by DAN PINKERTON
At the Missouri line they encountered a giant red fireworks barn sitting just off I-35 with elaborate signage made to look like lit roman candles. Even from a distance the place looked vulgar and hazardous, so Ted sped up to pass it as quickly as possible. He cringed, expecting the kids at any second to start clamoring for him to stop, but they were engrossed in their tablets. Despite the coffee in the console beside him and the fact they’d only been on the road for a couple hours, Ted was getting sleepy and wished he could turn on some music. Missy was reading, however—a self-help title on fulfillment and mental acuity—and he didn’t want to disturb her. Then he began noticing the smell, subtle at first but growing more exclamatory with each passing mile, crying out like the fireworks barn, a gaudy attention-hungry smell. “Jesus, Dirk, didn’t I tell you to shower this morning?”
Dirk tugged his earbuds loose. “Huh?”
“Did you shower this morning?”
“Then what’s that smell?” Ted cracked his window, and the air entering the car at interstate speeds created a doppler effect like a helicopter taking flight.
The pages of Juliet’s coloring books, spread over the back seat, flapped wildly. “Daddy, shut your window!”
“I’ve got to get this godawful stink out of the car.”
“Ted.” His wife touched his forearm.
He looked over and saw it in her face—caution—but blindly stumbled on. That was his M.O. “What?” he said. “I think something died in here.”
“It’s not me,” Dirk said, “It’s Juliet.”
At that moment he knew it was so. Juliet had put down her electronic device and was now plucking from a zip-lock baggie for one of the crayons she’d brought to color her pictures. Ted felt she was too old for coloring books, but Missy had assured him it was totally normal, that the practice was even taking hold among grown-ups, a stress-reliever; she’d seen it on a morning show. People were regressing, Ted thought, becoming infantile again, as evidenced by their fondness for cage fighting and Donald Trump and full-body wearable blankets.
Here was the problem, if Ted were being brutally honest: his daughter was a freakish giantess with the shoulders of a high-school lineman. A couple weeks back they’d attended a music program at her school and when the students took their places on the risers she stood proudly in the back row, a head taller than her classmates. It hurt him to see her belting out “Erie Canal” with such oblivious zeal. Ted imagined the other parents gawking in alarm. Who was this monster looming over their children? While they rose to snap photos of their flaxen-haired progeny, all of whom belonged in a Pottery Barn catalog, Ted checked the sports scores on his phone. He could feel his face burning, and it took effort to focus on the screen. Then Missy was elbowing him. How complicated this shame, because his duty was to love unconditionally, and he did love his daughter and she loved him. They’d always shared little codes between them, private jokes, silly dance moves, improvised song lyrics; it’s just that Juliet had grown so suddenly strange, like Alice in Wonderland eating the cake and sprouting ceilingward or crying a literal river of tears.
“Honey,” he said softly, closing the window and addressing his wife. “Can’t she use deodorant or something?”
Missy glanced back at Juliet, who was focused on her coloring book. “She’s ten. I had the same problems when I was her age. It’s traumatic.”
Now he too examined his daughter, eying her in the rearview. Her breasts were sprouting, and she had prominent black hairs on her neck and upper lip, a veritable pelt on her legs. She had sideburns like a turn of the century robber baron. Everyone rode in silence for a while, the smell in the car an extra passenger none of them wished to address.
They were headed toward Wonderland, a theme park west of Salina Ted discovered online. It was a far cry from Disneyland, but it did have semi-friendly Midwestern prices, and the lines for the rides were minimal. Ted was not exactly management level at his company, and Missy had gone from full-time to high-time to part-time in the past year, an ominous trajectory that would likely end in flaming wreckage. Ted had never quite known what high-time was; it sounded like a drug reference. Either you were full-time or unemployed, none of this nebulous in-between stuff.
