My Piper will break your heart with her new gap-toothed smile, and her flapper haircut, and her tiny bitten fingernails. When you see my Piper in front of the Toasted Oats, spindly-legged beneath her summer dress and her red rubber boots, her brow crinkled in concentration as she runs her nimble fingers up and down the grocery list, you will want to gather her up in your arms. You will marvel at the care and attention with which she guides Jodi (whom she’s dressed in a striped shirt and checkered pants) hand in hand, step after wobbly step, down the aisle, past the Grape Nuts and the Lucky Charms. She will shame you with her patience as she bends down in the shadow of Tony the Tiger and endeavors for two minutes to interpret her baby brother’s earnest and unintelligible garblings, while her daddy waves her on impatiently from the head of the aisle. And when she succeeds in understanding baby brother, and you see his little face light up in recognition, you will understand why he clings to her so.
“Daddy, Jodi has a snot,” she chimes from the backseat, where she insists on sitting beside him for the drive home from Central Market. The rain has let up and the clouds are hurrying east, and the weak sunlight fights its way through the treetops intermittently.
“Wipe it, then, honey.” Our eyes lock briefly in the rearview mirror, long enough for Piper to roll hers. She sighs at my inability to grasp the obvious—a habit she recently picked up from her mother.
“But I don’t have anything,” she explains.
“Then just leave it for now,” I tell her, turning my attention back to the road. “We’ll get a Kleenex when we get home.” Fuck. I knew I forgot something.
“Eww,” Piper says.
Glancing back, I see she’s defied me; she’s gone ahead and wiped Jodi’s nose. Corkscrewing her face, she now holds a glistening index finger at arm’s length.
I knit my brow into the mirror. “Don’t you dare wipe that on the seat, young lady.”
She knits her brow right back at me, makes sure I’m paying attention, then wipes her finger on the back of the driver’s seat.
“Damnit, Piper! What did I just say?”
She smiles devilishly at the D-word and ribs Jodi, who is smiling, too. He garbles something unintelligible, unable to control his mirth.
“It’s not funny!”
They laugh at my ire. Daddy is a joke, a reliable source of amusement. Daddy is to be teased and taunted like a terrier. And above all, Daddy is to be tested.
“Damnit, it’s not funny!”
Piper eggs Jodi’s laughter on still further, poking his distended belly and pointing at the back of the seat, until the boy begins kicking his feet deliriously.
Just as I let up on the accelerator, swing my head around, and begin easing onto the muddy shoulder for a time-out, Piper thrusts her still glistening finger over my right shoulder, so that I might inspect the punch-line inches from my face.
“I wiped the wrong one, silly.”
Jodi dispenses a snotty laugh and kicks his legs some more.
Daddy is a sucker. Daddy takes the bait every time. What choice does Daddy have, even in his edgy state of nerve-worn fatigue, but to laugh at himself?
When Piper sees that I’m in on the joke, she gives me the smile, the new one, the one where she jams her tongue through the gap of her missing front teeth, and she wiggles her fingers.
“Daddy, you’re not listening,” Piper says from the backseat as we pull up the driveway.
“I heard you, honey.”
“What did I say, then?”
“You were talking about Woozles,” I say, as we come to a stop in front of the garage and park on the incline.
“That was before! What was I telling you right now?”
“Piper, honey,” I say, turning off the motor and handing her a piece of junk mail from the passenger wheel well. “Please just wipe your finger on this envelope and help me get your brother inside, OK? Once we get the groceries in the house, you can tell me whatever you want.”
Listen to me: everything you think you know, every relationship you’ve ever taken for granted, every plan or possibility you’ve ever hatched, every conceit or endeavor you’ve ever concocted, can be stripped from you in an instant. Sooner or later, it will happen. So prepare yourself. Be ready not to be ready. Be ready to be brought to your knees and beaten to dust. Because no stable foundation, no act of will, no force of cautious habit will save you from this fact: nothing is indestructible.
