Lloyd and Joy: A Scientist’s Explanation
Lloyd and Joy didn’t have the common problems of their counterparts in Neanderthal Companionship Counseling, such as: miscommunication, overly aggressive behavior, and depression due to questioning the purpose of existence.
Lloyd and Joy’s problem was their difference in size.
The average male and female Neanderthals were about the same height and weight. However it is my theory, according to the skeletal structures found, that Lloyd was severely petite and Joy was much larger than the average Neanderthal. We at the Neanderthal Reenactment and Study call her “Mammoth Joy.”
The role-of-dominance portion of the Neanderthal Companionship Counseling might have been embarrassing for Lloyd. The females were asked by the counseling director to lie on their backs on the ground and allow their male companions to drag them ten to fifteen feet by the clumps of hair on their heads. Each would have been successful at doing so, the women giving off their trained howls and hoots of submissive trust. But I imagine Lloyd holding on to Joy’s thick wooly hair, unable to budge her a few inches. I might be embellishing a little, but I really believe that Joy might have helped out at this point. Maybe scooted herself a little and tried her best at giving off fake hoots and howls. The counseling director, perhaps a man who delighted in others’ humiliation, might have made Lloyd and Joy switch positions. Joy would have dragged Lloyd without much effort across the dirt, his body paralyzed as a branch while the other Neanderthals jumped up and down, clamoring, slapping the ground with their palms in laughter.
Being with Lloyd and his overall ineptitude with prehistoric living, Joy may have developed an early form of sympathetic concern. And not being familiar with this advanced emotion might have transferred over to the more common rage—which would have been directed toward the companionship counselor for allowing the scene of Lloyd’s shortcoming.
Judging from the size of Joy, each of her hands was roughly twice, maybe three times the size of mine. The meat on them would be tough from the wear and tear of daily sharpening stones and digging pits for food storage, the palms calloused and resembling a tool more than a piece of human anatomy.
Leaving Lloyd on the ground, Joy possibly walked up to the counselor as he continued to bellow, and she might have slammed the palms of her hands on either side of his head, over and over, until she smashed his skull like a thick rind fruit. Or if his skull did not implode, he might have received an aggravated itch or sting from Joy’s pounding, which would discomfort him for years until he would get on all fours and ram the top of his head into a sharp rock, hoping to stop the chime.
The other scientists will tell you differently. They might even say that Joy and Lloyd weren’t a couple, that it wasn’t even possible. They’d say that if Joy even knew Lloyd—they believe she wasn’t associated with him at all—she’d be the kind of Neanderthal to break Lloyd’s limbs and use them as weapons. They believe that early Neanderthals were about survival and that companionship only occurred as a way to better that chance. I like to think that Joy and Lloyd—given their circumstance—were early demonstrators of compassion. It’s hard to see it on those jutted brows, but I really think there was more to them than crude selfishness.
Paleontologists will disagree when I say Lloyd was lifted up and carried away by a rare giant-clawed pterosaur.
Here are the facts: the tiny-boned structure of Lloyd was discovered at the top portion of the mountain named Todd. The steep sides of Todd are made of a thick bitumen soil that is impossible to scale due to the constant dampness of the valley, which creates a slick and ungraspable climb. Some stronger Neanderthals might have been able to notch a couple feet up the side, but they wouldn’t have been able to get all the way to where Lloyd’s bones were found. The pterosaur is the only explanation for his being there.
I believe that pterosaurs picked up and dropped numerous Neanderthals in an attempt to relocate such a large meal back to their nest. However, because of the size and heft of the average Neanderthal, the pterosaur would clasp onto their shoulders and lift only to drop a few moments later, a little farther away from where the Neanderthal was previously positioned—more of an annoyance than a threat. The Neanderthals swiped at the pterosaurs as we would a bee or house fly.
Lloyd wasn’t the hunter in the relationship. He might have attempted when first courting Joy, out of pressure from the other Neanderthals. He was most likely unsuccessful, returning to their bivouac with a stringy runt from a litter of tusked pigs, possibly already dead for days, not even scavengers having bothered to pick at the un-fresh meat.
