“Is your mother around?”
“Maybe. Who’s this?”
“Just a moment,” says Owl. He points the phone at the floor, makes stomping noises, and returns with a high pitched squeaky voice. “This is her.”
“Ma’am, we have reason to believe that a member of your family – Arthur – is living amongst the alligators.”
“You know, large amphibious reptiles?”
“Yes, of course, I know.”
“You need to come get him immediately.”
“He’s living with them?”
“As in sharing a living space?”
“Well how do you know it’s him?”
“What proof do you have?”
“We have his wallet, with his driver’s ID. We found it outside the pen.”
“Pen, as in where you keep the alligators?”
“Correct. We have a small zoo here at the park. Including a pen with five full-grown American alligators.”
Owl pauses. “Is he okay?”
“What do you mean for now?”
“He’s okay for now, but he’s living in a goddamn gator farm and he refuses to leave. That doesn’t exactly bode well in terms of bodily health, or life expectancy.”
“What should we do?”
“Like I already said, you or someone in your family needs to get down here immediately – like, right frickin’ now. He’s put himself and others at serious risk. We’re still deciding if we’re going to pursue legal action.”
“You got the money, right?” I say to Owl.
“I took it from her sock drawer, like you said.”
We’re on the road – Owl and me. It’s late and the only light within a thirty mile radius is being held over a book under Owl’s chin.
“You’re doing it wrong,” he says without looking up.
“Doing what wrong?”
I look down at my feet. We had rigged shoe-boxes around the pedals – tied up with twine – so I can reach.
“You’re not allowed to drive. You’re too young.”
“So are you!”
“Momma’s gonna flip when she wakes up tomorrow.”
“Can we stop soon?”
“I’m hungry, and I gotta pee.”
We stop at a roadside diner. It’s four in the morning and everyone looks at us weird, like we don’t belong – which we don’t. There’s a man with a glass eye looking at us from the jukebox, which plays some twangy old country song. He tells us he’s a preacher, but I’m not game for trusting anybody.
A woman with bee-hive hair serves us sunny side eggs and toast and we eat them fast and try not to watch as the preacher waltzes by himself.
“He’s dancing with a ghost,” Owl says between slurps of a chocolate milkshake.
I sit back against the vinyl seat cover. He smiles, his eyes bug out through his circular lenses. The kid only needs a milkshake, and everything is fine again.
“What do you think happened to him?” I ask.
“No, not him.” I nod toward the preacher.
“I think something happened once he was away from home, you know, after he left. Like something in his brain changed. One minute he was fine, and the next he was a crazy person.”
“Yeah, but what actually happened?”
“I don’t know.”
“I guess we’ll find out real soon.”
“I don’t want that.”
“Don’t want what?”
“I don’t want that to happen, to me too.”
“Why would it happen to you?”
“I don’t want my brain to change.”
“But how do you know?”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“How do we know anything for sure?”
“Shut up, will you?”
“If it can happen to him, it can happen to anyone.”
Owl looks over at the preacher, who’s now planted against the jukebox, trying to stand up, with his hands caught in his coat pockets. He looks like a linebacker, fighting against the line of scrimmage. A waitress scurries out from the kitchen, and grabs him by the shoulders. She straightens him right up.
“Get out of here!” she says. “Get!”
The man nods apologetically, and staggers out through the front door, into the darkened parking lot. We watch him grow faint, and disappear into the night.
“This place is weird,” says Owl.
“Yeah, let’s go,” I say.
We pay and leave.
Snot globs out onto the phone receiver as she cries. She wipes her nose with the sleeve of her sweatshirt. “It’s my boys! They’re gone and the car was stolen, and I don’t know what to do!” she says.
“Ma’am. Ma’am. Take a deep breath. Can you please repeat yourself?” asks a masculine voice on the other end of the line.
“They’re gone. They’re gone.”
“What happened to your boys?”
“I woke up. Oh lord –”
“You woke up, and?”
“I woke up this morning and I came downstairs and and and the car was gone. And I ran upstairs, and I looked into their bedroom, and they were gone. They’re gone and I don’t know where they are. It’s a kidnapping, I swear it.”
“Is there anyone of suspect, Ma’am? Does your family have any enemies? Anyone who would have any sort of motivation?”
“Even from within the family. Family’s always where we start.”
