My brother counted the whole way to the Pokes, out loud. He said he couldn’t just do it in his head yet and I didn’t believe him, but my mom always encouraged things like counting, so we sat in the car while he got up there past a thousand to the beat of a Creedence Clearwater cassette.
One thousand, two hundred, and fourteen, Tommy said. It was a long ride.
I listened to it and the wipers, and I watched them push rhythms of rain off to the side, all of it out of sync with the music and at odds with itself, and I guess I got restless. Forty-five, I said. My sister smiled, and we traded numbers back and forth. Tommy said, Mom, and she told us to cut it out. She said it to the water on the windshield and I could tell she was outside of us, back at the house we already left.
One Hundred and One Dalmatians, Claire said, is my favorite movie.
Tommy laughed a little and gripped his booster seat, shut his eyes. We’re going to 87 Emerald Lakes Lane, Tommy, I said. And I said, That’s the address, 87 Emerald. He lost count and started over. From the beginning and we let him. My mom didn’t notice, I hope, or she would have stopped him. She would have taught him to round down, to start from the last number he could remember but the rain came in curtains and she only slowed and squinted out the windshield while we let Tommy start over from zero. One, he said.
Tambourines and elephants, the cassette sang.
My eardrums let out, and the roads shouldered us up into the mountains. I watched for deer in the wet woods. When I was a kid, my grandpa told me his house was on the tallest mountain in the world, and that’s why they called it the Pokes. Because it pokes God right in his rear-end, he said, and I liked to hear him tell it. I don’t think I ever believed it, not truly, but I liked to pretend that I did for a long time. Maybe because it was something to hold onto, and maybe it was like that with Tommy now, that he still set our family apart because we had a house at the top of the world. Maybe he pretended the Pokes wasn’t only short for the Poconos or he called it coincidence, or else figured the long version derived from the short one and not the other way around.
One hundred and forty-five, Tommy said.
When we pulled up, I got out and took a breath of the wet, cool air. In it with the rain was the moss and the bark and the musk of the woods, a smell I never remembered until I got back. That remembered itself that way.
My mom stood just inside the hallway and dropped her bag, and I looked over her shoulder. In the middle of the living room was a yellow wine bottle, sitting on a chair with a funnel fitted into its mouth to catch the water that fell from the ceiling.
There was a dark circle on the ceiling, pooling and falling in quick, clear drops and my mom didn’t say anything. The bottle was yellow, a relic of my grandfather’s. He used to make wine every autumn and always bottled it yellow. This one full of rain, and each new droplet hit and spread itself out to spill over the tin rim of the funnel. There, the puddle on the floor.
My mom started to cry and said, It’s nothing.
It’s too much, she says when my grandpa pours me a glass. First wine of the season, It’s not enough, I think. My mom takes a long sip from my glass and walks away, and he fills me back up. The chill of the wind off the lake in the night and the heat of the red in my stomach, I smile with the secret.
I stood on the coffee table and said, The floor’s hot lava. Back at home, the day before we left for the Pokes. Claire had the jump-rope-whip and cut off my leg early on so that I had to hop around on my other foot, cushion to cushion. Tommy had the wiffle-ball-bat-sword and they made a truce and cornered me on the arm of the couch. I tried to jump over Tommy when my elbow went through the wall.
Mom just had them painted, Claire said.
Shut up, I said. We put a Jurassic Park poster over the hole but my mom tore it down as soon as she came home and her shout through the house. James, Claire, Thomas, get in here. And then, What the hell is this?
Hole in the wall, Tommy said and touched his glasses. Mom did not curse.
I know it’s a hole in the wall. Who did it?
We played Gladiator again, Tommy said.
Shut up, I said, and my mom told me she just had these walls painted. I know that, I said.
Dad can fix it when he gets back, Tommy said. He knows how to do it.
