THE BASTARD CHILDREN OF JOE ROCCA, a novella
[continued from part 2]
Jeanne leaves around 9 a.m. She's expecting family later in the morning and asks if I'd like to join them, but I decline. I've had my hands full with my own clan's antics and suspect the show is far from over.
Sure enough, at 10 o'clock Amanda shows up with the Sunday paper and muffins, wearing tie-dyed sneakers, black shorts, and a torn black Pixies t-shirt. "Break out the espresso," she says, "I have stories to tell." Her tone indicates suppressed excitement. I pull out the espresso gear, my sister settles down at the kitchen table looking, well, not glad to be alive exactly, but full of life. Scandal and conflict do that to her. She pours orange juice, opens the paper. Looks like she's decided to build up suspense, meaning that despite her opening line she'll start talking when she's good and ready. I know better than to push, so once the coffee is underway I grab the comics section and open it up. The high-test has been poured, I'm done with the funnies and am wading through the sports section before she speaks again.
"Have a nice evening?" she asks.
"That's good. Mine was interesting. Not a whole lot of fun, but real interesting."
"Annamarie had more to say?"
"Oh, yes. Yes, she did."
I suspect coffee might not be the best thing for my stomach this morning and put on water for herbal tea. Amanda watches, then looks out the window. "Our father," she says, shaking her head. Her eyes go a bit distant, a sad expression takes form on her face. Then she asserts control -- sadness vanishes, she looks back at me, self-possession restored. My sister, the babe of steel. "You ready for it?" she asks.
"As ready as I'm gonna be," I answer, resigned. I pick up a corn muffin to fortify myself.
"Well," she begins, "in a way it was the same hooha, just lots more of it, in greater detail."
"So our father doesn't seem capable of fidelity. He wasn't faithful to Mom, he wasn't faithful to Annamarie, he wasn't faithful to any other woman." She takes a sip of brew then adds, "He also wasn't faithful to us."
"What does that mean?"
Amanda studies my face, the faintest of smiles in place, then says, "Annamarie thinks he has other kids."
I stop in mid-chew, staring. Herself gazes back at me. "Other kids?" I finally get out.
A small nod of confirmation from Amanda. "But listen, I got Joe's address."
"Of course from Annamarie."
"She must know he would have given it to us if he wanted us to have it."
"She wasn't sure it was the right thing to," Amanda admits. "I had to work on her for a while."
"What do you want to do?"
"Find him. Get this miserable show on the road."
I study my sister's face. "Are you sure?"
"I'm sure. I want to see what he has to say when he can't disappear."
I'm not sure about the wisdom of that, but I stay quiet for a minute. I think about meeting the old man, about getting it over with since it seems like it's going to happen sooner or later. The prospect does not bring me joy, but I figure at the very least it'll be interesting to see what happens when father meets daughter. That alone might be worth the price of admission. I finally nod my head. "Okay," I say, "let's do it."
Two hours later, we're on the western stretch of the Turnpike, maybe 40 minutes from our destination, Meadowboro. I'm doing the driving so I can feel like I'm in control of something.
I've been trying to figure out how this person we're chasing down can be the same happy family man in the snapshot at the beach. My few vague memories of Joe are of a gentle presence. How can the apparently amoral character I've been learning about be the same guy? I find it hard to picture the two co-existing in the same skin. And I'm nervous about just how untidy the untidy reality may turn out to be.
But there we are, heading in his direction on the aft side of a beautiful Sunday noontime. The air blowing in the open windows of the car smells faintly of cut hay, and the fields on either side of the Turnpike stretch out beneath blue skies, speckled with late summer wildflowers and stands of purple loosestrife. For most of the ride, we stay clear of the subject that has pointed us west, but Amanda is now talking about her dinner with Annamarie and a little of the angry glee I saw when she first showed up this morning has reappeared.
"Three other children," she says. "Maybe four. She wasn't sure. One almost as old as us."
