In the second story from my collection Middle of Nowhere, two young siblings in Nebraska are brought to live with their father’s mistress after their mother becomes institutionalized.
OUR BUICK STOPPED HERE
COLT’S FINGERS CREPT TOWARDS THE SILVER COMBINATION LOCK OF HIS DADDY’S SUITCASE. From the front seat of their car, his daddy reached back and swatted Colt’s hand away with a grimace of twisted yellow teeth. No funny stuff said his daddy’s eyes in the rear view mirror, but funny stuff was what Colt did best. They had stopped in front of a house on a quaint, tree-lined block that Colt found familiar to his own – a slow moving world of nosy neighbors, tossed newspapers, and jingling ice cream trucks. His daddy then changed his tune and teased him by sliding a quarter from behind his ear. Colt knew better. Loose change wouldn’t buy good behavior. He let the sweaty quarter plop into his palm, but kept his other hand in a hidden caress of the suitcase and waited patiently for his daddy to disappear.
“Watch your sister,” his daddy said, rubbing his stubbly cheeks.
Colt’s sister Louise was occupied in the front seat with her dolly. She softly sang a made-up song about how much she was in love with it. She combed its long blond hair and pretended it was a mermaid by creating an ocean out of the air. Colt thought she was dumb.
His daddy twiddled his fingers in a wave to her, but she was transfixed with the flaxen hair of the dolly and answered him only in a sigh. His daddy then stepped out of the car and turned his hat around in his hands like a steering wheel.
“You both behave now,” he called out.
Colt studied the way every feature on his daddy’s face was pressed towards the middle, making his swelled head look like a balloon. He wondered if his own facial features would move towards the center as he got older. He promised then to stretch his eyes and mouth away from his nose before bed each night.
His daddy reached the front steps and rang a doorbell. Colt heard it play a pretty tune while his daddy jammed his hands into his pockets, rocked back and forth, and whistled with the tune. The door opened and the embrace of a woman’s silk scarf flung around his neck. He shimmied inside. Once his daddy was out of sight, Colt heard the suitcase’s lock singing to him. He counted eight slow Mississippi’s, which was his age; then it would be safe to listen to the call of the lock again.
The sun smoothed over the top of their brown Buick as Colt’s curious fingers moved closer to the lock. He knew the combination from paying careful attention each time it was opened. The morning broke over the Nebraska countryside causing his right side to tingle from the warmth. His goose pimples disappeared, and he twitched until he felt more relaxed. The dusty front and back windows of the car let in a light littered with thousands of particles that looked like tiny gnats. He stuck his hand over his eyes, but all he could do was to squint and deal with its rays.
They had been in the car for two days straight, and the smell of gas and old leather was making him nauseous. He had shared the backseat with Louise last night, but she had a bad dream and kicked him in the face. He yanked a few blond hairs out of her head and she cried. Their daddy woke up, took her side as always, and Colt slept in a patch of dirt by the car’s exhaust pipe.
After making sure that Louise wasn’t watching him, he spun the lock around to the right numbers. He blinked nervously and imagined his daddy could hear everything he was doing from inside the house, believing that because his daddy was older, he naturally had powers that surpassed his own. His daddy could hear, smell and see with a superhuman ability that made Colt feel like he was being monitored at all times.
The lock finally let out a slow, loud ssssnnnaaapppp, reminding him of when his friend Samuel dared him to break a chicken’s neck. Samuel’s family had a farm on the other side of town. Samuel held the clucking, crying chicken between his knees that day. Colt squeezed his eyes shut as the chicken flapped like a madman, and then he wrapped his hands around the chicken’s warm neck and twisted until it became limp and cold. The memory made his goose pimples return.
The suitcase had a musty smell that was stronger once opened. It smelled a lot like Colt’s daddy, who would sweat rings around his armpits, even in the middle of winter. He saw that a bottle of Old Spice cologne had spilled over a bunch of shiny black connected packets. They looked like lollypop wrappers with writing over them, but didn’t have sticks like lollypops do. He felt one between his fingers and slipped it in his pocket.
“Daddy’s not gonna like it, daddy’s not gonna like it,” Louise sang. She slowly combed her dolly’s hair and scowled at him in the side mirror. Colt paid her no mind.