I know how to do it, my mom said. She said that isn’t the point. The point is you don’t just sweep dirt under a rug, you clean it up, not cover it with a poster, and do you think I’m stupid that I wouldn’t notice? She started getting back to the part about dirt under rugs, I guess it struck a chord. I went to my room.
I didn’t have my own TV or anything so I picked out and put back a book. I found a charcoal set I’d gotten a few years back from some far-away aunt who guessed I liked drawing. I had never opened it before. The paper was coarse and yellowed and, I decided, like papyrus. I drew hawk-men and rivers, waters and wings made heavy with black. Exodus, I titled it. I listened to my mom on the phone through the wall between my room and theirs. She was trying not to cry. I could tell by her voice, the way it wound up and croaked out. I have to get out of here, she was saying. I made more hawk-men.
The hole in the wall in the living room was still there the next morning. A beige crater, cracked and caved in like the negative of an eggshell, but bigger. Like an ostrich’s eggshell, Claire said.
We’re going to the Poconos, my mom said. She stopped calling it the Pokes when my grandpa died, I didn’t know why. I didn’t like it. Storm’s coming, she said.
The sun on my back and the wind in my hair puts the boat to a tilt. My grandpa laughs and I do too until he gives me the rope that gives and takes from the sail and the rudder. I don’t know how, I don’t say. You do and you learn, he tells me and after we capsize I come up crying but he’s laughing and in doing it says, It’s not that serious. It’s only a boat. He rights it then and hoists me up, puts the rope in my hand, and the rudder.
My sister whispered, Why is she crying, and I shook my head. My mom only replaced the bottle with another, yellow again, and I listened to the rattle of rain on the windows. Claire fixed Tommy a slice of crumb cake and they talked time travel. I’d go see the dinosaurs, she said, and see what happened to them. Why they all died out.
Who set up that bottle? Tommy said. Maybe she was crying because of the hole in the wall back home and now one in the ceiling and her dead father’s bottle full of rain. Turned out it was Alex who had set up the bottle. My grandpa’s old friend with a key to the house, he still came around to check up on the place. This time he found us, in the living room watching the flooding going on back home on the news. Streets turned rivers and cars up to their chins in it. Without precedent, the anchors agreed.
Alex whistled, inspected the leak in the ceiling and told my mom he would patch it up once the rain cleared out. If it ever does, he said.
The ping of the rain on the funnel came like a clock-tick. Maybe he used the yellow bottle to catch it because he used to make wine with my grandpa every year. September will be four years already, he said to my mom. Can you believe it?
She made him coffee and sent him home. Families on rooftops waved to helicopters on TV. It’s a good thing we’re up here, Tommy said.
Tick-tick from the funnel. Because the floods can’t reach us up here.
That’s right, my mom said. Top of the world, baby boy.
Then Tommy said, What about dad?
Ten, nine, eight, blastoff, he says and shoots me up out of the water. When I surface and clear it from my eyes I hit him in the chest and I scream, You jumped the gun. I show my dad the right way to count down from ten. How NASA does it. I climb onto his shoulders and holding his hair I tell him I wish I had wings. All pupas grow wings, he says.
The next morning my mom hung up the phone and told us our father was back from Portland. The airports were all shut down, so he had to rent a car in Pittsburgh. He’s driving up this afternoon, she said.
Today? Tommy said. He smiled at Claire and me and she smiled back.
This afternoon, she said. I watched the backyard through a window. The shed there, a dull, peeling blue. A Civil War blue, a color for the North, my dad said once. The rain shot up from its aluminum roofing, Look how the paint’s peeling, I said. I asked my sister did she remember when we painted it? She shook her head and my mom said that she was still young.
I don’t remember, Tommy said.
You were still dead, I said.
Mom, he said.
You weren’t born yet, T. And she said, James, I told you I don’t like that.
I said I was taking a nap, but I walked down to the water alone. The rain’s soft clap on the woods and the lake. The infinite circles spreading across put a bend to its surface, like stained glass but alive. The time we painted the shed I had asked him, What’s your favorite color?
Lavender, he said. My dad.
