I found the bamboo stick I was looking for by her swing set. It was the last two feet of the butterfly net I'd bought so she could study the creatures close up, the way I'd done as a child, the wing powder on my fingertips catching the light differently every time, tasting of nothing but color and sunshine.
I remember her unbroken butterfly net being at least four feet long, the bamboo coated in blue plastic, the net a pristine white. How she was able to snap it so cleanly in half was beyond me. I'd find the top half, the other two feet, the net ripped and torn, in a couple days when I'd be pushing the mower and cussing after every play thing left behind, forgotten, or simply dropped on the lawn for later use.
It was a nice length, felt right in my hand, the plastic coating and my sweaty palm making a solid bond, a good grip. I swung it fast and hard, stopping in mid-flight as I would when I was five, six, and seven, and I'd marveled at the snap of a Willow branch.
"Come here, Love," I said. "Look at what I found."
She stared long and hard, squeezing the neck of her bun-bun bunny she was holding, but her eyes the eyes of a child slightly ahead of her years, on the verge of becoming something else. I nearly told her to stay like that, freeze, so I could run inside and get the scissors for that little strand of hair reaching down farther than the rest of her bangs. I can fix that! I have to. It'll take but a moment! I didn't, though, because she was already jittery about the length of bamboo I was holding. She would have told me I was a pain, trying to keep the subject from ever going to the broken butterfly net. "Daaaad," she said finally, eyes still fixated on the blue bamboo stick, a big, grown-up voice, squeaky still, and sweet, burned like a CD in the hard drive of my mind, for later use, when I'd be old and alone and wondering where all the years went, how was I ever able to let her go. Was she going to tell me it was someone else who broke the butterfly net?
"I found it," I said, my eyes lighting up just for her, just so I could hear her giggle at the notion she wasn't in trouble, couldn't ever be in trouble with me. I made the sad clown face, and together we laughed and laughed at the butterfly net that wasn't really a butterfly net anymore, just a blue stick too silly looking to ever capture anything.
The littlest one was strapped in, her mangy bun-bun bunny in her lap, the ends of its floppy ears as if they'd been dipped in the pollution of a life gone on too long, that creature, too— bun-bun bunny—strapped in. The others, Twittle and Dee, both of them on the verge, one already a tween . . . the girly discussions, a murmur throughout the house, me as paranoid as could be, there was no where proper for me to be, to hide from this inevitable stuff. They were talking about me, or others like me, the men they would marry, date, pine about, all the wrongs they would commit somehow my fault. They all had to be something like me. Didn't they? Dad? Daddy! Daaaaaaaaaad.
What happened? How did I get here? That's all I could think about packing the trunk of the car for the trip back home, the wife already set up shotgun, a two-litre bottle of water at her feet, a bag of fruit still dangling from her hand as she swung around to say something to the girls. Whatever it was, it was between them, more of the murmuring. She could have been telling them to respect each other's space in the cramped station wagon—a box as for transporting pets where they didn't want to go— to make sure not to get me upset as we had a long drive ahead of us, and we needed to get home safely, in one piece, the lot of us, them lining up behind me waiting for my key to unlock the stillness of our home.
I thought I could stall things, arrange and rearrange the contents of the trunk, a mixture of all our smells, and the ocean, too, the greasiness of all those cold-cut sandwiches we'd eaten as we'd gone up the coast, farther than we should have. So far . . . I seen a gaggle of gulls floating on the water deeper than I would ever have gone, squawking and screeching, giving each other notice, there was a whale about to break the surface. I slammed my chest, as if the camcorder was ever in my breast pocket. The blackness of the thing, that's what had the gulls in ecstasy, the curve of its spine, an island just appeared, and then disappearing, again and again, only in slow, heavy glide, motion. My voice was bunched at my throat. Do I tell them, unbuckle the youngest, bun-bun bunny, too, argue with Twittle and Dee? Get out of the car! Wade through the inevitable gull-squawking from the shotgun. What? Where? How? Oh, it's a whale. So what?
Damn! He was missing the thumb on the hand I shook. My fault, as I'd dived in, lowering my right shoulder, a civilized smile on my face like I'd been taught was the proper way to greet people, especially if they were older. "Hi! How are you? We're just passing through." He hadn't asked.
