After Megan’s first trip to the doctor at six weeks, Tate felt the urge to build something, so he went to The Home Depot and ordered a backyard playset. His own dad had been one of those dads who could build anything, take scrap metal and build a custom-made smoker, take some popsicle sticks and build a scale-model White House. If a wall didn’t have a window, and he wanted a window, he could make a window. He’d done all this when Tate was little, but Tate hadn’t inherited these necessary dad skills. What he needed were ready-made parts and easy assembly instructions, all available at The Home Depot.
The playset he ordered was modeled after a giant ship, and it was awesome—way too expensive—but awesome, exposed from the stern so you could see all the multiple levels, hammocks swinging in the hold, portholes offering fictional ocean views. A swingset hung off the starboard side, and a large deck sat atop the ship with a free-spinning steering wheel, a mast with ascending rope ladders, a plank for sending mutineers to the sand box below—not too high—and a crow’s nest to watch out for neighborhood marauders coming to steal your treasures. Fake barnacles even stuck to the hull for gripping and climbing. It looked dangerous, but a little danger was good. Life was fragile. A kid should learn this lesson early.
On a cold Saturday morning, two guys in a semi-truck delivered the playset. Once unpacked and splayed out in the yard, the unassembled parts looked like an excavated shipwreck, like Tate had dug deep into a seabed and unearthed some long-lost schooner. The instructions came in a booklet—a booklet the size of some checkout-counter paperbacks—and before he even read them he knew he was in over his head. The drawings were clear enough, complete with faceless cartoon characters easily putting the ship together piece by piece, but after five hours of freezing his ass off he had nothing standing but the broad hull of the ship and a wobbly swingset, which he was proud of, but at that rate it’d take him a week to finish. Nothing was sturdy. The ship swayed like it might capsize from a strong breath or the accidental whip of a squirrel’s tail. He knew he’d messed something up, left some parts out or attached a random flange or bracket in the wrong place, but it was anybody’s guess how.
Megan had been gone all afternoon raiding one of her friend’s closets for maternity clothes. He hadn’t told her what he’d done. He’d wanted the ship to be a surprise. It was. When she saw what was happening in the backyard she got pissed. She told him this was a sure jinx and yelled at him for building a playground for their corn kernel. She went inside in tears.
Tate felt like a failure. The instructions were clear and easy, giant fucking numbers and letters, and each illustrated square told him the tools and parts he needed for that step, but somehow he’d managed to screw the whole ship up and make his wife cry all at the same time. Well done.
He gave up, grabbed a beer out of the fridge, and took it with him to the shower.
When he came out he felt better, warm and loose. He dried off and put on pajama bottoms and a T-shirt. He still had Sunday, a new day with new possibilities and a new clear eye for the job. He’d tackle it tomorrow.
Megan was propped up in the bed reading one of her pregnancy books. They’d originally planned to wait a while before starting a family. Megan wasn’t totally sold on having kids at all. This was an accident, so now she was educating herself. She’d bought a million books on pregnancy and how to have a baby and what to buy for the baby and how to care for the baby once it popped out. Why weren’t her books a jinx?
“You’re nesting,” she told him. She shook the book at him. “Parents-to-be will get this need to fix up stuff before the kid comes. It’s biological. Like a bird.”
Tate sat on the bed next to her and put his hand on her belly. Nothing much was happening, only under the surface. The doctor had told Megan her embryo was the size of a corn kernel. Tate thought it was weird that her doctor called it an embryo.
“What kind of bird?” he asked.
Megan looked up from her book, the skin around her eyes still puffy and red from crying. “An odd one.”
Megan smiled and shook her head.
“I can be an eagle,” he said.
* * *
Twelve and a half weeks must’ve been the jinx-free date in all her books because that’s when they finally got to tell everyone. Once they shared the news, sent the emails and text messages and made the phone calls to the most important people, the well-wishes and unwanted advice poured in. Megan’s parents said this was exactly what they’d hoped for when they’d helped buy them a house—grandkids!—and suggested Tate and Megan start saving money “ASAP” because the “little treasure” would be “off to college in no time.” Tate’s mom said, “Thank you, Jesus,” and told him that his dad was smiling “from a fishing pond up in heaven.” Tate’s oldest brother warned him that Megan was going to go “batshit crazy,” that she’d have unexplainable crying fits, that she’d develop bizarre cravings, and that he would not have sex for a “very, very, very, very long time.” His other brother asked him if he was sure the kid was his. “You never know,” his brother said. “You think you know, but you never know.” Tate figured both his brothers were just trying to scare him.
