FEBRUARY IN THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST often contains days that conjure up the image of what a chamber in hell might look like if one were ever to be closed for maintenance. The sky resembles an upside down pale kiln with scummy, pinkish streaks on its surface not unlike colonies of bacteria sprouting in rancid cream; the earth below assumes a grim, ragged face consistent with that of a person who is going through chemotherapy, and the Puget Sound—which the ancient Nisqually People considered their God’s moodstone—boils and tosses and recycles endless shades of gray.
It’s difficult to imagine live beings thriving under such a sky; harder still to believe that anything that can survive on this desolate plain might dream and laugh and be full of curiosity. But that’s life for you—both persistent and pernicious, once life gets going it will put up with most anything. Such was the case when a little girl, a man, and a tag-along seagull entered a place known only to the man as “Alone Park.”
The girl’s name was Melissa. At five, everyone called her “Meena.” No one recalled just how that had got going. The conversion from Melissa to Meena had been an organic sort of thing that popped up during baby’s sometimes choleric infancy and never went away.
The man, Meena’s father, Jason, often wished he had a good lie handy just in case someone ever asked Why Meena? (Not that it had yet to happen.) It would have been nice to have a big brother to play that off on: Well, Jason, Jr. couldn’t say Melissa, and she couldn’t say Jason. So that’s how we got Meena and JJ. Though lacking in originality, Jason liked his lie. It had a snazzy show-biz ring to it that would have come off cute on the talk show circuit when Meena became a famous actress and her brother a perennial MVP candidate. It was really too bad that there was no such person as Jason, Jr.
Meena tugged on Jason’s arm. She had made eye contact with the gull. “Daddy, why does that bird keep following us?”
Jason tapped the bag of potato chips that Meena had been toting around since noon. It doesn’t say so in the Bible, but after God had created Heaven and Earth, He then threw a potato chip in the air and invented seagulls.
“Oh, I get it,” Meena said. She was a bright and sensitive girl who’d certainly grow up to be punctual—unlike her mother, Julia, who, as always, was running late.
Alone Park probably didn’t have a real name. About the size of a single wide mobile home lot, it featured a slide/swing set, a slightly tilted bench, durable foliage, a trash receptacle, and a thin scattering of extremely tired looking beauty bark. Typically, beauty bark is a magnet for ugly things. Yet there were no cigarette butts nor beer cans nor hypodermic needles to be seen at Alone Park. Nor people. It was almost as if the place existed only for their benefit on every other Sunday afternoon.
“Can I go down the slide, Daddy?”
“It’s not too slimy?” Meena had a thing about slime.
Jason made a show of running his finger across the slide and then examining it. “Well, you might not want to eat off it, but it ought to do for sliding.”
“Oh, Daddy,” Meena clucked in a way that had a lot of Julia in it. She handed her chips to Jason and climbed the back of the slide.
This hand-off changed the social dynamic at Alone Park. Until then, Jason hadn’t existed as far as the gull had been concerned. Yet within the gull’s emotionless, black jelly-belly eyes, there was something out of keeping with a creature that was nothing more than a gut attached to a beak. Jason saw something weighing in those rudimentary eyes, something assessing.
Jason’s cell jingled in his pocket. Another text from her majesty: ON MY WAY 4 REAL.
Ignoring the gull, Jason smiled. How Julia. Most persons are on their way or not, but Julia had a fantasy stage in the On My Way process that served as a warm-up for the real thing. Once upon a time this fantasy stage had been a private amusement between Jason and Julia. But like deriving Meena from Melissa, getting mutually squishy over a certain song, and sharing secret selves within the patterns cast by tree boughs on the bedroom wall, Jason’s proprietary having of the On My Way process had gone public—as had everything else that had ever occurred between them. None of this was stated in the Parenting Plan, but it got across. Jason was now just another schmuck cooling his heels in the On My Way queue, and if he didn’t like it, he could take it up with Family Court.
The gull was still eye-balling and evaluating. Jason tossed it a couple of chips to get the goddamn thing back to acting like a seagull.
