Ariana rests her feet on the dashboard, her head on the cushion of the seat. I look at her feet, her ankles snaked with black cloth and minute gold chains. I follow the curvature of her legs, her bent knees, her thighs sneaking through her baggy shorts. She pulls a piece of gum from the half-empty pack and folds it with her fingers and places it on her tongue. I shake my head when she offers one to me and watch her toss the pack back up on the dashboard.
I concentrate on the darting white lines of the road. The reflectors mirror the clutter in my mind. I ignore each thud. I don’t like driving. I don’t like the traffic of San Francisco. I don’t like the drivers, the roads, the wrecks, the construction, the taxis, the buses. The buildings and mountains dominate the city, look down on the insignificant population transporting themselves from one headache to the next. The Pacific opens her mouth to speak, but only devours the sand defending The City. The white reflectors snap at me.
I look back to Ariana—her feet, her, the bleary road, in one jagged motion. My neck hurts, and my eyes sting. I look at her feet again, her toes wavering to the rum-bum-bum of a bass-heavy song just loud enough to annoy me. Back at the road. Her feet. Her legs. Her. The road. The reflectors bang on my tires. I straighten the wheel with my knee, choke the gear shift in the console with my fingers. Her toes coil then uncoil. —
I ran to the little black car Mama bought after Dallas moved out. Said she didn’t need the extra seats the Expedition had with Dallas moving on and Danny driving on his own. Denny gave me a head start ‘cause my three-foot body couldn’t keep up with his five-foot one. I grunted when my shoulder hit the black metal. “You’re a jerk, Denny,” I whined, pushing him back. “I would’a had it that time, too.”
“Not fast enough, Little D,” he said, then pointed to the back seat. His feet rested on the dashboard, his dark toes and dirty toenails peeking through the holes in his socks. He said long hair was in at San Fran High, and he wanted to be like the other guys he hung out with. Jet-black hair grazed the small nose Mama gave him.
“You said you’d let me win.” I punched the headrest in front of me, right where Jackson clawed it when we brought him to the vet. He barked and barked; Mama had to put a muzzle on him at a long red light. Daddy wanted to sew up the rip—the cushion coming out hurt his eyes, he said. But Mama wanted to keep it to remember Jackson by.
“Not my fault you’re a twerp.” Denny flipped his visor down to hide the hot sun. Probably got a sunburn with his arm hanging out the window like it was. He pushed his seat back and hit me in the knees. He laughed.
“Ugh.” I squeezed my legs out of the small space. “Ma! Tell Denny to stop.”
“I’m not doing nothing. I’m tired, Ma.” Denny turned around and stuck his tongue out before pulling the seat up.
“Dennis Michael,” Mama said, swatting his arm with one hand, the other still on the wheel. “Leave your brother alone.”
Denny flipped up the cover over the visor mirror. I always wondered how the cover stayed in place. Daddy said it was magic when he came home on leave a couple months ago. Mama shook her head.
Denny’s glasses hugged his nose, but he still pushed them up. “When we gonna get the light fixed?” He pressed the button that was supposed to turn the light near the mirror on and off. Daddy broke that when he and Mama got in a fight one day.
“We’re not. You don’t need the light,” Mama said, flipping the visor up.
“Mama, when do I get to ride up front?” I asked. I wrapped my arms around Denny’s headrest. The seatbelt cut into my neck.
“When your feet can touch the dashboard, midget,” Denny answered, stretching his legs to prove his were longer than mine. “So probably never.”
“Not true,” I protested. I practiced tying my shoe. Daddy tried to teach me last time he was home, but he only stayed a couple days before he had to leave again.
“Dennis, why are you so mean to your brother?” Mama said, hitting his legs off the dashboard. He laughed as an apology and put his feet right back where they started.
I remember gliding my hand over his foot rest one day, when Mama asked me to get her purse from the car. It was dusty and bumpy and hot. I sat in the front seat and raised my feet to the dashboard. They fell right off. I slipped down in my seat and tried again, but I hurt my neck real bad.
“It’s my job, Ma. I love him.” —
“You nearly killed us,” Ariana says. She plays with the crumpled gum wrapper before removing it from the cup holder, exposing loose coins. She flattens it out with her fingers, and sighs. Her now bare feet dig into the passenger seat, her right arm wrapped snugly around her knees. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” I say. “Sorry.” I run my fingers along her hand. She turns her clammy hand over, allowing me to slide my fingers through.
