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Close Your Eyes

Close your eyes, he said.

I’ve lost something and Dad is helping me find it. This was years ago so I’m trying to remember what day this was, and what I was looking for.

We hiked up our favorite ridge this morning, so this is a weekend. He takes me to CCD Saturday mornings so this is a Sunday.

Mom is in Hawaii for two weeks, so this is the start of fourth grade. I said we could skip CCD and she wouldn’t know. He laughed and said we promised her. He had his reasons too. It was his chance to give me his view over Belgian waffles after.

One Saturday CCD was about Purgatory and he showed me two possible examples on YouTube, two ghosts, one at the start of Hamlet and one at the end of Our Town, where the girl Emily stands among the headstones on that dark hill with Mother Gibbs and Miss Soames and Simon Stimson and doesn’t feel the pounding rain that nearly drowns the line of living townsfolk trudging up the hill from her funeral.

Yesterday CCD was about the Trinity. He made a riddle for me. Who was Jesus more like, Batman or Ms Rossetti my math teacher? Stay tuned for the answer.

Mom won the Hawaii trip as a Shockley prize. It was for all of us but Dad kept me home. He said homework had gotten hard for fourth grade. If I got two weeks behind right at the start I might never catch up all year. I might have to file papers at the insurance office my whole life, like Christie at the summer job she hated. He thought that was funny. Mom and I didn’t laugh. We were mad at him.

So now he’s trying extra hard to make these two weeks fun. Every day we go to the grocery on the way home from school and pick something new to make. Not from the heat-and-eat freezers in the middle, only from the outside aisles around the store, something you have to cook. On nights with a lot of homework he always made me Mac-n-cheese with six cherry tomatoes for a vegetable. I said I could eat that every night for two weeks but he just laughed. One night we went out to eat where we had a tablecloth and candles and bubbling Pellegrino in glasses with a stem. He said fine dining was part of my education.

What was I looking for that day?

It’s night. I’m searching along his bookshelves with my LED lantern. His shelves are six feet tall and go sixty feet along three walls of our basement office. The small windows above the shelves are dark. We built my Huck Finn tent at the far end away from his desk, in the corner. We put a big mattress inside like a raft. We saw in a book, Huck and Jim had a tent on their raft. We tied a sheet to his wooden shelves on two sides, and the ropes make the wood creak when we climb in or out.

It’s past my bedtime. He has already read to me and now I’m allowed to read quietly to myself for a few minutes. I shouldn’t be out of bed though.

Belly our Maltese is following me along the shelves and jumping around on her back legs. I hold one finger to my mouth but she only gets more excited and barks.

How old am I here? Nine? No, I know. I turn nine at midnight. Dad and I have one more year and one more day together.

My birthday is the autumn equinox. I want to stay up until midnight but tomorrow is a school day, a Monday. My birthday is always the start of the school year in a new grade, when a lot of kids don’t know me yet.

How young Belly looks! I forgot she was ever this young. In another year she goes blind, then creeps slowly and quietly through the years ahead.

I keep my best books in with his, and the book of Chinese we are making together on thick watercolor pages, like the Chinese for moon on the M page.

I also hide things behind the books or inside some special book. What am I looking for tonight?


ME: Ummmm…

MY FATHER: Looking for something?

ME: Yeah, but I’ve almost found it.

He laughed. I laughed too.

MY FATHER: Want some help? Sit over here with me?

He works every day and he works nights. That’s how he can be with me whenever, all through the week, nighttime and daytime. Sometimes he tells me to please keep Belly quiet because he’s talking to a client at his computer, over the Internet, through headphones.

He sits on a giant white exercise ball behind his desk. I roll my smaller black ball closer. We look like two cowpokes bouncing down the trail on our horses, his big white horse and my little black horse. His beard is dark and he laughs a lot. I forgot he was ever this young.

MY FATHER: What are you looking for?

OK, I remember. That map.

ME: That map I made this morning?

He nodded.

He lets me lead when we hike. I have to watch for the blazes nailed on trees or painted on rocks, like this ▾ or this ▿. I went off track this morning but he let me go wrong for a minute or two so I would see what happens when you’re lost and what you do to find your trail again.

Instead I stumbled into a grove with storybooks everywhere, peeling off the trees in shiny gold slabs like the cover of the giant storybook at the start of Snow White.

Which way now, Dad laughed behind me.

Wait, I said, I want to find this spot again.

I got out my notebook of pages with no lines and drew lines that pointed to two big mountains. Where the lines crossed I wrote “Grove of Unwritten Books.” Then I used his Suunto to get the bearing to my two mountains. My girlscout leader Ms Donough gave everyone a dollar-store compass but we weren’t getting anywhere with them. We always called her Ms Uh-Oh-Don’t-Know. She just laughed her sad little laugh. I asked Dad to teach me his Suunto instead, and he agreed if I helped the others and didn’t make them feel bad.

I held his Suunto at arm’s length and looked for the radio towers on two ridges, then looked in the Suunto mirror and wrote down the number: 23 degrees and 57 degrees.

ME: Don’t I have to adjust between map north and magnetic north?

MY FATHER: Good question. Are you using a public map?

ME: Yes?

MY FATHER: A public map? That everyone uses?

ME: OK, no. Just my map, that I made.

MY FATHER: Can you find this spot again with just your map?

ME: I can. Maybe no one else, but I can.


That’s what I was looking for that day, that night in his lap. I was looking for my map.

MY FATHER: You think you put it in a book?

ME: Well, I wanted to hide it in the fat book with the maps of Napoleon invading Russia.


ME: You were coming so I didn’t have time.

MY FATHER: So you put it in a different book? Or somewhere else on the shelves?

ME: I think.

MY FATHER: Want to try something?


MY FATHER: Close your eyes.

I did.

Whatever you’re looking for, first look inside. For what matters the map is inside you.

This story is like that map. Maybe any story is. It’s a map to a treasure that only makes sense to the person who drew it. It shows the way to something you can’t see unless you close your eyes. Then your one little map makes sense to everyone else because everyone has a map of their own like that.

After CCD one day I asked my father if Protestants believed in miracles. He said he couldn’t say for everyone, but he personally knew one kind of miracle and that might be enough. It might be the only miracle you ever need.

