The family resides in what was once a famous crack house. Their neighborhood, at the edge of a city park, has been revitalized. The city received a grant from the state. Tax incentives were offered to those willing to buy the once stately homes. The mayor enlisted the aid of certain renegade members of the police force, and also some union organizers, to usher criminal elements from the area, although this was not reported and is not known.
The park is beautiful again, as it was near the beginning of the last century, when, the mother imagines, ladies in hoop skirts walked their tiny dogs and young couples wheeled past on bicycles built for two.
Still, there are vestiges of the neighborhood’s darker years.
The mother, on an early morning run through the center of the park, stumbles across a goat with its throat cut, tied with a rope to a tree. It wavers on its legs, nose grazing a puddle of its own dark blood.
“Haitians,” the policeman says when he arrives, gesturing east toward the unfortunate neighborhoods there. “Some cult or something. This is like, sacred ground.”
“Sacred ground?” she asks.
The goat falls to its knees. Its tongue and eyes are black with tiny flies.
The mother looks at the officer looking at the goat.
“What?” he asks.
The mother shrugs. Her knees are abuzz from the run and the stench of the goat bristles in her sinuses.
The officer says, “We don’t put animals out of their misery. That’s not something we do. It is not considered an acceptable reason to discharge a sidearm.”
“I wasn’t expecting you to shoot it. I just thought you would do something.”
His big belt, his scuffed black shoes, the gun at his hip; all are tokens of a way of things that have been kept from her.
“I can’t think of anything,” he says.
They both wait with the animal until it’s dead.
The father, gazing from the window at the end of the upper hall as he often does late at night, has seen people looking back at him from the sidewalk, wanderers with heavy bags slung from their shoulders or across their backs, teenagers, their pale arms hanging out of sleeveless shirts, bearded men peering from beneath the shadows of their brows. The father recognizes them as the lost, those who have returned to a place they assumed would be as they left it, instead finding a porch lit by a bright pendant, heavy Adirondack chairs facing the street like sentinels. The father has stolen whatever sanctuary these travelers hope to find in the place he now owns.
The children too, detect remnants, though they do not of course recognize them as such. They are twins, Lucia and Esté, and the connection that buzzes between them occasionally offers a glimpse of what mutters beneath the present.
At bath-time they complain of an odor coming from under the sink. Not just an odor but a feeling, they say. The mother doesn’t smell or feel a thing.
“What is it like?” she asks.
“Mushrooms,” they say.
They don’t like mushrooms. They use the word to denigrate anything that displeases.
“And like tinfoil in your mouth,” says Lucia.
Later, after the twins have gone to bed, the father opens the doors to the cabinet under the sink and sticks a flashlight inside, but there’s nothing. He runs a finger along the bottom of the trap to check for moisture, but all is as it should be. The mother stands with her arms crossed, looking at the rubber bath toys that have gathered around the drain, plastic dogs with spots that come off when you wash them and then reappear. Scrubby-Puppies. Somehow the water has set them all down on their feet.
“Nothing,” the father says.
“Maybe we should have that inspector back,” the mother says.
“He was thorough,” the father says. “There’s no lead, no methane leakage, no asbestos.”
The father holds a finger in the air and recites a line from a favorite horror movie. “This house is clean,” he says.
The father wants to walk to the edge of the life he leads, peer over. He doesn’t think he wants to do anything he can’t return from.
It is easy enough for him to indulge a few days a month. He owns his business and his few employees can get along fine without him. Instead of going to work he drives to the part of town north of the airport, checks into a motel room, and watches movies from his boyhood on his laptop. Sometimes he pauses the movies and wanders outside to buy something from the vending machine. He likes the motel that sells King-Sized Snickers bars. This is the same one where someone has taken a magic maker to the ice machine and written a thick V in front of the word ICE. He likes this motel best, but he varies motels. He chews candy and watches skinny-dippers at a remote lake succumbing, one by one, to a slasher in a ski-mask, or twelve-year-old boys conjuring a real woman out of a computer program. Today he imagines his wife is with him, watching, though she is not nostalgic for these movies the way he is. She prefers contemporary romantic comedies, glossy but with a hint of quirk.
The father yearns for his own past so deeply that his present, his wife and girls, are sometimes translucent.
When the father imagines the mother with him, she will only take her clothes off and lay naked on the motel bed if he spreads a picnic blanket out first, the one they keep for long trips when they must pull over for emergency quality time with the girls. Even in his fantasies the mother is nothing if not consistent.