The parking lot at Wonderland was maybe a third full, and Ted wasn’t sure if this owed to the obscurity of the place or the sheer immensity of the lot. He’d never seen so much asphalt in his life and could easily imagine what the world would look like once it was finally paved over. They parked at some distance from the next nearest vehicle, and the kids ran in meaningless circles like unleashed pets. Ted couldn’t help noticing how much taller Juliet was than her twelve-year old brother. He needed to find her some more graceful sneakers than the clunky high-tops she was presently wearing, but finding graceful sneakers for a giantess was a challenge. Most of the ogres in the childhood fables just wandered around barefoot, their blockish toes covered in hair. Ted bit his lip hard, ashamed at how easily the cruelty came.
The family wove its way among cars with back seats and rear windows crammed full of pillows and headphones and half-eaten bags of Oreos and corn chips. The sun was warm, currents of light rippling over hoods and fenders and windshields, the sky gaping and impassive. Two red-tailed hawks circled high overhead like blemishes. Parents stood around fingerpainting their kids’ faces with sunblock. Ted should’ve been happy for the time off from work, but he was already sweating and irritable, looking forward to their hotel room, air-conditioning, a swimming pool, a cold beer. He couldn’t stop thinking about Juliet. Clunk-clunk went the high-tops. Fee-fi-fo-fum. She had already sweat through her shirt, a darkened yoke across her torso.
Then she hooked her arm in his, gazed at him, and it was like looking into the baleful eyes of a whipped dog, except Juliet didn’t know yet she was whipped, which was what pierced her father through. She was exuberant over the idea of the fun park with its Ferris wheel and twirling rides and single wooden coaster visible above the perimeter fence. She was trying to skip (clunk-clunk), practically dragging her father along on a tide of expectation. They could hear a few scattered whoops of joy when the roller coaster cars crested and began their descent. Maybe Ted just needed more caffeine.
“WallyWorld, here we come,” Dirk muttered.
Ted wasn’t even sure how his son knew the reference. “Listen,” he said, “do you want to sit in the car all day?”
“Yes,” Dirk replied without hesitation.
“Well, too bad,” Ted said. “Because I’d get arrested. And you might have a heatstroke.”
“I should be so lucky.”
Ted ignored him. At the window he bought their tickets, and the family passed through the turnstiles into the park. Its salient feature appeared to be its Germanic cleanliness, the mulch raked neatly into beds of blooming annuals spaced at perfect intervals, the pathways swept clean. The blacktop was already sticky underfoot, as though starting to melt. The flowers, along with the funnel cakes frying in oil, effectively masked the aroma of Juliet’s armpits or feet, or whatever it was that overpowered everyone in the car. Though Wonderland was still relatively empty at this hour, a horde of teenagers milled around poking at nonexistent trash with litter sticks. The girls wore apron-patterned dresses and white stockings while the boys wore bow ties and top hats. Everyone wore acne and attitudes of slump-shouldered resignation, the workers wilting in the heat. Juliet was the only one in the family who’d read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, though Missy seemed to recall seeing the Disney cartoon once and Ted knew the rough outline of the story. The Jefferson Airplane song was one of his favorites. One pill makes you larger and one pill makes you small…
“Do you know why the hatter was mad?” Juliet asked.
“No, why,” Ted said, trying to keep everyone moving past the first of the concession carts. Bags of cotton candy hung from its canopy and a sno-cone maker was turning like the drum of a cement truck. The carts were made to appear like tea service trays, the cashier dressed as a queen of hearts. Her costume must’ve been stifling. The strands of hair along her brow were curled and slick with sweat already, despite the box fan trained on her head.
“It was mercury poisoning from the chemicals they used to cure the felt.”
“Jesus,” Ted said, glancing sharply at his daughter. “Is that in the book? Kind of gruesome for a kid’s story.”
“No, I read it on Wikipedia.”
They passed an enclosure full of tame white rabbits. “Want to pet them?” Missy asked.
A yes from Juliet and a no from Dirk, who was busy taking pictures of the park with his phone and texting them to friends so they could participate in his snide disapproval. He photographed old people slumping on park benches or signs prohibiting certain behaviors or families dressed in matching t-shirts. “The reception here sucks,” he said, holding his phone aloft like a miniature lady liberty raising her torch to the huddled masses.