He waited for me to guess but I couldn’t.

It’s a miracle of healing, he said. Something buried comes back to life in you.

So that’s my X in this story. What I’m looking for now, from far back there.

I hear the first of the fireworks from the village green on the far side of Mount Tom. I didn’t see how late it had gotten. My window looks north into woods, up Mount Tom, so it’s always a little dark in here. I only stopped typing when I heard the clack of Belly’s claws on the wood. I looked around in the dark when she didn’t scratch at my cuff, and then I remembered why.

I won’t be on the green tonight anyhow. I want this finished, with this date on it.

Belly never liked fireworks. She slept in the bathtub this night every year. When she was young we would find her there. Later when she went blind she would come ask us to lift her in. For years she asked my father. The years after him she scratched at my cuff.

Let’s stay in, my father said the first time we found Belly in the bathtub. The Fourth is his birthday so we let him decide. Belly never liked being left alone. She would disappear whenever she heard us leaving. We would come home hours later or the next day and find her food untouched and find her behind a corner table like a wounded deer under a shrub. A few minutes later we would hear her rattling the food in her bowl.

We got her when I was in first grade, when Mr Lucky got killed at my bus stop. My father drove me to school that morning to keep my mind off Mr Lucky but the whole class started to wail when I walked in. Most of them saw it from the bus windows, Mr Lucky all bloody, and everyone else had heard all about it.

Ms Patterson told Dad to take me back home please. For the next two days our whole house was hiding away like wounded animals until my father said come on everybody, let’s go find another Mr Lucky.

Bella was the closest we could find, the most like Mr Lucky. We drove two hours for her. I held her in back for the two-hour drive home. She was barely old enough. Dad drove slowly at first because their gravel under our tires growled like a hungry bear. I looked back and saw Bella’s mother running from window to window looking for her.

Bella would see me through my school years, he said that day. I wouldn’t see another dog of mine die, he meant. I would get the call at college.

He was forty-seven when I was born. He had just come through cancer. I was his life after, his next life.

Every year he was the oldest father in my class. I knew it my first day at Montessori. I was a month short of three and I was wrapped tightly around his leg below the knee.

That opening day Marge called us all together for a special announcement. She had been running the school for more than twenty years, she said, from the day the doors first opened.

She stopped for a breath then started again.

She had seen kids grow up and go off to college and come back, but today was a first for her.

She stopped again.

Today one of her toddlers came through those doors with a toddler of her own.

Everyone clapped. I looked up at that mother, and looked up at my father from somewhere below his knee.

ME: I guess you’ll be dead for my college?

He bent down to hear me better.

ME: It’s all right. I already know you’re old.

MY FATHER (laughing): Are you kidding? Listen for me when you bring your first child here, on her first day. I’ll be right behind you, clapping.

He was wrong about everything. All of it. I graduated from Paulie High two weeks ago tonight. Belly would have been eleven this year, almost twelve, which is still young for so small a dog, and he would have been sixty-five today.

Good night, you two, good night.

   Emily Elizabeth Richards

   Paulie, New York

   04 July 2017

OK, that riddle: Is Jesus more like Batman or my math teacher Ms Rossetti?

Answer: Ms Rossetti. Jesus was a teacher. Batman could never teach anyone what he did. Batman Jesus is a cop-out. You don’t have to learn, you just wait for Batman Jesus to swoop down. Like you could take Ms Rossetti along all your life, to swoop down and figure the tip or whatever. No, you have to learn for yourself whatever she shows you.

As Ms Rossetti warns us: Ask me while you can. I can’t come take your tests for you, can I?

Sit With Her

Another girl in senior AP English said her little sister was reading Anne Frank. I remembered reading it in fourth grade, my last year with my father.

He always talked when we watched a movie. Like “Which of these guys wrote the movie?” As if someone in the movie went on to write the story of them all. Sometimes you could guess. Like in Breakfast Club it’s The Brain. He writes the punishment essay for them all. In American Graffiti it’s Curt. He and a friend are booked on a plane the next morning, going to colleges on the far coast. Something’s bothering him all that last night, during the dance and after. He goes around to everyone, taking each one aside to talk. Curt is the only one with doubts and at the end the only one who flies out. He goes on to write their story, all the people he left behind that day.

If your life is going fine you just live it, you don’t go back and write about it. Only if something is missing. It’s like going back to the park at night with a flashlight, after the picnic, when everyone has gone home, because you dropped your pearl pendant somewhere, the last thing your father gave you.

My dad sounded like every dad with his advice, but with one big difference. He would let me poke holes in it. I could quiz him and try to trip him up. He wanted me to. That was smart of him, I see now. Like, by the time I chewed it up I had already swallowed it.

One time he was helping me with homework and I was stuck on something hard that I hated. I thought I would never get done.

ME: Do people still hop trains?

He laughed.

ME: You know, ride the rails? Join the circus?

HIM: Not so much.

ME: I would clean up after the elephants or whatever. Anything but this.

HIM (laughing): I know the feeling.

I didn’t look up.

HIM: I did have a trick that used to work for me.

So annoying, right? You’re crumpling under a load of homework and your father puts his one more little straw on top. Like that’s just what you need, one more thing to learn.

But I could try to trip him up. It was better than homework.

ME: OK what?

HIM: I would first think of ways to be interested in it for myself, not just for the teacher or the test or the grade.

ME: Not interested.

He laughed and went quiet.

ME: OK, try this one. The Diary of Anne Frank. Everyone says it’s so great, but not to me it isn’t.

HIM (laughs): Yeah? Why?

ME: It’s too upbeat. Always trying to be positive. Like she was just copying down her father. You know, stuff all fathers say.

He threw his head back like “ouch” and laughed.

HIM: Well, there’s two different versions. Maybe you got the wrong version.

ME: No, that’s OK. I’m almost done. I don’t really want to read it twice.

HIM (raising his eyebrows): You might be reading the cut-down version. It’s cut-down for schools, with most of the good stuff left out. Anne wasn’t always so nice. She was boy crazy and she was mad at her mother a lot. She thought she was smarter than anyone, and she probably was. She had a sharp tongue and could really hurt people with it. The grown-ups were afraid of her. They couldn’t escape her. She gave them her opinion, every move they made. She made it hard for her mother to keep the peace, if I remember.