And what was I thinking in that instant just before the world went icy black, as I strode irritably toward the front door beneath my mountain of groceries? That the ice cream was melting? That if I hurried, I’d still have time to put away the groceries, take a shower, and preheat the oven before Iron Chef? That I wished like hell the kids would go to bed early, so I could have twenty minutes and a beer to myself before Janet got home? What thought so consumed me in that moment—what matter was of such pressing importance in my life—that I would carelessly risk everything that I lived for with my negligence; that I would allow my infant son to loll around in the driveway under the supervision of a six-year-old, so that the milk wouldn’t spoil? And the answer is: I don’t remember.
Even if you glance over your shoulder in time to glimpse the beginning of the end, if you manage to drop your second load of groceries and throw yourself headlong at the destruction, you will be powerless to stop it. It will bear down on you like the devil until you feel your shoes surrendering their purchase on the grit of the driveway, until you shear the side-mirror clean off the car with the force of your efforts; even as the back bumper pins your children to the pavement, even as it drags them toward the ledge. You may in fact wedge your own leg beneath the front wheel. And when that is not enough, when the wheel rolls right over your leg, you will begin to forget everything you ever knew.
Afterward—how much time? ten minutes, an hour?—when the others have arrived in droves to see what your failure has wrought, you will pace and reel in utter confusion like a man struck by lightening. You will not comprehend what has happened. Any attempt you make to order the universe will be desperate and laughable.
“I’m a stay-at-home dad,” you will keep telling the gap-toothed EMT, or the cop with the hairy knuckles, or anyone else who will listen. “You don’t understand,” you will tell them, tugging desperately at their sleeves and blocking their way. “I . . . I’m a stay-at-home dad.”
“Sir,” the hairy-knuckled cop will say. “We need you to calm down.”
“But you don’t understand. I—I’m—”
“Sir. I need you to sit down.”
“My wife will be home. We need the fingers.”
“Yessir, we’ve contacted your wife.”
You will grab him by the lapel and cling to him. “I—I didn’t know. I—I—”
“Yessir, I understand. It was an accident. We all understand.”
“No. You don’t. The fingers.”
“We’ve located the fingers.”
“But I—I’m a stay-at-home dad.”
And when he looks at you this time, you will see in his eyes that you frighten him, but you will not know why. Then you will get down on your hands and knees and begin to order the groceries matter-of-factly; setting the cans right, gathering the wayward apples. You will retrieve a tube of Jimmy Dean sausage that has rolled down the driveway and lodged itself beneath the hydrangea. You will see your wife at the curb, talking to a fireman with her hands covering her face. And before you can get to her, she will have left you already.
My real father, who sired me at the venerable age of sixty-two, died of natural causes two years before I dropped out of college. Mine was the father who threw the football underhanded, when he threw it at all. Mine was the father so far removed from the cultural currency of the day, so oblivious to the pulse of all things immediate, that you could smoke pot, or steal his liquor, or have sex right under his nose. I always believed that this ignorance was willful, that he chose not to notice, that my father looked upon me as though I were some baffling new technology he wanted no part of, like call waiting, which he stubbornly ignored.
Not until I married Janet did I get a taste of the sort of fatherly propriety for which I’d always secretly yearned. Bernard was a revelation, with his smiling eyes and shoulder squeezes, his hair-mussing affections. For years—eleven to be exact—he called me Son. I blush now to think how much I enjoyed this familiarity, how right it felt to be claimed by Bernard, to recline in the den beside him on blustery Sunday afternoons in fall, with the wind rattling the panes and the central heating rumbling up through our slippered feet, sipping scotch (a drink I normally hate), watching football (a sport I normally hate), and talking about things that normally didn’t interest me: the economy, history, civil engineering. What mattered was that sitting beside Bernard, I belonged. In my hopelessly romanticized conception, our sequestered Sunday afternoons had the weight and substance of presidential summits. Our gentlemanly forays seemed all the more momentous because of the life buzzing all around us outside that den, the plenitude which surrounded us: Janet and her mother happily engaged preparing a feast; Piper thumping up and down the carpeted stairs, squealing with laughter; Jodi howling with delight from his playpen at the bottom of the stairwell. The smell of ham hanging so thick and tangy in the air that you could taste it. The clink of silver, the ring of crystal, and the ease of our own unhurried voices marking the hours. Surrounded by such bounty, it was impossible not to feel like a man of some consequence.
