It had been three years since Mark McCormick had seen his father, Sonny Daye, and since it was going to be Mark's birthday in a little over a week, Judge Milton C. Hardcastle thought he would surprise "the kid" and get Sonny to come for his birthday this year. Milt had been trying for the last two days to locate Sonny, and finally he did so. He called Sonny up to invite him to come to Mark's surprise party.
Sonny said, "Hey, look, Judge. I have shows to do; can't stop now to party. The show must go on y'know. Besides, Judge, he's gotten by without me before. He'll survive."
Hardcastle slammed the phone down and said, "That no-good son of a bitch!"
McCormick heard the comment as he walked into the den and said, "What 'no-good son of a bitch' would that be, Hardcastle?"
Milt turned when he realized McCormick was in the room and said, "Uh, nothing. Never mind; it was just a prank phone call, is all."
"Well, Judge, you sounded pretty damn upset by just a prank phone call. You sure it wasn't more than that?"
"McCormick, forget about the phone call. I have already."
"Okay, fine, Judge. I was actually coming in to talk to you about something."
"Well, McCormick, what is it?"
"I was gonna go into town. I need to buy a new electric skillet, and I was wondering if you needed anything picked up or if you wanted to run to town with me. We could go out to eat afterward if you want."
Milt looked at Mark for a minute, quietly studying his face. Milt started to realize this was a very difficult time of year for McCormick, and he knew how Mark felt about it because of his father walking out on the kid's fifth birthday. He finally said, "Yeah, sure, McCormick. I'll go with you, and we can eat out. Then, maybe we can pick up a pizza for later, too."
"Great, Judge. Let's go," Mark replied happily.
On the way to the store to get the new skillet, Milt asked Mark, "Is there anything you wanna talk about?"
"No, Judge. Why?"
"You just seem like there's a lot on your mind, and it might help to talk about it; so go on, and I'll listen."
Okay, if you say so."
"So, where do you wanna eat today? My treat."
"That isn't necessary, kiddo. I'll treat."
"No, Judge. It's my treat. Let me do it, just this once, okay?"
"So, Hardcase, where do you wanna eat after this stop?"
"Burger Man sounds good to me."
"Okay, Burger Man it is."
As they were driving, Milt spotted a store that would have electric skillets and said, "Hey, McCormick! Right here should have what we're looking for."
"Judge, just give me a chance to park, and we'll go inside."
As soon as they entered, they headed down the third aisle. There, they found lots of skillets - too many to choose from. Mark finally found the perfect one, and he took it over to show the judge, before joining the checkout line to pay for it.
"Okay, let's get out of here, Hardcastle."
They arrived at Burger Man and both ordered a double-bacon cheeseburger with the works, a large order of fries and a chocolate milkshake. When they returned home to Gulls' Way, McCormick told Milt he was going to the gatehouse and would come to the main house in an hour or so.
Milt walked into the main house to his den and sat down at his desk to sort through some mail. Just as he started, he began thinking about Sonny Daye and how much wrong he had done to the kid. The Judge started getting more annoyed by the second. He finally decided to take one last chance and see if there was even one shred of a decent bone in Sonny's body.
He dialed Sonny's number to try to convince him to come out to the estate. As he heard the phone ring, he also heard the front door to the main house slam. He immediately hung up the phone because he knew McCormick would be heading for the den.
"Hey, Judge, what are you doing in here?"
"I'm going over some mail I've been neglecting for a day or so, McCormick."
"Why is that, Judge? I mean, why've you been neglecting the mail. That isn't like you. Have you been looking into our next case or what?"
"No, I just haven't gotten around to the mail, that's all."
The two men suddenly heard a knock on the door, and Mark said, "I'll get it, Judge."
"Telegram for Milton C. Hardcastle," said the delivery boy.
"Thank you. I'll sign for it."
Mark closed the door. "Hey, Judge!" he said. "Telegram for you." He walked into the den and handed the message to Milt. "Here you go."
"Were you expecting one, Hardcastle?"
"Uh, no. Not that I am aware of."
"Well, read it, Judge."
"McCormick! Just go find something to do, and leave me be, will ya?"
Mark left the room, and about five minutes later, the judge opened the envelope to find more excuses from Sonny Daye. Milt dialed Sonny's hotel room number immediately. The phone rang twice, and Milt heard a voice say, "Sonny Daye."
