It’s dark on these narrow backwoods roads. Different intensities of blackness. The road is construction-paper black except for the yellow stripe down the middle of it. The sky is blue-black. The trees, some of which are grabbing at the road, some of which are pointing up at the deep blue star-flecked sky, are the darkest things outside. They look like branchy outlines of nothing. They make me think of black holes. It’s cold out there.
Hannah is asleep with her left arm wrapped around a sippy cup, her mouth open.
“Spell quiet,” Joan says.
“Q-U-I-I-just one I-E-T.”
“What are you writing?”
“A letter to Cynthia.”
“Oh.” I swerve a little bit and she looks my way.
“I’m okay,” I say.
We drive through a very small town, unincorporated. There is one closed down gas station—an old Philips. And there are a few white clapboard houses, with nice big porches, porch lights on, black windows, everyone asleep inside them.
I hear and feel a barrage of thumps and realize I’ve swerved again and I’m running over those little reflective squares on the shoulder of the road, and Joan says, “Do you need me to drive—because I don’t mind?”
“No, I’m fine,” I say.
Hannah wakes up. She starts repeating the words “bappy, jinky, mamma…” like a song. We sit and listen and I drive with my eyes opened as wide as I can get them.
“I hope your parents aren’t fighting this time.” She folds her papers and puts them in her purse on the floorboard, which is littered with food wrappers, empty plastic bottles, and other detritus of a long road trip.
“They won’t be. Last time was unusual. They hadn’t been like that since I was a kid. It won’t be like that this time.”
The high beams spotlight a deer standing next to the right shoulder of the road, looking at something on the other side of the road. “Look,” I say, and point.
She looks quickly but misses it and says, “Keep both hands on the wheel, please.”
“Jesus,” I say.
“I just want you to be safe.”
No talking for a while. I look through the rearview at Hannah. She’s deeply sleeping, again.
“Your mom gets so mean sometimes…to your dad.”
“I know,” I say. “But he’s used to it.”
I adjust up the heat. She says thanks. I smile.
She puts her left hand on my thigh. I smile again.
“I don’t mean to be so nitpicky.”
“I know. You just need to give me some credit. I do have pretty good judgment… most of the time. I’m not an idiot.”
“I never said you were an idiot, and I don’t appreciate you saying that.”
“You don’t have to say it. It’s in the way you treat me sometimes. It’s implied.”
“You read too much into things. I don’t think that. It’s just the way I talk.”
“Let’s just stop talking about it, please.”
She moves her hand from my thigh.
We sit in a humming near-silence for some time. Dark clumps of trees and foliage float by on either side of the cold road.
After a while, she switches on the cab light, looks at her watch, and says, “We’re almost there. About ten minutes.”
“Yep,” I say.
When we pull onto their property, my father is standing next to a fire that he’s made from these expensive blue pallets he has laying around all over his back yard, and he’s drinking a beer. My mother’s inside. He sees us pulling in and, except for a half wave of his unoccupied hand, doesn’t move. The fire is big. Orange flakes flip and twist up from it and disappear into the dark.
By the time all three of us are out of the car, my mom is walking down the deck steps, towards us, towards the fire.
“Where’s my little Hannah?” she squats down with her hands pressed together between her knees. Hannah runs to her with her arms out for a hug. My mom picks her up. “You remember nanna,” she sings, and then kisses Hannah on the cheek. Hannah squeaks.
My dad walks over and holds out his arms. She reluctantly goes to him. He kisses her on the forehead, and she says “Ow,” and he says, “Oh, I’m sorry, sweetie. It’s my beard.” He looks up at mom.
“It’s probably your putrid beer breath,” she says. “He promised he wouldn’t drink today.” She looks at him with her head down, like she’s peering over reading glasses.
Nobody says a word. It’s not a subject any of us likes to talk about, except my mom. She hates drinking, and she gets very maudlin, or melodramatic, or sentimental, or just plain pissed off whenever she talks about ‘alcoholics.’ “All the people I’ve loved most,” she’s famous for saying, “have become alcoholics: my father, a sweet, sweet man when sober; my sister, such a sad sack of a drunk; my good friend Lonny; and now my husband. If I’d only known…”
“You want a beer?” my dad says, still holding onto Hannah.
“Sure.” He puts Hannah down, and we walk over to the fire, next to which is a big red and white cooler.