Aside from their twitching noses, the bunnies in the enclosure barely moved, allowing themselves to dangle limply from the arms of the children who lugged them around. No air seemed to circulate in the tent, but at least there was some shade. Juliet picked up a rabbit, burying her face in its fur. “It’s so soft!” she exclaimed. Sawdust clung to the pads of its feet.
“Like your mustache,” Dirk said.
Juliet frowned but said nothing.
“Cut it out,” Ted said, giving his son the Vulcan Death Grip. Dirk wriggled free, and Ted turned his attention to his daughter. “Honey,” he said, “don’t put your face in the rabbit’s fur.”
“Those are public rabbits. They’ve probably got germs or lice or something.”
“Rabbits are like cats,” Missy said. “They keep themselves clean.”
“Is that true?” Ted asked.
“I think so.”
“Let’s keep going, guys,” he called out, moving back toward the entrance.
They came to the Caterpillar Climber, which was just like the Blast-Off, an attraction Juliet loved at their local fairgrounds. Dirk had enjoyed the ride too until he outgrew it, and Ted remembered standing around for what seemed an eternity while the hydraulics lifted the kids slowly into the air before dropping them at what seemed to them incredible speeds. They’d return to the end of the line over and over again while their parents leaned against the fence, sighing. “I want to do it, I want to do it!” Juliet cried now, racing forward. A child sat in one of the seats, already strapped in, while her family waved and called out to her as though she were about to rocket into orbit. The ride was otherwise empty. It was a ride for babies, Dirk pointed out, and privately Ted agreed.
The employee working the controls wore a green caterpillar costume, spindly legs sewn in two columns down the front. This seemed dangerous, these feelers dangling near the gears, unnecessarily dangerous and therefore twice as silly. Juliet struggled with the restraints and the employee kept glancing from her to her parents, then toward the other family, who were still consumed with their final farewells. Weird calliope-style music played on the speakers overhead. A century ago the teen would’ve been out in the fields with his father, sowing or scything or whatever it was farm kids did back then in the middle of Kansas. Now he was consigned to this square of overheated pavement, foolishly costumed like a giant baby-toy. “Um, the ride’s for ten and under,” he said softly.
“What’s that?” Ted asked.
“Ten and under,” the teen said. “The rules are posted.” He pointed to the sign, the many legs on his costume rising in unison. Dirk snapped a photo while the caterpillar boy pretended not to notice.
“Cut it out,” Missy said, swatting lazily at her son, who danced out of reach.
“She’s ten,” Ted said. “It’s fine.” He’d worked these types of jobs as a youth but that didn’t increase his sympathy for the kid in the bug outfit, who could go home at the end of his shift and eat Doritos, watch action movies, and jerk off without having to worry about his mortgage or his oil leak or his daughter’s undiagnosed thyroid condition. Everyone focused now on Juliet, still straining to latch her shoulder harness.
“Are you sure?” the caterpillar teen asked. At this Dirk started laughing.
“Yeah,” Ted said. “I’m pretty sure I know how old my daughter is.”
The teen looked at Missy, but she merely shrugged, leaving it up to him to make the final call. Apparently he felt that wearing a caterpillar outfit for minimum wage put him at a disadvantage in the dispute, because wordlessly he went over and helped Juliet with the buckle. If Juliet sensed she was the center of unwanted attention, she didn’t let on. She smiled and waved as the Caterpillar Climber heaved her upwards and downwards. Technology had led them to this, Ted thought as he watched. Expensive machines designed solely to blast kids into the air or drop them from great heights, companies dedicated to the construction and maintenance and inspection of such machines. Why did leisure need all the polished steel and greased pistons? Why did it need to be so intricate and pricey, full of lines of people, rules, fabricated sights and sounds, screwed-together splendor? It all seemed so frivolous.
“…She is big for her age…” Ted heard the woman next to him remark to a relative, but he chose not to look over, striving to remain focused instead on his daughter’s happiness.