“Mommy!” Meena squealed from the top of the slide.
Julia had driven up in her “slug bug.” In Jason’s humble opinion, he felt that the girlie-mobile was about five years too young for Julia. Something atrocious in his heart of hearts took glee in thinking this.
God sometimes punishes us on the spot for taking glee in atrocious thinking. This happened to Jason. Though he often thought darkly about Julia, he couldn’t completely distance himself from a sense of loss that was as elemental as hell day in the Pacific Northwest. A sentient, swirling cloud of dust entered Jason’s thoughts. The dust was a collective mind. Though it didn’t communicate in words, it was good at raising dead images. The dust specialized in ghosts. Everything that lives and dies leaves a ghost. This includes love. There’s no graceful way of dispatching with love’s ghost after a child gets born during love’s life. The sheer weight of the idea of having to deal with Julia’s bullshit (aka, Love’s Ghost) for at least another thirteen years, snuffed out what little joy Jason had gotten from making a private jest at Julia’s expense. Still, like life, atrocious thinking is a tough thing to dissuade once it gets going.
Julia parked and got out of her car and rushed toward the bottom of the slide with her arms extended. Meena fell into her mother’s arms as if she had just spent a week at the bottom of an abandoned well.
Why did I think that? Jason thought at the gull, Why did I think something bad about Meena?
The gull tilted its head and made a cluckish-chuffing sound that originated deep in its neck.
Julia was like most mothers in that she had a remarkable, unthinking grace when it came to making contact with her baby. Accustomed to meeting Meena eye to eye, Julia effortlessly dropped into a crouch and hugged Meena for all she was worth—and, as always, Julia sniffed Meena’s hair.
The first magnitude smile that Julia shone for Meena changed when she glanced up at Jason. The surface temperature of that star dropped, for damned sure. Oh, it was still a smile, in the literal sense—but it was also the same kind of smile that veterans in the service industries know how to give patrons whom they’d rather not deal with but must.
No matter how snarky Jason’s thought ran about Julia, he couldn’t deny that she had gotten thinner and prettier and smarter and even younger since the divorce (still not young enough for a slug bug, though). And she had managed to accomplish that weird recovery of her virginity that so often accompanies motherhood (Jason knew that was a paradox at best, but damn it if it wasn’t true). Was this the same person whom Jason routinely spirited out her bedroom window as her parents slept? The same girl who had once accidentally sexted Jason’s grandmother? DNA-wise, probably; in all other ways that aren’t dictated by the Parenting Plan, no. Naturally, it had come time to rattle this stranger’s cage.
“Did you do something to your hair?” Jason asked in a special sort of way. The Sunday before last, Julia had arrived at Alone Park a bit blonder here and there. The highlights went well with Julia’s caramel colored mane; and waiting two weeks to make mention of it went well with Jason’s inner rat-bastard. Though Jason like what Julia had done with her hair, he had endowed his question with a poisonous nastiness concocted for Julia’s ears only. The venom began somewhere around “do” and ended at the dotting of the question mark. Judging by the sudden violence in Julia’s eyes, this “insult,” minus incriminating words, had bloomed beautifully in her head. Jason lamented that there wasn’t money to be had in this sort of talent. He was a virtuoso when it came to pissing her off.
Milady almost took the bait. Two years, maybe even eighteen months ago, Julia would have ripped into Jason without mercy. Almost falling for this hoary old trick of Jason’s had made Julia angrier about the attempt than the insult itself. She deliberately kept her cool. Any show of rage might suggest that she still had affection for Jason, or could give a shit about anything that he thought. Still, she needed to retaliate. Naturally, she used Meena.
“Isn’t your Daddy a funny guy?” Julia said as she (again) sniffed Meena’s hair. “What did you three do this weekend? Did you go to the petting zoo, or was that just another of Daddy’s promises?”
Meena laughed. “I saw the fall over goats.”
“Suh-weet,” Julia said. “I love it when they do their thing—Boo!”
