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When did I give up on certainty?
At what hour on what day did I realize that you never get to know the answers? Especially not the juicy ones?
It was a misguided affectation, I realize, my little preoccupation with verity. One that served no more purpose than a set of wisdom teeth or manual typewriter–fitting, perhaps, in some other millennium, but out of place if not archaic in a postmodern world of news cycles, reality shows, and million-dollar half-minute Super Bowl ads. I never saw it as dangerous, though. Of course, that was back when I was young and dumb and blissfully wafting through my days as though nothing sinister was sharing the air with me.
But the air is indeed crowded. And the other inhabitants rarely announce their presence, much less their intentions. Which sends the rest of us spinning around in unexpected directions, bumping into invisible barricades and teetering off into unseen ravines.
Eventually, of course, if you have any spunk at all, you right yourself and you find your bearings. But just when you think you’ve spotted the lodestar, you discover that what you thought was true north is neither. That truth in the universe is the most elusive of the elements. And if you’re dumb enough to go looking for it, you’re liable to get smacked in the face by one of the legions of liars you’re trying to outwit.
My own personal liar–the one assigned to me by some force out there in the ether–is named Peter Terry. He’s a nasty, ratfink bottom-dweller–a mind-stalking, soul-dissing prevaricator of the first degree. He lies, cheats, and steals, amusing himself by shoplifting, pickpocketing, breaking and entering, or outright armed robbery.
I thought I’d seen the worst of him. But with beings like Peter Terry, I’ve learned, low expectations cannot possibly be low enough. And where Peter Terry is concerned, I have lowered my expectations all the way down to the black pit of hell.
It began this time on a sunny Saturday in May. Graduation day. My favorite day of the academic year.
I teach psychology at Southern Methodist University. Like most professors, I experience a powerful surge of enthusiasm every August when classes begin. In those first moments standing at the blackboard, chalk smudges on my fingers, my students’ faces aglow with curiosity, I swell with the intellectual and spiritual stimulation of my craft. I love a fresh roomful of malleable minds, the smell of new school supplies, the squeak of the freshly waxed floors of Dallas Hall, the sound of the crowd at football games (a small crowd since 1987, unfortunately).
Of course, that sentimental nonsense lasts about forty-eight hours. And then, like the rest of my colleagues, I spend the following nine months wishing the little darlings would quit bothering me and go home. The students are equally sick of us by May, however, which is one of the reasons graduation is a uniformly glorious occasion on campuses around the world. It’s one of the few Hallmark holidays about which everyone involved is truly unconflicted.
On this warm summer Saturday (in Texas, the solstice comes early), I found myself hooded and tasseled, wrangling a room full of rowdy degree candidates. Technically, they would not be graduates for another hour or so–which ensured my last, tenuous thread of authority over them. Our caps and gowns gave us all an impressive, if misleading, air of credibility, at least until you glanced down at the wild variety of (mostly tasteless) footwear on display.
I was shouting instructions, trying to herd them all into a reasonably straight, alphabetically ordered line, when my cell phone rang. Amid hoots from my charges–I’d confiscated cell phones from several conspirators who were plotting to interrupt the festivities with coordinated Pink Floyd ring tones–I hiked up my gown and fished in the pocket of my cutoffs, which, taken with my stilettos, made me look like a streetwalker on a Dukes of Hazzard episode. I smiled sweetly and flipped open my phone.
“We’re here, Miss Dylan!” the caller shouted.
It was my little friend Christine Zocci, due to arrive from Chicago today to celebrate her sixth birthday with me.
“Did you know this airport is called Love? Love, love, love,” she sang.
“Where did you learn that song?”
“Everyone knows love love love,” she said, clearly disgusted with me. “It’s the Bees.”
“I think that’s Beatles, Punkin.”
“I don’t like beetles. I like bees.”
“Beatles is the name of the band that sang the song. Not a bug.”
“I like bees,” she insisted.
And that was the end of that.
“Are you guys getting your bags now?”
“The pilot has our suitcases.”
“I don’t think so, Punkin. The pilot flies the plane. He doesn’t carry the bags.”
“His name is Captain George. He’s nice.”
As though that explained it.
“How do you know his name is George? Did he tell you?”
She sighed. “I had a bee in a jar once, but it stang me and died.”
“How about if I talk to your mommy?”
I heard series of clunks as the phone changed hands, and then her mother came on the line.
“Hi, Liz. Where are you guys?”
“All I know is we landed at Love Field. We’re…” She paused. “I don’t see any signs. I’m not sure where we are.”
“Baggage claim is on the bottom floor. Take the escalator down.”
“The pilot has our bags.”