Technically, that is, on paper, Bernard is still my father-in-law. Since the disaster, he has not squeezed my shoulder once, or mussed my hair, or called me Son. There is no longer a trace of the fatherly propriety which once shone in his gray eyes, only reticence beneath those bushy eyebrows. But today is his birthday, and I’m determined to honor Bernard as though the universe were still in balance. He is at his desk in the den, constructing a scale model of the Brooklyn Bridge. Or maybe it’s the Williamsburg Bridge. A bridge in New York. He does not stand to greet my arrival, though Ruth has announced it and promptly retreated back to the atrium, where she tends to her tropicals.
I’m clutching a fifth of Talisker in one hand and a box of stubby black Onyx cigars in the other.
He doesn’t look up. “Mm,” he says, fastening a tiny girder in place.
God, but the house seems so silent, so dead without all the thumping and howling. “Just, uh, wanted to pay my birthday respects.”
“Mm. Well, thanks. You can set that stuff there.” He indicates the bar with a slight jerk of the head.
I welcome the opportunity for flight and fall back to the bar, where I set my offerings.
“Drink?” I say.
“Little early,” he grumbles, fingering a tiny cable, as he references the instructions.
I forgo my own drink and turn my attention to the wall of family photos behind the bar, from which I’m noticeably absent, save for my right arm, which I recognize steadying Piper’s shoulder as she perches on her new bicycle in front of the Christmas tree.
“So, then, how have you been?” I say.
“Fair,” he says, still peering over the rim of his reading glasses at the instructions.
I drift a little closer to him, as though drawn curiously. “Brooklyn Bridge?”
“Manhattan,” he intones.
There was a day when my slightest curiosity would’ve been met with a soliloquy to the Manhattan Bridge, an ode to the engineering genius of Ralph Modjeski, a poetic inventory of spans and dimensions. Now, it seems there’s no bridge big enough or strong enough to span the distance between us.
“Eighteen nineties?” I venture.
“Nope. Later,” he says, without further explanation.
“Ah.” I fall back again to the photographs, as Bernard studies his schematics. I’m just glossing over the photos now, as I might gloss over photographs of somebody else’s life. The man in the fishing hat is not Bernard. The woman in the wedding gown is not Janet. The child being steadied by the ghostly right arm is not Piper.
“Nineteen oh-nine,” Bernard says, after a long silence. “The bridge.”
“Oh-nine, huh? Wonder if the Yanks won the series that year.”
“They didn’t,” he says. He looks up at me for the first time. “Ben, why are you here?” His gray eyes are not without pity, but the cruelty of the question takes the breath out of me. I don’t have an answer, not a sufficient one. All I can do is stand there, exposed and aching dully like a giant tooth.
“Go home, Ben,” he says. “Move on.”
According to Janet’s Facebook profile, she is currently “cooking Eggplant Parmesan and listening to John Prine.”
Her networks are Portland, Oregon, and Oregon Metro Zoo.
Her status is “in a relationship,” though it should still say “married,” because I still haven’t signed the papers.
Somebody named Jim Sunderland has tagged her in a note.
Somebody named Polly has written on her wall: “Yeah, I know what you mean. Those are the worst.”
Yesterday, Janet “lit a candle that smelled like orange blossoms.”
She sent Jim Sunderland a message.
She became a fan of Jane Goodall.
She wrote on Jim Sunderland’s wall, and Jim wrote back: “You’re on, but only if I get a head start.”