They rode the Wonder Wheel, swaying in their carriages as they looked out over prairie, parking lot, and interstate. From their vantage they also got a good look at Alice’s Scream, the park’s signature attraction, an old wooden coaster rising skeletally toward the flat sky. It was the only ride where a decent-sized crowd had gathered, the line winding around a series of greasy palm-printed railings beneath a shingled canopy. Surrounding the roller coaster was a row of buildings where people could buy snacks or t-shirts or have sepia photos taken of themselves dressed in old-timey duds, transforming themselves into gartered showgirls and holstered cowboys. Juliet was scared to ride Alice’s Scream, so she stayed behind with Missy while Ted and Dirk got in line.
“That was cool!” Dirk was saying as they approached the table where they’d agreed to meet the girls but he stopped when he heard Juliet sobbing, shoulders twitching and face burrowed in her mother’s armpit. “What’s up with her?” he asked, but Missy glared at him and he shut up. With promises of ice cream they were finally able to get Juliet to calm down, and her mother helped her straighten her hair and dry her face. Soon enough she was running ahead, happy again.
“What happened?” Ted asked.
“Some boys were walking past,” Missy said, “and one of them made a comment.”
“What’d he say?”
“I don’t want to repeat it.” Missy glanced over at Dirk, who was occupied with his phone and didn’t appear to be listening. Juliet continued to run a few paces ahead.
“What’d he say?”
“I told you, it can be really rough for a girl when she develops ahead of the others.”
“She’s not just…” Ted stopped, lowering his voice. “She’s bigger. Hell, she’s bigger than you or me.”
“You want to know what the kid said?” She was seething now. Missy hated the heat, she hated amusement parks, she might’ve hated Kansas for all Ted knew.
“I said so, didn’t I?”
“He said, ‘Looks like that one escaped from the freak show.’ His friends laughed a little, he snapped a cell phone picture, and then they were gone. That was all.”
Anger washed over Ted, causing the muscles in his body to tense. He was clenching his teeth, fingers gnarled disturbingly, but then he returned to his senses and the tremors stilled. There was no recourse, no way to track down the offender and bully him into an apology, nothing to do but comfort his daughter and make the rest of her visit pleasurable, so that’s what he tried to do. He let her choose the rides. He went over budget and took out cash from the ATM to buy licorice ropes and M&Ms and a t-shirt for Juliet. The family spent seventy dollars at skee-ball to accumulate enough tickets for the ten-dollar panda she wanted, all this while Dirk fumed. Dirk could afford to fume a little. Ted put his arm around Juliet’s shoulder as they walked toward the exit. After a day in the sun, the smell wafting from her armpits was staggering but he held her tight. “I’m sorry about those boys earlier,” he said.
She shrugged. “No big deal. The kids at school say stuff like that too. I’m used to it.” For her it was apparently over, no need to dwell on the past, but Ted kept smoldering. He’d never been the most popular kid in school—not by a longshot—but he’d never been an outcast either. They came flashing back to him now, the gallery of rejects from his past. He winced for thinking this way, at how readily the word “reject” came to mind. Something shunned, broken, not worth keeping. He tried sanding the past’s sharp edges. There hadn’t been anything inherently wrong with the outcasts at his school. A couple had been chubby, one had whitish hair and pop-bottle glasses, superficial characteristics the more predatory children latched onto. The kids were not of inferior quality but had simply been shunned because that’s what kids did: they classified and culled like animals. What was that book he’d been made to read in high school about Piggy, the outcast who was killed? Ted had spent summers on his grandfather’s acreage and had seen firsthand how the chickens would pester the smallest or weakest among them, the one with an injured leg or wing, until they’d killed it. The pecking order. His whole life Ted had been safely in the middle of the pecking order where no one had paid him any negative attention, but his daughter, Juliet, was clinging to one of the bottom rungs. He remembered saying the prayer before each of his kids were born, asking for good health. With such prayers it was presumptuous to request much else, especially if you were a lapsed Presbyterian like Ted. Back then he hadn’t even considered everything else that could happen, childhood cancers, car accidents, social awkwardness, drug addiction. The sheer variety of maladies was staggering.
