The family settles in Florida and buys a short-sale house. The family’s a /c breaks and is repaired.
The family is happy, and the family does what happy families do: The family buys a fish tank. The family pours in the gravel and sinks the plastic plants. The father positions at the center of the tank a glass bottle harvested by his father from the bed of the St. Lawrence River. The father fills the fish tank with water, then adds the right chemicals so the fish will not die in their new home.
The fish die in their new home.
Not all of them, but a sizeable enough margin as to be noticeable to the twin daughters, who are three and who need not be noticing such things. Surreptitiously, the fish are replaced.
The fish are named for Disney characters: Mickey and Dopey and Cinderella and Belle. The girls have not seen these movies, but Disney, somehow, is in the air, pumped in, perhaps, through a device installed in the house by the people who fixed the a /c, pumped straight from Disney an hour down the road through ductwork one imagines glistens brighter than Epcot’s geodesic dome.
Finally, the fish tank stabilizes and the fish are happy and the girls are happy, and the family decides there is room enough in the tank for a frog.
The frog dies.
The children are told that the frog was lonely and has been returned to the pet store where he can swim and splash and cavort with his froggy friends. The girls ask for another frog, but the father of the family has read Donald Barthelme’s story “The School,” and he knows what happens once you start down this road, how a dead amphibian leads to a dead dog, and, before long, grandparents are dropping like flies. The family does not buy another frog. They are a one-frog family.
In spring, the family receives a politely worded letter from the neighborhood Homeowner’s Association informing the family that their front yard looks not entirely unlike the surface of the moon if the surface of the moon had weeds growing out of it, and furthermore informing the family that they would do well to sod the front yard. The family does not pay heed to this notice.
The a /c goes out, and the family spends a night at La Quinta, and the a /c is repaired.
The family is busy. There are birthdays to attend and swim lessons to attend and dance classes to attend. There are shoes to be purchased so as not to be caught dancing in the wrong kinds of shoes. There are recitals and neighborhood gatherings and hayrides out of season.
There are preschools to tour. There are forms to fill out in triplicate. There are shots to be gotten, which means screams to be endured and tears to be dried and Band-Aids to be found, later, affixed to car seats and to the bottoms of shoes, and one, remarkably, inexplicably, to a banana, and though the father will understand that a banana’s peel is very thick and that it is therefore virtually impossible that whatever was on the underside of any Band-Aid might have contaminated the fruit within, the father will nevertheless find himself unable to peel or to eat the banana, and will, despite his reputation for frugality, drop the banana into the trash and, just to be safe, tie the bag shut, thinking all the while about blood-borne pathogens and food-borne illnesses and pediatrician waiting-room contamination and how this banana is no longer just a banana—this banana is the perfect storm of bananas—and, having deposited the banana–Band-Aid–laden bag into the outside trash can, he will resist the urge to drag the can to the street a day early because, hey, he’s not crazy.
And, suddenly, it’s summer, and the girls are dancing and writing their names. Suddenly, they’re swimming with only one parent’s hand under them. They’re doing math.
Suddenly, one of the girls is asking why, if God is Love, God makes it so that people can do bad things.
Under the house, an armadillo has carved out a den. From the bathroom, the father can hear its morning scratchings.
The family receives a second, this time more strongly worded letter re: the family’s front yard as moonscape. The family flinches but tucks the letter away.
The father and mother celebrate their twelve-year anniversary.
The family travels.
They vacation at Disney. Not Epcot, but the Magic Kingdom, what the girls call the real Disney, with its castle and teacups and flying elephants. The girls’ grandparents pay an outrageous sum, and the girls are, for a day, transformed into princesses with new dresses and shoes and their hair up in buns.
The family travels to Georgia, then to Daytona Beach, where one girl’s finger is caught in the track of a very heavy sliding door. There are nurses and doctors and X-rays, yes, but there are also popsicles and warm blankets and stickers, so many stickers, so that, upon one girl’s return from the emergency room, the other girl asks, “How come she gets to go to the hospital?”
The girls turn four and celebrate at a park with friends and cake.
Then it is fall, and the girls begin preschool.
The mother stands at the mirror and touches her nose. It is bleeding and it will not stop bleeding. It does not bleed from inside the nose, but from the skin, from a pore, like a pimple that won’t heal. The father is sure it is nothing, but the mother is worried and makes an appointment.
The mother is diagnosed with skin cancer, basal cell. The mother is not alone. She is one of 2.8 million who will be diagnosed in the U.S. that year. The cancer is not dangerous if caught early, but this isn’t caught early, and so they dig deep, removing a sizeable portion of one nostril. They plug the hole with plastic, then scalpel skin from the side of her face, stitching the scalpeled place shut and sewing the cut skin over the plastic plug in her nose.
The mother jokes that she’s been given a nose job and a facelift. The girls, at first, are scared, but they grow used to the sight of their mother with bandages on her face. The father is scared that more cancer will be found. But no more cancer is found, and, in time, the bandages are removed.
The results aren’t too bad. The scar is large and noticeable, but nothing that can’t be concealed with makeup. Before surgery, the mother wasn’t the kind of person who couldn’t leave the house without makeup, and, even with the scar, she still leaves the house without makeup. The mother doesn’t think to be concerned about the scar until, during a checkup, the surgeon explains that, in a year, if she likes, the mother can have elective plastic surgery—not covered by insurance but affordable given any number of convenient payment plans—surgery that will make her look even better.
“What are you trying to say?” the mother says. “What are you trying to say about the way I look?”
The mother is very badass.
The family receives a third and final HOA notice, and the family puts down new sod. A swing set—a gift from the girls’ grandparents—is installed in the backyard. The girls swing and they laugh. They lie on their bellies on the swings and kick themselves into the sky.
Then it is winter, and one daughter comes home from preschool crying about death. There is no more escaping it. The girls are four. They are in school. They will hear things. Pets and grandparents are going to die. The girls are growing up.
The mother and the father sit with their daughter on the floor. They dry her tears. They try to explain what death is. The next day, they will not remember what they said, but they will agree that they didn’t do the best job of explaining. Halfway through the conversation, the father will leave the room because he is crying. And, in that moment, it will all seem like a little too much: the lawn and the fish and the a /c unit he’s trying to keep alive; the daughters and the woman he loves, all of whom will die, all of whom perch on the ledge of catastrophe, waiting.
Once, a friend said to the father, “If I don’t believe in God, I feel alone, but how can I believe in God without feeling abandoned?” This sums up the father’s predicament as well. He wants to believe in God, and on good days he does. But what happens, what will happen, when the bad days outnumber the good?
The a /c goes out, but this time it is not the a /c, just a fuse, and the fuse is replaced. The back porch floods from a burst pipe, but the pipe turns out to be only a leaky faucet. And these seem, to the father, like small miracles, these reversals of fortune, bad to good, because things can always be worse, but sometimes things aren’t as bad as they seem.
And then there is a voice on the phone saying that the mother and father are now an aunt and an uncle, that the daughters, in addition to being daughters, are now cousins, and the family cheers.
And so the girls dance and they go to school, and so the father reads and he writes, and so the mother heals and is declared cancer-free, and, at the end of each day, the family talks and they eat, and they sit in front of the fish tank, and they watch the glass bottle, and they watch the fish go in and out of it.
And then it’s toothbrush time and pee time and prayer time and story time.
And the children are nestled all snug in their beds.
And before long—but let’s not get to before long. Before long will come soon enough.
And under the house, the armadillo digs and digs.