"Good, good," he'd said, a pained look on his face. Again, that was my fault that. I hadn't given him a chance to prepare for the handshake.
As it was happening, the greeting, I'd seen with my mind's eye how that thick knuckle stub pressed against the palm of my hand. Even made up a little yellow claw nail I could feel like a rock in my shoe as I'd looked straight ahead, my face showing nothing, just the blur of a perfect greeting. How are you, I'd asked, the voice not really my own, but the voice I was taught I should use in these situations—non-committal, forgettable, a reporter's voice from off camera. His face was one of a million faces I'd seen without paying attention. How are you, I'd asked, all intrusive like, my expression a death mask, except for the smile—a death mask in bliss. I'd be free to scrub my hand raw in a few moments. No worries, except for that yellow claw that might have broken skin, microscopically
Good, good, he'd said, the bounce of his head doing nothing for me, or his situation.
I withdrew, turned away as I'd been taught, in my mind's eye, an infection like an army of ants crawling up my arm.
His face, the tremolo of his voice, his eyes, his ear lobes, his oily hair, a silvery white, the creases of his forehead, the heavy nose, the waddle of skin, heavy like his nose, his tabac-brown teeth, the deflated lips . . . the chicken skin of his neck, red like he was angry. If I touched it, would I leave a white print? The smell of smoke on his old shirt, the gentleness and frailty of all these things combined, the squeaky shoes as he turned away, the escaping murmur as if this had been painful, but easily set aside with all the other things he had to deal with in his life as a gas station attendant, rotten itch in the palm of my hand.
A whale!" I shouted. Over and over. The family spilling out the car as if it was my voice risen up from the deep for a gulp of air.
She spoke in that long ago voice.
"Sweetheart, you awake?"
Of course I was awake. Such an innocent voice, but there was also that menace looming, the threat. She was going to slap my bare thigh, to keep us on the road, to keep us from piling into the cement holding up the over-pass. Slap! Wake up! Tehe! And then she would cover up her own thigh as best she could with her slender hands. Don't you dare! Oh, but I would, landing my paw onto her warm flesh that had slow cooked from the sun glaring through her window for the last hundred miles. My hand would linger, and she would give me that drunken look, both of us awake now. The kids, she'd say, coyly, happy to be riding shotgun for me, my paw print still on her thigh.
A couple minutes later, and I'd start nodding off again, a struggle I never discussed. Didn't want her worried, disappointed. Should we stop for ten minutes, I'd ask during the most difficult of times trying to keep awake, my children, my wife, in the car with me hurtling through one of my dreams. I'm a bit tired, I'd say, the bleariness in my eyes like bloody cataracts. She'd glance my way, thinking —and I just knew she was thinking this—if he says he needs a break, then he needs a break. Ten minutes? Yup. We shall stretch our legs while you nap.
We were travelling fast, in a straight line, my eyes grainy slits, my weight forward on the steering wheel, when she spoke again.
I looked to her, and then almost immediately had to right the car, keep us from the ditch.
Was there the tickle of a menace in her voice? Quickly, I glanced down at her hands, both of them tucked between the soft flesh of her thighs, the inside of the car as quiet and still as a backroom. She'd spoken. I heard it. She'd said, Sweetheart. Love? Are you okay to keep driving?
Again, I had to right the car, slide past the slim opening between the girders of an overpass. I wanted to look back at the youngest, but was afraid we'd careen into a farmer's field, his corn stalks past human consumption now, for the cows, feed, but still a beauty for the eyes at the end of a summer.
"Look! Cows," I'd say. "Mooo!" Sometimes, I'd stop so we could moo together, the lot of us hanging out the windows, me, hanging over the wife, my moos like happy smooches in her ear, though she didn't know it then.
"Sweetheart?" her voice like the voice of a dead person sending me a warning. The children! The children! I righted the car, this time our wheels, hers, disturbing some gravel, a flare of dust as in a cartoon. None of this was real, but I didn't want it to end. I didn't want for us to be on our way home where the days simply passed, piling one on top of each other as weeks we could have been together.
I was asleep at the wheel.
"Dad, are we almost home?"
