Devil’s Advocate

by Becky Hagenston

     His kid doesn’t want a smartphone. His fourteen-year-old flute-playing boy is saying, “Nah, I don’t really need one.” Mitch’s wife Shelley says, “No one’s forcing you, honey.” She beams. The boy beams. Mitch feels a faint nausea. There’s something wrong with his kid, who still likes Legos and watches network TV and keeps his room clean and calls his two nerd friends on the landline.
     “Well, that’s fine,” says Mitch. For some reason, he’s pitched his voice like an actor from a 1950s movie. He tries it again: “That’s just fine, son!” He’s speaking like a man wearing a fedora, a man carrying a briefcase. But nobody seems to notice. “So what do you want for Christmas?”
     His kid, Ernie, frowns as if Mitch has just asked him to poke a kitten in the eye. “I can’t think of anything at the moment,” he says. “Can I go practice flute now?”
     “Yes!” says Shelley. She rises from the sofa and kisses Ernie on the ear. “I’ll let you know when dinner’s ready. I’m making your favorite.”
     “Brussels sprouts?” he asks brightly. “And Salisbury steak?”
     “You bet,” she says. When Ernie has disappeared down the hall, she turns to Mitch. “Don’t force him to grow up before he’s ready.”
     Mitch knows better than to argue, but he can tell that his thoughts—not grow up, just join the 21st century like a normal kid!—might as well be floating above his head like a comic book bubble. Not that Ernie would get such a reference, because he doesn’t read comic books, either.
     “Okay,” he says, but Shelley has stomped down the hall to prepare the kid’s Brussels sprouts.


     Mitch has already bought the smartphone. Of course he has! He’s a cool dad, anticipating his son’s needs and desires, ready to wrap them up in a bow and make all Ernie’s dreams come true: dreams he doesn’t even know he has yet. Dreams of having friend requests and texting cute girls. With a smartphone, Ernie can go out in the world, safe and still connected; he can text his parents to say, Hi! or I’m still alive! The phone is in the garage with the other Christmas presents: the black sequined sweater his wife flagged on the Ann Taylor website (Just a hint!); the sheets from Bed Bath & Beyond, to replace their worn and stained ones. A salad spinner, because he’d completely run out of ideas. Early in their marriage, he and Shelley had exchanged foolish, useless gifts: silver cufflinks, a candle snuffer, a box of strawberry-flavored underwear, an antique Valentine’s Day card from a used bookstore in Baltimore. And when their son arrived, there were the Fisher Price toys, the stuffed bears, Matchbox cars, Thomas the Tank Engine. Ernie has never wanted for anything, and now he wants nothing. Well, nothing except his flute, his Legos, his Brussels sprouts.
     “Our little anachronism,” Shelley called Ernie proudly, but when Mitch said the same thing, she snapped, “Don’t mock him!”
     Mitch supposes he and Shelley are anachronisms, too: high school sweet- hearts, still together after eighteen years. From prom to parenthood. Ernie is a freshman at Fallwood High School, home of the Mustangs, where Shelley and Mitch flirted over their Bunsen burners. He will play in the Christmas band recital in the same auditorium where Shelley and Mitch partied like it was 1999, because it was!
     The town, a bucolic Baltimore suburb that’s great if you own a horse, which they do not, has always felt too small. But now the feeling isn’t just existential but physical; it chafes like the too-tight khaki pants he wears to his job managing a mall restaurant. The parking lots, the streets, the post office, the mall he’s gone to since he was a child: everything feels pressed against his body, which has responded by growing larger and shedding its hair, as if to say, Yeah, whatever, I give up.
     Shelley, by contrast, has grown taller, if such a thing is possible. Her heels. Her black pants. Her sequined sweaters and hair that can be blonde one season, violet-gray the next, then red. She’s an art teacher at the middle school, where sixth graders are getting expelled for texting pictures of their private parts to each other—parts that are hardly even parts yet. In her classes, she confiscates their phones and makes them draw pictures of grandmas in button- up dresses, rainbows, kittens, and sheep. Mitch remembers drawing a sketch of a topless girl when he was about twelve, just her head (hook nose, eyes far apart) and the curve of breasts—woop, woop, two swooshes of the pencil, a bop of nipple in the middle. He’d felt a sucker punch of lust and thrown it away.
     But this sexting stuff: he just doesn’t get it. It doesn’t seem to be about lust, but then what is it about? He asked one of the younger waitresses—“Can I get your take on something, as a young person? What’s the appeal in sexting?”— and she gave him a frightened look and quit the next day.
     After dinner, Ernie goes back to his room to play the flute and Shelley settles down with her iPad to Facebook with her feminist activist friends: planning another march on Washington, perhaps, to protest things they have absolutely no control over. Mitch knows better than to say this out loud.
     “Where are you going?” she asks him, when he puts on his coat. She doesn’t look up from her iPad. The kitchen still stinks of Brussels sprouts. From down the hall come the not-quite-dulcet sounds of Ernie’s flute, attempting an Irish drinking song. At least his flute is trying to have a good time.
     “Just the garage,” Mitch says. “Just checking on some things.”
     “Some presenty things?” She raises an eyebrow. “Making sure the puppy doesn’t freeze to death?” This is a yearly joke, since neither of them wants a puppy. Even Ernie doesn’t want a puppy! “I don’t think animals should be kept by humans,” he said once. Mitch said, “That’s what dogs want,” and Ernie shrugged.
     The garage is frigid and smells of motor oil and is full of so much crap that they haven’t been able to park their cars in it for years. The garage door opener has vanished. There are shelves stacked with cardboard boxes of moldering clothes and shoes (marked Take to Goodwill!), broken flashlights, at least five kinds of rope—why so much rope?—camping equipment they used once. An inflatable T-Rex that no longer inflates, a broken rowing machine, a broken exercise bike. He’d stashed the phone in a Goodwill box and now retrieves it with clumsy, mittened hands. The packaging makes him think of a tiny white coffin. It has occurred to him that Ernie might be more inclined to give the phone a try if it’s already set up and activated and contains the sort of apps he might enjoy—a flute tuner app, perhaps?
     The WiFi is spotty, as is Mitch’s tech savviness (he had his own phone set up by the child-employee at the Apple store), but after twenty chilled minutes he’s managed some progress in terms of an iCloud account and an iTunes account which he’s connected to his own. When Ernie is earning his own money, he can download all the Irish flute songs he wants.
     Back inside the house, the heat seems excessive; his wife and child are on the sofa watching a black-and-white comedy from the Sixties on public access TV. A man in hillbilly overalls has just tripped in front of a fancy lady. “How’s the puppy?” Shelley calls, and Mitch says, “Still alive.”


