Perkins was hungover when he came down to the hotel breakfast, which was probably why he noticed the man’s travel mug. The hotel had set up the buffet in one of the ballrooms, and now a few dozen men in the same shade of grey suit were shuffling along the line, filling their plates with sausage and eggs that looked green under the fluorescent lights. Perkins felt green himself. The hotel bar had been standing room only last night, men talking loudly of sales quotas and Midwestern airports while Perkins thumbed through pictures on his phone. It had been close to two when he finally dragged himself up to his room, and all of the men in the ballroom looked as bad as Perkins felt.
Another dozen men were already at the tables, pushing their eggs around on their plates. The man whose mug Perkins stopped to look at had filled his plate with a mound of eggs and sausage links. The mug was stainless steel, emblazoned with “World’s Greatest Dad” on the side, which made Perkins remember, very late, dialing home.
“Help you with something?” the man said, seeing Perkins staring at him.
Perkins raised his mug. “We have the same mug is all,” he said, trying to remember what he had said to his son on the phone last night. “When I saw it there on your table I wondered how you got my mug.” He settled the smile on his face that he used when he was selling. “Then I realized mine was in my hand.”
The man had paused with a sausage halfway to his mouth. His eyes were bloodshot in the same way Perkins knew his were. “I’ve had this for years,” the man muttered.
“Oh, I’m sure,” Perkins said. “Might have had a little too much last night, you know.”
The man looked at Perkins for a second more, then shook his head. “I know what you mean. I’ve got a marching band playing in my head right now.”
Perkins found himself nodding. “I hear your marching band, plus one of my own.” He raised his mug. “Anyway, I’m just going to grab some coffee and try to make it through the morning.”
The man waved with a forkful of egg. Perkins had turned to go when he said, “Just remember mine’s the real deal.”
For a second Perkins didn’t know what the man meant, then saw him nodding at the mug.
Perkins waved his own. “I’ll remember,” he said.
He went to get coffee. There was a long line of men ahead of him, most of them groaning. By the time he got to the coffee it was empty, and by the time the hotel staff refilled it he was hungry.
The tables were full when he finished getting his food. The ballroom had grown louder. Men stood against the walls drinking coffee and shaking their heads. Perkins looked around. The nearest table with an empty seat was next to the world’s greatest dad.
“Mind if I sit here?”
The world’s greatest dad looked up. He spread his hands. Perkins thought he might say “It’s a free country,” or something like that. He looked like the kind of guy who would say “It’s a free country,” or “Nobody’s stopping you.”
Perkins felt a little better when he began to eat. The coffee was fresh. The eggs weren’t half bad.
“My kid got mine for me,” Perkins said. The man looked at him, and Perkins realized what a dumb thing he’d said. Of course my kid got it for me, he thought. No one buys a mug like that for himself. “My son, I mean. He’s 13.”
The man had pushed his plate away and sat holding the mug. “Son, too,” he said. He tilted the cup so Perkins could see the name Billy, badly scrawled in silver ink. “Oldest got mine a few years ago. I have three, all boys.”
“Two,” Perkins said. “Boys, too.”
Perkins looked around for salt. The man pulled his plate back and ate a last bit of egg.
“So, how do you think they measure that?” Perkins said. “Remember that seminar yesterday on sales metrics? But how do they measure the world’s greatest dad? I mean, we can’t both be the best.”
The man looked as if he were deciding whether to laugh.
“Well, I don’t know how they measure it,” the man said, “but I’m the best.”
Perkins held up his hands. “Of course, of course,” he said. The man had nicked himself shaving. He wore a huge ring, and no wedding band, which made Perkins regret, with a sudden fury he hadn’t felt since 8th grade, giving in so quickly to the man’s claim.
More men still were staggering into the ballroom. Perkins’ hangover came and went in waves—one minute he thought he might throw up, the next he felt almost fine. The man nodded as he started to push back his chair. He had left his styrofoam plate full of wadded up napkins on the table, and for reasons Perkins would never remember, he looked at the man and said, “I coach Little League for my oldest boy’s team.”
The man settled back into his chair. He twisted his ring. It would be a state championship ring, Perkins thought, purchased 20 years ago, before the sales circuit, just after acne had released its hold on him. “I hire a private coach for all three of my sons.”
Perkins felt a spike in his head as if someone had hammered it in. It hurt worse to know he had done it himself. “I guess that’s almost as good as being there,” he said. He still had the selling smile on his face, but something inside him had turned sour. He didn’t say it had been years since he had coached. “My son’s team won the district championship last year. He was all-state. Pitcher.” He didn’t say he had missed that game, and the others, too.
“All three of my boys play,” the man said, emphasizing the three.
“My youngest plays flute. First chair. Looking at Juilliard already, even though he’s only eleven.”
“Football, too,” the man said, as if he hadn’t heard. “Oldest might have a shot at D-1.” He looked at Perkins with his red eyes. “I never went in for that music stuff. Turns kids soft, if you ask me.”
Perkins felt his voice go hard. “Funny,” he said, “I didn’t ask.”
A white spot had appeared on the man’s upper lip. His shaving nick was bleeding again. “I should have known anyone who would let their kid play a flute would be easily offended.”
Perkins’ headache was enormous now. He had forgotten how quickly these things could happen. “There’s no need to get mad just because you’re divorced,” Perkins said, pointing to the ring. “World’s best dad shouldn’t be divorced, now should he?”
“I’m not divorced,” the man said.
“So you just take it off for conferences?”
Other men were looking at them now. Their faces all seemed sick and swollen and wanting—for violence, for love, for whatever was inside them they couldn’t sweat out the next morning.
“I don’t know why you’re getting pissy,” the man said. His neck seemed to swell under his shirt. His eyes seemed filled with fluid. “They sell that mug at every airport in the country.”
Perkins held his mug like a blunt object. The world’s greatest dad was staring at his hands. Perkins imagined the tiny wife, the clipped phone calls. He wondered if all men punished themselves when they realized who they were. He saw the man at baseball games screaming at the umpire over balls and strikes, cursing on the drive home while little Billy looked down at his lap. He saw himself from the other side, telling his son to brush a boy back from the plate, which made him wonder how he could ever cause his sons to be kind, how he could erase the errors of the ways of men that would grow in them.
While they were waiting for what would happen next, a man from a nearby table leaned over. “Girls,” he said, winking at them, “let’s not fight. You’re both pretty.”
The men at the tables around them emptied themselves of laughter. The ballroom was clearing out—men filling their mugs, checking their watches—while the hotel staff set up chairs. The buffet looked as if it had been bombed. Upstairs, someone would be calling his kids to tell them he wasn’t coming home for another month. Soon, they’d go out to the long conferences where more experienced men talked about sales metrics and marketing. That night he would sit beside the world’s greatest dad in the hotel bar, but Perkins wouldn’t recognize him through the haze of self-pity that had settled in. He saw sorrow waiting with its careful judgment as he tried to remember what his sons looked like: the youngest with his long delicate fingers, his mouth cupped like a question mark as he breathed into his flute, the oldest on the pitcher’s mound, face hidden behind his glove, staring down all the men who stood before him.
© Paul Crenshaw
[This piece was selected by Valerie O’Riordan. Read Paul’s interview]