I was letting MayMay cry it out as the warm water ran over my hands. It was Sunday. She had been crying most of the morning; at this point I couldn’t even tell why anymore. I had put her on my bed and was washing the dishes while she whimpered and howled. No, I knew exactly why- we had done a test run in the tent the night before out in the backyard, and while it was a success, she, her brother and I were bone tired. My thinking was that if we could pull off a night in the back yard, then we were ready for the mountains. However, that would require money, and I only had one prospect anymore, a drunken contractor who only called me whenever he wasn’t too hungover and the sun was shining. I had told their mother a day earlier that I didn’t think I was going to have the whole child-support for this month, and my Monday looked like another call to my parents for a bail-out.
I tried to let the water soothe me as it often does, soap and sponge over dish after dish, but I cussed my trade, the economy. The industry I wanted out of. I cussed my good buddy who paid me for two years with straight cash, no insurance were I to fall off a ladder, and no unemployment so that now I couldn’t piss up a rope even if I wanted to. I washed the dishes and cussed God for the dishes, I cussed Him for the little girl crying for her mother in my bed and then I cussed Him for everything else.
I got the whole kitchen clean and went into the living room where Henry, the older of the two, had scattered Legos everywhere. A fine layer of red yellow and blue over the entire floor. Everything went blurry for a second, and I found myself shouting at him, “God fucking dammit. Do you have to trash everything?”
He sat up on the floor and got his scared look immediately, putting his hands over his ears. I managed to cool it a little. It wasn’t as bad as before; I could turn it off now. “It’s okay, it’s okay. Do you still want to try and go see the otters?”
He nodded. “Okay, could you help me clean up a little and we’ll go?”
He set to work and I went in to see his sister, tiny and squalling on my futon on the floor. She saw me and ramped up again.
“I waaant my mommy, waaaant my mommy.”
“MAY, We’ll go see mommy in a LITTLE BIT. Do you want to go see the otters?”
She threw her head back and howled “YES” at me.
“Then you have to STOP CRYING and get your shoes on.”
I stormed out on to the porch, lit up a Winston and whispered furiously to myself, I’m okay I’m okay I’m okay, smoked half of it and crushed out the rest on the steps. Henry had very quietly gotten himself together, May was still struggling with her shoes and whimpering. I sat on the rug next to the bed and buckled them up for her. Henry came in.
“I’m sorry buddy, “ I said. “Your sister..”
“I know. It’s because she’s three,” he said. After a year of this he had gotten used to us.
Henry was in the yard and halfway out to the truck. His sister was by the stairs spinning, one hand clutched around the white painted pipe supporting the tin roof.
“May,” I said, “you keep doing that and you’re going to fall down the stairs again.” I went in for my keys, came back out and sure enough she was face down in the grass that lay just below the green painted stairs of the concrete porch. I picked her up and she started screaming again. Henry turned around, “What happened?”
“She fell again.” I said, “Come on back inside for a minute.”
She writhed in my arms and howled. I did an old trick and told myself she was a person, not an animal. It had always kept me from hurting her when she was like this. I tossed her wailing on to the bed and went back out to the yard. Henry came up looking scared again.
“Just stay away from me for a minute.” I said and he went in the storm door. I noticed there was a pink envelope marked urgent in the mail box by the door. I paced the yard, doing my best to slow everything down and after a minute, went back inside myself.
She had gotten herself calmed somewhat, sitting up in the middle of the bed. I peeked first, came in and sat in a chair next to the old dresser across from her. Neither of us said anything. Her bangs hung down into her giant blue eyes, she was still whimpering a little. I did my best to smile at her and she stood up, arms outstretched and climbed into my lap. I clutched her to me and kissed her head. Henry came in and looked at us.
“Read your book, buddy.” I said. He sat down on the bed and picked Greek Myths for Young Children out of the stack of kid’s books and self-help literature that was on a little table I had made for their mother ten years ago.
The was a brush on the antique dresser next to us. I asked May if I could brush her hair. She nodded yes. I got out the tangles as gentle as I could and she finally got quiet. Henry was skimming the pages, looking at pictures and I noticed he had settled on one of Heracles battling the Hydra. I made a note to read “the Trials” to them later, or maybe to myself first. I put May-may’s hair in a ponytail and clipped her bangs back. I noticed she always looked like a different child with her hair out of her eyes.
I wanted God to tell me it was going to get easier, that I wasn’t a horrible father. I wanted to yell at Him. What I said instead was, “You guys want to try it again?”
Halfway to the Nature Center Henry suggested we go get me a coffee. “It always helps mom out when she’s feeling cranky.”
“Yeah, maybe later. I’m okay now. Thanks, buddy.” I said, thinking about what else I could buy once my check cleared. May in her car-seat on the bench between us pointed out the window suddenly and said, “There goes mommy!”
We passed her mini-van at the intersection leading into the park. She waved and we all waved back. May asked “Is she coming with us to see the otters?” I said I didn’t think so, but we could maybe stop and say hello. In the rear-view mirror she turned and followed, two cars behind us. Henry twisted around in his booster to see where she was. I took the turn in to the Nature Center and she kept on in direction of the Nickel Bridge.
