My dad travels the back roads of the Midwest, selling dinettes to small furniture stores that double as mortuaries. Summer is here again.
“You can drive, Rosie. You can be my assistant. I like a good lookin’ assistant.”
I have nothing going on until Drivers’ Ed in August so I take him up on the offer. He is talking about his days as a shill for the Royal American Side Shows.
He launches into his patter. “A pretty girl is like a melody and keeps you warm at night besides.”
We swing onto the expressway, facing rivers of concrete and hours of spinning wheels.
“I been to Auction, Bauction, Baraboo. Newport, Bridgeport, Salem, too. My hometown is a one-horse town, but it’s big enough for me,” he sings. “What’s next, Rosie?”
“On this side I’m a man…” I recite.
“Strong and vir-ile. On this side,” I continue.
“I’m a woman. Soft and tender. Right, you are my girl.”
“My home town is a one-horse town. What is a one-horse town?” I ask.
“Aw, a place where you don’t always step in shit.” he replies. He dodges a twelve-wheeler barreling right at us. I let some concrete tap tap tap under the car. I like being gone. All last week I was perched on Marsha Richman’s porch, pretending to be her best friend while really seeing if I could get a glimpse of Isaac Crown. He’s tall and quiet with eyes that I swim in. And I pretty much can think of nothing else these days. Better to be on the road.
“You ran away to join the circus?” I say, contemplating my own escape.
“There were twisty girls and bearded ladies and a lot of shit—elephant shit, camel shit, horse shit. The Royal American Side Shows.” He chuckles to himself.
It is true, all that stuff about the circus. I know because he takes me every year and we sit in the front row and the clowns all come over and talk to me as I sit in my dad’s lap. He laughs and smiles so wide that I can see his missing tooth gap in the back of his mouth.
“How come you never talk about it?”
We ride in silence for a while.
“Your mother wants you should have a classy life. She doesn’t like the circus stuff, especially when they come by to hit me up for cash.” He flashes a crooked smile. “Nice to have a couple of bucks to spread around though.”
“There’s the sign for Bay City, Dad. Didn’t you want to go to Bay City?”
“Yeah, yeah. I know a great joint there. We’ll have a burger. You can drive after lunch.”
Dad steers the big Chrysler Imperial toward the exit and into the farmland. He finds the main street of this little town and pulls up in front of Bay City Burgers. The car is longer than the double front window of the diner. We order two, with everything. Dad lifts the burger to his face and smells. We don’t stick out as city slickers in this little town. There are other men there with plastic pen holders in the front pocket of their white shirts.
“Oh yeah,” my dad says as we exit the diner. He belches quietly and pops a couple of Maalox. “Here we go. Ferris Brothers, our next stop. You can stay in the car.”
“It’s hot. I’ll take a walk.”
“It’s just I gotta do some quick business. Then we can keep moving,” he says.
“There’s a dime store. I’ll look in there.”
“Okay, take a walk, Rosie. I’ll be back in a half hour, no more.”
I look across the street at the Ferris Furniture sign. Dad sets off.
“Just take a walk,” he says to me.
I find it funny since he always likes to show me off to his friends. Especially these days, after I got taller, sprouted breasts, and started to wash my hair regularly.
Dad opens the plate glass door and I hear him. “Missss-taaaah Ferris, how the hell are ya?”
I wander across the street toward the five and dime. I pass by Ferris Furniture. There is an open workshop next to the store. It’s a wood shop and smells of resin and burnt saw blades. I smile at the workman leaning back in his beat-up, wheeled office chair. He’s about sixty. He looks me over pretty good.
“I hep’ you, young lady? Give you tips on the hot spots?”
“Just taking a walk.”
“Leo bring you for the burgers, betcha.”
“Yeah. They’re good. You know my dad?”
“He never brought you before.” He motions for me to come in. “Not going to bite ya. Here’s a cool drink.”
He’s wiping his hands on a red handkerchief, having already dipped his hand in the Coca Cola cooler.
“Thanks,” I say, grabbing the Coke, my eyes wandering to the big fresh pine boxes in the back of the garage. There’s a boy lying on a hard couch with metal armrests. His arm is over his forehead. His legs extend past the rails. Flies buzz around his eyes.
“That’s Junior. That’s my boy.”
My face flushes.
“Hot day, young lady. Hot day.” He smiles like he’s feeling his underwear.
“My dad needs to see Mr. Ferris for a minute.” I look down the heat-blasted street.
“Big business man, Mr. Ferris. Got the furniture store. Makes caskets. Got it all sewn up, but money ain’t everything.”
“No. ‘Course not.”
My eyes find the rise and fall of the boy’s chest as he breathes.
“But we been real busy. Besides the four caskets we made for his family—Mr. Ferris’s—burned themselves up in a fire a couple of months ago, we got a regular trade from the nursing home. We make caskets for all sizes.”
“Yep. Ferris had three kids and a wife. We boxed ‘em up and set ‘em in the ground.”
Around the corner, toward the front of the workshop, I hear my Dad’s footsteps.