It was easier for the other male providers, each bringing home a medium to large deer, goat, or in the case of Stroope—who was the most desired male Neanderthal among the females—an entire megatherium, enough meat to prevent the whole Neanderthal community from starving during the cold period.
Even my closest scientist friends would scoff at this, but I really believe that there was some kind of competition between Stroope and Lloyd. There were Neanderthals and then there was Stroope—imagine his offspring being stout and sturdy like sand bags.
I believe that Stroope’s genitalia was so large and cumbersome that it resembled a thick pork loin, possibly even tied up in a bunch with twine. If it were to fall out or break the twine, the weight and girth of his penis could swing and knock his kneecap out of place, his entire body then collapsing to the ground.
The truth is: I don’t believe Joy was or would ever be interested in Stroope.
How would Joy tell Stroope that her tiny Lloyd rubs his soft hands—like lamb’s ears—over her bare back, actually allowing her to build up a mood for mating? How can she explain that Lloyd was the kind of guy to stay afterwards and not leave to mate again with another woman? He most likely only had the smell of Joy on his crotch: how can she explain to Stroope that this was important to her? She wouldn’t even understand the term loyalty let alone try to pantomime or grunt its meaning. How could she even articulate these experiences with Lloyd without—once again—transferring over to rage and having to lash out bludgeoning an unfortunate bystander or biting and locking her jaw on the whole of Stroope’s groin until his banging of fists on Joy’s back and his loss of blood made him pass out?
After Lloyd was picked off the ground by the pterosaur and was possibly heard squealing a pathetic cry for help, Joy probably tied an animal hide sack and filled it with sharp stones and dried meat. But Neanderthal communities didn’t allow a single venturer to leave a campsite, and this rule was especially applied to Joy, given the dangers the community could face not having one of the strongest Neanderthals present.
Stroope might have approached her, the group of Neanderthals behind him watching as he might persuade Joy to be his new companion. The role of dominance might have been initiated as Stroope handled Joy in such a way that was unfamiliar to her while in Lloyd’s hold. Stroope possibly bent Joy over and was preparing to mate. But perhaps unraveling the twine too quickly, he might have swung the whole of his genitalia, dislocating his knee and tumbling to the ground. He would then crawl away, his broken parts in tow.
Or he possibly could have started to untwine but stopped when he realized that Joy submitted, showing the kind of brute he was.
There was no struggle, and looking at Joy’s backside, her stone-like dirty buttocks, Stroope knew that Joy was Lloyd’s companion.
Joy might have turned around and maybe with water in her eyes wanted to smash Stroope’s skull in, but she was only able to give a couple pats on each side of his head after seeing his face: ashamed. She knew that together with Stroope, they would have been able to build the Neanderthal community with magnificent offspring who would ensure protection from a stampede of mammoths—each member of the Stroope and Joy family hugging a mammoth leg and stopping the herd before they trampled through the Neanderthal campsite.
Stroope might have wandered off, not receiving what he was always accustomed to, and not understanding that. It might have transferred over to rage later on, when he was by himself, swinging his arms at bushes or pulling up petite trees by the roots.
How to Replace Sex with Cooking and Columbo
Begin by poring through your cookbooks, marking recipes you’ve never made before, ones that take a lot of chopping and sautéing and have long cooking times. Soups are best. Make a list more than a page long and go to the store late at night, when you’ve already had two beers and the store is almost empty. Everyone else there is buying cases of Natural Light or Lean Cuisines, or looking conspicuously red-eyed and shopping in groups of three or four, giggling and buying microwavable bacon. Wheel your cart slowly and sedately, pausing to heft and squeeze six or eight different limes before you select one, though they all feel firm and look green and healthy. Fill your cart with produce bags and feel self-righteous about how you shop the edges of the grocery store, like Michael Pollan says. When you check out, confuse the high school employee with your bags of root vegetables with no PLU codes. It is her first day of work. “Rutabagas,” you say. “Turnips. Parsnips.” Watch her ring your parsley up as cilantro but say nothing.
