I liked it better when Dad was sick. Maybe if I'd said that instead of, He shoulda died, you never would have slapped my face, and then I might have led the unharmed life you'd hoped for me. Maybe if your hand had not been hot and slick from dishwater, its imprint might not be rising from my cheek as I lie awake in bed, listening to television laugh tracks from downstairs. Maybe if Trevor hadn't said, Mom you need to teach her a lesson, you wouldn't have had anything to prove, and then you might have agreed with me.
We really did become a family those four months Dad spent in the cancer ward, when the entire staff was telling us to prepare for the worst. We became even tighter when we rented out our house and moved in with Pop-pop so we could afford the hospital bills, and so that Dad, after working hard his whole life, would at least get laid out classy. When you and Trevor and I slept side by side by side on the pull-out in the living room, and you would blow-dry the bed sheets toasty warm, and play side B of Cream's Wheels of Fire and scratch our backs, one back per song, while the kiln from the Coleman supplies factory flashed light on our ceiling. Like fireworks, you said. Like the Fourth of July in the dead of winter, you said, and we Ooohed and Ahhhed till Pop yelled through the wall to hush up.
You were beautiful then-that's what I meant to say in the kitchen tonight. Especially that Friday in January when you dressed up for visiting hours in the red mini skirt you found hanging in the closet of your old room, and you put on your dangling ruby earrings, and a dab of perfume on the pale underside of each wrist. You dabbed me, too, and caught Trevor by the belt-loop and dabbed him for calling us corny. And when Dad asked you from his hospital bed where you were headed all gussied-up, you didn't even flinch. Got a date? He said. And you said, Yeah, with my kids, because he didn't scare you anymore all sick and skinny and crawling with tubes. You just laughed a little laugh while hanging our school pictures next to Trevor's latest pencil sketch of a fighter plane. I didn't say so at the time, but I could tell when he hugged me that his strength was coming back. And Trevor must have felt it too when Dad shook his hand and clapped him on the shoulder blade. That's why he told you on the bus ride home not to wear that outfit again, because moms who try to dress up young wind up looking like whores.
That night, we made it home in time for the Late Late Show. You pulled the bed out and left the hair dryer blowing under the covers while you popped popcorn on the stove and melted butter and brown sugar in Pop's smallest saucepan. Then you shook it all up together and brought the pot to our bed just as the movie was starting. Pop came out in boxers and sox to turn the volume down, took one look at us chomping caramel popcorn in the flickering blue light and said You'll never change, and I hoped he was right.
But he wasn't because now you go to bed right after the dinner dishes are done. You don't play records, or pop popcorn, or blow-dry our sheets, or watch movies while you fall asleep. Dad's got the clicker these days and he only flips between Sports Center and C-Span, and when he calls Trev and me in to watch a little TV with him, we don't argue because of how close he is to losing his temper while he's on that transdermal Fentanyl patch.
According to the doctor, we're lucky to have him alive. Who's he trying to kid? He's the one feeling lucky. He gets to pat himself on the back for getting Dad's tumor from grapefruit to golf ball size. A golf ball, the doctor said, swinging Johnny Carson's imaginary golf club, Isn't that amazing? And it's getting smaller every day. Folks in the cancer ward can't stop talking about his recovery. One for the books, they say. He's a real fighter.
Tonight, after I wiped the Beef Stroganoff from the living room wall and Trevor collected the pieces of the broken plate in his palm, you said, We'll have to use plastic. We are lucky to have him alive, you said. While the cancer ward players are raising their clubs in victory, we're tip-toeing around our house, cleaning up the dinner Dad's hurled against the wall again, grateful it's just the plate this time and not you or Trev. We are lucky to have him alive, you said. He shoulda died, I said back. And because I'm the only one around here brave enough to say what the rest of us are thinking, you took your battered son's advice and slapped my face for the first time in your life. I felt strength from you that must have been hidden beneath the baggy sleeves of your unwashed nightgown.CLOSE
The day my family got thrown out of the only vacation house we ever rented was my last day of childhood. It was the Fourth of July, the summer between third and fourth grade. I was crouched under the hammock in a public park pulling wild onions from the grass. Above me my parents swayed, the creaking of the rope a rhythmic snore.