ME: I thought her diary would be about the war, and her learning to be a journalist, investigating history where it’s happening all around her. She was right in the middle of a huge war, but she couldn’t see anything, hiding in those rooms. She sounded just like any girl.

HIM: Yeah.

He thought for a moment.

HIM: I had a hunch when I was reading it.

ME: What?

HIM: Step through it with me. How did we get this book? This diary?

ME: They went back to that attic later, and found it.

HIM: Who did?

ME: Her father, I think. Everyone else was dead.

HIM: He was away for years.

ME: Yeah.

HIM: Someone found it in that attic and saved it for him.


HIM: Think about that. Was the whole world saying, “Please, someone, see if you can find that famous book by Anne Frank?”

ME (laughing): It wasn’t famous yet. No one even knew about it. Only her father and whoever who saved it for him.

HIM (nodding): Right. Think about that. Why does Anne Frank sound so smart for her age? Why does she sound so grown up? How does she know so much about the grown-ups? How come she understands the grown-ups better than they do?

ME: From her father…?

HIM: Yeah, they talked, they were close.

He looked away.

HIM: Let’s step through it. He comes back from the war and everyone is dead, right?

ME: Yeah.

HIM: How does he keep going?

ME: Yeah.

HIM: Anne was his favorite.

ME: Yeah, he let her get away with things. He had all his hopes in her.

HIM: She was his future, his life to come. His life after.

ME: Yeah.

HIM: What does he live for now? What keeps him going?

ME: Her book?

He nodded.

ME: He edits it? He gets it ready to publish?

He nodded.

HIM: Think about the person who found it on the floor of the attic, right after he was taken away. She says she never looked at it. She didn’t think it was anything much.

ME: Yeah?

HIM: You’re the detective. Anything fishy about that?

ME: I would at least look.

HIM: Why?

ME: It had to be her building, if she could just go in.

He nodded, thinking along with me.

ME: She could be in trouble for hiding them. The book might tell on her.

He nodded.

HIM: So when she looks, what does she see?

ME: She thought it would never be anything much?

He nodded.

ME: Maybe it wasn’t? Maybe it was nothing much when she found it?

He nodded.

HIM: He bought her that book. It was a red-plaid book for autographs but she didn’t want anyone writing in it, only her. She wouldn’t let anyone see it either.

ME: Her father loved books. He had a lot of books. Their hidden door was behind a bookcase you could move.

He nodded.

ME: Afterwards he wants a book of her. To remember her.

He nodded.

ME: So he fixes it up. Makes it clearer. Adds whatever he can remember.

He nodded, thinking.

ME (slowly): So lots of it comes from him?

HIM: Did you know he saw her again? After they were prisoners?

ME: He did?

HIM: I heard that somewhere. In the camp. He watched her running around with her sister. He thought how long they had been cooped up, with no room to run. Now they had the sky. For a second he was happy for them.

ME: She was barely a teenager. She was still growing. She needed to run.

He nodded, watching me.

HIM: But some people wonder how that could be right. If he was in a different camp, or a different part of the camp.

ME: Maybe he just wished that for her. Finishing her book.

He nodded. Maybe.

ME: She was all he thought about.

He closed his eyes and nodded.

ME: He could imagine her happy.

He nodded.

ME: See her running and playing. He never got to see that.

He nodded.

ME: Hear her yell to her sister, and not worry who would hear.

He nodded.

ME: Scream with laughter.

He nodded.

ME: He could sit with her again, to help him remember things.

He nodded slower now.

ME: Look how much she had grown.

He nodded.

ME: Talk.

He nodded.

ME: Tell her everything he forgot to say.

He nodded.

ME: Times he was worried, and wasn’t paying attention.

He nodded.

ME: Fill up his years with her.

He nodded.

ME: Make her his future again.

He nodded.

ME: Watch her become everything he hoped.

He nodded.

ME: Show her his love.

He only stared now, behind closed eyes.

ME: So she would never forget.

He just stared.

ME: Dad?

ME: Dad?

The Window at the Top of the Hill

Our house is on steep hill. A line of junipers peek over the sill of the long front window. From that window one spring I saw a fawn with spots at the edge of our wood, wobbly and blinking in the afternoon light. I felt like it was me. I ran out there spilling a saucer of milk all over me. When I got there the fawn and the milk were gone.

I remember a fat spider building his web in that window at sundown, between the tops of the junipers. How does he do it, I asked Dad. How does he get his web started in the air, and get the first thread across two bushes?
We looked on the Internet, in his office in the basement. The spider is a trout fisherman. He stands on a high cliff of juniper and casts a tiny loop of line on the wind. He waits for a tug on the line, then he reels himself across to the next cliff of juniper while the thread sways like the rope bridge to Macchu Pichu.

Every night for a week Dad and I came early to catch him fishing there. “Here he is,” one of us would call, but we were already too late, he was already midair, scurrying along the spokes of his web.

One spring we watched three baby rabbits grow up under that window. Every morning I ran there as soon as I woke up. One morning I saw a circle of two dozen turkeys holding a meeting there. Just that week we had waited for a parade of turkeys to cross a mountain road.

ME: Dad, those turkeys are here!

He came and held my shoulders and looked over my head.

HIM: Oops. Look again.

ME: Not turkeys?

HIM: See those bare necks?

We watched a lot of Animal Planet. That and Discovery were the only things he let me watch on a schoolnight. Dirty Jobs. How It’s Made. Bear Grylls. Mythbusters. The Savannah. The Serengeti. Only an hour while we ate, or bedtime would come before we finished the math.

ME: Vultures?

He nodded.

ME: They have one of our rabbits?

He nodded.

ME: Can’t we go hit them all with a big stick?

HIM: Do vultures kill things?

ME: No. They only clean up dead things.

He nodded.

ME (reciting): Everything that dies helps something else to live.

He nodded.

HIM: Remember our coyote yesterday?

I gasped.

ME: I’d like to hit him with a stick and break his back.

HIM: Him?

ME: Her?

HIM (nodding): She has a cub in these woods somewhere. She’s trying to feed it.

