He had fifteen dollars for the weekend. He'd even taken the empty bottles from the faculty Coke machine in the lounge, but the recycling center had stopped accepting. He never could think big. It was “Dull Terror Time:” how to live with a kid on that for two whole days. No movies, no bowling, just walk the dog in the park, big deal. “Hey, we’re gonna barbecue those Big Burgers, baby!” Feed the world! Feed one.
The car honked outside. There were his two girls. One would be off with Mom to Grandpa’s ski boat, Grandpa's lake-front cabin. She smiled and laughed and joked easily. She could, lucky duck: higher card, longer straw, scissors, paper, stone, whatever. She’d won, and Sister stood beside her, quietly holding her suitcase and saying goodbye to her mom.
The car made a slow U-turn and his stomach dropped as they drove away. At exactly the same time, the morning breeze shifted to northeast bringing in the rank smell of the paper mill by the river. They took her suitcase inside and decided to take the dog to the park a little later.
She went to her room to unpack. He sat on the bed and they talked about the past week of being 11 and 34. “Creepy Josh Somebody” had hit her Tuesday, Mom had bought her a new tank top Wednesday, “Disgusting Josh Somebody” hand-kicked her on Thursday, and Friday she and her sister had, “Just the best pizza ever.”
Today, he feared she’d probably be having a better time with “Creepy, Disgusting Josh Anybody,” and he stole an uneasy look at his watch: 10:30. Way too soon for “Barbecued Big Burgers,” baby: “Dull Terror Time 2.”
They went to the cupboard and got out the cribbage board, always a winner. They talked a little better and judged a little less. By the end of the match, it was almost back to last week.
They got into the car and drove to where he worked. They played basketball in the gym and tried on drama room hats. They talked a little worse and judged a little more. He tried to save it with Baskin Robbins on the way home. $4.25 for a double scoop and a day and a half to go. What would he have ever done with them both?
When they got to the house, they talked through the dog for a while. The dog loved it. The breeze was blowing due north now, so the three of them walked to the park. She worked at not throwing a tennis ball like a girl for a while and really did it pretty well. The dog loved it too … and so did the dad.
Eventually, he started the coals and she turned on the TV. She changed channels until she found “The Solid Gold Hits” and started dancing in the front room on her own. He marveled as the glitz and slick of the show on the screen was no match for the child and music as one.
She saw him watching. He told her she was really pretty good. She said her sister was good too and they had both gotten it from their mom. He said they got it from him, so they danced together in surprisingly goofy comfort until the coals were ready.
Barbecued Big Burger, Baby, Time: sesame seed, big burger buns, and homemade country style fries. Pretty dazzling on their own, but it was the baskets, the 1950s wire baskets with the wax paper divider, that always sold the act. Life always held more promise when there were no dishes to wash at the end.
He told her about wanting to camp on the Mendocino Coast in August. He’d dive for fish and abalone and they could relax on the beach for a week. He asked her what she wanted to do that summer and she said, Hawaii with her mom, sister, and grandparents. Too many deposit bottles to even contemplate, so they just chewed quietly for a while, gently looking down at waxed paper. After that, the evening ended early, and she slept in late the next day.
He wrote her a note and left to run the dog. The breeze was northeast again so he breathed through his mouth when he ran.
When he got back, he heard the hair dryer in the guest bathroom. A nice sound: kids in the bathroom and lots of the past, the splashes and squeals and “slip and slide bathtub back-farts” as bubble-water eased down the drain.
Through the door, she asked about his run. She said that her mom like to run too. She ran races, though, and her company, had a corporate team, and a league with trophies and ribbons. On meet days, the girls would go with friends to watch and afterwards have a picnic. Glumly, he looked at the door and asked how she'd like to have her eggs.
It was nearly eleven by the time they took their plates outside to the patio. It was getting late-spring warm and the flies were purposefully buzzing. They sat at a table and stools he had built for a play. They were heavy and had been made to look hand-hewn. The stools rocked a little when you sat on them and had made for nice business in the show.
They talked about going up to the old sand mines in the afternoon. You got to wear a hard hat and a park volunteer took you through. Nearby, there was an old Cornish graveyard where, supposedly, the “White Witch” was buried. He really told a great White Witch tale and the interest seemed to genuinely take. Breakfast ghost stories passed back and forth, outlasting the stack of toast.
