Seismic gap: A segment of an active fault zone that has not experienced a major earthquake during a time period when most other segments of the zone have. Seismic gaps are generally regarded as having a higher potential for future earthquakes.
“It’s a beauty, is it not?” Lyla’s father slapped the old oak tree as though he were spanking the beefy hindquarters of a prized thoroughbred.
But Lyla didn’t answer. She was staring up at the tree, trying to figure out how she could crawl out along the branch to tie off the rope for her swing. Sure, the branch looked sturdy enough, its thick, muscular arm reaching high and wide over the grassy hill. But, it was also a good fifteen feet off the ground and she had never climbed that high before, not even when her cousin Robert had scrambled up there the summer before, calling her a scaredy-cat when she refused to do as he had done. But that was last year—when she was seven. She’d climbed plenty since then.
Still, Lyla bit her lip. What would happen if she lost her balance and her father was too distracted to catch her, like when she had jumped off the back of the couch last week, when he suddenly bent over to grab his drink off the side table and Lyla tumbled to the floor, twisting her ankle along the way. What then?
Over on the opposite side of the tree was another branch—equally strong, equally thick—but it was too close to the ground. She knew her father would never go for that one; he’d claim it was for sissies.
The tree was a massive California oak that stood just beyond her grandparents’ back fence like a giant, like Gulliver in the land of Lilliput, with arms stretched wide and ready to scoop up little children and steal them. Winter or summer, spring or fall, with or without its leaves, the tree commanded center stage of the Hawkinses’ property, as if everything—the structure of the house, the perimeter of the gray sun-beaten fence, and the rolling hills, both near and far—were all being held together by the tree’s roots. It was under this tree that Lyla’s family took their annual Christmas photograph or gathered for summer picnics when Grandmother Caroline declared it was too hot to eat inside. And four feet underneath was the very spot where poor old Jackson had been buried after the family dog finally succumbed to old age.
Even from inside the house, the plate glass windows framed the tree like a work of art, drawing one’s eye to the foreground so that the mind had no choice but to blur the rest. The surrounding landscape with its golden hills and deep vales was nothing more than a mere backdrop. Years later, when Lyla’s therapist would encourage her to draw a picture about the day her father left them, all she’d remember to sketch would be the tree. She wouldn’t include the hills at all.
“Earth to Lyla,” her father said, fiddling with the dials of an imaginary walkie-talkie. He even made the fuzzy, crackling sounds of a radio slipping in and out of range. “Zzzzz, come in, Lyla. Zzzzz, do you copy?”
Lyla pulled out her own pretend two-way from the pocket of her red jumper. “I hear you loud and clear, Daddy, but I think we should go find another tree. This one’s no good.”
“No good!” Her father roared. “Why, this is the perfect tree, Lyla, and you damn well know it.” Her father was no longer speaking into his pretend radio; he was staring right at her. “Listen, I’ve been itching to hang a swing in this tree since I was your age, and your grandmother just gave us the go-ahead. We can’t back out now.” He turned his pretend radio back on and walked away from Lyla. “This tree will do just fine. Over and out.”
Lyla took several steps back to get a better look at the tree, to see exactly what it was that her father saw. What made him so darn certain that this was the only one and that no other tree would do? But standing back like this, seeing how far the canopy listed over to one side, Lyla was suddenly reminded of the old-fashioned hat that they had forced her grandmother to wear when the family dressed up like pioneers at the state fair. How she hadn’t seen the tree that way before she didn’t know, but Lyla let out a small laugh, remembering how her grandmother, seated at the center of the Hawkins family, stared dour-faced into the camera with that ridiculous hat flopped over the side of her head while her two grown sons stood on either side of her—one hand on their pretend rifles, the other on her stone-stiff shoulders. Lyla could still hear her grandmother groan as the cameraman held up his fingers and counted to three before poof went the bright white flash in the phony saloon. Lyla’s grandmother didn’t say cheese; she didn’t even smile. Yet, that old-timey photograph was living proof that her grandmother could be convinced to do things against her better judgment.
Why, just after breakfast, Lyla had overheard her father as he begged his mother into letting him hang a swing in the tree out back, sounding as though he were still just a little boy himself. “Pleeeaaaase,” he nagged, drawing a long, slow ease out of his “please.” He sounded so silly when he talked like that, but surprisingly, her grandmother relented. Why she finally gave in, nobody could say exactly, but they certainly didn’t question it at the time. Yet, it would be a decision Lyla’s grandmother would regret for the rest of her life. They all would. “It was my damned tree,” she’d say to Lyla one night as they stared out the kitchen window into the dark. “He had no right.”
