The father calls, as he does, in a voice flown away. Florida, he says. Or Phoenix. One never can tell.
Don’t tell your mother, he says when he calls in a voice that flies station to station over the wires, crackling thorough the air.
Don’t tell her what? the daughter says.
Anything, the father says. Nothing. Not a word.
How could I, the daughter says, when I just don’t know?
More than you let on, the father says.
The daughter waits for the father to call. He will call, as he does, and talk of impending weather and whether to fly home or wait for whatever’s looming to lift. He will ask the daughter about changes in the wind. He will inquire about clouds.
The daughter stands at the window. She watches the trees for sway and shudder. She squints at the sky.
The father sends letters and cards, as he does, written in his bold-faced scribble.
Hello From Oklahoma is delivered when he’s already home.
See You Soon arrives when he’s ready to go again or he is one foot out the door.
Greetings from Indiana. Or Michigan. Or Missouri.
Show me, the daughter tells the mother who is sorting through the mail, finding a card tucked between pages of the penny-saver and the bills overdue.
Nothing to see, the mother says of a picture of an ocean. On the back is his jot of a note: Hot here. Home soon.
Where is here? the daughter says.
Floyd Bennett Field, Idlewild Airport, La Guardia, O’Hare.
The father is gone again, cloud-high in a cockpit, mixing business with pleasure. He calls home between flights, talking of sales, telling about done deals and dollars coming in. About head winds and tail winds, bad landings and bad weather.
Old familiar landscapes slip by below him. A stretch of desert with traces of an airstrip. The long-ago places he once landed war planes.
Shipped out from Sioux City, he tells the daughter, at the start of the war. Or was it Wichita?
Which? says the daughter.
Like it was yesterday, the father says. Only it wasn’t.
He passes the abandoned hangars, the Quonset huts and the ruins of barracks. He sees the old bombers that he once flew now rusting on the unused runways, the tires rotting into the tarmac, weeds growing around them up to the struts.
All gone to hell, the father says.
Speaking of home, the daughter says.
Savannah, the father says in a voice that sounds happier when it’s far afield. Parts south.
Which part? the daughter says.
The Old South, to be exact. Sewanee or something. I’ll bring back a souvenir.
Cotton is nice, the daughter says. Get a big puff of it.
It’s not so easy, the father says.
Sure, says the daughter. Sure it is. Spot a field from the air and land on a road.
How about a key chain? the father says. Or a bag of peanuts?
They’ve got plenty down there. Get the whole thing, the daughter says. The whole boll. The stalk and all.
Schenectady, Albany, Minneapolis, Saint Paul.
A postcard arrives with a weevil so pictured: wildly antennaed, astride a boll and strumming a banjo. The father has written: Home tomorrow ahead of schedule.
Ha, the mother says, tossing it in the trash, topping it with grounds from the coffee and shells from the eggs.
Fort Worth, Henderson, Duluth, Pawtucket.
A postcard arrives—a potato this time: a smiling spud astride a tractor. Dinner, the father has written: Dinner, without a doubt.
He is not home past dinner, past dark, past dawn. Morning comes with the smells of something fishy. He is at the stove, spatula in hand, fixing breakfast in a big iron skillet. Come and get it, he says, flipping canned kippers he has toted in from Calgary, scrambling eggs in over-browned butter, toasting the toast the color of carbon.
How long are you home? the mother says.
Pittsburgh next. Then Pittstown, then Pittsfield. I’ll bring back coal, he tells the daughter. Bituminous and funnel cakes.
The daughter waits, as she does, for the father to call. She stands in the yard looking at the sky. It is bright and the light is abundant despite the lateness of the day. The objects of the yard stand in their dailyness, unshadowed, unordinary: stones rowed and chunked along the drive, leaves unraked and windblown in the corners of the steps. The girl, too, so illuminated, so plain in the unforgiving light as she walks thought the yard in her rambling, graceless step. Her hands across her brow against the severity of sky. Her hands are unpretty, too: roughened, coarse, already old—hands of a girl who likes newly dug holes and what crawls or hides under stones; the hands of a girl who likes weeds left unchecked in the straggly yard and wasps in the paint-peeled eaves and birds nesting in the uncut shrubbery; a girl who likes shells and shards and the smash of a hammer that splits the shale, reveals the imprints of bivalves that lived when the world was an ocean and the sky rained a millennium of rain.