ME: Could we leave her some food? Some of Belly’s food?

HIM: You could try that. I don’t think she’d take it.

ME: Something would.

He nodded.

ME: Do you think we could find some rabbit bones?

HIM: I think so. Let’s look when the mourners go home.

Law of the Savannah

We called it the Law of the Savannah. Mothers feed their babies the babies of other mothers. The mother cheetah and the baby wildebeest. The mother lion and the baby baboon. The hyenas and the baby elephant. The hyenas and the baby giraffe. We saw it everywhere.

One spring Dad and I were watching the new crop of birds try to fly. We were watching mockingbird nest in the last juniper and a barn swallow nest under the roof of the porch. We were betting which babies would fly first. The two barn swallows were close to winning. They fluttered around the porch, from perch to perch, practicing, while the four small mockingbirds were still growing their feathers and looking from the edge of the nest.

One afternoon I heard a clatter against that window and a screeching from that last juniper. I called Dad and ran to the window. The mother and father mockingbird were flying at a big owl and screeching for all they were worth. The owl paid them no attention and calmly gathered the baby mockingbirds in her claws. I ran out there but I was too late. The owl lifted off with three chicks in her claws and dropped the fourth in the dirt, broken and twisting. Dad and I were still outside when she came winging back three minutes later. She went to two huge trees behind the neighbor’s house and raided them. A cloud of smaller birds flew at her in frantic circles and cried bloody murder as she carried off their young for her young. I had no idea two trees could have so many kinds of bird nest. For half an hour she flew back and forth from her tree to us, with chicks in her claws and a cloud of wailing birds around her.

ME: Can’t we stop her?

HIM: How?

ME: Don’t we have a gun?

HIM: Where do you think she’s going with all these chicks?

ME: Her tree? Her nest?

HIM: And?

ME: Her chicks?

HIM: Right. They’re huge by now. It’s killing her, trying to feed them all. They eat everything she can carry and screech for more.
I looked for our barn swallows in the roof of the porch.

ME (wailing): Look, she got the barn swallows too.

He was looking the other way, towards our woods.

HIM: Did she?

He pointed.

HIM: What’s that?

Our barn swallows were flapping from branch to branch along the edge of the wood, amazed at themselves for flying.

Sled Dogs

His desk was at the far end of the basement. He worked with clients over the Internet, mostly other Curves owners. We were on the East Coast, in the Hudson Valley above New York City. A lot of his clients were out West, in Vancouver or San Diego or Billings or Calgary or Winnipeg. He had a client in Canada where the famous dogsled race ends, the one we saw in the movie Iron Will, that goes for days and ends there.

His software ran on their computers and collected all the money and member records for them, so he couldn’t upgrade their software until they closed for the night. If they closed at nine or ten that was midnight or one in the morning for us. He had dozens and dozens of them, so most nights someone needed him. In between he wrote software for a client in Hong Kong. She was waking up for breakfast while we were making our dinner and doing my homework. At bedtime for me it was 9:30 in the morning for her. We had three hours of homework a lot of those nights. He would read to me in bed, Junie B or Shel Silverstein, and then go to his computer across the room and work with her in Hong Kong.

He was awake for hours there, almost till morning. If I woke up and heard him talking on the phone I knew I could go back to sleep, it was still too early.

My mother was gone those nights, or gone until midnight. I would be afraid in my room upstairs. My tent near him was more fun anyhow.

He had his old running shoes lined up under his bookshelves, nine pairs. I said tennis shoes once and he said no, you mean running shoes, don’t you? He would only wear them for running. He wouldn’t wear them shopping or even for coaching my soccer team. I never saw him wear them. He stopped running when he had radiation before I was born, when the radiation shrunk his big lungs. When I walked past those shoes in the dark the reflectors winked, one after another. I pretended they were our sled dogs sleeping in the snow, opening an eye to see who was passing, hoping to race again.

When did my father sleep? While I was at school, I guess. He worked at night so he could take me places in the daytime. If I went to the nurse he came for me in five minutes. He had a watch just for school days. He didn’t wear a watch for anything else. The alarm went off when the bell at my school rang. He would go down to the bottom of the driveway and wait for my bus, or if I had girl scouts or electives or tutoring he came for me in the car. He would never use that alarm for anything else, never change it, never turn it off. We even heard that watch on Sunday afternoons in the summer, in a drawer somewhere, singing for September. I can hear it now, from some drawer in my mind.

Drive Us Home

I keep seeing things I forgot I forgot.

Like this time we were hiking. We had just gotten back to the car and we were watching the sun go behind our ridge to the west.

HIM: If we hiked for an hour at four miles an hour, how far did we hike?

ME: Duh!

We laughed.

ME: I won’t be in fourth grade forever, Dad.

He nodded.

ME: If we hiked for four years, how far did we hike?

He laughed. I loved when I could make him laugh.

ME: Here’s one. Why do we still see half the sun if the sun is already gone? It’s already below the horizon?

HIM: Yeah, that’s a good one.

ME: It’s light is curving around the earth?

He nodded.

ME: Because of Einstein?

HIM (smiling): I don’t think we can blame Einstein this time.

ME: The earth bends spacetime so light thinks it’s going straight but actually it’s curving?

HIM: The sun does that, for the light of stars behind it, right?

I nodded.

ME: Their light curves around the sun so to us they look farther out from the sun.

He nodded.

HIM: But is earth that big? To bend the light from the sun?

ME: OK no.

HIM: So why is the sun’s light curving around the horizon to us?

ME: Like a magnifying glass?

He nodded.

HIM: Where’s the magnifying glass?

ME: The atmosphere?

He nodded.

We watched the sun disappear.

ME: If you could hike to Saturn and back at the speed of light, or almost the speed of light, would you be younger when you got back?

HIM: Let me think. OK. The one who’s accelerating and decelerating accumulates less clock time. So yes, our age difference would be smaller when I got back.

ME: So you could come back when you’re the same age as me? And be a kid again with me?

HIM (laughing): Slow down. Try again.

ME: You can’t get younger? I can only get old faster than you.

He nodded.

ME: I’d be old and decrepit like you.

We laughed.