Who the fuck is Jim Sunderland? He sounds like a real estate agent. All I know at this point is that he wears glasses, has good teeth, and looks a few years older than me. He’s verging on handsome, I guess, in a beady-eyed way. But he looks like an NPR listener. He looks like he’d bore you at a party. I can just tell he’s one of those “laid back” people with hidden agendas. One of those mild people who simmer beneath the surface. A fucking little prick who preys on vulnerable women. I want to write on his wall: Fuck you, Jim! You big fucking phony!
But I don’t. Instead, I friend him.
And what will Jim Sunderland think of me when he views my profile? Jim will see that I have no status, no network, and that I haven’t cooked anything or lit any scented candles in months. He will see that nobody writes on my wall but my friend Forest. Things like: “You OK? Give me a call,” “Remember what I told you,” and “When are you going to update your profile?”
Janet looks good in her most recent photos. She’s aged about the eyes, and her smile looks as though it takes some effort. But her color is good and she’s managed to maintain a certain radiance. I guess that makes her a survivor. In an album titled “Cannon Beach” I find pictures of Janet on the beach with Jim Sunderland and a ten-year-old kid so hopelessly plain looking I can’t even tell if it’s a boy or a girl. Whichever it is, the kid is doomed by the Jim Sunderland gene. Doomed to be unremarkable. Who’s to say that the world wouldn’t be better off without his kid instead of mine?
Not three minutes have elapsed before Jim Sunderland has accepted my friend request. Things are even worse than I thought. Jim is currently “listening to Strauss II and drinking Sauvignon Blanc.”
Jesus, Janet, what were you thinking?
Jim’s networks are Portland, Oregon, Portland Metro Zoo, and UC Irvine Alum. He is a fan of Powell’s Books and Koko the Gorilla.
He belongs to the groups This American Life (I knew it!) and John Prine.
Jim’s friend confirmation arrives in concert with a message: “Do I know you?”
“No, we haven’t met. I’m just a fellow Irvine Alum and fan of Strauss, especially the waltzes.”
How long before Jim realizes we have one mutual friend— Janet—and begins making connections? How long before he realizes I don’t know anything about Strauss except what I learned in three accordion lessons when I was thirteen?
Now Jim IMs me: “Go Anteaters! LOL. Have you heard Wein Weib and Gesang by the Vienna Boys Choir?”
Boys choir? This guy gets creepier by the minute. “Haven’t heard that version, I’ll have to check it out.”
“Do. It’s transcendent.”
Transcendent? Who talks that way? What the fuck is Janet doing with this guy? And who does he think he’s fooling with all his transcendent bullshit, anyway? I know he’s a heartless little fucker deep down, probably a pedophile. I fucking see you, Jim! You’re not fooling me with your Bordeaux wines and your boys choir bullshit! And if Janet were awake enough to see you through the splintered glass of her broken life, she’d recognize you, too.
Fuck you, Jim! I want to type. You little fucking prick!
Her choice of venue says it all. She has not selected the food court for its cornucopia of flavorful choices, but for its singular lack of intimacy and plentiful escape routes. It’s easy to see from the way she strides purposefully past Quizno’s, clutching her purse and a manila folder, that she intends to make this a short meeting. Even her attire is businesslike, from her modest lavender blouse (the color of sexual frustration), to her gray pencil skirt, right down to her closed-toe leather flats. Her expression is benign but determined, thin-lipped and straight, neither hard nor soft in announcing itself—the expression of a woman collecting sperm samples. Though she’s walking straight for me, she does not invite eye contact, rather engages some fixed point behind me. Already she is a stranger to me, yet achingly familiar.
Smoothing the rump of her skirt, she sidles onto the fixed metal stool across from me, heaving a sigh as she sets her purse and envelope on the tabletop.
“Tacoma was a mess, sorry,” she says.