When you get home, put your groceries away. You are amazed that your refrigerator still looks almost empty. Consider beginning to cook, now, when it’s almost midnight, but decide to make a grilled cheese sandwich instead. You imagine yourself as a sort of mad scientist of soup, chopping wildly into the night and watching four simmering pots on the stove, but you are not ready to embrace this image. It is the image of someone who owns a cat, a cat that also stays up late into the night, prowling the four small rooms of your apartment. You have no cat, only two plants. You water your plants and eat your grilled cheese as you watch Columbo. Robert Culp is playing the murderer for the third time in three seasons. You have seen them all. Once he had a mustache, but otherwise he looks exactly the same. When Columbo interviews him at the scene of the crime, you think he should say, “You again? Didn’t I lock you up for killing that guy in the swimming pool last year? Didn’t I see you blackmail a woman in the pilot episode?” He says nothing. You suspend your disbelief for Columbo. He is your favorite dinner date.
The next morning, map out your cooking plan like a logic puzzle. You will make the winter vegetable chowder first, and then use the trimmings to make vegetable broth, and then use the vegetable broth to make roasted red pepper soup, and then use the ends of your roasted peppers to make red broth for tortilla soup. It is a good plan. It feels inevitable. It feels thrifty, like you are getting the most from your $150 of produce.
All day you cook. You love the way it feels to peel a turnip. You love the way the dirt sinks to the bottom in a bowl of water and chopped leeks. You love the way butter melts and bubbles across the bottom of your soup pot. You love the smell of thyme and sage in a pan of caramelizing onions. You listen to Smokey Robinson and sing into your ladle. You do not need anything outside of this room.**
Post a recipe to allrecipes.com. Adopt the overly casual attitude of a person creating an online dating profile “for a joke” or “just out of curiosity.” If no one responds to this message you send into cyberspace, you will know that you were always a little too good for this online interaction anyway. Tell yourself that you will write a two, three sentence introduction to the recipe, a variation on a standard zucchini sauté, and then let the food speak for itself. Instead, get caught up in the language of selling yourself. “A great weeknight dinner,” you write, “great as a side or, over gnocchi, as a filling vegetarian entrée.” “Healthy,” you write, “only five ingredients,” you write, “pantry staples,” you write. Realize you have written over a page about how quick this meal is to produce. Scale this back, create a user profile, post the recipe. Exit out of your Internet browser with unnecessary vigor and walk quickly out of the room, as if you have somewhere important to be.
That night, switch between an episode of Columbo and the allrecipes page as you eat reheated corn chowder. You have twelve views and zero ratings, zero comments. Your recipe has been saved to zero recipe boxes. Give it time, you think to yourself, but you cannot. Check three more times before bed.**
Get very drunk. Go out with your work friends on some night when everyone is celebrating—a colleague’s promotion, or your office mate’s engagement. Everyone is buying rounds. You think to yourself that this is how people should always drink. It feels so communal, but if everyone buys a round, you realize, the bills will end up being the same. You laugh out loud as you consider this perfect socialist system. The man next to you, a man who works in a different department, leans over to you and smiles.
“What are you laughing at?” he yells over the noise of the bar.
“This is how people should always drink!” you crow back.
“People should always drink?” he asks. He looks at you too condescendingly and too fondly, like you’re a good friend who has had too much to drink, has started making the sort of grand proclamations he expects from you when you’re in this state. You no longer want to make the Karl Marx joke that you have formed in your mind.
“I have to go,” you say. You are aching suddenly to be at home in your empty apartment. You pay your bill, wave to the table on your way out the door, and leave your car in the parking lot. As you walk home, you start to cry for reasons that aren’t entirely clear to you.
Make an omelet when you get home, the no-shortcuts kind, with a tablespoon of Parmesan cheese grated in for flavor, and an egg white reserved and stirred in at the last moment for texture. You separate the egg messily and almost lose the omelet onto the stove when you flip it, but in the end it is fluffy and, you think, beautiful, a lovely uniform shade of yellow. Eat it while you watch Columbo. George Hamilton plays the killer, a diabolical psychiatrist, and you are genuinely afraid of him, of his molded hair, of his almost orange skin. Think about texting a joke about George Hamilton to your ex, but none of the quips you think of look casual enough, sober enough, when you type them into your phone. Leave your phone in the living room and go to bed instead.**
Begin to set bizarre cooking and eating goals for yourself. When turnips are on sale at the grocery store, buy four pounds of them and determine to try three new turnip recipes that week. You try to shield this habit from the public, but you reveal yourself in unsubtle ways. You get funny looks at work when you eat a Tupperware of roasted root vegetable gratin at a catered lunch meeting, frantic to make headway on the stockpile of food in your fridge.
