By Eric Braun
When Janie’s dad came home from night class and announced that he was quitting college, her mom bristled and closed her eyes and harrumphed quietly. She had been making soup for tomorrow’s lunches. Layered in thermals, turtleneck, and a gray sweat suit, peeling carrots into the sink in long, expert strokes. A steel pot gurgled over a blue flame, the window above the sink opaque with steam—the room was a steam bath, Janie thought. Her mom liked it that way.
Janie had been sitting at the kitchen table writing a book report, the novel dolloped upside-down in front of her like a napkin. She pressed hard with her pencil, feeling the shape of each letter as she drew it, impressing her words deep into the spiral notebook. Carol hummed a tune Janie didn’t know and clanked the pot with the big spoon and thunked a knife on the cutting board, and her cooking noises were comforting static.
And then the Mustang grumbled into the garage out back. The neighbor dog started yapping. Janie put her pencil down. Her dad slapped the screen door against the stair rail, stamped his boots, and thrust open the wooden door with its clanking sleigh bells. He said, “Hoo! That friggin’ guy drives me crazy.”
“Back from the wars?” Carol said, without looking up from the sink.
“Well, I’m not going again.”
That’s when Carol stopped peeling and closed her eyes and said “hmph,” and Janie watched. Her mom possessed a subtle power, a power that relied mainly on guilt, and Janie knew from personal experience that it worked, which was why she was surprised when her dad walked into the kitchen with his boots on, leaving waffles of clean snow on the linoleum, and said “I’m serious this time.” Scraps of snow speckled his mustache.
“Bobby,” Carol said after a while.
He stepped behind her and rubbed her ear between his thumb and knuckle. “Let’s talk about it tomorrow, okay? We’ll talk tomorrow. Let’s just take a walk now. It’s so beautiful out.” He had power, too, though it was harder to understand.
Carol turned from the sink. In one fist she held a carrot, in the other the peeler. “Bobby,” she said again.
“Janie-boo, you want to take a walk?” Bobby smiled and Janie saw his crooked top front teeth, bowing out like shutters.
“Please take your boots off,” Carol said, but now he was dancing a goofy dance, squeaking his rubber souls, flapping his elbows. Janie laughed but her mom got on her hands and knees with a sponge.
“Let’s walk!” he pealed, “let’s play in the snow!”
“Oh, just go if you’re going to go,” Carol said. “Good lord.”
Snow flittered in a fish-scale sky. The flakes were huge and quiet as they tumbled through the soft beams of the streetlights, and Janie caught one in the palm of her yellow mitten. Bobby taught her how to pack snowballs so they wouldn’t fall apart when you threw them. You had to take your mittens off to do that. He tested his accuracy on a stop sign and his snowball smashed between the “t” and the “o,” so he stepped farther away from it, and still he didn’t miss. Even from one house away his throws arced only slightly in their path and exploded against the red sign. “Stop!” he said. “Ha!” Janie’s snowball missed and dropped without a sound into the powdery street.
They turned up the avenue and Janie’s dad suggested they could stop at the Tom Thumb and warm up with a hot chocolate if they were cold when they got there.
“I bet I won’t be cold,” Janie said, but already her nose was like ice.
“Of course you won’t,” he said. “No, no. I didn’t mean to imply any such thing. No way. No ma’am.” He shook his head and held his hands up in front of him, the blue palms of his gloves waggling as if he were surrendering. “No way José,” he said. His breath burst out with each word.
They passed the store and walked a few more blocks to where the nicer, older houses were. Bobby pointed to a two-story made of brick—it even had a brick path leading to the sidewalk—and said, “I’ll take that one.”
“Okay,” Janie said, sizing it up. “It’s yours.” He never picked the same one. Janie’s favorite was coming up, closer to the lake.
They followed a path into a thicket of trees, where there was less wind and the snow didn’t fall, and Janie felt her pupils stretching in the dark. A frozen creek lay alongside them. Roots and branches plugged into the ice like the cords and pipes of a giant engine. Janie thought of the Mustang with its hood up.
The path led them out of the trees to the lake, where a streetlamp lit the beach and the snow-covered water glowed blue. Janie could barely see the band shell on the far shore, but the skyscrapers downtown twinkled through the falling snow. A boy about Janie’s height pulled his sled across the ice, cutting tracks in the powder, not far from the beach.
