Out there, it was a storm rioting, the type that Marion faced when arriving at the Bates Motel, and I was sitting in this stranger’s freshly vacuumed Mitsubishi with my muddy, turn-out-not-to-be-waterproof hiking boots, him telling me how he hadn’t been home in nearly two decades. That, back there, he had a wife still mourning his death. That his daughter wasn’t the little princess she used to be, but married recently and was pregnant now with two little princesses herself. His voice a warm drone against the rain that was drumming against the Mitsubishi’s metal frame. I was just happy that I was in there, and not stuck at the last lonely gas station, biding my time with overpriced Cheetos and overweight truck drivers.
The windshield-wipers cutting the rain into smooth pieces, going faster than Jess’ eyes blinking when she was angry. You could hardly see the night outside; only smears of it. I’m sure driving was guesswork and hoping for the best, but my driver, his wire-frame glasses and Richard Gere haircut said there’s no place safer in this world. The type of guy you’d want as a dad; friendly but competent.
“Every morning,” he droned, “the first thing I do is check whether there’s news about the twins. Sometimes she writes that they’ve been kicking all night and kept her awake again. Here, she posted this ultrasound a while ago and I printed it out.” He produced a much-handled, much-folded paper from out of nowhere and handed it to me. “Or she posts pictures of the new nursery, and son, I tell you, she’s got style, that princess of mine. She’s got a hand for fabrics and matching patterns and the right little details. It’s all crème-colored and warm – you don’t want to leave that place, I tell you. It’s a womb in itself.” Jess wanted it all yellow – for gender neutrality and all. “There’s that small lambskin carpet on the beech floor, a tiny beige wool blanket she knitted all by herself, with pale purple flowers stitched on it. An ash crib with flower carvings twirling along the rims and a matching rocking chair where you’d read Goodnight Moon to them. Fairy lights all over the place.”
Jess had said, ‘You would have someone to read The Little Prince to. I thought you like it so much.’
“She posted the whole process of donning it up. Of sewing the canopy for the crib, knitting the pillows. She’s a doer, that princess of mine, you know? When she was little, guess what she got excited about. Bulk garbage. Bulk garbage’s what she got excited about. When we walked down the road and people left their old, lived-up furniture by the curb; the dining table they’d ate and argued by for three generations – who’d all left their marks on it – she’d go, ‘Daddy, daddy, can we take this? Daddy, daddy, this one, please?’
“One time, it was a set of drawers from a liquidation – a neighbor who died. Only the drawers, not the case to hold it all together – the chest, you know? About this long and this wide.” His right hand mimed a cut at the most fleshy part of his steering underarm, another one just below the wrist. “So we took those drawers – four of them – and Sarah explained exactly how it’s gonna look; them all stacked up together, one wider board on bottom, a second on top. And we drew it, measured it out, drove to the hardware store together and she looked all excited at the tools they had and the paint, and kind of stunned and in awe, she said, ‘There are so many things to be made!’ My six-year old daughter, in that little frilly flower dress of hers, she said, “Daddy, there are so many things to be fixed!'” His laugh was friendly as Gandalf’s; dry autumn leaves, crackling red and orange. “Anyways, I let her select the wood and one of the consultants there told her about the proper wood-care and whatnot, and we went on making this thing – this chest of drawers. We measured and we sawed the pieces and we drilled holes and somehow it made up this thing. It was just, wow. You can do something, step by step by step and it adds up to something. She was amazed. I was amazed. And you know what this kid said? She said, ‘Daddy, what I like about it most is that it had this whole life we don’t know about. That we made it together, and that it had this whole life before.’ Aaaaand,” (His voice thickened at this) “on Facebook, some days ago, she posted a picture of this chest of drawers in the nursery.” The windshield-wipers measured up five quick portions, the way Jess throws dishes when she’s upset. Swish, swish – one side, then the other. And I was thinking how and why, when people pick you up, they always tend to use you as a therapist – load all their shit on you – that’s just the fare you pay. “She wrote, ‘In memory of my daddy, who taught me that you add things together, you work on something – with love – and it becomes more than you. It’s everyday magic, really.’ And she wrote how she’d wish more than anything that I was there to…” He stopped so his voice wouldn’t break. One gallon left, another right.