Five minutes later his determination to change his outlook, stop being embarrassed, and do whatever he could to guide his daughter through this difficult time was seriously eroded as the kids were kicking the seatbacks and screaming simply because he refused to stop at Ihop for pancakes. It’s a breakfast place, Ted tried arguing. We always go to Ihop. We’re on vacation, let’s try someplace new, a place we can’t find back home. What he wanted, what he really wanted after a long, hot day at the fun park was a cold draft beer in a tall mug, with any luck one of those heavy frosted mugs, and they didn’t sell beer at Ihop, they sold pancakes with smiley faces on them, but these kids just wanted the same things over and over, familiarity, they were unwilling to branch out, and how could you ever learn to like new stuff if you never tried it?
Missy, who was checking reviews of local places on her phone, tried to say something to Ted but he couldn’t hear her over the commotion in back, and the feet—those freakish mammoth giantess feet—kept rhythmically hammering his lower spine through the seat until he thought he was going to start sobbing or punch himself in the face or swerve across the median into oncoming traffic, and the smell was back. If the smell had retreated, it was merely to gather reinforcements, and the entire body odor army had reemerged en masse, mounting an offensive. “Jesus, God,” Ted cried out, “If you don’t shut up and stop kicking that seat, I swear we’ll drive straight back home. No food, no hotel, no swimming. And Juliet, you are going to take a shower first thing.”
“What about swimming?” Juliet whined.
“After your shower,” Ted said.
“Does Dirk have to shower first?”
“No,” her father replied.
“But that’s not fair!” Juliet was kicking the seatback again.
“Dirk doesn’t smell like a goddamned construction worker,” Ted yelled. The car was silent until Missy finally suggested a place for them to stop for dinner. When Ted neared his exit, the click of the turn signal seemed especially loud. The restaurant was one of those dark places with neon beer signs in the windows, principally a bar with a few tables and some booths along one wall. Water was brought to them in plastic cups by a pleasant blond-haired girl, strikingly pretty. She had clear blue eyes and cheeks that looked as though they’d just been pinched. There was no need to tell them about the nightly specials, as these were printed on a laminated insert. A Bob Seger song was playing, and Ted looked around for a jukebox. The guys at the bar were watching a muted soccer match on TV. It was a bad time of year for sports. The bartender said something, and everyone laughed. An older couple sat at one of the back tables, but otherwise the place was empty. Dirk held his phone up and took a photo of the bar patrons before typing on it some more.
“Don’t take pictures of strangers,” Ted told him.
“Because some people don’t like having their picture taken. It’s an invasion of privacy.”
Dirk held up the phone and aimed it at his father. The camera flashed, but Ted’s face never changed expression. “That’s one for the scrapbook,” Dirk said, smiling. Missy also started giggling, and Ted was going to say something when the waitress returned with their drinks. She set the lemonades in front of the kids, and Ted watched her closely when she leaned over Juliet to hand him his beer. If she noticed the odor emanating from their daughter, which she must’ve, she didn’t bat an eye, and Ted loved her for that. She’d get a generous tip from him.
Ted’s burger, when it came, was surprisingly tasty. The fries were greasy and salt-covered, just as he’d hoped, but it was the beer that sent him into near paroxysms of delight, so cold it was practically tasteless, perfect for guzzling. His first was gone before the waitress reappeared. As usual the kids picked at their meals, the chicken fingers and microwaved mac and cheese, courtly in their disdain. Missy had made the mistake of ordering a salad, and Ted could picture the fry cook reaching into the back of the cooler for the bag of lettuce, emptying a few brown-edged leaves into the bowl. Still Missy soldiered on, her face flushed from the sun. Ted was sunburnt too, his forehead and nose and ears, from the amusement park. The term, amusement park, seemed so ambitionless—no one was shooting for ecstasy or even entertainment, just diversion, like a TV commercial or joke that makes you smile for a moment before it’s forgotten. Ted’s sweaty shirt stuck to the vinyl seatback, and the air-conditioning was giving him chills, but the beer made everything tolerable. The men at the bar cheered something that had happened on TV. With wild hand gestures, Dirk recounted the ride on Alice’s Scream, the long climb up the first incline, the lurch and tug of the chain that coupled the cars, while the others smiled.