Ariana stretches her legs out, rests them on the leather of the glove compartment. I look at her veiny legs, her small feet, then her face. She turns the tune dial on the radio, probably tired of listening to soft melodies under the loud static. Her thumb slides along my hand, tickling me when it touches my tan skin. “I don’t think your mom likes me very much.”
“You won’t find a clear station,” I say, tapping her hand with my thumb. I see their little blue house a couple hundred feet away and park.
“Derek, Ariana,” Dad announces, smiling. Ariana’s smile is more genuine than mine. “How was the trip? Fun? Romantic?” His graying eyebrows rise. He wants another grandchild. We’re taking too long, he’s said, and time doesn’t stop for procrastinators.
“It was fine,” I say, nudging Ariana a little further into the house. “Same old, same old.” Dust collects in the corners of the living room and on the tops of picture frames. I run my fingertips along the beige wall the sofa used to be against. A pit marks the spot where a screw used to be. My index finger rests a bit over the hole. Ripped shards of sheetrock press against my skin. The dust transfers to my hand, and I wipe it on my jeans.
“I’ve always wanted to go to New York.” Dad sits on the aging leather sofa. If he’d clean it like I taught him last time I visited, it would still be blue.
“Where’s Ma?” I ask. I don’t think he hears me. He and Ariana are deep in conversation about the snowstorm we got caught in up there. Her hands show her zeal as she speaks. “Dad?” I nudge his bicep with my hand. “Where’s Ma?”
“Upstairs somewhere, son,” he says, then diverts his attention back to my girlfriend. Her brown hair’s in a high bun. She’s wearing the hoodie I gave her back in high school.
I lumber toward the steps, but stop at the kitchen. “Hey, Mom,” I say, waving a hand. She turns her head, forces a grin, and gets back to washing dishes. Dad told her she needed to try harder with me, to rebuild the relationship or something. He said the same thing to me. “Your favorite son’s here.”
Denny ran through the front door, knocked me over with his book bag. “Sorry, bro,” he said, then knocked me over again.
“Ma,” he said, dropping his bag on the floor. He pulled out a big, flat present wrapped in white paper from the big pocket of his book bag. “Remember that picture we all took when Dad came home a couple months back?”
Mama nodded. She was busy cooking supper. “What about it?”
“Ms. Peterson asked us to bring in a meaningful photo we wanna have framed.” Denny pulled off the thin, white paper and let it float to the floor. He held a brown square in front of him. “Didn’t it come out good, Ma? I picked the frame.”
Mama put her hands over her mouth and nodded. She didn’t wanna touch the picture with her hands dirty, she said, so she washed them in the sink and dried them on her shirt, leaving dark blue handprints. She smiled at the square and at Denny. “Come see, baby,” she said to me and waved a free hand.
Daddy was in his gray camouflage uniform, his brown hair shaved short, hardly visible with his matching cap. His skin looked darker every time he came home. Mama had her arms wrapped around him so tight. She didn’t wanna let him go when he had to leave the next day. Dallas stood by Daddy, Danny next to Dallas. Denny stood between Mama and Daphne. The photographer asked me to stand in front and hold the flag, but my arms were too short, and they hurt after we took the picture.
“Where we gonna hang it, Ma? We gonna hang it, right?”
“Of course,” Mama said. “When your brother comes home from work, I’ll get him to drill a hole in the wall above the sofa.”
“I can do it, Ma.” Denny smiled and puffed his chest out. He did that when we fought. “Dad’s tools are in the attic, huh?”
Dad’s feet take up half the coffee table; his body, half the sofa. He takes long, exaggerated blinks, and yawns. One arm hangs off the couch, the other stretches across the back cushion. The leather crackles as he moves. The weather woman on Channel 9 whispers about the drought we’ve been in and the weather on the East Coast that won’t ever make its way over here. Ariana and I had our eyes glued to the television and our phones, waiting for a sunny day to explore when we went to New York. We never got our wish, but we made do.