The rest of the suitcase was filled with old sweaters, a pair of khakis, a Bible, a shaving kit, a dirty magazine, and the utensil gadget that his daddy invented and sold door-to-door. His daddy had spent hours on it in the basement when they had one and talked about how it was going to “revolutionize American eating”. It was a vibrating knife and fork in one. The knife part came out from one end and the fork part came out from the other. It always bothered his daddy that people had to use both hands to eat: one to spear the food, and the other to cut it with. Colt never saw that as a problem. It also didn’t look like a utensil, but more like this mess of an art project that this girl at his old school had made out of a potato. Colt had made an ashtray for his mom.
He hoped to find a picture of his mom in the suitcase. He knew his dad kept one. He missed her. Even though there were bad times as well as good ones, at least some used to be good. They only became bad recently when she would cry all the time, pull out her hair, and even forget his name. He was told that she went on a vacation and they wouldn’t see her for a long while. Colt loved vacations more than anything. His family went once a year to Pawnee Lake in Lincoln, but had skipped it that summer. His mother would pack the greatest picnic baskets ever with cream cheese and jelly sandwiches on raisin bread. It made him so hungry to think about the sandwiches. His daddy told them earlier they had to skip breakfast to make good time.
Colt wanted the picture of his mom in high school. She had long brown hair with a part down the middle and was blowing a kiss to the camera. She told Colt that her old boyfriend took the picture after the two of them decided in their pre-calculus class to get married. The picture was taken after the bell rang and they were on their way. Colt couldn’t believe that someone other than his daddy had ever been with his mom. He imagined them growing up together.
He would’ve continued to search though the suitcase, but he heard the front door to the house slam. His daddy waddled out like a clumsy penguin. He was pretty short for a grownup, and Colt almost came up to his shoulder. It made Colt laugh to think about his uncles calling his daddy stool. They’d lean on his daddy with loud laughs until he’d curse, stomp his feet, and push them away. Then they’d say, “C’mon, stool, don’t be such a stick in the mud.” He’d yell back, “Shaddup with all of you,” and mutter to himself like Oscar the Grouch did when the real people knocked on his garbage can.
Colt could see his daddy muttering to himself, which meant that he was either really happy, or something went wrong, so he quickly closed the forbidden suitcase. He locked it without taking his eyes off of his approaching daddy.
“Get out of the car,” his daddy ordered, and swung their wide car door open. “We’re going inside.”
He said it first to Colt, and then nodded to Louise as well. She continued combing her dolly’s hair without looking up until he gave her a good yank. She fit a hesitant fist into his hand. As they climbed the stairs to the house, they seemed so far away to Colt, like he was watching them through the wrong side of a pair of binoculars. He tagged along, foggy from the sun and travel with a queasy feeling like he didn’t belong anywhere.
Once inside, the house smelled of kitty litter. Colt had had a cat named Scratches who was lost in the fire, which happened earlier that summer. Scratches’ kitty litter box was kept in their bathroom and the piss and poop smell often sat in the hallway and found its way into Colt’s bedroom. His daddy told him and Louise that Scratches was up in the sky with a million other cats and if they looked closely they could see him in a cloud. Colt was never able to see him. Even though Louise said she did, he didn’t believe her. She just said it to show off to their daddy. Colt knew that Scratches was now just a pile of ash.
The heat made the house’s smell even worse. Tiny electric fans throughout the living room whirred even hotter air against his face. The furniture was wrapped in plastic coverings, and Colt thought there were enough pictures of Jesus hanging on the walls to start a church. A bronze crucified Jesus hung by the staircase and was surrounded by about a dozen God’s Eyes. The Jesus was sweating just as much as he was.
There was dirt in the stubs of his fingernails and dirt in a line where his T-shirt met his neck. There was dust engrained in his nostrils from driving through the back Nebraska roads. He hadn’t taken a bath or a shower in days but that was fine with him. He wanted to take off his shirt and swim in Pawnee Lake where his family used to go on vacations. The water there was different than bathwater. It was warm, and muddy, and left a heavy coated smell that weighed him down. He’d plug his nose and dip deep down until he sat underwater, imagining he was the ruler of the lake. It’d been a while since he’d done that. He was beginning to forget what it felt like.
He saw a woman appear from the kitchen and instantly wondered if her large size would cause her to sink in Pawnee Lake. She wore a dress that looked like a big tablecloth with a hole in the middle for her head to fit through. Her hair was cut short and sat on her head like a bike helmet. She fanned herself with a placemat and unstuck the tablecloth from her wet and red neck. He noticed how her chubby feet were stuffed into her slippers, and it made him think of the way his mother used to tie up a roast before she placed it in the oven.