By the time they reached their hotel room, Ted was in high spirits again, ready to swim. He’d done some research online and found a place with a decent-sized pool, not one of those pitiful concrete holes at the budget chains. Ted and Missy and Dirk changed into their suits and relaxed on the beds watching TV while Juliet showered. Juliet’s showers were epic affairs lasting a half-hour or forty-five minutes. Shampoo bottles and bars of soap were often heard clattering to the floor, along with the scud of Juliet’s wet feet, as though she were practicing some complicated dance step. Even with all this activity, she would emerge with soap suds on her skin or conditioner globbed in her hair and would be marched back in to rinse. The marathon showers were a mystery to Missy and Ted. What was Juliet doing in there for so long?
They settled on a true crime program while they waited. Missy lay in her cover-up, knees bent, engrossed, and Dirk also stopped texting and began to watch. These shows were inappropriate for the kids, full of grisly crime scene photos and graphic descriptions of the acts that had occurred. Sex was often mentioned as part of the motive, paid sex, adulterous sex. Ted knew the kids shouldn’t see this stuff, but he and Missy couldn’t help gravitating toward it. He figured the kids weren’t paying attention, but the other day in the car, apropos of nothing, Dirk had gone into great detail about how he could successfully commit murder and insurance fraud, and Ted realized his kids were sponging up every detail.
In this episode, a Marine had taken his underage girlfriend to a reservoir and strangled her. Had it been a fit of rage or premeditated? The narrator always played up the salaciousness of the crime. You could hear it in his voice, the rising syllables full of implication, and in the background music, the melodramatic synthesizer chords. The ads they played during these shows were always for cat food or medical alert bracelets, and Ted could picture the primary audience, lonely old diabetic ladies sitting in their apartments. He noticed after a while that the water in the bathroom had stopped, but then he was drawn in again.
“He’s obviously got another girlfriend,” Dirk said. “He doesn’t want her to find out about this hussy.”
“Hussy?” What a weird word for a kid to use. It got Ted thinking of the women of the old west mining towns who wandered among the gaming tables, cleavage bared, skirts trailing behind. Soiled doves.
“He’s right,” Missy said. “It was planned out. The Marine had to ditch the girl because things were getting too serious. He was afraid the other one would find out.” Missy looked over at her son. “Dirk, you’d make a great detective.” Dirk glowed with pride, glancing quickly at each of them in turn, then away.
The Marine left a boot print at the scene, and a witness saw him leaving the reservoir. “So predictable,” Dirk said as the closing credits rolled. Another episode was starting up. The channel played these true crime programs non-stop.
Ted felt himself flagging. The sun, the food, the walking, the beer. If he stayed where he was, he’d soon be asleep. “Come on,” he said, jumping up. “Let’s swim.”
“We’re still waiting on Juliet,” Missy reminded him.
“What the heck is she doing in there?” Ted went over to the door but couldn’t hear anything except for the bathroom vent. He tried the doorknob and found it locked. “Honey” he said, tapping on the door. “You ready to swim?”
“I need Mommy,” Juliet called out.
Ted thought he heard crying and glanced over at Missy, who was already rising from the bed. She came over and knocked.
“What?” Juliet called out.
“Juliet, it’s Mom. Let me in.” They waited until finally they heard the lock turn. Missy pushed the door partway open and slipped inside. The room was filled with steam, the mirror clouded to the point of opacity. Missy gasped. “Oh, sweetie, what have you done?”
“What?” Ted asked, pushing his way in. “What is it?”