Tell me one thing, Milt, my mother said. Did you think they wouldn't realize the check was bad?
The hammock creaked once, and then again. The deposit was good, he said.
Moving my hand over the tips of the grass blades, I found another onion stalk, greener and stickier than the grass. I poked my finger through the soil and pulled out the gumball-sized bulb, spit on it, wiped it, and added it to my pile.
None of us wanted to be in this empty park, but there was no public access to the lake and my father refused to have some broad from a third rate rental agency ruin our Fourth. In the driveway of the vacation house, Dad spread the map he'd swiped from the kitchen drawer over the steering wheel, took his drugstore reading glasses from the visor, and scanned the grid. Sweat from his chin dripped onto the paper. He wiped the map and pointed to a green square near the crease. Village Park, he said. Perfect.
Village Park was not perfect. There was nothing to play on and nobody there, so Dad dropped us off and returned with an airplane kit in a sealed plastic bag from the hardware store. On the hood of the car, he assembled the balsa wood and flew it to me across the gravel parking lot. Go, Ellen go! he shouted. I chased the plane down, bare feet on gravel, and accidentally stepped on its wing, splintering the papery wood in two. My dad closed his eyes to the sun and said, Well that's that.
Creaking in the hammock, unaware of my presence beneath them, my parents asked each other questions neither bothered to answer. Did you think you'd pull this off? What do you expect from me? How can she ever trust men? And then, I'm an asshole, Shelly. Is that what you want to hear?
I rolled onto my back and looked up at the hammock, at the bulges of my father's bare skin pushing through the rope diamonds. I wanted to let them know I was with them so they'd talk about the fireworks and wouldn't say asshole. I wanted to hear them say this place was perfect, and that we know how to make the best of anything. I poked my father's diamond of skin with the tail of an onion bulb. He shifted his weight and said, Nothing's ever good enough. I poked him again, harder this time till the tail of the bulb bent and snapped.
Ellen, he said. Knock it off.
That's when I realized they knew I was there all along. I became one of them that day, no longer entitled to my mother's hands over my ears, no longer sent away when things got bad. We were lying around on the Fourth of July, pissed off and cursing in a park without a view, a swing set, or even a tetherball. I pulled my knees into my chest and fought the urge to launch both heels into my father's fat back, splitting the balls of his spine, sending him and Mom too tumbling onto the grass, which for anyone who cared to know, had become a lot colder since this day began.
The shadows of the trees were just now taking over the park. Families all over this lake town would soon be laying meat down on grills, stirring batches of lemonade in glass pitchers, wrapping wet kids in giant towels and sitting them down for dinner.
I wondered whether the three of us would still be here when the fireworks went off from the deck of the town ferry. Not seeing the colors, but hearing the booms and cracks. Mom and Dad would still be disgusted but would huddle close anyway because that's what they did in the evenings. I would lie back on the grass and watch the rocking of the hammock until I too began to rock from the sight of it. Together, we'd feel the night air get stiffer and listen to explosions and look for hints of flashes above the Village Park tree line. A handful of raw onions each.CLOSE
It started with words to television commercials. First I learned the catchy, sing-songy ones. "Bum-bum-bumblebee, bumblebee tuna." Then I got to the dialog. "Ancient Chinese secret, huh." And then, the questions, "How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop?" The knack seemed to take over for a while. My memorization was astounding. My sisters would flick off the TV between shows. They'd throw cold water over the shower rod when they heard me practicing. They'd slam my bedroom door telling Mom that something had to be done. At first Mom was patient. "Sweetheart, what is it you're after?" But eventually the jingles broke her down. She gave the TV to goodwill.