HIM: Time is still a one-way road. You can never go back. Not even Einstein can fix that for us.

ME: Like that movie.

HIM: Which one?

ME: The daughter is mad the father left for Saturn or wherever.

HIM: Interstellar?

ME: With all the crying.

HIM: Yeah, that’s the one.

ME (imitating): I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.

We laughed.

ME: Remember they want the father to go on some little side trip out in space and he doesn’t want to? No one understands why. It’s only two weeks. What’s his problem?

He nodded.

ME: But two weeks of acceleration for him is another two years for his daughter on earth. He loses another two years with her. If he ever talks to her again he’ll be like her little brother.

HIM: Little brother? Does he get younger?

ME: OK no. But she could be old as him, like his sister.

He nodded.

ME: Or older than him, like his mother?

He nodded.

ME: So if I send you to Saturn and wait for you here, I get old faster and I could be your mother when you get back?

We laughed.

ME: But we still wouldn’t have any more time to be together?

He shook his head.

HIM: Less. Always less.

ME: But I wouldn’t be as young when you die? I would die closer to you? I wouldn’t have as long after you?

He nodded, still smiling that sad way.

ME: OK, get going. Hurry. Accelerate a lot. I’ll wait here.

We laughed.

ME: Wait, give me the car keys. I’ll drive us home when you get back.

We laughed.

ME: In case you can’t remember where we live….

The Land Before Time

It’s like I’m dreaming but I’m awake. I am pressed against him on the couch in our old house. I see the two of us in the long front window. The colors of The Land Before Time shimmer on everything, on him and me and the rough shingles of the walls and the knotted planks under the loft. My footies wiggle in the window. Could that be right, footies?

“In the land before time it happened that the leaves began to die.”

Our window comes almost to the floor. Belly our little dog can stand on her back legs and see out. Our hill falls away fast from there. Eight tall junipers peek in at the bottom. Belly looks between the junipers for ten and twenty minutes at a time. We look too but we can’t see what fascinates her.

“The mighty beasts who appeared to rule the earth were ruled in truth by the leaf.”

I first pulled up holding this sill, my father says. I shuttled the length of it learning to walk. Nothing out that window fascinated me then: woods running down the hill beside us, pines hiding a two-lane road at the bottom, a neon roadhouse on the other side, and hills climbing again from there, all dark at night except for one blue light that winked in the haze.

“Desperate for food, the herds struck out for the west, searching for the Great Valley…”

If we turned off our lights and let our eyes adjust we could see deer moving against the trees at the bottom of our hill. They were hard to see. Sometimes you were just imagining them and they disappeared when you blinked. They moved like ghosts, shadows on shadows. Sometimes you saw one then suddenly a dozen, like the stars of the Seven Sisters the second you look away, or new stars you see when your eyes adjust. You blink and the crowd of them doubles.

“…a land still lush and green, where the treestars grow, all you could ever want. It was a journey toward life.”

I feel like I’m only dreaming those years. Dreaming me, I mean. That girl was me but nothing like me. These are her years, not mine. The years are like the deer. I blink and they disappear, or from one I suddenly see more. It depends if I’m that girl or me. I let my view slowly adjust, then blink and see the girl behind the view. I want her back but she scares me. A ghost has nothing to lose. I’m afraid to want things again.

Don’t Walk Away

One night he scooped me from bed and shushed me and bundled me in my footies onto the back deck where fireflies were lighting our wall of trees from the top of our hill to the bottom.

He taught me to find the seven sisters in the stars. They turn away if you stare. They only look back when you look away.

He taught me to see deer the same way at night, against the trees at the bottom of our hill. You see one and look away a little and suddenly you see a dozen.

He taught me the times of the year and why the days get shorter and longer and warmer and colder, and how my birthday, the autumn equinox, is exactly in the middle.

He taught me to find north on a clear night or a cloudy day. He taught me the compass when Ms O’Donough gave everyone a dollar compass at girl scouts. We call her Mrs Oh-I-Don’t-Know and she just slumps a little and laughs. When I showed my dad he asked if I wanted to learn the compass and I said yes, so he taught me map north and magnetic north with his Suunto compass, and how you find where you are if you’re lost, and set a bearing home and follow it.

He taught me where to strike if a big stranger grabbed me from behind, and how to get loose.

He watched me make my first-ever batch of sugar cookies. I took them to Scouts and everyone thought my mother made them. He showed me how to feel whether a pan is hot using the back of your hand and not your fingertips. Same way you check the wires at the ranch where I take horseback. If they’re electrified your hand could clamp down around them. After that I made him watch me bake from the doorway and not talk unless I went wrong. That was our deal.

He taught me to make deals and keep them. Most people don’t keep deals. Don’t ghost them, try smaller deals. Don’t slink away and hide it when someone hurts you. Give them a way to make it up to you.

He taught me about sharp things and hot things and dangerous things. He taught me his nakiri knife and his drill. He taught me about electricity and he used the hose out back to teach me the difference between voltage and current. It’s the current that kills.

He taught me how you to catch a wasp in the house and release it outside with a paper cup and a playing card, because a half-killed wasp would sting your dog when she nosed it. He showed me how yellow-jackets nest in the ground and leave at the first cold snap of autumn, and how a bag of ice can seal them inside like Sleeping Beauty until your yard-party is over.

He showed me where the deer sleep.

In fourth grade we sometimes got close to bedtime and still had two pages of math left. On those bad nights he let me turn three cartwheels each time I got a hard problem right. He said he had his own kind of cartwheels when he was working on something hard. He said you learn better when you’re having fun and worse when you’re afraid. My mother would hate that if she knew, and say he had that backwards. He said you can train yourself with treats the way you train your dog, and he told me how they taught Shamu the killer whale his tricks. He said you can teach yourself to love better, wider and deeper, if you remember that love is the trick not the treat.

He taught me how a song ventures out for something to bring home, and comes home that night and settles in, resting, getting ready to do it all again.

He showed me how the best is where the words break down into sounds:
   Don’t walk away…
   Hey, hey, hey, hey…

He showed me a song for a boy whose father and mother had split, to cheer him up:
   Nah nah nah nah, nah nah nah, nah nah nah, good night…

Whole stadiums would sing that chorus over and over and over. They didn’t need the story. They could feel it.