And it was true. No matter how many times Lyla’s father told stories about how he had climbed that tree as a child, how many times he had hid behind it in a game of hide-and-seek with his brother or avoided the belt from his mother, how many times he had snuck out back with his father’s cigarettes, smoking jig after jig behind the tree’s enormous trunk, or even the time he had kissed his first girlfriend under the wide canopy one September afternoon, it was still her tree. And she had always claimed that she didn’t want something like a crummy old tire swing to ruin her view of the back hills.
“Oh, phooey, go ahead and put one up, if you really want one so bad,” her grandmother finally said as she rinsed the last of the breakfast dishes. “But I don’t want anyone to come boo-hooing in here because they got hurt, do you hear me?”
“You won’t hear a peep,” her father promised, as he threw his dishtowel on the back of the chair where it hung like wet hair and burst out of the kitchen, wearing a bright-eyed look of disbelief on his face that soon gave way to conceit. It was the same look he’d had in his eyes after Bobby Thompson hit his famous three-run homer that settled the 1951 pennant race—when her father turned off the television and sauntered over to the bar to fix himself a drink as though he were the one responsible for the Giants’ ninth-inning victory that day.
“All right, Daddy. I’ll do it.” Lyla ran back toward the tree to where her father was leaning against the trunk with his arms folded across his chest, his hat dipped over his eyes as though he had fallen asleep, waiting for Lyla to make up her mind. “If you really think it’s the best one.”
Her father spat out the long blade of grass that he had been chewing on and kicked himself away from the tree. “I knew you’d come around, birdpie.” He winked. “You always do.” He then grabbed the rope off the ground and slung it over his shoulder like a woman’s purse and stared up into the underskirt of the tree. “Sometimes, we just need a little time to warm up to an idea, right?”
“Right,” Lyla agreed. “But at least I didn’t take as long as Grandmother.”
“Boy, I’ll say. I’d be an old man if you had waited any longer.” Her father peeled a piece of bark off the trunk and broke it in two. “Here,” he said, handing a piece to Lyla, keeping one for himself. He closed his eyes and ran the bark under his nose like a fine cigar. It was then that he confessed it was the smell he missed most during the war.
“More than mama?” Lyla took a small, careful whiff of the piece of bark he had given her. She knew her father loved the smell of the tannins of the tree, always declaring it to be the sharp woody smell of his youth, but could it really smell better than her mother?
“Oh, your mother smells awful nice, and boy, did I miss the feel of her during the war. But she doesn’t smell bitter, not like this old tree.” Lyla’s father went on to tell her about the time he had written to her mother, asking her to send him a piece of bark, a piece small enough to fit into the breast pocket of his uniform so that he could pull it out from time to time and smell home.
“Did she?” Lyla rubbed her thumb along the soft, mealy underside of her bark chip as if it were a rabbit’s foot.
“No,” he said and bit off a chunk, tucking the oaky rind under his lower lip like a plug of chewing tobacco. “Somewhere along the line, my letter got lost, and I never got my piece of bark.”
“Why not? Didn’t you write her again?”
“No, sweetheart. I couldn’t.” Her father picked an eyelash off of her cheek. “Make a wish,” he said, holding the single dark lash up in the sunlight.
Lyla closed her eyes and tried think of something to wish for, something good. But in the moment, she couldn’t come up with anything, nothing at all. Not one single good wish. Lyla opened her eyes. “Got one,” she fibbed, and her father blew the lash from his fingers where it trailed away like a dandelion puff.
“So, what did you do?”
“The simplest thing of all, kiddo. I learned how to manufacture the smell of the tree by memory.”
“By memory?” Lyla repeated, confused as to what on earth her father could be suggesting.
“Yes, darling,” he said, tapping the side of her head with his bark chip. “You can do a lot with memory. Trust me.”
And it was there under the shade of the tree that Lyla’s father told her about how he’d sit in those foxholes night after bloody night, concentrating on nothing else but the color and the smell of the tree. How he was able to fool himself into smelling past the rot of their feet, past the stench of stale urine, past the lingering smell of sulfur from a recently fired cannon.
“Even past the unforgettable odor of man’s fear itself.” Her father paused and put the hard piece of bark up against his nose, inhaling once again. “Until I could finally smell the oaky pitch of home.” He turned to Lyla with a look—not quite a smile, but something awfully close to it. “It was then, sweetheart, when my mind and olfactory nerves worked together, that I would ache so damn hard, I’d want for nothing more than to be back here at home in your mother’s arms. God, how I missed her.”
