As he pulled into the parking lot of Jackie Jump-Up’s Pizzeria and Animal Band, Connor realized just how impossible it was to hide desire. He was in love. Stupid with it. He couldn’t keep happiness off his face—and knew it was futile to try. Like sunlight leaking around a drawn curtain, his new joy left its traces. It was only a matter of time before his wife confronted him with her suspicions. He was surprised she hadn’t made a stink yet. She was probably already talking to a lawyer or her girlfriends about the best way to screw him to the wall. Well, bring it on. Glenda’s ire was the least of his worries. All too soon, he would have to stay at home more. The official grand opening of Jackie Jump-Up’s was tomorrow and Suzie’s husband would be in town for it. Connor’s affair with Suzie would have to stop—for a while. For a week. Maybe two. Until her husband left again.
Connor walked over to the glass double-doors of Jackie Jump-Up’s and searched inside for a glimpse of Suzie. He could make out the outlines of the mechanical animal band, still and silent after an evening of practice runs. The band was in atrocious shape. Greasy metal spikes poked out of the animals’ garish fabric like compound bone fractures. Connor sighed and left a small foggy patch on the glass.
He spotted Suzie behind the counter, at the cash register counting change. He tapped on the glass, but she didn’t hear him. He heard a car approach from behind him, and turned around to watch it circle the edge of the parking lot. It slipped away and disappeared onto the main road like a shark into dark waters. Why weren’t the parking lot lights on? He pushed through the doors (unlocked!) and crossed the lobby.
“Goddamn it, you didn’t lock the front door again.” He shook his head. “At the cash register, in broad view, and the door is unlocked.”
She was still counting change, whispering numbers, ignoring him. Her lilac-scented lotion teased him. (For Extra Sensitive Skin—he remembered the bottle by the bathroom sink). The top of Suzie’s head barely reached his shoulders. Her diminutiveness was just one of her qualities he adored. He felt large and vaguely dangerous beside her. No telling what lengths he would go to, to protect her. He listened to the pinging of dimes, like rain on a tin roof.
“Suze, you have to be more careful.”
“One hundred eighty-two dollars and eleven cents. Not bad, I guess, a day before we’re officially open.”
He made his voice sterner now. “The front door should be locked at ten sharp.”
“You think anyone’s interested in going to the Big House for ripping off Jackie Jump-Up’s?” Her brown eyes looked beyond him, sweeping over the empty tables and red vinyl booths, before she met his gaze. She smiled, reached up and kissed him, softly gnawed his bottom lip with her small perfect teeth.
“Arnold was supposed to lock up tonight, but he’s been tied up with the animal band.” She walked to the front doors and locked them. “I wasn’t expecting you till later. I thought you had to go to that neighborhood thing.”
“Well, I went and I’m back.” The neighborhood “thing” was the annual barbecue at his subdivision’s clubhouse. Connor was president of his homeowners association, so he couldn’t very well get out of making an appearance, a cameo role. And that’s what he’d done. Gulping Coronas, then leaving his wife with her virgin strawberry daiquiri and her hard stare, leaving his neighbors with their discussions of lawn fertilizers and trash pick-up, leaving it all.
“Arnold, you done yet?” Suzie cupped her hands around her mouth. “Arnold!”
“Yes Ma’am!” There was a dull thud from the stage of the animal band. Arnold appeared, grinning. He was an oily-looking, too-thin kid, with bad posture. He worked nights at Johnny Jump-Up’s, saving money to buy a new truck. He was trying to get the mechanical animals in tip-top shape and it kept him busy. For the last six months, Connor rarely saw Arnold without his toolbox, holding a wrench or a hammer or a screwdriver, peering out from under his shoulder-length hair.
“Did you fix the gorilla yet?” Suzie asked.
“Yes, ma’am. I fixed the gorilla. Damn thing popped a wing nut. I nigger-rigged it.”
“Arnold! I told you I don’t like that word. Don’t say it again. Not here at Jackie Jump-Up’s.” Her face was flushed. Connor realized how rarely Suzy grew angry about anything, but when she was mad—like right now—her face grew pink and lovely.