I continue to have difficulty absorbing this. The idea that I've had half-sisters and brothers scattered around all these years leaves me feeling uncomfortable and agitated. And my discomfort irritates me, like I should be able to wade through stunning disclosures the way my sibling does, with defiance and panache, instead of feeling helpless before it all. But the truth is I'm surprised my reaction isn't more intense. I'm surprised I don't have facial tics or bizarre muscle spasms, that I'm not screaming barely-intelligible obscenities at anyone who comes near. "Does she know this stuff for sure?" I ask, hoping it's just rumor, innuendo, the product of a fevered, bitter mind.
"She seemed pretty definite." My hopes deflate. "I guess she found some photographs at his place -- other women, kids. When she asked about them, he got evasive. So she copied addresses from some envelopes and got in touch with the women."
"How many women?"
"A few. She didn't supply a number, but it sounded like five or six, maybe more."
I find myself feeling so irritated and distressed that I nearly burst out laughing. "What the hell is up with that Annamarie woman? Does she think she has some divinely-granted right to snoop around like this?"
"She was involved with the guy," Amanda responds with her own irritation. "You don't think she might have had grounds for investigation? You think it's okay for him to litter the landscape with affairs and illegitimate offspring?"
"What I think," I counter through teeth nearly chattering with high emotion, "is I'd be happier not knowing. Who asked her to track us down and spill this stuff? What makes her think she's doing us a good turn? I get no kicks at all from this sordid bullshit -- I wish she'd just left us the fuck alone."
For a while after that it is quiet in the car, apart from the grinding of my molars. Eventually we leave the Turnpike and head into the city that has sheltered my father for most of my lifetime. We stop in front of a police station, Amanda runs inside to get a fix on the location of Joe's address. When she comes back out, she has directions written on the back of a brochure entitled "Meadowboro -- Dairy and Cultural Center of the Historic Western Hills." She gets in the car, her expression neutral, and says, "This is it."
It occurs to me that I don't have to go any further. If I want, I can get back on the Turnpike and head east, probably make it home in time to catch the last few innings of the ball game or go to the gym and work some of the angst out of my system. But I don't. I start the car up, we go to meet our, er, maker.
According to the directions, Joe's house is in one of the city's northern neighborhoods and we have to pass through the Heritage section of town to get there. Many tourists are out taking advantage of the perfect late-summer weather to sightsee, following the Heritage Trail that meanders past many of the old colonial sites this area is filthy with.
We find our way to Musket Lane, the quiet, maple-lined street where Joe's home is tucked away, and drive past fine old homes dating back to the colonial 1950's. I pull to the curb in front of number 20, kill the engine, we sit and listen to it tick as it cools off. The only visible sign of activity is across the street, where a boy and girl no older than 6 or 7 run back and forth through a sprinkler, squealing with laughter.
Joe's home is a small, nondescript white and blue affair. The yard is neatly kept, though paint peels in spots on the exterior walls. There is a small front porch and the front door is closed. We get out of the car, walk up to the porch, ring the doorbell. It chimes in that funny, hollow way doorbells do when there's no life in a house. After a moment, we wander up the driveway. Next to the garage, an old Pontiac is up on blocks, rusting quietly away. A small clothesline spans part of the yard, some white t-shirts and a pair of worn work pants hang motionless in the afternoon sunlight. I knock on the back door, expecting no answer, which is what I get. Small flecks of peeling paint come off the door when I strike it with my knuckles. Amanda looks in the garage door windows, I join her. Paint cans, a few tools, some loops of rope hanging from nails, some boxes, a lawn mower. Spare and orderly, but clearly a man's space.
We head back down the driveway until we're even with the shrubs in front of the house, where we stop and look around. The two children across the street have disappeared, their voices are barely audible from inside that house. Apart from that, the street is so absent of tenancy that I half expect to see shutters begin closing and sidewalks rolling up.
"Now what?" Amanda asks. I"m wondering that myself when a car pulls around the corner and drives up the street -- a late-60's vintage Oldsmobile 98, big and gray, traces of blue smoke hanging in the air behind it as it rolls up the block. The driver is invisible in the shade of the trees.