Lyla closed her eyes and drew in a deep inhale, just as her father had done. She couldn’t quite smell what he had described, but she didn’t doubt him either. She tucked the small flake of bark in the pocket of her jumper, determined to try again later that night, after her mother tucked her in bed. Lyla looked up at her father. “Mama’s the best. Isn’t she?”
“Nobody else like her in the world, sweetheart. And God, what I wouldn’t have done to be home with her”—he paused and unexpectedly pressed his pointer finger in between Lyla’s eyebrows and whispered, Bang!— “instead of shooting strangers in the tight spaces between their eyes. You know what I mean, darling?”
But before Lyla could say a word—telling her father that she didn’t like it when he goofed around like that, pretending to shoot her in the head—she saw the water pool up in his eyes, the way it did sometimes when he talked about what it was like to sit in those dirty foxholes night after night with the orange glow of war overhead.
“That war was something awful, Lyla, and when you are older, I’ll tell you all about it.” Her father threw his piece of bark far out into the grass and walked underneath the branch, carefully measuring his steps to the point where the swing would hang. He stood dead still as he stared up at the bough, clutching the rope, his knuckles bone white as he clung to the line. “God, I can’t believe she finally said yes.”
Lyla heard the living-room door slide open and her mother walked out onto the back porch with Baby Daniel in her arms. She waved out to the two of them, before leaning over and giving Lyla’s grandfather a kiss on the cheek. Pops put down his newspaper and took Baby Daniel into his arms, kissing him on the red tufts of hair, red like her mother’s, and bouncing him on his knee. Pops picked his newspaper back up and began reading to Daniel, and although Lyla couldn’t hear what he was saying, she figured he was reviewing the pitching stats from last week’s games. Pops loved baseball, almost as much as he loved sailing. Maybe even more.
Lyla turned back around. “If Grandmother Caroline always said no, why didn’t you just go ask Pops? He lets me do anything.”
“Are you kidding? You know how it works around here. If my mother says no, then my father, God bless him, knows when to keep his trap shut.”
Lyla tossed her piece of bark out into the tall yellow grass near where her father threw his. “Just like you and Mommy?”
“Hardly,” her father pshawed, tussling Lyla’s hair into a Sunday mess. “Anyhow, who knows what goes on in that head of your grandmother. I sure don’t. Never have.” Her father twirled his finger by the side of his head, sticking his tongue out like a panting dog. “But you better scoot on up there, so we can hang our swing, before she changes her mind again.”
Lyla chewed on the inside of her cheek, the place her grandmother swore would soon see the light of day if she didn’t stop that terrible habit.
“Can’t you do it?” Lyla asked. But she knew the answer. There was no way her father could climb up there with his bad knee and all. When they had been rooting around the garage for the rope earlier that morning, he had told her she would have to be the one to climb the tree. Inside the garage, Lyla readily agreed, too excited that her grandmother had given the go-ahead, too thrilled by the prospect of it all. But now, standing underneath the tree, seeing how high the branch actually was, she wasn’t so sure she could climb up there. A rush of air escaped her mouth; her lips burbled like a horse’s snort.
“Oh, come on, birdpie. It’s not so bad. All you have to do is shimmy out to there.” Her father pointed to the middle of the branch. “And tie her off. Easy as pie.”
But Lyla was no longer staring at the branch. She was squinting up through the gaps in the leaves, into the relief patterns made by the foliage against the summer sky. It wasn’t what was there—the intertwining branches, the small cupped leaves, the tiny acorns that held tight as buttons to the branchlets—but what was not. The dark of the leaves against the bright light of the summer sky reminded her of the woodblock print that used to hang over her parent’s bed but had fallen from the wall during a small quake that had recently rolled under their house in the middle of the night. The painting, cracked and cockeyed in its frame, now leaned against the wall next to her parent’s dresser, waiting to be hung again.
“But what if I fall? What if the branch breaks?”
“That branch!” Lyla’s father let out a riotous laugh, a laugh so loud that it shocked her just like when her cousin rubbed his feet on the carpet and snuck up behind her and touched her arm. “You’ve got to be kidding, Lyla. There’s not a snowball’s chance in hell that that branch could break. Why, it could hold the weight of a grown man. Easy.”
Lyla pinched her face and crossed her arms. She hated it when her father made fun of her like that. Sometimes, she even wished he wouldn’t joke around at all, that he could just be like a normal dad, someone serious. The next time her father blew one of her lashes away, she’d wish for that, for him to stop making her feel stupid.
“Oh, come here, birdpie.” Her father got down on his good knee and waved his arms, begging her to come give him a hug. When she refused to come closer, he pulled her toward him and held her face close to his. They stayed like that for a few quiet seconds—their matching blue eyes a mere inch from one another—before her father rubbed the tip of his nose to hers. Lyla couldn’t help but giggle when her father made her stand so close him; his hot breath felt funny on her cheeks. “I wouldn’t do anything to hurt you, Lyla. You know that, don’t you?”