“Heeelllloooo,” the woman called in a sloppy wave. She charged at them and immediately engulfed Colt in her massive breasts. He felt them slap against his skull as he gulped for a breath. She ran her fingers along his scalp and felt the short blond hairs that stuck straight up. “My heavens, you are just so darling. What a handsome, handsome boy. You could be in the movies,” she squealed, and headed over to Louise who welcomed the strangling hug like she needed it. Louise even chucked her dolly to the ground in exchange for being picked up.
“Oh, Hal,” the woman said, and almost dropped Louise from being overly excited. “You showed me pictures, but your children are GORGEOUS. They should be in a catalog for some fancy clothes. My Sears catalog does not have children that look like this.”
She grabbed Colt’s chin and shook it back and forth. He felt her fingernails scrape against the corner of his mouth and didn’t like it. His mother’s nails were never sharp because she bit them. They felt smooth against his cheeks when she pulled him close.
“Do you like dolls?” the woman asked, and Colt raised his head up but realized she was talking to Louise.
“This is my mermaid,” Louise said, and picked up her dolly. The woman clasped her hands together and settled them on her stomach with a chuckle.
“C’mon, pumpkin, I have a whole collection of Marie Osmond dolls from QVC. They’re exquisite. I just love her.” She swiped Louise’s hand and they disappeared up the stairs.
His daddy curled his hand around the edge of the banister and swung his body to get a full view of the woman walking up the stairs. He stared at her big butt, which Colt thought looked like two honeydews. He noticed how hard she stepped and how her thick legs made it sound like she was jumping up and down on the floor above him.
“She’s what’s called a desperate woman,” his daddy whispered. “The best thing about one of them is they’ll grab onto anything over being alone. Even me. Even you.”
“What would she grab us for?” Colt asked but was ignored.
“Like this house?” his daddy asked, and licked his lips with a wink. He glided his hand down the banister until it touched Colt on the shoulder. Colt nodded. “Lot like our old house, no? We had one of those.”
He pointed over to a lopsided record player. Colt thought of his mother dancing from the kitchen to a song about a Sweet Caroline. His daddy used to call her that.
“You used to sing to mom,” Colt said, but his daddy either didn’t hear him or feel like responding again.
“What would you say to a nice, big meal? A home cooked one, bud? What would you say to that?”
His daddy rubbed his little potbelly and licked his lips some more. Colt imagined a huge turkey that sizzled as it left the oven with chestnut apple stuffing and yams with marshmallows. He imagined it in his old house, though, not this one. His daddy led him into the kitchen as the kitty litter smell disintegrated. It was replaced by the warm familiar scent a kitchen has of a thousand meals cooked.
The kitchen was small and reminded him of a family’s kitchen on television. It was bright, sparkling, and filled with cheap knick-knacks of the Lord. The woman also had ceramic birds hanging from the walls and in the outlines of her wallpaper. Four chairs were set around a table with three place mats, four glasses, and his daddy’s utensil gadget at each setting. A meaty smell leaked from the oven. Colt’s stomach growled like an alley cat in heat.
Something brushed up against the back of his neck. He never expected his daddy to pull him close with a hug. He got a whiff of Old Spice and smiled because Louise wasn’t getting a hug at that moment. His daddy was only thinking of him.
A few minutes later, the woman came down still fanning herself with a placemat and then finally left it on the table. Louise scurried along behind and clung onto the woman’s dress with a tight fist. A new doll rested in her other arm.
The woman opened the oven as their meal overpowered everything else in the room. Colt closed his eyes and tasted juicy turkey with a cup of fatty gravy, thick like syrup, to wash it all down. His mom always told him to “eat whatever you want to, ‘cause when you’re dead, it won’t matter if you were fat or skinny. Ya might as well have lived while you had the chance”. He caught a glimpse of the woman’s stomach that looked like the inner tube he once brought on vacation. He guessed she lived by that saying as well and ate whatever the heck she wanted to.
There was no turkey though. The woman placed a big shaking piece of Spam casserole in front of him. It jiggled around like Jell-O, and the wonderful smell from the oven was defeated by the thought of cutting out chunks from a pig’s stomach. His nostrils filled with zoo smells, and across the table Louise’s face gave off the impression that her new dolly’s head had been ripped off.
