Our father -- the father of us all -- stands dumb in the garage, hands slick and black with grease. It is October. The sky is a bright, hurtful blue. Our father believes the car is sick, that its sickness carries over into us. I'm going to see about that car, he tells mother, and he does. We eat our eggs as noises from the garage spill into the house: curses, epithets, good metal clanging bad. Mother tsk-tsks and wipes her hair from her eyes. She lights a cigarette, and, when the littlest declares himself full, she spoons his scrambled into her mouth in two quick motions. Get on outside, she tells us, play. It's Saturday. Saturdays are for playing, so we do. We climb high in the one pale sycamore tree so that we might inhabit the bright blue sky. That close to the sun, it is warm, and with all of us in the tree, it fairly buckles from our weight. We are our own planet, spinning, teeming. There is no telling what cosmos we occupy. Only occasionally is our orbit interrupted with a muffled tink-tink-tink or some other small ratchet sound from inside the garage.
Then, finally, with the sun at the very top of the sky, the automatic door starts its slow groan. Up it goes, letting light pour into our black garage. Out the rusty green Gremlin creeps, our father at the wheel, signaling a left turn out the drive and puttering hesitantly down the street, a plume of black smoke in his wake.
On days when mother wears her sad bonnet and the hoop skirt with the giant red bow in the back, those of us with an aversion to her mournful ways go out back to the sandbox. Bonnet days engender in her a powerful listlessness. She floats through the house like an apparition. It is better to be out of doors, under the full watch of the vigilant sun. Don't get all dirty-kneed, she calls after us, though that is precisely our endeavor. Our little box is up against the ratty fence between us and the neighbors'. From our years of tireless digging, it's a sandless and deep thing, overhead of even the tallest. All us piled in there is a thing to see. Our father calls it "That Blamed Pauper's Grave Out Back." Once, when he was in his cups and giddy, he came out with a sack of flour, doused us with fistfuls of make-believe lime, to disinfect our make-believe corpses. Mother blurted epithets, mainly for the loss of flour. We didn't pay the dusting any mind. In the box, we are nothing but dust and plastic shovels and digging. We find there an overpowering state of our own kind of make-believe; nothing wrenches us out. Some folks say digging straight down leads to hell or, even worse, China and the yellow races. Not so: a tunnel down is a tunnel to the very heart of things. There, the air is cool and dark. A grand silence echoes forth.
The Fisher King
When we are hungry and mother lolls on the chaise and smokes her cigarettes and won't get up to feed us, we fend for ourselves. When there is a jar of peanut butter, we take spoons to it. If not peanut butter, then crackers and sweet relish. Our father has bitterer tastes. Afternoons, he comes sweaty and soiled from some work or another, and looks askance at mother. You worthless thing, he whispers under his breath. You! she blurts. You stay out of my sight. He mumbles some more and heads into the kitchen for sustenance. His favorite is to take a can of oil-soaked sardines and slurp them like a seal. We watch him open the can slow and pinch out the headless, shiny fish one-by-one. He barely chews; his throat muscles work down chunks. Then the pop of a pop-top. Up the bubbles foam. This he slurps too and disappears into the garage for the evening. Mother says, Thank heavens for that, and rests her eyes. Our eyes turn to that tin, the puddle of oil in it, and the gray bits of fish-flesh leftover. Would that the world wouldn't empty itself so easy. We peel off, one of us here, two more there, and so on that way until we all find other things to do with our hunger. All night there's that one empty can sitting alone on the table. In the morning -- no one knows how -- the tin isn't there. The whole kitchen smells like a womb.
Mother dear pretends she is a girl. She sings her popular songs under her mournful breath. This is a frightening spectacle and our father shuts his mouth, afraid of what might be next. We scatter into the basement like mice and pray to heaven that her voice doesn't carry down to us. It doesn't and we are safe until one of the sisters starts in with her humming. Though we tell her, Don't take after mother if you can help it, she takes after her. So much so that down there amongst the ducts and the unfinished funk, her voice is mother's confession to us all: children I am too tired to feed anyone much less your hungry horde. I did not ask for this life, dears. I want a slow smoke on a back porch, a man with soft hands. I want to breathe clean again. Go, dears, scatter into the hinterlands and spread the word -- I've taught you all I know. Our father calls down to us. Come up, come up here, children. Got-dammit, come up. And we do, all of us save for one -- she who started in with the humming. Instead of ascending back into the house proper, she stays, humming, until she dissolves into a solitary sound that haunts the pipes on bitter cold days. Back up in the blaring sunshine of our father, not a one of the rest of us makes a noise. Mother passes a plate of grahams and we nibble. He eyes us over the brim of his coffee cup, then a loud, punctuating slurp.