When the movie ends he brushes at the sink. He flosses and runs his tongue over his teeth. He checks his email and puts his jacket on, shaking his shoulders to settle it on his body. It is a lovely, expensive jacket the color of which was described by the salesman as Miso. It flatters his lean frame. He can wear clothing in athletic fit, though he doesn’t exercise much. It’s just metabolism. The jacket, a simple square-cut garment reminiscent of a London Fog windbreaker but subtler than that, somehow more classic than the classic itself, was also available in Bog and Stinging Nettle. Once or twice the father has experienced remorse about his choice of color. Mostly, though, he is deeply satisfied. The father leaves five dollars on the squat nightstand and emerges to meet the unblinking day.
The contractor and his men arrive in the morning to install tile in the new kitchen so the mother brings the girls to the park. She lets them loose in a meadow where they pluck dandelions from the dewy grass and pile them in the corner farthest from the bench where she sits. They frown as they gather, serious about their work, as if they had been sent to earth for just this task. Silently, with glances and nods, they divide the field, each taking responsibility for a quadrant at a time. An hour of quiet industry passes while the mother thumbs through a book, looking up every few seconds to note their progress. The mother imagines they will do great things, these girls of hers. But they require so little of her!
Feeling she should assert herself, she crosses the meadow to where they stand, admiring their own work. It’s been some time since a mower has been through. The thick grass tugs at her canvas flats and the wet seeps between her toes. It doesn’t seem as if the twins have missed a single dandelion, though there must have been hundreds.
The girls don’t notice her until she’s standing right next to them. Lucia, the youngest by seven minutes, always speaks first.
“Look,” Lucia says.
“I see it,” the mother says. “It’s a nice pile, isn’t it?”
The twins look at each other. They know, already, to dispose of innocuous little statements like this. They have taught each other. Neither will one of them cry, or whine for sweets, or beg for a television show without receiving silent admonition from the other. They keep their own counsel. The mother kneels and removes a dandelion from atop the pile.
“Look at this,” she tells them.
She squeezes the stem like a toothpaste tube, working it down between her fingers until a bead of cream appears at the very bottom where it was severed from its root.
“See?” she says to her daughters.
They lean in close over her hand, their heads nearly touching. Their foreheads are high and pale like maidens in early Flemish painting.
“What is it?” asks Esté.
“Dandelion milk,” the mother says.
“Just like Mommy!” says Lucia. “Mommy used to make milk for us!”
“Can we taste it?” Esté says.
“I don’t think so,” the mother says.
“Can you put it back then?” say Lucia. “Back on the pile where you got it?”
“The flowers are for the baby,” Esté says.
They have been asking for a baby, lately, a brother or sister. They want something they can raise, someone they can instruct in propriety. She bought them each a baby doll, but they weren’t interested. The Suzy-Sleep dolls are abandoned, propped haphazardly on a shelf in their room, heads lolling and eyes half-shut.
“We’ve talked about that,” she tells them. “Mommy and Daddy aren’t going to have any more babies.”
“Not that baby!” Lucia says. “Not our baby!”
“This baby,” says Esté.
“What baby?” the mother asks.
The twins look down at the ground.
“The one underneath us,” Lucia says.
The father stops to buy lunch for his employees, fried chicken boxes from Porter’s. It’s a local place, “established 1939,” its packaging free of corporate branding or logos of any kind. Each plain white box contains a chicken breast and drumstick, an ice cream scoop of stiff mashed potatoes, a piece of white bread, and a pat of foil-wrapped salted butter placed inside the box frozen so that it will soften by the time the box is opened back at the office. Mary, who cleans the office twice a week, likes the fried gizzards with hot sauce, but she isn’t in on Fridays.
“What’s that, Porter’s?” Alan asks when the father walks in, though he knows full well.
“Yup,” says the father.
“Yay,” says Andrea, doing a half stadium cheer without looking away from her screen.
“Anything?” asks the father.
“Nothing yet,” says Alan.
“Still waiting on the word from Beryl and Quimby,” says Andrea.
“Story of my life,” says the father.
“Oh yeah?” Andrea says, wiggling her fingers as she reaches into one of the boxes of chicken like she’s conjuring something. “How’s it end?”
