By AMY STUBER
But he could have been. My father was a similar man. His name was Richard Cheney, though he never went by Dick, and he never lived at the Naval Observatory. He was an orthopedic surgeon in suburban Kansas City who said stupid things like, “These hands are gold,” to people at dinner parties where he was often the one who ate more than his fair share of Shrimp Scampi and dove into the pool drunk in his clothes because he thought everything he did was a fun spectacle.
In his 70s and still believing too much in his own infallibility, my father invested heavily in blockchain and bitcoin, two things about which he knew nothing, and lost almost all his money. But even after, he and my mother lived in a house with an elaborate pool designed to look like a naturally-occurring jungle waterscape because they’d paid it off, and it was cheaper to stay, but they’d started eating dinner out at sad places with buffet lines, and their vacations no longer involved air travel, which is how my wife Selma and I found ourselves in a tiny state park cabin next door to my parents’ tiny state park cabin in Mound City, Missouri, where over a million migrating birds, snow geese mainly, stopped off each year to preen and rest and yell at each other until taking off again. None of this was tragic.
(“Who is Dick Cheney,” my son who is reading over my shoulder asks me now. He never knew my father who died the year he was born and knows of him only as “Your grandpa” and my son, 7 now, certainly has no idea about the Dick Cheney, former Vice President, war criminal, and “really not a bad guy,” according to my father. In my college composition class, we wrote an essay about “rugged individualism” and how the idea of the rugged individual is a particularly American and maybe a particularly male idea, as compared to collectivism found in other countries, and it strikes me as I look at my son with his hair to his shoulders and his pink sweatshirt and skinny jeans that the kind of masculinity associated with the rugged individual is dying or maybe even dead. Was I a Dick Cheney? No. Much to my father’s dismay, I couldn’t fix things or build things. I couldn’t shoot a gun. I couldn’t hold my own in a golf game. I couldn’t slap other men on the back while we joked about taxes. I probably couldn’t survive in a wilderness setting. Pussy, Patsy, Pansy, Nervous Nellie, these were all things my father had called me at one point or another, but somehow I’d never been able to hate him. “Dick Cheneys are rugged individuals,” I tell my son, though it means nothing to him, and it’s not a compliment, but it’s not fully an insult either.)
In the morning in Mound City, Missouri, my wife Selma and I sit across from my mother and father and eat grits at a diner a few minutes from the cabins, in the small stretch of things that is the town. There are several antique stores that seem to be selling all the same racist yard ornaments.
“Your father has always wanted to see this, these birds,” my mother says.
“News to me,” my father says and adjusts his blue v-neck sweater, so it’s pulled taut over his stomach which has never developed into the pot belly of so many men his age and grabs at the remaining piece of bacon on my plate, which I wanted, but I don’t stop him because this is our dynamic now. A few years ago, I might have pulled my plate an inch or two out of his reach to fuck with him, but now I just want to let him have it, the bacon, the birds, whatever.
“Well, I mean, you expressed an interest,” my mother says. She has finished her breakfast and is wiping her lipstick off on a cloth napkin before re-applying it, thick and brown-red, as she does after every single meal of her adult life. This bird interest was something I didn’t know about my father, and it seemed suspect. I could only remember him shooting a BB gun at the pigeons that nested the eaves of the house I grew up in. Because it mattered to my dad, and even though I was better at weed and video games, I’d tried at things like BB guns and sports. A new one every season though none of my friends played and instead spent after-school hours skateboarding around convenience stores to see who was the best at stealing caffeine pills and cigarettes. Junior year of high school, I stopped going to basketball practice and started breaking into the back entrances of movie theaters or taking mushrooms in abandoned buildings downtown, and when the coach called home, my father talked to me minimally for several weeks before one night gathering all the balls in the basement into a trash bag, footballs and basketballs and soccer balls and baseballs, and slamming them into the trash can in the snow by the garage, and yelling into the night and really to no one, “Well, that, apparently, is that.”