Always care, he said. There will always be a thousand reasons not to care. Care anyway.

He said your parents need you more than you need them. You don’t think so now but you’ll see. You are their afterlife, the life after theirs, their last future.

The cowgirl in the last Toy Story, where she gets lost under the bed, then left at the far end of some parking lot, and sings that song where nobody can hear her, When She Loved Me, in a box by the Goodwill bin, and keeps smiling for one more chance. That’s my father, as I look back. I thought he was asleep by the time we got to that part. I looked over and his eyes were closed. He wasn’t getting much sleep those last months. His eyes were wet though, his eyelashes. I saw the colors of Toy Story gleaming there.

You Can’t Hate Them All

At my mother’s house I couldn’t talk to him, I guess so I couldn’t tell him where she had taken me. I couldn’t call him or write or email or text.

I tried once. It was that same first summer and my cousins came to see our house. They were bored. We were out in the country and didn’t have a pool or basketball hoop or anything. We had woods but my cousin Vicky, who was six months older, wasn’t interested in deer trails. “Unless you got guns?” she laughed.

So we took turns riding my bike. When she wouldn’t give me my turn I tried calling Dad at our old house, if he was still there. I closed my door upstairs and called from there.

ME: Dad?

HIM: Emily! Good to hear from you.

ME: I’m mad.

HIM: Yeah? I can hear that.

ME: It’s Vicki.

HIM: Cousin Vicki?

ME: Yeah. She’s here. The whole day. We were taking turns on my bike but she won’t get off.

HIM: Yeah, I’d be mad too.

ME: I want to knock her off.

HIM: Maybe she likes making you mad?

ME: Yeah.

HIM: You could leave her to it. Let her ride without you.

ME: Yeah.

HIM (laughs): Take the fun out of it.

We laughed.

ME: I hate people like that.

HIM: The world’s full of people like that. You can’t hate them all.

ME: Why not?

HIM: Here’s a trick I use. Would you trade for Vicki’s life?

ME: No way.

HIM: So why trade an hour of yours to ruin an hour of hers?

We laughed.

HIM: Look for people who keep their deals.

ME: Yeah.

HIM: First be one of those people. They’re looking for you too.

ME: Yeah.

HIM: Maybe Vicki could learn that from you.

ME: It’s not my problem to teach her some lesson.

HIM (laughs): No, but let her see that about you.

Just then my mother’s father caught me talking on the phone. He’s a huge guy who worked construction on the George Washington bridge ramps. He opened my door without knocking and yelled. “Whatcha doing with that phone? Who you got on there?”

I jumped. “My dad.”

He rushed at me.

“You better not be telling him nothing. Get off there. Give me that.”

I didn’t. I hung up instead.

My Tenth Birthday, at the Courthouse

The night of my tenth birthday I got a big surprise. My birthday came on Tuesday this year and when I got home from school my mother told me not to change, she was taking me to see my father.

My birthday is September 22nd, the autumn equinox. I always loved telling people about the equinox. Summer is over and a new year has started at school. There are one hundred days left in the year. The hot days are going out and the cold nights are coming in, and they pass with a nod on my birthday.

Not this year. I shake my head just a quick shake if anyone asks. No one knows me here, in a new school in a new town in a different county. My father’s birthday, July 4th, is eighty days before mine and that’s the last time I saw him. I wouldn’t know what to tell people. I don’t understand it either.

ME: Where?

HER: At the court.

She hated everything about this.

HER: It’s a long drive. Almost an hour. Eat a breakfast bar now and we’ll try to get something later.

My head swarmed with all the things I would tell him.

I have a new school for fifth grade. It’s smaller than my fourth grade. I like my homeroom teacher OK. Some kids from my school live on my street. I don’t know them yet, only their names. I think Mom tells everyone not to ask me anything because my father has already hurt me enough. Ha! No, it’s her. No one knows what they can say so they stay back. That’s OK, I don’t know what to say either. They have girl scouts here and someone asked me but Mom can’t get me after school so I said I couldn’t, I’m too busy.

Maybe when the court tells us how this is supposed to work? Mom says you won’t give up and go by her court order. That’s good. Don’t give up. I think you’re right. That would be the end of us, if I could never see you outside of this county. Try to get that part taken out, about this county. I couldn’t go where you live or see where you work. Are you back in the city? I could never go around New York with you like Ned did. I could never see your family if you couldn’t take me. If they still want to see me after I messed up their big wedding. So don’t give up. Don’t. I’m OK with waiting. Maybe it’s my fault we can’t talk or phone or text or email for a year. That started right after I told my court lawyer I wanted to live with you. I think they want to make us strangers so I’ll stop asking. We will never be strangers, they just don’t know it. They don’t know anything. They get everything wrong. I tried to tell my lawyer some things on the phone that time but she said to wait until I hear. Will I get my chance before it’s too late, do you think? You said to trust the process, so I am. Do you still think that?

Mom said I had an hour with him. I needed more to tell him. I thought of a funny story.

The first week something funny happened. I got locked out and I had to pee. I tried to get in my window. I hope no one saw. Then I tried to find a place out back where no one would see. We’re more out in the country here and we have a lot of woods so I thought it would be easy, like when we’re on a hike. But I took too long and peed myself and then I had to stay back there out of sight until it dried. I didn’t want kids saying this is the new girl Emily and she still pees herself in fifth grade. I went farther into the woods. My backpack was still on the back porch so I couldn’t even do homework. You remember Teddi from Shockley? Paul’s wife? Judge Bender I mean. She came home with Mom. I didn’t see they were back at first and they started yelling Emily, I don’t know for how long. It was almost six when I heard them. I checked if the pee was dry and I knocked on our door but they said it was unlocked now, why did I knock. They said I scared them and they almost called in a missing persons report. Mom was doing a presentation for Teddi and Paul and it was a big success but it went longer than anyone thought. It was almost six so I was in the woods for three and a half hours. I hope no one saw me or the kids will say this new girl Emily and she lives in the woods with the wolves.


My court is a brick building in a run-down part of Poughkeepsie. I felt nervous walking there. My birthday is late September and it gets dark early. I had never been to Poughkeepsie. This has to be the worst part.

