My wife was feeling carsick anyway. We were coming out of the mountains, heading southeast on a two-lane, state highway between Yellowstone and Laramie. The Tetons were behind us, and we were sad about that.
I hadn’t talked to my daughter in four months. She sounded scared, her breathing clipped and hard. Gulps and puffs of oxygen punctuated spurts of angry words.
I heard only bits and pieces before I could pull over. Bad reception. Something about a landlord and roommates, an “asshole” and money. There were problems with money.
Outside, the sun was high and the air thin. I too struggled to breath. I walked around the front of the car. When I reached the passenger side, I felt that weird sensation of being strung between the old and the new, the latter walking away from me, her arms spread out, resting on the shoulders of her eight-year-old twins.
My daughter and I lost reception. I re-dialed and waited for her to answer. While listening to the ringing, I watched my wife and the kids walk down a gravel road. They stopped at the bottom of a short hill, where the road bottlenecked and bisected a retention pond. The kids picked up rocks and tossed them into the water. My wife turned then, looked up the hill and smiled.
“You there,” I said.
I walked to the road. “Can you hear me?”
“Yes,” said my daughter. “I can hear you now.”
“I couldn’t understand much earlier. You kept cutting out.”
“I’m so stupid,” she said.
“You’re not stupid. What happened?”
“I guess I can’t get out of this lease. I signed it back in… October, I think. Stupid.”
We hadn’t talked about leases and contracts. There was a lot of stuff we hadn’t talked about. We hadn’t even lived together for the past four years.
“What’s the problem?” I said.
“Five people were living here, but only three of us signed the lease. Now three people have moved out, and I…”
My daughter sucked oxygen into her mouth. Her voice trembled. She was trying not to cry.
“It’s okay,” I said.
“Logan says I owe eight hundred dollars! He’s a dick! I don’t have that kind of money.”
My heart sped up. This was the kind of thing I ran into with her mother. Her problem was now my problem.
“I have a little money,” I said.
“I just want out of here! Damn it! Why am I so stupid?”
“Stop saying that. This is just a youthful mistake. I made a thousand of them when I was your age.”
She was calming down. “I’m sorry for calling you,” she said.
“Don’t be,” I said.
At the bottleneck, they were skipping rocks. I’d been teaching them. It was a quaint scene down there, a little slice of Americana. My wife said something to her son, who turned around and said a few words back to her. She laughed. She was beautiful in the Western sun, the way a person glows when they’re back home. As if she could be any prettier. The boy picked up another rock and flung it. It didn’t skip. I needed to work with him some more.
“The university probably has an office,” I said to my daughter. “Some kind of legal clinic or services to protect students from unscrupulous landlords.”
“He’s a dick too,” she said. “He never fixes anything. The heater was broken all winter. It was fucking cold. This is Minneapolis.”
I hadn’t heard her drop the F bomb before. It annoyed me, the way it would coming from anyone’s mouth. But who was I to judge. I said it thirty times a day.
“I could send something,” I said. “Maybe a couple hundred.”
I was waiting for her to accept. I wanted her to say that her mother had offered too, that we could cobble together eight hundred. But she didn’t say anything, not even thanks.
“Do you really owe that much?” I asked.
“No!” she said. “I owe three hundred, but because my name’s on the lease, I guess I’m responsible.”
“How much does … what’d you say his name was?”
“Logan,” she huffed, extending the first syllable.
“How much does he owe?”
She didn’t answer. I could hear sniffling.
“Do you know?” I said.
She coughed and inhaled deeply. “No, I don’t know anything.”
“Well how have you handled it in the past? Did each of you pay a fifth or whatever to the landlord?”
She coughed again. It sounded chronic and pulmonary. Was she sick, I wondered, spending some of the rent on cigarettes? Then I heard what sounded like crinkling wrapping paper. There was a loud knock, then a scratching and muffled sound.
“What?” she said.
“Who have you written checks to?”
“I pay him…”
More background noise. Then everything muffled out. I could feel her slipping away. Someone had entered the room.
Just like her mother; come to me with a problem and then recede when I try to help or offer a solution.
“I gotta go, dad.”
“I gotta go.”
“Okay,” I said. “Just call me back when…”
She hung up.
Did this happen to the parent of every adolescent? This child, this little human who drove me crazy talking ten-thousand miles an hour in the back seat when she was five, was now … a woman? It was painful to admit: I had no idea who she was. Did I make her?
I walked back to the car. The twins were standing on a large rock, a barrier between the road and one of the ponds. They were singing and dancing silly. Shielding her eyes from the sun, their mother was watching them. She was laughing.
“Okay,” I yelled. “We’re done.”
The kids jumped down off the rock and jostled with each other, bickering, no doubt arguing about who had shoved the other first. Watching them, I felt a hard knot forming behind my sternum. As they came up the hill, looking normal and well adjusted, I forgot who I was, or rather which version of myself was standing there on the side of the road, forever caught between two worlds.
Fifteen miles down the road, the kids settled in with a game of hangman, my wife asked me if my daughter was okay.