Tate worked as a legal assistant at a midsize law firm downtown while he procrastinated on making a decision about going to law school. Megan liked to tease him about being a secretary. She was between teaching jobs, and now Tate worried she might never go back to work, a move that might necessitate law school and its potential higher earning power. He didn’t think of himself as a secretary. He liked the work because the pay was pretty good and he got to be around the law without practicing law, without indenturing himself to the firm and to billable hours. Leaving a place at a decent hour, at home in time for a few beers, dinner, and TV, or a night out with friends, made him feel like he was his own man.
At work Dana came into his cube and hit him on the shoulder. “You dirty dog,” she said. “I have to find out in the break room from Zoe.” Tate wondered what other gossip Zoe spread about him in the break room while she was vending out her Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Dana bent over and hugged him in his office chair, squeezed him tightly. She lingered on the hug, slowly rubbing his back, her ozone-scented hair tickling his nose.
Something was different about Dana today. Dana was hot. She’d never been hot before. Weird, yes. Hot, no. Dana was older than Tate, 40s maybe? He couldn’t tell exactly, but he’d never thought much about her life outside the law firm, especially after that depressing Halloween party last year. She was always just Dana, kind of his boss, the quirky partner with a pert spray-do and a closet full of patterned pant suits. She did have nice arms, though, from yoga, she said. She always made a point of taking off her jacket down to her sleeveless blouse or sweater to show off her muscular arms, no matter the weather. But she was a weirdo, artsy-craftsy, not your typical lawyer at all—if there was such a thing. She made her own decoupage posters from magazine cutouts and postcards that she put in expensive frames and hung in her office. She knitted. He mostly felt sorry for her. But today, today she was hot. Maybe it was because Tate’s wife had already taken to wearing elastic-waistband jeans and loose-fitting dresses that looked like California king-size sheets, had steadily been complaining about how bad she felt, in the morning, at night, all the time. She wasn’t even showing.
“Did you …? Is there something different or something?” Tate asked.
She nodded. Her hair stayed put. “I met someone,” she said.
That explained it. She’d met someone. She had the warm honeyed glow of having met someone, someone she’d probably had sex with within the last 24 hours. He could tell. On some women you could just tell. He thought he could tell with Dana, partly because she never looked like this before, like a lighthouse.
She told Tate she’d met this guy at a craft fair. His name was Stan. Dana’s newest sad craft was making felt puppets of famous people, incredible likenesses of old rock stars like Elvis and James Brown and screen legends like Clark Gable, and she sold this goofy shit at craft fairs. Obviously not for the money. She also made small puppet keychains in the shapes of animals. Where’d she find the time? Tate had one on his own set of keys, a small, round, brown-and-tan monkey face.
“What’s his craft?” Tate asked.
“Stan’s an out-of-work union electrician,” she said.
How weirdly specific. “Does he light up your life?”
Dana posed like she was holding a lightbulb over her head. “Can’t you tell?”
* * *
Tate never got around to finishing what he started. The pieces of the playset sat in the yard for weeks, gathering a yellow layer of spring pollen and fallen blooms. He kept promising himself and Megan that he’d do it, that this would be the day, but this was never the day. Then he came home on a Friday after a long week and it was done. He’d just changed out of his work clothes and was washing his hands in the kitchen when he looked out the window above the sink and saw it in their backyard, a ship rising from the earth. He yelled Megan’s name, but she didn’t answer, so he went outside and checked it out. Awesome, as promised. Strong and sturdy. Solid. This ship wasn’t going anywhere. He used the barnacles to hoist himself up to the top deck where he spun the steering wheel. He walked the plank and stepped off into the sandbox, leaving two deep footprints. The kid was going to love it, a ship, voyage-bound for anywhere he could dream.