“How come things smell good until you see them in front of you?” Colt asked, to no one in particular.
His daddy tucked a napkin into his shirt and picked his ear with his pinky. His pinky shook so fast it reminded Colt of the time his cousin’s dog had a seizure.
“Colt, we are polite at dinner table. Now say some grace.”
Colt saw his daddy put the same pinky in his mouth and wondered if the large woman thought that was disgusting like he did. She bowed her head down an inch above her shaking Spam casserole and waited patiently for the Lord’s Prayer. Colt cleared his throat.
“God bless the bounty of food we have today and hope that tomorrow we should be as blessed as we are now. God bless daddy, and…ma…and Louise I guess, my baseball glove, and nice lady for letting us into her home. Amen.”
He felt the woman take his hand. Her hand was so big compared to his own that his fit completely inside. When she finally let go, he thought his own would forever be sweaty. She looked at him like she wanted to eat him up right at that very moment.
“That was beautiful, Colt, just touching. God gave you a gift with words, He really did. You might consider becoming a preacher.”
Colt’s eyes lit up from that remark. He liked being told that he was good at things.
“And my name is Nora. You can always call me Nora.”
“My mom is in an intuition,” Colt sang out, as the woman crinkled her nose.
“Institution, dear. It’s called an institution.”
The dinner wasn’t as bad as Colt expected. The meat was airy, rubbery, and tasted like someone made a meatloaf out of old bologna. He was starving, though, and would have been pleased as punch with anything. His daddy made them all try the utensil gadget, but it was really difficult to use and Colt’s mushy meat kept collapsing from the gadget’s intense shake. Nora laughed every time she turned it on and it vibrated. She whispered closely in his daddy’s ear a lot. He gave her a nod and wink while massaging her neck.
Soon the meat had settled in his stomach and felt like a submarine torpedo that was waiting to blow. He felt embarrassed about farting in front of Nora because he didn’t know her and she might think it was rude. But then his daddy made a big fart and Louise giggled. Nora rolled her eyes but she was giggling as well. Then he knew it was okay and gave a small fart too.
“Do you like school?” Nora asked him after the farts died down. Louise answered her even though she wasn’t the one asked.
“I’m gonna go to kindergarten and have my own pencils and pens at my new school,” she said to her new doll.
“That’s sweet,” was all Nora said to that. Then she asked Colt again.
“I guess. My friends are at my old school, and I miss playing baseball with them. Don’t know if I’ll have any new friends. Don’t know where my new school’s gonna be. But I’m starting third grade when the summer ends and I like raising my hand and answering the teacher’s question right.”
“Do you get the right answer often?”
“Sometimes we have to move on,” his daddy said, but Nora swatted his hand as if it was a fly.
“Couldn’t I take a school bus to my old school?” Colt asked.
“Colt, no bus is about to drive four hundred miles to ship you to and from school each day. Schools are all the same. You’ll go to school right around here, and you’ll make new friends cause kids are all the same. Enough of this talk. Too much talk ain’t good.”
His daddy’s words were slurred because he was trying to pick a piece of Spam out of his two front teeth. He had a big gap between them and a piece wedged in good. Colt wondered what he meant about too much talk. It made him inch down in his seat and think hard about not saying anything until he was directly spoken to.
But then he had a super idea. He could feel the lollypop-like thing from the suitcase in his back pocket. He would show his daddy how cool his new invention was. He excused himself politely from the table and took his glass of fruit punch with him. Nora and his daddy were playing with each other’s fingers, and Louise was making faces at her Spam casserole. No one had noticed he’d left.
In her living room, he opened the lollypop-like wrapper and pulled out a white circle of rubber. He studied it for a moment and realized it was definitely a traveling cup for someone on-the-go. All one had to do was pinch the tip of the rubber thing and pull it through to make it longer. He poured in some fruit punch and it expanded like a balloon but held solid. His daddy was a regular genius. He would be so happy to see how his invention had worked. Colt thought he was so smart to make instant cups that you could fit into your pocket and use whenever you were thirsty.
Colt galloped back into the kitchen and carefully held the juice in his newfound cup. He daddy was going to give him an even bigger hug than when they first entered the kitchen. The door swung him inside as he held up his daddy’s invention for everyone to see.
