The Other Son

Lacy Arnett Mayberry | Fiction

Martin Malquist worked as a chemistry teacher in a Victorville high school for 30 years. He thought of his career in this way—as work, rather than teaching—because very few of his students ever seemed to learn anything. They’d trudge through the material in the book, purchase the safety goggles and play-act experiments. Usually, the brightest student in each class period would be coerced into letting the others copy their work. Though many students failed the major exams—cheating was too obvious in such a setting—Martin had structured the grading scale so that most of them, if they showed up to class and made any kind of consistent effort, would ultimately pass.

Now he was retiring with a comfortable pension, the reason most teachers held on so long amid increasing hostility from the students, enduring their blatant boredom and classroom texting. Despite the dead-faced looks of students over the years, Martin had enjoyed the routine of his days, the predictability of each semester. In his early years, he’d made efforts to better engage his students. He’d gone to great lengths to procure animated VHS tapes to show in class, for instance, even though the subject matter of these tapes often had only tenuous relevance to chemistry. On Fridays he wore a hot pink shirt with the phrase “I’m periodically funny” spelled out in the blocks of the periodic table. Some years later, this was rotated with a Breaking Bad t-shirt: a silhouette of Walt in sunglasses and hat spread over Martin Malquist’s round belly. He’d grown fat over the years and the shirt, a secret Santa gift from one of the other faculty, ran small on him. By the time he retired, his Friday shirts had worn threadbare and faded like the motivational posters and Far Side scientist comics he’d papered his walls with at the beginning of his tenure.

Martin sold his house, a run-down little two-bedroom, for a shocking amount of money and moved to St. George, Utah. Before this, he’d never even visited the state except once on a layover in Salt Lake City. He’d learned about St. George through his co-worker, a biology teacher who taught in the room opposite his. He had retired the year before Martin and moved there to be near his wife’s family. This teacher, Ron Dewitt, posted pictures online of beautiful red rock hills right in his backyard. Martin felt drawn to the place. He was ready for a change and was confident in being able to afford it, knowing Ron’s retirement payout.

He contacted Ron several months after the move, casually dropping the fact that they lived in the same town again.

“You’re here? In St. George?” Ron seemed genuinely baffled by the information, as Martin knew he might. Martin could be awkward with people. He understood this and tried to spare them as much as he could by keeping to himself. He reached out to Ron because it was a small town and they might run into each other at the Walmart one day, which would be even more awkward.

“Well, that’s wonderful!” Ron said. He had always been genuine, a truly nice person, and Martin felt his sincerity now. It relieved him. The two men had only ever occasionally eaten together in the faculty lounge, but now Ron invited him over for dinner and introduced him to some of his children and grandchildren. Ron was a Mormon and had plenty of both. His wife served a chicken casserole that tasted overwhelmingly of mayonnaise and poppy seeds and insisted on sending Martin home with half the leftovers, which he was grateful for. After that, they made a habit of inviting him once every few months to a Sunday dinner.

Despite this friendliness—both of Ron’s family and the Mormons in the area generally—people in town hated the idea of him: the bleeding of Californians eastward with their wads of cash, driving up the housing prices in neighboring states. St. George, people said, had become unaffordable. Californians had ruined it. Martin sympathized with the logic of this. In California, he’d been in the same predicament, barely able to afford his bills. For years he’d subsisted on oatmeal and beans, and rolled tortillas to dip in milk as a snack. But here, he’d bought a new townhouse outright. Here, he was rich.

He developed a habit of going out in the mornings for Sausage Egg McMuffins. The McDonalds’ workers all knew him by name. Two of the older workers—women around Martin’s age—would come to the window just to say hello. Ron Dewitt’s wife was alarmed for his health when she heard this, but it got him out of the house every day. He’d drive to a nearby park afterward and drink his coffee in the car or even sit on a little bench at the edge of the walking path if it wasn’t already too hot out. Sometimes it was the only time he went outside all day.

“You must be lonely,” Ron Dewitt’s wife said to him one Sunday. “With no family around?” Martin nodded to be sociable, but when he thought about it, he couldn’t say he felt lonely. He watched a lot of television or re-read his collection of murder mysteries, just as he’d always done. He was sleeping more—going to bed earlier and waking up later with a cat nap or two in between—but otherwise, he felt exactly as he had most of his life.

