Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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The signs began to appear ten miles before we got to the entrance, hand-painted billboards of smiling dinosaurs in outrageous colors: ONLY EIGHT MORE MILES BEFORE YOU HIT TERRA DINOSAUR. RAAAAAR! SIX MORE MILES AND YOU’LL BE BATTLING THE MIGHTY T-REX! Even so, we missed the turnoff, which we realized when we saw another sign: YOU HAVE JUST PASSED TERRA DINOSAUR: TURN BACK OH MAN! It wasn’t Floyd’s fault: The turnoff was a driveway, long and graveled and lined by disreputable-looking palm trees. The entrance sign had blown over and was partially obscured by vegetation. My mother-in-law, Dolores, tilted back her hat, its floppy green-straw brim faded almost to yellow, ribbons tied under her chin.
“Goodness, Floyd!” she admonished. “We must put our best foot forward!”
This was a favorite expression of hers. She’d said exactly the same thing to me every morning of our visit so far, when she appeared at breakfast in full makeup: peachy foundation and a dense tangerine lipstick that glistened like oil. I had become lazy, pulling my hair back into a ponytail and leaving my eyes and lips bare. When I look back at pictures from that time, I see that my hair and skin were as dull as clay. I didn’t know then how grief had aged me.
“Tidy as a bean,” Dolores observed approvingly of the modest white-stuccoed house at the end of the driveway. More tired palms were out front, along with another dinosaur cutout, this one fixed in the ground with a wooden stake: WELCOME TO TERRA DINOSAUR! WE OFFER SUMMER RATES! The gravel parking area to the right of the house was empty. Floyd pulled in and turned off the car, sighing. The air conditioning shut off with a hiss.
“Where are we?” Gil asked, rubbing his eyes. It was the summer before his sixth birthday. He’d fallen asleep in the booster seat I’d hauled down from Minneapolis, his cheek striped red from the seat belt. I helped him unbuckle and tried to ignore the headache starting its slow, dull march across the back of my skull.
“We’re here!” Dolores trilled. “Wake up, little man!”
“Where are the dinosaurs?” Gil looked at the house, which gleamed like a tooth under the Florida sun.
Floyd grunted something unintelligible.
“Oh, you!” Dolores scolded her husband. “Look, here comes someone now!”
A man about Floyd’s age was picking his way across the parking area in bare feet. Narrow in build and balding, he wore dress pants hoisted nearly to chest level and a tank top bleached as white as the house.
“Hello, folks!” he called. He shaded his eyes, peering at us. “Have you come to see the dinosaurs?” He pronounced it “dinno-sours.” No, I wanted to say, we’ve come to talk politics. I opened the car door and swung my legs into the sun.
“My boy would like to see some dinosaurs,” I said.
“You have come to the right place, then,” the man assured me. He reached into his pants pocket and withdrew a round tin; still smiling, he tucked a chaw of tobacco into one cheek. “Five dollar a head,” he said, chomping peaceably.
“You can’t beat that price,” my mother-in-law said.
We all got out of the Crown Victoria and stood in the sopping heat while the man explained that there were no guided tours of the park; we were free to walk through it at our own pace. “We’ve got snacks in the house. You come by and see us after. Name’s Marsden,” he said, patting his spindly chest. “My wife is Therese.” He pocketed the twenty Floyd had given him and nodded toward a crushed-shell path that wound behind the house. “Just follow that there; you’ll see what to do.”
Marsden hobbled back over the stones to the lawn; when he reached the grass, he turned back and saluted us. “Stay on the path, that’s all I ask. You have a good time now, hear? Raaaarrrrr!”
Floyd shook his head and took Gil’s hand. “Well, at least we know who painted the signs,” he said under his breath. “C’mon, son, let’s get a move on.”
My husband, Brian — the Hockings’ only child — had been dead six months that summer Gil and I traveled to Florida.