“I do, but . . .”
“But what?” He took the rope off his shoulder and arranged it around Lyla’s neck where it hung like heavy white braids.
“You think I’d let you fall?” her father asked, squaring the line so that it lay neatly over her shoulders in just the same way that she had watched him straighten the epaulets on Uncle David’s winter uniform before he had walked down the aisle. Lyla’s father liked order. He liked things just so. “Is that what you think, Lyla?” he asked. “Well, for the record I wouldn’t do that.” He lifted her chin and made her look right at him.
“Even if you did, birdpie. I’d be right here to catch you. I won’t move an inch.”
“Can’t we just put it on that one?” Lyla pointed to a lower branch, the one her father had to duck under.
“We could, sweetheart. But that pretty skirt of yours will be dragging in the dirt if we do.” Her father propped his hands on his thigh, letting out his own horsey snort, and pushed his way back up to his feet. “Plus, if we use that one,” he pointed to the higher branch, “I can really send you flying. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
“Sure, but . . .” Lyla paused.
“But what? You want a baby swing?” The way her father squished his face when he said the word baby made it sound like a bad word, like Kraut or Wop.
“I’m not a baby,” Lyla yelled back.
“Sweetheart, I didn’t say you were a baby. I just asked if you wanted a baby-girl swing. That’s all. Geez.” Her father looked at her with a silly frown on his face and walked around the base of the tree, kicking the kinks out his bad knee. But when he came back around the other side, he was smiling again. “But I’m happy to hang it on that branch, if that is really what you want.” He gave another quick punt to his knee. “Your choice.” Her father stole a peek over at the house.
Lyla knew he was losing his patience. He might even call it quits, if she didn’t hurry up. Or worse, her grandmother would. Then what?
“It’s just . . .” Lyla’s knees buckled under the weight of the rope; it felt like a hundred pounds. And before she could finish her thought, her father got back down on his good knee and grabbed hold of her arms. “Listen, Lyla. I know you’re scared. I can see it clear as day. But you are going to be just fine. Here,” he said, wrapping her arms around his chest. “Give me a great big squeeze and pretend that I am that branch.”
Lyla hugged her father close and tight. She liked how he smelled of wind and vanilla on Sundays after church.
“Is that all you got?” he asked, letting a small strain of breath fizzle out of him.
Lyla tightened her grip and squeezed harder until another playful groan fell out of him. “Good girl. Now, when you climb out along that branch, just pretend you are hugging me, and you’ll be fine.”
“You won’t move?”
“Not an inch.”
Lyla held her little finger out to her father and squinted her eyes at him to make sure he’d be good on his word. “Pinky promise?”
Her father hooked his little finger around hers and they counted to three before letting their hands fly apart like birds. No one in the Hawkinses’ house ever broke a pinky promise. Never.
And with that, Lyla’s father lifted her up into the neck of the tree, where she took a moment to catch her breath. Out in the distance, the dry golden grasses ran along the back of the rounded hills, making a soft rustling sound like an animal crawling toward them. Lyla wished she could be back down on the ground, playing hide-and-go-seek out there even if the burnt blades cut up her legs in her Sunday dress. She watched as her father paced the dry ground, flicking acorns out of his way with the toe of his shoe. You said you wouldn’t move an inch, she wanted to remind him. But she knew better than to cross him, not in this heat; she needed him to be right there, to catch her if she fell.
Circling the base of the tree, her father fingered the change in his front pocket like worry beads and began to whistle “Sweet Betsy from Pike.” It was a familiar tune, the one he always hummed when deep in concentration, like when he steered Pops’ sailboat into the narrow slip at the marina or navigated Fanny Shoal in the fog while her mother stood at the bow, warning him of the partially submerged rocks below. A little to your left, captain. A little to your right. Okay, slide on through, steady now.
Just then, Lyla wished to call out to her mother on the porch, to have her come and help her. But she was lying on the lounge chair with her big black sunglasses over her eyes, her skirt folded up over her knees, and the insides of her arms held up to the sun as though she were asleep at the beach.
“Can’t you just do it, Daddy?” Lyla begged her father again, clinging to the tree.
Just like that, her father stopped whistling and made a funny face up to her as though Lyla had just asked for something utterly ridiculous, like a monkey for a pet. He didn’t say a word, but pointed to his bum knee and whistled on, circling the tree yet again. This time, as he rounded the back of the trunk he had folded his hands into his armpits and started clucking around in the dirt like a chicken, making the high, throaty cackle of a hen celebrating the laying of an egg. “Cluckaaaawwwk!”
