Fiction Issue - SECOND PLACE: The Swallow
One family gets a crash course in the frailty of life
The father's problem is that he cannot look away. Every morning for a week now he has come to the garage to stare at the ruined bicycles, the pancaked wheels and jutting spokes, front forks twisted like crossed fingers, seat posts snapped clean in half, and a chunk of a car's plastic bumper still stuck between a wheel and a chain stay. He wants to understand, but nothing in his body of knowledge has prepared him for this mangled geometry, this sum of pure wreckage. What the father understands are problems of uniform motion, the relationship between distance, speed, and time. If two cyclists leave town at 9 a.m. going 15 mph, and a car leaves town at 10 a.m. going 50 mph on the same road, the father can tell you exactly what time they will meet. He teaches these kinds of problems to children at the high school, and every once in a while a smartass in the back row will raise his hand and asks why it matters. This is why it matters, the father will say next time, and he will pull from his wallet a photograph of the ruined bicycles and tell them the story of how his children almost died.
He comes here to the garage in the mornings to escape the damaged bodies in the house. His son-in-law has a broken arm, 85 stitches in his head, gashes and road burn down his legs. His daughter's spine is damaged, she has multiple fractures in her legs, and her face is a purple scab that glows and pulsates when she talks of suing the girl. The girl, no more than 20, who begged to see them in the hospital and wept on the phone, who said if she could only trade places with them she would.
"Oh no," said the father.
But she would, she insisted, she would give anything to take back what happened. And still the daughter has refused to see her; only the son-in-law agreed, letting her hold his hand while she cried and dug her fingers into bleary eyes.
"It's OK," the son-in-law said to her so she would leave the room before the daughter was back from her CAT scan.
The girl wanted to stay, take care of them, and the father had to tell her there wasn't any need. He and the mother could take care of the children. "Thank you for your concern," he said.
And then she wanted to tell him the story again, even though she had told it to him once on the phone and once again in the lobby outside of the ICU.
"I was coming around a bend. There was a hawk in a pine tree and I was watching it when I hit them. I saw them fly off their bikes and land in the road. I wanted to hold them both but I couldn't drag them close enough together so I wrapped his head in my shirt and held her until a car came."
Every time she tells him this story the father shakes his head, cracks his knuckles, and says I understand, and yet lately he has begun constructing more and more impossible problems: If a car traveling 50 mph collides with two bicycles traveling 15 mph in the same direction, how far do the cyclists fly through the air? At what velocity? How many seconds pass before their bodies crash into the ground?
The father has tried to convince the daughter to see the girl, but each time she stiffens, whispering in her raspy voice that she never wants see that woman again as long as she lives.
"Can we tell her you forgive her?" says the mother.
No, she does not forgive her.
"Can we just tell her you accept her apology?"
No, she does not accept her apology or anything else that woman has to offer. And she will never accept the new bicycles waiting on their doorstep when they arrived at home, with a note from the girl explaining it was the least she could do, bicycles the exact make and model of the ones destroyed.
The father has hung the new bikes on hooks in the far back corner of the garage, upsetting a family of swallows nested in the crook of a rafter there, but it's the ruined bikes he can't stop staring at, these pieces of garbage so useless and priceless at the same time. To throw them away? Like dumping a dead body in the trash can. To bury them? In the backyard? He imagines himself in the dry grass with a shovel, digging two holes side by side, covering them with dirt, making mounds not long and narrow like human graves, but rounded patches of earth like huge zeros on the land, two dead brown eyes looking up at the sky.
The daughter is so exquisitely angry she can barely speak of the accident. Her anger seems more precious than her life, and it is the anger itself that the father knows she is convalescing now instead of her body. She spends most of the day in bed, fuming, occasionally dragging herself into her wheelchair and cursing under her breath. The father winces at the words she whispers in her anger and pain, words he'd kick a kid out of his classroom for, so natural in her mouth it's like she's practiced them for years. She is a brittle stack of rage rolling around the house, tight-lipped and trembling when the mother helps her use the bathroom, sullen and narrow-eyed at the dinner table as the father serves the scalloped potatoes and ham.
And the house is crowded now, with son-in-law, daughter, and the mother's mother who has been living with them for the last six months. The grandmother has dementia, and daily asks, "Who are these people in my house?"
She looks offended when the father says, "It's our house. We all live here."
The grandmother says, "Who is that woman? The lame ugly one."
"That's your granddaughter," says the father. "Your granddaughter."
And the grandmother hisses, "I don't have a daughter."
The father knows he needs to calm her down, because if she gets upset she is unpredictable and prone to incidents like the one three days ago when the mother came home and found her alone in the kitchen.
"How was your day, Mom?"
"Oh, it was a great day. We've decided. It's settled."
"What's settled, Mom?"
"Why, me and him," meaning the father, "we're getting married. Didn't he tell you? We're in love."
And that night the mother cried in bed, weeping softly so only the father could hear. Shh, he said, rubbing her back. Shh, shh, shh, because he simply has no solution to this problem, no formula for sorting out the concentrated anguish that has swallowed his family whole.
In school his students strike him as astounding fools. They sit grinning behind their desks like smug clowns, eat Cheetos and chew open-mouthed, flashing their orange-stained teeth at each other. They whisper and nudge and fidget in their chairs while he tries to teach. Last week one boy, a good student, filled the momentary silence after a question with an explosive fart, and the whole class erupted into bawdy cheers and an extended chanting of the boy's name. For the first time in nearly 20 years of teaching the father did nothing to quell a class disturbance. He walked to his desk and sat down, put his head in his hands and covered his eyes until the chanting stopped and the students began a nervous shushing. They whispered and coughed as the father sat at his desk, and finally they grew completely silent until the bell rang and the father listened to them shuffle out of the room.
