“Opening Night”

1996

The parents had been fighting, but the daughter had a play that night and as always with their fighting the children aligned them, like the deep gravity without which galaxies disband. She was an aardvark. The daughter was, in the play, and now through the house the mother chased her daughter with the aardvark’s head in her hands, its snout bouncing, trying to cap it on the little one’s head. The father waited with his camera. Soon the girl was captured, capped, handed the spear she would wield at the play’s climactic moment, and photographed. The son, her brother, lay on the living room floor with Bloodhound Gang filling his headphones.

Yet the brother was first in the car, his hair combed and tie snug. They glided through the neighborhood, sunlight flashing in the trees and the aardvark’s head riding in the daughter’s lap, its vacant eye holes glaring at them.

What if I forget?, she said.

You won’t forget, said the father. Nor would she. She had only the line: “A deal’s a deal and those are my termites!”

But what if?, she said.

Well, the father said. Then we’ll get dipped cones.

We’re getting those anyway.

I guess you have nothing to worry about, sweetheart.

They turned into the lot, where some parents in eveningwear herded along a flock of eagles. The boy watched them. Those eagles are gay, he said.

They are not, the daughter said.

Son, the father warned.

They are. They have mascara.

The father glanced in his rearview, but nothing serious was brewing between his children. They still loved each other. He still loved them. Their mother loved them and he and the mother loved each other and it was the four of them as one entity offsetting the external world. He parked, and the daughter ran ahead dragging her clattering spear behind her.

The show was magnificent. Animals of all description, all armed and ravenous, whirled plotlessly towards a climactic showdown between the aardvark and orangutan, during which the aardvark, rattling her spear, cried: “A deal’s a deal and those are my termites!” The animals at this juncture threw down their weapons and feasted upon species-appropriate foodstuffs hurled onstage from the wings. The show was light. It was color and motion. Green streamers whirled from giraffes as bats swooped in iridescent capes. A blue haze, suggestive of boreal fog, seeped through the gauzy scrim. And they watched the daughter. The suit’s weight hunched her shoulders, or else aardvarks themselves hunched and that was component to her performance. Tail and spear dragging at her ankles, she ranged upstage and down, left and right, waddling more like a penguin than even the play’s penguin, and the parents wondered: What could be in our girl that she moves like that? What has she found in that senseless line that she delivers it so powerfully, and where will this lead? Already, the truck that would kill the daughter had embarked from its vague origins and was barreling towards town, its dim headlights quivering in the trees and its throaty engine roaring. But for now the girl was a strange animal in a strange play, a vessel of an enigmatic future.

It happened like this: the curtain fell, there was hysterical applause, the curtain rose to bowing and more applause and finally the children retrieved their spears and tails and climbed offstage to their families. They celebrated with ice cream. And while ordering, the father trusted the mother’s eyes at the exact moment she trusted his. It was no more than that. Turning, the father saw through the window the girl in her costume waddling across the street to where other animals, her friends, waited. He uttered the daughter’s name and pushed past the mother and son and confused strangers to reach her.

They never identified the truck. For all they knew, it was homemade. And so all the father had of it was his glimpse as he burst onto the sidewalk and shouted. The thing had round, frogeye headlamps, and a grill like the cattle guards on trains. There was no housing for the engine. The cab was dark. His only impression, beyond these qualities, was it’d come from the mountains. It had materialized like a wolf and like a wolf fled with a lamb. Eventually, the detective on the case had to explain that wasn’t helpful. Had the father seen a license plate? Could he describe the driver …?

He oughtn’t have shouted. That was why she stopped. It happened, and rather than chirping brakes there was the roar of cylinders and tires screeching as the monster peeled away. Farther down, the truck fishtailed into the dark.

Traffic stopped in both directions. The only sound was crying children and the father’s shoes beating the pavement. He hadn’t seen where she’d landed. He ran a ways then ran back. From the ice cream parlor spilled a throng of strangers and from that throng spilled the mother and son. The family ran at confused vectors, scanning the shrubs and farther up a weeded lot. They didn’t exchange words. They themselves might’ve been strangers.

A woman with thick spectacles found the daughter in the brush. The family fell upon that scrap of darkness while people they didn’t know crowded about them. Sirens wailed in the distance, and when finally the family looked at each other’s faces they were for each other no more than memories of the people they’d been.

The police arrived and must’ve radioed that the matter was decided, because when the ambulance arrived it was without lights or siren and the EMTs as they stepped from the vehicle were shy. Damaged as she was, lifting the daughter wasn’t a straightforward proposition. A policeman led the family aside. The father brought them under his arms, but no more than his arms held them. Driving home from the station, after providing statements, the boy gazed out his window, the mother out hers, and the father watched the road. They sat in the garage, the engine ticking as it cooled, then went inside and their separate directions.

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About Ben Nickol

Ben's stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Redivider, Boulevard, Fugue, CutBank and elsewhere, and his collection of stories Where the Wind Can Find It is available from Queen's Ferry Press. His fiction has earned two Baucum-Fulkerson awards from the University of Arkansas, an Individual Artist Fellowship from the Arkansas Arts Council and the 2015 Beacon Street Prize from Redivider, and his nonfiction has been cited as notable work in Best American Sports Writing. He lives in Montana and teaches at Helena College. For more about Ben and his work visit www.bennickol.com.