What’s that? I said. You mean like purple? I was young, five or six.
Sort of like purple.
I laughed at him and put a brush into the blue paint, slow. That’s a girl’s color, I said.
I took off my clothes and walked into the water, warm with the rain. My dad had said there were no such things as just boy’s or just girl’s colors. Colors are for everyone, he said. I believed him. I told him mine was green, and he said that he knew it. The air was cold so I kicked farther out and tread water, the line of it striping my neck. I looked back at the dock and the shed and the house in the woods.
We put blue handprints onto our chests. Like Apaches, he said, and he told me how they painted their faces purple with berries and wore their hair long the way he did and they were warriors. Real men, I believed him. The faint shapeless flash of lightning, thunder unfolding down from the mountains. He let me go years thinking boys could like purple, I swam farther out.
My dad and my grandpa line six yellow bottles in a circle on the dock, fit six mortars into their mouths and lean them out toward the storm. Panther-dark and prowling down from the mountains across the lake. I shiver, shirtless and the wall of it comes running across the water and hitting first in fat dark spots on the dock. A fuse is lit. Lightning on the water, the scream of the rocket and we dance around those bottles and the rain comes lashing in waves, the three of us firing back into the storm and howling like wolves like we’re the ones to be reckoned with.
My dad walked up to the house through the rain. He wet the three of us with hugs under the awning, shook out his hair and tied it back. My mom leaned out the screen door and only told him to take off his shoes before coming in. And I’m going to take a nap, she said. So try and keep it down.
Want to go swimming? he asked us.
It’s raining, I said. I had already dried off.
He laughed at me. Since when do you melt?
Can we really go swimming? Tommy said.
You mean that you’ve been here three whole days, with a lake out back and you haven’t swam in it once?
It’s raining, I said, and I looked him over like he was something I’d never seen before, because that’s what he was. He saw me do it. He could tell that I knew that my dad was already gone.
My dad throws Claire off and I push him in from behind. I beat my chest and I scream, King of the dock, watch the water. The clouds and the sky and the mountains and me are there riding along the laketop and when he tries to climb up onto the dock I put a heel to his forehead, lock eyes and I kick him back roaring.
Back home, the night before I put the hole in the wall, my mom told us our dad would be back in a week. He had never gone to Portland before, and she said it was for an interview, or something. Claire asked if we were going to have to move all the way out there if he got a new job. I wouldn’t worry about that, my mom said. The cutting board clapped and the blades of her shoulders swung into a rhythm as she sliced a carrot, set down the knife to circle back.
When your father comes back he needs to talk to you. We both do, she said. My sister looked at me then and I left the kitchen to sit with Tommy in front of The Lion King. You gotta put your behind in your past, said Pumba. My dad already had a job. What was in Portland? Hakuna matata, sang Tommy.
And then in their room, in the bedside table, I found the leaflet tucked inside of my mom’s Bible, the leather one with the gold trim. Also tucked was a wedding picture. A flower pressed flat. The leaflet promised resolution for couples going through transition and it bookmarked Exodus 23:1.
Transition to what. My eyes didn’t work right, I couldn’t make out the words so I studied the photos that burned through the laminate. The wife smiling some kind of confidence to her husband. No. To her wife. Her husband-turned-wife. Who smiled too but up at me, shyly and terrible in the way that it said, Dad.
Father-turning-mother, the leaflet said.
I pressed my fingers to my eyes. Laid back on their bed and breathed through my mouth. Spinning above me like the solar system mobile we built for my room that still hung over Tommy’s bed were all of the times I had looked away from it.
The butterfly net that he bought me and said was for catching more than just butterflies, but what else would I catch? Bees? Claire’s seventh birthday party, the girls in the kitchen baking cookies with dad. The little league games he stood on the sideline with cherry water ice and singing my name while I was at bat that red shock on his mouth like lipstick. Stop singing my name.