Janie and her dad walked out onto the ice, carefully at first, trying not to slip, but soon they were trying slides. Janie took two or three short steps and locked her knees, sliding a few inches. Bobby ran hard and slid a long way. As he slowed down, he broke out of his slide and started running again, straight out toward the middle of the lake, and slid even farther. Janie practiced another slide, but then she watched. He was running again, away from the shore, and sliding. So far out the ice was not as strong—she was pretty sure she had heard that somewhere. Maybe her science book.
“Is that your dad?” the boy said. He wore a red stocking cap with a big, yarn pompom that flopped on top when he turned his head. In his gloved fist he held the rope attached to his wooden sled. Red metal blades were on the bottom.
“Wooo!” Bobby yelled. He dove onto his stomach and slid. Snow plowed up in front of his hands and face.
Janie looked at the boy, then at her feet. “Yes,” she said, fist-curling her toes to warm them up.
“Do you want to go for a ride?” the boy asked. He had smooth, soft-looking skin, but a knob moved in his throat when he spoke. He was evidently here without any parents. Janie sat and he pulled on the rope. He leaned forward and took a small step, then another. His boots slipped but eventually the sled inched along. Janie dragged her mitten through the powder.
Bobby skated toward them. Snow clung to his cap and eyebrows and the front of his jacket, and his face was red and wet and dripping from the chin.
“Hey, partner,” he said to the boy. “Can I help you out there?”
“It’s okay,” the boy said, but Bobby took the rope from his hand.
“I’ll just give her a quick whirl.”
He took off running, wind and snow pelting Janie’s face, and her eyes began to water. She dabbed at the tears with her mitten. The red blades carved elegant curves into the surface of the lake and sprayed snow out in silent arches as he pulled her far, far from shore, out to where it must be weaker ice, and Janie looked at the darkened band shell. One Sunday last summer their church held services there, and she and her mom had gone. Carol put her hair up in a bun and chose a pink sundress with a scooped neck and pearls. When it was time to leave, Bobby refused. He sat in front of the television in shorts and no shirt watching a fishing show—a northern squirmed in a basket—and crossed his arms and didn’t look at them. “You can’t make me go,” he announced. “I’m a grown-up, for Christ’s sake.” Carol stared at him for a moment, her mouth a straight pink line, her pale neck and collarbone plunged into her dress like an anchor. “We’re a family,” she told him. Janie remembered how beautiful her mother was. How could he not go with her?
The sled peeled off wide loops and perfect figure eights. They zigzagged through an imaginary slalom course. Bobby yelled “Hold on!” He yelled, “Light speed!” and “Get ready for the hairpin turn!” And Janie was cold, she thought of the warm house, the soup, but she rode the sled. She held both arms in the air the way she had seen people do on a rollercoaster on a commercial. Her dad went straight and she stood up like she was surfing. She teetered her arms for balance. Panting as he looked over his shoulder, Bobby yelled, “Atta baby! Atta baby!”
Finally, he handed the rope back to the boy. He and Janie were both breathing hard, though Bobby had done all the running.
After they walked off the lake and up the beach, after they reached the trail, Janie turned back to see the tracks she and her dad had left, great blue loops and hooks and lines like writing in cursive, and she was proud of them. The boy tugged his sled out onto the ice, farther than he had gone before, scribbling through their tracks, that red pompom bouncing on top of his head, the sled flopping when he yanked the rope too hard. Janie wiped her nose on her mitten.
They kept walking around the lake, still farther from their home, and it was getting late, and the snow kept falling. Janie wanted to go back, there was no denying it now. But how could she say it to her dad? He would be disappointed, he would say she was her mother’s child. She tried a subtle hint.
“That soup smelled good.”
“What?” he said.
“You mean that soup your mom was making?”
Janie stamped her foot. “Yes!”
“All-right-all-right,” he said.
They hiked away from the trail and caught a bus. The driver had a tall Afro and a body that looked like the keg of beer Bobby kept iced in the bathtub for a barbecue last summer. Bobby dropped coins into the fare box. The door sealed shut with a squeak, and the bus lurched away from the curb. The lights were dim. Two silhouettes—teenagers, Janie thought—were in the back, the only other people on the bus. Janie took a window seat on the driver’s side and her dad sat next to her.
“Forty-Third Street,” the bus driver said over the microphone. The windshield wipers brushed away light, dry snow. Janie stared out her window. At Forty-Third Street she felt the brakes lock up as they moved through the intersection, and for a moment it seemed as if the great bus were floating, no connection to the earth whatsoever. Janie grabbed onto Bobby’s arm. “Whoa,” the driver said with no hint of concern. Janie wondered if he knew his microphone was on.