     The next day, Mitch is supervising a ketchup-marrying ceremony at the condiments station when someone pokes him on the shoulder and says, “Excuse me, can I ask you what the hell you said to my daughter?”
     Mitch recognizes the man: bearded, surly expression. Or does he? Or does everyone just start to look the same once their features have blurred into middle age? More than once he’d greeted an old friend only to realize he was talking to a stranger. But this man doesn’t seem like a stranger. He’s wearing a khaki baseball cap advertising a local lawn and garden shop.
     “Sarah,” says the man. The name of the waitress who just quit. “She’s my kid. What did you say to her about sexting?”
     “Well, wait a minute now,” says Mitch.
     The man rears back a little, as if trying to bring Mitch into focus. “I know you,” he says. “Devil’s advocate. I remember you.” And then he’s pumping Mitch’s hand and introducing himself as Larry, who sat in the back row in philosophy class senior year and went out with Claire, remember her? Remember that night at the bon re, remember remember? Mitch doesn’t remember, but he laughs and says, “Sure! Larry! Great to see you again.”
     And of course he remembers that class. He took philosophy senior year because he’d heard it was easy—just talking about current events and then taking some bullshitty essay tests. A few weeks into the school year, the teacher asked him to stay after class, then perched a haunch on the edge of his gray desk and said, “Listen, Mitch, nobody’s talking. You seem to have pretty strong opinions, so could you just pretend to change them? And say some things that’ll push some buttons and maybe make the other students mad at you? I think that’ll be good for class discussion. I’ll give you an A for your trouble.”
     So Mitch agreed and started saying things like, “If people have the bad luck to be born in Kosovo, why do we have to help them? Do we have to help everybody who has bad luck?” and “I think they should just pull the plug on her—I mean, why keep a vegetable alive just because it might wake up and drool?” and other vile things he took great pleasure in saying, for the reaction they got. The teacher would beam cross-armed at the back of the classroom while Mitch’s classmates turned on him. He found himself saying the Unabomber was just misunderstood, that The Waterboy was a better movie than Citizen Kane and anyone who didn’t agree was an imbecile. He argued in favor of Bill Clinton’s impeachment and against Jack Kevorkian, and then switched his arguments when the students switched theirs, until finally he had no idea what he actually believed anymore. At the end of the school year, the teacher announced to the class that Mitch—“Our Devil’s Advocate!”—had been playing a role that deserved a round of applause, but nobody applauded.
     “I didn’t mean to say anything inappropriate to your daughter,” Mitch tells Larry. “I just don’t understand the sort of stuff that goes on these days. I thought maybe another young person could offer me some perspective. I’m sorry. I have a kid myself.”
     “Yeah, I don’t get it either. But Sarah isn’t involved in any of that shit. She’s eighteen!”
     Mitch doesn’t know if Larry is suggesting that his daughter is too young or too old for that shit. “Oh, I didn’t think she was involved with it. I didn’t. Listen,” he hears himself saying, “I’m off duty here in a few. Stay for a beer?”
     Larry pauses just a moment before saying, “Yeah, sure. Devil’s advocate.”