The Olds slows as it approaches the house, then turns its great bulk into the driveway, rocking slowly in the manner of an ocean-going vessel. We step out of the way onto the lawn, it pulls up next to us and stops. Close up, it's apparent that the car has probably not been washed since Ronald Reagan was falling asleep at cabinet meetings. The car quiets and the sound of the driver's door opening is loud and crisp in the neighborhood's silence. A fellow wearing sunglasses gets out and stands with his arm on the roof of the car, looking at us. He takes the shades off and there, standing before me, is the man from the photograph hanging on my dress mirror, plus 25 years of gray hair and lines in his face. He looks fit, wears bluejeans and worn cowboy boots, and his skin has a red, ruddy look that probably comes from working outdoors.
"Something I can do for you?" he asks. I'm trying to figure out how to start when he shuts the door and moves around the front of the car, scrutinizing us more closely. Gesturing with the sunglasses, he says, "Wait, don't tell me -- it's Nate and Amanda, isn't it?"
I answer, "Yes, it is, Joe," and a smile spreads across his face as he stops in front of us, checking us out. "Look at you two," he says, extending large callused hands. We each take one and our father says, "This is fine, this is a real pleasure."
"Surprised to see us?" Amanda asks innocently.
"Well, I guess I am a bit," he admits, releasing our hands. Amanda looks pleased. "So," Joe says, moving toward the front porch, "come on inside." We follow him, as he unlocks the doors he says, "It's not much, but I call it home."
"How long have you lived here?" I inquire.
"Oh, I don't know. A while. A few years."
We walk in behind him and find ourselves in a small living room lightly strewn with newspapers and clothes. "Well," my sister observes, "it's a man's place."
"Like I said, not much to it, but it's home."
We mill about as Joe picks up articles of clothing and tosses them into a back room. I study a rustic print of a couple of ducks in a marshy setting, the only wall hanging in the room. Joe offers us some coffee, we both decline, but Amanda asks to use the facilities and he points her to the correct doorway. She disappears, Joe and I look at each other. "So how are you doing?" he asks.
"Okay," I reply noncommittally.
He stares at me for a second, then shrugs. "I don't really know what to say, I"m afraid. You two have caught me flatfooted."
"Why did you hang up yesterday?"
He purses his lips and exhales audibly through his nose, looking away from me. There's been an awful lot of loud exhaling going on over the last two days. "Well," he says, "the jitters, I guess. The conversation felt harder than I'd been expecting."
I nod. "I was nervous too. Finding that you'd cut and run didn't feel very good."
"I'm sure that's true." There is a moment of silence. Then he motions for me to follow, saying, "Why don't you tell me a little about yourself," as he steps into the kitchen and puts a pot of water on the stove.
I follow him, trying to pull my thoughts together. "I don't know. There's nothing glorious going on in my life right now. I wear a suit and work in an office during the week."
"Computer work, something like that?"
I shake my head in the negative. "Administrative. What do you do?"
"Oh, different things. Some road work."
"That explains your color."
"Yeah, I have a farmer's tan, don't I?" He appraises his arms, smiling, then gets instant coffee and a mug from a cupboard. "Anyway, I work on a road crew a lot of the year, I work on cars some, swing a hammer if I have to. Whatever pays the bills." I notice the kitchen is painted a soft shade of yellow, and the walls are unadorned, nice white and yellow curtains hang in the window, only slightly stained from food spatter of some kind.
Amanda appears in the doorway. "What," she asks, "is the odor in the bathroom?"
"Odor?" Joe says, frowning with thought as he spoons instant coffee into the mug. "Got me. I haven't noticed anything."
"Hmm," Amanda hmms. "I think the clothes on the line are dry."
"Yeah, I know, honey." Amanda hates being called names like "honey," but apart from a brief curl of her lips she gives no sign of displeasure. "A friend of mine will be coming by later to take care of it."
I look at Amanda. She says to Joe, "A friend? You mean a woman-friend?"
"Uh-huh," Joe says, removing the pot from the stove and pouring hot water into the coffee mug. He puts the pot down, takes a sip, looks at his watch and does a slight double-take. "Hell, I"m late."