“It’s all right, honey,” Bobby told her.
“Forty-Fourth,” said the driver.
Then the bus was silent except for the enormous sound of the engine. Janie felt snow in the street, crushing and shifting beneath her feet. In the back, the girl silhouette leaned over and kissed the boy silhouette on the cheek. The engine rumbled, as steady and mysterious as the engine that runs the world.
The driver announced Forty-Fifth Street. The bus kept driving, and then he said, “Sixty-Sixth,” and stopped at a red light. Janie looked ahead, startled even though it would have been impossible to skip twenty blocks so quickly, and the driver shook his head. “Sorry,” he said and gave a short laugh. “That’s Forty-Sixth.” Sixtieth would be Janie and Bobby’s stop.
Janie leaned back. The bus’s warmth seeped into her. She said, “So, what did that friggin’ guy say this time?”
“Who, my sweet?”
“Oh,” her dad said. “That guy.”
Janie had gone to English class with her dad once, when Carol had friends over to the house. They sat in the back of the classroom by the door and Bobby had argued with the teacher over intention. He was a young, clean-shaven man in a white shirt and tie who printed careful, neat sentences on the blackboard. Bobby called him a “T.A.” What you meant to say, the teacher told the class, is not as important as what you said. “It sure as hell is to me,” Bobby grumbled, and people in the class turned and looked at him like, can we get on with this?
“Well?” Janie said.
“It’s just I’m a little distracted tonight,” the bus driver said into his microphone. “Full moon and everything.”
Janie knew for a fact it wasn’t a full moon that night. She and her dad looked at each other and she twirled a cuckoo finger by her ear. He smiled his crooked-toothed smile.
“It’s this essay I wrote,” he said.
Janie felt her life loosen like a bolt from its rusty socket. Her dad wrote an essay? He was a do-er, not a writer. A fixer of broken things, a builder of shelves and fences, a driver of cars and trucks and speedboats and sleds.
“He didn’t like it?” she asked.
“He said it didn’t have a point.”
“I should be honest,” announced the bus driver. “It’s not the moon.”
“What did he mean?” asked Janie, meaning the teacher.
“Well,” her dad started.
“It’s my dog,” the driver said. Janie looked up and saw his eyes in the mirror, staring straight ahead. “My Lab. She had another seizure this morning.” They waited, but he seemed to be finished.
“Well,” Bobby said again, “the assignment was a personal essay. We were supposed to write about something that was important to us.”
“What did you write about?” She was still trying to picture him writing. Did he use a typewriter? Where did he sit?
She had heard about the motorcycle before. He used to ride it in the old days, before Janie was born. Her mom said she fell in love with him because of the motorcycle, and she married him because he was willing to get rid of it.
“I wrote about riding. How it feels. We were supposed to use lots of details.”
The bus fishtailed as it turned onto Fifty-Fourth, but no one besides Janie seemed to notice. The couple in back was making out. The driver said, “She been getting old for a while now, you know? I should be lucky I had her this long.”
Bobby said, “I wrote about how it feels with nothing but the world around you.”
The driver said, “A body can just stop running right, you know?”
Janie said, “Didn’t you use enough details?”
“Oh, I used details.”
“Annabell,” the driver said. “Always give her ear a good squeeze.” He cranked the wheel and the back of the bus swept sideways like a wiper blade as it turned again, just missing a Plymouth Duster parked by the curb.
“He said what’s the point. He said I didn’t have a thesis.”
The driver rolled through a stop sign without even slowing down.
“Hey!” said the boy in the back. “Hey, man!”
The driver looked at him in the mirror. He said, “Fifty-Sixth.”
Bobby said, “Your mom’ll be pretty mad.”
Janie said, “You’re almost halfway done,” but she was thinking about the day she and her mom went to church at the lake without her dad. Afterwards they stopped at a convenience store for a box of popsicles to bring home to share with him, Carol’s way of making up, but when they got there he was gone. No note or anything. She and Carol ate popsicles on the back steps facing the garage, but he didn’t come home until Janie was in bed that night. She heard his Mustang and she heard her mom and dad murmuring in their bedroom after that, not really fighting she didn’t think. She listened to the cadence of their voices, the soft hiss of their S sounds punctuating her sleep.
Bobby looked at Janie. He said, “I’m sorry.”