Back inside, Tate found Megan sitting at the kitchen counter reading another one of her pregnancy books. Where’d she been when he called her name?
“Did you know there’s actually no real scientific proof that breastfeeding is better for your kid?” Megan asked.
Tate wondered if she even knew about the ship, if some benevolent carpenter had seen the desperate wreckage and decided to lend a helping hand. Maybe she’d called The Home Depot and rented a guy. They probably did stuff like that. Rent-a-guy. “Who fixed the ship?”
“Think about it,” she said. “Who breastfeeds?”
Tate figured most women breastfed their babies, if they cared about their babies. “Everybody.”
“No. Middle and upper class women. So middle and upper class women probably will already have healthier and smarter babies because of other socio-economic advantages, not just because they breastfeed. It’s correlation, not causality.”
“Did you know the ship was up?”
“Yes,” she said. “Your dad helped me.”
Tate laughed and felt her forehead.
She jerked away from him. “I’m not joking,” she said. “He talked to me like Obi-Wan Kenobi, except he sounded like Johnny Cash and not Alec Guinness.”
Funny. His dad had kind of sounded like Johnny Cash. She had never met his dad. Tate grabbed a beer out of the fridge. “Seriously. Who fixed it?”
“Seriously. I fixed it. Your dad talked me through it. Told me what to do. Put this part here. Put that part there. He said I had a gift.”
Megan was a deep believer in all things supernatural: ghosts, curses, psychics, aliens, jinxes, monsters, hexes. It was one of the reasons he loved her, her imagination. But she’d never claimed to be able to speak to the dead. This was new. His brothers would probably tell him it had something to do with hormones. Later he’d check all her pregnancy books under “paranormal delusions.”
For now he could humor her. She wasn’t crying, and she looked calm and relaxed for the first time in a long time. And the ship had gotten built. More than he could do. Tate sipped his beer and looked out the window again. He imagined playing out there with his kid, heeding orders to swab the deck, assuring his frightened toddler that it was safe to climb to the crow’s nest, pretending to walk the plank and plummet to the sharks. He couldn’t wait.
“So you’re not breastfeeding?” he asked.
“I haven’t decided.”
“I’m pretty sure it’s better for the kid.”
“Not according to this.” Megan closed the book and held up the cover. Your Body, Your Body, Your Breasts.
“Like The Who song?” Tate asked.
She looked at the cover, hummed the melody. “Never thought about it.”
This was all new to Tate. He assumed that his wife would do what she could to give their baby the best opportunity to be healthy, this included breastfeeding. Plus, breastfeeding was a lot less expensive than formula. Why was this even a choice? “I think you should give it a shot.”
Megan quickly closed the book and stood up. She walked over to where Tate was leaning against the counter and lifted his white undershirt, pulling it up and over his head and arms, quickly, so that he had to set his beer down to keep from spilling. She stuck her lips on his nipple and sucked, sucked hard and wet and slobbery. Then she bit him.
“Twelve times a day,” she said. “Hours at a time. Until I’m raw and cracked and bleeding.”
Tate wasn’t sure what she was complaining about. It hadn’t felt that bad.
* * *
After weeks of Dana talking about Stan this and Stan that and generally becoming more and more attractive by the day—she’d done something new to her hair, less spray-and-hold, more relaxed, and she’d worn tight jeans to work on days other than Friday—Tate finally met the guy. He ran into them at one of his favorite lunch spots, Burgatory—Burgers Just Shy of Heaven! Dana liked their veggie burgers, extra pickles. She was sitting at a table with this husky bald guy, both of them drinking milkshakes, hers chocolate, his strawberry. When she saw Tate come in she grabbed him and dragged him over to their table. The guy was one of those heavy-set slobs who get lucky and land the pretty girl on TV sitcoms. The tight bands of his white golf shirt squeezed his hairy arms.
Dana introduced Tate. “This is my BFAW,” she said.
Stan’s puzzled look said he didn’t get it either.
“Best. Friend. At. Work,” Dana said.
Tate was surprised to learn he was Dana’s BFAW, but flattered, and glad she hadn’t called him her secretary.
