulder. His pants and shirt were so shabby I could not guess what style and color they might have been when they were new. His head was shaved. A loop of chrome chain hung from the epaulet of his gleaming black leather jacket, the only thing he wore that seemed new, cared for.
I put on a big smile and made my legs move, lunging forward, my arms spread wide for an embrace, "Dylan, son!" but when I put my arms around him he went stiff, and when I tried to kiss his cheek he turned his face away. At least he would not breathe the Super Germ on me. He wore a gold loop earring. It was an inch from my nose.
"It's good to see you, son," I said.
"Fuck you," he said.
Bone of my bone. Flesh of my flesh.
"Want to stop for a bite to eat?"
He didn't answer.
We drove silently to my apartment. I showed him the guest bedroom and he went in and closed the door without saying good night.
I watched the news and then went to bed but I was unable to sleep and soon I heard Dylan moving around the apartment, heard him in the kitchen opening cabinets, rummaging in drawers, and I wondered if he was looking for a weapon, possibly a carving knife, I had seen on TV a boy had slaughtered his parents as they lay in their bed. Finally, I fell into a ragged sleep, pondering what was happening in the world when parents were afraid of being murdered by their children.
The next morning we were sitting across from each other at the kitchen table. I had just finished my breakfast egg, a good one I hoped, not an old one. A whole, empty Saturday lay ahead.
"What do you expect out of life?" I asked Dylan.
"I expect more of the shit I've got so far," my son answered.
"Your mom and I want only the best for you, you know. How's school?"
"I didn't like high school that much either," I said.
"You don't have to be hostile to me." I smiled. "There's no need for that. We can be civil to each other." I hated him.
"There's nothing for me to do here."
"Would you like a TV? I'll give you the one out of my bedroom, It's only a 13 inch, but it's color."
"Can I have some money?"
"On Monday I'll have cable put in your room."
Dylan took a box of matches from the breast pocket of his leatherjacket and lit up a Marlboro Light 100. He blew out the wooden match and dropped it onto the table, a wisp of smoke still trailing from its tip. He blew a stream of smoke out the side of his mouth. More smoke curled from the bright red end of the cigarette.
"Cable," he said. "You're my hero," and he made a noise that approximated a laugh.
He tapped the cigarette with his index finger and a short length of ash fell to the table top and broke apart.
I'm worried about secondhand smoke. I saw a doctor on TV. Secondhand smoke can give you cancer, just like smoking.
I'm worried about my prostate. I saw on TV, men over 50 should have it checked every year. Millions of men get prostate cancer. And at night I get up two or three times to pee.
I'm worried about Legionnaire's disease.
I'm worried about bad breath, and microscopic fungus on my scalp. I saw commercials on TV.
I'm worried about cholesterol.
I'm worried about my doctor giving me tests I don't need.
I'm worried about my dentist infecting me with AIDS.
I'm worried about being cheated by the plumber, the electrician, the auto mechanic, the furnace repairman, the roofer, the handyman.
It was all on TV.
A week later I called Gayle.
"How are things going with Dylan?" she asked.
"I took a few days off. I thought we could do some things together. But he never came out of his room, so I went back to work."
"Not a lot of bonding, huh?"
"Not a lot of warm, fuzzy father-and-son stuff," I told her.
"The house is real quiet without him," Gayle said. "Peaceful."
"You didn't tell me about the shaved head. You didn't tell me about the tattoo and the earring."
"But I told you about the attitude,"
"I picture somebody watching TV some time, and there I'm being interviewed, and I'm saying, ‘Hey, he was a troubled kid, but we didn't think he'd commit mass murder.’"
"Don't joke about those things," Gayle said.
"Or maybe it's you on TV, and you're saying, ‘Hey, we knew he was a little rebellious, but we didn't think he'd murder his father in his bed.’"
I saw on TV, this nurse called the angel of death killing her patients in the hospital. I'm worried if I have to go into the hospital.
I'm worried about road rage.
I'm worried about car-jacking. I saw an expert on TV, he said let them have your car. It isn't worth your life.
I'm worried about ATM hold-ups. They take your credit card at gunpoint. I saw on TV they killed somebody even after he gave them his credit card.
I saw on TV, carbon monoxide from your furnace can kill you. Radon gas can make your house radioactive.
Acid rain is eating away at my car's paint.
They allow a certain amount of rodent feces in food.
I'm worried about Alzheimer's. Sometimes I forget things.
"I forgot to tell you about that," Dylan said. He was referring to a phone bill I'd just opened, there was over $500 worth of calls to phone numbers with a 900 area code.
"Practicing safe sex?" I asked, with a little edge to my voice.
"What did you expect me to do, watch TV all day?"
Dylan had been with me for four weeks. He was flying back to Chicago that afternoon.
"I wish we could have spent more time together, son," I said.
"Forget about the phone bill," I said. "I'll take care of it. Consider it my gift."
He made a sound that was something between a snicker and a grunt, a sound that said, I forgot about it long ago, you asshole.
"I love you, Dylan," I said. "And your mother loves you. When you're a father you'll understand. When your kids are born you want everything for them. You want them to have a good life. Your mother worries about you. About your friends and how you do in scbool, About your jobs. I worry about you, too. It's a tough world. A scary world. There are so many dangers. Parents do what they can to protect their kids. We don't always do the right thing. We make mistakes. We're just human. But no matter what, we love you very much."
"Fuck you," he said.
There is no hope. We are doomed. We are all doomed.
I'm worried about going to hell when I die, Spending eternity burning in a lake of fire and brimstone. A preacher on TV said I'm going there unless I repent.
I'm worried about Armageddon. I'm worried about the Antichrist, I'm worried about the four horsemen of the apocalypse. I'm worried about the beast.
I'm worried about the end of the world.
I saw on TV.
The end of the world.