Hurricane, Reading, Moab, Little Rock.
Trilobites would be nice, the daughter says. Where you are, they’ve got lots.
It’s not so easy, the father says.
Sure it is, the daughter says. Stop at a road-cut or the edge of a canyon. Chip it from a cliff.
Come home with a piece of something old in your pocket.
Syracuse, Missoula, Halifax, Mesquite.
It’s your father, shouts the mother of the girl, her head stuck out the upstairs window. Your father on the phone. Talk to your father.
Where are you? says the daughter.
El Paso today, the father says, Laredo tomorrow. Where the skies are not cloudy all day.
And then? says the daughter. Then where will you be?
That’s up in the air, the father says, and up for discussion.
But where he will be will not be home and will not be so headed.
He will not be in the yard, trimming the hedge or pushing the mower or watering the lawn the way other fathers are seen to do up and down the block. He will not be in the bathroom having a shave and running the tap. Not in the kitchen frying hash in the cast iron skillet. Not in the living room sleeping on the sofa where he sometimes sleeps or in the big cherrywood bed in the bedroom upstairs where the mother rests with the television always running: Queen for a Day and Curse of the Mummy, flickering like lightning of a summer storm coming or a late afternoon squall on its way.
Montgomery, home. Home, Fargo.
The father stops at home before heading somewhere colder. He is in the downstairs closet, pitching out clothes, tripping over overshoes and vacuum cleaner hoses. Tossing aside hats.
He is looking for the jacket he wore in the war, the genuine horsehide now hidden in the attic. Left breast insignia, regulation zipper. Mice in the lining. Moths in the pocket flaps.
This house, this goddamn house, the father says from a hollow of coats, a cascade of hangers.
Packed to the rafters with shit, with crap.
The daughter is there by the closet door. She can hear the father’s voice from the closed-in dark. It is muffled by mufflers, by windbreakers and raincoats. Quieted by over-coats and winter coats. Hardly heard anymore in the winters going by, the seasons in flight.
The father is gone, flying to parts far-flung. Old familiar landscapes are slipping below him. He is post-war now and piloting alone over forests, deserts, cropland, hills—high above the old airdromes long missing from maps and places that have been phased out of flight plans: Far City Station, Gardenia Corps Depot, Paradise Field. He is far from home and hearth, from cinders in the fireplace, from creosote in the chimney. He is taking a break from breaking crockery during kitchen quarrels, an R&R from slamming bedroom doors and splitting lintels. He has taken his leave from shoveling snow, from shoving and snarling and smashing and seething. Flown away from spats, fights, and home-front skirmishes. He has left the lawn mower clotted with sod. The garden hose is tangled. The kiddy pool seeps in a yard turned to swamp. The gutters overflow with rotted leaves. The water heater has filled with silt. It rumbles whenever a faucet is opened, sizzling along a faulty seam unseen.
Ask your father if he’ll reveal his whereabouts, says the wife, the mother of the girl, holding up the phone when the father calls.
Ask him yourself, the daughter says.
George dear, the mother says to the husband on the phone. Would you be so kind? Would it be an imposition? May I ask where you are?
Hard to say, the father says. Might need to take a train if they’re not allowing take-offs.
And when are you back? the mother says. We were just wondering. The toilet’s clogged. The sump pump isn’t sumping. We have squirrels in the attic. The cat is missing.
There’s a client to talk to in Missoula, the father tells her. And I’ve got a deal going in Paducah.
A likely story, the mother tells him. The wife is always the last to know.
Know what? the father says.
And here’s another thing: You missed dinner, the mother says. If you must know, I cooked a chicken.
Freeze it, the father says. Or can it. Either.
Daddy, says the girl. Is that you?
Who else? The father says.