“Yeah, Mommy! ‘Boo!’ and they go right down.”
“Did Misty think they were funny, or was she too busy smoking cigarettes to notice?” Julia said, instantly training her lethal blue gaze on Jason.
“Now wait a minute, Jules,” Jason said with some heat.
“Meena’s hair smells like smoke—seems like a fair question.”
Meena didn’t know what to do. She looked hopelessly at both of her parents; neither paid her any attention.
Jason, however, did give Meena back her potato chips. Julia scrunched her nose disapprovingly at the bag, even though Jason recalled a two-bag-a-day BBQ Lays’ habit that Julia had had during her pregnancy. Though not a violent man, Jason found something supremely slappable in Julia’s expression.
Rising to her feet, Julia told Meena to have a few more slides while she discussed something with Daddy. As long as it’s not too slimy.
Then both Julia and Jason did the same thing: They affected sunny smiles and hissed at each other through the corners of their mouths.
“Does the Parenting Plan say you can be an accusatory rag, or did I miss that part?” Jason said, smiling for all, hissing at Julia, and waving at Meena, who was climbing the slide’s small ladder with little enthusiasm.
Julia threw her hands up in the air and created a loud volley of feigned falsetto laughter. She then bent over to slap her knees—hell sarcastically—and she proceeded to inform Jason, very quietly, that if he ever called her that again he’d be picking up teeth.
“My bad,” Jason said, all friendly-like, “I forgot you are that way naturally.”
“Mommy!Daddy!” Meena called out anxiously. Without looking, Julia pointed at Meena as if to hold her in place.
“Listen up, asshole,” Julia said as she dropped the phony happy-clappy, “do your ho-bags on your time—I don’t want that sort of person around my daughter.”
“Our daughter, Jules–”
Meena began to scream. “Make it stop! Make it stop!’
Meena was at the bottom of the slide. The gull was there with her. It had stolen her bag of potato chips.
Jason rushed the bird, and it dropped the bag and fluttered off to a less lively section of Alone Park.
“It’s all right, kiddo,” Jason called back behind him. “It didn’t mean any harm—Are you okay?”
Two quick slams followed by the ignition of the slug bug’s motor were what Jason got for a reply. He almost made a run for it, but Julia had hum beat. She rolled down her window and, ostensibly, spoke to Meena:
“Give Daddy a see-you-next-time wave bye-bye.” Julia flashed that first magnitude go-getter smile of hers at Meena—the kind of smile she never showed Jason without it first being dipped in a brine composed of malice and irony.
Meena, who was seated beside her mother, complied. And Jason spied something fatigued and forlorn in her eyes—something that had no business being in a five-year-old child’s face—something he had helped to cause. Jason had to get away from that thought. He did so by firing a childish parting salvo at Julia.
“Love what you’ve done with your hair,” he called out as she put the car in gear. “Don’t let the nineties die without a fight.”
Julia zipped the slug bug out of its parking space and drove away. She had also extended her left arm out the window and had given Jason a highly energized version of the One Gun Salute.
Meena had twisted around in her seat and had regarded her father with the blank eyes of a refugee. Jason kept eye contact with his daughter until he could no longer see her.
February in the Pacific Northwest often contains days that conjure up the image of what a chamber in hell might look like if one were ever to be closed for maintenance. The sky and the earth become one and it becomes impossible to tell which is falling into which.
This might have something to do with the Nisqually God’s moodstone; for it was once said that only the sea was real and that everything else was composed of dreams without true memories behind them—and that life, with its heartaches and schemes and graspings and failures is merely the Nisqually God sinning freely as a means of purging Her soul and achieving a state of purity suspiciously akin to Nirvana.
The gull had come back. Jason sat down at the foot of the slide and picked up the bag of chips the gull had dropped in its flight and began tossing them to the bird.
“I’ve got to do better next time,” Jason said to the gull. “God knows I can’t do any worse.”
Banner photograph: Albert Bierstadt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons (Puget Sound of the Pacific coast 1870)