“I THINK IT’S the other way around,” the boy said. “I think if the quake hit now the bridge would collapse and the ramps would be
He looked at his sister with satisfaction.
“You are just trying to scare your sister,” the father said. “You know that is not true.”
“No, really,” the boy insisted, “and I heard birds in the middle of the night. Isn’t that a warning?”
The girl gave her brother a toxic look and ate a handful of Raisinets. The three of them were stalled in traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge.
That morning, before waking his children, the father had canceled their music lessons and decided to make a day of it. He wanted to know how they were, is all. Just—how were they. He thought his kids were as self-contained as one of those dogs you sometimes see carrying home its own leash. But you could read things wrong.
Could you ever.
The boy had a friend who jumped from a floor of Langley Porter. The friend had been there for two weeks, mostly playing ping-pong. All the friend said the day the boy visited and lost every game was never play ping-pong with a mental patient because it’s all we do and we’ll kill you. That night the friend had cut the red belt he wore in two and left the other half on his bed. That was this time last year when the boy was twelve years old.
You think you’re safe, the father thought, but it’s thinking you’re invisible because you closed your eyes.
* * *
This day they were headed for Petaluma—the chicken, egg, and arm-wrestling capitol of the nation—for lunch. The father had offered to take them to the men’s arm-wrestling semi-finals. But it was said that arm-wrestling wasn’t so interesting since the new safety precautions, that hardly anyone broke an arm or a wrist any more. The best anyone could hope to see would be dislocation, so they said they would rather go to Pete’s. Pete’s was a gas station turned into a place to eat. The hamburgers there were named after cars, and the gas pumps in front still pumped gas.
“Can I have one?” the boy asked, meaning the Raisinets.
“No,” his sister said.
“Can I have two?”
“Neither of you should be eating candy before lunch,” the father said. He said it with the good sport of a father who enjoys his kids and gets a kick out of saying Dad things.
“You mean dinner,” said the girl. “It will be dinner before we get to Pete’s.”
* * *
Only the northbound lanes were stopped. Southbound traffic flashed past at the normal speed.
“Check it out,” the boy said from the back seat. “Did you see the bumper sticker on that Porsche? ‘If you don’t like the way I drive, stay off the sidewalk.’ “
He spoke directly to his sister. “I’ve just solved my Christmas shopping.”
“I got the highest score in my class in Driver’s Ed,” she said.
“I thought I would let your sister drive home today,” the father said.
From the back seat came sirens, screams for help, and then a dirge.
The girl spoke to her father in a voice rich with complicity. “Don’t people make you want to give up?”
“Don’t the two of you know any jokes? I haven’t laughed all day,” the father said.
“Did I tell you the guillotine joke?” the girl said.
“He hasn’t laughed all day, so you must’ve,” her brother said.
The girl gave her brother a look you could iron clothes with. Then her gaze dropped down. “Oh-oh,” she said, “Johnny’s out of jail.”
Her brother zipped his pants back up. He said, “Tell the joke.”
* * *
“Two Frenchmen and a Belgian were about to be beheaded,” the girl began. “The first Frenchman was led to the block and blindfolded. The executioner let the blade go. But it stopped a quarter inch above the Frenchman’s neck. So he was allowed to go free, and ran off shouting, ‘C’est un miracle! C’est un miracle!’ “
“It’s a miracle,” the father said.
“Then the second Frenchman was led to the block, and same thing—the blade stopped just before cutting off his head. So he got to go free, and ran off shouting, ‘C’est un miracle!’
“Finally the Belgian was led to the block. But before they could blindfold him, he looked up, pointed to the top of the guillotine, and cried, ‘Voila la difficulté!’
She doubled over.
“Maybe I would be wetting my pants if I knew what that meant,” the boy said.
“You can’t explain after the punchline,” the girl said, “and have it still be funny.”
“There’s the problem,” said the father.
* * *
The waitress handed out menus to the party of three seated in the corner booth of what used to be the lube bay. She told them the specialty of the day was Moroccan chicken.
“That’s what I want,” the boy said. “Morerotten chicken.”
But he changed his order to a Studeburger and fries after his father and sister had ordered.
“So,” the father said, “who misses music lessons?”
“I’m serious about what I asked you last week,” the girl said. “About switching to piano? My teacher says a real flutist only breathes with the stomach, and I can’t.”
“The real reason she wants to change,” said the boy, “is her waist will get two inches bigger when she learns to stomach-breathe. That’s what else her teacher said.”
The boy buttered a piece of sourdough bread and flipped a chunk of cold butter onto his sister’s sleeve.
“Jeezo-beezo,” the girl said, “why don’t they skip the knife and fork and just set his place with a slingshot!”
“Who will ever adopt you if you don’t mind your manners?” the father said. “Maybe we could try a little quiet today.”
“You sound like your tombstone,” the girl said. “Remember what you wanted it to say?”
Her brother joined in with his mouth full: “Today will be a quiet day.”
“Because it never is with us around,” the boy said.
“You guys,” said the father.
* * *
The waitress brought plates. The father passed sugar to the boy and salt to the girl without being asked. He watched the girl shake out salt onto the fries.