“Unless their father –”
“Oh lord, bless those sweet boys. They didn’t do nothing wrong.”
“Ma’am, what about their father?”
“We’re not exactly doing well, if you know what I mean.”
“There’s other words for it I just can’t –”
“– But legally?”
“So you’re separated. Estranged.”
“Yes. Lord, I know he’s got something to do with this. This has got his stink all over it.”
“How long has it been?”
She reaches down and grabs an egg from the open carton on the kitchen counter. She crushes it it in her hand, and lets the yolk run along her palm, down her wrist. She takes another in her hand, and squeezes until it bursts. She shakes her hand free of the eggshell remnants and looks out through the the window above the sink, into the yard. An acre or so. The grass has overgrown, swallowing up an old riding lawn mower in the right corner of the rectangular yard, against the oak lined perimeter.
“’Bout two months now, off and on. From what I know, he’s been spending most of his time at his brother’s in Clarksville.”
“Has he ever done anything like this before?”
“No, but –”
“Lately he’s been acting so strange. Been irrational. Not all there.”
“Just strange, that’s all.”
“The more you can disclose, the more quickly and efficiently we can work to find your boys.”
“Like, I walked out into the yard, maybe two weeks ago, and he was back there without a shirt on, splitting logs with an axe. I say to him, Art, what on earth are you doing? We don’t need firewood? It’s the middle of summer? And he’s covered in sweat, and he smells funky. And he says to me, Bonnie, you can never be too careful. And then I realize –”
“– What did you realize?”
“It’s discomforting to say aloud.”
“Did he try and harm you?”
“He was cutting the same log.”
“I’m sorry? What same log?”
“It was the same log. He’d been putting the halves back together and cutting the same log down the middle, over and over, for hours.”
“Have there been drugs, or alcohol abuse?”
“He drinks here and there, but I wouldn’t say that word.”
“No, I mean has he abused you or the children in any way?”
“Oh, no, no. He’s not like that.”
“Is there any chance the children could have taken the car themselves? Maybe trying to go somewhere, or run away?”
Her panic turns to something else.
“Now why the hell would they wanna go and do that?”
We zip down the highway. The warm summer wind whistles loudly against Owl’s narrowly cracked window. I have one hand on the wheel, and the other with my index and thumb in the shape of a “C,” keeping my sleepy, drooping, eyebrow propped like a pup tent.
“We need to hurry,” I say.
“What does it mean?” he asks, after a pause, closing his book with a thump.
“That we took too long at the diner,” I say.
“No,” he says. “Life. The cosmos. Everything.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m reading this book and it says that the cosmos is infinite, and that the earth is actually very small.”
“What are you reading?”
“I keep thinking that maybe Dad realized something like that,” he says.
“Something like what?”
“That if the earth is very small, than that makes us even smaller, and I don’t know about you, but it’s enough to get a person thinking, you know? And asking strange questions. It’s a real fish-hook in the brain.”
“Alls I know is that he needs our help,” I say.
“Maybe it was too much, maybe he felt so small, maybe it made him snap.”
“I’m going to make you snap if you don’t cool it with this nonsense.”
I reach over, and snatch the book up from his lap.
I toss the book out the window. The pages flap violently, as it arcs into the darkness of the woods edging the highway.
“You’re going to have to pay the library fine,” he says, twitching.
“Couldn’t give a squirrel’s behind,” I say.
“You’re an idiot,” he says.
“Don’t try and figure everything out,” I say. “You’re only going to be disappointed. You’ll get made fun of at school.”
“No,” he says.
Owl puts his thumb up to his mouth, tears at his cuticle with his front teeth.
“What? You think you’re going to be able to figure it all out?” I ask.
“No, you’re an idiot cause you missed the exit back there,” he says.
I groan. Owl smirks, but it soon fades off.
“I’m scared for Dad,” he says.
“Me too,” I say, and look to turn the car around.
Lt. Raffles of the missing persons unit, is a large man with wide hands and a sturdy neck. He hasn’t let his hair grow in more than a centimeter since the mid-80s. He sits in an office with wood-panel walls, wallpapered with inspirational posters. Key words include: excellence, teamwork, perseverance.
Raffles – who’s been up for two days and counting – raises a cardboard coffee cup above his head, and taps the butt end, trying to free the last drops of whip cream topping. He crunches it in his grip, and it sails across the room into the wastebasket.