When the mother gets home to put the girls down for a nap, all of the workmen except one have gone to get lunch. Or maybe they’re simply gone for the day. There’s no guessing with these workmen, she’s learned. One must face them with a Buddhist sensibility. The remaining one is an older black man in an oversized t-shirt that reads To ‘NO’ Him is to damn yourself. To ‘KNOW’ him is to Love Him!!! He smiles pleasantly at the girls as she ushers them past.
“What are you doing kneeling?” Lucia asks him.
“Oh, I’m just scraping off the rest of this old ugly tile so we can lay the pretty new stuff your mommy’s picked out.”
Heat rises in her cheeks. The mother resists the urge to beg the man to rise, to take the tool from his hand and begin doing the work herself. He must be sixty-five, even seventy. She busies herself getting the girls up the stairs and into their beds, fetching them a glass of water to share, smoothing their hair back so it won’t tickle their noses and wake them up. After that, she sits in her office watching a rectangle of yolky light creep up the wall. She tries to grade a few papers, but after a few half-hearted stabs with her red pen she is compelled to see if the man needs anything.
“I wouldn’t say no to a glass of water with a little ice. Or iced tea if you’ve got it,” he says.
“Is unsweetened okay?” she asks. “We don’t keep sugar in the house.”
He smiles broadly, wags a finger. “Surely you must,” he says. “Otherwise how’d those little girls of yours get so sweet?”
“I know it’s silly,” she says, pouring him a glass. “We grew up with sugar and it didn’t hurt us.”
She hears herself as she speaks—that “we grew up” bit. Well, loosely, maybe, pre-internet and smart-phones and downloading everything. Of course, the sugar thing is her idea, the girls simply don’t need it, but for the sake of the nice man in front of her she can pretend it’s the new world imposing these rules, a world they can laugh about together.
“Me, I lost most of my teeth in my twenties, lost the rest as an older person.” He smiles, tapping a gleaming incisor in a perfect row. “These here are implants, provided by the congregation of the Antioch Baptist Church.”
“How nice,” the mother says.
The man takes a long, thoughtful drink and sets the glass on the counter. She thinks of her own mother, who would have thrown away any glass of hers a schvartze touched, who wouldn’t have offered a drink in the first place. The workman is clean-shaven, though he has missed a few white hairs where the skin is loose below his ears and under his chin. These whiskers catch the sunlight slanting in through the kitchen window and glint like bits of mica.
“Ma’am, do you mind if I tell you something?”
Her pulse quickens. She recognizes this moment as something rare.
“Of course,” she says. “That is, of course I don’t mind.”
“It may trouble you to hear it,” he says.
From outside comes the rumble and squeal of a heavy truck. The other men are returning. She panics, understanding that she may miss whatever this man has chosen to reveal.
“Please,” she says.
The man straightens, draws something inward.
“The darkest night of my life, I spent it here,” he says. “In your house. I almost didn’t enter this morning, once I saw this was the place. Almost said, no thanks, though I’m in no position to be turning down a day’s work when I can find it. I prayed on it, yes I did. Right there on the porch, I closed my eyes and I prayed while the others clumped past me in their boots. And it come to me, from the Book of Timothy. ‘You therefore endure hardness, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.’ And so I entered. And when I come inside and see what you’ve done, how you’re wiping away the past and planting anew, how you’ve got the walls all plastered up, and the toys and books stowed so very neatly on the shelves, and the brightness coming through the windows the way it’s doing right now, well I said, ‘That’s just what Jesus did to my soul.’ He renovated it, pulled out the rusty pipes, painted everything a gleaming white with a brush so soft you can’t see the strokes. And then, Ma’am, I couldn’t wait to get to work, to help finish doing to this house, that was once so evil, what Jesus done to my soul.”
The other men enter the kitchen. They smell of hamburgers and cigarettes. One whistles tunelessly. Murphy, the contractor, enters with them. He wears a thick neck brace, has worn it since she’s known him. It forces upon him an aristocratic stiffness of manner. He eyes his worker’s hand on the glass of tea and raises an eyebrow.
“You bothering this nice lady?” Murphy says.
“No!” says the mother, surprising everyone, including herself, with the violence of her exclamation.