“Daddy?” Lyla yelled. Her face reddened.
“Oh, come on, birdpie, I was just having a little fun. You know that.” He flashed Lyla that easy smile of his, the one Grandmother Caroline insisted was the Smile of God. Smile of God, my foot! Lyla’s leg began to jackhammer on the branch. Lyla was pretty sure God wouldn’t be clucking around in the dirt like a chicken, making her feel so bad.
“Come on, kiddo.” Her father snuck another glance back at the house. “We don’t have all day.”
She looked at the house and then down at her father, before taking a heaving breath and lowering herself onto the branch. Inch by slow inch, she bellied her way out, scraping the insides of her knees and her chin along the rough bark. If earthworms could climb this high, Lyla thought—not daring to look at the ground as she crawled—they’d certainly make faster progress. Lyla clenched the loose end of the rope tight in her teeth as she crawled, biting down so hard she could taste the salt and iron still trapped in the fibers of Pops’ old boat line. It tasted like blood.
“Okay, birdpie, that’s far enough,” her father instructed, halting her progress. “Stop right there and tie her off.”
Lyla did as she was told. She tightened her thighs around the branch as she sat up, straddling the thick limb like she was riding a horse just as her cousin had done the summer before. Slowly, she pulled rope off her neck and rested the coil over the broad back of woody limb. As she uncoiled the end of the line, she marveled at how small her father looked as he stood on the ground, like an ordinary man, instead of a giraffe.
“Okay, shorty, now what?” Lyla called down to her father, teasing him like he had done to her just moments ago.
“Shorty?” Her father reached up and tried to swat her feet, but missed. “Who are you calling shorty?” He took a step back and attempted a running layup as he tried to tap her shoe. “Heck, I wasn’t the center of our basketball team because of my good looks, I’ll have you know.”
Although her father didn’t have a chance of touching her, Lyla would scrunch up her legs each time he jumped up toward her and then dangle them back down. “Can’t get me, short stuff.”
“Is that so?” Her father jumped again, and this time when Lyla drew her legs up, she bobbled over to one side, momentarily losing her balance before she grabbed hold of the branch and sat back up.
“Careful now.” Her father had his hands out to catch her. “I can’t have you falling off there before we’ve even hung our swing. Not with your mother watching.”
But Lyla’s mother wasn’t watching them. She was fast asleep on the lawn chair while Pops oohed and awed over her baby brother just like he used to do when he’d clown around with Lyla years ago. No longer did he bounce Lyla on his knees, singing This is how the horsey goes, the horsey goes, the horsey goes. Now that she was older, Pops liked to play catch instead, insisting one day she’d pitch for the Giants. She’ll be the first female to pitch in the majors. Mark my word he said every time Lyla stood on the pitching mound that he had fashioned at the edge of the lawn.
Lyla clasped her legs around the branch and steadied her breath. “Now what?” she asked, holding the end of the line out in front of her like reins.
“Wrap that end, the one in your right hand, around the branch a couple of times and then tie your bowline, just like we’ve practiced.”
Lyla paid out several more feet of the rope and wrapped the end around the branch, but when it came to tying a bowline, her mind went completely blank. The knot that she had tied hundreds of times before on her grandfather’s boat suddenly became a mystery now that she was fifteen feet above the ground. She made a small loop in the line but forgot what she was supposed to do with the other end. No sooner could she tie her own shoe that far off the ground than tie a stupid bowline. She leaned over and shimmied a little more rope around the branch. But because her hands were trembling so hard, she accidentally knocked the bulk of the line off the branch to where it dropped to the ground like a fat python falling out of a tree. It missed her father’s head by inches.
“Christ, Lyla,” her father yelled, throwing his hands up over his head.
A sudden heat grew in Lyla’s face, and she could feel the tears begin to well up. She tried to choke them down, certain her father would get after her for crying like a little girl, but she couldn’t make them go away, not like her father could do when he talked about the war. Before she knew it, a steady stream of tears dribbled down her cheeks and fell from her chin, blurring her vision. The dry waving grasses that only minutes ago rustled in the wind now stood still in a watery pool of gold.
“I want to get down!” she yelled.
“No way, Lyla. Just pull the rope back up.”
“No, Daddy. I can’t do it.”
“Yes, you can,” her father said, jabbing a finger at her as though she were in trouble. “Don’t be a quitter, Lyla. Hawkins men don’t quit. You hear me?”