“Come,” Floyd had said gently the night he’d called to invite us, his grief a vivid thrumming across the phone lines. Brian had died unexpectedly at age thirty, a week before my twenty-eighth birthday, from a brain aneurysm that burst like a blister one day while he was shoveling snow off the roof of the old Victorian we were fixing up. We’d been married six years and were living in Minneapolis, the city we had adopted after Brian got a high-school teaching job there. The two of us staked out favorite bookstores — the ones with couches and cats — and coffeehouses where they made the coffee so strong I would fill half the cup with cream to dilute it. Then Gil was born.
We hadn’t had much contact with Brian’s parents during that time; he said he loved them, and I believe he did, but his mother was “demanding,” as Brian put it. He shrugged when he said it; we were just starting a life that didn’t have anything to do with them. Perhaps it would have been different if they’d lived closer. But they were in Florida, where Brian had grown up, a place almost exotic to me, with its palms and surf and white sand. They sent a Christmas letter every year with a crate of oranges and a standing invitation to visit, but we’d never gotten around to it, and then Brian died. When Floyd called, I didn’t recognize at first the clear, low baritone of his voice.
“We’d like to spend some time with you and the boy,” he rumbled. “Get to know you better.”
I felt guilty, because it was true: we hardly knew one another. Since Brian’s death I had found a modicum of comfort in my girlfriends, none of whom had children, some of whom were divorced and needed me as much as I suddenly needed them. But they pitched in willingly enough: a tribe of women helping to raise my five-year-old boy. My own mother and father were dead, and, like Brian, I was an only child, born late to aging parents. Gripping the phone that night with Brian’s father on the other end — Gil was in bed, and I had carefully allotted myself first one, then two glasses of cheap wine while the television quaked with canned laughter — I felt regret that I hadn’t reached out myself. When Floyd offered to fly Gil and me down to Florida for two weeks, I calculated my vacation time from my job at the library and decided that both of us could use a change of scenery.
At Brian’s funeral Gil had let Dolores hold his hand; she’d wiped the snot from his nose and drawn the hair out of his eyes with a wet comb. On the flight down I remembered the clean lines in my son’s hair and felt grateful.
When we arrived in Florida, my in-laws found us at the baggage claim, and it seemed at first that the visit could be a success. They were touchingly nervous, and they’d dressed carefully: Floyd in pressed khakis and Dolores in a coral dress. Her dyed hair escaped from her scarf, and when she leaned close, I could see the fabric was patterned with parrots. She likes birds, I thought. Something to talk about later.
“Dolores!” I exclaimed, and she gave me a kiss that left orange crescents on my cheek.
They’d brought Gil a balloon and a book about dinosaurs, lavishly illustrated, which we ended up reading in the food court at the airport. Floyd treated — pizza slices all around — and as I watched my quiet son grow expansive, even loquacious, under their attention, I felt sure I’d made the right decision to come.
It wasn’t until we got to their place that my good mood started to flag: the house was small, smelling of camphor, its rooms stuffed with furniture and bric-a-brac owls. I was used to small homes — before Brian and I bought the decrepit Victorian, I had lived in a series of closet-sized apartments — but here it felt different: a cramping of the spirit, maybe. I tried to imagine Brian here — as a boy and as a college student, returning home — but I couldn’t.
“So, you like birds,” I said that first night, pretending to study a ceramic owl that hung over the kitchen door.
“Not really,” Dolores said. She’d taken off her shoes and was padding around the kitchen in nyloned feet. “Skit-scat-scoot!” she chirped, and I stepped aside so that she could pull a series of casserole dishes from a cabinet. Balancing the bowls, she straightened and followed my gaze to the owl. “Oh, that,” she said. “It’s just something to hang up. I always try to have a theme.” I thought about my kitchen at home, the Buddha tacked over the drainboard, the photos on the fridge. “Everyone needs a theme,” she continued in an instructive tone. “I decided a long time ago that owls would be mine.”
The dinosaurs were made of cement, as lumpy and gray as porridge, with a chicken-wire infrastructure that poked through in places. The park was bigger than it had first appeared, with dinosaurs around every turn: sparring triceratopses, their horns metal tubes painted an improbable gold; a squat, unidentified dinosaur armored with hubcaps, on whose concrete flanks someone had scrawled, LENNY SUX. Marsden had taken care with the landscaping, the palm trees set at regular intervals. There was a sagging chain-link fence, the wire bubbled with rust, and beyond it, what looked like swamp extending to infinity.