Before he can celebrate, Bonnie bursts in. She’s got a bound in her step, sputtering a series of words and phrases and sounds that nearly blows the crew-cut off Raffles’ head. Bonnie is a full bodied woman, with hair the color of a sunburn, in denim shorts and a form-fitting t-shirt, and not entirely unattractive, he thinks. Yet, there’s something about her legs that throws him off, like they’re disproportionally thick for her upper body. Raffles is a professional, however, and he clears his mind of these thoughts.
“Woah, woah,” he says.
And while ninety-five percent of her words blend into a maelstrom of unintelligible sound, as she paces back and forth under the spinning ceiling fan, across the carpet, he does, however, catch the three words that matter:
??????????? “Two.” ???????????
?????????? “Missing.” ?????????
??????????? “Boys.” ???????????
We reach town in the early morning. Everything is calm, and hazy, and glowing. Like the whole place is hiding under a thin cotton bed-sheet, trying to sleep in as long as possible. Church bells clang thickly from a pointed sliver of a tower, from a hill in the distance. The sun rises above us, rippling – I think of the egg-yolk from the diner.
My eyes are heavy. I dip for a moment in the opposite lane. Owl screams. I jerk the wheel, and right the car back into the lane.
Owl reaches over and smacks the back of my skull. “You almost got us killed!” he says.
“Shut up Owl,” I say, taking a swing back at him.
“You don’t know where in the H-E-double-hockey-stick we’re going,” he says.
And he’s right, I don’t.
I stop in a school parking lot to ask for directions, but Owl tells me that we’re better off finding it ourselves, cause truancy is a “punishable crime.”
“It’s Sunday,” I say. “And I highly doubt thats true.”
“Can’t be too careful,” he says.
I drive off.
We idle at a three-way stop sign. I shake Owl awake with my right hand, grabbing him by the front of his oversized Razorbacks t-shirt – our father’s originally, from his college days. He grumbles, and rubs the sleep from the corners of his eyes.
“Do you have any idea where we go from here?”
Owl places his glasses back on his face.
“Existentially?” he asks, straightening up his spine against the seat.
“No, you dingbat. Should I go right or left?”
He shrugs. “How should I know?”
I guess right, and get lucky. About a half mile down the road, I see a sign for the park.
In the squad car, heading South, with his windows down in the morning sun, Raffles’ eyes dart from the road over to Bonnie, in the passenger seat, her hair tied back, waving behind her like a wind sock. He watches her as she rubs her palms across her half-bare thighs.
“Stay professional,” he says, under his breath.
“What was that?” she asks. Her eyes have a desperate intensity about them. They remain fixed on the road, forward, in the only direction that matters; the direction her boys are in.
“Nothing,” he says. He looks over once more to see her lips moving, her hands now clasped together in her lap. “We’ll find your boys.”
She smiles politely, and nods.
“We will,” he says. “No need to worry.”
Raffles realizes, with a quick smack of guilt, that she’d been praying.
It’s hot now, and muggy.
Owl and I are led into the park by a woman missing two fingers; ring and middle, on her right hand. Owl asks her if it was a gator that took them, but she ignores the question.
“Where’s your mother?” she asks.
“She’s parking the car,” I say.
The zoo section of the park, itself, is fairly small and shaped as an oval. A wide dirt path, loops up, out, and around, sparsely populated by wandering families; men with high socks and fanny packs saddled on their hips, trailed by motherly figures in foam visors pushing strollers, sweating into the necks and armpits of their sun-dresses. The outside of the oval is bordered by several run down exhibits, gated off petting areas, and enclosed specialty houses for snakes and birds.
“Where’s the gator pen?” asks Owl, head spinning, looking around – not unlike his avian namesake.
“You’re looking at it,” says the woman with missing fingers. We step forward, and take in the fenced off interior of the oval with layers of thick chain-link fencing, at least ten feet high, encircling it. The pen is mostly water, with a small dirt island in the center – slightly larger than, though the same shape as, a pitcher’s mound. We stand next to a food cart, with a large grill, housing a mound of meaty kebabs, and a plume of thick steam swirling off from it. “Gator on a Stick,” it says, which I find entirely morbid, considering its proximity to the pen.
“Your Dad should be locked up,” says the woman with missing fingers, finally. “Of all the crazy things I’ve seen.”