"You have somewhere to go?" Amanda asks, a slight edge of suspicion in her voice.
"I do, yeah. I was going to meet someone for lunch. I'm sorry." There is a brief silence, then Joe says, "Listen, I know you've traveled a long way. As long as you're here, you want to come along?"
I'm not sure what to say, but Amanda asks, "Who are you meeting?"
"A woman I know. A good kid, you'd like her."
"You want us to come along on your lunch date?"
"Sure, why not? Show off my son and daughter. Brenda would be happy to meet you."
Amanda turns away from Joe, silently mouthing "Brenda?" in near-blissful disbelief.
"I'm not sure this is a great idea," I say cautiously. "We haven't seen each other in a long time. It might be better if we...." My voice trails off when I notice Amanda wordlessly warning me not to interfere. Hey, if my father is reckless enough to invite my sister out like this, why should I get in the way? "Look," I suggest, "maybe you should call your friend and run it by her first."
"Forget it, she's working. Anyway, the surprise'll be good for her circulation." And with that romantic notion, my sister looks at me in a way that suggests if she were in Brenda's shoes this wouldn't be her idea of a dream date.
In a few minutes, we're crammed into the front seat of Joe's Oldsmobile supertanker, sailing through Middleboro. The car literally rocks like we're out on the high seas, and Amanda is holding on to the inside door handle to keep from swinging back and forth.
"What's the matter?" Joe asks her. "Feeling unsteady?"
"Ever hear about suspension?" Amanda retorts. "It's something magical that stabilizes the ride of a car. You can actually buy it with another magical thing called money."
"Come on, don't be a baby. It's a little rocking motion, no cause for dramatics." I stay out of it and am actually getting into the novel incongruity of watching street scenery go by from the perspective of someone riding deep ocean swells.
"That's some color you have in your hair there," Joe comments to my sister. I can't tell if he's making genuine conversation or teasing her. Clearly, he has no idea who he may be provoking.
"You don't like it?" Amanda asks.
"I didn't say that. It just stands out is all."
"Uh-huh. So tell me, what's your life been like since you left us?"
Joe pauses before answering. His jaw sets and I see the wrinkles around the outside of his eyes deepen. "That question covers a lot of ground," he says. "How do you want me to answer it?"
"Your choice," Amanda says, getting out a cigarette and rolling down her window.
Joe is opening his mouth to reply when a truck crosses the intersection right in front of us, forcing Joe to swerve, pumping the brakes and pounding on the horn. "Hey!" he yells out the window. "That was a stop sign you ignored there! These are my kids in the car with me, asshole! Wake up!" My sister and I have both braced ourselves against the dashboard, expressions stunned. Amanda notices that her cigarettes have disappeared, looks everywhere they might conceivably have gone to with no result. Joe is muttering, "Stupid son of a bitch," when he notices Amanda's fruitless search. "Your butts gone?" he asks. She looks at him without answering, then stares out at the scenery. "That's too bad," Joe comments with slightly flip sympathy, and then we pull into a lot behind a pancake house and into a parking space.
"This is it," he says, killing the engine and getting out of the car. Amanda and I follow him inside. The place is crowded and busy, with families waiting for seats. Joe walks right by them all to a table that has a booth-style seat on one side and two chairs on the other. "Here, sit down," he says, looking around. I slide into the booth side, see that Amanda has stopped to check out the cigarette machine near the entrance. It sports a large OUT OF ORDER sign, she slides into the seat next to me looking mighty displeased.
An attractive 40ish blonde enters the big dining area from the kitchen carrying a tray of food, Joe spots her and waves. She waves back and holds up a finger to indicate that she'll be a minute, then proceeds to a table where two young parents are trying to keep a boy and girl from dumping glasses of water on each other.
"Where's your friend?" I ask.
"She'll be here," Joe replies, sitting down across from Amanda. The noise level in the restaurant is high, the air full with the voices of adults and children and the sounds of food being served. Next to me, Amanda seems restless. I don't know if it's the course our day has taken or our ride with Joe or if it's simply lack of tobacco. I'm wondering about that when the waitress Joe waved to appears before us with some menus. She drops them on the table as she takes off her apron and sits down across from me. Joe leans over and plants a kiss on her lips while Amanda and I stare. "Nate, Amanda," Joe he says, "This is Brenda. Brenda, these here are my kids."
