It’s the morning of the first day of second grade. I’m trying to get my ducks in a row. My dad taught me this saying. Sometimes I worry I don’t really have any ducks and everybody else does.
My dad gives me a peck on the shoulder and starts to pull my hair back into a ponytail that I’ll be too afraid to tell him is crooked. He stops.
E, he says. E, go grab the Little Orange Book.
I walk to the coffee table. The Little Orange Book is where he always leaves it before he goes to bed. It is worn and discolored by the oil of his fingers. It feels just like a tangerine. I bring it to him. He smacks his grown-up gum. He never needs to flip through the pages. He always opens it right where he needs to be.
This is one they teach you on the first day on the job, he says.
And he reads: your first impression is the last impression.
I have to tell him I don’t really know what impression is. He says it’s what a person thinks about when they think of you, and of course you want what they think about you to be good. He says:
If you come in with a nice big smile and a shiny red apple and a Good Morning Mrs. Whoozywhatsit, then she’s going to think you’re great, and of course that’s true, and all you’ll have to do is prove her right every day, which for a sunbeam like you will be very easy to do. But if you come in with a bad attitude and slouchy posture and forget her name, she might not think you’re all that great, and so now you have to prove her wrong every day, which is a lot harder to do than the other thing.
His eyes are moons behind his glasses. I ask him if he thinks my new teacher will like me more than Mrs. Skein from last year.
Who, Mrs. Skunk? he asks, and I laugh. E, why would you worry about what a skunk thinks of you? Don’t be silly.
He kisses me on the forehead and some coffee drips down from his crunchy walrus mustache. I hear the wheels of his bike squeak under his weight as he rides off.
I open the fridge to see if we have any apples. We have three. We also have a peach. I have never liked apples. You have to bite very hard and it sounds like breaking bones.
I wait at the table until I hear the bus coming.
When I find Mrs. Batchel’s room I give her a nice big smile and a Good Morning Mrs. Batchel. I unzip my backpack and put my hand in there.
The peach has a big black spot that wasn’t there before. It is leaking a little. It looks like the mark on the sidewalk when my dad would rub his cigarette on the bottom of his shoe and then put it on the ground and then stomp on it. Mrs. Batchel has a face like she forgot to brush her teeth. She takes the peach from my hand with two fingers and puts it right in the very corner of the desk. Thank you dear, please sit down, she says.
When she reads my name from the paper, she says Esther wrong. It sounds like S-third. I tell her the right way but she won’t remember.
* * *
Me and my mom and my dad used to drive around in Pegasus all the time. My dad called it Pegasus because it was white and looked like it had wings on the back of it and he said when he was driving in it he felt like he was flying above the clouds. He always said he couldn’t wait to give it to me. There was a road we would always go on when I was raining inside. There was a big tree on a hill and we would park right in front of it and my dad would tell me to run up the hill and roll down it five times and by the fifth time the rain will stop. Sometimes I would be too tired to do five.
I can’t do five, Dad, I’d say. What are you guys doing?
My mom would blow smoke through her nose and say Making clouds, sunbeam. The clouds they made with their mouths would stick to their clothes and bodies when we went home and I always thought it smelled like it hurt. The clouds they made were pretty but sometimes they would make me cough and whenever they did my mom would make a face like she touched something hot and shake her head and say God damn it very quietly.
On the morning of my first day of kindergarten they told me they had decided to stop because it wasn’t healthy for me and it certainly wasn’t healthy for them. There were enough clouds as is, they said. They said And besides, having so many clouds just makes it that much harder for the sunbeams to shine on through.
My mom pulled my hair back tight into a ponytail and said Can’t wait to hear about your first day, E, and kissed me and my dad on the forehead and went into the garage to take Pegasus on her final flight. That’s what my dad says about that day.
* * *
At my school, my teachers sometimes let me talk to my dad on the phone during lunch or recess. They don’t let anyone else do this, I don’t think. When we’re lining up to get ready to go eat, Mrs. Batchel grabs me by the arm. The ends of her nails are black and her hands are big and feel a little like wet ham from the fridge. She says S-third, you have a phone call in the office. I hear someone in line laugh quietly and say S-turd. My dad says:
Hello, sunbeam. How wonderful was that first impression of yours?
I don’t know. I mean, OK, I guess. She calls me S-third. But she’s pretty nice to me.
Anything but Mrs. Skunk, hey E?
I laugh and say Yep.
How are you feeling? Do you feel sad today? Are you raining inside today?
I wish your mom could’ve seen how pretty and grown-up you looked today. Wish I could’ve kissed you on the head one more time. Or two more times.
I thought about Mom today. There was a peach in the fridge and I brought it for Mrs. Batchel.