“My boy was in love with the girl. Knowed this family our whole life.”
“Rosie. You in here?”
“Love changed him for the worse, that’s for sure,” Frank says, glancing back at his comatose son. “Easy come, easy go, I always say.”
Dad appears, the sun behind him. I squint to see his silhouette.
“You get yourself a sale there, Mister?” Frank says to my dad.
“I came to see how my friend is doing.”
“You Jews. Always looking for a sale.”
“See you next time, Frank.”
“We’ll still be here.”
Frank moves back into the shadow of the garage. His boy rolls onto his side and looks out at me, past the caskets and the tight underwear, wondering if I might be somebody else.
We drive along the lakeshore. It is getting dusky. A big mosquito—full of someone’s blood—splats against the front windshield.
“Sonofabitch! Look at that.”
The blood doesn’t register with me. I’m sailing on the big lake and I see Frank’s boy floating in a rowboat, still lying prone, hand over his forehead, flies buzzing at his eyes, dreaming again.
“Goddammit!” Dad says.
He gets out of the car and starts to poke at the windshield with his finger.
“Goddamn sonofabitch,” he says, as if the blood will disappear if he swears at it long enough.
“You drive for a while, Rosie. I’m beat.”
I slip out of my side of the car and get behind the wheel, feeling the spray of the water of the wipers as they finally start to move. In the rearview mirror I see the elegant lifted tail fins of the Imperial, chrome catching the glint of strung lanterns on a cottage pier. I pull out, driving Jonah’s whale away from the boy with the leaky eyes.
“Did you know the kids, Daddy? Mr. Ferris’s kids?”
“I knew them. I met them. His wife. You know. Business.”
“Watch the stop sign.”
“That man Frank. He said his son loved the girl. His girlfriend. He said the boy lost his girlfriend in the fire.”
“Girlfriend? What girlfriend?”
“The boy, his father said it. He loved the girl.”
“What does he know? Love. You know love?” Dad looks out into the soft light and shakes his head. “You got a boyfriend? You like a boy?”
“Daddy.” It makes me feel squirmy, how he asks me. Do I like a boy?
“Stay away from the boys.”
I drive a little more.
Then he asks again, “You like a boy?”
I don’t say anything.
“It can kill ya, I’ll tell ya that.”
We are moving into a little town now. It’s got a few rusty signs, a closed diner and a billboard for Sandy’s Cottages, Lakeside Dining.
Just past two huge pines, a string of Christmas lights struggles to stay cheery in the summer night.
“There’s Sandy’s,” Dad says. “Pull in there.”
I maneuver the huge Imperial neatly into the space in front of the Officesign. I can see a small living room behind the counter where a television is on. A slumped figure sleeps in a La-Z-Boy.
Sandy, a short, very short, little woman, comes snorting up to the car. Her eyes come to the bottom of the driver’s side power windows. Greasy glasses gleam at me.
“Hallo, Leo,” she says in a squeaky voice. “We’ve been on needles and pins all day. Curtis tried to stay awake to say hello, but he only barks when he’s awake these days anyway. The stroke finished him off!”
She has pulled open the driver’s side door and sees me staring. “Don’t worry, he only really barks when he sees a bone!” Sandy sputters and laughs. “This your daughter? She’s bee-you-tee-fool. Glad to finally meetchu, little pretty one.”
I get out and stand up. The woman’s head comes to my waist.
Dad comes out of the car from his side and around to meet Sandy.
“Come here. Let me get my arms around you!” she squeaks.
Sandy runs up to the porch and quickly climbs onto a tree stump, which makes her about the same height as Dad. He moves to the porch with a shy smile. Sandy’s stubby arms grab his neck.
Sandy stretches her little arms and cracks her fingers. She glances at me.
“C’mere. I get to hug you too.”
I step forward and her gnarled hands touch my face. She looks into my eyes and pats my shoulder.
“That’s it,” she says. “Okay, I made sammiches. Left ‘em in the room. And some Vernor’s. You like Vernor’s, young lady?”
“Yes. Sure. I like Vernor’s.”
“Oh, Lordy. Thank God for that!”
She squeezes Dad again and hops off the tree stump.
“C’mon. Here’s the cottage key. I put you near the water, like always.”
Sandy scampers across the stubbly grass in front of a circle of sagging cabins with their wooden porches. She runs like a monkey, agile and loping, a smile on her face.
“I’ve known your daddy for many a year, Missy,” she squeaks to me as she runs.
“In It-ly. When we were young and gay. He ever tell you the stories?”
Sandy opens the door and flips on the light. She checks that the screens fit and runs the water in the sink.
“And here. Sammiches. Turkey and ham—aw hell. You eat ham?”
“It’s fine,” Dad says.
“You don’t eat ham!”
Sandy grabs the plate and heads back to the door of the cabin.
“I’ll bring back salami. At least the Vernor’s is cold!”
On the wooden desk there is a metal bowl filled with ice and wrapped in a white and red dishtowel—and a big glass bottle of Vernor’s Ginger Ale. Sandy vaguely resembles the little gnome painted in green on the side of the bottle. She notices me making the connection.