The father is stuck at the light under the highway when he sees the girl for the first time, huddled under the road at the very top of the embankment. Three feet of steel and concrete is all that separates the crown of her head from the eight-ton semis rumbling above. She’s wearing a quilted black coat and a pair of pink sweat pants. The hood of her sweatshirt is pulled exaggeratedly over her eyes, almost to the tip of her nose. Even from where he sits he can see the silver hoop through her bottom lip, the black polish on her nails. With one hand she strokes an animal in her lap. A skinny puppy or a cat. She’s got a Big Gulp in the other hand. Somehow, from underneath the hoodie, she catches him staring. She lifts her hand from the animal, whatever it is, and gives him the finger. He hasn’t been on the receiving end of this gesture in a long time. He laughs, rolls down the window and gives it back to the girl. With a throw that is really just a flap of her forearm, she flings the Big Gulp at his car. It lands, exploding, on the hood, splashing orange soda all over the windshield. She doesn’t move from where she’s sitting, or adjust her hood so that she can look at him, or say anything at all. She lifts her pet to her mouth, nuzzles its bullet head with her nose. It’s a brown rat, or maybe a weasel. The light changes and the father moves along, spritzing and wiping. No matter, the wipers can’t remove the orange sheen, which gives everything out the windshield the amber cast of an old photo.
At home, dinner’s almost ready. A panade is cooling inside the mint-green Le Creuset atop the stove, and the mother is tossing a salad of rocket and lemon juice with her fingertips. The girls won’t touch any of it, but there’s a container full of plain kasha in the fridge and some carrot sticks they will suffer to swallow. The father’s not all that hungry. He can feel the lump of potatoes from lunch, lodged like a tennis ball in a chain link-fence.
The old linoleum has been completely stripped, revealing a Pollock-like mess of old glue on the floorboards. Underneath the scent of dinner lingers the stale coffee and sawdust essence of a work crew. If they’d moved to a new development outside the city they wouldn’t have to live this way, but they’d both decided that the beauty of the old house, that turn-of-the-last century construction, the waviness of the glass in the few original windows left, the iron door to the chute, long soldered shut, where horse-drawn wagons once stopped so men could shovel into the cellar, along with the tax incentives, well, it was worth six months of aggravation.
The mother washes her hands and dries them, then kisses him lightly on the cheek. She scratches at his shoulder with a fingernail.
“What’s this?” she asks.
He cranes his neck to see what she sees. A tiny spot of orange on his jacket, right below the shoulder seam. He takes the garment off as if it’s on fire.
“Jesus!” she says. “It’ll come out. What is it anyway?”
She takes it from him and sniffs at the spot, frowns.
“I’ll bring it to the cleaner’s,” she says.
She frowns again, though this time it’s because she’s debating about whether to tell him about the girls in the park, what they said about a baby under the ground. It’s silly, of course. Not worth bothering him about.
The next day is Saturday and the father’s morning with the girls. He’s taken them to Jump n’ Jam, one of those places where kids can crawl inside inflatable trampolines shaped like castles and spaceships, where they can get slices of greasy pizza and funnel cake at the snack bar. Gladys’s daughter came back from a similar excursion with a case of head lice, but she forces this thought out because the father and the girls were excited and it’s important that they have fun together, the three of them, that they have a relationship the mother is excluded from. The silence of the house is heavy around her, though, like everything has been packed in cotton. She thinks of an expression some of the other mothers sometimes use, which she hates. Mommies are for business, daddies are for fun. Last night, when he told Esté and Lucia where he was planning to take them, they took turns combing his hair, dipping the brush into a jar of water as they’d seen his barber do.
It is also the first day of the farmers market in the park, so she gets a few canvas bags out of the closet and pulls on her orange gardening boots, ties a bandana in her hair. A few of her neighbors are emerging from their own homes with bags and shop-trolleys, sniffing at the pleasant Saturday morning air, raising their chins to catch the breeze. It is a lovely, lovely morning, and she looks forward to hearing from Gladys, who moved into the house next door a week after they’d moved into theirs, about whether she’s found a non-violent solution to her mouse problem. When last she heard, Gladys was planning to sprinkle baking powder around the perimeters. Or maybe it was baby powder. Gladys doesn’t shave her legs. She must be the only woman in the history of the world named Gladys who doesn’t.
Gladys leans to whisper into her ear as they cross the street to the park gates. “Mike got tired of it, finally,” Gladys says. “Said a few dead mice isn’t going to affect the world order. ‘God’ll make more,’ he said. I told him as long as he deals with their little…carcasses, well fine. So he set these glue traps in the upstairs hall, but it turns out they’ll chew their own feet off to get out of them.”