"Sonny, it's Hardcastle here. I just got your telegram with all your excuses."
"Hardcastle, look. I'm sure my kid can handle my not being there. Don't you think?"
"Sonny, you are a lowlife scumbag. That kid should never have had to go through life without a father around. But then, of course, having no father around is better than having such a good-for-nothing SOB as you. Anyway, just forget you even have a son. Oh, that's right! You already have - when he was five. And, Sonny, just forget I called too." Milt slammed down the phone.
A half an hour later, Mark came in to the main house and found a note left from the judge that said: "Hey, McCormick, I had to go out for a bit. Be back in a few hours. Have the pizza and beer ready when I get home. 'True Grit' is on tonight, along with 'Big Jake.'"
McCormick waited almost two hours for Milt to come home. Finally, he heard the judge call, "Hey, McCormick! Are you here?"
Mark heard him and came from the kitchen with his arms full of pizza, beer, and popcorn.
"Hi ya, Hardcase. I read your note, and we're all ready for the John Wayne double feature. Judge… where were you all this time?"
"I just needed to go downtown and talk to Frank, that's all."
"Anything I need to know about? Maybe a new case?"
"No, kiddo, nothing at all."
"Well, the movies are about to start, so I'll get the remote."
McCormick turned on the TV, and for the next four hours, the two friends relaxed and watched John Wayne. After the movies finished, McCormick yawned and said, "I'm kinda beat, Judge. I'm going over to the gatehouse for bed unless you need me for something else."
"No, you go on to bed."
"Oh, Judge, I'll clean the pool tomorrow. You also told me earlier your pickup needs to be looked at, so I'll do that in the morning, as well. Night, Judge."
The next morning, Mark received a call from Frank asking him if he could look at his wife's car. It was making odd noises, and Claudia needed to have the car working for the next morning. Mark said, "Sure. I'll be over after breakfast. Is that okay? I also have to clear it with Hardcastle."
"Sure, Mark. Thanks a lot."
"No problem. I'll be there soon as I can. Bye, Frank."
McCormick went to the kitchen where Milt was drinking his morning coffee. "Hey, Hardcase, Frank wants me to go to his house after breakfast because Claudia needs me to look at her car. It's making that clinking noise again."
"Oh, okay. Sure, go on. Claudia appreciated it when you fixed it the last time."
"Yeah, I know. She's a nice lady."
After breakfast, Mark loaded the dishwasher. "I'll be back after I fix Claudia's car."
Two and a half hours later, McCormick came into the main house and said, "Hey, Judge. I'm back."
The judge came around, saying, "Yeah, I knew you were home when I heard the door slam."
"Is her car all fixed?"
Later in that afternoon, the judge was in his den thinking about all the things he could do to make McCormick's birthday a good one for him that year. A knock sounded at the door as he was planning. "All right. I'm coming!" he shouted.
"Telegram for Milton ."
"Yeah, yeah. That's me." Milt thanked the delivery man and closed the door. Then, he read the telegram: "Judge Hardcastle. Barbara Johnson here. I am so sorry I will not be arriving for the party for Mark, but I had a little accident and sprained my ankle very badly. I'm going to be fine - nothing to worry about. But I do wish I could be there. Tell you what, I will call Mark in the afternoon during the party, okay? Keep in touch! Barbara."
Milt understood why she couldn't be there for the party, and he decided to call her to see for himself how she really was. He located Barbara's number and dialed it.
Barbara answered on the fourth ring. "Hello."
"Ms. Johnson? Milt Hardcastle here. I just received your telegram. How are you?"
"Oh, Judge Hardcastle. Yeah, I'm glad you called. How is Mark?"
"He's doing okay. What about you?"
"Oh, Judge, I'm tough as an ox. I'll be just fine."
"What happened to you? How did you get hurt?"
"I just wasn't watching where I was going, that's all. No big deal."
"Well, you better just take it easy for a few days."
"I'm so sorry to have to miss Mark's surprise party."
Yeah. Well, I understand, and you know McCormick will too."
"I know, and I appreciate that, but I'm still upset over it."
Milt heard the kitchen door slam. "Uh, Barbara, I have to go. McCormick came in."
"Okay, Judge. Keep in touch, okay?"