“It’s my grampa! It’s the truth,” she says, pointing to the small man with the pointy beard on the bottle. Sandy starts to cackle and move at the same time. Dad laughs too. “Back in a minute. Gotta get Curt to bed.”
“How the hell you gonna handle Curt? He’s six feet tall!” he asks. “You got no one to help?”
Dad sets our bag in the room and heads back out the door with Sandy.
Night bugs and moths bat against the screens and I move onto the dusty screened-in porch with a wooden picnic table and two rocking chairs pulled up close to the view. Dad comes back with a plate of sandwiches.
“Here’s dinner. I’m beat.” Dad takes a sandwich and drinks some Vernor’s. “Sandy’s a good old friend.”
“I used to bring circus performers over to do shows for the troops. Sandy came a couple of times with Curt. They had a specialty act. He was a muscle man and she dressed up like a fireplug. He lifted her with one hand.”
“One hand, and then he married her.” Dad belches. “I’m going to bed,” he says.
The crickets are making a racket. Sandy’s cackle floats from the office over the laugh track from the TV show she’s watching. An owl hoots in a tall pine. Stars crowd the moon. The sandy beach soaks up the spilt moonlight. The screen door slams as I head to the beach. I can hear the ruffle of Dad’s snore, lost in his dreams, Mr. Ferris rolling alone in his ashy house, and Sandy giggling while her husband barks. And that boy.
In my dream I see that boy drifting, drifting farther into the water. I call to him, even sing him a siren song to keep me company but he flops to one side like a grieving walrus. The flies buzz at his eyes. I am afraid they will be eaten like jelly before the boy can see me. My crunchy long hair, my singed fingers, my baked scales. My battered mermaid tail falls away from me in the waves and I am all bones. The boy stands and I see his back. He shakes all over and dives into the water. I feel his mouth stretch from the hook as it breaks and pierces his lip. He rears up— a flying fish—and lets out a howl that no one can hear and then melts away into the water. My skin floats further from my skeleton. I am a new lizard and climb onto the beach to wait for the sun.
My dad, all sleepy, has come to the beach to find me. I sit up straight.
“I never even heard about these people. I don’t know anything about any of it. It feels creepy.”
I bring my legs up under my bathrobe and feel the sand get lost in my cotton pajamas.
“A life is long, Rosie.”
“It’s just that you’re my dad, not someone else’s friend.”
Dad smiles his shy smile just for me.
“Why’d you go to the Army?”
“It was wartime—Air Force. A job.”
The moonlight dusts us both. I can feel him drifting somewhere else. It’s the stars, I think.
“The first night I arrive in North Africa, I look up and I see this many stars but I was sleeping in the snow on a freezing football field.”
Dad sighs. He’s quiet and then it’s too quiet.
“So I get myself shipped to Bari, Italy. I bring over circus guys, singers, tap dance jobs—anyone I can think of to entertain the guys.”
“That where you meet that woman?” I ask, my interest piqued.
“That woman in the picture in your wallpaper book?”
“Whaddaya talking about?”
Dad moves away a little, but I can tell the memory is warm, like someone’s breath on his cheek.
“For Leo. I sing your heart.”
“Whaddaya talking about?”
“I saw the picture, Daddy. She was pretty.”
“Pretty. Yeah, she was pretty.”
“What was her name?”
There is a long silence, like his heart is deciding whether it wants the padlock dusted off.
“There was a dive in Bari, The Blue Spot.” Leo takes a beat. “A girl singer showed up. A redhead.”
“Did you have a romance with her, with the redhead?”
“I’m not talking about romance with you. What am I? Crazy?”
The sky is so big.
“Daddy, I like a boy.”
The stars adjust.
“His name is Isaac. He’s at shule.”
“You like him?”
“I can’t think about anything else. All the time. For a long time.”
“You’re kidding me. You…I mean you don’t even go on dates with him. Do you? You sneak around?”
“No. No. I can’t even talk to him I like him so much.”
Daddy starts to grin. Then he laughs.
“Okay. Well, I guess we don’t have to worry about baseball yet, huh?”
“You know—first base, second base…”
“It’s just…when I saw that kid today at Mr. Ferris’s and how sad he was and how he couldn’t seem to move, I thought that maybe that’s how I’d feel if I loved someone like I love Isaac Crown and I lost him like that.”
“What are you talking about?”
“What about that redhead in Italy? How did it feel to love her? And then never see her again?”
“Aw, what the…” Dad gets up and starts to walk away down the beach. The moonlight hits him like a spot and he turns, a doll at a mike.
“She was slinky.” Dad laughs, full and throaty, then he abandons that fantasy. Not with me there.
“What was her name?”
Dad looks up at the stars.
“It must be one o’clock already. Let’s get you to bed, doll face,” he says softly.
Dad grabs my hand. We stroll along the beach and the water licks my toe.
“The little putz. Never even asked you out?”
The screen door slams behind us.
Dad turns out the light.
“Night, doll,” he says.
“Celie,” I hear him say. “Her name was Celie.”