“I guess,” I said.
There was a tinge of melodrama in my voice. I knew what that was about. I needed her to feel sorry for me. Here was a little plea for attention, rising up from the subconscious.
But her question wasn’t about me. It had nothing to do with anything except my daughter and her welfare. Was she okay? Did I know this?
My wife didn’t play games or waste time on words that had nothing to do with what she was thinking about. No hidden agenda or passive-aggressive manipulation. Knowing this forced me to answer her question again, this time without emotion, without all the guilt I carried around about the divorce.
“Yes,” I said. “She’s okay.”
“What’s going on?”
“Some kind of problem with a lease. Lots of drama.”
“Does she need money?” asked my wife. “We’ve been talking about sending her some.”
“I know,” I said. “I offered.”
“I thought that’s what she wanted. Now I’m confused. She didn’t seem … I don’t know … interested. Maybe it was because I didn’t offer the full amount. But I don’t think that was it. I think she would have responded the same way regardless of how much I offered.”
“Maybe she was just trying to work it out in her head,” said my wife. “Or…” She paused here, leaning forward and smiling. “Maybe she just needed someone to listen to her.”
“I did that, I think … I don’t know, maybe I had too many solutions.”
My wife smiled again and placed her hand on my leg. “I’m sure you did fine, babe.”
We were trying to make it to Fort Collins, but it was getting late and the kids were hungry. So we stopped in Cheyenne. My vegetarian wife consulted Urban Spoon and found a diner, the kind of meat-and-potatoes place she knew her son would love.
“But first,” she said, “we need to find a Walgreen’s.”
She didn’t answer. She just leaned forward and looked at me like I should know what she was talking about.
We drove around a long time trying to find the Walgreen’s. It wasn’t our fault. The GPS directions stunk. We passed an Air Force base, a poorly lit mall and a decent-sized rail yard, all of which destroyed the city’s grid system critical to a visitor’s successful navigation.
Restless and punchy, the twins wrestled in the backseat. My wife, usually eminently patient, sighed several times and then finally snapped.
“That’s enough!” she said. “I’ve asked you several times. It’s not safe for the driver when you do that.”
They quieted down.
Finally, I spotted the sign up ahead and pulled into the Walgreens parking lot. By this time, my wife was humming oddly and swaying back and forth in her seat. When I slowed to a stop in front of the sliding doors, she bolted out of the car, her absence followed by a synchronized, harmonic sigh from the back seat.
I parked the car and I dialed my daughter. The phone rang several times. No answer.
While waiting for his mother, my stepson asked me a question I’d heard him ask her before. “Cy,” he said, “what’s your worst fear?” When he asked his mother this question, her reply was the same every time—“That I wouldn’t have had you guys.”—to which he would complain: “That’s what you always say. What’s your worse fear other than that?”
My stepson and I had a good relationship—all the normal ups and downs—but I felt honored that he’d finally asked me. I took as a sign of love.
“That’s some heavy stuff,” I said.
“Yes it is,” he said.
I thought about it. I saw my daughter, sitting in the back seat, talking incessantly, driving me nuts. Her beautiful face, those big blue eyes and fat, rosy cheeks.
“I guess I’d have to say … It’s sort of like the flip side of what your mom says. That’d I’d lose my … That I’d lose one of you. Or your mom.”
I expected him to argue the merits of my fear, as he had with his mother. Because really, the whole exercise was nothing more than a way for him to talk about his own worst fear – flesh-eating, mind-controlling zombies. But he didn’t argue.
“Yeah,” he said. “That would suck.”
Finding the restaurant was no problem. We drove downtown, near the capitol. Our waitress brought us coffee and water and silverware wrapped in paper napkins. She was a scrawny, rough-looking woman with a scratchy, country drawl and leathery, Western skin. I imagined her helping out on a ranch as a little girl, younger than the twins. She called my wife and me “hon,” and she took care of us like a doting nurse. Which was golden, because we were strung out when we got there.
After we ordered, the twins ran off to the bathroom to wash their hands. My wife took a deep breath and exhaled. She was relieved, happy to be off the road, but I could tell something was wrong. She seemed distracted.
“Everything okay?” I said.
She perked up and smiled. “Yeah. Just these kids. But they’ve been so good overall.”
“They really have,” I said.
She smiled and lifted the pearl-colored ceramic cup and took a drink of coffee. She was forty-three, I forty-seven. She treated my son like he was her own, but she hadn’t even met my daughter.
Setting the cup back on the table, her brow furled, and her face in general changed from placid to worried. “Did you hear back from Steph?” she asked.
“No,” I said. “I tried her again while you were in Walgreens.”
She curled her upper lip. “No answer?”
I shook my head.
Then the twins returned with the energy of an Oklahoma tornado.
Caffeinated, stomachs full, we headed south on Interstate 25, the Front Range looming to the west like the outstretched wings of an enormous bird. The kids had calmed down, and in this replenished, satiated condition, we actually enjoyed the drive to Fort Collins. My daughter still had not called back.