The engine roared and the bus picked up speed. The driver looked in the mirror and announced Fifty-Eighth. Janie felt the floating sensation again, the bus sliding in the snow. They slipped into the oncoming lane, houses across the street growing larger in Janie’s window, before the driver pulled them back and kept driving as if nothing had happened.
Janie said, “Dad, I think we should get off.”
There was a flat bell sound, plink, the signal to pull over. The Stop Requested sign lit up and the front door banged open and the light went out. Wind and snow swirled down the aisle. Plink, the light flashed on and off again. The boy in back hung onto an overhead pole and leaned into the signal tape, hitting it again each time the light went out.
Plink. . . . Plink. . . . Plink.
The bus driver said, “You want Fifty-Nine?”
“Yes!” Janie cried. “Please!”
Plink. . . . Plink. . . . Plink.
“What?” asked the driver.
“What?” said Bobby.
“Stop!” she cried. She looked at her dad.
Plink. . . . Plink. . . . Plink.
The driver slammed on the brakes, but the bus didn’t slow. They twisted sideways, front half in the left lane, the rear stumping over the curb and knocking down a bus stop sign and peeling up someone’s lawn. Snow and mud and dead grass sprayed in front of them. The boy kept pressing the signal—plink, plink—he must have forgotten what he was doing.
Bobby was up, surfing in the aisle. Janie stood too. “Dad,” she said, and the bus plumped into a giant poplar and jerked still. Janie tossed across the aisle into the hard back of a seat and fell into the foot well below it.
She lay there on the floor. The engine was dead. Bobby’s face appeared over the back of the seat. Somehow, he had remained standing. “I’m fine,” she said, but when she said it she felt her lower lip fill warm and salty. She put her fingertips to her mouth and the bright yellow mitten came back with a splotch of black blood. Blood trickled down her chin.
The kid laid off the signal tape. “Let us out of here, you maniac!” He and his girlfriend stumbled to the rear door and shoved it open. “Moron!”
Janie pulled herself up and walked to the driver. He sat with his hands frozen into position on the steering wheel. He seemed resigned, as if this sort of thing happened to him sometimes. Janie started to tell him she was sorry about Annabel, but when she opened her mouth she felt her cut lip stetch open, and pain burning. She put her mitten back to her mouth to hold the blood.
Outside, Bobby cupped the back of her neck. “You’re okay?” he said. “Your fat lip?” Janie said nothing, her fingertips inside her mitten sticky with blood. “There’s nothing to be scared of,” he said, bending over to pack a snowball. “Those rigs are built for safety. Nothing to fear, no ma’am.” He stood up and admired the bus. “Man, that was intense. Here,” he added, handing her the snowball. Janie pushed it on her mouth.
The frozen turf of someone’s lawn had curled up in a strip like freshly scooped ice cream. Looking at it, Janie felt tears well and she began to sob, but flexing her lips so they didn’t spread her cut again. “Hey,” Bobby said. “Hey, come on now.” His hand was on her neck again. “Come on, now. Let’s get you home, okay? Janie-boo, baby, we’re going to get you home. Okay?”
She was still crying when they walked in the door, and Carol gasped. “It’s fine,” Bobby said quickly. “She’s fine.”
“What happened?” Carol knelt and lifted Janie’s bloody chin in her hands, examining the cut. Janie dropped the bloody snowball to the floor.
Bobby started to tell the story about the bus while Carol pulled off Janie’s mittens, then her jacket, her hat, her boots. Janie stood still and let her. The bleeding was mostly done. Before Bobby got to the part of the story about the crash, Carol said, “Just—just stop, okay?” and he stopped. He pulled off his cap. Carol took Janie’s hand and led her down the hall to the bathroom. Bobby followed them and stood silent in the threshold while Carol filled the bathtub with steaming water. Then he said, “I better go back out there. They’ll probably want my account of the story, the cops will.” He stood outside the bathroom for another few seconds. “Okay, so . . .”
And then Janie and her mom were alone. Carol dabbed Janie’s face with a warm, clean washcloth. She examined the cut and said she didn’t think she’d need stitches. Janie hadn’t even thought of stitches. She felt her face tighten and then the tears, her mouth widening and pulling apart the cut, she didn’t try to stop it, and she stepped into the tub and sat naked in the water and hugged her knees and wept without making any noise. Her mom leaned over the wall of the tub and wrapped her arms around her, the sleeves of her bathrobe dragging in the hot water. Swishing of water, soft swishing, was the only sound.