He went to the counter and ordered a cheeseburger, then changed it to a double, with bacon, and the works. He’d planned to take it all back to the office, but she insisted he stay and eat with them. When he joined them at the table, Tate noticed Stan had a pile of keys in front of him, a wad of keys like he was the super of some building, a janitor at a skyscraper. The nest of keys was filled with feathers and jingle bells and all kinds of baubles and trinkets, including one of Dana’s keychain animals: a rhino. Tate wondered if she gave people the animals she thought they resembled or deserved. Tate was a monkey. Stan was a rhino. Why did this rhino have so many keys?
Dana said that last weekend she and Stan had driven all over the state looking for antiques. This was a shared love of theirs: “antiquing.” At her request, Tate grudgingly narrated his weekend. He and Megan had gone to Ikea to look at cribs, not to buy them, just to look. Megan was still superstitious about buying too many things before the baby was born, even though every doctor’s visit and ultrasound and screening had turned out OK. She’d been really tired, so they were in bed both Friday and Saturday by 9. He left this last part off and changed the subject. He really wanted to know about those keys. “What’s with all the keys?”
“Clients,” Stan said.
Clients? For an unemployed electrician? Maybe he’d changed fields, rebranded himself as a locksmith, a general contractor, a prison warden. “Business is booming?” Tate asked.
Stan picked up the wad of keys and jangled them, the rhino spinning and horning its way through the brass and silver and gold. “What’s that sound like to you?” he asked.
“Money,” he said. “When times are tough, people fix up what they got. Decide they don’t need that new house. Things are fine where they are with a fresh coat of paint or a new fixture. They hunker down and watch a lot of HGTV.”
“If the nursery’s not done yet,” Dana said, “Stan can help.”
Tate shook his head. “Megan doesn’t want to jinx it,” he said.
Stan tilted his milkshake glass at Tate. “Your life will never be the same.”
Tate hated when people said shit like this, and a lot of people had been saying shit like this. Get your rest! Go out now cause you’ll never have a nice meal together again! How did they know? Tate didn’t get a good vibe from this guy, this strawberry-milkshake-drinking, bald-domed key jangler, and for some reason, he now felt protective of Dana, maybe because of her BFAW comment.
“Did you find what you were looking for, Stanley?” Tate elongated his name like it was an insult.
Stan took it like an insult and closed a suspect eye at Tate, a popeyed pirate. “It’s Stan,” he said. “Just Stan.”
“Antiques,” Tate said. “Did you find what you were looking for when you went … ‘antiquing.’” He used air quotes dramatically and judgmentally.
Dana put her arm around Stan. “He bought me a rocking chair,” she said. “It’s in pretty bad shape, but he can fix it.” She leaned over and kissed him on his meatball-sized ear. “Stan’s the man.”
* * *
After the playset there was more. Megan installed a ceiling fan in the bedroom because the summer was burning her up. She added a much-needed handrail down the stairs to the basement. She repaired the automatic garage-door opener that had stopped being automatic and mounted the flat-screen TV that had been propped precariously on top of their dresser. She cleaned out all the gutters. All this with apparent spectral assistance from Tate’s father. She insisted he’d been talking to her, even going so far as to say that Tate’s dad had gotten mad at her when she was mounting the TV.
“He was mean,” she said.
“Like if I did something wrong he got all frustrated.”
Megan could not have known this about Tate’s father. He’d always considered his dad pretty perfect, his hero, really, but he had no patience when he was trying to help him or his brothers with a project. He was not a natural teacher. Whether it was how to add fractions, or how to fill a tire with air, or how to tie a hook on the end of a fishing line, if their dad was trying to teach them something and they couldn’t understand, he’d get exasperated, huff and sigh, tell them he couldn’t help them and give up, leaving them limply dangling a pencil, hook, or air pump.
Still he stopped short of believing her.
“He could be like that,” Tate said.
“I’m glad you’re nothing like him,” she said.
When she’d built a bookshelf, bought the wood, put it together, sanded and painted it herself, Tate finally understood the game. It didn’t really matter how all the work was getting done, the point was for Tate to feel inadequate. Through the ghost of his dad she was showing Tate what he could be like, what he should be like, and what was missing from his dadness, all things he already knew and took too much to heart. This was an elaborately passive-aggressive way to point out Tate’s flaws, but not unlike Megan.