"Sure, Ms. Johnson. You take care, now. Bye." Hardcastle hung up the phone and put Barbara Johnson's number away.
McCormick came into the den. "Hey, Hardcase! What do you want for dinner tonight?"
"Well, how about some hamburgers on the grill? How does that sound?"
"Yeah, Judge, that's fine, except you usually do the grilling, and it's my turn to cook."
"Okay, anything you want."
McCormick came further into the room and sat down. Why had the judge just given in to him like that? He couldn't understand what was going on, but he knew he had better try to find out.
"Hey, Hardcastle, what's going on here, and I'm not taking 'oh, nothing, McCormick,' for an answer." He did his best imitation of the judge.
"What are you talking about, McCormick?" Milt said with some gruffness.
"Judge, you have been agreeing with just about everything I say and giving in to me. And you can just sit there and ask me what I'm talking about? I'll tell you, Hardcastle, I want to know once and for all why you are acting so strangely."
"McCormick, for the last time, lay off. There is nothing wrong."
"Fine. If you won't tell me, I'm gonna find out on my own."
Just as McCormick was about to leave the den, Milt said, "Hey, come back here and sit down."
McCormick paused, but he didn't come back and sit down like he was asked to do.
"Look, kid, I'm sorry I shouted at you there."
Mark turned around and said, "There, that's what I'm talking about, Judge. You aren't acting like your normal, charming self. Why? Is everything okay with your health? This isn't like when you thought you were sick before, is it?"
"McCormick, for crying out loud, I'm fine! Will you just come back here and sit down?"
"Okay, fine. But if this keeps up, I'm calling Dr. Friedman."
As McCormick sat back down, the judge said, "It's a deal."
"Well, good. I'm glad you're seeing things my way for a change. I was afraid I was really gonna have to get tough and pull rank on you. Glad I don't have to."
"McCormick, that will be enough of that. Okay, kiddo?"
"Yeah, for now."
"Listen, McCormick, if there is ever anything you need to worry about, I'll tell you. You got that, sport?"
"So, what is for dinner tonight?"
"Well, I'm willing to share my cooking night with you. I decided we're gonna have hamburgers on the grill; so if you want to do it, it's okay with me."
"Sure. I'd love to. Let's go get things together."
"Okay. I'm right behind you."
They headed outside with everything, including the beer, and set it all up. They were just having a nice quiet dinner when, all of a sudden, Mark jumped up from his seat.
Milt turned to see what was bothering Mark so much, and for a moment he could not believe what he was seeing. He sat in silence just staring at the figure in front of him: the one man he never expected to show up at all.
Mark was the first to speak. "Sonny, what are you doing here?"
"Well, kid, I always told ya one day I'd be back. Now seems as good a time as any. So, here I am. Aren't ya gonna offer your old man a beer, kid?"
Milt was so pissed off at Sonny he just excused himself rather then make a scene.
Sonny asked Mark, "What's with him?"
Mark looked at his father and said, "Can you blame him? You walk in here after three years of not a word, and you think he should welcome you with open arms… or me, for that matter? Sonny, I hate to break it to you like this; it ain't gonna happen."
As Mark slowly walked into the house, Sonny just stood there in utter confusion. He couldn't seem to understand why they are giving him such a cold shoulder. After a moment, he finally joined Milt and Mark in the house.
A few days later, Mark and Milt were in the den talking. Mark was telling the judge he was thinking of asking Sonny once and for all why he left years ago. Milt knew not to try and argue the point with his young friend, because he knew how much the truth meant to McCormick. Milt suggested that Mark ask Sonny if he wanted to walk down to the beach. Mark told him that was a good idea. He would go find Sonny and ask him.
An hour later, Mark came in the kitchen. He saw Hardcastle and told him, "I never got anything out of Sonny at all."
Milt didn't quite know what to say, so he remained silent.
"What is so hard about telling me just what I wanna know?" Mark paused, then asked, "If you don't need me for anything right now, Judge, I'm gonna go to the gatehouse."
Milt nodded his head in understanding. Right after Mark left, Sonny came into the den. He told the judge he had overheard them talking. Yelling, Milt told him, "You listen, Sonny. You come in here once every couple of years if the kid is lucky, and you don't even think he has a right to have some answers."
"You look, Judge. You and the kid came lookin' for me in Jersey when I never asked for it. I told you back then that he should have known better. If I had wanted to see him, I would've taken an ad out in the paper. I never wanted to be a father; I had my own problems, without dealing with a kid."