Check your allrecipes page and discover that you have been rated. Susan2471 has given you two out of five stars. “My husband enjoyed this,” Susan 2471 says, “but my kids wouldn’t touch it.” Click on Susan2471’s username and view her recipes. Her most popular recipe is “Strawberry Funfetti Cake with Chocolate Icing.” It has a rating of five stars. It has been saved to 72,394 recipe boxes. “By adding strawberry jam to a boxed Funfetti cake,” the description reads, “you can make a really special weeknight dessert with only a few pantry staples!” Resent Susan2471’s mastery of the allrecipe jargon. Leave a one star rating and a comment that reads “My kids enjoyed this, but my husband wouldn’t touch it.”**
Buy more Tupperware at the grocery store. All of your containers are filled with soup and stacked in the freezer. You eat soup every day, but you are not fast enough. You like how all the plastic containers look in the freezer, though, stacked one upon the other in tidy towers. You have marked all of the tops and sides with masking tape labels. It looks like you are preparing for some personal apocalypse, a private event that will affect only your apartment, but for which you will be very well prepared. You imagine that you will disappear and Columbo will come to investigate your apartment. He will peer into the freezer and see the towers of soup. “Why?” he will ask. “Why all of this quinoa chowder? Why all this leek and potato soup?” You mentally apologize to Columbo as you stir your potato and chickpea stew. You do not know why.
Illustration of a Stove
The stove is off. I know the stove is off because burner one is off klik, burner two is off klik, burner three is off klik, burner four is off klik. And so the stove is off. So I can rest easy. Today, there’s no need to worry. When, just yesterday, I passed by an appliance store, I peeked into the window. On display were three large stoves made of glossy black and white metal, arranged in a row with oven doors opened. Dummy cookware sat uncovered along the top burners and accompanying each appliance were tall white mannequins, with curled-up wigs and long, narrow necks, white paper skin and the backs of their dresses crisscrossed by tightly drawn apron straps. Three plastic women multiplied by four stove burners divided by three oven doors minus one. They faced away from the window, each bent badly at the waist and peering into the black opening of their glossy metal counterparts. I saw this and thought, “Can I remember checking my stove this morning?” I had to answer, “No.” I wasn’t sure if, when I left the stove on or off and, in fact, the more I thought about it, the more I could imagine a thrown-open oven door, all knobs cranked to HI, the hollow clucking of gas pumping through pipes as someone popping their tongue off the roof of their mouth. Cluck-Cluck-Cluck-Cluck. What would I have been cooking? Potatoes? Was I boiling potatoes? I remember setting a timer. No. Not peeled potatoes. I was cooking a carton of eggs. It was a carton of golf balls. I had a half-dozen golf balls hard-boiling in a pot and when the water wouldn’t boil I moved them to the microwave, as I was so sick of waiting. At night, I know the microwave is off because I pull the plug before bedtime. That makes it true, and this is true, too: One night, after having a hard time believing that my stove was really off, I wrenched it away from the wall and dragged it across the floor of my one-room apartment. A black rubber cable trailed along behind us, a silver metal snake grew out of the wall. And that’s how I knew my stove was off. Because when we made it past the piles around my work table, into what I guess would be my bedroom, the black rubber cable ripped away from its socket and the silver metal snake also ruptured clear with a kind of sputtering ffssss as it recoiled into the kitchen, writhing loudly about on the linoleum, my stove placed safely at the foot of my bed, its oven door shut and all four knobs turned off. I slept easy that night. I remember falling asleep. Because burner one was off klik, burner two was off klik, burner three was off klik, and burner four was off klik.
Tonight H is building tiny antennas for a baby spacesuit. Never seen antennas on a spacesuit before, I tease her. Sprawled on the kitchen floor she smiles, bending back a pipe cleaner. Totally antennas on a spacesuit, she says.
SPOILER: The baby has been dead two years now.