“Mama, these dinosaurs are weird,” Gil whispered. Floyd had moved ahead to study a brachiosaurus, its sagging midsection propped up by a two-by-four. Dolores lagged behind, adjusting her hat.
“Do you like them?” I whispered back.
“I don’t know,” he said, his face worried.
I tried not to dwell on the fact that I was using up my vacation time in this place, reminding myself we couldn’t afford to go anywhere else anyway. My headache flowered darkly at the back of my head. I fumbled in my purse, hoping to find a few aspirin.
Dolores caught up with us then. “Isn’t this charming?” she said. “Just good, simple fun!”
“Uh-huh,” Gil agreed dutifully. He’d brought his plastic triceratops from the car and was clutching it to his chest. I noticed then how shaggy his hair had gotten. Brian used to cut Gil’s hair, lifting our son to a stool in the basement and pinning a sheet around his neck before setting to work, and I realized with panicky resignation that I had not taken Gil to the barber since. In the Florida humidity his fine hair thickened and frizzed like foam around his face, and though I started to put out my hand to stroke the strands away from his cheeks, I was overcome with such lethargy due to the burning, wet day that I let my arm fall back.
Dinner at the Hockings’ that first night had been pot roast and gravy; we ate in the dining room, which was so cluttered with furniture that we had to slip into our chairs sideways. The tabletop was hardly visible, loaded as it was with meat and potatoes; a cold salad bristling with tiny, hard marshmallows; and bowl after bowl of vegetables, luminous with butter. It was all served up on the good china. “I think it’s nicer, don’t you?” Dolores asked, and I was charmed at first, not realizing that the gold pattern on the dishes meant they’d all have to be hand-washed. “That’s our job,” she sang out to me after we ate. “You boys go watch TV!” Gil, who never escaped chores at home and who always carefully negotiated his television privileges, leapt up, flashing me an incredulous look that said he couldn’t believe his luck.
In the kitchen I scraped and stacked the dishes, the smile on my face becoming fixed. I leaned past Dolores at the sink to rinse the gluey gravy from the plates.
“Gil has the soul of his father,” Dolores said, shifting to one hip to give me access. “He’s a Hocking, all right.”
“I see his father in him,” I agreed carefully.
“You take Brian at this age: I could not tear that child away from the television!” Dolores nodded at the darkened living room. I could just make out Floyd and Gil sitting next to each other on the couch, rapt, their faces washed with the TV’s cold blue light.
“Gil doesn’t actually watch much television,” I murmured, but Dolores cut me off with a laugh.
“Just like his father!” she said, as if she hadn’t heard me. She stared out the window. I saw the dime-sized age spots on her neck. I saw the sadness in her. “They get away from you,” Dolores said.
But then she turned to me, and her face had restored itself; her eyes sparkled bright and hard. “Now, it’s none of my business, but you have a boy like that, and you need to take care.”
“Take care,” Dolores said firmly, “or you’ll lose him.” She took up the stack of clean dishes and put them away.
“He isn’t lost,” I said. “He’s with me.” Despite my best efforts, my voice wavered.
“Boys, men, they’re all alike,” Dolores said, lowering her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “You never have them, you know.” She straightened up and nodded curtly at me. “They aren’t yours.”
“I never supposed . . .” The plates in my hands clacked together like castanets, and with brisk efficiency she whisked them to safety. “He’s five,” I whispered.
“Who wants dessert?” she called into the living room, already piling raisin cookies onto a plate.
“I’ll take them,” I said, intending to squeeze between Gil and Floyd on the sofa and stay there until bedtime, sucking those cookies down one by one. But I had only just stepped into the living room with the plate when Dolores caught my arm with a surprisingly strong grip. Her nails were long; she probably didn’t mean for them to cut into the soft underside of my arm.