As Sonny said the last few words, Mark came walking in quietly and just stood there in silence. Milt looked over at Mark, and he could see the hurt in the young man's eyes over what he had just heard.
"Besides, Judge," Sonny went on, "you are the one who summoned me here this time. I wasn't even thinking about it, y'know?" In response, the judge let loose with a haymaker punch that sent Sonny reeling into the back wall.
As Sonny pulled himself to his feet, cradling his jaw in one hand, Hardcastle growled angrily, "You get out of my house and do it quick, or I will throw you out myself. Furthermore, I don't ever wanna see your sorry excuse for a face ever again. Don't you ever decide just to drop in to be a dad. Got that? Now get out, or I will have your butt tossed in jail for trespassing so fast your head will spin."
Milt tore out of the room to find McCormick, who had just run out the door. He found him in the gatehouse, sitting on the couch and staring into space.
The judge sat down beside him quietly, giving Mark time to decide when he wanted to talk about what he had just heard. Finally, he had to say something, even though he wasn't sure what to say. "Look, kid. When you wanna talk, I'll listen, okay?"
Softly, Mark said, "Yeah, Judge, I know. Thanks."
They sat together in silence for almost an hour before Mark spoke again, "Well, now I guess I got the answer I was looking for, Judge. He just didn't want me."
"Look, McCormick. You have made it all these years without him, and you will get through this and move on like always. Just remember you always have me on your side."
Mark turned to look at Milt, and the judge finally saw a big smile on McCormick's face.
"McCormick, I did invite Sonny here as a surprise for your birthday. I thought maybe you two could work out all of your problems, and you would be good for each other. But I was wrong. I am sorry, kid. I had hoped that it could've been different for you, that's all."
"It's okay, Judge. It's not your fault Sonny's a jerk among jerks. He has to live with it; I don't."
A few days later, in spite of the events that had taken place with Sonny, Milt still threw a party for Mark's birthday and invited some close friends. Teddy Hollins arrived first. Then, there was an even bigger surprise: the entrance of Aunt Mae and Aunt Zora. Gerald and Aggie showed up next. Then, all of a sudden, Milt heard the bell ring again, and Frank and Claudia came in. They seemed to have been giving a certain someone a helping hand. Milt and Mark were so surprised to see Barbara Johnson work her way into the house with her walking cast on that Mark almost dropped his plate of food.
Milt was so happy to see Mark smiling once again. He grinned at his friend.
"Barbara," Mark said, "what happened to you?"
"Oh, I just took a spill. It's no big deal, Mark; so quit worrying. I had to be here. I wouldn't have missed your birthday for the world."
Milt and Mark both hugged her and got her seated comfortably. Mark went over and hugged Aunt Mae and Aunt Zora; then he shook hands with Gerald and Frank and gave Claudia a hug. They all got their plates of food and enjoyed each other's company.
Several hours later, everyone started to leave. Mark thanked the guests for being there and asked them all to come again soon. After the last of the them had left, Mark walked over to Milt and said, "Thanks and for this party. I really appreciate it."
Later, after everything was cleaned up, and it was just Milt and Mark, the judge clapped his hands together and said, "Well, kid, popcorn coming up. "The Searchers" will be on in 20 minutes."
Milt brought the popcorn in, and they watched the movie. Afterward, Mark got up to leave. As he started to walk out, Milt said, "Why not just stay here tonight? There's plenty of space, y'know?"
Mark stopped and froze for a second. Then, he turned to the judge and said, "Why, Hardcase, I'm touched you really care so much."
"Listen, wise guy, I just suggested it because it's so late now. It's your choice, take it or leave it."
"I'll take it, Judge. Let me just go over there and get my toothbrush and pajamas, and I'll be right back."
Milt told him, "And don't forget your Teddy bear while you're at it, kid."
Mark turned to the judge and said, "Ha, Ha! Very funny, Judge."
Milt snorted and smiled.
After Mark got back, they both went to their rooms, shut off the lights out and went to bed.
Mark lay awake for a brief time, quietly realizing that even though Sonny might not want to be his father, he did have someone in his life that he did consider like a dad. After all that Mark had gone through, he at least went to sleep knowing he was wanted by someone very special in his life.