Her hair has grown out a shade darker than almond, with auburn highlights. Two years ago, she all but shaved her head completely. She looked like a Polish POW. Now her hair is lustrous and looks as if it smells good—like peach-scented wax. She parts it in the center, just as she did when I first met her, from which point it cascades evenly down both sides of her face, two inches below the jawline.
“You look good,” I say.
“I look old,” she says. “I feel old.”
Though I’ve dressed young myself, in jeans and Chucks and a Penguin shirt, I wonder if it doesn’t have the opposite effect.
“I’m the one who’s aged.”
“You look fine,” she says. “You look the same as you looked three years ago.” She’s managed to make it an insult.
“Don’t worry, I’m not.”
She slides the envelope across the plastic table. “I brought you these in case you lost them.”
“I’ve got the papers.”
“Then you brought them?”
“I thought we were having lunch.”
She tenses up and stares out across the food court toward Macy’s, looking spent. She just drove a hundred and sixty-odd miles for this. I want to set my hand atop hers and give it a little squeeze, the squeeze I gave it a thousand times before the disaster: when they found the cyst, when her brother died, when Jodi had a staph infection, when Piper had the chicken pox; when it seemed at every turn that the winds of fate had blown our lives afoul, financially, emotionally, or idealistically. Look at all that we endured. Look at all we managed to light along our path through the long shadow of adversity. Look at the seemingly indestructible affiliation that was once us. And look at us now. She, pretending to be a stranger behind her cakey makeup and impenetrable eyes, and I, pining for access, knowing that if I dare reach out to her, she’ll stand up and leave.
“Ben, please,” she sighs.
Looking away, past the colonnade of potted palms toward Orange Julius, I can’t help but think of Piper’s favorite meal: French toast, shrimp cocktail, and Orange Julius. I can’t help but remember all the blessed disorder that was the four of us nightly around the dinner table—more often than not eating four completely different meals, but eating them together, unquestionably, indivisibly together.
“Please,” I hear her say again. I let it hang there, this desolate plea, realizing that it’s probably the last of its kind, for every remaining shred of her patience seems to have gone into it.
“Do you remember when we went to the ghost town?” I say. “And Piper was four, and you were pregnant with Jo—”
“I remember,” she says.
“Do you remember how Piper got scared by the wax piano player and how we took her aside and told her—”
“Yes,” she says. “I remember.”
“It wasn’t so long ago,” I say.
“It was six years ago, Ben—two lives ago.”
The knot in my stomach tightens. “More like four lives ago.”
“Speak for yourself,” she says, rifling through her purse.
My god, but she’s grown hard. Somewhere the old Janet still lives inside her; I’ve got to believe that. If only to reach her, if only for the briefest moment of contact. She needs me—now more than ever. Who but I could ever understand her devastation? Surely, not Jim Sunderland.
“It could still work, you know.”
She looks up from the purse. “I’m tired of feeling like a heartless bitch just because I need to move on.”
“You mean Jim?”
I’ve caught her off guard. She searches my face. “What do you know about Jim?”
“I know all about Jim and his ugly kid.”
“Oh, so, now you’re stalking me? What is wrong with you? Why are you doing this to me? Haven’t you done enough already?”
I’m stunned by the cruelty of it. The slackening contours of her face say that she wishes she could take it back. But she will not allow herself to soften. She stiffens up again almost immediately.
“Leave Jim out of this. I want those papers, Ben. Don’t make me get nasty.”
“You mean, this isn’t nasty?”
“I gave you six months, I gave you a year. I did what you asked. Now it’s time for you to hold up your end of the bargain.”
“Do I hear wedding bells? Please tell me you’re not marrying that clown. Whatever you do, don’t breed with him—the ugly gene is dominant.”
“You want ugly, Ben? Fine, you’ve got it.” Calmly, she hefts her purse and picks up the envelope. Rising to her feet, she smoothes out her skirt and stands tall, a portrait of self-possession. “But remember,” she says. “You did this.”