“Um, okay, Liz. Have you guys been doing a lot of craft projects lately involving glue? Because glue fumes can cause serious brain damage. You should be aware.”
“Oh, there he is.” I heard her shout to someone named George. I pictured an American Airlines pilot carrying Christine’s lavender Barbie suitcase. And then, of course, I realized what was going on.
Liz and Andy Zocci are the primary shareholders in a Midwestern regional airline called Eagle Wing Air, founded by Andy’s father. They have more money than the Mormon church.
“You guys brought your own plane, didn’t you?”
“It was just easier,” Liz said, sounding embarrassed.
“Oh sure, well, I always think it’s easier to take my own plane. Because, you know, the other ones are so…crowded. All those peeeople!”
“And the snacks are just not acceptable. Crummy little packets of pretzels passing for food. And don’t even get me started on those filthy blankets. I hate those things.”
“Dylan, this is very original humor. I’m laughing hysterically. Really, I am.”
“You can see other people’s hairs on them. It’s disgusting.”
“Are you done? Or is there more?”
“Hmm, that’s about it. Do you want directions to my house, or should I meet you at your hotel?”
“I think we’ll go unpack and then meet you at your place. Christine has been talking about this for weeks. I don’t think I can hold her back much longer.”
“I’ve got another couple of hours here in the salt mines,” I said. “Can she make it that long?”
“We’ll unpack and get some lunch. It might take me a while to find something Christine will eat. You know how she is.”
“Is she still on crunchy food?”
“It comes and goes. For now it’s crunchy food mainly. And orange, if at all possible. Carrots, Cheetos, things like that. Yellow’s okay too. We eat a lot of vegetables and corn chips.”
“Your kid is weird.”
“I try not–Christine, gum and hair don’t mix–try not to think about it.”
“Did Andy and the boys come?”
“They’re out of the country.”
“Well, la-di-da,” I sing-songed. “They’re not even in kindergarten, and they’re already world travelers?”
“It’s an Angel Wing mission.”
“To your friend Tony DeStefano’s orphanage in Guatemala.”
“Oh. Well, that’s different.”
“Thank you. I thought so. Want to retract your la-di-da?”
Angel Wing Air is the Zoccis’ charity airline. They fly small planes into remote areas around the world to supply and transport medical personnel and missionaries. And Tony DeStefano was a friend from my seminary days. He’d also been a sort of spiritual touchstone in recent years, an ally in that whole Peter Terry, life-falling-apart fiasco. He and Jenny had recently returned to the mission field. I’d forgotten I’d introduced him to Andy and Liz.
“I made a cake,” I offered, more to change the subject than to announce the menu. “A regular, spongy, noncrunchy cake.”
“Strawberry. Isn’t that what you said?”
“Yep. She makes exceptions for strawberry anything. What time do you want us? We’ve got a car.”
“La-di-da again. You didn’t bring a limo too, did you? Like, in the cargo hold?”
“We’re renting a regular, run-of-the-mill car, just like the little people.”
“Where are you staying?”
“The Crescent. Do you want me to call you? Or just show up?”
“I’ll call with directions when I’m done here. Hey, you didn’t tell Christine about her present, did you?” I said. “I want her to be surprised.”
“Not a word.”
“Great.” I checked my watch. “I think I can be out of here by two o’clock, assuming no one blows anything up or passes out or anything.”
The students in my immediate vicinity began making explosion noises and pretending to faint.
“I gotta go, Liz. I’m losing control here.”
Someone shouted, “She never had control!” into the phone as I hung up.
I spent the next two hours sweltering under my mortarboard, enjoying one of the slim gratifications of another year of largely thankless effort. As much as I gripe about my work, there’s no fighting off the joy when my students high-five me as they walk off the stage toward the rest of their lives, clutching four years of hard-won education in a maroon leather folder, their families cheering from the seats. It’s one of the few times of the year when I feel proud of my incredibly low-paying, bottom-of-the-academic-ladder job.
The rest of the time I feel poor, mainly.
After the ceremony, I walked a hot half mile to faculty parking, swept off my mortarboard, and drove my crummy pickup home to my tiny house. I parked in the driveway under the sycamore tree that always needs pruning, and cut the motor, which shrugged reluctantly to a stop. I hauled my stuff to the porch and unlocked my front door. The air conditioner hummed a pleasant little greeting, which is always good news on a hot Dallas afternoon. I threw my keys on the kitchen table, placed my once-a-year heels in the back of my bedroom closet, tossed my graduation gown into the dry-cleaner hamper, Frisbeed my mortarboard onto the dryer for sponging and Febreze, and walked over to the rabbit hutches in the corner of my bedroom.