She took the plate from my hands and deposited it in Gil’s lap. “Eat!” she exclaimed, and then to me she said, “Let’s leave the boys to their fun.”
Back in the kitchen, at a table of gray-specked formica, she opened a photo album covered in gilt. Outside, the low sun was loose and mellow. This was the hard time, the end of the day. Brian and I used to watch movies after Gil was in bed. We ate ice cream out of soup bowls. We shared a blanket on the couch and made fun of ourselves: how much we loved bad movies, how much we loved each other.
“Here’s my boy!” Dolores announced, and I dragged my attention back to the album. “See, there’s Gil, right there in my Brian’s face!” She tapped the page. It was true. I might have been holding a picture of Gil in my hands: the same narrow, almost patrician nose; the same fine brown hair, brightened to red in places. The young Brian sat before a plate heaped with pancakes. Behind him a pretty, youngish woman with bright lips hovered, hands twisted in her apron. The happiness of the boy in the photo surprised me.
“His birthday,” murmured Dolores. “I always made him pancakes for his birthday as a special treat.”
I’d forgotten that Brian once had freckles like Gil.
Dolores was watching me, arms folded across her chest. “For the first years of his life, it was the ‘Brian and Dolores Show,’ ” she said. “That’s what we used to say! Floyd worked a lot. It was the boy and me. I knew what made him happy.” She brushed at her breast where crumbs from the raisin cookies clung. “Pancakes,” she said. “He loved pancakes on his birthday. Did you know that? Did you two make pancakes, in your little love nest?”
I was shocked at the hateful tone of her voice.
Terra Dinosaur was Dolores’s idea; she’d dismissed the Disney World brochures I’d packed, with a smirking reference to how expensive it was. My face burned; a part of me had hoped Floyd would offer to pay. At Disney World my son would have been riding a roller coaster by now. He would have been shaking Mickey’s hand.
“I’m hungry, Mama,” Gil said. Sulking, he shook loose from me. We were standing next to a stegosaurus, an odd creature, stupidly ugly: four stumpy legs and the head like a fifth, welded to the ground as if it were eating bracken. Cracks in the cement plates along its back looked like the dark veins of a leaf. Gil picked up a stick and whacked the stegosaurus, hard. “I’m hungry!” he screamed.
Giving in to my headache, I turned to him and said, “Jesus, Gil! Enough already! Go ask your grandpa to get you something.” I couldn’t see Floyd on the path anymore, but he had to be just up ahead. “Here.” I grabbed Gil’s arm, harder than I meant to, and pressed a few dollars into his hand. “Get yourselves something cool to drink. It’s hot as hell out here.”
Dolores caught up to me, and we watched Gil run up the path, legs pumping; it was obvious he was grateful to escape. “What did I tell you?” she said. She pretended to study the stegosaurus.
“Excuse me?” I said.
She shrugged, running her hand along the dinosaur’s side, as if to comfort it. “I’m just saying: What goes around comes around.”
“Gil is a good kid,” I said tightly.
“Oh, well, so was Brian, my dear. But then they grow up and away, don’t they?” She squinted down the path at the scrim of dust Gil had kicked up, then back at me. My son was nowhere in sight. “Some of them sooner than others, I dare say.” She opened her handbag and, without taking her eyes from my face, extracted a mint and popped it into her mouth.
“We’re fine!” I shot back before turning and striding ahead, the crushed shell of the path working its way into my flip-flops. I wouldn’t stop to shake them clean; I wasn’t going to give her that satisfaction.
“I always thought my Brian would marry . . . oh, someone different!” she called after me.
I stopped and turned. “He did all right for himself,” I said. And then, because I was mean from grief, I yelled what I thought might hurt her most: “You want to know something? Gil and I are closer than you and Brian ever were. OK? And at least I used to call my mother. I visited my parents until the day they died.”
I didn’t wait for an answer but surged up the path, certain that I had reclaimed something lost to me. My head pounded so hard that I thought I might vomit. I needed aspirin and thought maybe they had some at the house. I thought about changing our flight reservations, heading home early. I thought a lot of things.