The twins were nothing but pleasant – chatty and laughing and playfully teasing each other and their mother, whose mood had improved immensely. She was laughing too and playing along with them, but I swear—during a lull in the backseat-frontseat banter—I heard a rapid inhale-gasp and then a hushed sniffle-snort. Did her lip quiver? I leaned forward to check on her, but it was dark inside the car and just loud enough to prevent me from knowing with any certainty that this had actually happened. I felt awkward too, leaning forward like that and looking her way, as if I were invading her privacy.
And then it was over, if it even happened at all. She was right back to playing with the kids.
She booked one room at The Armstrong, an historic hotel on the main street in downtown Fort Collins. We rolled in much later than expected but at a decent time, around 9:15. After we hauled all the suitcases and backpacks up to the room, my wife asked me if I’d take the kids for a walk. “Or,” she said. “I think they have a exercise room.” All code, of course, for “I need a minute,” which was fine with me, because on the way in I spotted a creamery at an intersection a couple blocks to the north.
I got two scoops of vanilla with caramel and chunks of Heath mixed in. The kids ordered disgusting concoctions of bubblegum ice cream covered with sprinkles, Gummy Bears, frozen M&Ms and iced animal crackers. We sat outside, where the mile-high air had turned cool enough for a light jacket.
“Listen to me,” I said. “When you’re in college and living far away in a different town, don’t forget to call your mom.”
“I’m going to live in a big city,” said my stepdaughter. “With skyscrapers.”
“Great,” I said. “We’ll come visit you. But until we do, or in between visits, call us.”
“I will,” she said.
“No you won’t,” I said.
“I will!” she said. “I promise.”
The sugar made me dream. Walking down a short alley, I heard wood cracking and snapping. When I reached the street, I looked to my right and I saw an entire house, a once-proud, two-story, wood-frame structure from the early 1900s, leaning over like a slow-moving train was pushing on it from the other side. Then it toppled and crumbled into heap of splintered wood and broken glass.
I woke up on my side. There was a light on in the room. I was at the edge of our bed, and I was facing the kids’ bed. My stepson was snoring.
I rolled over. My wife wasn’t there. I couldn’t see clearly because I didn’t have my glasses on, but I could tell she was sitting in a chair on the other of the bed, between the window and the lamp that provided the only light in the room. I located my glasses on the bedside table and put them on.
“You okay?” she said.
“I was just going to ask you the same question.”
She was holding a mug with both hands, like we were in a cabin in the dead of winter. “I’m fine,” she said. “You were talking in your sleep.”
“I was? What’d I say?”
“I couldn’t tell,” she said. “Nothing coherent. Just whimpering and gibberish.”
“But you didn’t seem afraid. It was more like you were protesting, pleading maybe.”
“Hmm, I don’t know,” I said. “There was a house falling down. I guess it had something to do with that.”
My wife laughed. “Oh,” she said. “Ominous.”
“What do you mean?”
“Nothing,” she said. “I’m teasing you.”
I looked over at her and squinted. My eyes still hadn’t adjusted to the light. “What are you doing?” I said.
My vision improved, I looked right at her. She smiled at me.
“I have something that might scare you,” she said.
“Are you awake?”
“I think so. We’re not buried under a demolished house, are we?”
“Ah, hell, babe,” I said. “Come on, what is it?”
She drank from the mug and then cleared her throat. “I’m pregnant,” she said.
I detected the slightest hint of sadness in her voice. Maybe it was fear. But that was foreign to me, because I rarely saw her in that state. It just wasn’t who she was or how she lived.
Before I could say anything, I saw my daughter again, chattering away in the back seat, singing, asking a thousand questions, pointing out the obvious along the side the road. “That’s a fence. There’s a house. Look at the barn.”
“Whoa,” I said.
“I’m forty-three years old,” she said.
“Uh huh. And you’re fit as a fucking fiddle.”
A burst of laughter and then tears. “I’m sorry,” she said.
“What about? You mean, ‘You’re welcome.’”
Now laughter through tears.
There she was again. This time my daughter was stepping up onto a wide platform. She was wearing that ridiculous hat, walking across the stage, reaching out to accept her diploma.
As if my wife was seeing it too or knew I was. “Man,” she said. “you’ll be sixty-five when she graduates from high school.”
“I already thought about that,” I said.
“I know you did.”
“But I bet I won’t be the oldest parent there.”
She laughed again.
Then I knew what it was all about, this whole business with my daughter. I could see it clearly.
“It’s the bridge,” I said.
“The bridge?” said my wife.
“Nothing,” I said. “Come on, baby. Come to bed.”
She stood up and turned out the light.
Matt McGowan has a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s degree in journalism, both from the University of Missouri. He was a newspaper reporter, and for many years now he has worked as a science and research writer at the University of Arkansas. His stories have appeared in Valley Voices: A Literary Review, Deep South Magazine, Pennsylvania Literary Journal, Open Road Review and others. He lives with his wife and children in Fayetteville, Arkansas.