Before I can even think about defending myself—though let’s be honest, I’m guilty as charged, and we both know it—Janet turns and strides away across the food court, past Quizno’s, just as purposefully as when she arrived five minutes ago. She halts in front of Busby’s long enough to ram the envelope into the heaping trash bin, brushes a stray hair from her face, and does not bother to look back as she pushes through the glass door and into the gray afternoon.
Do I go after her? Do I attempt to right this ship with one of the two thousand apologies I owe her? My feet say no. My heart says yes. I can only trust one of them. Outside, the low sky has begun to spit rain. I am not proud of who I’ve become.
As I’m rattling out of the parking lot in the Subaru, I spot Janet in her silver sedan. She is too consumed to notice me. She has not moved from her parking space. Her forehead is between her hands resting on the steering wheel, and it’s obvious from the convulsions wracking her slumped shoulders that she is crying. There is an opportunity here for some small redemption, if only I were man enough to seize it. With a mere signature, I could offer Janet comfort long enough to reach Jim Sunderland’s arms. I could offer her the chance to take a small step forward and start forgetting our apocalypse, to walk away from the rubble of our lives once and for all and forge some new path for herself. I could care enough to save Janet. Instead, I roll by slowly, fixed on her wrecked figure slumped in the driver’s seat, as though she were the scene of some grisly accident.
OK, so I’m the one not letting go of anything, I see that—do you think I don’t see that? But somebody has to not let go. Somebody has to stay behind.
Here is Janet in the kitchen, clutching a single carelessly stuffed canvas bag amidst a chaos of uneaten casseroles and unopened cards and half-packed boxes of children’s clothing. It’s ten days after the disaster, six days after the service, five days since her last shower. Her thick hair hangs greasy and lifeless. The pouches beneath her eyes droop clear to her cheekbones. She’s been on the phone with her sister in Portland all morning.
“Where will you go?”
“Away,” she says, as though from a great distance already.
“But you can’t just—what about—?”
“What about what?” She levels the question at me like a challenge. “There is no what, Ben.”
But what Janet doesn’t know could fill volumes. She doesn’t know that the last look on her daughter’s face was an entreaty. She doesn’t know the confusion and panic that filled Jodi’s brown eyes as he choked on his final breaths. She didn’t touch them, damnit! She didn’t lie to them! She didn’t kneel beside their broken bodies and tell them everything was going to be all right, knowing that in a single bat of an eye, the whole universe had jumped track, and everything had spun inexplicably, hopelessly, irreversibly out of control. She was not forced to stand helplessly in death’s way. She did not beat her head on the pavement, claw at her own eyes, scream herself raw, press her mouth to the slack jaw of her dead daughter and try desperately to fill her lungs with life. She knows neither guilt nor blame nor the terrible truth. So, for Janet to tell me there is no what, is a despicable lie. There is a what, there’s always a what, and there will forever be a what, as long as one person is left standing.
I’m certain now Janet started walking away long before the disaster. God knows, she yearned for more. God knows, she was selfish. I wonder at what point Bernard and Ruth began removing all evidence of me, striking me from the walls of the den, cutting me off at the shoulder? A week? Two weeks? A month? Some people fled quicker than others. Our friends with children wasted little time in effecting their retreat. Every casserole was like a good-bye—they didn’t want their pans back. They didn’t want to reckon with the ugly truth every time they packed a lunch box or buckled in their children. Up and down Agatewood, the neighbors heaved a collective sigh when the house went on the market. Nobody mentioned the moving trucks. Nobody inquired as to futures. Nobody even said good-bye. So what’s holding me back? Why am I still standing in that driveway, still living in the hour of my destruction, when everybody else has left the scene? I’ll tell you why: because what happened in the driveway was a revelation. In all the waking moments of my life, the disaster is the one thing that ever truly happened. Everything else is a lie.
“Sir, I’m going to need you to calm down.”
“But you don’t understand . . .”
“I’m going to have to ask you to step—”
“No, listen, I’m a—”
“Yessir, I understand, sir—you’re a stay-at-home dad.”