Next door to the diner where we have breakfast, there is a store for birders, with the expected bird books and feeders but also baseball hats with little stuffed animal goose heads sewn onto the fronts, and I buy those for all of us, which is maybe a little ostentatious when my dad was counting ones and coins to pay for the breakfast, but then it’s also maybe a little funny but probably also annoying to the locals who have, I’m sure, had their fair share of bird tourists, for the four of us to be walking through town honking and with those fabric stuffed goose heads bouncing out over our foreheads. My dad gets a little bit into it, and I can see for a minute the younger him, certain of purpose as he pushes his chest out and makes his arms into sharp angles, but my mom is embarrassed because she usually is, and my wife, Selma, who is never embarrassed by anything, is honking more than anyone and flapping her arms like wings.
Here I am, 40 and childless with my mother holding her breath, hoping my wife, Selma, 35, will bring forth something to distract my mother and father from this forward, forward. I was one of those people, like so many people I knew, who didn’t have any absolutist sense of trajectory and what should be next. The things we knew seemed unessential and thin: how to shop for good cheese and play board games at big tables with friends while drinking whiskey and hibernate for days while binge watching almost anything; most of the rest of the life stuff, the grown-up stuff, we just didn’t know.
Unbeknownst to my father, I’d invested a few years before in a capsule supplement that relied on pyramid-style distribution and targeted yoga moms who drank cold-pressed juices and shared keto recipes on Instagram and gently shamed each other with selfies displaying their health and wellness. It was a company owned by a friend from college, and it had turned out well, and I’d made a lot of money in a fairly short time, and I had bottles of the stuff all over my apartment. Sometimes Selma and I shook them like maracas while we cooked or watched movies. I’d been a fuckup for more than a decade, withdrawing from college classes, getting fired from one and then the next bartending job, trying and failing at a couple of corporate sales jobs, ending up working for hourly pay at a place that sold sports gear at a mall close to my house. It was dumb luck that the supplement thing had worked, and I felt guilty about it, about the fact that these supplements did nothing more than, say, eating an extra carrot in the morning, but the people who took them swore by them, and the whole movement had several of its own hashtags, and I would have told the Shrimp Scampi Richard Cheney this, but it was impossible to tell the buffet Richard Cheney this, the retired doctor; doing so seemed cruel.
We get in my dad’s car which is parked in front of the bird store, and instead of putting the key into the ignition, he puts the key into the heating vent up and to the right from the ignition and Selma and I, still laughy from all the goose imitation, laugh like that is the joke we think it is, but then he pulls the key out of the heating vent with its plastic slats and puts it in again, and my mom moves his hand over to the ignition without saying a word, and then we are all quiet in the car and I focus on the question of why my dad still has a car that starts with an actual key instead of a button. In the rear-view mirror, I can see my dad’s face tense. My mom turns on some AM station where a woman is berating another woman for caring about a man too much and in the wrong way. My parents graduated high school in the late 50s in a cloud of suburban positivity that extended to white people in their teens and 20s. They could do anything. They were too old to be hippies and too young to have been affected very much by WW2. They were in this soft pocket that delivered them forward with an innocence not well-suited to aging and disease and the actual fucking world.
The radio woman yells at the other woman, and somehow this antagonism that’s entirely apart from him lulls my dad. I look at the mirror again, and the skin on his forehead softens and evens out, and he starts the car, and then we are driving, down a two-lane road that goes from pavement to gravel as if we are actually going back in time. We pass farm fields and houses that have gone beyond the point of no return. A boy with a pellet gun is shooting into the side of a shed, and the ping ping ping is a dull rattle rhythm and then gone.
“So, a million snow geese, should be quite a sight,” my mother says, and taps her nails on the dash and crosses and re-crosses her legs. The car is the same car they’ve had forever, a very old Mercedes automatic that I once forgot to put into gear, and it rolled down the driveway and into the yard across the street where it crushed our neighbor’s highly cultivated perennial garden, and my dad, who I’d thought would call me a fuck-up or a waste of space or drag me over to the torn-up garden to belittle me in front of the neighbor, had instead taken me aside at the top of the driveway and said, “Edward Samuels, that pretentious fuck with all his flowers labeled with Latin name tags. Take that.” The next day, he’d sent Samuels a check for the work it would take to recreate the garden, and we’d never talked about it again. It was maybe the closest we’d ever been.