“Sorry. I mean I jigger-rigged it to last a few more weeks until they send us that one part I done asked for two months ago.”
“How are the rest of them holding up?” Connor asked. “The wolf or the fox, or whatever the hell that middle one is that was stiff last week. Will they be ready for tomorrow night?” He saw Suzie glance at him, her mouth tightening. Maybe he was butting in, but he couldn’t help it. He liked things to work right, to take care of things. Wasn’t that why he started coming here? He’d made sure her bank loan had come through, had approved it himself, and had begun stopping in to offer his advice about contractors and where to buy used restaurant equipment. Of course, it wasn’t the project that excited him—building a local pizza place for kids—it was Suzie.
Arnold kicked at a crust of pizza on the floor. “Mr. Sims, you know those damn thangs are on their last leg. I mean, they came second hand from that no-count carnival. I can’t work miracles. I just try to keep them going.”
“I know you are, Arnold.” Suzie chimed in. “And they’re holding up just fine. I could tell those kids tonight were impressed.”
Suzie petted Arnold, Connor thought, but she was right to. Arnold could fix anything, and he was cheap. When he’d heard about Arnold’s mechanical skills, Connor had steered him to work for Suzie. He’d helped push through Arnold’s mobile home loan at the bank. He would make sure he got his truck loan, too, when he needed it. Connor looked at the boy with grudging admiration. Arnold had a wife, a one-year old, and another on the way. He wasn’t much older than Connor’s son, who was a freshman at Florida State, flunking out of mass communications, drinking himself to death.
Connor walked over to the soda machines in the kitchen. He poured himself a diet Coke and then started breaking down the machines. He unscrewed the caps from the spouts, put them in glasses, filled each with water, plopped in denture tablets. The glasses were fizzing and popping so loudly, he didn’t hear Suzie behind him.
“Thanks,” she said. “You’re learning the steps here pretty fast.”
“Where’s my reward for a job well done?”
“You’ll get yours, don’t you worry.”
He laughed and patted her ass. Her jeans were tight, and one back pocket was torn, hanging down. She had one of his shirts on—a Roseblade Country Club t-shirt.
“All I have to do is wipe down the machines with a little bleach and we can leave.” She stretched and bunched up her long black hair in a little knot in back. Connor kissed the damp hollow at the nape of her neck.
He wandered over to the front doors and looked outside. The parking lot was empty, the street was quiet. There were no cars driving by that he could see. But for some reason, Connor felt uneasy, sensed something different. Could be someone was casing out the joint, a new place like this. He walked to the back of the restaurant where Arnold was on stage again, fiddling with the gorilla. Connor sat down at one of the tables and sipped his diet Coke. He was stressed out, was all. Juggling this thing with Suzie, trying to keep it under wraps. But the worst part was yet to come. Thinking about her husband here, here, and Connor having to stay away until he left. And, let’s face it, thinking about him—the husband—sleeping with her.
Manuel. Connor never said the name aloud, resorted only to pronouns to keep Suzie’s husband anonymous. He cringed when Suzie said “Manuel,” or worse, “Manny.”
“How long will he stay?” Connor asked her last week.
“I don’t know,” she sighed, her back to him. “Two days, a week maybe. With Manny, I never know.“
Suzie had been a sociology major at North Carolina State when she met and fell in love with Manuel Garcia Solis. That was five years ago. She was studying living conditions of migrant workers for her senior project, she said, and her advisor suggested she talk to Manuel. An activist. A folk hero. “A troublemaker,” Connor blurted out, in the middle of her story. “That’s what those kinds of people usually are.” Suzie had indulged Connor with a small grin, and continued her story. She had sought Manuel out, she said, and finally found him in an old trailer without electricity. She walked in and found him sitting there on a bare mattress, reading by candlelight. Canned food and books—hundreds of books, surrounded him. “And that impressed you?” But this time Suzie ignored Connor, her eyes wide and staring, remembering.