“Look, daddy! Look at your invention! Look what it can do!”
Colt smiled so hard he felt the ends of his mouth strain from being stretched, but he didn’t care. Nora was laughing so much that tears leaked from her eyes. His daddy wasn’t smiling though. He came toward him, and Colt raised the hand that wasn’t holding the rubber cup out to hug him. But his daddy’s palm flew into the air like it was asking a question and snapped forward at Colt with a sharp sting. The rubber thing spilled to the ground, and Colt stumbled to the floor shaking.
His short breath fired from his mouth like bullets. He was a soldier and had fallen. The enemy had surrounded him. He had taken a shot to his eye and it throbbed like when he stepped on a hornet’s nest at summer camp and they fed on him. He closed his eyes to travel in his mind to Pawnee Lake. Once he saw it, he dove in. The muddy water was cold, consuming, and wonderful. On land he could hear Nora telling his daddy to calm down, but as he dove down further into the murky lake, he left the world on the surface and managed to smile. They must have all thought he went crazy.
Colt had a big knot like a tattoo over his eye. He winced in front of the bathroom mirror and dabbed rubbing alcohol on it. His nose was running and he sniffed hard, but he promised himself not to cry. Instead, he began stretching out his face. He took his cheeks between his fingers and pulled at them until it felt like his lips were about to tear. He then brushed his teeth with his index finger and smiled at himself. Louise was already tucked into bed when he entered their room.
“Daddy never said goodnight,” she said. “Nora did.”
Colt hovered over a lamp in the shape of a bird and turned on the light to annoy her.
“Big deal,” he said.
Her eyes squinted at the bird’s light.
“But now the bed bugs will bite.”
“So let ‘em. Just let ‘em. You brush your teeth?”
She shook her head.
“Go brush, Louise, or your gums will fall out.”
“It’s dark and I’m scared.” She inched down into the blankets until they were at level with her nose.
“I’ll leave the lamp on for you.”
She slid down fully into the blankets. Colt saw that a few wisps of blond fuzzy hair stuck out as the blankets shivered. He was in no mood for her.
“You better get used to it. We ain’t leaving here for awhile.”
They were silent, but Colt knew it was true. They had stayed with his daddy’s friend Earl for a few weeks after the fire. They lived with baked beans and Vienna sausages for dinner. They lived in a mobile home and slept on sheets stained with beer. They lived with Earl’s temper, and Colt got used to the back of his hand. None of his uncles wanted to have anything to do with his daddy anymore. His daddy spoke during those weeks of a woman he met on the road. He spoke of her as if she’d be their salvation. Colt knew that he better get used to her.
“There’s a monster in the hallway,” Louise said, sounding like a dying robot.
“The monster’s in your mind.” He sat down on the bed next to her and looked at the tiny lump she was. He lowered the blankets. Her face was wet and snot lingered around her nose. He grabbed a tissue from the nightstand and made her give a good blow.
“When are we going home?” she asked, and rubbed her sleeve across her face.
Colt turned to the quiet night outside. The crickets were talking to one another. He heard faint moans from the bedroom that his father and Nora had locked themselves into. The bruise over his eye felt prickly and tight. Louise reached out her tiny fingers to touch it. She was the only one who bothered to see if it hurt.
“We’re not,” he replied.
She looked at him confused.
“Fires don’t bring houses back, Louise. They take them away. She’s not coming back.”
The moans from the other bedroom became louder until Colt plugged his ears with his sleeves. Louise’s chin quivered and the tears were about to return. He didn’t care.
“Go brush your darn teeth, Louise.”
She crossed her arms in a huff of tears.
“Go!” he yelled, and gave her a small kick. He ripped the blankets off and picked her up out of bed. She bit his arm and left tiny teeth marks. She squealed and he clamped his hand over her mouth. He carried her into the bathroom as she fought and screamed. Maybe he wanted his father to hear. Maybe he wanted Nora to speak up. Maybe he wanted things to be different in this new family. He knew for certain that he’d be damned if Louise’s gums fell out and made sure that each tooth got its fair share of scrubbing.
Colt dreamt endlessly that night; in clips, scenes, and fragmented collages, which melted into one another. He tossed wildly, became tangled up in his blankets and threw them across the room. His mind was in motion. The road always moved him somewhere else.