My dad is a retired firefighter and, consequently (perhaps), he has a special relationship with fire. I’ve never thought about it enough to really get a handle on, but I think it has something to do with control, what draws a person to that profession. No one can make a fire like my dad. It’s like he jerks it right out of the air. It’s one of the few things he never struggles over, frets over—he just does it. I’m not so good at it, myself. You could give me a book of matches and a gallon of gasoline, and I’d just end up with wet matches.
The beer is good. We stand next to each other and listen to the sounds the fire makes. Our wives are inside with the baby. Everything feels easy.
“So what’s up, bud?” He doesn’t look away from the fire.
“Nothing. Glad to be out of the car. Beer’s good.”
“Yeah.” He looks at his beer and then takes a long sip. “I don’t mind it too much myself.”
He goes over to a pile of pallets, picks one up, and waddles it back to the fire and drops it on top of the almost burnt-away one.
“Those things are worth about twelve bucks apiece, dad,” I say.
“Yep,” he says.
The fire grows and we take a few steps back.
“Ready for another?”
“Sure,” I say, and swig down the rest of the one I still have.
I can remember a time, I guess I was around five, when my parents came close to getting a divorce. I don’t know exactly what caused it, but they were unhappy. What I remember most about that time is a day I spent with my dad.
We’d gone out to eat at a little diner, and then to an arcade, and then to a park on the Indian River to walk and chuck rocks into the water.
“James,” my dad said, “if you had to pick who you were going to live with—me or your mom—who would you pick?”
It was a scary question and, though I didn’t completely understand its implications, I knew it wasn’t a happy one. I said: “I guess I’d live one day with you and one day with mom…one day with you, one day with mom…one day—”
“I understand,” he said and chuckled, looking down at a smooth rock in his hand.
I’d meant I would want to live with both of them—half with him and half with her—but to a five-year-old a day is a long time.
My mom opens the sliding glass door and yells, “Hey drunks, come have some cookies. They’re hot.”
“Okay,” we say, and we slowly go.
Inside, their eyes are red and narrowed. They’ve been smoking. The cookies, chocolate chip, are good, and hot. Dad and I eat three each. We talk to the ladies, and play with the baby.
“Tomorrow—we’ve decided—we want to go to the mall and the flea market in Derby.”
“Okay,” we say.
My dad reaches for another cookie and my mom looks at him and then at me, and she sighs and loudly pats her hand on the tabletop she’s leaning on, and rolls her eyes. Dad looks up at her as he’s reaching over the table.
“It’s only my fourth one.”
“Do you think you need a fourth one?”
I look at Joan. She’s gritting her teeth, watching. She looks at me and I wink at her. She forces a smile.
“Let’s go back out to the fire, dad.”
“Yeah.” He looks out the window. “It needs another pallet. You ladies want to join us?”
“We’ll be out in a few,” mom says.
Dad takes another cookie and looks up at mom.
My mom loves my dad. There’s no doubt about it. When she talks about how much she loves him, her eyes glass, and they focus on memories, and she talks about hard times and good times, and she laughs and she shakes her head and she sighs. Her favorite good time is when my father was a firefighter; when we wanted for nothing; when Ray was only two, and we went out to eat often; when she was proud of my dad. Her favorite hard time is after my dad “retired” and we didn’t have much; when we lived in an old singlewide trailer; when we barely had enough to eat; when they were close to divorce. But now she says things like, “I don’t know what I’d do without that crazy old fart. I’d go anywhere with him. I’d live in a tent with him. He’s my life.”
Outside, back by the fire, my dad speaks his most famous line: “Son, I’m in love with a woman I can’t stand.” And as usual, I know it’s not true. He is in love with her. That part's true. But he can more than stand her. In fact, he’d never admit to this, but he wouldn’t last very long without her. She does everything for him. He more than needs her. He requires her. She does everything for him. We all know this but we let him pretend. We let him tell us how he wishes he were by himself. We let him tell us that he wishes he were out in a small cabin in the woods, alone, a hermit, a recluse. We let him because we all wish for things. We all wish for things we know we should never have.
After about twenty minutes, the ladies and baby join us out by the fire.
My mother walks over to my father and stands next to him. She puts her arm around his waist and looks up at his bearded face and smiles, and then shakes her head.
Joan gives me the baby, and I saddle her to my side and give her a kiss on the forehead.
Joan goes over to the cooler, next to my dad, and gets a beer, opens it using her shirt, and takes a sip.
“That’s good.” She holds it up to her bad blue eyes. “Hmm,” she says, and takes another sip.
“Put another pallet on,” my mom says.
My dad walks over to the crooked stack of pallets and takes the top one and staggers with it over to the fire and lays it on.
After a few minutes, the fire grows, and we all take a few steps back.
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