Purple Venus and pink Jupiter and fuchsia fucking Pluto spun above me and I wanted to walk into my brother’s room and tear it all down but Tommy still loved it. I guess I did too was the thing.
We walk on the lake, and the pines at shore bent low with the weight of the snow, bowing to the mountains like they are made of more than earth and time. Three sets of tracks lead back to the dock, my dad’s and Claire’s and mine. He brings a broom, moves a stripe of snow from the ice and we run and penguin across on our stomachs. The burn of the cold in my lungs, on Claire’s cheeks. Shhh, my dad says and points. A stag at the treeline beneath the mountains is watching. The strong slope of shoulders dusted white, the antlers branching up. Isn’t he beautiful, my dad says. Handsome, Claire says. She pokes him and says, He’s a dad deer, dad. Dear, she adds and laughs, but he only watches the thing alone in the world under all that white. Oh daddy dear? she says. He’s going to shed those antlers soon, he says and after a moment the deer turns off into the mountains. Daughter deer, he says and we penguin-race until dark, and sing. Dear dad he’s a dad deer oh daddy dear dat deer right dere is a daddy deer right daddy dear.
I’m singing in the rain, he sang.
I’m swimming in the rain, Tommy sang then.
I watched them from the back porch with a yellow bottle in my hand. My mom had asked me to empty it when I had asked her why she wasn’t going swimming with her husband when she asked me why I wasn’t going swimming with my dad. I poured out some of the rain from the bottle and Tommy called out to me from the water.
Come on in, Jim. My dad swam in a shirt. That was new.
Come on inny, Jimmy, Claire called. They watched me, but my dad didn’t. Instead, he threw Tommy in an arc through the rain and he bear-hugged Claire. Held on for as long as he could.
If I had wings like my dad I could have flown down and pulled them out, carried my brother and sister up into the mountains, the top of the world. We could’ve watched the storm roll off into waves for miles and miles below. Tommy had never really met our grandpa, and he was young enough to forget he ever even had a dad. It could work.
Swim with us, Jim with us, Claire sang.
I carried the bottle down to the lake, and the three of them watched when I stood at the end of the dock and told my dad that we would erase him. We already had a mom and if he wanted to go and start over in Portland then take all of it with you and don’t come back. We get to start over, too.
What I said was, When you go, take your solar system with you. The mobile over Tommy’s bed, we don’t want it.
Jimmy, he said treading water.
Go where, Tommy said.
Portland, Claire said.
But he already went to Portland, Tommy said. He said he came back, and my dad said he loved that solar system. He said he would bring it wherever he went to hang over his head and look up at the planets we built.
Get out of the lake, I said. I was begging him. Or maybe it only thundered, but he got out of the lake, and Tommy followed him back to the house. Claire said my name, and I tossed the bottle into the lake and told her to go with dad. It bobbed out away from the dock like a candle on a river.
When are you leaving, Claire said when she caught up to them, on the back porch under the awning in towels. My dad lit a cigarette and told them the time where we painted the shed. How mom had a fit when I spilled paint across the yard cupped in my hands, chasing my dad to cover him blue. How I howled like an Indian Brave. From the dock I heard Tommy howl like that, like he was the one to be reckoned with.
The bottle rode out through the wall of the rain like my grandpa was calling it home. When are you leaving, Claire said.
He said he was done with the lies, and he put out his cigarette like that’s where they came from. He waved the smoke away and blew the rest out. His voice shook through the rest of all that he said, the rest that I could not hear from my place on the dock through the rain and the trees.
I’m finally finding myself, I could not hear him say. Or the questions they asked or the answers he gave, I didn’t want them. I didn’t see my sister hang on from the neck of her dad who wept like my mom, who had come out from the house to cry with her kids, but Tommy did not cry. He took off his glasses and pressed his fingers to his eyes, started over from zero.
One, he said. Even from my place on the dock I could hear it. My mom held him tight on her lap but he kept on going. My dad said his name but he kept on going. Eleven, he said. I could hear it even from my place underwater.