“Oh my,” says the mother. She’s disgusted, but also slightly delighted. She feels permitted, now that Gladys has surrendered, to exterminate her own mice. Plus, she’s just learned that Gladys has terrible breath, which gives her a shiver of joy she’ll carry around like a tiny bouquet all day long.
In order to prolong this pleasure without guilt, she allows herself to be swept away from Gladys by the substantial crowd at the market. The stalls have been arranged in the same meadow where yesterday the girls had played. The grass, she notes, has been clipped short, so short that in places it’s been scarred to dirt by the blades.
The farmers market is small but dreams big. At a small card table near the front a pair of smiling hippie types hand out brochures using small, uncertain motions. They want to share but they don’t want to offend. Over 30 Organic Vendors Expected by July. Plus a raw dairy supplier! A donation tub has been designed to be as unobtrusive as possible. It is simply a plastic peanut butter jar with a piece of tinfoil pressed over the top, a slot knifed in. The mother lifts a folded dollar bill from her bag and presses it inside the jar. The hippie woman’s smile is meant to convey the universe’s thanks for the mother’s beneficence, she supposes, but there’s a strand of something green caught in her teeth. She pauses at a table filled with handmade soaps. These might make a nice gift for her mother, vanilla-scented, meaningless. She turns away. She’s here for produce.
“Hello,” says a man who’s moved in front of her with some authority, as if he has some right to her space.
“Wise choice,” he says. “Those hand-crafted jobs don’t make suds.”
She smiles and steps back into the stream of elbows, fleece, burlap and dogs of all sizes, though she can’t escape the feeling she recognizes him. Maybe someone from college? She turns back for a second look. He hasn’t moved.
“The goat,” he says.
“The goat. A few weeks back? I was the one that took the call.”
The policeman. Out of his uniform and with a few days worth of beard, he looks almost professorial in his heavy wool cardigan. It’s even got suede elbow patches.
“Right,” she says. “Of course. How are you?”
“I’m all right. It’s sort of good I ran into you, actually. I’ve felt a little bad about what happened. I should have told you to go,” he says. “You didn’t need to see that.”
She recalls the cool air beneath the trees, her calves twitching and the sweat cooling on her bare legs. The heavy sour smell of the goat. Its final shudder.
“It’s fine,” she says. “I watched my grandmother kill a chicken once, and then she made it into soup.”
“Do you run every morning?” he says.
“Every other,” she says.
“I used to,” he says. “But I have trouble with my knees.”
The mother is aware of the crowd’s awareness of them, an obstruction in the flow. The policeman appears unconcerned. In fact, he does not seem to notice at all, but of course he must be used to dealing with crowds, with ignoring their urges. The officer has a nineteen-twenties varsity squad haircut, shorn close above the ears and floppy up top.
“Do you ever walk?” he asks. “Walking, I can do.”
“Yes,” she says. “On occasion, I walk.”
“Maybe,” he says, “we could take a walk sometime.”
This is unusual. The mother is the kind of pretty that gets a lot of compliments from women but not a lot of attention from men. She is blonde, yes, and skinny, but a flat chest, a big nose, eyes a bit too close together, an arch to her eyebrows making her look constantly skeptical, unapproachable. Her husband, in the early days of their romance, had nicknamed her the no-no girl. Women fawn over her clothes. She’s always in vintage-y dresses, navy or lime green with tiny polka dots, flouncy skirts somewhere between rockabilly and Suzy Homemaker. She knows what to do with a scarf. But it’s nothing men care about. So it’s unusual. The police officer, beefy beneath his foppish hair and ironic casual clothes, and almost, let’s face it, hunky, has surprised her. It isn’t anything she can’t handle, however. She’s a grownup. Three nights a week she instructs a classroom full of sleepy and often downright contentious adult learners at the community college in the finer points of comp and rhetoric. She’s carried twins.
“A walk,” she says.
“Sure,” he says. “Give your knees a break. Or if that’s not amenable, coffee.”
“At which donut shop?” she says.
“You see now, that is just hurtful,” he says.
A few stalls away, over the spot where yesterday the twins had arranged their dandelion pile, Mennonite women in bonnets the color of eggshells arrange a row of cabbage.
On Monday the girl walks the median near the ramp to the highway, working the line of traffic trapped at the interminable light, peddling flowers from a Home Depot bucket. They’re plastic, the flowers. She approaches the father’s car without recognition. It’s easy to forget about things when you don’t experience guilt.
“You should buy a flower,” she tells him. “It’s almost mother’s day.”