He continued, “So every morning, there’s pure dread in my gut that she might’ve changed her privacy settings. That I won’t get to see my grandchildren. I’m terrified that she could make those few clicks. And she wouldn’t even know that she shut me out, or – and somehow that is even worse – that she just stops posting things. And I wouldn’t know what happened – whether there was an accident and she died, or she just got bored with it all. There wouldn’t be any way for me to know. It’s those stupid updates of how any old granny wants to pat her belly that are all I have left, and because I can’t sit in that rocking chair to read Goodnight Moon to them that these stupid posts mean that much.” And without so much as a breath in between, he said, “Do you mind if we grab dinner here? I’m starving.”
I hadn’t noticed that we’ve already pulled up into a dark parking lot, the beacon of a red neon sign on top of a low, wide building shining its welcome into the night. But for now, it was just the windshield-wipers sounding out their metronome against the rain, us sitting still in that box until we measured up enough time to take a gulp of air, turn up our collars, slam open the car doors and hurry across the pavement with our jackets doing a bad job at shielding us against the downpour. By the time we reached the bright, chattery universe of the diner, my jeans and sweatshirt underneath my parka clung wet to my skin. “Dinner’s on me,” my driver said, wiping sheets of water off his sleeves. My $200 hiking boots squeaked wetly as we left a trail of the storm on the dull, black-and-white check board tiles. We sat down in a booth where Pumpkin and Honey Bunny plotted their holdup, Agent Dale Cooper sipped that ‘damn fine coffee’, and Mr. Pink explained why he doesn’t tip – but here with the night outside, and the rain.
I was slowly melting over the red fake-leather upholstery, one of my toes probing around its soggy home, when a woman tagged Charlene pressed the welded sheet of a menu into my hand, scoffing, “Quite the storm out there, huh?”
I was half trying to read the menu, half pretending to try, while I felt his eyes on me as he wiped his glasses with his wet shirtfront, me thinking, “Why do they think you’re dead?” Pancakes and hash browns being just random letters in front of me.
As if he read my thoughts, he said, “You want to know why I can’t go back, right?” He slid his glasses back on, still streaky with moist. “Let me guess, you think it’s the mafia, right?” He smiled, broadly, friendly. “Son – what’s your name?”
“Joey, this is where you won’t like me anymore. Because you won’t understand. Hell, I don’t understand – There’s a death certificate in my name, you know.”
“…You faked your own death?”
The very real ghost across from me recoiled smoothly. “No, I didn’t fake anything. I just… failed to correct assumptions. The thing is,” He scratched his forehead, “before that day, I didn’t think I had any desire to leave. If you had asked me before, I would’ve said I’m happy. Perfectly happy. But when I was running down that staircase – endless miles of stairs, you couldn’t begin to imagine; 48 floors – on that staircase I felt like this layer was stripped off of me, and I could suddenly see all my sadness, and I knew I couldn’t go back there. I walked through the lobby – with those half and quarter bodies, little bits of human – and I kept walking… as if something pulled me forward.” His hand mimed some Donnie Darko wormhole protruding out of his chest. “I kept walking, past Watts Street, through the Holland Tunnel, past Jersey City and Newark, and with the cash in my wallet, I bought a bus ticket to Reno, where I crashed in a motel. And the next day I was looking for jobs and I found one at a car dealership, and I never used my real name again. Step by step by step I built this new life, even though I didn’t mean to – it just… happened. And I was happy.”
In a booth in the back, a couple was scheming how many children they’ll have, and how they’ll go to ivy league colleges and become anorexic. Charlene came to take our order of pancakes, hash browns and coffee.
“I can’t decide,” I said, “whether you are crazy in a very sad, very tragic way, or just an asshole.” He smiled. “I mean, I wish my dad had vanished off the face of the earth. But you sound like, like a good dad. I mean, fuck, man.”
“I know…. Joey.” He tested out my name the way your tongue probes a foreign object. “But you have to understand that it’s not like I had a choice. People are quick to hate, because they assume folks have a choice. Hell, God knows, I hate myself. But there was no question that I had to walk on. I couldn’t go back to how it was. It was empty. I was happy, but empty. That chest just wouldn’t hold me anymore. Yeah, maybe you are right, and I am crazy.”
Charlene came to fill two spotty mugs with a thin black brew. After a sip it was clear that this wasn’t the ‘damn fine coffee’ Agent Cooper so raved about. When she was gone again, the ghost across from me said, “Joey. If you don’t watch out, you’ll walk and walk and walk. And some day, you’ll discover that you went too far to turn back.”
I took another long gulp of that not-so-fine coffee. I thought how and why, when people pick you up and you listen, they end up being your therapist.
No, I was afraid that step by step by step I’d have a yellow nursery and a job that I hate, and I’d be my father’s son.
That couldn’t be the chest I was meant to live in.
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