My mother and I went through a metal detector like we were getting on a plane. Ha! A plane to a war-zone maybe, to bombed-out Syria. We had to put everything in a plastic tub for the guards to X-Ray. We had to take our shoes off and go through separately. I got through but Mom had to go through three times. Finally they let her hold her arms out straight and they scanned around her outline with a taser or buzzing club kind of thing.

We went up one floor in the elevator. The guard at the elevator door had guns and clubs and cuffs on his belt and a walkie-talkie strapped to his shoulder. It was always buzzing and popping and it was hard to talk to him. He held up both hands to stop us. He told my mother to sit right there and fill out a clip board.

When she held up her hand he came back and read it over and told her she could sit back down right there until he brought me back. He pointed out a coffee machine and a snack machine. She got me a snack while I was gone, a tuna-fish sandwich, but I didn’t want it. She forgot I never want mayonnaise. She said there was no mayonnaise but there was.

The guard motioned me through a double door and down a hall. He showed me a spot in the hall where I should wait. Someone would come and explain the rules. I stood on that spot and looked around but I couldn’t see Dad.

Police were everywhere, with gear clipped all over them. It was hard to talk in there. Their walkie-talkies were strapped to one shoulder and buzzed and squawked all the time. Every message went to every guard. You listened to see if it was for you. If not, you ignored it. You tried to, I mean.


A woman guard came and read me the rules. After each one she asked me if I understood. I couldn’t just nod. I had to say Yes out loud.

GUARD (reading): Your parent will not be allowed to stand up. Neither of you may come around the table to hug or reach across the table to touch. Do you understand?

I said Yes, I understand.

GUARD: You understand about touching?

I said Yes, I understand. No, I didn’t understand. I don’t like saying I do if I don’t, but that’s what you do here in a court.

GUARD (reading): There is a large assortment of games on a shelf in the corner. You are to pick one and take it to the table. Do you understand?

I said Yes, I understand.

GUARD (reading): A woman with a white coat and a clipboard will sit with you and make notes but you should pretend she isn’t there. You are not to look at her, talk to her, or ask her questions. Do you understand?

I said Yes, I understand.

GUARD (reading): You have one hour. No exceptions. Watch the clock in the room and be ready two minutes before the hour ends. Do you understand?

I said Yes, I understand.

GUARD (reading): You are not to talk about anything outside of this room or outside of this one hour. You are not to talk about your home or school or other people who aren’t here. You are not to talk about times in the past or the future, such as last year or next year, or this week or next week, or your day today or tomorrow. Do you understand?

I said Yes, I understand.

GUARD (reading): If you violate any of these rules your visit can be terminated immediately and you might not be granted another. Do you understand?

I said Yes, I understand.

GUARD: You understand what can happen?

I said Yes, I understand.

GUARD (reading): These rules are only for your good. You are not to complain of these rules or indicate their unfairness in any way, including hand gestures and facial expressions. Do you understand?

I felt my stomach twist but I said Yes, I understand.

GUARD: You understand about complaining?

I said Yes, I understand.

She motioned to another guard. He came after a few minutes and took me to a door. He stopped me just outside it. I could see my father sitting at a table like we have at school. The woman in a white coat was sitting near the table with her clipboard. She looked at me and made some notes. The room was smaller than my bedroom at home. I saw the sagging shelf with raggedy games spilling off it. One wall had a big double mirror. The woman in white was sitting where she wouldn’t block it.

This other guard asked if I knew the rules and I said yes. Your father got the same rules, he said.

Then he motioned me inside and said “I’ll be right here the whole time.”

“So good to know,” I wanted to say.


You both know the rules, the guard said to Dad and me. Watch this clock. Be ready two minutes before your hour ends. No exceptions. Do you understand?

I said Yes, I understand. Dad only nodded. He was giving me a big smile, holding up both hands like Wow, look at this!

The woman in a white coat looked from me to him and back and wrote some things on her clipboard.

I looked at my father and pointed to myself and then to the shelf of games.

HIM (laughing): Yeah, pick us a game. We won’t need the sign language.

I laughed too.

There were a lot of battered games on a sagging shelf. Most had pieces missing so I picked a rusty Chinese Checkers because missing pieces might not matter so much. I carried the game to the table slowly, so nothing would fall out of the saggy cracked-open box.

I saw myself in the two-way mirror.

“Whoa,” I said. “Big mirror!”

I froze. I think I went all red. I shouldn’t have said that. I’m not supposed to see it.

“Yep,” my father laughed.

The woman who wasn’t there wrote something on her clipboard. We weren’t supposed to mention the big mirror. We were supposed to pretend it wasn’t there. We were supposed to know that without asking. We couldn’t ask the woman in the white coat. She wasn’t there either.

Suddenly I got the feeling this was an execution. They brought me here to witness an execution. I was my father’s last wish.


My father asked how I was doing.

I thought about what to say. I turned to the woman in white. I hope she didn’t see. I’m not supposed to look.

He must mean this moment, not this week or this new year at school.

Good, I said.

I couldn’t say any of the things I thought of in the car.

My father was being upbeat and cheerful that way I hated, like that recital night at gymnastics, when he stood by the window the whole time and kept sticking two thumbs up for everything I did, like he hadn’t seen me do the same move every week all winter. At intermission I came over and took him aside and asked could he please stop with the thumbs.

Now I miss those days and nights. It hurts to remember.

He said he had a gift for me. The guards would bring it in later. They had to check it first.

The woman who wasn’t there jumped a little and wrote something on her clipboard.

I froze. I didn’t move a muscle or make a peep. He wasn’t supposed to say there were guards around. He wasn’t supposed to say they were checking my gift. Did that count as complaining?

Check for what, I wondered. Bombs? Secret messages in code? I didn’t ask. Are these people crazy? Never argue with a crazy person.


I felt sick. They were making us pretend. I didn’t want him to see me this way, pretending, and I didn’t want to see him this way. I wanted to tell them “No, I don’t understand. I would be lying if I said Yes. Keep your lie, it’s your lie, not mine. Leave me out of it. Pretend my father is some kind of danger to me? Are you crazy? You’re the danger.”