Hawkins men? I’m not even a boy, Lyla wanted to bark down at him, just like her mother did when she had to constantly remind him that Lyla wasn’t their son. Daniel was. Don’t push her so hard, Lyla once heard her mother say while they were getting ready for a dinner party. I’ll give you a son, I promise. Ten months later, she did.
Lyla tightened her thighs deeper into the saddle of the branch, so deep that tiny impressions from the rough bark marked her pale skin like a cow brand. Hand over hand, she hauled the rope back up. Again, Lyla held the line out in front of her, still confused by the task ahead.
“It’s okay, darling,” her father suddenly said in a calm voice. “Everything’s different from up there. Just remember, the rabbit must go around the tree and back into its hole. You can do this, Lyla. I know you can. And I’m right here to catch you. I promise.”
Lyla closed her eyes and listened to her father as he gently talked her through the knot. In and out and around and through, until she tightened the knot to the tree. She even tied two blind half hitches, before slowly lowering the other end back down to her father.
“That’s my girl,” he whooped as he stood on his tippy toes and grabbed the end of the rope, pulling it to the ground. “I knew you could do it!”
Now bolstered by her father’s approval, Lyla scooted her way backward along the branch, faster and more confident this time than on the way out. And when she stood up in the V of the tree, she wasn’t even hanging on. “Look, Daddy,” she said, waving her arms out to him, dancing around like a clown. “No hands.”
“Oh, you be careful now. Or I’ll have to sleep on the couch for a week if you get hurt.”
“You got that right, Mister.” Lyla’s mother was no longer asleep on the lounge chair; she was leaning up against the back fence with the movie camera pointed right at them. How long she had been standing there, filming them, neither knew. “Lunch is ready,” she said behind the lens. “And you better hurry up and come on in and wash up, or I won’t hear the end of it.”
“Wait, Mom, watch this.” Lyla blew a long strand of black hair out of her eyes, preparing to jump. “Ready, Daddy?” Lyla asked her father who was tugging on the line, making sure the knot was secure.
“Not yet, darling. Give me a second.”
But Lyla had already started counting in a silly singsong voice, like that funny cameraman at the state fair. “Ah one, and ah two, and ah—” she called out, making her father hasten his pace to the spot where he could catch her.
“Three,” her father yelled with outstretched arms as Lyla leapt into the air like a flying squirrel, weightless in her success.
“I knew you could do it.” Lyla’s father kissed her good and hard on the cheek. And because it was Sunday, the tight little bristles of his beard didn’t scratch her like they did on Saturday nights. She had watched those whiskers wash down the sink with that morning’s shave.
“You should have seen her, Louise. He turned and carried Lyla step-by-giant-step toward the fence with the camera pointed right at them. “She climbed up there like an old pro. Not a lick of hesitation. Right, sweetheart?”
Hugging her father tight, Lyla could feel the wild heartbeat swallowed up in his chest. She didn’t bother to correct her father, but she didn’t deny what he had said either. She just let his words float off into the distance because she knew she had done right by him in the end.
Later that afternoon, Lyla’s father rolled an old truck tire out of the garage, holding it upright at the lip of the driveway like a nervous racehorse twitching to be free of the gate. The driveway wasn’t steep; in fact, it was nearly flat. But once a tire got going, look out.
“Why, it could run the length of the front yard before bouncing out into the street, easy,” her father said, telling Lyla about the time Uncle David had to chase after him as he rolled all the way to the stop sign at the end of the street and then went on through. No cars had been coming either way, thank God, but that didn’t stop their mother from giving them the belt after Mrs. Marshall marched up the street and told Caroline what she had seen.
“Why, that woman ratted us out more times than I can count.” Lyla’s father faced the house on the corner, wagging his hands up at the side of his head like donkey ears, as though Mrs. Marshall was spying on them now. Of course, the Marshalls had moved out long ago, but the house remained the same; a small, gray, one-story cottage with a single palm tree out front. Only now, a plastic flamingo stood on the lawn, wearing a Santa hat at the holidays, which Lyla’s grandmother found terribly cheap, claiming it was yet another sign that the neighborhood was going to pot.
“Anyhow.” Lyla’s father slapped the worn treads of the tire. “Hop in and I’ll take you for a ride before we go hang her up out back.”
“Really?” Lyla turned to the house to where her grandmother had drawn the curtains, to keep the afternoon sun off the furniture. “What about Mom?” The last time Lyla’s father was hitching to take Lyla for a ride in one of Pops’ old tires, her mother rushed out of the house seven months pregnant and stopped them both dead in their tracks. Charles? What in the world are you thinking?
Holding the tire still at the lip of the driveway, Lyla’s father leaned over and wiggled his eyebrows up and down at her. “What your mother doesn’t know won’t hurt her, now will it? Plus”—and this is when her father kissed the tip of her nose and whispered—“I’m your father; I get a say in what we do, don’t I?”