So Tate fought back with pancakes. Not pancakes from the back of a box, but pancakes from scratch. The recipe was his mom’s, one she’d come up with herself because she was a natural cook, a bona fide wizard in the kitchen, a mom who could bake anything, Super-mom, whip up a meal for five from a cupboard full of nothing.
Megan sat at the counter and listened to him as he easily and effortlessly moved around the kitchen, explaining where such a morning treat came from. On special occasions, birthdays, good report cards, or even not-so-special occasions, when they felt a little down, his mom would make him and his brothers these special pancakes, and when she poured them on the hot oiled skillet she would pour them in shapes, usually the first letter of their name, or maybe a long snake, or she’d try one in a spiral. His mom called them snake cakes. “And now I’m making them for you.”
When the batter was mixed and ready, Tate oozed a long goopy strand on the electric skillet in the shape of the letter M. “You know what the M stands for?” he asked.
She didn’t answer, her look implying it was obvious.
“Mom,” he said.
Megan ate up the snake cakes without interpreting the gesture as an insult. She commented on how delicious they were, moist and buttery with hints of almond and orange zest, and how it would be great for him to make them one day for their kid, and how imagining that future scene made her want to cry from sweetness. Then she went ahead and cried.
So Tate made cupcakes. Again, nothing from a box, all from scratch. He found the recipe online. Some old lady in North Carolina calling herself Aunt Mable and revealing all her family secrets on a blog. Tate told Megan that these cupcakes came from his own Great Aunt Mable, a woman she’d never met, long dead, but a mother of seven who ran the family business—feed and seed—while still finding time to bake cupcakes and pies and cobblers and homemade bread, but especially these incredible cupcakes passed down from generation to generation, one mom to the next mom.
Megan bit into one, vanilla cake with a cream cheese frosting, rainbow sprinkles—his own touch. “Yum,” she said.
She was clearly missing the point.
After the cupcakes Tate made brownies. A fucking cornucopia of brownie varieties. He made them with pecans, butterscotch chips, chocolate chips, caramel swirls. He made blondies. He became a grand master of brownie, dusting them with powdered sugar and cutting them into perfect squares, crusty on the outside and moist on the inside. But Megan had lost her taste for chocolate during her pregnancy. She said it just didn’t taste right. She nibbled at them politely, told him they were “nice.” She said she liked his new baking hobby and she was well aware of what he was trying to prove. Fine. She couldn’t bake. Big deal? “Thanks for pointing out the obvious,” she said.
“Who’s going to bake his first birthday cake? His friends will want cookies? This is stuff a mom should know how to do.”
“That’s just like you.”
“A boy. You assume it’ll be a boy.”
* * *
Annabelle didn’t look like either of them, lots of black hair and a big, flat nose. Nothing about her looked familiar. He remembered what his brother had said, when he’d asked Tate whether the baby was his, but all babies looked like aliens at first. She would change.
Megan’s parents and Tate’s mom both came to help out, staying in their small house for a week and a half, making it smaller. Tate was thankful to have them and even more thankful to finally see them go, even though Megan said she wasn’t sure she’d know how to handle everything without them. Her mom told her she’d have to do it eventually, so the sooner the better. Surprisingly, Megan had decided to breastfeed.
She told him that a new father could sometimes feel left out observing the bond between the new mother and her nursing child. She’d read this. Much to his surprise, this was exactly how he did feel a lot of the time, useless and unimportant, watching Annabelle nurse then fall calmly to sleep in her mother’s arms. Tate did as much as he could to help, but everything he did seemed to piss Annabelle off. She screamed when he tried to sponge bathe her, screamed when he bounced up and down the hall with her to stop her from screaming, and screamed when he read short books to her that she couldn’t possibly understand or enjoy—Megan said it was important to start reading to her early. When his two weeks of leave were up, he was eager to get back to the office.