She wasn’t too forthcoming about the details of how she and Manuel ended up together, but Connor could imagine them so much it hurt. Suzie interviewing Manuel, writing down everything he said on her legal pad, riveted by his tales of dropping out of school in fourth grade, drifting up and down the East Coast with his mother and sisters—an ungodly number of sisters, six or seven—all of them picking tomatoes or cucumbers or peaches—picking anything that would pay. Thinking of Suzie stretched out on the bare mattress, Manuel’s brown hands running up and down her pale, small body, left Connor nauseated. So did Suzie’s offhand remarks about how the last two times Manny came home for a visit she ended up pregnant, which was fine with her. She loved children.
“The thing about Manny—he’s a real intellectual. He really is, Connor. Even though he works all those no-count jobs. When he was a little boy he stole books from libraries and bookstores, just to have them, just to eat up what he wanted to know. He started reading law, too. I was sure he was going to wind up at law school, but how many fourth-grade dropout lawyers do you know? So he decided to write his own book about how migrant workers live, told by a migrant worker. That’s what he’s working on, now.” Picking tomatoes and writing down his thoughts in spiral notebooks, Connor added to himself, while Suzie was raising his two babies and trying to support the family by starting her own business, a crazy pizza place with a broken down animal band.
The day they’d met, in his office at the bank, Suzie told Connor about how the animal band was just to get kids in and begging their mamas to bring them back. There were plans for a little library in the back and an arts and crafts room (and a loom for God’s sake). Old people were going to be welcome, too, and after a while there would be daycare for the kids and the old people. This was going to be a regular little community, she told him, her eyes on fire, a good one.
Now, Suzie’s elaborate plans scared Connor. Just when he started to capture them and translate them into some kind of business strategy, to draw up a budget, her vision grew unwieldy and galloped ahead. And a greenhouse out in the back. That would be perfect. It terrified him, not only because businesses didn’t run that way, but because the success of Johnny Jump-Up’s Pizzeria and Animal Band was the only thing that would keep Suzie staying in town. Staying with him.
It was a long shot, this Johnny Jump-Up’s. He’d known that all along. He thought the idea was hopeless when she first told him about it. But that was before he fell in love with her—about two minutes before. Before he lost his objectivity and his head. In his office at the bank last spring, the first thing she told him was how her daddy died and left her a run-down steak house, and how she was going to make it a place for children.
She didn’t sit down across from his desk like most people did, clearing their throats nervously. Suzie headed right to the book shelf beside his desk and picked up the arrowheads he had there, his collection of Indian arrowheads and artifacts from his father’s farm, meticulously labeled (found in the garden, three feet south of the barn, by the pecan tree, November 12, 1978). She talked to him with her back to him, her fingers fluttering and rubbing around the edges and points of all those old rocks. Connor had swiveled his leather chair around, and finally stood and joined her. Her hair was wet, and a sharp clean smell, bath soap, floated up to him. She wore sandals, a crisp, white blouse with a missing top button, and a long, green skirt with an orange scarf knotted at her waist. She wore silver rings that caught the light when she waved her hand to dismiss his questions about filling out forms.
“I know what I want to do. I guess I need you to help me figure out how to do it, Mr. Sims. I’m always a little suspicious of official rules and legal requirements.” She backed away from him, and a small smile wrestled out from her seriousness. Something inside Connor shifted. “Here we are in a town that witnessed the Trail of Tears,” she said. “The laws didn’t help the Cherokee. The Cherokee people marched right out there one hundred fifty years ago. Just thinking about that forced march to Oklahoma . . . ” She wiped her eyes with her pinky and collected herself.
“Yeah, I know about that,” Connor said, and it came out defensively, not the way he had intended. They were in Cherokee County, North Carolina after all. Their town had not only made peace with its tragic past, but the Chamber now marketed it to tourists. They were on the official Trail of Tears National Historic Tour.
“I guess you know a third of them died on the way? And the tribe around these parts are from those poor souls who escaped into the woods.”