“You’re numb,” his ex-wife had told him once. And at the time, he tried to consider this. “You’re exactly like a piece of bologna.” What bologna and numbness had in common, he couldn’t conceive. It was a skip in logic, though he didn’t mention this to her. Already she thought him too high minded and felt he was always looking down on her, a woman who hadn’t studied beyond high school. After they divorced, he came upon a package of bologna in the deli section of the supermarket and bought it, smiling at himself, at how much his wife—ex-wife—would rage at the joke. He ate the bologna for lunch all that week, surprised by how much he enjoyed the taste. The last time he’d eaten it was as a child. After his mother died, Martin and his sister practically lived on bologna and hotdogs.

His mother had tried twice before successfully killing herself. Martin remembered visiting her in the hospital. He cried the first time, but the second time, months later, her face was swollen up black and blue and he felt afraid of her and stood in the corner until it was time to go. His sister was angry with their mother and told him after the last visit that she wished everyone would just let her die since she wanted to get away from them all so badly. Martin was only seven at the time. He was almost more afraid of his sister’s rage than he had been of their mother, her eyes looking out from purple craters where she lay in the hospital bed.

After she died, the family lived in squalor, though Martin didn’t fully understand this either, until he made the mistake of telling his wife how the first time he remembered seeing a pillowcase had been in the Army. He had to ask a fellow soldier what he supposed to do with it. The soldier had been kind about it but his wife laughed at him. “The Professor and the Case of the Missing Pillowcase.”

She was invoking the murder mysteries he liked to read, but also making fun of Martin himself. The Professor was a nickname she gave disparagingly. Martin understood her insecurity (it was another thing she seemed to hate about him) and mostly, while they were married, he kept his professional triumphs, humble as they were, to himself.

The most notable of these had been a boy named Nelson Oesterlin. Nelson was a chemistry hopeful unlike any Martin had seen. A prodigy, really. Martin had sent him to the National Chemistry Olympiad three years in a row. In the boy’s senior year, he’d been selected—one of four students in the country!—to go to the International Olympiad, where the team took second place. Nelson had gone on to MIT and now headed a research department at Stanford. He sent Martin a Christmas card every year and one year, he sent him a copy of Chemistry World Magazine, where he’d been featured in an interview. He named Martin—“Mr. Malquist”—as one of the major influences of his life. For Nelson to mention him all these years later touched Martin deeply. He framed the article and hung it up near his desk. This was when he was still teaching.

Sometime afterward, students broke into his classroom to steal Bunsen burners and glass beakers—meth lab equipment—vandalizing the place as they went. Martin stopped wearing his Breaking Bad shirt to school, in case he had unwittingly encouraged anyone. Nelson’s framed article had been one of the casualties, ripped and trampled beneath broken glass. It was the deciding factor in the timing of Martin’s retirement. He ordered two back-issue copies with the interview and kept them at home, stored in sheet protectors in his old Army foot locker.

The year of his move to St. George, Martin didn’t receive a card from Nelson. The next year, Martin sent him a card, mentioning his change of address. But the letter was returned after Christmas, unopened. He mentioned this to the Dewitts in January, wondering if they knew anything. Nelson had been the science department’s most famous alumnus.

“You didn’t hear?” Ron’s wife said, leaning in over her plate, her breasts grazing a gravied mound of mashed potatoes. Nelson and his wife and son had died in a car accident just after Thanksgiving the year before. Killed by a drunk driver. Listening to this, Martin felt physically ill, cold and nauseous. He felt an urge to push back from the table and move away from this news, to move away from his own body, though he stayed sitting where he was, suddenly very aware of the pattern of the floral tablecloth beneath the dinnerware and its over-bright hues of purple. A secondary emotion settled in on him: jealousy. The thought that Ron and his wife knew more about Nelson than he did.

“I’m sorry,” Ron said. “I thought you knew. They posted about it on the school Facebook page.”

From the pit of his grief came a small and shameful relief: the Dewitts didn’t have a personal connection to Nelson after all.

“It’s just awful, isn’t it?” Ron’s wife said, shaking her head and wiping her blouse where it had fallen into her food.

At home, Martin searched the internet. He found an article about the accident and a tribute to Nelson in the Stanford Daily and an obituary in another local paper and realized that one of Nelson’s sons, Jonas Oesterlin, eight years old, had survived. It was late by this time, after 10 o’clock, but Martin called Ron.

“What about Jonas?” he said.


“The other son. What’s happening with him?”