“Mother’s day is two weeks off,” he says.
“Thus the logic of plastic flowers,” she says. “Practical, and I sprayed a little Obsession on them so they’ll appeal to at least three of the senses.”
The corners of her mouth bubble with little pimples and there’s a sort of crust at her hairline, probably from dying it too many times. It’s blue, presently, or more the color of an over-boiled egg.
“You gonna buy one, or what?”
“Where’s your rat, or whatever it is?” he asks.
If she’s fazed by his somewhat intimate knowledge, she doesn’t show it. She nods at a sewer grate close by.
“He’s a ferret,” she says. “He’s down there, prowling. You know what he finds down there? Crayfish. He loves them.”
“And he’ll come back?”
“Of course,” she says. “He’s in love with me.”
Officer Doug leans across the table. The mother smells mocha on his breath.
“You never know,” he says, “there might be something to it. I remember hearing about a psychic on a case in Newark, New Jersey who had visions of teeth beneath the ground at a movie theater. They ripped up the seats, chopped up the floor, everything.”
“And?” she says.
“I don’t remember past that. Just the part about the teeth.”
Although she isn’t anyplace she ought necessarily to be, the mother has done everything required of her this Monday morning. She let the contractor and his men into the house to finish the kitchen floor, she dropped the father’s stained windbreaker at the cleaners and the girls off at the co-op preschool after teaching them both the Watusi for “W” talk-time. A stop for a quick latte isn’t unprecedented. If it happens to be in the company of a new friend, where’s the harm? That she’s wearing a tad more makeup than usual, that she’s chosen a dress with a slightly plunging neckline, that her bra has just a soupcon of padding, which accentuates what little décolletage she has; these things are not so out of order that they can’t be attributed to mere coincidence. For the record, she could have worn heels.
The café, busy with commuters a few minutes ago, has emptied out, leaving just the two of them and the barista, a grumpy college student in overalls and pigtails who keeps changing the music from country western swing to synth-pop and back, harrumphing as if nothing will ever satisfy her.
“Imagine if they’re right,” says Doug. “What if there really is something buried there? Kids, babies, they go missing all the time. More than you’d like to think. There are probably a dozen open cases in this state alone, going back decades.”
“I don’t want them to be right,” she says.
Doug looks at her, his big handsome face like a traffic sign.
The strange thing is, the girl dumped the bucket out before she got in the car, and it was full of water. For plastic flowers. It was just like she said though. She made a clicking sound with her tongue and seconds later, the little brown thing slid up from the sewer and into her hands. Now, her pet is somewhere up her sleeve and the girl is setting terms, arranging things in a way she can understand. This is where he has a leg up, because the father doesn’t want what she assumes he does. He’s looking forward to surprising her with this, recasting himself inside the narrow brackets of her expectations. But for now he lets her talk as she rides along in the passenger seat that has only…let him think for a second…yes, that has only ever been occupied by the mother. A family man! Which is just what this girl expects. A family man looking for some fun instead of going to work on a Monday.
His phone buzzes on its special rubber mat that keeps it from sliding off the dash. Let it buzz. The girl stops her negotiations.
“You gonna get that?” she says.
He does. It’s Andrea.
“Beryl and Quimby left a message,” Andrea says. “A goddamn message on Sunday! But they’re a go. What’s your ETA?”
“I’ll be a while,” he says.
“They want to see something by tomorrow morning,” Andrea says.
“So show them something,” he says, and hangs up before she can say anything else. He imagines the two of them, Alan and Andrea, scrambling all morning. He pays them well enough to know they won’t call him again. But he’ll pick up something for lunch. Maybe sushi.
“Was that important?” the girl asks. “It sounded important.”
He can see the creature moving around in her sweatshirt like a muscle spasm. She smells like wood smoke and berry lip-gloss.
“Sometimes I think nothing is important,” he says.
“Whoa. Profound,” she says.
Do you want to take a ride? Like he’d been picking up runaways all his life. He’d brushed off the seat of the Volvo for her, as if there was ever a speck of dirt. Even the matching Britaxs in the rear are spotless. He Dust-busts them after every trip with the girls. No Goldfish powder in the crevices or so much as a stray Cheerio. It is too easy to allow life to descend into disarray, for the chaos of the present to overwhelm every ordered memory. The father has seen it. From the moment the word twins left Dr. Meckler’s lips, he has steeled himself as if for battle.