A bone-colored dusk with smoke in coiled patterns hung in the distance. He felt heat on his right side but the rest of him was chilled. Louise lay beside him in the backseat, still asleep and forever innocent as he watched the last cinders of his childhood burn away. Mrs. Nelson and their son Eric were in the front. He and Louise were getting driven home from school that day after stopping for ice cream. Mrs. Nelson cried out like she was being tortured as the car rolled past Colt’s crumbling house. Firemen and neighbors were stuck in the slow motion world that Colt created for the situation. He pressed his perspiring hands against the window as if to touch and hold onto the place he called home for an extra second. His mother was there with messy hair that hid her face. She was being led handcuffed into a police car that blipped through the approaching night and dragged her away. The words “crazy” and “ashamed” came from the neighbors watching the scene. Mrs. Nelson kept on driving and yelled at him not to watch, but he was caught forever in the moment’s reality – the scattered pieces, the confusion and emptiness of it all, the feeling of knowing nothing could ever return to the way it was. And then the dream would begin again.
Dawn was breaking and morning felt cold and unfamiliar. Louise was still asleep and birds were chirping outside. Colt rubbed his eyes and didn’t want to hear the birds. Waking up always left him dazed. He never liked his dreams to end. They were becoming less real as time went on. They were becoming the dreams of another.
No one was awake to appreciate the sunrise. The smell of coffee used to end his dreams as it escalated from his mother’s breath when she woke him. Sometimes she led him outside to catch the sun. He’d still be carrying last night’s sleep in his eyes as he grabbed for her hand. They’d settle at the foot of a hill: sleepy, frozen, but eager, and all of a sudden he would feel warm.
He went outside of Nora’s house and sat in a patch of dirt. The sun was sharp and hot against his collar. He picked up a stick and started to draw with it. He heard the screen door slam behind him and turned around.
His father was at the door with a coat and a hat in his hands. He rotated the hat around in his stubby fingers and chewed on his lip. The hat fell to floor and his father bent to pick it up without taking his eyes off of him.
“Hey, Colt. Hey, spud. What you doing up?”
He waddled over to Colt and tapped him on the head like a puppy. Colt squinted at him with his red eye and continued to draw in the dirt. He was making a never-ending circle and stabbing deeper and deeper into the ground.
“Well, spud, I was just…uh…going for some ice cream. Wanna join?”
Colt shook his head, but his father pulled him to his feet and took the stick away.
“There’s this ice cream place on Main Street, Colt. Let me tell you that you have not tasted ice cream until you’ve tasted this ice cream. You can tell all your little friends that your daddy let you have ice cream for breakfast. How many kids get ice cream for breakf…”
“I don’t have any friends.”
His father led him to the Buick. Colt sat up front. The coat and the hat were thrown into the backseat on top of the suitcase. Colt wished he was in the backseat and the coat and hat were next to his father. His father started the car and they bumped along the road.
“Why were you up so early?” Colt asked in a mope. His father let out a big exhale.
“What do you mean?”
“Where were you going?”
His father turned around to place a hand on his shoulder and try and shake the mope out of him before looking back at the road.
“Well, bud, sometimes grownups go through certain things. I know it’s difficult to understand and that it’s been a peculiar summer for you. Don’t think that I haven’t seen how you’ve changed. You’re becoming a man.”
At that moment, Colt wanted his blanket from when he was a baby.
“What am I trying to say, Colt? Remember when we used to go on vacation? Remember those? Remember Pawnee…”
“Yeah with…mom, with all of us. You would swim.”
His father’s lips spun wildly in different directions. He was trying hard to think of what to say next. Colt knew that was what he always did; he was forever stalling.
“I liked the lake,” Colt mumbled to his hands.
“Well, your father needs a vacation. Your father needs a lake to go to and relax for a while. Don’t even remember the last time I was able to sit back.”
They pulled up in front of the ice cream parlor. His father snapped off the motor and led Colt inside by his neck. The inside was cool and made his goose pimples appear. The parlor had a buzz to it that the man behind the counter hummed along to.
“What do you do want, spud? Anything you want.”
Colt wanted to leave. He wished he had never woken up. The man was staring at his eye that buzzed along with the parlor. He felt like a mutant.
“Sure you do. You like vanilla. Two vanillas,” he said, to the humming man.
“I don’t like that.”
“You always liked vanilla. Got it the last time we got ice cream.”
