Someone told me I should go take a walk. It was as good a suggestion as any, and the dog always appreciates it.
The ides of March competed with my oversized puppy for Pissing All Over the Alley honors. Hunching along, mumbling at the grey rain, I wished I’d had the forethought to bring along a cigar; maybe better a good briar pipe turned upsy-down to keep the fire lit.
“Why do you do that?”
“Do what?,” I said. She had asked to come along, really not taking “no” for an answer, and what was I gonna say, anyway? I don’t see her that much anymore.
“Talk to yourself.”
“Keeps me from yelling at other people,” I said.
“Sure about that?”
I looked at her then. She was smiling, just a little around the corners of her Lewis lips, stretched and thinned with growing up until they barely resembled what her mother had once called, to my mild discomfort, “voluptuous lips.” Reddish brown hair with a white skunk streak spilled down the back of her battered, black leather jacket.
That jacket was not my favorite. I hadn’t been very pleased when she came home wearing a crusty old Schott. But she wasn’t going to wear a Langlitz if I liked ‘em, and she damn well wasn’t gonna play guitar if I did. So she played bass, wore a Schott, and chain-smoked clove cigarettes.
Cloves! Sweet Jesus!
“Why do you do that?”
“Give me trouble.”
She had a way of hunching up her shoulders. Tall like her mom, every bit as tall as me actually, she’d lean forward with her hands jammed into her Wranglers and swagger along, less like a cowgirl than like a cowboy. I thought of it as her “don’t fuck with me” posture. It totally did not go with the smeary black eye makeup so beloved of the Sensitive Ennui set.
Such a tough chick. I smiled at her, and she stared back, staunching the grin that threatened any moment to breach her glare.
“It’s my job, innit?,” she demanded.
“I guess it’s every kid’s job.”
The flicker of a smile quit threatening the corners of her mouth. “I’m not a kid anymore.”
“You’ll always be a kid,” I said, “to me.”
I almost heard tire squeal as she veered the subject.
“How come you don’t visit more often?,” she demanded abruptly.
“No… Tucker, NO!,” I yelled. He scrambled off heel, accelerating toward the little poofter white neighbor dogs who crouched and barked, piddling on their own knees. He didn’t hear me, or didn’t listen. Heedless youth and all that. I never walk him on-leash anymore. Usually he minds perfectly, but he didn’t mind today.
So I whapped the little cur across his butt with the grip end of his own leash. Tucker froze, cringed and hollered like I’d taken away his birthday. The neighbor looked horrified, and she scowled at me then.
“Why are you so hard on him?”
“I want him to grow up right,” I answered, clipping the leash back onto his collar and jerking him to heel. “I want him safe.
“He needs to learn to listen.”
“And you think that helps?”
I looked at her blankly, innocent of answers.
When you were little, I had ALL the answers.
“I dunno,” I said. “Hell, I just worry.
“What if he runs out into traffic?”
“You aren’t responsible for everything,” she said. “Control is an illusion.”
“When we were young and walked to school uphill both ways in the snow, we got our sophomoric insights the hard way: from actual sophomores, not downloaded off some New Age intertubery.”
“I’m the only person you know who never goes online,” she retorted.
“Well, yeah,” I said. “I guess that’d be true, alright.”
I wanted to hug her so much. She was everything I could have hoped for. Ahead of me in so many ways, but she was still as standoffish as ever.
“Got a hug for your old man?”
“Not in this lifetime,” she scowled, moving around to the other side of the dog. Absorbed in the scent of dead flowers, cuttlefish lips flapping as he snuffled along, Tucker never even looked up.
“You always were thornier than your sis.”
“Yeah, I’m taller, too,” she answered flatly. “You never answered my question.”
I stared at her while I paddled through my head, trying to remember the conversational thread. I get more visits from her these days, but everything seemed harder to track. She certainly deserved better. The puppy, restive, lurched forward on stiff legs, every few steps setting his front paws hard as a colt resisting the bridle. My hat transmitted pattering sounds. My jeans jacket slowly let in the rain.
“Ah, god, yes, I’m sorry,” I babbled. “We’re so far away now, and you’re so grown up and all—”
“Sure,” she smirked. “I’m all bigified now.
“I can booze it up and drive too fast and screw around with questionable men and…”
“No way!,” I barked with artificial authority, trying to josh her the way I kid around with her sister. “You’ll never be old enough for that.”
It had never been that comfortable to joke with her, though. Never quite took the right tone. She stopped smiling and jammed her hands back into her pockets. Her head was still kind of long, with fat cheeks for such a lanky thing.
No matter what she did with it, her hair was always downy. It waved gently in the damp air, soft and filmy as seaweed at the bottom of the ocean.
“Nah,” she said, staring ahead through the drizzle with the nearsighted, sea-colored eyes she had inherited from me. “I guess not, huh?”
Digging a Bic lighter out of her thick, stale jacket, she lit up an odoriferous hipster smoke.