     They sit at a dimly-lit back booth where you can almost forget you’re in a shopping mall, the same mall where you Christmas shopped with your parents long ago, your mother exclaiming over the price of engraving, your father stomping off to Woolworths to sulk amidst the auto supplies. Woolworths is long gone, as are Wards and Hecht’s, and Sears is on its way out. Anachronisms. Too late, Mitch wishes he’d suggested going somewhere else, maybe the Logan’s Roadhouse across the parking lot. “Drinking on the job?” says their waitress—Judy, jerky-thin and old enough to have gone to high school with them even though Mitch is pretty sure she didn’t.
     “Ha ha, Judy,” Mitch says. “Not on the job.” He feels defensive and conspicuous; his khaki trousers are digging into his belly. Larry says, “Judy, honey, get me another beer, will you?” as if Wards and Woolworths are still open and it’s still acceptable to call waitresses honey.
     Larry, it turns out, has a remarkable memory: he remembers Shelley, and he even remembers the girl from philosophy class Mitch had dated brie y while he was also dating Shelley. “Maggie, Jenny, something like that?” Larry says, squinting as if he’s trying to read a blackboard inside his head. He and Claire—Sarah’s mom—are divorced now but he’s remarried and has three kids under ten. “Three!” He downs the rest of his beer as if the thought has made him parched. “You?” he says, and Mitch realizes that Larry is waiting for a similar torrent of information from him.
     “One kid,” Mitch says finally. “One is good.” He doesn’t mention the vasectomy or Shelley’s decision last year that she wants another kid, or how he said, “Good luck with that!” and then felt like an asshole.
     “Well, the world isn’t like it used to be when we were young,” Larry says. “Like what happened in the cafeteria.”
     Mitch nods, because his throat has closed up and he doesn’t want to talk or think about what happened in the cafeteria three years ago, the kid who shot four classmates, killing two. The same cafeteria where Mitch and his group of rowdy lunch friends missiled carrot sticks through the air. Before the students died, they texted things like Ur the best mom and I love you dad.
     “Hey!” says Larry. “Remember what you said in class about Columbine?”
     “No,” Mitch groans, and when Larry starts to speak—“If there were as many guns as textbooks”—Mitch says,
     “Don’t,” and Larry says, “Yeah.”
     Larry downs four beers to Mitch’s one, and then they walk together to their cars under the twinkling Christmas decorations, the plastic snowmen impaled on the security lights. Shoppers ll their yawning trunks with bags from JC Penney, the Loft, Victoria’s Secret, even Spencer’s Gifts, still plugging along after all these years with its black light posters and stoner T-shirts. Larry points his key chain like it might re a laser into the night, and there’s a distant toot.
     “You okay to drive?” Mitch asks.
     “Sure,” Larry says. “Hey, you should say something like, ‘Well, if somebody’s gonna drive drunk, they should crash into a pole and die.’ Remember you said that?”
     “No,” Mitch says, though he realizes he does remember. He also remembers making out in this very parking lot with Jenny—yes, that was her name—after lying to Shelley about being out with his mom. If only there was a way to murder your younger self and stuff him in a white coffin in the garage.
     “My kid doesn’t want a smartphone,” he says as Larry starts to walk away.
     “Good for him,” Larry says. He gives Mitch a salute. “Kid’ll stay out of trouble.”


