Her Father, Your Father, My Father
Shane watches Angie’s quick dirty fingers sorting through the candy in the salad bowl. They huddle together on the steps of the apartment building. Shane’s hair is defiant and unruly; hers bone-straight and serious. He’s got his pigeon toe slung under his calf and his arms loose around his knees. If he didn’t have this foot, this asthma, he could do anything.
“You want to be a fat pig?” Angie points to the three allsorts and two wine gums he’s jamming into his pocket.
Unlike him, she throws her candy into her mouth. She twists her small head to the sun. Her entire body is astonishingly delicate.
Angie is exciting. If he sticks with her, things will happen to him.
“When I grow up,” she says, “I’m gonna give candy to anyone who asks.”
“That’s just stupid,” he says. Not because he thinks so, but because when she speaks his stomach tingles, and sometimes, this makes him angry.
She snatches up the bowl. “You’re stupid.” She runs away with her arms straight at her sides, with a step that is focused and urgent and hair that brushes the nape of her neck. She doesn’t stop to look back. In her slip-on sneakers, he watches her run away from him as if life is gaining on her.
“It’s not that I don’t want you to have friends,” his mom says.
“I like Angie.”
“I don’t. She’s bad for you. I want you to have good influences.”
She winces and looks away.
Shane and his mom have spent one month living together with a German Shepherd in this small apartment, dark and full of cockroaches. He’s only here for the summer. His mom casually asks him about his father, or tries. Does he have a girlfriend? Is she pretty? Does she cook? What she really wants to know: has he stopped drinking? Does he hit her? Then she’ll pick up a pile of tax returns she’s working on and walk into her bedroom, where her computer is. When she is not working, or cooking, he sometimes finds her staring blankly out the window, holding a magazine whose pages she hasn’t turned in hours.
“Can I watch you while you work tomorrow?”
“Can I live here forever?”
They settle into opposite ends of the couch in front of the TV. The awkwardness between them fills the space like something solid. But his mom sometimes kisses him while he pretends to sleep; he likes it when she smooths back his hair.
In the evening, she reads him the choices from the entertainment guide. She lets him pick the shows. They barely speak, but sometimes she makes popcorn and they both eat from the same bowl.
Before Shane came, his mom shared her popcorn with her dog. Now she keeps the dog locked in the bedroom when Shane is in the apartment. “If only you weren’t so skittish around him,” she says, blaming Shane for the fact the dog bit him.
Later, jumping into bed, he begins, “Mom.” He sees her back stiffen at the word. “You know the last time Angie was here?”
“She stole some of your change.”
“Don’t worry! I took it away from her. I put it back.”
“Be careful,” she says, “around Angie. She lies.”
He pauses. “My dad taught me not to lie.”
“Even daddies lie sometimes.”
“Yes. All daddies lie. And Angie lies.”
The next day he looks for Angie and finds her twirling on one foot by the swing set. She offers him her most winning smile, but he knows she can change to mean in a second. She has something inside her, wild as a feral cat, familiar yet frightening.
“You want to learn how to fly?” she asks.
He wraps his fist around yesterday’s candy, still in his pocket. He follows her to the staircase next to his suite, watches her climb and balance on the opposite side of the railing, fifteen feet above the ground. In wide arcs, like a ballerina, she sweeps her leg over the grass below them. He watches and waits, breathlessly.
Abruptly, she leaps out and her back arches in the air. She drops out of sight. He watches, open-mouthed, but cannot speak.
She fell heavy as a star launched from the heavens and he’s sure there will only be an imprint of her on the ground. He runs to the guard rail. Seeing her bent-double, unmoving, fifteen feet below, he races down the stairs.
The moment he touches her shoulder, she stands. She brushes the grass off her hands. She wipes a strand of hair from her eye and spits.
“Are you okay?”
He can see she is crying.
She laughs through her tears. She limps toward the stairs, and he gingerly edges over to where she landed to see if her hands and feet have left a mark on the earth. When he looks up, she’s gone.
“Did Angie do this?” his mom asks later, pointing at her crushed flowers.
“Who did, then, Shane? Who?”
“I don’t believe you.” He notices she’s still in her pyjamas, even though it’s two in the afternoon. “Angie did it.”