That's when I got into tickets. I saved every ticket stub that I've ever held. I've got five or six binders of tickets. Even those generic tickets that don't say the event or the date, just the words "admit one." I've got pages of those. I've got train tickets punched, boarding passes ripped along the perforated edge, lift tickets stuck to wire wickets. I've got drycleaner claim tickets I'd said I'd lost and drink tickets I never cashed in just so I wouldn't have to give up the ticket. My boyfriend stopped letting me have his stubs. "You weren't even there," he'd tell me, shoving tickets into the pockets of his jeans.
Now it's pictures. I bring little cardboard box cameras everywhere. You'd be surprised by how many people are not put off by those. In line at the bank, on lunch break at the corporate park, intersections, elevators. Did you know they make box cameras that go underwater? I've got schools of little pink headless bodies of kids in the town pool. Last night was my first U.S. Armed forces photo. Four boys from the ship out at the bar. White uniform, even the caps. Click.
One thing you learn, the categories are endless. Which in part inspires me, but also stirs a panic I've had since childhood, kneeling on the shag carpet of our living room, commercial break about to light up the television screen. You could spend your days trying to get all you can, but you'll never be able to shake that question: will I ever finish this?CLOSE
Frieda sits behind the wheel of what used to be her fatherís Chevy Lumina that is now hers. He gave it to her when he finally agreed to surrender his license. Sundays, Frieda takes her father out to Old Mill road so that he can drive the straightaway and feel young again in the air-conditioned comfort of his old car. She canít understand why her husband prefers televised golf matches over a nice Sunday drive with his wife and father-in-law, even after he is tempted with a slice of lemon meringue at the Roscoe Truck Stop. But Frieda no longer things of her husband once sheís driving her father past the brilliant green sod farms. Sheís too captivated by the memory of her 16-year-old self in the passenger seat of her fatherís Ford LTD, her hands worrying the the pleats of her skirt, eager to grip the think, hard plastic of the steering wheel that her expert father one-handedly maneuvers. Iím giving something back, Frieda thinks, as she pulls over to the shoulder to switch seats and allow her father his place at the helm, if just for an afternoon.
Saul situates himself in the driverís seat, patiently allowing the dust to settle on the hood of the car before he shifts into drive. His conniving daughter pulls into the dirt and gravel instead of remaining on the paved shoulder so that she can watch him struggle trying to get his car up over the lip of pavement. This will convince her she was right to take his license. Thatís what these Sunday drives are all about. If Alma were still alive, sheíd tell him to stop his fussing, that their daughter just wants to spend time with him. Well, let her take me to the track, he tells his wife. What is the sense of getting in the car to go nowhere at all? Gas is not cheap and cars are not toys, he reasons, rumbling through the gravel with just enough speed to take him up onto the road. Swell, now he has probably ruined the carís carriage. He is tempted to remind her, this is a Chevy Lumina, not an army jeep. But he sees that she is feeling noble, smiling proudly at her reflection in the side view, and he doesnít want to take that away from her, even as the pebbles ping the metal carriage as he drives past the sod farms. Itís only an hour, he thinks, just one hour of my day.
Ed Joe sticks out a thumb when he sees a Chevy Lumina slowly rolling toward him. He has been walking barefoot down Old Mill Road waiting for a ride since Marla threw his clothes out of her trailer and only one shoe appeared in the discarded pile. She is probably waiting for him to knock on her screen door, his jacket and jeans in a bundle under his arm, and apologize for suggesting the abortion, but he isnít going near her trailer again. Wisely, he takes the out (she should never have given him the clothes). His mother used to warn him each time he ran away from home, You are going to turn out just like your father, a threat as hollow then as it is now, standing on the warm pavement of Old Mill Road, waiting for the Chevy Lumina to slow to a stop. Finally, Ed Joe says, somebody is going to give me a lift. All the stiffs in this town think when they see a good looking guy standing on the side of the road in a leather jacket that heís some kind of pervert. But Ed Joe has never molested anyone. Besides, his jacketís not leather, itís vinyl. Goes to show you, people get the wrong idea all the time. The woman in the passenger seat does not look at Ed Joe as he opens the door and slides into the upholstered back seat.