“If I had a sore throat, I would gargle with those,” he said.
“Looks like she’s trying to melt a driveway,” the boy offered.
The father watched his children eat. They ate fast. They called it Hoovering. He finished while they sucked at straws in empty drinks.
“Funny,” he said thoughtfully, “I’m not hungry any more.”
Every meal ended this way. It was his benediction, one of the Dad things they expected him to say.
“That reminds me,” the girl said. “Did you feed Rocky before we left?”
“Uh-uh,” her brother said. “I fed him yesterday.”
“I fed him yesterday!” the girl said.
“Okay, we’ll compromise,” the boy said. “We won’t feed the cat today.”
“I’d say you are out of bounds on that one,” the father said.
He meant you could not tease her about animals. Once, during dinner, that cat ran into the dining room shot from guns. He ran around he table at top speed, then spun out on the parquet floor into a leg of the table. He fell over onto his side and made short coughing sounds.
“Isn’t he smart?” the girl had crooned, kneeling beside him. “He knows he’s hurt.”
* * *
For years, her father had to say that the animals seen on shoulders of roads were napping.
“He never would have not fed Homer,” she said to her father.
“Homer was a dog,” the boy said. “If I forgot to feed him, he could just go into the hills and bite a deer.”
“Or a Campfire Girl selling mints at the front door,” their father reminded them.
“Homer,” the girl sighed. “I hope he likes chasing sheep on that ranch in the mountains.”
The boy looked at her, incredulous.
“You believed that? You actually believed that?”
In her head, a clumsy magician yanked the cloth and the dishes all crashed to the floor. She took air into her lungs until they filled, and then she filled her stomach, too.
“I thought she knew,” the boy said.
The dog was five years ago.
“The girl’s parents insisted,” the father said. “It’s the law in California.”
“Then I hate California,” she said. “I hate its guts.”
The boy said he would wait for them in the car, and left the table.
“What would help?” the father asked.
“For Homer to be alive,” she said.
“What would help?”
She pinched a trail of salt on her plate.
“A ride,” she said. “I’ll drive.”
* * *
The girl started the car and screamed, “Goddammit.”
With the power off, the boy had tuned in the Spanish station. Mariachis exploded on ignition.
“Dammit isn’t God’s last name,” the boy said, quoting another bumper sticker.
“Don’t people make you want to give up?” the father said.
“No talking,” the girl said to the rear-view mirror, and put the car in gear.
She drove for hours. Through groves of eucalyptus with their damp peeling bark, past acacia bushes with yellow flowers pulsing off their stems.She cut over to the coast route and the stony grey-green tones of Inverness.
“What you’d call scenic,” the boy tried.
Otherwise they were quiet.
* * *
No one said anything else until the sky started to close, and then it was the boy again, asking shouldn’t they be going home.
“No, no,” the father said, and made a show of looking out the window, up at the sky and back at his watch. “No,” he said, “keep driving—it’s getting earlier.”
But the sky spilled rain, and the girl headed south towards the bridge. She turned on the headlights and the dashboard lit up green. She read off the odometer on the way home: “Twenty-six thousand, three hundred eighty three and eight-tenths miles.”
“Today?” the boy said.
* * *
The boy got to Rocky first. “Let’s play the cat,” he said, and carried the Siamese to the upright piano. He sat on the bench holding the cat in his lap and pressed its paws to the keys. Rocky played “Born Free.” He tried to twist away.
“Come on, Rocky, ten more minutes and we’ll break.”
“Give him to me,” the girl said.
She puckered up and gave the cat a five-lipper.
“Bring the Rock upstairs,” the father called. “Bring sleeping bags, too.”
Pretty soon three sleeping bags formed a triangle in the master bedroom. The father was the hypotenuse. The girl asked him to brush out her hair, which he did while the boy ate a tangerine, peeling it up close to his face, inhaling the mist. Then he held each segment to the light to find seeds. In his lap, cat paws fluttered like dreaming eyes.
“What are you thinking?” the father asked.
“Me?” the girl said. “Fifty-seven T-bird, white with red interior, convertible. I drive it to Texas and wear skirts with rick-rack. I’m changing my name to Ruby,” she said, “or else Easy.”
The father considered her dream of a checkered future.
“Early ripe, early rot,” he warned.
A wet wind slammed the window in its warped sash, and the boy jumped.
“I hate rain,” he said. “I hate its guts.”
The father got up and closed the window tighter against the storm. “It’s a real frog-choker,” he said.
In darkness, lying still, it was no less camp-like than if they had been under the stars singing to a stone-ringed fire burned down to embers.
They had already said good-night some minutes earlier when the boy and girl heard their father’s voice in the dark.
“Kids, I just remembered—I have some good news and some bad news. Which do you want first?”
It was his daughter who spoke. “Let’s get it over with,” she said. “Let’s get the bad news over with.”
The father smiled. They are all right, he decided. My kids are as right as this rain. He smiled at the exact spots he knew their heads were turned to his, and doubted he would ever feel—not better, but more than he did now.
“I lied,” he said. “There is no bad news.”