Owl pipes up, he’s all scrawny, nervous, energy at this point. “It’s not his fault.”
“Save it, pipsqueak,” she says.
“Momma broke his heart, and he didn’t take it well,” he says.
“I think he’s got the devil in his brainpan,” she says.
“Don’t say that,” says Owl. “Something changed in him, that’s all. It could happen to anyone. You. Me. Anyone.”
“Nothing in this here world could make me do a thing like that,” she says.
“How’d he get inside?” I ask.
“Don’t know,” she says. “He got in sometime yesterday evening before we closed. Past our security guard apparently– worthless bastard. Must have climbed up, and jumped inside. Speak o’ the devil,” she says. She points. We see a shadowy figure darting through a collection of trees and bushes. “He’s in there, somewhere.”
“Is he safe?”
“No,” she says. “Of course not. Not at all.”
“So what do you want us to do?”
“How the hell should I know,” she says.
“I’m a kid, you can’t talk like that around me,” says Owl.
“Sorry,” she says.
“Don’t mind him,” I say.
Owl scowls in my direction.
“Do you have any plan of action?” he says.
“It’s just that he won’t respond to anyone,” she says. “We were here for half the night with park officials, trying to talk him out, but it’s like he doesn’t even know what’s going on.”
“Why didn’t you just get the police down here to deal with him?”
“There’s jurisdictional complications,” she says.
“What does that mean?” I ask.
“That they haven’t been brought in yet.”
We watch as the thick, spiky, reptiles mill about on the island, vie for select patches of sunlight through the trees overhead.
“Nobody’s real eager to jump in there, you see,” says the woman after a pause.
“They DID bite your fingers didn’t they!” squeals Owl.
“It stayed with me,” Owl says, years later – while seated on the chipped wooden steps of his porch, in the quiet of an early Fall evening, bobbling his two-year old on his knee.
“What did?” I ask.
“Those alligators, each one pushing, and shoving, and snapping for their bit of sunlight.”
I catch eyes with my father. My father’s eyes – the same color, shape, as our own – peak out through a massive tangled beard that’s taken over the majority of his face. He’s there, tucked within a bush and a tree. My father, the former bank manager now shirtless, wild eyed, and feral. My father, the man who’d survived a war in a desert three-forth’s the way to Timbuktu, but hadn’t been able to brave the split from our Momma.
I feel nothing, but pity for him seeing him there. And, strangely, anger.
Owl, then, throws himself against the chain link. He attaches, like one of those sticky hand toys you’d get from the vending machine’s outside of a Sam’s Club, and begins to shimmy up.
“We got their license plate in town.”
“The car dipped into another lane for a moment. Didn’t realize it was the kids from the missing person’s report.”
“Well they were.”
“They went into the park.”
“You didn’t pursue?”
“But you called it in?”
The officer raises a hand to his face and begins to pick his teeth with a loose hangnail. Raffles snaps his fingers in front of his face.
“Stay with me, here. I said, you called it in?” says Raffles.
“So why not?”
“Why not what?”
“Why not pursue?”
“Didn’t think it was worth ticketing for.”
“Didn’t think it was worth ticketing for?”
“What kind of two-bit Barney Fife operation you got running down here?”
“We’re just as god made us, sir. Plus, there’s jurisdictional complications.”
“There always are, aren’t there.”
“I guess so?”
“That wasn’t a question.”
He hears a car door shut, and looks back across the street. Bonnie stands on the sidewalk now, pacing back and forth in front of the large plate glass window of a karate center. Behind her, a row of ten or so boys of varying ages, resembling paper-dolls in their oversized blocky uniforms, chop and punch and kick and shout in synchronous harmony. She watches them through the window, and lights a cigarette. With her free hand, she pinches the cotton fabric of her armpit, and attempts to shake it out. She turns. Her words fly out in a nervous drove, smashing together above the quivering heat of the blacktop.
“Didtheyfindthem?Whatisgoingon?” she asks.
“Stay put, Mrs. Harris. I’ll be there in a second.”
Raffles, turns back around. “Do you have any idea what they’re doing in the park?” he asks.
“I don’t know, sir. Maybe they’re having a goddamn picnic.”
“Get out of there, you’re gonna get yourself killed!” shouts the woman with missing fingers. She turns, and kicks at the dusty path with her work boot. “This isn’t happening, no.”