Frieda tries to expel from her mind the bulge she has just seen pushing hard against the hitchhikerís course denim fly. She shames herself with thoughts of how it must be coiled in there, but she knows when she gets the chance, sheíll look again. Just once. She glares at her father when he calls the guy Cowboy and asks where heís headed. Itís no surprise to her that the guy answers, as close to the pike as youíll take me, because isnít it true that a mojor highway is the logical destination of a greaser on the run? Frieda crosses her legs, pulls her lap belt tighter, and stares out the window, trying to ignore her fatherís idle chat, (where ya from? where ya shoes?) because she knows it is just his way of proving to her that he is still young and hip, and that she was wrong to take his license. Frieda can barely wait to get back to Stockton Drive, to settle into the couch and watch golf.
If his daughter wouldnít make such a stink, Saul would offer to drive the hitchhiker the half hour to the pike. After all, whatís so wrong with helping a fella get someplace? These days, people are so used to shutting themselves up inside their houses, their fenced in yards, and their cars--windows up, air condition on--that they canít even look outside of their own little world to see a barefooted fella waiting for a break. If his daughter insists on coming out here every Sunday to take a ride to nowhere, then somebody, even a stranger, ought to benefit.
Ed Joe has never been in a car that moved so fucking slow. Looking at the posts of the horse fence pass by his window, one by one by one, Ed Joe is convinced he could run at the same speed this old man is driving. Somebody should take his license, he thinks. He wishes that the lady were behind the wheel. If her foot as as tight to the pedal as her hand is to cell phone, theyíd be at the pike in no time.
When they picked him up, Ed Joe figured the lady as the old guyís daughter, but now he can see her scalp right through her coiffed hair, and he realizes sheís his wife, second one probably. First one died. She was the fun one. This second oneís good to have around to make dinner and press his dress pants, but sheís no barrel of laughs. Ed Joe hopes for the old guyís sake that sheís a wildcat in the sack. Gramps ought to get something out of the deal.
Frieda notices in the side view that the psychopath in the back seat is staring at her. Sheís not surprised. Sheís just spent $55 on a new perm, and she walked on the treadmill every day last week, but still, sheís got a mind to tell the guy, donít get any funny ideas, buster, Iím a married woman. She decides not to speak with him, though. You never know what might trigger a guy like this. Right now heís probably thinking of a way to get her on her back on the sod. But Frieda is not scared. She knows her fatherís got an eye out to protect her.
Leaning over to check the gas gauge, she tells her father to pull over to the Gulf station on the corner. The tank is three quarters full, but Frieda thinks it would be the least obvious transition to get behind the wheel again, and send the hitchhiker on his way again. When her father pulls up to the pump, she tells him she is going to make a call to her husband to let him know she is on her way home. What she will actually tell him is that if she is not home in twenty, send the police to the vicinity of Old Mill Road by the Gulf station. This is as far as we can take you today, sir, she tells the hitchhiker, stealing a glance beneath his Budweiser belt buckle before closing the door.
Saul pumped the gas but he would not be paying for it. It is her idea, never his, to take the car out on these drives. The one time they actually make use of the trip and drive a fella someplace, she has to kick him out of the car a measly five miles from where they picked him up. And now she wants to top off a tank thatís three quarters full just to toss money around, the way she does at WalMart stocking up on Christmas at Halloween, and Easter at Christmas. He has never been able to teach that girl the value of a dollar. Of course, she was just a baby, too young to know there were no Sunday drives in 1938, too young to know about the seventeen dollars a week he brought home from the fishing pier, too young to know that her father, who was feeding her chunks of broiled catfish off his finger, was an nineteen-year-old boy. In Saulís mind, she will always be too young to know that he wasnít planning to be a father back then. He doesnít tell her anything about what it was like to bring up a baby in the Depression, seeing how little it affected her when her mother talked about it. Anyway, if she wants to take out the car every week, she can shell out the cash to fill it. He shimmies his way over to the passenger seat and fastens his seat belt.
Ed Joe thanks the old man for the ride and gets out of the car into the hot air. Careful to avoid broken glass and rainbow oil spots on the pavement, he doesnít notice the orange Pinto that pulls up to the other side of the pump. he hears a clunky door unlatch and creak open, and the, the familiar voice, What the hell, Ed Joe? Iíve been driving all morning looking for you.