Our father works in mysterious ways: mother is with child again. Perhaps even she doesn't know how it happened. Or perhaps there is another universe they visit in the long, dark hours of the night. In the gestation months, our father doesn't look at mother's bulbous belly. Mother carries it like a measured weight -- like a sack of dry goods from the store, like something other than herself. When her water breaks, it spills a salty ocean onto the kitchen floor. Don't get your Daddy, she tells us. Don't. Her eyes are bright and wild. She pushes and pushes. The crown is crowned -- it glimmers gold and shiny and sharp between her legs. Mother bleeds and breathes and pushes, all right there on the dirty floor. Baby-boy saunters out. We field him. For the first seven years, he talks a blue streak and won't let anybody touch his bright crown. Baby-boy, we learn quickly, can be a bothersome sort without any answers. When we ask what he's come to do, Baby-boy says, I'm supposed to do something? When we come right out and say it -- Ain't you heaven-sent? -- he says, Dammit I'm just a baby and this crown is so heavy. When we ask him where he came from if it's not the land on high of milk and honey. He just says, I come from the same dark place as you. Then he licks clean the middle of an Oreo and cries for the lack of milk to wash it down.
Indeed, indeed: our father was a schoolboy football hero. Hand him the ball and watch him run. He could punch through any line, scalpel through an All-State secondary. He of the crazy legs, his was the stiffest of stiff arms. We sometimes wonder why daddy didn't just keep running, never look back. When each of us was a little bit younger, he tested us out: Take this here pigskin and run straight through me. When he stuffed us, each one, he seemed to breathe easier, to puff his chest, poke out his derriere, even as he said, S'alright: not everybody's meant for gridiron glory. There's no shame in it.
He'd even dust us off and pat our behinds. Get you an iced treat from your mother. Tell her you been playing ball with dear old dad. Of course, that was hit or miss: sometimes there were treats, most times not. Always mother would mumble: Wish you wouldn't encourage him. But Baby-boy, now that's different. Mother tells her youngest boy, Go show him what you're made of, child. And he does. He is just a tyke when our father takes him out to scrimmage. The little dynamo takes his stance and revs his engines. The dark gray sky roils above. The one pale sycamore is leafless and bony. Perfect weather for a scrum. Hut one, hut two, HIKE! When the dust settles, our father is a dead-grass heap in the yard, and Baby-boy is still a blur, running, running down the street. When he crests the hill he stops and turns and waves. I shall return, he shouts down to us. Be your best good selves till I get back. Then he's gone.
Ding-dong, the king is dead. Or something like it anyway. Our father, once an able-bodied sort, has taken unkindly to his plight. What it is, he won't say, but he's not been the same since our youngest's recent exodus. He sits in the chair, eats his suppers on a TV tray -- lunch and breakfast too. Mother sits with him all night, as if it is a dream come true. She's buoyed up by something, says such things are wont to happen to a man, such as this modern age tends to be. There's books about it. Talk shows too. When a man comes to know his limits, he's got hell to pay. She brings him beers, pats him on the shoulder. There, there, dear. Sometimes, though, we catch her biting her knuckle to hold the giggles in. And he is a nightmare scene: stubble, catatonia, man-funk, frozen foods, the blue-blare TV screen at all hours. We shush ourselves one night, sneak through the kitchen to the garage. There's our steed, a vessel to deliver us: the Gremlin. We'd fire it up, if we knew how, if it wouldn't make an infernal racket. So we don't. It's a clandestine mission instead. Up goes the door, quiet, underneath the living-room blare. In we climb, all of us, and the rusted monster sags beneath us. Those of us who are heartier, we push. Down the little driveway, aiming at whatever descending slopes the neighborhood can offer. The night breeze rushes by. Gravity pushes us along. None of us has ever gone this fast, this far. We speed down, down to whatever end's in store.