“No, I did. I did,” he says. He wishes he had, that he’d flown as well.
She exhales loudly. “Listen, if Angie tries this sort of thing again, I’m going to deal with her myself, or go to her father.”
“Her father is a prince.”
“Yeah, right. Did Angie tell you that?”
“Sure. Her father, your father, my father, they’re all princes.” She digs around in her robe pocket for cigarettes.
His mom opens the door as his fingers touch the knob. “Just what do you think you are doing?” she says.
“I dunno,” he mumbles.
Angie grunts and barges into the hallway.
“Do your parents know you’re here?”
“No, they’re dead.”
“They both killed themselves.”
“Who takes care of you?”
Later, she talks to Angie on the balcony alone. The boy watches through the sliding glass door, on the couch. The TV is on, but he’s not paying attention to it.
Angie stretches her face with her hands, pulling the skin of her cheeks towards her ears until her eyes and mouth are narrow slits.
His mom sits back on a patio chair, crosses her arms, cocks her head and squints at the girl. Angie stares back with sharp eyes, her gaze never wandering or faltering with a blink. He can tell his mom doesn’t believe Angie, doesn’t believe her lies. She’s stopped believing in most things.
Angie leads him to the playground at the bottom of the ravine. The swings are tangled in morning glory, vines hang down the rusted slide and snake up over the teeter-totter. He pulls at his T-shirt collar. Summer gets in anyway, like sweet molasses, hot and sticky. Angie swats at the air.
His urine marks the air with a yellow arc the shape of a rainbow. Some lands on leaves and sends ants scurrying. He wonders if the ants think it’s raining.
After he’s done, she pushes him down on a flat rock covered with dead leaves and moss, cold and damp on his back, and straddles him—another game she made up. As he lies there, feeling helpless, she bucks her body against him.
She looks over by the bushes where the creek bed rises and meanders into sloping yards. A man is sitting there on a plastic lawn chair.
He expects her to jump off so they can run. But she holds him in place under her, trapping his hips in the vice of her legs, which are unbelievably strong. Her face stretches into a smirk.
He pulls at Angie’s sleeve. “I think we should get out of here.”
She pushes her hair behind her ears and whispers,“Shhhhh,” though the side of her mouth. He suddenly has to go to the bathroom more than anything.
“C’mon, Angie.” He smiles inanely, a nervous reaction. “We’re going to get in trouble.”
That look, the wild cat one. “I know. And I don’t care.”
Angie hits him in the ribs with her elbow, hard. She fixes her eyes on the man and he stares back. Shane has never seen her so angry.
“Do you two know each other?”
She doesn’t answer.
Angie is gone for several days and Shane misses her. He hangs around the apartment stairs, the landing where she flew, the winding path to the ravine playground where she made him play her secret game. When he figures she’ll never come back, she appears, throwing tiny stones at his window.
He joins her outside. Under one eye, her cheekbone is bruised and yellow. When he moves to touch it, she tries to bite him. He wants to ask but he’s very much aware of his mom watching them through the window, looking at Angie the way she looked at his dad the day he dropped Shane off with a solitary blue suitcase. Shane takes Angie’s hand and leads her away from the stairs.
As soon as they round the corner, she asks, “How strong do you think I am?”
“I am soooo strong.” Angie’s eyes twinkle.
He turns away from her, whistles through his teeth. “Strong as a kitten, maybe.”
She jumps him without warning. They wrestle on the warm grass, which makes his stomach tingle, in the same way as listening to her speak, or watching her feet, made for twirling, not like his.
She stops, sits up, panting. “Break my finger.”
He laughs. “No way.”
“Because you’re not strong enough?”
“Because it’s dumb.” He says this as if she’s merely wasting his time with girly silliness. He’s suddenly shy. He draws his knees to his chest.
“Fine.” She gets up. “This is boring, anyway.”
“I don’t want to,” he offers, hurriedly. “Come back.”
“Nah.” She’s leaving him.
“Break mine instead,” he says.
He catches her wrist to draw her back.
She sits down. Licking her lips, she spreads her fingers like a flower petal before him.
He grabs hold and yanks her middle finger back. Does he hear it snap? He understands now that the universe sometimes gives you what you want, just not the way you wished for it. He knows she doesn’t love him, and never will.