“Are you having fun?” I had asked Gil on the fourth day of our visit. We had spent a lot of time at the house, preparing elaborate meals. That day we had finally gone out, to the mall and a McDonald’s, but now the TV already hummed in the next room, and the evening stretched ahead of us, so heavy with boredom I had to work to ignore a rising tide of panic. We were in the guest room, and Gil was playing with the Matchbox cars he’d brought, pushing them along the worn corduroy ribs of the bedspread. “Are you looking forward to the dinosaur park?” I asked. “Grandpa says it’s not a long drive. Maybe an hour. We can go tomorrow, he says. Or the next day.”
“I like Grandpa better than Grandma,” Gil announced, not taking his eyes off the shiny purple car.
“Why do you say that?” I asked, my voice too loud. I was already proven guilty, I thought: Gil must have caught on to my feelings about Brian’s mother.
“He misses Daddy,” Gil said, running the car into a boxy ambulance. “Boom!” he said.
“Have you talked to Grandma and Grandpa about your dad?” I shifted so that I sat cross-legged like Gil.
“A little. Grandpa’s sad about Dad,” Gil said, pausing to look up at me. “He said, ‘Listen to your mom.’ ”
By God, I loved that man. “And Grandma?” My voice skittered high. “What does Grandma say?”
I watched Gil back the cars up, repositioning them for another run-in.
“Boom!” he said, not looking at me.
“What did Grandma say?” I looked around the tiny room, at our suitcases spilling cheap summer clothes onto the beds, then stood abruptly and picked at a shirt of Gil’s. Wrinkled but clean, it was patterned with bulldozers. Lord, he was just a child. I folded the shirt hastily, pressing it back with the others. “You miss Daddy, I know,” I said helplessly. “Did you want to talk about that?”
“Boom,” my son whispered, lowering his head.
© Martin Fishman
Marsden and Therese’s front office was comfortable enough, with a couch, a few chairs, and a glass counter that ran the length of the room, filled with faded candy boxes. A vending machine stood in the corner. Floyd was sitting with his feet up, a Pepsi in one hand and a licorice wand in the other, talking to Marsden, who leaned against the counter, chewing meditatively. A coarse-featured woman stood in a doorway. She was younger than Marsden by some years, with a calm expression on her plain face and dark hair pulled back into a knot.
“Hi,” she said. “I’m Therese.” She wiped her hands on her jeans and held one out to me. “You must be Elizabeth. We’ve been enjoying your father-in-law here.”
“Gil with his grandma?” Floyd asked. He looked relaxed, almost happy. Being away from Dolores could do that to a person, I thought bitterly.
“No. I thought he was with you,” I said.
For a moment we looked at each other. “Gil?” I asked the room. My voice was thin, barely discernible over the pounding of my head, the sudden pounding of my heart.
“Now, a boy will wander,” Marsden said reasonably.
We went outside, and there was Dolores, walking up the path with her hands on her hips.
“The boy’s missing,” Floyd told her.
She stood so still, Dolores did. She stared at me until I had to look away.
“We’ll find him,” Marsden said.
We walked the pathways of crushed shell, calling Gil’s name as we retraced our steps: back past the stegosaurus with the cracked plates, circling a T-rex I hadn’t noticed before. The tyrannosaurus might have been Marsden’s masterpiece. It towered above me, a good ten feet tall, its eye a blue reflector that winked in the light, its considerable mouth gaping, revealing rows of tin-plate teeth as sharp as razor wire.
“How safe is this place?” I asked Marsden. He and Therese exchanged glances.
“I wouldn’t worry, except for the gators,” Marsden mumbled. He lit up a cigarette, glancing over the wire fence. I followed his eyes across the swampy scrub.
“Hush, the boy is fine,” Therese soothed.
“Gil!” I shrieked. We circled the grounds twice, then checked the house: the refreshment area and the living room beyond. My son was sturdy, tall for his age, but he was not immune to disaster; no one was. Hadn’t recent events taught me that?