"Oh," Brenda says, her eyes widening. She reaches across the table to shake hands as she says, "It's very nice to meet you." My mouth is open, I close it and take her hand. She has a firm grip, warm eyes, and her waitress get-up is covered with red frills. After we disengage, she shakes hands with Amanda, then adjusts her blouse.
"You sure there are enough frills on that outfit?" Amanda inquires. I nudge her with my knee under the table, she ignores me.
"It's excessive, isn't it? Well, I only have to wear it here."
Joe asks us what we want to eat, we contemplate the menus and order. "You done for the day?" Joe asks Brenda.
"Done for today and off tomorrow," she replies, pulling out a tissue and wiping a little sweat off her forehead.
"How long have you two kids been seeing each other?" Amanda asks.
"Oh, I don't know," Joe says, looking off to the side.
"On and off, for a while," says Brenda.
"I see," Amanda says. "Say, I noticed you have a computer at the house," she goes on, addressing Joe.
"I didn't see that," I say.
"It was in the room at the end of the hall. I saw it on my way out of the little girls' room."
"Yeah, I do," Joe admits. "Nothing fancy."
"Looked nice enough to me. How long have you had it?"
"Not too long. A couple of years."
"He writes with it," Brenda contributes.
"Is that right?" Amanda says, eyebrows raised.
"Yeah, I do a little writing."
"What kind of stuff?"
"Nothing special. Just some doodling around."
"He sells his stuff to newspapers," Brenda interjects. "He's a regular in one of them."
I can hear the wheels gathering speed in Amanda's head. "A regular?" she says. "Weeklies, dailies, what?"
"Dailies mostly," Joe says.
"Here, Foxton, Oak Junction."
Joe nods yes, tapping his fork against the tabletop.
"On a regular basis," Brenda adds again.
"It's no big deal," Joe says dismissively.
"A daily's a daily," Amanda says levelly, "and there's nothing shabby about the Trib. Some people would prostrate themselves for an opportunity like that. What do you write about?"
"For the regular column? Whatever's on my mind, generally. Sometimes local concerns. Now and then I might write a handyman article."
"Why didn't you mention this, " I butt in, "when you were telling me about your work?"
"Because it's nothing major. Doesn't pay much, I don't consider it a big deal."
"Of course it's a big deal," Amanda says. "You're making some part of your living writing a column for daily newspapers. You don't talk about it because you're secretive. You don't want to tell us anything about yourself, the same way you didn't tell us where you live so that we had to track you down."
Brenda is looking back and forth between Joe and Amanda. I"m waiting to see how Joe is going to deal.
"I tell what I want to tell," he says. "I don't owe you or anyone else any information I don't feel like discussing."
"You don't think you owe your own children a little basic data so we can have some idea of who our father is?" Amanda pursues.
Coffee arrives, the exchange halts as cups and a thermal pot are put down. After the waitress leaves and Joe is focusing on putting his coffee together, Brenda asks, "What's going on here?"
Joe stays silent and Amanda starts to say something. She's sounding a little worked up, so I put my hand over hers and interrupt, saying, "This is the first time we've seen Joe since we were 6 or 7. There's a lot to catch up on."
Joe fixes his eyes on me and asks, "How did you get my address? From Annamarie?"
"Who?" Amanda asks innocently.
"That would be just like her," Joe says with disgust.
"Annamarie," Brenda asks, sitting up straighter. "Annamarie Cin....?
"Yes," Joe answers, cutting off her question.
"You know Annamarie?" Amanda asks Brenda.
"Uh-huh. She does the accounting here and...."
"Never mind," Joe interjects, cutting her off again.
"I like her," Amanda goes on.
"Yeah, she's a nice person," Brenda agrees, then turns to Joe as if something has just sunk in. "They didn't know where you live?"
"No," Amanda answers. "He hasn't been in touch with us since he left us 25 years ago."