The project to convert the dead baby’s room into outer space has been under construction since she was six months pregnant. I come home one day to find tinfoil satellites strung from the ceiling, stolen rocks plucked from the neighbor’s yard posing as meteors, a bathtub full of Styrofoam balls―one for each planet + an enormous sun. Spray cans and cardboard for stenciling.
Space is peaceful, she explains. That night she begins painting the room black.**
According to Einstein, time is just an illusion. Following disaster all moments begin to bleed together. Linearity becomes inane.**
I swear the pale stars seem paler inside this room every day. As big as space is, the universe inside this little room is rapidly expanding, not contracting. At the rate my wife is filling it with cosmic apparatus it will swallow the entire house like a black hole. The other rooms in the house have gone untouched for quite some time.
Stephen Hawking should’ve prepared us for this.**
We have become aliens.**
I place the doll face-down in a field only to pick it back up again. Something about it being smothered in the dark. Ants crawl upon the face, so I wipe them off. I end up hiding it in the basement.
It hits me: I can’t let go either.**
Three days before the due date she is giving me a tour of the galaxy. She points out several constellations, using my finger to connect them as she explains their mythologies. She indicates the Milky Way, a number of nebulae and other bright asteroid belts. She is proud of her creation.
Stifling laughter, she tells me to look through a jumbo telescope with a big red bow on it. See it yet? I do not.
Upset I’m spoiling her surprise, she grabs my head and drags my skull in front of it. Squint! she orders me. Here we are, she says, pointing to a petite space station smashed between Ursa Minor and a white dwarf. Inside an observation window, two stick people wave out. I’m the one with the big head, she informs me.**
The inflationary theory of cosmology suggests the existence of parallel universes like our own but separate in that every possibility that can occur will occur, determining an infinite number of alternate realities. Given the presupposition that the universe is infinite, all realities are equally valid.**
There are some complications, says the doctor.**
A forgotten Post-it note at the bottom of a closet includes names we’ll never have a use for. Now we just call the dead baby NASA.**
I have ordered for my wife a lifelike baby doll designed to aid in the grieving process. She is painting a papier-mâché rocket the day the UPS man drops the doll off at the door. I leave it unopened on the kitchen table. I won’t open it. I’ll just let her discover it, see how she reacts.
Over the weekend it sits there, unperturbed, but on a Sunday evening I find the packaging has been placed in the trash bin. I find H in the backyard, a plastic boy swaddled in her arms. She shhh’s me. He’s sleeping, she whispers.
That night she places the doll into the crib.**
Good grief, a boy in the lab says upon smashing his finger in a doorway.
Don’t say that, I tell him. There’s no such thing as good grief.**
We have become full of black holes.**
Bare feet pressed against the glove compartment on our last getaway before parenthood, she smiles as I pretend to guillotine her fingers in the window. I could never live in the desert, she says.**
David Bowie is asking me if there is life on Mars. I am asking him if there is life on Earth.**
The rubble of a smashed telescope bought for our son lay strewn on the patio. My hand is cut. I can’t feel it but I know it’s cut because there is proof of my pain on the blood-splashed pavement. External verification helps, keeps us in check, letting us know what’s real and what’s wishful living.
My wife remains in the passenger seat, seatbelt fastened. Emergency brake lights blink.**
I have given my wife an ultimatum: get help or else.**
I come home early from work one day to find H standing not more than four inches from the television. It is the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey and she is weeping, her fingers pressed against the glass. A baby floats in space. She thinks is the most beautiful thing she’s ever seen.
That would be a nice reality . . . but it’s not ours, I tell her.
She pretends not to hear this part.**
Tonight H has been making origami scorpions. Sprawled on the kitchen floor, she folds her one hundredth paper critter and places it on a spilling-over pile. Every day I check on her, every week bringing groceries, making sure she eats something. Whenever I open a cabinet, sand pours out. I offer to make her a sandwich, trying for a lame joke. She doesn’t laugh.
The project to convert the dead baby’s room into a desert has been under construction since the divorce. Now the room has spread into the entire house. There is dust everywhere, glued to the walls, in the seat of the rocking chair, coating sinks. I sweep up what I can. When I walk past the nursery-that-never-was, a fake cactus twinkles Christmas lights at me, a dirt-caked doll tangled in its web. I flip the switch.