In his cube, he found an envelope resting on top of a small gift box. Inside the envelope was a card made out of pink construction paper, the front covered in glitter with cutout pictures of tiny winged pigs flying over a rustic farm scene. In paint pen across the top, bubble letters spelled out the word, “Congratulations!” Dana had made the card herself. He opened it up, and on the inside was a larger pig with wings, the same paint pen and bubble letters puffing out an inspirational phrase: “Believing is Seeing!” Tate flipped the card over to the back to see if there was more to it, but that was all.
It didn’t make any sense. What was Dana trying to say? That Tate having a girl was like seeing a pig fly? That Tate being a dad was like a pig flying? And the saying, what the hell was that supposed to mean? All backwards. He didn’t get it. He wanted to open the gift to see if it might help explain, but he decided to save it for Megan. He walked down to Dana’s office to thank her and to ask her what she meant, but Zoe stopped him in the hallway.
“She’s sick,” Zoe said.
“Really?” Dana was never sick.
Zoe stuck a Cheetos-red finger between her teeth like she was thinking about something. “You have glitter on your face,” she said.
At home Megan unwrapped the gift from Dana and held up a small pink onesie with a flying pig on it. This didn’t explain the card. There were no more words on the onesie, just a flying pig. Dana had also included one of her puppet keychains, a small, pink pig face. “Cute,” Megan said, and added Dana’s name to the long list of thank you notes she had to write.
After Dana was out sick for two more days, Zoe shared some gossip with the office. Stan was married and had two kids. He’d been living a double life. Dana was heartsick. Tate called Dana’s phone and didn’t get an answer. He left her a message saying he’d heard what had happened and was sorry, also thanking her for the card and the gift. Later in the day he called her again with no answer. On the third day Dana wasn’t at work, Tate decided he’d go to her townhouse with brownies to thank her and to cheer her up. He was worried about her and figured she might need someone to talk to. He was her BFAW after all.
Tate had only been to Dana’s place once, that Halloween party last year. Megan lived for Halloween. They went as Frankenstein and the Bride of Frankenstein because they always did. He’d thought the party was going to be huge. Dana had made special invitations promising all kinds of fun and games and trivia and contests and a big question mark announcing the wildness of an open-ended conclusion, but most of the people there weren’t even in costume. The few who were looked like they’d just thrown their costumes together with a last-minute stop at the drugstore: a plastic mask, nerd glasses, vampire teeth. Dana wore a sexy nurse’s costume, and Tate thought she looked more desperate than sexy. It was obvious to him that she’d wanted to have a party to show herself off in that costume, to have all her friends see a side of her they might not have seen before. Tate wished someone else from the office had been there to see. Why was he the only one? Tate and Megan ended up talking to one of Dana’s old law school friends who had given up the law to travel around the world. He bragged about all the weird stuff he’d eaten: grubs, lizards, sheep’s dick. Later the guy ended up vomiting in the bathroom and locking the door so no one could get in. One of Dana’s other friends, some guy in an eye patch, found a mop bucket and pissed in it right in the kitchen, even though Dana had at least one other available bathroom. That’s when Tate and Megan decided to leave. They’d been the youngest people there, but on the way home they talked about how it really hadn’t seemed that way.
* * *
Outside Dana’s place, Tate had to buzz three times before she answered and let him in. The townhouse smelled like someone had been sick in there, like that guy from the Halloween party was still hiding in her bathroom in a puddle of his own puke. Dana wore a pink tracksuit that made her look like a stick of chewing gum, already chewed. Her hair was flat and matted, lopsided, and her face was greasy, like she hadn’t bathed all week. She was not glowing. Tate wondered if the rumors were just rumors and Dana really was sick, and here he was overstepping his boundaries as her legal assistant by coming to her house. He could leave her the brownies, thank her for the gift, and go.
Dana muted her TV and asked him to sit down on her couch, moving a rumpled afghan out of the way to give him room. She’d been watching an episode of Three’s Company. Tate never understood how that show had ever been popular. TV was weird back then. Tate sat down and handed her the tin foil full of brownies. She told him he was sweet and that he shouldn’t have brought her anything. He told her she shouldn’t have made Annabelle anything, so they were even.
Dana put the brownies down and snagged a Kleenex out of a box kept handy on her coffee table, a coffee table Tate remembered from the party. She’d decorated it herself, cut out pictures of old movies stars and lacquered over them on a cheap Salvation Army table. Marlon Brando was half-covered by wadded balls of dirty Kleenex.