The father was still slumped over his desk when he heard the boy cough.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Ray."
He lifted his head and blinked at the boy. The classroom was empty but for the two of them.
"It was rude of me."
The boy's freckled face was flushed and he was holding out a piece of paper. "I did the problem," he said.
The father looked at the paper with its neat rows of penciled numbers and the solution circled at the bottom in a wide elliptical ring.
"No," he said.
"It's not right?"
"Apology not accepted," he said, and put his head back in his hands.
Forgiveness, thinks the father. He bends to run his finger across a twisted portion of a bicycle's down tube where the paint has cracked and risen like parched earth. A thing designed for giving away. It was 21 years ago that his car struck and killed a retarded girl at a bus stop early one winter morning. The roads were icy, and she had stepped off the curb, people said afterward, to check for the bus. He had not been speeding. It was not his fault, the witnesses all agreed, and yet the father had gone to her funeral desperate for forgiveness. His daughter was 2, and he had held her in his arms through both the service and the burial, refusing his wife's offers to take her even when he went to pay his respects to the girl's parents.
"I am so sorry," he said to them, taking care to look the father in the eye as he said it.
They thanked him and shook his hand as if he were just another sympathetic acquaintance. Afterward he realized he had kept his daughter in his arms as shield and security in case they attacked him, and for years afterward it was not the retarded girl's death that scalded him anew every time he recalled that winter, not the terrifying moment of impact when his car stuck her legs and she turned a sickening flip and landed on the hood, but the fact that he had hidden behind his child to avoid the threat of their anger and to bolster his chances of grace.
Two days ago, the last time the girl called, the father lied and said that even though his daughter was too upset to say it in person, she had accepted the girl's apology. The girl wept and thanked him and the next day there was a small apple tree sapling on their doorstep, its root ball wrapped in burlap and a card tied to one of the branches with red string. Thank you for your kindness to me, it said. Carefully the father untied the card and slipped it into his pocket. At dinner that night he announced that he had decided to bury the ruined bicycles in the backyard and plant a tree on the spot.
"Why?" said the son-in-law.
"So we can move on," he said.
"Those bikes are evidence," said the daughter, her voice already taut and trembling.
"We need to move on," said the father, fixing his eyes on the daughter, and for the briefest moment he wanted desperately to be holding her again — the tiny 2-year-old her — as he faced off against this scabbed and wounded woman at his table.
Then the grandmother in her dry voice said, "Somebody has been stealing from me," and the table fell suddenly silent.
"Nobody is stealing, Mom," said the mother, reaching for the grandmother's hand. The old woman was clutching her fork like a weapon.
"Those bikes are evidence for the trial!" shouted the daughter, banging her fist on the table.
"Somebody in this house is taking what doesn't belong to them," said the grandmother.
The mother was trying to pry the fork from the grandmother's hand. The daughter pushed away from the table, but the corner of her wheelchair was hung up on the leg of the grandmother's chair.
"Move!" she yelled at the old woman.
"You're a dirty thief," said the grandmother to the daughter.
"And you're crazy," spat the daughter, and the father leapt up to pull her away. The mother had begun to cry.
"Don't you touch those bicycles," said the daughter as the father wheeled her back to her bedroom. "Do you hear me?"
"Yes," said the father, who later that night sat at the uncleared kitchen table in grim wonder after everyone else had gone to bed. "Perhaps," he thought, "what I need is a much simpler arithmetic: What is the sum of two severely wounded children, a demented grandmother, a shell-shocked father, and a mother worn to threads trying to care for them all? What do you get when you divide five adults by crippling injury, untenable rage, incurable madness, and no clear idea how to cope?"
He has no answer. He stands here bewildered as ever this fifth morning in a row before the tangled metal, this Sunday morning when the mother and grandmother are gone to church and the children should be waking up, climbing out of bed, hungry and in pain, with nobody to help them to the bathroom or make them breakfast. He leaves the garage and walks past the sapling lying discarded on its side in the graying grass of the lawn. It is already beginning to wilt. Inside the house he steps across the kitchen linoleum to the hallway that leads to his daughter's old bedroom. Approaching the doorway he hears again his daughter's muffled voice, again the frustrated grunting sounds of moving her stiff body from bed to wheelchair. Fuck, whispered between labored breaths. Fucking fuck, she says as he reaches for the handle.
He opens the door. The room is a soft brown. Light streams through the far window onto the dark wood paneling. They are on the bed, uncovered, a square patch of sunlight illuminating their naked middles. The daughter is on top, her casted legs stacked on the son-in-law's like a haphazard pile of logs. Their bruised and swollen faces are flushed pinkish, their scabby arms are clutching at each other as their comingled bodies jerk back and forth like a damaged machine. The son-in-law moans softly, his eyes clenched while the daughter hisses in his ear, and gaining speed the casts knock together and creak with friction, the mattress crunches and dust motes are frantic in the sunlight above their bodies.
The father stands in the doorway and watches. He cannot look away. Not now and not tomorrow, not in the classroom when the glare of the projector catches one eye and blinds him momentarily, not as the grandmother's body is lowered into the earth, not as his baby grandson settles into the crook of his arm and falls asleep, and not 11 years later in the corner of his empty garage when the father spies a bright ray of sunlight illuminating the weathered skeleton of a tiny swallow, a brittle ball of twig-bones latticed around a tapered skull. Picking it up, cupping it in his hand and holding its near-absent weight, he feels a stirring so alive and vital that he shudders and drops the thing, certain it is about to unfold its puzzle of bones and fly.