On my way out, she says her daily sentence: The desert is romantic, don’t you think?
No, I tell her. It’s not.**
The baby choked inside the incubator. The baby choked on air, as one would in space. We have never spoken of the strangeness of this coincidence. Perhaps it’s symbolic of something, but of what? I’m no psychologist, just a husband. She won’t see a psychologist.
I’m not crazy, she maintains. My baby died . . . my baby is dead. Considering that, I am as sane as humanly possible.
She won’t see a psychologist.**
So we supernova.**
I am dodging dishes in the kitchen. She is cursing, calling me a murderer.
Worried I made a mistake—that it was doing more harm than good—I have gotten rid of that doll in the middle of the night. When she grabs the phone to dial 911 to report an emergency, I grab her and hold her until she calms. We need help, I tell her. She is light years away.
I’m scared, but not for my safety. There is an emergency to report.**
Occam’s Razor: the simplest explanation is usually true.**
Here we sit coming up with names for a boy. In alphabetical order: Aaron. Aldous. Becket. Charles. Crispin. Eli. Herbert. Jack. Jaedon. Jonah. Morris. Oliver. Orson. Oscar. Pete. Simon. Wiley. Xander.
How will we ever decide? she wonders. When we see his face we’ll know.**
I have decided I can’t take anymore. Inside, she waits.
I remain in the driver’s seat, seatbelt fastened. Emergency brake lights blink.**
A funeral, the tiniest coffin I’ve ever seen and John Lennon singing Love is real / Real is love.**
In the corner of the room there are new cans now. Colors that have no business in space. My wife, clutching a receipt, waits for me.
We need help, she is willing to admit for the first time.
Are you going to leave me now? she asks, chin twitching, eyes glistening fearful as she floats alone in the center of the room, as she floats alone in an artificial cosmos, walls threatening to swallow her, light painting spiders in her hair, floor wobbling underfoot.
I meet her there.
Wordless, we pry the paint lids. Together we dip a brush, then drag it. We white out the earth first, then each subsequent planet. Make the sun disappear, then kill off the stars. But when it comes to the space station we pause. Here we are, I tell her.
Your Dad Communes with God’s Creatures: Five Episodes
I. Your Dad at Rest
Your dad is sleeping. In his mind’s eye it is a red dusk in a valley, and he sees roasting spits. Lots of them. Great hogs are skewered mouth-to-anus and rotating lazily over abundant beds of glowing coals, their flesh wrinkling and browning and smelling of sweet apples and of something savory and unnameable. They seem happy, in a way. The spits are set in rows which form a geometrically flawless grid. Your dad turns his head to the left and then the right, but he can see no beginning or end to the lines of spits and fires. The rows seem to stretch on to infinity as if the roasting hogs form an unbroken chain around the full circle of the globe. Standing on his tiptoes, your dad can only just see over the backs of the hogs, and those rows of sizzling beasts seem also to carry on until they disappear beyond the horizon. It is as though a decision had been made to exterminate a species in the most delicious way possible. Your dad looks down at his hands, but they are no longer his hands. His left hand has become a platinum spork, and his right hand has become a silken towel. The towel is somehow able to moisten itself, and when it does, your dad is overcome with a hunger. But not a hunger for nourishment so much as a deep, all-consuming, soul-quaking lust. The lust feels natural, and primitive, and beautiful, and urgent.
Your dad wakes. He transfers his bag of deli ham from the refrigerator to the back of the freezer and makes a small salad for breakfast.
II. Whatever You Do to the Least of My Creatures
Your dad is taking the stairs at work because a man has to get his exercise when he can. Today, between the second and third floors, your dad looks down and sees a stink bug lying flat on its back, trapped there by the unfortunate broad flatness of its being. The bug’s legs are thrashing, and it reminds your dad of an upended turtle that he saw on the side of the county highway last summer. He had pulled over to the side of the road and righted the animal. He watched it scoot away into the woods. Wondering where the nearest body of water lay, your dad composed a haiku on the back of a Burger King wrapper picked up from the side of the road:
Out of the gloaming
We seek the swaddling of a
Day long past and gone
Your dad produces a pencil from his backpack and kneels down. Using the soft end of the eraser instead of the lead point, he tries to flip the stink bug over. But he is unable to wedge the eraser beneath the bug in such a way as to thrust the eraser up and right the bug. So he scoots the bug over to the lip of the step and nudges it over the edge. Success! The bug lands on its belly. Your dad pockets the pencil and proceeds on his way, pleased with himself.