Owl pushes through the water, twisting his body with each step to build momentum.
“You two came here by yourselves, didn’t you?” she asks me.
“If we came together, then we weren’t by ourselves,” I say, jaggedly.
“I mean that wasn’t your mother on the phone, was it?”
“No. That was Owl.”
“That was what?”
“Owl, my brother.”
“Your family is a bunch of lunatics, you know that?”
We watch as Owl darts, athletically, around the perplexed alligators. He jukes, and takes a running leap past them.
“Dad! We’re here, Dad!” calls Owl.
Our father, in the bushes, retreats. An alligator shuffles toward Owl. It moves more smoothly, and quickly than I imagined. It brings its jaws together. They come down with a harsh snap, like the sound of a rubber band on a forearm. The sound travels across the pond, through the fence, and reverberates off the back walls of the nearby information center at the moment that a cluster of children led by three adult chaperones exit the building, all wearing conical hats, secured by elastic underneath their chins. The group is all smiles, and shouts; a birthday party, I assume. A small girl wearing a princess tiara, holding a set of balloons in her hand, is the first to notice. She screeches and points, letting the balloons go – up and off into the air above the park. Everyone, of course, yells. They gasp. A larger crowd of park-goers move in to see what the commotion is all about. Within minutes, the path has cleared and over thirty or so people have gathered against the fence to watch. The chaperones move to cover the dozen or so children’s eyes, and begin ushering them, as a group, in through the doors of a nearby penguin house, diverting any of their concerned, innocent, questions.
“They’re just playing,” says one.
“They’re professionals,” says another.
“Alligators don’t eat people. They’re nice creatures. They only eat vegetables,” says a third.
Owl shoves up and through into the bushes. I see the two of them embrace. Owl points toward me, and I wave. My father holds his hand up, limply, and lets it hang.
Whatever spell had held our father seems, for the moment, broken.
They disappear into the thicket. And I imagine that I can hear them, faintly, but I can’t.
Arthur and Owl stand in a small pocket in the brush, enveloped on all sides by the mostly artificial Evergladesian flora. The mid-day sun hangs above through canopy of branches causing gray shadows to undulate across the dusty ground at their feet. The shouts of the growing crowd outside the pen, are hardly audible here. It’s calm inside, almost serene. Owl forgets, momentarily, about the alligators. Instead, he’s reminded of the feeling of being younger, and hiding in the bathtub. How he’d hold his breath, and slide under the surface of the water, look up at the ceiling, and watch it jiggle. How he’d count as long as he could. How he’d hum, and make motor-boat sounds, and dispel the arguments coming from down the hall.
“Come home,” says Owl through a pinched nose; the smell is gamy, unbearable, like a neglected seed pan underneath an old birdcage.
Arthur stares back at him blankly. His eyes are glazed donuts. A mosquito attaches itself to his neck, just under the fold of his chin – he does nothing, lets it drink. After a moment, he slinks back and obscures himself with a tree.
“You gotta come home,” says Owl.
“I can’t,” he says.
“You can,” says Owl.
“Something’s changed in your brain.”
“My brain is fine.”
“Why did you leave us then?”
“I didn’t feel like I was worth anything, anymore.”
“But you’re worth something to me. This isn’t where you belong.”
“Everything’s too heavy.”
“What’s too heavy?”
“Do you feel small?”
“I know what it’s like to feel small too.”
“I don’t mean small small. Height small.”
“I know you don’t.”
“But you’re too young to know.”
“I know that the cosmos is infinite, and we’re just a little speck.”
Arthur looks up through an opening in the tree branches, and sees the cluster of multi-colored balloons drifting, off and way, toward the sun.
“You have to try,” says Owl.
“I am. I do.”
“Well try harder.” Owl kicks the ground with his heel, into the dust. He hears a thick hollow sound; plastic, underneath.
“What do you know about anything?”
“What are you even doing here?”
“I thought it was one place that nobody could find me.”
“You can do this.”
“No, I can’t.”
Owl extends his hand to Arthur, who looks at it as if he can’t quite figure out what to do with it.
Owl and my father, emerge from the bushes, together. They move in one direction, and are swiftly cut off by the newly piqued snarls of the largest of the five reptiles. I shout, and pound my fists on the fence of the pen. The woman with missing fingers, pulls me back.