When he was making a second batch, she came in complaining of the flies in the yard. She got a swatter and went out to shoo them away. By the time he returned, the shooing had gotten more serious and her jaw showed gunslinger intent. For some reason, there wasn’t any question. He simply got the other swatter and let it all begin.
At first, the tactic was to perch and wait: let them find their way to you. Food, as such, was now only bait and the body count methodically mounted.
Then the tempo began to change. Not really getting faster so much as stretching until it turned on time itself and time stretched too. Neither taut nor flabby, just continuing forever on both ends, past and future burdens uncontrollably ceasing to be. They were in the present like baseball, suspended into extra innings. The moment could go on as long as it wanted; there would be no minutes, or hours or years again, until the game was complete.
Patient waiting had given way to thrills of childlike chase. Any fly that danced into the overhang shade was theirs; he called his and she called hers, each becoming the other’s wingman in the mindless, merciless glee.
They shook their weapons like Zulus and at first, words. Then, just sounds gurgled from their throats. They grunted and growled and knew exactly what the other had said.
With abandon, they leapt the crude table; they spanned the kitchen pass-through. He grabbed her swatter and did “fly fight master nunchucks” off a shoulder roll with black belt Kiai. She combined fly slam-dancing with giant patio pinball. They chanted and challenged, countered and contorted until, finally, exhausted, they fell to the ground panting, giggling and grunting together, confusing happy tears with equally happy sweat.
They lay there a long while absorbing the cool of the concrete and admiring the remnants of the war. They would point and exude; they would howl and jabber, but momentum was slipping away. Clocks had started to move forward again and time was returning. It had a hold again, all the hold it needed. Day was returning to a day.
Words were being spoken now and with them would eventually come getting up, clearing table and hosing down the deck. They put it off as long as possible, but finally, swatters were put away. It was the only thing to do. He began to worry about gas to the mines and back … and parking was a dollar too.
That afternoon, at the mines, neither knew what the other was thinking and that was the way it would stay. They just wore the yellow hard hats that the park ranger gave them, and they saw early pictures of boys working their first day as men at age 10. They stood where the mules that pulled the sand carts had lived. Born underground, some animals had never seen a lifetime of sun.
Later, at the Cornish cemetery, they saw the White Witch’s grave, but it wasn’t much. Desiccated, unkempt and un-shaded, like the others, just a partial, rusted rail to set it apart. No one sinister could possibly be buried there. Even a black and white movie would have been scarier.
He tried to save something, anything, with one last Baskin Robbins on the way home, but it was only a single and they found her mother, arrived early, when they got home.
She went in and hurriedly packed while her sister recapped their trip. She’d gotten up on a single ski for the first time, and they had fed the deer by hand that walked right up to the cabin. He half-listened and tried to control his anguish. He was falling further and further behind, losing, losing and losing.
All too soon there were clumsy hugs and kisses and the U-turn that made his stomach drop. He stood there watching the car disappear with a right turn at the bakery thrift outlet sign: “Barbecued Big Burger Buns, 4 for $1.25.” Then, tail wagging dog and nothing wagging man smelled the breeze turn again. There was nothing to be done so they went inside. It was “Sunday Blues” coming down with a heavy hand. Tomorrow was work, but he still had to finish today. He went to strip bed sheets and bath towels. He tried to rearrange the evidence, to pick up the pieces with the pieces he picked up. At least it was something to do.
When the beds were just so and bathroom and den, he got to the kitchen and saw the swatters beside the refrigerator. He studied them fondly as he mixed food in the dog dish. Who would ever think that they would be the dog-eared memory of their finest, most generous day?
He went outside and sat on the wobbly stool to watch the dog eat. The flies weren’t too interested now. Perhaps word was out that this was insect “Heartbreak Ridge.” Whole families must be mourning their losses in their own sort of Sunday blues way.
He stretched out on the cement again, now as warm as the day had been. The dog, having finished his meal, came over and stretched out too. Yes, he told the dog, he sure enjoyed killing flies today, assuming the dog knew exactly what he’d said. Time was still there, bullying in past and future, and he wondered if he would ever have extra innings again.
While he thought, he noticed that at least the breeze had changed, and with it the promise of new sweetness. He closed his eyes and daydreamed of buzzing insects. He knew it was only his fancy, but they still kept careful distance from where he quietly lay.