“Bunnies, I’m home,” I cooed, peering into the cages. Two small rabbits hopped over to greet me–a little red one, whose auburn coat matched my hair color exactly, and a tiny gray lop-ear. Melissa and Eeyore. I reached down and scratched them behind the ears.
I’ve never really been a pet person. All those bodily fluids and floaty little hairs are prohibitive for a person of my obsessive inclinations. Even the smell of a pet store is a problem–I order all pet supplies online to avoid that trauma entirely. But both bunnies had been orphaned the previous winter when their owners were caught in one of Peter Terry’s snares.
So I had taken them in–Melissa first and then, later, Eeyore.
I’m kind of a loner, but it turns out that nonverbal roommates are better than no roommates at all. And as an added bonus, rabbits are relatively tidy little creatures. These two were actually housebroken. But since almost no one has need of two bunnies, especially two bunnies of the opposite gender (though Melissa had recently surrendered her femininity at the vet), Eeyore was to be my birthday gift to Christine.
I couldn’t wait to give him to her. I’d gotten him a big, purple bow–purple is Christine’s favorite color–and had his name painted on a set of (mail-order) ceramic bowls. I could now send the hutch home with the Zoccis as well, since cargo room was clearly not a problem.
I showered quickly and went to the kitchen to set out some refreshments. I was squeezing lemons for lemonade when the doorbell rang. I glanced out the kitchen window and wiped my hands on a cup towel. My friend Maria Chavez had arrived with her little boy.
Maria is a fellow Peter Terry target. She also happens to be an ob-gyn at the local public hospital and one of my All Time Favorite People. She is my only local friend, the first recruit in my campaign to improve my abysmal social life–an effort I commenced last year along with a rigorous Thigh Recovery Program. (I like to believe in the possibility of Total Overhaul.)
I opened the door and greeted her with a best-friend hug, then knelt down and said hello to my groovy little friend, Nicholas.
“Hey, doodlebug.” I gave him a quick hug, squeezing the air out of him as he tried to say my name.
“Hi, M(squeeze)iss (squeeze) Dy(squeeze)lan,” he coughed out.
We did The Squeeze every time I saw him. It was our little thing. He giggled. “Do it again!”
I did it again. He coughed out my name in spurts.
Nicholas had wild, curly brown hair just like his father, who at that moment was sitting in a hot cinderblock cell down in Huntsville, serving ten flat for aggravated sexual assault. That crazy mop of hair framed bright blue eyes and a face so flushed and pink with innocent vim you couldn’t possibly imagine he’d been conceived through violence.
“What do you have behind your back?” I said to Nicholas. “Did you bring your GI Joe?”
He shook his head and giggled.
“Is it your turtle?”
“Is it a skyscraper? I heard one was missing from downtown. Or maybe a buffalo? I’ve always wanted my own buffalo. Let’s saddle him up and go for a ride.”
“A buffalo is too big,” he said, giggling. He swung his hand around and pointed a plastic gun at me. “BANG!”
I pretended to die, clutching my heart and crumpling to the ground.
“Don’t shoot people, Nicholas,” Maria said. “It’s bad manners.”
“But that’s what it’s for,” he whined.
I picked myself up. “He’s got a point, Maria.”
“Enrique gave it to him,” she said. “He’s recruiting him, I think. It came with holsters and a badge and a little red siren for his bicycle. It runs on batteries.”
“The holsters sound cool. I could use a set of those myself.”
“I may never forgive him.”
“How is he?”
“Enrique? Charming. Handsome. Overworked.” Her brown eyes twinkled mischievously. “Slightly unavailable.”
“Ooh, I love that in a man,” I said.
“Very sexy,” she agreed. She gave me her girlfriend-confrontation look. “I still think you should call David.”
“It’s a procedural violation to call a man six months after he breaks up with you.”
“Check the handbook.”
“And it’s only been four and a half months.”
“I think he’s made it perfectly clear, Maria, that he doesn’t want to be with me.”
“I keep hoping.”
“You’re an optimist. I hate that about you, you know that? I truly do. You really should get it seen about.”
Liz and Christine arrived then in a regular, run-of-the-mill, rented Suburban. I made the introductions, and we all trailed inside. Christine went nuts over Eeyore, as I’d known she would. We sent the kids to the backyard with the rabbits while we blew up balloons and lit candles, then brought them all in and gathered at the kitchen table for cake and presents.
We’d all gotten gifts for Nicholas too. And though Christine was officially the birthday girl, she let Nicholas wear her Barbie Birthday Princess tiara while she sported the cowboy hat I’d bought for him. Eeyore wore his spiffy satin bow and sat in Christine’s lap eating crumbs from her strawberry birthday cake.