Snow geese are generally white, but some of them are blue, so within a group of snow geese, you might see a hundred white heads and a few blue-feathered bodies, and the babies are shockingly self-sufficient and can leave the nest a few hours after coming out of an egg. And that is the extent of my snow goose knowledge gleaned from Selma reading aloud from an Audubon entry off her phone in the car, but I do envy the immediate lurch from infancy to action, and I wonder if the years humans spend with parents infantilize them forever and ever amen.
The approach to the preserve is shielded by trees, so at first there is the chaos of noise before we see anything, and then there they are, birds so tight together they form bird clouds, and the sound as we approach is an extravagant, relentless honking. The lake ahead, which during other months must be an expanse of blue water, is entirely punctuated with the white feathered bodies. In other words, close up, a million is a lot of birds.
“Should we stop here?” Selma says, gesturing toward a spot where there are a few picnic tables. The air in the car has gotten overheated, and Selma is sweating a little in her goose hat and giant down coat. I crack the window and say, “Dad, should we pull over?” But my father guns it instead. He speeds forward, and birds ascend in a swoosh and a clatter, a wide wake all around us. The road ends, but my father just keeps driving, farther and faster.
I open my mouth to say something, but my mother looks back at me with a look that says no, absolutely not, and Selma grabs my hand. I see my parents flying, wings instead of forearms, the sky a solid thing that pushes them toward more sky, toward beyond and stratosphere and whatever everafter we all secretly want to believe in but can’t and don’t. The car accelerates, and I swear the wheels leave ground. I intake breath, and we are a few inches up. The geese are beating clouds of white and feather, and we are some kind of hovercraft or car balloon or argument against gravity, and weight is nothing. Age and time are nothing.
My dad dies that year early summer of an undiscovered subdural hematoma after a fall on the patio about which he tells no one but my mother, and maybe there will be a heaven, even though none of us believed in it with any of the required vim or really at all, there it will be, and maybe Dick Cheney will encounter Richard Cheney, and there will be food of course because it’s heaven and the kind of place where simply imagining the creamsicles of your childhood will bring them to your hands and the pale orange ice cream is imbued with summer and the breath-holding happy of being up late in the yard where fireflies make their glowy ziplines around the night, or if you’re Dick Cheney, you imagine a whole side of buffalo roasted over an outside fire the size of a suburban bathroom and who knows maybe bombs with the neat obliterative power of a sun, or if you’re my Dick Cheney, Richard, it’s golf course hamburgers and the afternoon goes on forever with no threat of evening, and maybe Dick Cheney meets Richard Cheney beside a body of water where the temperature is so good you don’t even have to think about temperature and the birds are gentle songbirds that flit more than flap and they both have such ease that I want to hold it against them, but then maybe not, maybe I won’t because really we all deserve peace, don’t we?
No, we don’t really levitate in the car with my parents and the birds. But it feels that way. It feels like we are floating. It feels like the world gives us that. Selma is pregnant and it’s a bean or a button, and nobody not even us knows, but my dad will be dead soon. Any attempts to overlay meaning on any of it fail. All I can say is: secrets are everywhere. Pain is, too.
I’ll tell this story to my son, as if we were really flying, “We were in the car,” I’ll say, “Your grandpa was driving, so fast. And then it was like we were flying with all those birds,” I’ll say when he can’t sleep and it’s 2 AM and he needs something fanciful to distract him from the night. Fatherhood had focused me in a way no one, especially me, would have anticipated. Really, I was the best father, and it’s maybe the only thing I’ve ever been or ever would be good at, but I knew it was enough.
In the story I tell my son, the geese are in their Vs, hundreds, thousands, a million, all of them going somewhere, and the world is winged beauty, a pulse, an idea, a sequined ever-moving sigh. My dad is gone. I am still here. The sky. Well, the sky is the sky.
Amy Stuber is a writer living in Lawrence, Kansas. Her fiction has appeared in New England Review, American Short Fiction, Joyland, Smokelong Quarterly, and elsewhere. She’s an Assistant Flash Editor for Split Lip Magazine and is on Twitter @amy_stuber_ and online at www.amystuber.com.
Photos by Jack Stuber.