Connor nodded, wondering if he should sit back down behind his desk and reclaim some of his authority. This was about a small business loan for God’s sake. But he stood rooted, watching Suzie’s hands cup his arrowheads.
“Laws didn’t help them any,” Suzie said. She picked up one of the arrowheads, plowed up from his parents’ farm the summer he turned twelve. It was yellowed white, like a tooth, the point still sharp. “They owned their own farms and land, slaves even, since the Revolutionary War. The Cherokee had their own newspaper, and some of the best schooling around for children. But then somebody had to go discover gold in the mountains, and then Pow! It was time to move them out. They fought legally to keep their farms. But that didn’t help all those thousands of them on that death march in winter, did it Mr. Sims?”
They looked at each other. Connor crossed his arms and leaned against his desk, besotted.
“That’s why I don’t trust all those fancy rules and laws,” she said. “And besides, I hate paperwork.”
Arnold hunched beside Elmer the gorilla with a pair of pliers. After a minute or so he stood up and called out to Connor.
“Mr. Sims, I’m going to give them a run and I want you to listen out for bad rattles.”
Connor raised up his empty glass like a toast as Arnold moved to the control panel.
“I’m all ears, Arnold.”
The song, “It’s My Party and I’ll Cry If I Want To,” began to blare. The four man-sized animals began jerking and snapping. While the lights dimmed, the animals gyrated and rolled their eyes and clacked their mouths and clamped their musical instruments. Connor concentrated, watched the rigid movements. Arnold walked across the stage and stood beside Jackie Jump-Up, a kangaroo with a tropical shirt and a straw hat. The kangaroo swiped at a stringless electric guitar while his mouth opened and closed like a dying fish. Arnold darted over to the control box and stopped the song. The animals continued to whir and grind without music. Arnold walked over and stood by the gorilla, his head cocked, listening. The gorilla sat behind the keyboard, wildly rolling his yes, his blunt wooly fingers tamping on the painted-on keyboard. Like a doctor, Arnold pressed his head to the gorilla’s chest. Behind Arnold, the giant squirrel squatted over a set of drums, his paws prayerfully meshed, holding a drumstick like a Roman candle.
The mechanical animals’ ferociously congenial expressions always left Connor a little unsettled. Those things were trying to look cheerfully alive up there. They gave him the creeps. With that thought, Connor felt himself tense up; a jolt of panic moved through him like an electrical charge. If the restaurant failed, Suzie would leave.
When Suzie slid in the booth and sat across from him, they both watched the animal band. Connor tried to keep a neutral, unworried expression on his face.
“I’m changing this town because it is a mean little place,” Suzie whispered loudly to Connor, her face glowing with pride.
Connor knew why Suzie wanted to change this place. She’d told him how her father had been a drunk and how she would find him passed out in the back of the restaurant after hours. She told him about the time in high school a football player raped her. They’d been drunk one night after a game. The quarterback, Dean Looper, now worked over at Larry Looper’s Honda, which his uncle owned. “I have to drive by that place every day, Connor,” she’d told him.
“Jesus, that’s horrible,” he’d murmured, then held her as he thought of Larry Looper, beefy and florid, stuffed in a cardboard-stiff white shirt. He was in the Rotary Club with Connor, had once brought his nephew along.
Now, when the song ended and the lights flashed back on, Connor reached out and pulled Suzie’s hand to his mouth. He kissed each finger, her open palm.
Another good thing about Arnold. He was discreet.
“There’s just so much hate in this town and I am going to rise above it. I’m going to change things, Connor, I really am.”
Connor avoided her eyes. He didn’t want to see the raw excitement there.
“You know what I remembered just now when I was wiping down the counters? That sociology is the study of group dynamics,” she said. They both watched as Arnold appeared on stage, looking up at the spotlights. “It’s in groups that things change, Connor.“
“Is that right?” He pulled her over to his lap.
“Like Margaret Meade said, ‘Never doubt that a small group of people can change the world because it’s the only thing that can.’ Something like that. It was on our Sociology Club t-shirts in college.”