“Don’t let him in,” Juliet cried. Ted saw her there on the floor, leaning back on her elbows, head between toilet and tub. The shower curtain was partway open, revealing a couple travel-sized bottles and a bar of soap adrift on an inch or two of sudsy water. All the towels were spread over the floor like the rugs in a sultan’s tent, some of them soaked with water that had overrun the tub. The hair dryer was plugged in, its cord stretched taut, and Ted’s toiletry case had been disemboweled, its contents spread over the countertop. On the wall hung a picture of a field of wheat and a windmill. Just glancing at it made Ted feel lonely, and he looked away.
Dirk, drawn by the commotion, appeared in the doorway behind his father. “Oh, man,” he said. “That’s messed up.”
Ted, hearing Dirk’s voice, turned and guided him back through the doorway. Missy rose from where she knelt beside Juliet and began wetting a washcloth in the sink. Ted became mesmerized by the blood. Blood on Juliet’s legs, her hands, blood smeared on the bathroom tile. Initially he thought she’d had her period. Then, seeing his razor next to Juliet on the floor, Ted thought she’d attempted suicide, and his heart rose up into his throat. “I’m going to call an ambulance,” he said.
“Ted,” Missy said sharply, and he looked at her, knowing he must appear wired, erratic. “Just hold on a second.” Ted nodded and watched as she knelt again with the washcloth, running it along Juliet’s legs, rising to squeeze pink-tinted water into the sink before kneeling again to repeat the process. “Dirk,” Missy called out, and Dirk appeared once more in the doorway. “Run down to the front desk and ask for a few Band-Aids.” Dirk nodded and left. The men, helpless before a crisis, needed someone to program them as though they were machines.
Juliet, in her swimsuit, stared down at her bare legs, crying softly. Now that she was cleaned up, the damage didn’t seem quite so severe. There were a few small cuts on her thighs and a larger one below her knee. The flow of blood had slowed to a trickle, which Missy was now attempting to staunch with strips of torn Kleenex. “Juliet,” she said as she worked, “were you shaving your legs?”
At first the child didn’t respond, but when her mother repeated the question she finally nodded.
“Why?” Missy asked. Juliet shrugged, again trying to dodge the question, but her mother persisted. “Tell me why you did it.”
“Because they’re all weird and hairy.” Juliet spit out the words between sniffles. “My friends’ legs aren’t like that.” She shifted on the tile, and Ted could see that she was shivering. She had tried to dry shave with the hand razor and must’ve pressed down more firmly whenever she encountered resistance, hence the cuts. They heard the sound of the key card disengaging the lock on the outer door, and then Dirk was there with them, proudly displaying a handful of Band-Aids in assorted sizes.
“What were you trying to do?” he said, watching as Missy bandaged Juliet’s legs.
“Dirk,” Ted growled, “just shut it for once, okay?” Dirk knew enough to withdraw. To his daughter Ted asked, “Maybe we should wait a little while to swim, what do you think?”
“Okay, Daddy.” Juliet’s voice was small. Her one-piece swimsuit had miniature zebras printed on it. Missy looked at Ted but said nothing.
“Maybe I could run out for some ice cream,” Ted suggested.
“That sounds good, doesn’t it, kiddo?” Missy wrapped an arm around Juliet and helped her to her feet.
Ted found his flip-flops and grabbed his keys and billfold. “Come on, Dirk,” he said.
Dirk was back on the bed, messing with his phone. “Are we swimming now?”
“No,” Ted replied. “We’re going for ice cream.”
“Aw, man, can’t we do that later? I want to swim.”
“We’ll swim later,” Dirk’s father said, and something in his tone caused Dirk to stop arguing. Even so, the boy took his sweet time drawing himself up from the bed and slipping into his shoes. This dawdling was an effective weapon against adults. Ted stood in the darkened area between the luggage rack and the mini-fridge, tense with impatience.
“It’s just the two of us going?” Dirk said in the hallway. A frowning silver-haired woman approached them with an ice bucket under her arm. She was wearing some sort of loose robe and a lot of noisy costume jewelry.
“Ice machine’s broken,” she announced.
“Oh, okay,” Ted said.
The woman continued on to her room. “Don’t worry, I’ll let someone know,” she called back over her shoulder. Ted wasn’t particularly worried.
