January 12, 2005

Let's Visit Dad

His two college–age sons from his first marriage are flying in, an event that occurs every year or two. At the airport they exchange brisk, friendly handshakes. In the car they discuss the kind of aircraft it was and why the local billboard advertising market is weak. At the ranch his sleek young wife has a simple, exquisite meal waiting. She sits with one hand on her husband’s shoulder, smiling quietly, giving the boys time for themselves. No one in his family has the slightest idea of what she’s all about.

The boys stay three days because Ben Franklin said that fish and visitors stink after that amount of time. Dad shows them his new elk rifle, and they analyze the scope and take some practice in the woods. Warmed up, the boys play fierce tennis on the court while Dad sits watching and officiating. “You still don’t have a net game,” he calls out to one of them. Afterward he asks them what they think accounts for the stark difference in their playing styles. They shrug and mumble identically. Over drinks he gives them the latest word on their investments.

They go to sleep much later than Dad and wake up after most of his morning is gone. The two brothers, who go to school three thousand miles apart, hardly seem to exchange a word during the visit, yet they have insisted on coming at the same time. They wander off separately to make phone calls or spend long periods in the attic or the woods.

Dad and his wife drive the guys back to the airport. The men exchange brisk, friendly handshakes. “Remember what I told you,” Dad says. When they are safely checked in, Dad drives off. He drives fast, then faster, too fast, then slows with a sudden stamping on the brake and has to keep the car from skidding, and turns into the empty parking lot of a defunct furniture store and shuts the engine and looks past the flat fields to the control tower, and names aloud the airline and body type of each plane that rises, his wife’s hand lightly on his shoulder, until—though it’s surely way too early—he spots one that he thinks must be the boys’ plane, and watches it slant upward through a gold–rimmed cloud, and puts his forehead down onto the steering wheel, and grasps the wheel tight as if to stop its shaking, the whole car shaking from within, and sobs, “My babies!”