Connor smiled in her hair. He, himself, believed in the power of the individual and maintained a skeptical outlook about groups—from family units to government. Connor—Republican, libertarian—did not feel the need to express his own philosophy with Suzie the way he would with, say, his sister-in-law, Anna Marie. A liberal, the family’s only Democrat, Anna Marie gave him indigestion every Thanksgiving with her need to pepper him with arguments about corporate greed. But Suzy—she wasn’t belligerent and pedantic—she was kind. He could overlook her misguided faith in group dynamics just fine.
Arnold stood at the front of the stage now looking out at them, one hand shielding his eyes. “I reckon we’re ready as we’ll ever be.”
“Oh, thank you, Arnold,” she called out.
“Can I ask a question?” Arnold said. “You know that Jackie Jump-Up animal suit in the back? The one you said I might have to wear when I wave to people in the parking lot? How does ol’ Jackie perform up here in his band and at the same time walk around out there, too? I mean, kids is going to figure that out, ain’t they?”
“Children have a strong willing suspension of disbelief,” Suzie said.
“They like to pretend and make believe,” she said. “It comes naturally to them.”
“Well, it’s a real head scratcher, if you ask me. Jackie here and out yonder, too.”
Connor thought he saw sadness linger on Suzie’s face when Arnold began to shut down the band, but the expression passed. She slipped out of the booth and headed back to the kitchen in her own quick-stepped little trot.
“Have you ever heard such a racket in your life?” Arnold asked Connor after Suzie left. He began dousing the kangaroo with an oily spray. “This is my favorite one,” Arnold said as he walked over to Foxy, who gripped her shivering tambourine. She was noisy—Connor could hear the metal clicks of her batting eyes. “Woo hoo Mama,” Arnold said, laughing as he ogled Foxy’s large breast mounds. He lifted up the skirt. “I think she might need lubricating, too. Ain’t that right, Miss Foxy?”
“I don’t think she likes you, Arnold.”
“Yeah, she’s ignoring me pretty good.” Arnold’s expression moved from mischievous amusement to seriousness. “So, Mr. Sims, how do they look up here? See any more snags?”
Connor gave him a thumbs up.
Because it was to be their last night together for a week, Connor stopped and picked up a bottle of wine on the way to Suzie’s apartment. For a good six months now, they had settled into a routine of heading separately to Suzie’s apartment after working at the restaurant. After Suzie fell asleep, Connor slipped out and headed home. He had become expert at unlocking doors without so much of a jingle, floating from one sleeping household and sliding into another.
When Connor arrived at the apartment complex, he barely missed passing the teenaged baby-sitter in the hallway. They used to be more discreet, Connor parking down the road, waiting a good fifteen minutes after the sitter left, but now—Connor had stopped being careful. At home, his excuses had grown thinner, then finally disappeared.
Suzie was in the back bedroom, murmuring to the baby. Connor turned off the television and began to pick up the playing cards scattered on the sofa, the remnants of the baby-sitter’s game with the children. He stacked the cards neatly, shuffled them for good measure, and stuck them back in their box. Fifty-two cards, Connor thought. Fifty-two years. A year for each card. That’s how old I am.
The apartment was small and cluttered, filled with toy-stuffed milk crates, makeshift cinder-block-and-plank bookshelves, and baskets crammed with blankets and towels. Connor felt like a fairytale giant in a cottage, hunched under the hallway’s low ceiling.
He discovered the baby, Janie, asleep in Suzie’s room. He picked her up, and tiptoeing, carried her to the other room. He smelled her milkiness, the infant scent of her head as he carefully laid her in her crib. Had his own children once been so small? Suzie hummed in the rocking chair with the two-year-old, her eyes closed.
Connor moved to the kitchen and opened the bottle of wine. He filled two jelly jars he found in the cabinet, and took them to the bedroom. He waited, naked, under the covers of Suzie’s futon. Suzie and her husband’s futon. He heard Suzie finally give the two-year-old a kiss, her muffled steps moving to the bathroom where she brushed her teeth and put in her diaphragm.