“Sure you do, but—”
“But what?” he barked back.
Seeing the impatience in her father’s eyes—like when Lyla pumped him full of questions when he just got home from work, or worse, when she asked the score in the middle of an important ball game and he threw his hand out at her, telling her to hush up—Lyla stopped herself.
“Nothing.” Lyla slid inside the tire and braced her hands in the rubber well, readying herself for what was to come.
Her father rocked the tire back and forth, wrangling the tire into position so that it had a perfect line down the driveway. “Ready, birdpie?”
“Ready,” she declared. “But not too fast. Okay, Daddy?”
But her father didn’t seem to hear her. “Hold on,” he said as he pushed the tire down the driveway. Slowly, the world rolled end over end; a cold gripped at her stomach each time she went upside down.
“Daddy?” Lyla shouted louder this time as she crouched inside the dark wheel well. “Did you hear me? Not too fast, and I want you to stay right next to me.”
The tire stopped with a jerk, and her father leaned over the rim so that his big bright smile was inches from her face. “I’ll always be here for you, Lyla. I’m not going anywhere. But it won’t work if we go too slowly. You need a little speed or you’re just going to flop over. And that, my darling, is a one-way ticket to getting all scraped up. Trust me.” He rocked the tire back and forth. “Okay?”
Lyla pushed her hands harder into the tire well. “Okay, but at least stay with me the whole time.”
“Do my best. Now hold on.”
And she did. Lyla held on for dear life as her father pushed the tire down the driveway. In seconds, the sky and ground began to rotate in quick successions. It was dizzying, like trying to watch one of her father’s home movies that had suddenly skipped off the reel. Gradually, the tire gained speed, eventually spinning so fast that everything around her became a wild blur.
She could hear her father’s footsteps slap the ground as he chased after her. He had let go, letting out a bunch of loud hoots. Lyla whooped back. And as the tire gained speed, the two of them hooted and yawped like a couple of starlings calling to one another across a river valley.
Lyla closed her eyes, now believing her father was right. This was the most thrilling ride in the world. And maybe, just maybe, she would make it all the way down the street, just like her father had done years ago.
But then, out of nowhere, the tire hit something—her grandmother’s rosebush, she believed—and took a wobbly turn to the right where it lurched across the driveway and bounced off the side of her grandmother’s new Buick. The tire flung back and fell over with a hard thump.
It took Lyla but a moment to realize what had happened. She waited for her father to come over, to see if she was okay. But he didn’t. He just stood several yards up the driveway in the hot, bright sun with an apologetic smile on his face and wide wet stains of sweat soaking through the armpits of his good church shirt, now untucked in the back like a duck’s tail.
“Daddy?” Lyla yelled at her father. But it was not a question; it was an accusation. The how could you part just never quite made its way through her lips. She knew better. Criticism didn’t sit right with her father. He wore it like a too-tight shirt and wanted nothing of the sort. Why, just last week, when Grandmother Caroline faulted him for not spending enough time at their house ever since Baby Daniel was born, he slammed the phone down on the cradle and fixed himself a drink and then another. Shaking the ice in his empty glass, Lyla overheard him say something naughty about his own mother and went out back to stare at the tops of the trees and the stars above.
Her father walked down the driveway toward her, still smiling that stupid smile of his, fingering the quarters and dimes in his pocket, not once asking if she were hurt. But she was, only it wasn’t the tiny pebbles of asphalt stuck in the red scrapes on her knees that stung so badly. It was a different kind of hurt, altogether.
She wanted to scream at him for letting the tire get away from him like that. Yet, words of blame or betrayal hadn’t the courage to spill out of her eight-year-old mouth. She turned her back to him and continued to pick the bits of grit and gravel out of her legs. She could hear her father tiptoe up behind her before kissing her on the top of her head, like he did on Christmas morning. And when she refused to respond, he tickled her under the armpits.
“Stop it.” Lyla stiffened her shoulders.
“Oh, come on, Lyla. I didn’t mean to. You know that?”
“Go away.” She clenched her jaw, forcing back the tears. “Leave me alone.” But even as she said it, she knew he could never do such a thing. It wasn’t in his nature. Asking that was like telling a bird to simply stop flying—to give up its wings for legs. But still, at that very moment, Lyla wanted nothing more than for her father to just leave her be.
“Leave you alone? Hah!” He grabbed Lyla under the armpits and lifted her high above his head and began running around the front yard, making out-of-control airplane sounds. “Mayday, mayday, mayday,” he cried, dodging the objects that stood in his way—the fallen tire, the rosebushes that lined the driveway, her grandmother’s big blue Buick. By the time he had put Lyla down again, she was laughing so hard that she had forgotten she was ever hurt at all.