Shit. Marla. He thrusts himself behind the wheel of the Chevy Lumina. Itís just his luck, he figures, pushing the gear shift to drive, that she would pull up to the same gas station where he got dumped. Iím not stealing your car, he assures the old man as he peels out onto Old Mill Road. That girl back there, she wants me to be a--Ed Joe stops himself. How could he admit he was skipping town because he got his girlfriend knocked-up, and he sure as hell didnít want to be a father. The old guy would never understand. Heís probably got kids, maybe grandkids by now. Hell, heís probably one of those old guys who sees fatherhood as the most rewarding thing in life. Ed Joe doesnít say a word about Marlaís baby. Instead he tells him, Iíve got to get out of here and I swear, once we get to the pike, Iíll give your car back.
Frieda watches her fatherís car peel out of the gas station, leaving a rising cloud of dust. She runs to the road screaming, Oh my god, come back! You canít just drive off! Turning toward the station, she bumps into a young woman whoís stringy brown hair is parted in the middle like curtains and whose lips are pressed tightly around an unlit cigarette.
Who the hell are you? the woman asks from one side of her mouth, taking hold of a clump of Friedaís thin fluffy hair in her white-knuckled fist.
Please miss, you're hurting me, she tells her.
Good, the young woman says. I guess that means we're even.
Saul sinks into the cushiony seat, watching the telephone poles pass in a brown blur. The hitchhiker fishes in his chest pocket then extends a red and white box of cigarettes to Saul, its lid flipped back. Saul pulls one out and thanks him. He thanks Saul in return and asks if, when they reach the pike, it would be okay to get on. Saul bends toward the flame the fella is offering. Just a little farther along, the driver assures him, as he pushes down his window. A warm wind rushes in, smelling of manure.
Saul pushes his window down too, and rests his arm on the hot metal of the door. He knows from the way the driver keeps looking in the rear view that he is afraid the little orange car from the gas station will appear. Saul wants to bring the guy onto the turnpike, wants to take off his seat belt, put his face out the window and holler into the pressure of the wind until his voice thins. After all, hasnít he often wondered what his life would have been like if he took off after young Alma from Grants Food and Sundries told him she was expecting? Of course he loved his wife, and Frieda...he couldnít imagine this stage of life without her. Still, whenever a spiffy boat name occurs to him, or when fumes from the lawnmower remind him of his days working the gas pumps on Pier 55, Saul wonders if he would have earned his deep sea captainís license and if he would have led a good life on the water.
What do you say? the guys asks. The urgent look on his face reaches Saul in the pit of his stomach. Yes, he wants to say, let's go.
Well see now, he says, my daughter has already called 911 from her cell phone. And the police will be waiting at the on-ramp to arrest the kidnapper driving the 1992 gray Chevy Lumina. They'll know the tags and everything.
You'll tell them I'm not a kidnapper, right? You'll tell them you were just helping me out, won't you?
They wouldn't believe an old man after a screaming phone call from the gas station, he tells the boy. They'll probably think I'm confused.
But you're not, he says.
No, I'm not.
As instructed by the old man, Ed Joe pulls into the parking lot of the Roscoe Truck Stop. Not a bad idea, Ed Joe thinks, scanning all the big rigs that could take him across the state. Thanks a lot, Ed Joe offers, yet he's not sure the man quite understands. The old man takes the cigarette box from the dash.
One for the road? he asks Ed Joe.
Take the pack, Ed Joe answers. But the old man doesn't. They shake hands and Ed Joe watches the old man drive off, wondering if he accelerated out of the parking lot or just rolled out in neutral. What a mellow dude, Ed Joe thinks. But it is not until ten o'clock that night, while riding in the cab of a Hood Dairy truck that Ed Joe finds a crisp ten dollar bill folded in thirds inside his cigarette box. What he doesn't know now is he will never spend that ten dollars. He will keep it flattened in thirds in his wallet everywhere he goes.CLOSE