The next day, on that very stairwell, your dad glances down and sees the stink bug, one stair below where it had come to rest on its feet, lying motionless on its back.
III. The Duck
Your dad is walking a long meandering walk across a college campus trail in order to break in a new pair of shorts. It is a sunny day in the mountains, surely the best kind of day there is in all the world. The air smells fresh. The water on a nearby duck pond appears as smooth and cool as steel. A fine day to take a new pair of short pants for an inaugural stroll.
Your dad hears a rustling of feathers. He glances behind him and sees a duck standing in the trail. It is a brown duck with a green head, a plain duck, but handsome nonetheless, the kind of duck you see in picture form accompanying the definition of “duck” in dictionaries for children. Your dad grins and waves at the duck and says, “Hello there, Sir Quackingtonsworth! Nice day to be out and about, isn’t it?” The duck looks at him and says nothing.
Your dad continues along the trail. He sees clouds in the shape of a goat, and of a hippo riding a crocodile, and of two horses fucking. What sights! But when he turns around, there again is the duck. It is closer to him than before, only a few feet away, and it is looking up at him with what your dad believes is an expression of expectancy in its round black eyes. Your dad is unnerved. He continues on his way, a little faster now. But when he glances over his shoulder again, there is the duck, waddling after him with an unmistakable urgency. Your dad quickens his pace, but the duck quickens its pace too, and when your dad finally breaks into a panicked sprint the duck takes wing after him, flying behind him in a bullet-straight trajectory only a few feet off the ground.
When your dad reaches an administration building he slams the glass door behind him, between himself and the duck. The duck stands outside the door tapping its bill against the glass, which sounds like the tapping of a nickel against a plate. Then it turns and walks away, as if bored of the whole thing, or resigned. Your dad stands with his hands on his knees wheezing and gasping for breath. When he has all but regained his composure, he staggers down the hall in search of a water fountain.
And it is as he is walking down the hall that your dad glances down, and it occurs to him: Isn’t that the damnedest thing? Those new shorts of his all of a sudden fit like a dream.
IV. The Room
Your dad is rolling around in a room full of koalas. Oh my gosh they are just so fuzzy and cuddly and wonderful! Your dad has paid one thousand dollars for this privilege, and he believes it to be the best one thousand dollars he has ever spent, or ever will spend. Do not ask him how he acquired the one thousand dollars. He giggles and paws at the koalas with the gentleness of a kitten, and they smile at him – Koalas can smile! Who knew! – and hug each other and clap their little hands. A group of koalas clusters together in the shape of a heart, and another group of koalas clusters together to spell out with their bodies your dad’s name in an elegant cursive script. A set of speakers mounted on the wall is piping in music: Spike Jones, Tiny Tim, Raffi. The wallpaper is baby blue. Your dad almost wishes that the koalas would band together and smother him, smother the breath out of him, for he believes that to die happy is to be touched by the very finger of God. Then he thinks that he might kill the koalas in such a way, for they too are certainly as happy as he, and don’t they deserve to be touched by God, though surely by virtue of their snuggly-wuggly perfection they have already been so touched? But the thought of snuffing out a room full of koalas strikes your dad’s heart with a stabbing awfulness, a terrible punch of agony, and he folds himself into a ball and weeps there on the floor. The koalas lick his tears.
V. Your Dad at Rest Redux
Your dad is there in that sublime cocoon of near-sleep when he hears what sounds like the tapping of a nickel against a plate.
His eyes spring open and there, just beyond his bedroom window, is the duck, suspended amazingly in the moonlight like an enormous hummingbird. Your dad shrinks back in his bed and pulls his flannel Garfield sheets up to his neck. The duck, eyes bright and wings a-blur, stares at him intently, almost lovingly, as if all of the generations of duck have rolled along through time only to finally arrive outside your dad’s window, as if the duck has no other choice than to regard your dad as its god, as if wherever your dad chooses to call home is an ark bobbing atop a flooded world, as if your dad is the answer to the question.