There are delays due to rain. Precipitation is imminent.
Word trickles in:
A postcard postmarked Big Sky Country:
A cactus waving and wearing a cowboy hat.
See you later.
A postcard postmarked Land of Enchantment:
A two-headed calf.
Think it’s a fake?
A note postmarked Paradise Field:
Passing over home Sunday noon.
Will tilt wings. Look up.
Didn’t you hear me? the mother says. Get in here, she says, holding the phone.
Get out there, says the father to the daughter. Take a look at the sky.
I’m looking right now, the daughter tells him. I’m at the window and I’m looking up.
No good; not the window, the father says. Go stand in the yard that I’m supposed to be mowing. Stand in the weeds that I’m not pulling up.
The daughter looks at the sky, trying to make sense of it: so abundantly dull, so faultlessly white.
Nimbostratus? Rain much later? Wisps of clouds are lifting like smoke along the horizon. Shreds of clouds are sliding above the rooftops, the treetops, and the chimneys. Cottony clouds are tugged from the bottles of medicinals kept on the bathroom shelf: the aspirin for the mother’s headache, the Alka-Seltzer for the father’s hangover. The daughter flips open caps and digs out clouds: a fluffy clump of cotton for a cumulonimbus. Wispy strands for cirrus. She keeps specimens of clouds pasted on cardboard, displayed and named with notes on the weather. Tuesday: Cirrus. Two inches of snow. Wednesday: Stratus. Chance of rain.
Chesterfield, Warwick, Raleigh, Worchester. The father is gone, and going somewhere else.
Where? The daughter says.
Delray, the father says. Then Miami.
Moon shells are nice, the daughter says. Whelks, too. I could use a whelk for my collection. I could hang them from strings so they’d seem to float in the air.
It’s not all beach, the father says. It’s New York with palm trees so it’s not so easy.
Sure it is, the daughter says. After a storm there’s lots of stuff. Go at low tide. Check the flotsam. I’ll make a wind chime. I’ll hang it in the window.
Listen, says the father. They’re patching me in. Can you hear the engine? The buzz of the turbo props?
I sort of hear something, the daughter says. It sounds like the sea.
Cockles from Cape May, a whelk from Delray.
The father is gone and not going anywhere, held up at the edge of a front.
Fogged in, he tells the daughter, phoning from the edge of a city. Big delays. The westerly winds are reversing direction. Tell your mother don’t hold dinner and don’t wait up.
You tell her, the daughter says.
Shit, the father says.
What now? says the mother, taking the phone.
Bad weather, says the father.
I’ll just bet, says the mother.
Socked in, says the father.
Even better, says the mother.
La Baja, Tijuana, the father says.
Bring beans, the daughter says. The ones that jump in the heat of your hand. Keep them safe until you’re home, until you actually come through the door.
Kansas City, Little Rock, Wichita.
Can you bring corn, Daddy? the daughter says. The kind you pop.
The father is gone. He calls when he calls. He comes home when he does, or when the wind is right.
Go out, he says. Tell me what I’ll be flying into.
There’s no sun, the daughter says, but everything is bright.
Clouds? the father says.
Stratus, the daughter says. Growly and low, like something might fall.
Chicken little, the father says.
Rain, I expect, the daughter says. Will you be back for dinner?
In case of rain, the father says, don’t expect me.
Where are you, daddy? the daughter says.
Guess, says the father.
I won’t, the daughter says.
I’ll give you a hint, the father says. Here it is: It’s warm.
If it’s California, the daughter says, bring back a nugget. Sutter’s Mill is somewhere there.
Not so easy, says the father.
Sure it is. Look for something sparkly.
Guess again, the father says. There’s a hole filled with water.
Crater Lake, the daughter says. Find a meteorite.
Or a crescent of moon. Or a moonsnail shell.
The daughter strings shells on strings for chiming.
She keeps seeds and stalks and fossils in a box.
The moonsnail shells hangs in her window. The whelk is on a shelf. The fragment of a star sits on the sill.
The father is gone. He is moving through the air.