its vaude house behind me. Maybe I was just trying to figure out how it would feel to lose a place, to completely remove my own carcass and look back to see how much Iâd miss, how much I was missed myself. No matter how far I walked, I couldnât get enough distance. I leaned against a fence and heard noises in the field behind me. A farmer, come to shoot a trespasser. I stuck my hands in the air, waited for a shotgun to hit me in the back. Instead, a cow lowed.
Was this a sign? If in real life you are acting out ludicrous bits of business, well, why not get paid for it?
Iâd heard of guys trapped by girls, but not their own fathers. I suppose Iâd known that I was giving up my family when I left, but I didnât realize that
would give up me. I imagined theyâd forgive me anything.
I tried to see myself years in the future, an orphan. The dresser top would be bare of photographs. If I ever married, Iâd have to explain: my family was as good as dead, because I did not wish to spend my days helping strangers in and out of clothes. That night, when I made my way back to the boardinghouse, I looked at the pictures Iâd nabbed, one of my parents, one of all us kids. My mother has that distracted old-photograph look: her eyes have lost their focus, though sheâs gently smiling. But Pop! He is not looking at the photographer, he is not looking at the camera, he is looking into the camera, past the glass lens, past the sliding shutter, so ready that he can see the brief appearance of the film itself, staring back at him.
Remember your family, Mose
, he had written, and I thought,
As if I could ever forget
. I tucked him and then the rest of us in my suitcase, and told myself I would travel alone and be happy alone.
But my father knew, better than I did. He wanted to save me from a life of restlessness. Traveling on foot in the Iowa snow was the earliest story he told about himself, back when he was fresh off the boat from Lithuania. âIt was so cold,â he would say when we were small, âI dreamed of sleeping in a cow. Must be warm inside a cow. But the snow, it turned out, was a good thing, because in one bad blizzard, I was stranded for a week at a farm with a schoolteacher, and she taught me English. I might not have learned otherwise.â
In a week? We didnât believe it.
âIsnât this English Iâm speaking?â he asked.
I donât know who that schoolteacher was, young or old, beautiful, plain, kind, or merely bored. Was she unmarried, looking to make over a young man who came up the walk, feet frozen but still clanging his pots as if to prove their worthâ
Look, lady, fine pots, good pots
? Was she married but lonely, like a wife in a dirty joke? Was she simply a woman who always needed a student? What did my father think, the next morning, when they opened the door and were met by a wall of snow?
Men who travel dream, itâs unavoidable. I donât know what my father dreamed of then besides bedding down in a cow. He was so far away from home that even in fields where the snow had blown away into drifts, he could not drop to his knees to the frozen ground, lumpy like the underside of a familiar calloused foot, and know that he touched something that eventually touched people he loved.
My mother believed in curses, my father once told me. She believed in a vindictive God, a vicious practical joker, an eavesdropper who killed children. I donât know what she would have made of Hattieâs death.
But my father believed that God was good. He saw before I did that God makes bargains, and he believed that my presence in the store was part of a tragic, already sealed bargain. He had his son. He had five fine daughters. And he knew why Hattie had gone up on the roof: God had put her there, to deliver me. God knew that it was necessary, and so He whispered in Hattieâs ear.
My father loved and missed Hattie. He said so. He wept for