“I wish you wouldn’t—”
“Not your call, Dad.”
“I was gonna say I wish you wouldn’t use such a damn cheap lighter,” I faked, reaching into my soaking wet Levis jacket to dig out the Zippo that I’d bought 20 years before to light cigars the week that she and her sister were born and I ran, pelting down long concrete steps in skittery cowboy boots to the hospital where her mother was delivering now, dammit and I never got tired then, blood fizzing through me eternal as the tide, potent as tsunami.
I flipped a four-inch flame up against the rain to demonstrate to her that it still worked perfectly, but she shook her head when I bowed my head and pushed it at her.
“No, patrón,” she said, moving away again. “You should really save that for Malia.”
“Tell you what, kiddo,” I said. I wasn’t feeling very parental just then.
Shouldn’t do that; I know I shouldn’t do that. Kids shouldn’t be leaned on by their folks, not for nothing.
“Sometimes I don’t want to save anything,” I babbled. “Sometimes I just want to put my hands over my ears and scream until it all goes away.”
“Oh, yeah?” For a moment, curiosity pierced her Goth ennui and she shone like the little girl I remembered. “Sure you’re ready for that, Dad?”
“Yes!” Then I sighed. “Maybe not the others, though. We don’t get to just stop, do we?
“I still have stuff to do.”
“That’s not the worst thing, you know.” She kicked a tiny pebble so hard it rolled nearly four inches. It was the most aggressive thing I’d seen her do in years. “Having stuff to do.”
“Ties me down,” I said. “Keeps me here.”
“That’s how I know where to find you, Dad.”
“Hmmph.” I smirked a little. “You could find me anywhere.”
“You’re all wet.”
I arched an eyebrow. “Cheeky lass.”
“No, you’re—your jacket. Wha’d you wear a jeans jacket in the rain for?”
And both eyebrows went up. “Same reason you wore your leathers?”
“That’s a dumb reason!” She laughed with the clear peal of cast brass. “Nostalgia’s not more important than practicality.”
“Ah, sweetie,” I said, “sure it is. Houses and cars and storefronts are built out of practicality.
“People are made from feelings, energy,” I said. “Purpose.”
“Cornball.” She pressed her lips together and they got even thinner. “I guess that’s right, though. I never thought of it that way.
“In a lot of ways, I guess I am still just a kid.”
“In a lot of ways, you always will be,” I said. “Don’t feel bad. It’s kinda the human condition.”
“Well, maybe more for you than most.”
“I’ve been a disappointment to you.”
That not-question went through me like a diesel-powered chainsaw.
“Oh, honey, no.”
I looked at her and took in the anarchy logo on her black tee, the surplus jump boots with chrome dangles calculated to piss off the airborne, and the row of pins in her left eyebrow. It hurts to watch them hurt themselves with bad boyfriends and scuffed knees on the playground and carnival symbology carved onto their pelts, but life hurts everyone some time. Maybe the kids were just struggling for a sense of control
We used to do that, too. Me and her mother, too.
That’s always a hard lesson, sooner for some and later for others. She could ask her mom about that, but I wasn’t about to suggest it. I didn’t want another fight with either of them. I would take any chance simply to bask briefly in the pure, unsullyable spark of my daughter’s divinity.
“No, never,” I said, and I was not lying, not even a little bit for the comfort that’s in it. “You couldn’t have been any finer.”
The rain was pushing through my eyelids as fast as it was penetrating the shoulders of my jacket. She was right again. I was all wet.
“We just… sometimes we all just really miss you,” I said. “And nobody quite knows what to do about that, so we just keep banging along, trying to pretend everything’s normal and fine.”
“Yeah,” I said. I tried to take a pull on my pacifying cigar, realized again that I hadn’t brought one, and dropped my hand, feeling foolish. The puppy pushed his nose into it, investigating for snacks.
We walked along for a couple of blocks, together and apart, her smoking, me steaming breath. I reached down to pat the snackhound puppy who minded at heel, never straying into danger but in a few years he would go, too. They’re tall, beautiful, goofy and fragile creatures, the Great Danes, and they only have a few years in them. They die of bone cancer. They die of myocardial infarction, of liver disease and bloat and wobbles and G-D knows what all else. Not for nothin’ are they called the “heartbreak breed.”
“Dad?,” she finally said. “You don’t really have to visit me in person.
“In a way, I’m always with you.”
“I know,” I said, thinking that I should be giving more than I was getting in these little exchanges of wisdom, because how many chances would I have?, “but that really hurts sometimes.”
“Of course it does.” She bowed her lips for real this time, closer to her mother’s gentle smile than the sardonic smirk she got from me.
“It’s supposed to, Dad.”
Then she shimmered a bit and I wanted to beg wait, stay, your twin sister is coming to visit, you guys could hang out and…
“I miss you,” I said, talking to myself again.
The puppy never minds when I do that.