Ron was groggy, slow to answer on the other end of the line. Martin had a vague notion that he might volunteer to take the boy in if there was no one else. He could raise him with a good understanding of chemistry and take him along for morning Egg McMuffins. The distant voice of Ron’s wife came on the line, speaking over her husband to Martin: “He’s living with an aunt in Victorville.”

“Victorville?” Suddenly the place seemed uninhabitable, an unthinkable back step in the boy’s life. Martin asked if Ron’s wife might get him the address. He wanted to send a card. But once the address had been texted to him a few days later, he decided a card would not do. He wanted to see the boy in person, as a way of honoring Nelson. He packed a small bag and drove out early one morning. He’d not been back since his move two years ago and he drove slowly over the desert stretch between Vegas and Victorville, marveling at the barren vastness, the miles of dirt and sagebrush. He’d forgotten all about it. Once he reached the city itself, he was struck by the inherent shabbiness of the place, streets peopled with pawn shops and liquor stores, the crumbling sidewalks and litter piles huddled in fence corners and along the gutters.

He drove straight to the address on his phone and parked across the street. It was a house similar to the one he’d lived in all those years as a teacher: faded siding, scuffed door, the basement with half windows peeking out. It was nestled squarely in Martin’s former high school district. Not the worst school in the world and not overly dangerous either. But, well, not exactly churning out Nelson Oesterlins. Though perhaps the boy, Jonas, like his father before him, would be an exception.

A dog barked when he knocked and he waited for a long time for someone to answer. A woman finally came to the door, opening it just a crack to keep the dog from getting out. She wore sweat pants, her hair haphazardly piled in a knot on top of her head. She gave him a scrutinizing look.

“I’m looking for Nelson Oesterlin’s sister.”

The dog, a small kind of boxer mix, eager to see, pushed its nose out the door. The woman held it back with her ankle.

“I came to see Jonas,” Martin said, giving his most disarming smile.

“What for?”

“I was hoping to speak with him. To offer my condolences.”

The woman sniffed. She looked tired and unfriendly. “Who are you?”

“I was a friend of Nelson’s. A mentor, you might say.”

 “From Stanford?” She said Stanford with contempt.

“No. From when he went to the high school here.”

She looked at him for the first time now, a visible wall coming down. “I thought I recognized you. I had you for chemistry my sophomore year. I hated that class.” She laughed at this and Martin could see where a front tooth was chipped. He couldn’t remember her as a student but he smiled in good humor. The dog moved behind her legs, getting bolder. She closed the door even more to prevent it escaping, speaking out of a diminishing crack. “Listen, Jonas isn’t here right now. But I’ll tell him you came by.”

Martin nodded, disappointed. “Just tell him I’m sorry. His father was an incredible talent. Tell him that—well, that I’m sorry.”

The woman closed the door. She would tell the boy nothing. There was nothing, really, to tell. Still, he was surprised by the degree of disappointment he felt. Then, on the open deck above, he saw a boy looking down. He had brown wavy hair cowlicked upward, and a freckled face. It was Jonas, Martin thought. It had to be—the spitting image of his father. Martin waved up at him. The boy waved back. He glanced at the door and then moved to the side of the house and around back, where he knew there would be a long, steep staircase leading up to the deck, just as there had been at his own house. He crouched as he got nearer to the top, not wanting to frighten him. The boy watched him approach, standing still against the wall. He was small for his age, Martin thought. It made him seem even more vulnerable.

“I knew your father,” he said quietly, not wanting to draw attention from inside the house. “He was a great man. A good person. Brilliant. I’m sure you miss him very much.”

The boy said nothing.

“I was his teacher. Here in Victorville. You’ll go to his same school. He was something of a legend there. He said I helped him.” Here Martin stopped, wondering what, exactly, he wanted to convey. He supposed he wanted the boy to remember him. He wanted to preserve his link with Nelson. “If you ever need any help, Jonas, well, I’d like to help you.”

“I’m Cash,” the boy said. “Jonas is my cousin.” Then he hedged along the deck wall toward the sliding door that connected to the house and escaped inside, into the kitchen, a small space with cluttered countertops and kernels of dog food strewn out of the dish, swollen and pale where some of it had fallen into spilled water.