"You mind," Joe says, "if I answer questions addressed to me?"
"25 years?" says Brenda.
"They're exaggerating," Joe tells her.
Amanda snorts derisively, Joe's eyes shift to her with what feels like a wordless warning. The food arrives, conversation is suspended again for a moment. When the waitress leaves, Brenda looks at her food and says, "Suddenly I'm not very hungry."
"Don't be silly," says Joe. "Eat up."
Brenda takes a sip of coffee, nothing more. We're all silent, then Brenda asks, "Where are you two from?"
We tell her, she looks confused. "I thought you told me your kids lived in Clearwater County," she says to Joe.
"You must have misunderstood," he responds, shaking his head and cutting pancakes. Brenda stares at him, then looks down at her plate. If her expression is any indication, she's wondering what the hell she's gotten herself into.
Amanda weighs in with a different tack. "Did you know we're illegitimate?" she asks Brenda, who seems to be at a loss for words.
"She doesn't know anything about that," Joe says.
"But you knew."
"Yes, I knew."
"Well, then, what? You couldn't call us? You couldn't talk to us, comfort us a little?" Joe says nothing, just sits chewing, looking at his pancakes. "Don't ignore me!" Amanda demands. "We needed you and you abandoned us!"
"Joe," I say softly, "we were children. We were just kids."
Joe raises his right fist and pounds the table so that everything on it hops around. It's unexpected and sudden enough that Brenda, Amanda and I jump in our seats. "Jesus, Joe," Brenda says with a hand on her chest, "don't do that."
"Don't tell me what to do!" He starts to yell, then catches himself and brings his voice down. I notice veins are standing out on his forehead and neck.
Brenda puts down her fork and says, "Don't talk to me like that."
"I'm sorry. It's not you. It's them, showing up here like this with an agenda of some sort. I called you," he addresses me here, "because I heard your mother had passed on."
"That was last year," Amanda interrupts.
"Well, I just heard recently," Joe says to her, his color heightening. "Is that okay?" Amanda holds her tongue as she and Joe exchange a look, then Joe continues to me, "I thought this might have been a tough adjustment for you two, her being the one that raised you and all. I know you got something of a raw deal from me. I know I could have done more. And I thought, well, maybe better late than never. But it was a mistake. I'm no good with this stuff. I'm not a father. I tried it. I gave it my best and it didn't work. I'm not cut from the right cloth and that's the God's honest truth." He sticks the tines of his fork into his pancakes and studies his plate.
"Did you love Lina?" I ask.
"Love her? Hell, I married her, didn't I?"
"No," I remind him, "you didn't."
He stares at me, then says, "I thought I did at the time," and shakes his head. "You have no idea what life with your mother was like. We did pretty well at the beginning there, it seemed okay for a while, but your mother got anxious about things. She worried, she got an ulcer, she became demanding. She wasn't like that to begin with. She changed, I don't know why. Nothing satisfied her. Whatever I did, it wasn't enough."
Amanda asks, "It couldn't have had anything to do with her husband, could it?"
Joe and Amanda lock eyes for a moment, then he looks away and says, "I don't know. Things just weren't good enough for her, she always wanted more. I finally realized the whole thing was going down and I got out."
There is a moment of silence at the table. The noise around us goes on, parents and children eating and talking.
"I tried," Joe continues. "And that's what I do. I try things, and if they don't work, I stop. I get out."
"What about everyone else?" Amanda asks. "What about the people who get left behind when you decide it's time to bail?"
"I can't take care of everyone else. I can only take care of myself. I'm not a father." He looks Amanda in the eyes with that last statement, then looks at me. I meet his gaze, something in his expression catches my attention. He's making an effort to say something true and sincere, and I see it. "I'm not a father," he repeats. "I'm just a fella doing the best he can. Sometimes that may not be too swift, but there it is."
"But you are a father," Amanda says quietly, so quietly I almost can't hear her above the noise in the restaurant. "You fathered us. You fathered a couple of children in Clearwater County, and I hear you fathered one or two more. A whole slew of abandoned kids. Your abandoned kids."