When she came in the bedroom, Suzie sat beside Connor, stroked his face. She was crying. He sat up, but when he reached for her, she put a hand on his chest to stop him. “Connor, there’s something I’ve been meaning to say all night, and I’ve just been brushing it away, but I see I got to face it and tell you.”
She stood and moved around the room, lighting candles, her back to him. The candles flickered—there must have been a dozen or more of them, squat and tall, thin and fat—throwing Connor and Suzie’s shadows on the walls, the ceilings. “I thought Manny had pretty much run his course with me.” She turned to look at him now, closing her eyes hard for a few seconds before continuing. “I mean, I was okay about how he wasn’t coming home to stay, that he was drifting away from me and the kids. I thought that might be the best we could do. But now . . . well, I’m pretty sure he’s coming here to stay.”
She was sitting on the bed with him now, watching his face, but Connor’s heart was thumping hard, his ears were full of sound, ka-thump-ka-thump.
“What do you mean?” His mouth was dry.
She said Manny would stay now and write his book on migrant workers. He had enough material.
Connor was going to be sick. He rushed down the hall to the bathroom, stepped on a squeaky toy. He let the spasms do their work, vomiting until he felt hollow and weak. He cleaned himself up and stared at a wilted pansy stuck in a formula bottle beside the sink. He heard a soft knock, then felt Suzie rub his back. He turned and embraced her violently, his hands gripping her back, her hair. For so long, the deadening of his life had been gradual. He had managed to numb regret—his wasted life!—until Suzie. She’d given him another chance to live, for Christ’s sake. But this—Suzie ending it? Taking herself away from him? The shock of it was like a beating. A hot, bloody fight. He was getting pummeled.
“When?” he croaked. “When did you decide this?”
“This morning.” She pulled away and looked at him. “He called this morning.”
“My God, Suzie, how do you know he won’t swoop in and wreck everything you’ve set up here?”
She shook her head. “I’m not a planner, Connor. You know that. And with Manny, I take it day-by-day.” They were sitting on the floor of the tiny bathroom now, both of them naked. Suzie’s eyes were wet and dark as damp soil. “I wanted to take care of you, Connor, before you die inside, you know? I just saw so much life wanting to bust out of you when I met you the first time, I swear I did. Everything was all pent up inside you and when we were together I just peeled you open and you gave your heart to me. I couldn’t resist you.”
He thought of his friends, a few co-workers, some of them already hit with cancer or heart attacks. Talking about their pensions, early retirement. But Connor wasn’t settling down at all, he was kicking and screaming. Moving and jumping in a blizzard keeps you alive. Swimming laps three times a week at the club keeps you going. Being in love kept your blood pumping. He was busting out, popping open. Yes.
“You’re so worried about your son down there in Florida flunking out, go down there and enroll yourself and get another degree. Study about those Indian artifacts, the ones you keep at your office. Stay with him for a while. Get away and save yourself, Connor.”
He shook his head.
“My life isn’t like that, Suzie,” he said bitterly. “I have responsibilities.” He could feel the mean words trying to muscle out—What perfect timing! Now that you got your business loan, your sorry ass husband thinks he’ll sashay in? He rubbed his hand over his face. “Hell, I’m living in Tupperware Land, the air is sucked out over there, everything . . . left-overs.”
“You needed some danger in your life and I guess I’ve been that danger. But you need love, too, Connor, something you love and care about.”
“Do I.” He stood up.
“It’s me right now, but it’s not really me, it shouldn’t be. You know, when people first start out together, and they’re crazy in love? They think it’s going to go on forever, the two of them, smooth and straight, and they can’t imagine slowing down. I guess that’s why people finally marry. It just wears you out not to. You have to slow down. You don’t know what’s up ahead.”
“It’s a fucking cul-de-sac.”
“Oh, Connor.” She laughed.
For a minute they were quiet. ”Don’t do this,” he said. “Let’s give it a week. See if he’s singing the same tune about staying in a few days.”
She slowly shook her head. “Manny and me, we have to try to make this work. The kids and all . . .”