Therese made us sit down in the front office after we’d searched for almost half an hour and Floyd’s face had flushed a dangerous red, but I wouldn’t take the chair she offered. My mother-in-law collapsed into the seat instead, her skirt riding up so that I could see her varicose veins. Therese pressed sodas into our hands, then held a handkerchief under the water tap and laid it across Floyd’s forehead. “Let’s think this through,” she said.
I looked at Dolores, then away. She had been oddly silent, her mouth drawn down to a dot. I thought about saying something to her, but I was consumed by the moment: my only child, gone. There was no room for anything else.
Gil had been hiding in Marsden’s workshop, a shed set back in a patch of weeds where he built the dinosaurs, and the one place we hadn’t checked. Marsden routinely locked the door, but my son had climbed through a window propped open with a concrete block. He had crouched in the cool, dusty darkness, behind a frame of rusted chicken wire, until he got bored and decided to find out if we’d missed him.
“You yelled at me when I said I was hungry,” he accused me after he came to us, pushing through the front door of the house without apology. His hair was white with plaster dust.
I hugged my son, and there was the joy of his body yielding against mine. Behind me Marsden and Therese made cooing sounds that might have been expressions of their own relief: no missing children, no senior citizens with heatstroke, no lawsuits.
“I want to go home!” Gil cried. “This place is dumb!”
“Gil,” I chided, because I felt I must, but then Dolores spoke.
“I don’t understand,” she said, her voice low. “Brian loved this place.” Though I had not caught her crying, her makeup was blotchy, mascara smudged under her eyes.
“Are you all right?” I made myself ask her. She still clutched her untouched soda.
“I envy you,” she said, her voice jittery.
“Dolores,” I murmured, reaching for her arm. But she turned to her husband.
“She was with him at the end,” she said to Floyd. “Our son.”
“It’s all right,” he said, and, putting his arm around her, he drew her close. His face had resumed something of its characteristic pallor, and in it I saw a sorrowful tenderness. I saw that he loved her.
“I lost my only child.” Dolores’s hands flapped a little. “He wasn’t done yet, you know.” Her voice was dry. “In the end we’re alone, aren’t we?” She nodded into her husband’s shoulder.
“We came here when Brian was a little younger than Gil,” Floyd said to us. “We came here, once.”
Suddenly Dolores straightened and shook off Floyd’s arm. “It was a long time ago,” she said briskly. Then she turned to my son. “You shouldn’t scare your mother like that!” she scolded. “With all she does for you! What would your father think?” Her voice carried the same grating remonstrance it had all these long days of our visit, but for some reason it no longer bothered me.
“Papa isn’t here!” Gil burst out.
“We all miss him,” I said quickly, speaking into my son’s hair. It smelled like celery. I caught Dolores’s wet, frantic eyes with my own and held them.
“When does that stop?” Gil asked. He didn’t cry, but he gripped my hand.
“I don’t know,” I admitted, before Dolores had to.
What I didn’t tell him was that you never get over some things. You might learn to live with them, because you have to, but that’s not the same. I think Dolores and I both understood that.
“Enough,” she said, her cheeks as red and stippled as if they’d been slapped. I tried to imagine Dolores as a young woman, though I could not. Ardent, I supposed. Hopeful, before life’s losses had begun to add up.
“I wish I’d known that your son loved pancakes,” I offered. I stopped short of calling her “Mother” or “Mom”; she wasn’t my mother, although probably nothing would have meant so much to her as calling her by the name that restored her to her best self. What generosity I did extend was born of pity, I suppose, a winner’s sense of luck.
Because for right now, at least, I still had my Gil.
We bought ice cream from Marsden and Therese, and Gil and the Hockings and I took our cones, stuck with wet paper from the wrappers, onto the sweltering front porch. We held them out over the rail, the drips catching in the grass below. Just beyond was a canal filled with water as dark as tar. Birds with straw legs shrieked and walked through that dark water. We would never be this close again, the four of us; I think I knew that even then. We stood in a row, as if the days, the years left to each of us would not take us in separate directions — and the strange birds of that place called to us as we were, shoulders almost touching, united in our magnificent isolation.