     The kid who shot up the cafeteria was fifteen, a quiet, blue-eyed boy, middle class, a good kid from a good family, with a single mom but a good mom, according to the grieving grandparents. He went to the Methodist church and he played lacrosse, and yeah maybe he was a little quiet, a little shy, but he was never any trouble, according to his teacher; there was no sense that something like this could happen, not here, and certainly not by this quiet, untroubled kid. Or maybe he was weird, a little angry, kind of an outcast, kind of strange, according to a neighbor, and of course it was inevitable that he would do something like this.
     There were vigils, flickering candlelight and weeping girls. Ernie, who was eleven, asked, “What makes people do stuff like that?” And Mitch said, “I don’t know,” and that troubled Ernie. If only Mitch could have said, This person was born bad, not like you, but he didn’t, because he didn’t know if the shooter had been born bad, or if anyone was. So he said, “You’re safe, I promise,” and Ernie frowned at him. But he nodded and said, “Okay,” as if he was willing to pretend he believed it.


     Mitch takes Ernie to band practice the following night, driving the familiar streets he once cruised as a teenager: past the lake by the Catholic school where he and his friends had smoked pot; the Royal Farm store where he’d shoplifted the Playboy with Donna D’Errico on the cover. “There used to be cows here,” Mitch remarks, as they pass a sprawling housing development glowing with Christmas lights and inflatable Santas and disco-bright mangers.
     “I know,” Ernie says. “You told me that already.”
     “Did I?”
     Since seeing Larry, Mitch has been plagued by memories of his younger self saying stupid things, and he winces now as he remembers leaning back in his chair and declaring to the philosophy class, “Well, being gay is just being a perv, so if that’s legal, why isn’t it legal to have sex with cows if you want to?” It’s like a sharpened pencil to the gut. He hadn’t actually believed these things, and yet saying them had put them out in the world, like secondhand smoke.
     The philosophy teacher either retired, or died. Mitch has no idea what happened to him. He can’t even remember his name.
     Band practice is held in a new, glass-walled building with silver light fixtures snaking across the ceilings like aliens who’ve invaded a spaceship. There’s the band room and also a computer lab and a new cafeteria so students don’t have to eat in the same place their classmates were murdered. He usually drops Ernie off and then drives to Chili’s and has a fried chicken salad and two beers while he scrolls through his newsfeed and Facebook: his mother’s complaints about her hair salon, his cousin’s right-wing rants, Shelley’s left-wing rants. He can’t muster up anything to rant about. At least he’s stopped friending the waitstaff, with their petty gossip and selfies with pot plants.
     But tonight he parks. Turns off the engine. Ernie looks at him in surprise. “You’re coming in?”
     “Do you mind?”
     “Parents don’t usually watch,” Ernie says, and Mitch sees something dark and doubtful flicker across his son’s face; then it’s gone. “But no, I don’t mind.” Ernie smiles. A sweet, untroubled smile. “That’s great. I think you’ll like it. But then it won’t be a surprise when you come to the actual concert. Do you want it to be a surprise?”
     “I want to be surprised now,” Mitch says.
     There are about thirty kids. Many still have the round cheeks of babyhood; a few look closer to twenty years old. A red-bearded man conducts, waving his wand as if he’s casting some kind of spell. Mitch has seen the band perform before, of course—in the auditorium, watching through the screen of his phone as he recorded video—but now he feels as if he’s witnessing something private, too raw yet for the world. A girl with plank-straight hair and raccoon eyeliner plays mournful oboe in “Oh Holy Night.” And his son, his dear anachronism, plays with his eyes wide open, as if staring into a night sky where shepherds keep watch. There are three other flute players so it’s hard to tell if he’s actually hearing Ernie at all, but that’s still his boy up there, his flute glinting under the silver alien lights. For a moment he imagines himself up there with Ernie, staring out at himself in his folding chair: a man just trying to keep his shit together and not cry at his son’s band practice.
     Some of the other kids take out their phones when there’s a break and Ernie just stares out at where Mitch is sitting. A boy on the trombone says something that makes Ernie laugh and shake his head. Say something back, Mitch thinks. Be outgoing. Don’t be the shy, lurky kid, the one they can say, Oh, he was never any trouble, he was kind of a loner. Don’t make your grieving grandparents say, His parents loved him, they did the best they could. Not that he worries about Ernie shooting up the school; at least, no more than he worries about him being shot in the school and not having a goddamn cell phone to text his dying words.
     The room, he notices now, is strung with construction paper: red and green loops, like a reminder of elementary school. These are children. Even the oboe girl is just a child, in her leather jacket, staring at her phone as if she’s ready to live-tweet any disaster that might befall them.