The ice cream place they found didn’t have a drive-through, so they waited outside on a slab of cement as two teenagers behind a pair of screened windows took orders and made up sundaes and ice cream cones and malts. The shop was a white-painted cinder block building with a couple picnic tables on one side where people sat and ate while tame little birds pecked around in the pea gravel for leftovers. The line of customers included a bearded man in a leather jacket with his scrawny girlfriend and an elderly couple in golf spikes and matching visors, holding hands. In the parking lot a couple teens in cowboy outfits—boots and pressed jeans and bright-colored pearl-button shirts and wide-brimmed hats—stood leaning against the side rails of a pick-up while a country song blared from the speakers. Ted found himself annoyed by the noise. Why did these hicks think everyone else would benefit from their choice of music? One of the boys was barrel-chested with strong arms and a round, rosy face while the other was tall and wiry with a long nose and some inconsistent facial hair. While the stout one spoke, the taller one surveyed the parking lot, the customers at the sweet shop, and the street beyond as though his friend were not even present.
Finally Ted and Dirk reached the counter. Dusk had fallen, giving everything a granular appearance. The lights inside the ice cream shop blazed, along with a mercury lamp on a post overhead that seemed to be drawing swarms of June bugs and mosquitos, which Dirk kept contorting himself to swat at. By this point, the counter they leaned on was sticky with melted ice cream, and the employee, when her window slid open, was sullen as she hunched over her green ticket pad. It seemed a special inconvenience that two people might order enough food for four, and then there was the added indignity of a request for a carrying container.
Admittedly Ted was distracted when he stepped into the parking lot. Dirk was calling for his shake, Ted was thinking of his daughter back in a strange room with her innocent notched legs, and he caught a glimpse of the truck only at the last second, when it screeched to a halt and the driver, the roseate moon-faced teen in a ten-gallon hat, laid on his horn. A honk would’ve been sufficient, but this business with the horn went on and on, a call to attention, like a conductor rapping his baton on his music stand. Speaking of music, there was plenty of that. High-volume nonsense about America and loving it or leaving it.
Ted took a step back. Both teens in the truck were now glaring at him. The few remaining customers were watching. Even the two kids in the ice-cream shack had slid open their windows and popped their heads out for a look. It made Ted mad, he couldn’t say why. It had been his fault, after all, but he felt the anger rising in him, and even as the pick-up crept past and the cowboys turned their attention forward, this stranger already forgotten, even as they plotted the rest of their evening, the meander through the few inhabited streets of the tiny burg, a search for female companionship that would inevitably end with the two of them drinking beer alone in some desolate spot, sitting on the tailgate and tossing their empties into the ditch as the moon rose mightily, nothing to obscure it, Ted was gripping a shake in a Styrofoam cup so tightly it threatened to burst. He brought it forth and heaved it as hard as he could, where it struck the pick-up’s back window, exploding. The brake lights flashed. The ice cream on the truck looked like the droppings of some gigantic bird. Ted could hear people laughing.
“Whoa, Dad,” Dirk said.
Ted watched the truck, which idled while its driver surveyed his options, none of which must have seemed viable. His response, finally, was to peel out of the lot and speed away.
“Are you going to get another shake?” Dirk asked.
Ted, who’d been staring after the pick-up, looked now at his son as though noticing him for the first time. “No, I just want to get back. And this stays between us, got it? Not a word to your mother.”
“Scout’s honor,” Dirk said, smirking.
As they crossed the lot toward their car, Ted remembered the employees they’d seen earlier at the amusement park milling around in their silly costumes. At that age the degradations were worth the part-time paycheck. He and his friends had seemed fully-grown, ready for the world, but the teens he now encountered seemed as though they’d swallowed some potion to shrink them or at least arrest their development. They had the appearance, still, of children. Ted looked over at Dirk and felt great sympathy for him in that moment as he stood beside his locked door, waiting, with ice cream in one hand and a cell phone in the other.
Dan Pinkerton lives in Urbandale, Iowa. His stories have appeared in Cimarron Review, Salamander, Green Mountains Review, and CutBank, among others.