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Whatnots by
Kyle Hemmings
Illumination by Peter Knoll
'strata'  2008 Peter Schwartz
'strata' by Peter Schwartz

The Day My Father Kidnapped Us

One day, without warning, my father packed us, me and my sister, Jill, into his blue Ranger, as if stuffing two skinny peppers in an oversized jar. Where we going? asked Jill, the pitch in her throat leaping like a grasshopper at the shadow of a foot.

Just for a ride, he said, Just for a ride.

He swallowed tequila and gritted his teeth. We drove past Page, Arizona, the varnish of desert, a carpet before us, endless as a red planet, and we, the little aliens, who could only see red. His voice broke brittle, the way his dreams must have broken him, dreams composed of toothpicks, standing on them, his career changes, too numerous to count, his marriage, a flimsy arrangement of those toothpicks.

He drove us along Lake Powell's low waterbed, ordered us to stand at the edge of a side canyon. Jill and I peered down at the vermilion and taupe that clung to the walls, the way my mother and father must have before they realized there was no longer a wall to cling to. There was a silence of cottonwood sprouting.

"Close your eyes, " he said, "and no peeking."

I felt dizzy under the azure sky; if my knees bucked I'd fall forever the way birds must dream of dying.

I held my sister's hand. Why was he ordering this? What game was he playing as he loved to played them. Her hand shook. The sun beat down on our heads. We could never be worshippers of it. It'd turn us to scratches in the sand, or worse, sandstone shadows at the bottom of Fiftymile Creek.

I cheated, opened one eye, the way I always did when playing hide-and-seek. "Busted," someone always yelled.

Jill wavered, pleaded with dad to take us back home. "Not yet," he said, and his voice was far off as Mexico.

I thought of us as marooned here forever, a moon's crater, and my father's love, crazy and zigzag as ever, a jagged fall line I could never comprehend.

"You!" he pointed, "you're cheatin'."

Jill burst into a high-throttle cry, and I opened my eyes. Was he punishing mom through us because he could only see his children one weekend a month? Did he love us so much he wished to turn us still as tree bark?

Now, dad stood at the edge, threw the bottle of tequila into the canyon, then, dove, dove without mercy or explanation. It was a perfect, beautiful dive, perhaps, the most beautiful one I'd ever seen. We never looked down, or heard dad reach bottom.

It was only my sister who shrieked. I was silent as air. Silent as tree bark.


Years later, Jill and I keep to a ritual, one Sunday a month we share dinner with mom and her new husband, a man without luster or stars, from somewhere around Tucson, because everybody says they're somewhere around Tucson.

We never talk about Dad or what happened, or how I can't keep a job, dispose of lovers like washcloths, rubber gloves, grubbing money from strangers demanding repayment with interest.

Jill brags about her grown sons, one majoring in business, the other, biology.

She beams, but then that far-off glare, never looks any of us directly in the eye.

And I sometimes think that we both enact the same role in other's dreams: her, a hat trick before strangers, me, a stone stuck in their throats. This secret we share, like two telegraph stations sending Morse Code over a stretch of sparse prairie and wounded cattle.

And on that one day a month, this funneling back and forth in time, Jill and I drive to that exact spot, stand shoulder-to-shoulder, holding hands, our breaths synchronized and deep. At the edge of that side canyon, same one.

We never look down.

We never look down.

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last update: February 29, 2008