In his front trouser pocket is a substantial lump of cash, rolled and bound with a thick rubber band that had once secured several stalks of broccoli. There is nothing special-occasion about this cash. He carries such a lump every day, replenishing with crisp bills from the bank whenever it feels light. The father loves cash, the thrill of twenty after twenty, a few hundreds thrown in. Fuck ATM cards! With such a roll, one might buy a beautiful new jacket, renovate a powder room, or feed a modest family of four for half a year.
“Where are we going?” the girl asks.
The Watusi is a hit. So much so that when the mother arrives to pick up the girls, five minutes early as usual, the children are doing the Watusi instead of standing in a circle to sing the goodbye song. Gladys, volunteer mother this morning, is even giving it a go, though she looks somewhat ridiculous with her peasant skirt billowing out to reveal her bare legs. The coarse hair on Gladys’s shins is like thousands of ants trapped belly up just beneath the surface, their legs poking out. She does have a hell of a rack, though. The mother watches as some of the fathers arrive. The men, usually befuddled and blinking in this setting, are immediately rapt on the bra-less, gyrating Gladys. Their own children embrace their knees, turn their faces up, mewl Daddy, Daddy! A distraction to be swatted. The mothers pretend not to notice. Teacher Edna, whatever youth she’d ever possessed far behind her, surveys it all from behind her glinting Ben Franklin specs, wincing a little as she tries to shake her own arthritic hips.
“Did you know that W starts with walrus?” Lucia asks her. Lucia has already distanced herself from the dance now that it’s caught on. She stands with her arms crossed in imitation of her mother. Soon Esté will stop too.
“Other way around, kiddo,” says the mother.
On the sidewalk in front of the café, Doug had grasped her forearm and pleaded. Begged, like a high school boy. He had thick, persuasive fingers. Up against the wall arms. The logo on his t-shirt was of some band she’d never heard of. Spastic Colony. Rebuffed, he looked as if he were going to weep.
“Can I at least see you again?” he’d said.
But she didn’t think it was a good idea.
The girls are surprised to see the minivan parked in front of the school. They usually walk home through the park.
“Mommy went somewhere this morning,” she explains to them. They want more, of course. Dissatisfied, they throw their craft projects, construction-paper whales with waterspouts made out of Kleenex, into the back. The minivan is not as clean as the Volvo, or at least there’s evidence of lived lives inside it. She takes the long way around the park to drive past the meadow. As they go past, she studies the girls in the child-mirror. Their faces are smooth and untroubled. The mother wants to ask them about the baby under the ground, maybe take them to the spot and see what they do, but it’s a terrible impulse, unbecoming of a mother. Esté appears as if any moment, she will drift into sleep. All that dancing.
Back at home, the workers are just finishing the kitchen floor. The tile is bright red, made of recycled material. It cost twice what even quality ceramic tile would have. She can sense the contractor’s amusement at this, but he’s done a terrific job. The red tile against the stainless appliances is stunning. It’s her mother’s word, but it applies. And they’re done. The months of work, the dust, the mice scared out of the walls with all the pounding and drilling. Done.
She hands Murphy the final check. It’s a shocking amount, more than her parents paid for the house she grew up in. The contractor studies it, holding it away from his face and pushing the glasses down his nose to peer at it like a scholar. God’ll make more.
“Is the man who was here Friday around?” she asks Murphy. “The one I was talking to? I have something I’d like to give him.”
It’s a hundred dollar bill from the core of her husband’s obscene roll. She’s thinking of it as a donation for the man’s church. Of course she won’t ask what he’ll do with it.
“You mean Marshall?” McKinley says. “Marshall didn’t show up this morning. We go through North City on the way to a job and he’s either on the corner or he’s not. Today he wasn’t.” McKinley smiles somewhat ruefully. “You want I should pass something along to him?”
“No thank you,” she says.
“These old guys, it might surprise you to look at them, but they pick up some mighty habits. Not the most reliable fellows.”
“I’m sure you’re wrong about that,” she says.
He bends at the waist as if bowing and picks a speck of dust off the gleaming floor, rubs it in between his fingers.
“Whatever,” he says, which is everyone’s answer to everything anymore.
It is almost midnight. The father presses his forehead to cool glass. Three big white moths congregate on the other side of the window. The moths bear the disappointed faces of old men. There is no one on the street, though the father half expects to see the girl looking up. In the end he brought her back to the underpass after driving around for a few hours. At one point he slid a mix tape into the car stereo, something from high school. He’d paid to have the CD player in the Volvo pulled out and replaced with a tape deck. He had all these old tapes, hundreds of them. It was a sin to let them languish in the basement. The girl hadn’t known any of the songs.