I was setting up my homemade version of pin the tail on the donkey when Christine announced she wanted to take Eeyore to the park. I decided to bring the game along, just in case the kids got bored. I threw the blindfolds, tails, and donkey–which I had drawn myself in a misguided fit of Martha Stewart ambition and which, I’m proud to say, actually looked sort of like a donkey–into a shopping bag, tossing in my staple gun at the last minute.
I live in a Dallas neighborhood called Oak Lawn, which is funky and artsy and pleasantly rickety. It has groovy old houses, giant, misshapen trees, cracked sidewalks, and quirky people. My next-door neighbor has a bubble machine on his balcony. That’s how cool my neighborhood is. The parks, however, are full of weeds, doggie poo, and sticker-burrs.
Two streets over is Highland Park, a much nicer, nonfunky, not-at-all-rickety neighborhood that has fabulous parks with manicured azalea bushes and banked flowers and lacy white gazebos and such. Sort of like a Thomas Kinkade painting.
Highland Park, for me, is like the Bermuda Triangle. My luck is terrible there.
It’s a low-crime area with huge houses, fancy cars, and its own police force. Which means it’s crawling with bored cops trolling around all day in a shiny fleet of Suburbans.
They care if you go thirty-five in a thirty.
Interlopers like me, driving loud, crummy vehicles with lousy mufflers and cracked windshields, stand out like goats in the piano parlor. Since I am a fast driver and a slow learner, I’d received, at last count, three–count ’em, three–speeding tickets in Highland Park. And that was in one year.
Given the nature of our mission, however, I caved to the sticker-burr issue and let Liz drive us over to Highland Park, banking on her luck to overcome mine.
Apparently, lots of other birthday groups had the same idea. The place was crawling with kids–balloons tied to their wrists, cake smeared on their faces. Their defeated moms trailed behind them yelling out halfhearted prohibitions. Off to one side, someone had set up a petting zoo with a tiny Brahman calf, two saddled, bored ponies, a little herd of baby goats, and a few baby rabbits hopping around in a pen. Melissa and Eeyore sniffed sympathetically through the pickets at their imprisoned relatives.
Maria, Liz, and I found a bench and watched the kids as they made friends and played on the swings. The breeze blew softly as sunlight dappled in through the leaves of the live-oak trees. A soccer game buzzed like a hive in the center of the green lawn. A gardener clipped hedges with manual choppers and swept up the leaves with a real broom, not one of those obnoxious, nuclear-decibel leaf blowers.
An ice-cream cart came by, and we all bought Popsicles. I got one of those orange push-up things that taste like sherbet but are probably made out of xanthan gum and high-fructose corn syrup. I tried not to think about it. It’s important to not blow such lovely moments by obsessing about food additives. I’ve spent a modest fortune on therapy to learn that little trick.
It was a beautiful day. A perfect, grade-A, blue-sky day, in fact. I licked my xanthan pop and searched my memory for the last time I’d been this happy.
While Liz and Maria talked, I got up and began stapling my donkey to a tree. He looked a bit like a special-needs donkey, now that I got a good look at him. A special-needs donkey in need of orthodontia and maybe orthopedic shoes. Several children left the swings and came over to check out the afflicted animal. Nicholas pointed his gun at the donkey, no doubt intending to put it out of its misery.
“BANG!” he said and then ran off, sprinting away and scooting behind a tree. He stuck his head back around and pointed his plastic gun, took another shot at the donkey, then ran all the way to the other end of the park and ducked behind the tennis courts.
“Have you mentioned to him that the headwear might be a problem?” I said to Maria. “I mean, the gun is kind of manly. But the tiara…” I tsked. “It ruins the look.”
Maria shrugged. “Maybe with the holsters…”
The tennis courts were fenced, with black wind netting covering the chain-link way up past eye level.
“Where’s Nicholas?” Christine asked.
I pointed. “I think he’s hiding behind the tennis courts. Go see if you can find him.”
“Could you tell him to come back over here, sweetie?” Maria asked. “I don’t want him that close to the street.”
Christine ran to the fence, then stopped short and cocked her head.
“What is it, Christine?” Liz said.
Christine pointed at the area behind the tennis courts. “Mommy, that man is mean.”
“I’ll go.” Liz stood up to fetch the kids.
Christine screamed, and we saw a hand–a large hand, a man’s hand–grab her by the arm and yank her behind the netting, her cowboy hat flying out behind her and spinning onto the ground.
We all covered the ground in seconds. By the time we got there, Christine stood behind the fence, her panicked face red and wet with tears, her birthday tiara in the dust at her feet.
Nicholas was gone.