“Let me in,” says the duck in a golden voice. “You can let me in now.”
Katie Jean Moulton
I find myself stuck at the top of the Ferris wheel with my mother and her first boyfriend.
I anticipated the Ferris wheel. Said, You and J.K. go and I’ll stand below and take your picture. But my mother scrunched up her face into a pout and now we are three in a row in an open-air car. We are three above Vigo County, the trampled fairground, the Demolition Derby, above the cloud-churn on the high horizon, above the Human Bullet, above the teenagers blinking and clustering like constellations in the dirt. My widow mother, me, and the one-time bad boy who sped her to the junior prom in a ’67 Chevy cranking REO Speedwagon. We are all too old for this.
My mother is nervous. Her freckled hands slide over the plastic lap bar. J.K.’s hand rests on the back of the seat, and we may as well be dangling from a porch swing, except these days, J.K. gets nervous about speed and stomach-drops, and it shows. On the way here, he eased his compact SUV through the turns, and I wondered whether the two of them had taken this drive to the fairgrounds before, before she ever looked twice at the boy who would be my father, and how she must have grinned at J.K. from the passenger seat, all-teeth and teenaged and helpless. Now my mother pats his knee. I watch the buzzcut-blond boys swinging the car below us, sticking their tongues out at me, and I feel like turning my eyelids inside out so I won’t see anymore.
Before forty years somersaulted and collapsed in the faded denim twilight of the Vigo County fairgrounds, my mother and I spent the day in her hometown, cleaning out the house she grew up in. In the den, my grandparents worried each other over furniture arrangements for the new condo. In the halls, my aunt and uncle stuck Post-Its to iron toys and scrap cloth and the very walls, staking claims to the stuff of a life. My mother and I were left to the dream-business of photographs. I was just about to show her her own wedding album—in particular, my young father, nine years dead, with hair that curled to the shoulders of his tuxedo—when she said, You’ll come to the fair, right? and, It’s okay because it’s not a date, right? So I said yes, and yes again, and wondered when life got so long.
Back on the ground, we step off the Ferris wheel, and my mother pulls my wrist in both her hands, winding us through the barelegged crowds. The people have driven from all over Vigo County and beyond, across the river, as they have for eighty-three years. They’ve come hauling kids and animals. They’ve come to walk through a world designed to be easily torn down, packed up, carted off again. It is built, it is demolished, it returns. The animals win prizes, then they parade into crates and trailers to meet their fates. Miss Vigo County Fair 2012 mucks the goat pen in sash and curls, after all. She shovels and smiles and never drops her crown, even when no one is watching. In this way, she goes on.
J.K. trails a step behind us, but I am aware of her aware of him. When we climb the stairs to board the next ride, J.K. stays on the ground with his hands in his pockets. He smiles, and my mother waves, and I am glad I guess that there is finally someone else here to watch her. One more ride and I will leave them here together, unchaperoned, unrefracted. The two of us climb into a covered car strapped to a circular track. Inside the cage, I sit in front of my mother toboggan-style, so close she would not have room even to braid my hair. After this I’m leaving you, I say, but the ride has already started: We hurdle round and round, and my mother hollers laughter until the wheels slip sideways beneath us and still we spin, leaning in toward the core axis, and her hand holds my sleeve like a lifejacket, and still she laughs, trying to get out a question between breaths, but the spinning center lifts and whirls and we tilt upside down, glimpsing forever through the bars, and we are laughing inside out, maniacs with all our seams showing, until at last it’s gone on too long and my mother clutches tighter to my arm, in its thin skin and muscle, and her scared laugh sucks into a gasp and I can hear what she’s been asking—Is it okay? Is it okay? Is it okay?—and she is afraid, and I want to tell her I can do nothing to save us, and my hair in her face is fine and soft and breaking like my young-dead, long-dead father’s hair, and I want to tell her yes because she wants me to, but we are caught in the spin, and my mouth’s caught open, and I am the hinges that never break, and I am my father still watching if she needs me to be, and even if she doesn’t, I yell yes to her, spin, fall, fly, yes, because we are caught in all this, and all this is all there is is this this this.