     In the car on the way home, Mitch says, “Let’s try again. What do you want for Christmas? Do you want a Playboy magazine? A car? Tickets to a rock concert?” He’s trying to think of what he wanted when he was Ernie’s age. “You want to meet girls, sneak out of the house, lie to your mother and me and get away with it?”
     Even though he’s not sure if he’s joking, he adds, “That’s a joke.”
     Ernie is quiet. Mitch realizes his mistake, but he can’t seem to stop. “You want to figure out a way to get out of this town so you’re not stuck here forever like your mom and dad?” Even Mitch’s parents had gotten away, retired to Florida.
     Once Mitch had asked his son, “Do you love your mom more than you love me?” and Ernie thought about it for what seemed like a long time. Mitch admired that. “I don’t think so,” Ernie said finally.
     Now, Ernie says, “Star Wars Legos?”
     “Is that a question?”
     “No. That’s what I want. The new ones, from the new movie.”
     Mitch stops himself from saying, Aren’t you too damn old for Legos? because he’s not going to be that version of himself right now, a version that he supposes has always been there, even before that philosophy class. Jenny, the girl he’d cheated on Shelley with, had once sidled up to him after class and said, “You’re kind of a dick,” and he’d said, “Yeah, well, what if I am?” and she’d said, “Whatever. I like it.”
     When the kid had shot up the school, Mitch had the horrible thought that it was the parents’ fault. And what if Jenny, to whom he’d preached nihilism, was the mother, and somehow Mitch was responsible for her raising a murderer? Jenny wasn’t the mother. The mother had recently moved from Ohio; she moved away soon afterwards. The boy was sentenced as a juvenile and locked up in an institution in Baltimore.
     Mitch pulls up to the house, thinking it’s time to clean out the damn garage and use it for cars like it’s supposed to be used for. Get rid of shit, trash the past. Teddy bears, trains, boxes of moldy high school yearbooks, good God.
     Shelley is out with friends, some wine-and-painting thing, and she’ll come home tipsy and carrying a watercolor. His wife is brave, braver than he is. She wants to crack her heart open again for another kid, let another one slide out into the dangerous world. He can’t bear to think of it. He fixes mac and cheese and while they eat they watch a sitcom on the local access channel; men in uniforms and overalls, women with big blonde hairdos, a laugh track. Ernie chortles. “I love this show,” he says, and beams at Mitch. Then: “May I be excused? I want to practice now.”
     “Yeah, sure,” Mitch says.
     The grandparents are coming soon. First Shelley’s parents driving up from Virginia; then Mitch’s parents, from Florida. The sound of “Jingle Bells” comes tooting down the hallway. The Christmas tree glows in the corner of the living room. Mitch goes through the kitchen and out into the freezing garage. What are teenagers listening to these days, real teenagers who listen to more than flute music?
     “Oh, just let the kid be himself,” he says out loud. “Don’t worry so much.” His warm breath oats out into the garage. “Or lock him up, keep him at home, never let him leave your sight.”
     He takes the phone in its white coffin from the Goodwill box. There’s a warranty. He can return it, cancel the plan, buy Ernie two or even three sets of Star Wars Legos, this kid who is his kid, making his way through the world and not worrying about all the things he will one day have no choice but to worry about. Mitch will go back inside and find the iPhone receipt, wash the dishes, scroll through his own phone for all the terrible news of the day.
     But: the door that leads to the kitchen is locked. He turns the knob again. Rattles it. He bangs on the door. Calls for his son. “I locked myself in!” he yells. His breath steams out in little clouds. His cell phone is in the bedroom. Shelley will be back in two hours. The garage door opener has been missing for years, but he tries anyway to pull the garage door up. It won’t budge. Jesus Christ. The thought crosses his mind that Ernie could have locked him in could have, yes, but certainly didn’t. Almost certainly. Would he have?
     He puts his ear to the kitchen door. “Ernie?” he shouts, and shouts again, and then again. The garage is full of monster shadows, including his own, moving against the wall. The broken T-Rex slouches by the exercise bike. He shivers in the cold; his hands are starting to tingle. “Ernie?” He can’t tell if he hears flute music or just the blood pounding in his ears. His hands feel numb as he pulls the new phone from its box and powers it on, takes a minute to remember the landline number, the number of the yellow wall phone with its umbilical coil—the wrong number, he realizes, as his house remains silent and a stranger’s voice demands, “Who is this?”

Becky Hagenston’s three story collections have won the Permafrost Prize, the Spokane Prize, and the Mary McCarthy Prize. Her stories have appeared in Ploughshares, the Oxford American, New England Review, and many other journals, and have been chosen twice for an O. Henry Award. She teaches creative writing at Mississippi State University.

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