Back in his car, Martin understood that he would never see Jonas, just as he’d never again see Nelson. He was struck also with the realization this must be Nelson’s childhood home, given over to his sister. There was some comfort in this. Perhaps the boy had his father’s old bedroom. Martin knew that Nelson had had some difficulties at home as a youth. His stepfather was not a man who appreciated the sciences and anyway had no money to pay the conference fees when Nelson was invited to Internationals in Germany. The school had offered to pay only half. Like most public schools, the little money they had was thrown after sports.

Martin paid Nelson’s half of the fee out of his own pocket. He drove him to Los Angeles Airport to see him off, arriving with hours to spare. They ate dinner in an airport restaurant, Martin pretending the whole thing was on the school’s dime. He urged Nelson to order whatever he wanted. Martin, feeling celebratory, ordered steak to set the example. Nelson ordered soup. Because of the time still stretching out before them, Martin had drunk more wine than he’d intended.

“You’re like a son to me, you know,” he confessed over a dish of molten chocolate cake.

Nelson smiled the uncomfortable pitying smile of a child who was used to adults making fools of themselves while pretending not to be drunk. “Don’t you have a son?” Nelson asked.

Martin did have a son, though he was more like one of his students, someone who’d come and gone without leaving much of a mark. His wife had left him when the boy was only three. She’d moved back to Las Vegas where her people were from and he only saw the boy when he came to stay for a week or two in the summers. Martin always drove him out to the ocean at least once each visit. As a teenager, he came less and less frequently; Martin went years without seeing him. Then, inexplicably, just before Martin’s retirement, his son found a job outside Victorville and moved his family there—his wife and baby boy. They still lived there. Or rather, here. Martin had arranged to stay at their house for the night.

His son wasn’t home when Martin arrived. He was a diesel engine mechanic and drove up and down the long California freeways to repair stranded semi-trucks. He’d been called out, his son’s wife told him, but he would be back in the morning. She let Martin in and offered to warm him up some fish sticks. She was a small woman with adult acne she layered over with thick makeup. She sat with him as he ate, but there was an air of muted hostility, a hardness held in the bumpy surface of her jaw. Martin had only met her a few times but understood that she didn’t like him. He didn’t let it bother him. Over the years of teaching, he had built up the skill of appearing oblivious to what people felt about him.

She’d set up an air mattress in her son’s room for him and draped it with blankets. Bryce was four now and slept on a small bed that looked like a race car. Or a rocket ship. It was difficult to say in the dark. There was a dim lamp on the boy’s dresser. Martin changed into his pajamas and switched off the light.

“Keep that on,” Bryce said. Martin was startled. He was sure the boy had been asleep when he came in. Maybe he was just that attuned to the light. He turned it back on and the two stared at each other.

“You’re late, Grandpa,” he said. “I wanted to show you my dinosaurs but Mom made me go to bed.”

Martin felt mildly astonished; the last time he’d seen him, just before he’d moved away, the boy could hardly speak. “Why don’t you show me tomorrow?”

Bryce considered this and nodded. “Did you bring me anything?” He had a ghostly whiteness about him. His hair was thin as feathers, glowing in the dark.

“Well,” Martin said, trying to think. “I could drive you out to the beach tomorrow.”

Bryce was unimpressed. “I’ve never been to the beach.”

Martin was astonished by this also. It wasn’t even two hours away. Then again, he hadn’t yet made it to Zion National Park, though that was practically in his back yard now. He thought of the first time his sister had seen the ocean. He’d flown her out to visit when he was stationed at the Language Institute in Monterey. It was a lucky post, considering he was only ever a lowly supply clerk. She resisted going out to the water but could hardly help it—they were right on top of the coastline. After work one evening, they walked out together to the shore. She’d refused even to put on shorts or to take off her shoes, and stood on the sand a distance from the water, watching it with her arms folded, though Martin did notice her smiling a little. A few months later, she died in the same way their mother had and Martin thought it strange that for all her resistance, some likenesses couldn’t be helped. He thought then, too, of the first time his son had met the ocean, running toward it with arms outstretched, accepting the crashing water as a glorious, personal gift.

Shifting in his bed now, Martin remembered how he used to take along a blow up mattress as a flotation device, big enough for him and his son to battle the waves. He determined to stay an extra day, to wake up early and treat them all to MacDonald’s breakfast. He’d drive the boy to the beach, his son too, if he didn’t have to work. Even his son’s wife, if she could bear his company. Maybe they could bring this very air mattress. They could lay in the sand and eat gritty tortilla chips and get sunburned together, just like a family.