My father is shaking his head. "No. Listen...," he says.
My sister cuts him off. "No, you listen. You're a father all right, you have the equipment for rutting. You just don't have the balls to live up to the responsibility of a mature man after that." Her voice quiets again, even quieter now, until I'm straining to hear. "You screwed us, all of us, me and Nate and all the other ones. You screwed our mothers and then you went and screwed us, you stupid, self-centered bastard."
Joe has put both hands flat on the table. He looks up at Amanda and speaks in a steady voice that carries almost no inflection. "You've got it a touched turned around, little lady. You can think what you want to about me, but I am my own person and I'll do what I want without answering to you or anyone else." He takes a breath, lets it out. Relaxed, almost casual. "And the simple truth of the situation is that regardless of your feelings about me and what I've done, I'm not the bastard at this table." I hear a sharp intake of breath from Brenda. "And that's something you and your mouth had better learn to live with."
A few seconds of stillness descend on the four of us as Joe and Amanda stare at each other, Amanda's eyes red and damp. And then my sister launches herself out of her seat at our father, plates and glasses flying, her lips twisted back from her teeth. He meets her with a cocked fist, grabbing her hair with his other hand and hammering at her face. Brenda and I are yelling at them, somehow I reach over and pound the side of Joe's head and face with the edge of my fist. And then they're separated. Joe's chair has tipped over, he staggers back a couple of steps before getting his balance. The restaurant is completely silent, and through a kind of stunned haze I see that I must have connected with Joe's nose because blood has sprayed from it, staining the front of his shirt. Then I see a fork standing upright from his forearm above the hand that was punching my sister, apparently stuck there by Brenda during the chaos, so that blood runs down his wrist and off his fingers, like Amanda's drool in the beach photograph, landing on his boots in stark red drops.
Later, we're driving home out on the Turnpike, the low early-evening sun drawing long shadows that point east, the direction we're taking. Amanda leans her head against the window, holding an ice pack against the left side of her face. Joe gave her a pretty good making-over in the few seconds he had to work. In addition to general bruising and puffiness, her left eye is blackened, her lip is split and her nose may be broken. Regardless, she's shown no regret for anything she said. She's unhappy that she wasn't able to land any solid blows, but that's tempered by the fact that she scratched up one side of his face pretty seriously and left a godawful bite wound on his right hand. Add to that a probable broken knuckle from hitting Amanda, the bloody nose I managed to give him along with the relationship he lost as a result of Brenda witnessing the festivities, and I feel a little bad for my father.
Apart from that, I'm not sure what I feel. Confused, I guess. A little numb. Fiercely connected with my sister. That's all I can make out right now.
Brenda drove us back to my car. She put together the ice pack for Amanda before we left the pancake house, and when she dropped us off, she cleaned out everything belonging to Joe that she found in her little Toyota and left it all in the street. Amanda urged me to run the stuff over when we left, but I didn't have the heart. Before we drove off, Brenda tried to convince Amanda to get some medical care, but my sister just wanted to hit the road and I confess I was relieved to get going. We'll stop at the Memorial Hospital E.R. when we get back to the city.
I look over at my sister and see she's grimacing in discomfort. The waning rays of the sun gild her profile in almost the same way I remember from her first day of kindergarten. The light has more crimson to it than it did that morning years ago, and the face being highlighted is now far beyond innocence.
"Hey," I say, "how are you feeling?"
She looks over at me without moving her head. "I feel the way I look."
"You don't look so bad," I lie.
"I feel awful."
Amanda closes her eyes, then takes my hand and squeezes it. I squeeze hers in return, feeling very sad, and our hands stay intertwined until I pull off at a rest stop. I find fresh ice while she buys cigarettes, and when we get back on the Turnpike she lights up and opens her window a little. I look over at her again and see that the smoke she's exhaled swirls around her head like a ragged corona, tinted with dying sunlight, before it slips out the window. The Turnpike unwinds before us, a long shadow from the car stretches ahead on the pavement, slowly melting away as we drive into darkness.
© 1997, 2009 by runswithscissors