“I thought we were . . . set. Don’t you understand? I told you I’d take care of you, Suzie. I told you I ‘d make sure your kids would be taken care of. Now you’re telling me you’re going back to that deadbeat?”
What happened to their own little group dynamic? is what he wanted to say. Didn’t that count for something?
Glenda was still awake when Connor came home, her back to him in bed. He undressed, and did not have the energy to be quiet about it. He stretched out on his side of the king-sized bed, the mattress big as a parade float. His heart pounded, a furious fist. From beside him, Glenda let out ragged sobs.
He awoke to the smells of coffee and bacon. Perhaps it was an invitation to come down, to face her after arriving home just hours ago at dawn. Perhaps it was an ultimatum in the making, or even a decision.
He stepped into the shower, his head fuzzy, his stomach recoiling, grief clawing inside. Looking down at his naked body, he was reminded of Suzie wrapped around him, one lean, pale leg thrown over his. He closed his eyes, put his head back, let the hot water hit him hard.
When he walked downstairs, the carpet muffled his footsteps, a willing conspirator. In the kitchen, he sat down at his usual place at the table. His wife stood at the sink, her back to him. Connor snapped open the newspaper and hid behind it, his eyes at once drawn to the half-page advertisement announcing the grand opening of Jackie Jump-Up’s. The photo of the animal band was grainy, black and white. Prizes! the advertisement said. Fun! Food! Games! Enjoy performances by Jackie Jump-Up and the Animal Band! The newspaper shook a little in his hands.
Glenda, efficient and weary as a waitress, poured him a cup of coffee. She was dressed in a powder blue suit. She wore earrings and lipstick. From somewhere in the thicket of his sorrow, he realized how unusual it was for Glenda to be dressed up, and so early. Who died? he wanted to ask, but even his resentment wasn’t spiteful.
“I want you to take the day off,” his wife said. Her face was a round, white dumpling of agony. He returned to reading his paper, at staring at the advertisement. “I want you to sit right there and tell me . . . ” Her voice rose, before trailing off. He looked up. She was facing him, her back to the sink, her arms crossed. Connor found himself saved from a confrontation by his daughter, who bounded in the kitchen like a puppy and devoured the eggs and toast and bacon that neither Connor nor his wife could think of eating.
At the bank that morning, Connor could not sit still. His thoughts flew around the room, not perching or lighting. The forms in front of him, the memos and letters, were unreadable, indecipherable. He left, claiming a bad case of the stomach flu.
Connor picked up his daughter from school early and persuaded her to skip band practice. He bribed her with promises of a shopping trip to the mall and dinner out. Connor took her plump, dimpled, still-childish hand in his own, and though it startled both of them a little, pressed her hand to his mouth. “Jan, you know I love you.”
He embarrassed her, he knew, but he was soft and raw with emotion. Soon enough his grief would scuttle for shelter, would harden and hide. The tears that threatened to well up in his eyes—though they disappeared quickly—stung like alcohol.
Connor stopped at a gas station and fueled up the car while his daughter called home. “Mom wants to talk to you,” she called out to him, holding up her cell phone. But he pointed to the gas nozzle.
“Can’t talk now. Tell her we’ll be home in a few hours.”
“I think this has something to do with starting my period last month, Mom.” Connor listened to his daughter through the half-open car window. “Did you tell him about it or something? He’s like, freaking out.”
The parking lot was packed at Johnnie Jump-Up’s. Inside, Connor guided his daughter—whose face expressed the horror of being, at twelve, too old for such a place—to one of the few available booths.
“What kind of pizza do you want?”
“You expect me to eat here? This is like Sesame Street hell, Daddy. I want to leave, that’s what I want.”
Connor felt a hot flash of anger, and then it was gone, quenched, frozen.
“Honor your part of the deal, Jan. I just dropped two hundred at American Eagle. I guess you can have a little dinner with your old man.”
