They started building right away, as soon as it was safe to go outside.
“I can feel them moving!” Cristina squealed, standing knee-deep in leaves.
“Their teeth tickle!” laughed Zoe.
Something had caught their attention as they searched for pebbles and twigs. They crouched amid the soggy storm debris, then sprang up, kittenlike, uncombed curls against the gray sky, chattering and unaware of my presence. But as soon as they saw me approaching they stopped and exchanged looks. Cristina bit her bottom lip and smiled, a small and well-calculated gesture of contrition designed to deflate a scolding, but Zoe, the eldest, fixed her eyes on me, and her body tensed. She seemed ready to run, like a surprised wild thing.
The first time was when he bought the used car which he would drive for the next decade, at nineteen. As soon as he arrived at his house after having finalized the transaction and showed it to his family, and as soon as his grandmother had gone back to her telenovela after congratulating him, and his brother back to the phone, stuck talking to his girlfriend, Bimbo went into his room, put a bathing suit on under his jeans, threw two towels into his backpack, got into the car, and descended, alone, from the mountains of Caguas, where three generations of his family still lived. He went alone in his new-but-old Toyota Corolla without air conditioning and with the windows down and the radio tuned to the only English music station that reached them up there. He felt nervous. It was 11 a.m. on a Wednesday.
“Could you take a picture?” the girls ask, and I jump up from the bench outside the candy store and check they are all here, all thirteen. I am pleased they want a picture together, considering their history, which is fraught and filled with ugliness.
This is their Senior Trip. We’ve only been off the ferry for two hours, and the girls have spent most of that time weaving in and out of the gift shops on Main Street, finally emerging with a concerning excess of commemorative merchandise.
For the picture, they dress in their loot, rummaging through shopping bags to pull off tags and tug new items over their regular clothes—ball caps and sweatshirts and long-sleeved T’s, Put-in-Bay scrawled over the front in block letters or cursive or cartoon fonts, accompanied by graphics of anchors and lifesavers and compasses, in theme with this Lake Eerie Island off the coast of Sandusky, Ohio. The clothing is boxy and not particularly attractive, but the girls sell it because they are masters at posing. “Smile!” I say, and they throw up their arms and jut out their shoulders and squeeze at their waists. They embrace. They grin with their whole faces, which are fresh and round with youth. Posing, they look happy, and this makes me happy. I tell myself that I am seeing their true selves. “Another one!” I say. “Another!”
The sunlight filtered through the window of our cafe. Golden sweet, it wove around the trees, the garden, over the stage, through the window and onto the railroad tie floor. I didn’t mind sweeping, because I got to dip my feet in it.
There was music on, and in the late spring air, it sounded perfect. Gram Parson’s Brass Buttons. Like it was made for right there right then, even though we all knew it was made a long time ago, back when parents were young and happy and we were only a microscopic part of them.
I walk along the sidewalk, my little dog tugging at her leash. The snow has begun to melt; water gathers in puddles and darkens the leather of my boots. The sun breaks over the roofs of houses across the street and the wet tree branches gleam. A sun too hot for January, but beautiful. The neighborhood is quiet and empty. I sniff the air.
I went out the back door, across the marble terrace and down into the garden, as I had done so many times before. I looked up at the two windows I had calculated as belonging to the locked room. There was nothing to see. As always, they were covered with blackout paper. Nothing had changed. Walking back and forth, I studied all of the protrusions on the back wall: window frames, downpipes. I couldn’t see any way of climbing up without a ladder. It wasn’t even possible to reach them from the window of another room.
My wife pointed out the willow tree on move-in day. The branches draped over a hill as round as my wife’s belly at seven months. We’d traded a West Coast high-rise for an East Coast village where the only thing to wake our baby would be other babies. We came to the city in our youth. And we left for our youth.
At the borderland between the desert and the plains, Emirate of Transjordan, early twentieth century
Two men sat near the round threshing floor in the western fields. Each with his rifle on his lap. “What a goddamn year,” Tafish said. He had a skull-like face. Small, sunken, deep-set eyes. Emaciated cheeks with protruding cheekbones. A broad forehead with dark blue veins at the sides. Skin like an aged tortoise. His hair and lower jaw were hidden behind a white keffiyeh, held in place by a black fleece cord around his head. His frame was tall, straight, lithe. He rubbed his nose with his hand, letting a low whistle out of his nostrils. By the time he lowered his hand, a pensive expression of disgust had formed on his face. Staring straight ahead, he spoke, as if to himself: “What a goddamn year.”
Between France and Marrakech is a route upon which travels a single bus from Paris. The bus reaches its destination safely, as one might hope and expect. Then the passengers who so desire transfer to another bus, which takes them by an established road to Agadir.