“Is she still behind us?” Henry asked.
“Nuh uh, I think she’s headed out to Southside.” I said. Everybody knew who lived in Southside, a man I hadn’t spoken to in over a year. A man who I used to call my best friend.
Henry got out his side of the truck and I unloaded May out of her car-seat and onto my hip. The parking lot was packed, I angled around the side, going the back way in. Henry found a stick on the ground and took off into a small thicket of trees bordering the sidewalk.
“Short-cut!” he shouted. May wiggled down and free of me and ran after him.
“Short-cut!” she yelled. I let them go and lighting another cigarette, followed them into the trees, pines and a couple of oaks. There was a soft bed of needles on the ground and trails of dirt crisscrossing throughout where I imagined hundreds of children had run rampant under the canopy, temporarily free from supervision.
I caught up with the two of them in the middle and led them back toward the sidewalk. I noticed small stumps clustered around one tree, burnished almost shiny from wear, and realized I hadn’t been around a cypress in maybe twenty years. I took May-May’s tiny hand in mine so she wouldn’t trip on the stumps, pointed to it and said “That is a Cypress tree.”
She responded, “Uh huh! Cypress!”
The older lady running the front desk didn’t automatically buy my claim that we had a family membership. She was small and efficient and looked us up in the computer to make sure of our status as I tried to keep my children settled and in place. As I picked May up I smelled something like burning hair or skin so I checked her over.
“Mr. Blancett, it seems your membership expired last February," said the lady.
“Oh, okay.” I said. I was busy keeping May still and making sure her or her brother weren’t on fire.
“It’ll be fifty dollars. Would you like for me to go ahead and update that for you today?” she asked.
“No, ma’am. I’m sorry, I don’t have it.” I said.
There was a wedding or party of some sort going on. The place was over-run with kids and grown ups all dressed to the nines. A little boy in a cumber-bun and his mom followed us through the exhibits. It occurred to me that even the Nature Center was hurting, hustling up yearly memberships from dead-beats like me and hiring out to West-end couples for their wedding receptions. I found myself hating the families that were dressed up. The dads looked fat and happy and well employed. I really didn’t want to hate them, but I was broke and everyone looked simple and white and suburban, and they were down here running wild in my part of town. Even our snapping turtle seemed to be holding back, poking his head out from the very back of the tank, his three foot worth of shell tucked away under a rock overhang. I let the kids move about from the tanks to the water exhibits, Henry furiously working an auger to show how water was moved up-hill. I wanted to tell him that what he was doing was first done by the Egyptians, but instead sat in front of a monitor chronicling all of Richmond’s great floods. May came and crawled in my lap and we watched decades of news footage showing our city being destroyed again and again by flood. I tried not to enjoy it. I smelled the burnt smell again and found a place in her hair where it seemed to come from and cleaned a few ashes out from the spot. I realized suddenly that the cherry I flicked off from my cigarette outside must have found its way into the back of her hair and burned some of it. She hadn’t been hurt, and I told myself that it was one more reason among a thousand to stop smoking but what I felt in my stomach was bad father, bad father, bad father.
We made our way through, spending time to check up on the owls, the various tidal fish, till at last we were down by the otters, the main attraction. The room was half-submerged, lined with eight foot tall lengths of glass, so you could watch them swim as well as scamper about on the rocks that lined the pool. Henry followed them back and forth along the glass as they twisted effortlessly through the water, while May-may hopped up and down on top of a small carpeted series of boxes that served as the seating area. I sat on the next level down from her. They were happy and I understood why. An otter swimming is about the purest image of joy I can think of. It is like watching music. Vivaldi perhaps. I called Henry over to me, pulled his thin frame onto my lap and squeezed him tight.
"Hey. Guess what?" I said.
"You love me." he said
"Yeah," and kissed him on the cheek, "Thank you."
We had the place to ourselves for a minute then another group came in. Two overweight white girls, one pushing a stroller and two black thugged-out boyfriends following behind. The guys looked tough but seemed to feel about as out of place as I did. The girls acted as though they owned the place. They settled in next to us and I tried to ignore them. We were tiny little families watching a tiny little family of otters and we were all okay. They stayed there for a minute and one of the guys turned to the girl with the stroller.
“Hey baby, you want to go outside into the park?” he asked.
“Hell no, can’t you see I got my flip-flops on?” she said “I can’t go walking those big hills out there wearing flip-flops!”
“Well why you got your flip-flops on for?” he responded.
“I got em on cause I always wear them!” she said, “Don’t you know by now I always wear my flip-flops?”
“Well shit, baby. What you want to do instead?”
After they moved on I wanted God to explain to me why we couldn’t be otters instead. Me, Henry and May. I actually sat there and prayed and asked Him that. Swim all day and eat, and when it got cold and dark go inside to our otter-hut or wherever the hell it is that otters sleep and cuddle together for warmth and forget all about people and their fucking talk and their fucking money. Whenever I can sit and quiet my mind, I find I can ask the right questions, and when I do this I can usually count on a response, however it may or may not be to my liking. Sitting there, I asked why couldn’t we be otters instead, and the response I got was this: The only way to make our journey is to do it honestly. Because only those who honestly make the journey succeed.