Then I would turn to him. “I don’t want to do this, Dad, do you? Let’s walk out the door and never come back.”

But what did he tell me before, when he could tell me things? I remember. Trust the process.

Would he still say that? If he could say?

I nodded to him about my gift and waited.

I studied his face and the way he was sitting. What had they done to the guy who took care of me for seven years, all those days and nights? Who took me to the doctor? Who took me to play dates and birthday parties? Who came when I went to the nurse? Who came when I called him in the night, when I had a nightmare?

You know how the roadrunner runs right off a cliff but doesn’t notice at first? Doesn’t look down? That’s how I felt now, if someone could make my father lie to me, over and over. I looked down and there was nothing under me.

I don’t want to remember him this way, if anyway there’s nothing else for us now. I know he’s not this dangerous criminal and juvenile delinquent. They have everything wrong and that’s how they like it. They don’t know anything and they know it. They just want us to say they’re right, that’s why we’re here. I hate this. I want out.

But I looked up at Dad. He’s here, isn’t he? He’s smiling. He’s going along with this. OK, then, me too. Trust the process.


A guard came in with a gun and a club rattling on his belt and a walkie-talkie squawking on his shoulder. He had my birthday present in one hand and slid it down the table to me. Someone had already opened the present and the card. I was supposed to pretend I didn’t notice. I could notice the present, but not the wrapping.

I wanted to make a bomb joke. I didn’t. This courthouse is a bomb disposal center. Bomb disposal doesn’t protect the bomb, they protect everyone else from the bomb. I’m the bomb. Dad and I.

The card had a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt.

      Every day do one thing you are afraid you cannot do.

I smiled up at Dad.

Check, I thought. In one night I’ve done enough of that for a month. Enough for a lifetime.

The other gift was a mosaic with one word made of stones inside a circle of colored stones:


People had put fresh flowers all around the circle. It looked like a funeral, or the anniversary of a funeral.

I looked up and tried to smile. Maybe this is what took so long. The guards wondered if this was some secret message.

He said he got it near where he used to live in the city.

I looked sideways at the woman who wasn’t there. We weren’t supposed to speak of other places. Or the past.

It’s on a hill in Central Park, he said, across from where a famous singer-songwriter lived. He wrote for guitar. I could learn some of his songs. He was killed across the street from this hill. Every year people put flowers on this spot.

ME: Who was he?

HIM (laughing): That’s for you to find out.

I laughed too. For a second we were the same as always, throwing quiz questions back and forth.

I wanted to ask him for more clues. Had I heard any of his songs? But I was afraid of making her mad, the woman in white who wasn’t there.

He knew what I was thinking.

HIM: This hill is named after one of his songs.

ME: How do I find out?

HIM: Google map of Central Park. On the west. At 72nd. Once you know the name of that song you’re off to the races.

ME: I can find out. I know how.

HIM: You have a place for this on your wall?

I looked around nervously. We weren’t supposed to talk about any place outside this room, or my new house or new school or where my mother had taken me.

HIM (laughing): Tell me his name next time.

Next time? We weren’t supposed to mention a next time or any time outside this hour. What next time? I hadn’t seen him for eighty days, the time between his birthday and mine. This didn’t really count either. This was all empty and phony. This was worse than nothing.

I think they were pressuring us. I think they wanted me to hate this so I would quit asking to see him. They wanted him to see how badly I hated it so he would give up and take my mother’s court order. They were torturing me in front of him.

Sure! This was Prisoner’s Dilemma, the game his father taught him and he taught me. I would show him I remembered. We would beat the guards at this. We wouldn’t be pressured. We wouldn’t take my mother’s court order. That would be the end of us, we knew without saying. I would be brave and sturdy for him, and not make him give in to spare me.

We would go free. We would walk. We would laugh and he would be so proud.


So my father and I made conversation about the Chinese Checkers and who was winning. I couldn’t believe what we were talking about. I thought the hour would never end.

We watched the clock and packed away the game with five minutes left.

Dad stayed seated as the guard led me out. He gave me a nod and a big smile.

I smiled back. I hope he didn’t see my eyes, how wet they were.


My mother didn’t say anything until we got outside. Then she asked how I felt. She wanted to tell me how to feel. I wouldn’t say anything. I wouldn’t look at her. She could talk to the air if she liked. She could talk to the air forever, till the end of time.

I could feel her getting angry. This was such a big imposition on her! Everyone was making trouble for her again, as always! My poor sainted martyr of a mother! She was always cleaning up after someone! Some man, usually, and now me!

My father and I said “thank you” and “I’m sorry” to people all the time. She never did. She had herself to thank for anything good, and someone else to thank for anything bad. Please God I’ll never get like that.

I learned not to answer her, to just let her have her way. That’s what everyone did. She would have her way anyhow, sooner or later. She could outstink anyone.

My father couldn’t protect himself, how could he protect me? There was nobody for me, but I could keep safe and keep away. No one can hurt a ghost.


My mother tried to hold me when we got home, in the kitchen. I didn’t shake her off, I just froze stiff until she stopped. I hate how she wants to hold me every time she talks about the court. She uses the court for a baseball bat. She uses her bat on me then comes to soothe the bruises. No thanks.

I was crying when I got into bed that night, my tenth birthday. I heard my mother coming down the hall. I got quiet and closed my eyes like I was sleeping. I let my mouth fall open a little. I heard her come to my door and lean in. I made breathing sounds and listened for her to leave. My eyes shot open when I heard her creep back down the hall.

Everything is turning into lying. Everything, even my breathing.

I got up to find my flashlight and pen and the Children’s Bill of Rights they gave me at the court. I stabbed my notes all over it until I saw the start of the sun coming up.

I have one for them: the right not to put your future life in the hands of county officials.

Who are they protecting at that court? Not children. Not me.

At first light I quit thinking things should make sense. I saw myself from the ceiling, the way I looked to my mother from the door, with my mouth falling open. I was back in control. Nothing could hurt me again.

It was forever since I felt so peaceful. Back to Dad and I starting our wedding trip, driving down through Shenandoah in early May, watching little Belly dive through deep grass in a cove of giant oaks, and feeling the world take a deep breath and stretch.