“He says they’re getting a divorce.”
He’d been right about Stan. Never trust a guy with that many keys.
“You deserve better,” Tate said.
Dana hugged him. She hugged him tightly in her yoga-strong arms, hugged him like somebody who hadn’t seen a living soul in three days. “Too bad you don’t have a brother,“ she said over his shoulder.
Tate wrapped his arms around Dana and slowly rubbed her back through her slick track suit. The thing to do was to go. He was in another woman’s home, an emotional woman, a vulnerable woman, a woman not wearing a bra. He concentrated on the TV, where Don Knotts was giving a fish face to John Ritter.
Both of those guys were dead now.
When Tate kissed Dana on the neck she shivered, but she didn’t stop him, so he kissed her neck again, and Dana tilted her head to the side to give him a wider target, so he moved from her neck to her ear back to her neck to her lips, where her tongue rushed inside his mouth like a burst of warm water, and he leaned her back into the couch, clutching her wrist, pressing her hard into the cushions, on top of the afghan, her legs scissoring around him and their hips aligning bone on bone, and they humped like teenagers, her thin track suit easing the friction, until she freed her wrist and plunged her hand down the front of Tate’s pants, her palm stroking him, until he came quickly, and she turned her face away from his so that he accidentally licked her. She tasted like a pretzel.
“Ouch,” Dana said. “Something’s poking me in the …” She reached under her back with her free hand and pulled out one of her dolls, apparently unfinished, needles sticking everywhere, thread dangling off like wisps of hair. She laughed and held it up to him. “Steve McQueen.”
Tate felt ridiculous.
Dana eased her hand out of his pants, cupping her palm like she held something precious.
Tate sat up.
Dana yanked out three, four Kleenexes and wiped off her hand.
“I have two older brothers,” he said.
Dana stood up. “Be right back,” she said, the wad of Kleenex clutched in her fist. “Don’t go. Please.”
Tate picked up the doll. He didn’t know what Dana was doing, where she was going, whether she was washing her hands, taking a shower, changing into her sexy nurse’s costume, calling Zoe at work to spread the gossip of what had just gone down, but he didn’t wait to find out. The doll freaked him out. It looked more like himself than Steve McQueen, more like a Tate voodoo doll. He took it and ran.
* * *
Before he went home Tate stopped at a bar. He went into the bathroom and scrubbed his hands with soap and water, his face too, over his neck, splashing the water all over his shirt, into his hair, a clipped bird thrashing in a bath. Work was going to suck. He gulped down a beer and a shot and then asked for a pint glass full of ice water. He drank it and immediately asked for another, as if enough water could dissolve what he’d just done. He left the puppet upside down in the glass, head first, like the tinier Tate had guzzled all the water himself.
He felt better after the bar, buzzed and light, dreamy, a feeling that only grew when he got home and couldn’t find the girls anywhere. He called both their names and searched all over the house. Megan’s slippers stood a stride apart in the hallway. The washing machine churned in the basement. In the kitchen, a glass sat half-filled with milk next to a plate littered with the crumbs of a brownie. Her taste for chocolate had come back. The stroller was propped in the foyer, and the baby carrier was empty, a blanket piled in it along with a pacifier as if the baby had vaporized. Megan’s car was in the garage. The way everything looked, still and abandoned, interrupted, made it seem like they’d suddenly and mysteriously vanished, as if they’d gotten sucked up in the middle of whatever they were doing.
Maybe Megan hadn’t been making all that up about his dad, and he could do more than teach her how to be handy. He could tell on his son, come to Megan and say, in his ghostly Johnny Cash drawl, “Hey, Tate’s foolin’ around on you.” And maybe when Tate looked in his backyard he was going to see proof, proof of all the supernatural shit his wife had been believing, his dad behind the wheel of the ship he’d helped build, getting ready to steer his family toward the clouds, to spirit them away some place far away from Tate, and he could run out in the yard and tell him to wait, wave his arms and yell up to the ship, wait!, ask his dad all the questions he’d never gotten answers to.