His father passed a vanilla cup to him. He devoured his own in a few gulps. The humming man whistled good-bye to them but Colt only frowned. It was hot when they stepped outside. The ice cream began to melt instantly. They stepped into the Buick and drove away.
“You’re not eating yours?” his father asked.
Colt looked down at his puddle of vanilla.
“Don’t have to be hungry to eat ice cream. All kids eat ice cream.”
“Mom never let me have ice cream for breakfast. What’d she say if she knew?”
“Can’t imagine she’d say much right now. Your mother’s not for this world, Colt. Some people are better left in their own head.”
Colt didn’t respond. He listened to the crunching stones under the car. His father grabbed his vanilla cup at one point, slurped it up, and then threw the cup out of the window. They stopped in front of Nora’s house, but his father kept the motor running.
“You know what you get to be?” his father asked, and smoothed down his wild strands of hair in the vibrating rear-view mirror.
“Man of the house. How many kids can say that?”
“Well, not many. Not many at all. How’s that sound?”
His father didn’t even look at him. He was preoccupied with his cowlick that refused to go down. He kept spitting into his palm and stamping it over the cowlick with a grin.
“Well, someone’s gotta be it if you sure ain’t,” Colt said.
His father finally looked over and his smile faded into a frown.
Colt took that frown with him proudly and jammed his arm to open up the car door. He jumped outside, slammed the door, and refused to look back. The car sputtered for a moment, almost deciding what to do next before angrily rumbling away. Colt only turned around when it was just a little bug in the distance that he could swat away. He fit the car in the palm of his hand and gave it a good crunch.
They stayed with Nora for a while before bouncing around foster homes. She had waited for their father by the window for weeks, calling his name quietly. Eventually she just glanced at the window if she passed by, and soon she stopped looking at all. She couldn’t afford two children on her own, and it was time for him and Louise to leave.
The next and last time Colt saw his father was at a car dealership in Omaha. Colt was nineteen and purchasing his first car. He was working as a mechanic and knew what he was looking for and what he could afford with a pregnant girlfriend and money needed towards fixing up her parents’ basement as a starter home. He’d been taking care of Louise, too, a sophomore now in high school and a star swimmer, more at home in the water than anywhere else. She had long blond hair, a face still full of baby fat, and was difficult and prone to sneak out with local boys in the wheat fields, but they clung to each other despite any arguments, having shared a bond for years when they were all each other had.
When he entered the car dealership, a row of twisted yellow teeth welcomed him in as if he was royalty. His father never recognized who he was, which stung at first, but then Colt decided to screw with him. The years hadn’t been kind to his father. He was a sweaty mess, mopping his brow continuously with a handkerchief. His potbelly hung far over his waistline, his breath stunk of liquor, and his eyes were bloodshot and desperate for a sale. He teased his father with offers way out of his price range all day, and in the end, left with nothing. He could tell his father was pissed, but he wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Now and then throughout the years, he’d let his thoughts fly and glide back to calm and muddy Pawnee Lake, his reflection fading more and more against its sparkling surface. The sun would dangle above him like it was attached to the sky by a string. He’d sink his toes into the grainy sand and the water would crawl up his feet and ankles. He’d slide into the lake and wade further and further out until his legs kicked through clumps of wet dirt, tickling his body and removing the sun’s warmth. The water would be smelly like a sewer, but when he’d break through the surface, his mother would be waiting for him on land like a tiny bug in the distance. He never saw her again after the day of the fire. When he was a teenager, he finally found out what institution she was sent to, but she had already hung herself with her bed sheets, discovered by an orderly one morning swinging from the piping in the corner of her room.
But on the shore of his lake, she’d see him and wave with a cup of coffee in her other hand. As the years passed on, she became more and more hidden behind a screen of haze and smoke, her image full of scents, or the sound of her voice, but he began to lose her face. So he’d close his adult palm around her tiny self and try and hold on for as long as possible, squeezing his curious fingers with all his might until he remembered her pretty hazel eyes, her warm smile, or those coffee-scented kisses.
Each time he’d have to squeeze harder and harder to keep her there, but one day, just like that, there was nothing left to squeeze. So he started replacing those memories with the here and now, of his little girl Caroline wrapping her arms around his leg, and soon his torso, and finally growing tall enough to be shoulder-to-shoulder.
Even once he became stooped over and needed to rest against her for support, he’d always try to look into her wide eyes and force himself to see the future instead of the past.