“It’ll be okay,” she says.
“Get away from me!” I yell into her mid-riff.
Three alligators now circle the bushes. Owl and my father move in another direction. No luck. Owl shrieks. My father pounds his hands across his chest like a gorilla. One of the gators opens it’s mouth. I see a glimmer of its teeth, like smooth, bone-white, stalactites, and stalagmites lining the entrance of a cave.
The crowd encircling the pen has grown – fifty plus I’d guess – and has pushed up to the fence, yelling. The woman with missing fingers steps forward. “Keep moving people! Nothing to see here!” she says, but nobody listens. Not even for a second. I look across their faces, and I hate them. I know why they are there standing there; that they – although who would ever admit it? – want to witness something tragic.
The circle of gators parts. The largest of the alligators lifts itself out from the pool of water, and up onto the island. His back glistens; the sheen and jagged texture of crumpled tin-foil. He lumbers toward them. He snaps his jaws. Owl and my father hop backward. Owl, reaches up and grabs a tree branch. He pulls himself up, walking his feet up the base of it. He hangs like a sloth.
My father tries to follow, up the tree. He grabs at a different branch, but it buckles, and splinters and cracks in his hands.
He falls to his knees in front of the alligator.
The alligator snaps. The broken branch lands at my father’s side. He grabs at it, and swings, pivoting on his bare heels. The branch connects with the beast in the side of the head. It recoils.
“Don’t hurt it! Just get out of there!” shouts the women with missing fingers.
And then Owl begins to slip. He yells. His glasses fall off his face, below him. He falls hard on his back with an “ooompth.” Dust kicks up around him. I hear him groan. He fumbles blindly for his glasses, but can’t find them. Our father sees Owl on the ground, and remains immobile, whether for fear or whatever is paralyzing him. The large gator thrusts forward, suddenly, and nearly catches him in the meaty part of his calf.
The gator changes course, and moves in toward Owl. My father bolts over to the moving alligator, and begins clubbing it over the head. It thrashes and snarls. He jumps back.
Owl’s feet spin underneath him, and he stands. He snatches up his glasses. He shoots forward, toward the wading pool as the gator’s tail whips across the ground, with phenomenal torque, connecting just below the knee, and sweeps Owl’s legs out from under him. He cries out and floats sideways, across the surface of the pool, before landing face first. He hangs there, arms outstretched, motionless. His oversized t-shirt billows out like the skin of a flying squirrel, drifting across the surface.
“Owl!” I shout.
He remains still.
“Owl, get up! Get up!”
My father looks over at Owl, and dives headfirst on the top of the gators back. The gator instinctively barrel rolls across the dust spinning with my father, who clings on. It twists, and thrashes. I see a mark on my father’s forehead; a line of blood, like a strand of maroon yarn, being pulled down the side of his face, his neck, and shoulders, collecting in a growing spool against what is left of his t-shirt. He’s thrown free from the alligator and hobbles up. He dives out into the water and scoops Owl up with his arms like a fork-lift. Owl rests motionless against his chest. He pushes against the force of the waist-high water. The alligator from the island reorientates its itself, finds its target, and slips silently into the water. The crowd screams, and points, collectively.
I realize that I’ve been crying. I can’t stand on the side any longer, I take off toward the pen, scramble against the chain link fence when I feel a wide hand grab the straps of my overalls, and toss me aside. I buckle and fall, back into the dust, rubbing my knees raw. A large shadow overtakes me. A figure steps up to the fence. I look up, and see her running toward me in her jean shorts.
“Mother?” I ask.
Bang. Bang. Bang.
The shots ring out above my head.
Several darts lodge into the thick skin of the ancient beast. I see it’s head lower down onto the surface of the water, and it floats, motionless, like a piece of scaly drift-wood. The remaining alligators scatter to the edges of the pen.
Lt. Raffles lowers his gun, and removes his sunglasses. “Tranquilizer,” he says.
“What a professional,” says the woman with missing fingers.
I’m knocked to the ground, again, this time with a hug. Momma holds on to me so tight that I can’t even try to stand back up. I can feel her heart about to tear through her shirt. She is covered in sweat, and remains silent. She reaches her hand out toward Owl. I hear a pained release of air escape from her open mouth, her breath is sour against my face.