“Fucking Christ,” the girl had said. “I could have been selling my flowers.”
At that point he’d worked the cash out of his pocket, snapped the rubber band a few times. He saw her eyes go big in spite of herself, translating the money into drugs, food, maybe even a ticket back home where her fretting mother was busy stuffing the oven with the world’s saddest casseroles. The father kept driving. When he pulled onto the shoulder near the underpass, the girl didn’t want to get out.
“I’ll do things,” she said. “Whatever it is you’ve been too afraid to ask me for. I’ll put my finger in your ass, fuck you with a strap-on, whatever.”
He handed her three hundred dollars and leaned over her body to open the door. A buzz of static from the fleece collar of her jacket tickled his cheek.
“How old are you?” he asked.
“Fuck you!” she shouted. “Fucking pervert!” She opened the door and yanked herself out. He pulled away fast, distancing himself. In the rearview he watched the girl run after his car, waving her arms and shouting. But he’d given her all she was going to get from him.
Now the father looks across the street, into the park, where about a quarter mile away a glow rises through the trees. The sleeping girls have colds. He can hear them snoring. It happens like that. They start the day fine and wake up from their naps with their noses corked with mucus. Bobby, they say, following the mother around. Bobby. Daddy sounds the same, though.
That spectral light the father sees? It’s Officer Doug and a buddy of his digging up the back southeast corner of the meadow; a landscaper he knows with a backhoe and some powerful incandescent lights on the top of his pickup, plus an archeology grad student Doug asked around for at the university who knows how to dig and what to look for. Who’s going to stop him? He’s got a badge. They’ll dig until three in the morning, when the archaeology student will hold up his hand from inside the hole and chip away with some of his finer tools, finally unearthing the jawbone of what he takes to be a medium sized dog.
“A dog,” Doug will say.
The archeology student appears too clean to have been digging in the dirt. He’s wearing pleated khakis and even the knees are free of soil. He blinks up at Doug with a shy smile. He wants to be friends with a policeman.
Time to fill in the hole and call it a night.
“Blank, Blank!” the girl shouted, for the ferret must have slipped out of her sweatshirt and gone exploring in the Volvo. Indeed, the ferret’s there now, underneath the rear passenger seats, so cozy. It isn’t hungry, having discovered the crust of a peanut butter sandwich the father missed. It isn’t frightened. It can stay where it is for a long time. A few days, even. Eventually, however, triggered by the motion of the car or the voices of the children above, its curiosity or hunger will get the best of it. It’s a little thing, but it can only hide for so long.
The father is long asleep. His employees, Alan and Andrea are also asleep, nestled together on the office couch, having only an hour ago finally succumbed to the mounting tensions of a harrowing day preparing for Beryl and Quimby. Alan slumbers deeply, spent and contented and in love. Andrea slumbers lightly, the weight of Alan’s leg across her middle. Every few minutes she bobs into consciousness and wonders where her panties are. Beryl and Quimby, it may be assumed, slumber as well, somewhere, like dark birds roosting.
What does not slumber but rather rests beneath the ground undisturbed, a few inches below the now jumbled bits of a dog once named Uschi, is all that’s left of a newborn who never had a name, the daughter of a farmer. Just a skull fragment and a few porous slivers of vertebrae, the rest of the skeleton having been transported to a spot fifteen feet away by the root of an elm tree, itself long gone. The farmer, a German named Kohl, owned the meadow and much of the land surrounding it, though he was not considered a wealthy man in those times. A hard, practical man, his large nose gray from years exposed to the weather. The child had been born with a harelip, an affliction that went back generations in his family. In the old country they said the Kohls were cursed. But Kohl was not a fool. He didn’t believe in nonsense. Still, they could scarcely afford another healthy child. He himself had sliced through the cord with his broad knife after proclaiming the life untenable, removed the wet thing from the room full of gaping women and buried it, each strike of the spade bringing to mind his own mother’s name.
In the morning, out walking the fence line, he saw his son’s mutt digging up the grave. He looped his finger in the dog’s collar and smashed its head with a stone. Kohl felt a moment’s guilt burying it in the same hole. But there’s no sense dwelling on such things when there’s work to be done.