I look over at the empty beige wall. I’ve tried too hard to forget the day Dad came home on leave and picked a fight with Mom. Ruined our night. Denny sat in his bed opposite from mine, staring at the white walls, assuring me everything would be fine. That’s what couples do, he said. Fight. The front door slammed, and glass shattered. Denny, Daphne, and I stumbled down the steps to find Mom in her bare feet, sweeping the glass that protected the family picture Denny brought home. The wooden frame broke, but the photo went unscarred.
Don’t worry about it, Denny said to Mom and took the broom. I’ll fix it. He hung it up again the next day after he super glued the frame and bought a new pane to protect the picture.
“Where’s the family picture?” I ask and look over to Dad. He remains focused on the television screen glossed over with a glare from the living room lights. He flips the remote over on his thigh and drowns my question.
“Did you hear about this?” he says, using the remote as a pointer. He shakes it toward the TV. “Such a shame.”
“An airbag,” the reporter says apathetically, “kills a local child.” She advances on with the story, I think, though I’m not paying much attention.
“You don’t put children in the front seat,” Dad says. “We learned that the hard way.” He looks into the kitchen at Mom keeping herself busy at the stove. “So did that family there.” He points again to the TV.
“Dad.” I knock his foot with mine, pushing it off the coffee table. “Where’s the picture?”
“What picture, son?” His voice is faint, and his eyes cower behind the same sad news he probably heard this morning.
“Our family picture,” I restate. I watch him avoid the matter with the volume control on the television. “You know what Denny would say to you, right?”
He looks at me and shakes his head, already knowing which phrase sits at the tip of both mine and Denny’s tongues, just waiting to pounce. “I know. Watch your mouth.” And he averts his attention back to the kitchen.
Mom still stands by the stove, stirring whatever’s in the silver pot that smells so good. I hear the slight scratching of metal against metal. Supper must be done, I think, as Dad gets up from the couch. I follow, Ariana in hand.
“That’s the only true family picture we have,” I say. My breathing grows unsteady with frustration. “If you don’t want it, I do.” The scratching of metal claws at my ears. “This isn’t even worth the argument. Denny’s not worth it, huh?”
“Son, it’s a picture. It’s fake. Enough already,” Mom says. She knocks the metal spoon against the rim of the pot, and red sauce splatters. “You wanna be a family? Let’s eat as a family.” She’s rough with the porcelain as she removes them from the cabinet above her head and tosses them on the countertop.
I lean against the door frame, the entrance to the kitchen, and scope the room, hoping, I guess, the picture wouldn’t be stuffed in a box somewhere in the attic. Hoping we’d not have to find it in the years to come when Mom and Dad go live with their son. That it would be hung on the wall like Denny would’ve wanted.
A small picture of Denny rests on the end table on the other side of the room. I walk over and pick it up, lean against the other side of the entrance. The timestamp reads May 25, 2002, and his birthday is engraved along the wooden frame. Denny’s white smile takes up most of the photo. His glasses press against the bridge of his nose. I remember his feet comfortable on the dashboard, his toes smudging the windshield. His arms wrapped around the headrest, and when I’d get too close, he’d punch me away and laugh, Mom scolding him for being too rough.
When Mom laughed, she laughed hard, like a child unaware of the world around her. She would throw her head back in slow motion, and her body would shake with amusement. Her eyes would close, squeeze shut, and her breath would escape almost instantly. She’d cough, then wipe her eyes. Denny, I remember, told a joke that day on the drive to the beach—something about a boy with no legs running home to his mama, something that made Mom laugh so hard she nearly pissed herself. Her silent laughs echoed throughout the car, infecting Denny and me. My brother fussed her for not watching the road and held the wheel as she wiped her eyes and let the joke die out. I didn’t really understand it until a few years later.
My birthday was the week before, but Mom wanted to wait until school let out to celebrate. I begged Denny to let me sit in the front seat. I was six then, and I grew two inches from my fifth birthday. If I tried hard enough, my feet could very well touch the dashboard without slipping off. He relinquished his seat for ten minutes or so, but Mom made him move back at a red light. If we got in a wreck, she said, I’d die.
I run my hand across the picture frame and smile. Denny always said I’d grow up to look like him. Tall, dark, and handsome, he’d say, then glide his hands through his hair. Learn from me, Little D. I blow the dust off the glass. The bumps in the road and god-awful traffic that May 25th caused Mom’s hand to shake when she snapped the shot. We got it developed a few months after, but the picture had a slight blur.