Connor had plowed through the nerve-jangling crowd with the single purpose of finding a table, but now he began looking around. Why had he come? To see her? For Suzie to see him? Strangely enough, he and Suzie had never talked about this night, about his making an appearance. He spied Arnold moving around the darkened stage, a wrench in his hand. The familiarity of it, of Arnold’s squatting now beside the giant squirrel, hit Connor straight on, like a physical blow to the chest.
Jan, sulky and silent, sat down in the far corner of the red vinyl booth. The tabletop was sticky with ice cream, littered with wadded-up, brightly colored napkins. Connor sat with his back to the band. Jan refused to look up.
Everywhere children were lined up waiting, for pizza, for balloons. And, of course, to meet Jackie Jump-Up, who moved among the crowd now with Suzie’s unmistakable spring-stepped walk. She was buried in that bulky, mangy costume, he knew it, could sense her swathed presence in there, like a soul. Connor turned to watch as she hugged the kids, all of them grabbing onto her in that animal suit.
And trailing behind her, Manuel. Connor was sure it was Manuel. The image burned, imprinted on his memory—the pony tail, the tank top, the gold earring, holding the two-year-old, pressing his lips in his child’s hair. Connor had just enough time to shrink back into himself, his curiosity curling up and shriveling like scorched paper. Across the table, Jan slouched a practiced pose of misery and boredom while managing to text on her phone.
“Let’s go,” he said.
As they made their way to the door, the lights darkened, the stage lights flashed. A scratchy version of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” blasted, and the animals began to screech and move.
And then, a collective gasp across the room. The gorilla’s massive arm dangled, then fell to the floor. The limb thudded, and seemed to have a life of its own, gyrating on the stage floor. The gorilla’s shoulder rod, a metal stump, moved back and forth. Several toddlers wailed. Everywhere, now, an ocean of howling children and tense parents. The adults became animated themselves as they tried to distract their terrified children or explain to them the animals were not real.
Someone was pulling at him. Connor was standing, transfixed, his daughter tugging at his wrist. When had he stopped moving? “Come on,” Jan said. “Daddy, come on.” There, finally, was Arnold, who frantically worked the control panel, and behind him, Manuel, whose muscled arms rippled in the stage light. “Can we please please leave now?”
At home, his wife was ready for him. After their daughter disappeared upstairs to try on her new clothes, Glenda dumped out a thick brown envelope of photographs on the kitchen table. She stared at him wordlessly as he sorted through a catalog of images capturing his last few weeks with Suzie. At her apartment window. Through the window at Johnnie Jump-Up’s, Connor’s face buried in her neck. Even the night before, when he was worried someone was going to rob the place, heard the car drive by, it was private detective Lou Walken, he saw by the business card at the bottom of the stack. Not a crazed criminal at all.
“Tell me it will stop, right now, right this minute.” Glenda’s voice was quiet and enraged.
The sounds of their daughter moving around above them grew louder, like stage thunder. When her approaching footsteps thudded down the stairs, his wife covered the incriminating photos with newspapers. It was all Connor could do not to grab them. He wanted to keep them, and he knew how desperate and sad that was: he cherished those incriminating photos.
Jan twirled around Connor, modeling an outfit (Thanks Daddy!) before dashing back out, disappearing in a flash of color and giggles. In the wake of her cheer, the silence grew as heavy as the granite counters that surrounded him. Connor realized his adventure in emotion’s landscape had ended. Apathy welcomed him like a lover. His own voice seemed to come from far away now. “She is out of my life,” he heard himself say. “It meant nothing.” He was freezing up, a rusty cog. His wife sat down, dabbing at her swollen eyes, but he was gone from her, gone. The best he could manage was this anesthetized façade, this veering away from the heat of hatred, from the rawness of love, too. That would have to be good enough.
Mindy Friddle’s second novel, Secret Keepers (St. Martin ‘s Press/Picador), won the 2009 Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction. The Garden Angel (St. Martin’s Press/Picador), her first novel, was selected for Barnes and Noble’s Discover Great New Writers program in 2004. Her latest story, “Geographic Tongue,” is out in the current edition of Hayden’s Ferry Review.