“Momma, your breath,” I say.
My father reaches dry land, just outside the fence. He lays Owl on the ground in the grass, and stands over him. Owl’s eyes remain closed, his face expressionless, his arms at his sides, limp.
Momma jumps up, she springs to the fence. “Owl, baby, honey, wake up, wake up.”
He places his hands together and pumps Owl once, twice, three times, against the chest. A rush of grimy water spills out of his mouth, and across his shirt. His eyes flutter open, and he looks around, confused. He coughs up another mouthful of water, and gasps for air.
“Am I dead?” he asks, finally, to the twitter of the cheering crowd.
“No,” says my father. “No, you’re alive. You’re okay. You’re alive.”
Unsurprisingly, we are grounded when we return home. Over the next few days, Momma is so upset she uses combinations of words we’ve never heard her use before. Words that rhyme with duck, and spit.
“I just don’t know what to say to you both,” she says, while fighting through a mixing bowl of instant mashed potatoes with a whisk. Globs of the newly thickened white substance drop to the linoleum floor with a wet pop as she waves off our protests, our side of the story. Her eyes though, remain fixed in the living room, on our father, who lies on his side, on the couch, his hands together propped under his head like a pillow, staring through the glow of the television, and into the wall.
I give up on Momma, and walk into the living room.
“Hey Dad,” I say, but he doesn’t respond. I put my hand on his shoulder. I realize after a moment that, while my father’s eyes are open, he’s snoring. As I walk away, I hear him cough. I turn back around to face him and see that he’s now looking up at me.
“What’s up Dad?” I ask.
He doesn’t answer. He remains silent and still, keeping eye contact. I can’t tell if he’s slipped back into sleep or not.
“There’s work that needs to be done,” he says.
“Sure,” I say. “But you should get some sleep first.”
The telephone rings. I see my mother wince, pick it up, answer, and take it into the pantry. Owl motions for me, and I hurry back into the kitchen. We grab two empty glasses, and push up against the door. We place them against the pantry door and listen in.
“Okay,” our mother says. We hear an excited squeaky voice on the other end of the line. “What exactly are the charges going to be?” she says, after a moment.
The pantry door swings open. Owl drops his glass onto the ground. It shatters upon impact. Tiny shards glide across the floor like miniature ice skaters.
Her eyes are bloodshot. Her face looks worn. I notice the deep ridges carved in her forehead.
“To your room,” she says, placing her hand over the phone. “Both of you! Now!”
Later that night, from our bedroom, we hear a sound; a sputtering, mechanical, sound.
“What’s that?” I ask.
Owl shakes his head.
We each hop out of bed, and move up to the triangular window, in our slanted roofed – converted attic – and look down, out into the yard. The yard is dark, save for an illuminated, pyramid shaped section in the middle, from the back porch floodlight. The sound grows louder, and more pronounced. We see a long shadow projected across the yard now, expanding, devouring the light. And he appears, moving slowly, riding atop the lawnmower, cutting a horizontal strip out of the knee-high grass. His beard is gone. He stares straight ahead into the dark. Our father.
The rumbles continue for an hour or so, before cutting out abruptly.
“Check it out,” Owl says, later, while seated in the windowsill.
“We got school in the morning,” I say, muffled, with my head under the pillow like an ostrich.
“I can’t hear you,” he says.
I sit, up and drift over to the window.
“Look,” he says.
I look down. “What?” I ask. “He cut the grass, how cool.”
“Look closer,” says Owl. He begins to trace the mowed lines with his finger along the window.
I see it now. The grass is cut erratically, a random assortment of criss-crossed lines and concentric circles, filled in with tufts of still-tall grass.
“What do you think it means?” asks Owl.
We hear a knock on the door.
“Come in,” I say.
Our mother walks into the room, followed by our father on her arm, showered, shaved, bandaged. It’s the first time we’d seen them standing next to each other in months.
We ask what’s wrong – we expect more punishment after all – but instead, silently, they move up to the windowsill and squeeze Owl and I close together, as if – should they let go – we would untether from their grasp and drift out through the window, off into the cosmos, where we would be alone, and our insides would turn to mashed potatoes, and our heads would pop like party balloons.
And they thank us, thank us, thank us.
Postcard: Found at the Antique Warehouse Mall in Memphis, TN in October 2011.