I thought not to answer her question, thank her, instead, for the pestering over the years of her short life since she could put sentences together, and then let go of the steering wheel and close my eyes. Yes, baby. We're almost home. And then she'd close her eyes. And together we'd fly into the corn. The cows too stunned, beyond mooing for us in a very private way, as if in a snapshot moment—if a bear shits in the woods, type of moment. I forced my dry eyes onto the gas gauge instead. "Won't be long, baby. Sleep for now."
Wife was dead to the world.
"There," I said out loud, my eyes squinting at a next gas sign.
"What's going on," she said, in a voice I'd learned to shy away from. "Are you falling asleep?"
"No," I answered back, my own voice a dead thing. "We're going to stop for gas."
If only then was now, right this second, even as my foot grew heavier and heavier, the music travelling through the bundle of wires behind the radio and directly into my temples, pin pricks, needles. The sound entered where there were droplets of blood, a dozen or so on either side, bass, treble, a hi-fi replay of the gas station, that son-of-a-bitch, a cavalcade of sound through electronics, the color coded filaments of my destruction, ours, beyond the red and the black and the white, the blues, the greens, the yellows, a brown, a purple—those meant nothing except they, too, stabbed at my temples, directly so the children could stay asleep, the music was in my head. One over-sized baby head on bun-bun bunny, the other two oblivious they too were touching heads lovingly, the wife, her mouth slightly open, the curve of her neck exposed to me, lovingly, a twelve hour drive, a snooze, a power nap as we hurtled home, that son-of-a-bitch from the gas station still in my head, in my sweat squeezing through my skin, the grind of my teeth, the ivory of my fists, white knuckled. I broke finally, my eyes on the speedometer as I wept the way daddy's weep, inside.
Coming to it from the south, the gas station seemed different, changed somehow, as with me, I'd changed in the miles I'd travelled away from it, my life had gone on, and so too had the cinder block building's life, a living thing, non-descript and oil-stained, but a part of so many of the people who'd travelled this highway. Piss-stops, snack attacks, or just for the stretching of the legs. I knew this place had already been burned as memory for countless strangers. "Gimme the key to the can, please." "How much for those Gummie Bears?" "Fill her up." Happy memories, snapshots.
Coming from the south, as if we were only now beginning the trip, I knew I was going to be wrong, about to wreak some havoc as the children slept. I'd creep into the parking and maybe leave the car running so as not to disturb the hum that had lulled them all to sleep.
Carefully, I'd open my door, the battle-axe from under my seat in my hand, and I'd pad my way across the gravel to the entrance. Once in side, "Motherfucker," I'd say, "Motherfucker with a missing thumb, you short-changed me." Each swing of my battle-axe tearing away at fabric as airy as cheesecloth, old web, smiling faces, dark stained tears like blood in the eyes.
Sweetheart, she'd said, in a dreamlike voice, one I'd been struggling to recall, like wanting to wake, truly wake, from a bad dream. I knew she was still there by my side. I heard her. Sweetheart, she'd said, jolting my senses, but also scaring me. I thought I opened my eyes. Seen her there in my periphery as we all stared down the sharp edge of a concrete overpass pylon, the screams at my back reminding me there were children in the car, bun-bun bunny's ears a bit dirtier than when we'd started off, Twittle and Dee, the lives they hadn't really begun, and beyond them, the baggage of a family vacation, a sprinkle of sand in everything, towels still damp, the bottoms of chip bags, five fold-away chairs in their sleeves, duffles of laundry, ticket stubs throughout, brochures for scrap books, a whale, a man with a missing thumb who hadn't short changed me at all, who'd been pleasant in spite of my forwardness. Still, there was that little yellowed claw I could still feel digging into the palm of my hand.
"Sweetheart," she said, "are you good to drive?"
No. I was going to tell her I wasn't. And then keep on driving since she was wide-awake herself. Or I thought to tell her I could use a little power nap. Look for a rest area, dear, turn my head as if I was checking on the children, that sad looking bun-bun bunny and his polluted ears, a short lifetime of his head dragging along the ground, a rear naked choke on his neck. Or, I would have asked her if she was really there, swung my hand like a drunken bum swatting at ghosts. Damn! And then I'd fall asleep for good.