“Again, again,” Lyla begged her father in the same way that he had pled with his own mother earlier that morning, when he begged her for the swing.
But Lyla’s father didn’t respond; he spit into the palm of his hand and tried to rub the scuffmark off the door of his mother’s new car. When the blemish didn’t vanish, but became more pronounced in the polish of his spit, her father snuck a peek back at the front window of the house to where the curtains were still drawn. He took his handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped the rivulets of sweat running down his neck. “Come, on sweetheart,” he said and heaved the tire back on its worn threads. “Let’s go hang this thing before it gets much hotter out.”
Lyla positioned herself between her father and the tire and helped him push it around the side of the house. They marched in unison, step by sturdy step. Lyla’s father broke into one of his old military songs, the one he sang when they went hiking on Point Reyes, when he tried to keep Lyla from falling behind.
Left my wife and forty-nine kids
On the verge of starvation
Without any bread
Did I do right? Right. Right. Left. Right.
Right by my country
I had a good job.
And I left. Left. Left. Right. Left.
Synchronizing her steps with her father’s, Lyla stomped hard to the left when the song called for it, then stomped hard to the right. Together, they marched right past Lyla’s mother, who stood, once again, at the back fence filming the two of them, as if she were waiting for them all along.
“About time,” Louise called out from behind the lens.
Still singing their song, Lyla and her father saluted the camera as they marched past Lyla’s mother toward the tree. Lyla looked up and made a silly face at her father. “Did I do right?” She sang. Just then, the tire rolled back on her toes, but she knew better than to complain. She was on film.
“Right, right. Right, left, right,” she called out, stomping her foot harder than before, kicking the pain out of her squished toes.
When they reached the tree, her father rested the tire against the trunk.
“What do you think, sweet mama?” Lyla’s father turned to Louise, who had followed after them. She had the camera focused on his handsome face, on his bright, wide smile. “Is this not the perfect place to spend your days, or what?” Lyla’s father looped the line through the tire and ratcheted it up into the air like a heavy beast. When he tied her off, he stepped back and let the tire hang on its own. He pushed at the rim with the tips of his fingers, sending the tire on its first empty ride. “Ladies, I think I have just died and gone to heaven.”
Lyla stopped the tire and tried to hop on, but her father held her off.
“Not so fast. I’ve got to make sure she’s going to hold first.” Her father climbed onto the rim of the tire and bounced, a little tentative at first, then harder and harder still, making sure the knot was indeed secure. And when he was satisfied, he jumped off and declared it was fit for a man.
“Or a queen,” he quickly corrected himself and lifted Lyla up and into the tire.
Sitting on the hard rim, Lyla straightened her red jumper and began to pump her legs. She leaned backward and, upside down, waved to her mother. “Look, Mom. No hands.”
“Lyla!” her mother yelled, poking her head from around the camera, telling Lyla that under no uncertain terms was she to joke around. “Or you,” she warned Lyla’s father. “Do you hear me?”
But before either of them could answer, Lyla’s father pulled the tire as far back as he could. “Ready?” he whispered up to Lyla.
Lyla smiled down at her father. “Ready,” she confirmed. She took in a deep breath and held it, waiting for her father to let her go. But he didn’t—at least not right away. He just held her high over his head and waited and waited.
Lyla let out the rush of air in her lungs. “I said, I’m ready, Daddy.” And with that, he let her go and pushed her hard and high over the dry California hills, so high that Lyla swore she could see all the way to the Pacific Ocean—to the Farallons even. With each push, she flew out over the hill; her skirt blew open and her bum lifted a bit off the rim.
“Careful, Charles. She might fall out,” Lyla heard her mother warn from underneath the tree.
“She’s fine, Louise. Plus, I’m right here to catch her if anything happens. Right, birdpie?”
“Right, Daddy,” Lyla said, no longer looking down at her father or at the camera her mother had focused solely on her. Swinging back and forth over the hill, she fixed her gaze on a notch in the mountains to the west—a small geologic cut that her father had once claimed, “was carved by the cruelty of wind and eroded over the eventuality of time.” What he had meant by that, Lyla never really knew. But staring at that gap in the mountain, Lyla was able to see past the pain that her father had caused her that day: beyond the barky impressions that marked her thighs as she clung to the branch, past the scrapes and the bloody knees, even past the sickening feeling of being forced to climb the tree in the first place, but not so far enough ahead that she could see her father for who he really was or what he would eventually do to himself—to all of them. When he was no longer there to catch her.