I hear my dad laugh. He sounds like when he couldn’t get Pegasus to fly right away and he would sit in the front seat of the car and turn the key and whisper Come on you P O S. He says Remember those days by the pool? I remember sitting and watching you play and eating peaches. She always liked to suck on the pit for the entire day. I loved that.
I say I thought it was kind of gross.
He says Yeah, it was a little gross I guess. But I loved it.
Is everything OK, Dad?
You know I love you so much, right E? I love you so much. I want to dry up all your rain.
I love you too, Dad. Is everything OK? Is work going OK today?
Everything’s fine, E. Go eat lunch. I’ll see you at home. We’ll watch a movie or something tonight.
* * *
My dad doesn’t do much of anything after he gets home from work. I always ask him what he does at work and he never really answers. The most he ever says is Talk on the phone to people I don’t like and wish I were right here with you. It doesn’t always seem like he’s happy to see me. Sometimes I never see him get off the couch. He’ll just stare at the carpet and move his head back and forth and watch his tie swing like one of those things in a big clock.
One time he said Remember when we used to take you to that hill and you would run up and roll down five times? And you’d be too tired to think about anything else by the end?
Yes, I said.
That’s what I do at work all day.
That sounds bad.
Except I have to do it like one hundred and forty times.
That sounds very bad.
And instead of running up the hill I get dragged by my tie and instead of rolling down the hill someone pushes me down it.
I’m sorry, Dad.
Sometimes he’ll write things in the Little Orange Book. And sometimes he’ll just flip through and move his mouth as he reads the words and put his arm out on the armrest and make his hand look like he’s holding a cigarette that isn’t there. I think he misses making clouds. Sometimes he’ll just read the whole thing all the way through. He likes to read things out loud to me.
A couple nights ago he said E, a year is just a bunch of little seconds.
Do you know what I mean by that?
He looked up at me from the Little Orange Book with his moon eyes, which looked a little bit more like rocks. He said Whenever you’re having a really shi— a really bad day and you’re raining inside and nothing you do makes the rain stop and you feel like it never will, just remember that A year is just a bunch of little seconds. A year seems like a really long time but when you break it down it’s just a bunch of days, which are a bunch of hours which are a bunch of minutes which are a bunch of seconds. And how easy is it to put up with the rain for one second?
I wasn’t really sure of what he meant. I said What?
If you can live for a second, my dad said, you can live for a million seconds. And more.
* * *
I hear somebody shout Hey, S-turd.
I turn around. It’s Peter Capp. He is so tall. He is always in my class and he looks like he really needs to go to the dentist. Someone told me he’s supposed to be in fourth grade.
Hey, S-turd, look.
He pulls up his pant leg and pulls a red and white box out of his sock. I have seen the box before. His sock is supposed to be white, I think. It looks like it has seen better days. That’s what my dad would say.
Kevin Applegate is standing next to me. He asks Oh are those cards?
Peter Capp starts to laugh and I have to look away. The lines between his teeth look like someone has drawn them on with a marker. You dumb shithead, he says. You fucking piece of fuck.
I say They’re cigarettes.
Peter Capp says You’re a smart fuck. Yes, they are. Come with me behind that tree.
I don’t want to.
Come with me behind that fucking tree or I’ll tell Mrs. Batchel you’re the one that brought these. And she’ll believe me. You always smell fucking like smoke when you come to class.
I really don’t care that much. I say OK. Kevin Applegate says OK.
Peter Capp taps the wrong end of the pack. He says I sure fucking can’t wait to smoke one of these fucking ciggies. He sounds funny saying Ciggies and I have to try to not laugh.
I also have to try not to laugh when he puts the white end of the cigarette in his mouth. He pulls out a lighter from his other sock. His socks look like they got into a fight with each other. I count how many times it takes him to get the lighter to make fire. Fourteen. He brings the fire up to the brown end. I should say something but I don’t. I hear him say Fugg because he can’t get it to light.
You have to breathe in, I say.
He says I fugging know.
He tries one more time and starts coughing and coughing and coughing. He spits out little brown things that look like twigs. He makes an awful lot of noise. He says Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck.
* * *
While I wait for my dad to get home, I notice that almost all of the picture frames in the living room are face down. They’re pictures of my mom when she was young and my mom and dad at their wedding and my mom and dad holding me. You can see Mount Rushmore behind us in one of them. I remember when we went there and I called it Mount Mushmore and they laughed about it for a really long time.
There are three pictures that are not face down. Two of them are black and white and I don’t know the people in them. Then there’s one of just me. It was a picture day picture from first grade. I was wearing my favorite shirt. It was the color of the sky. But the thing they had behind me was the color of the sky too, and you could barely see my shirt. It just looked like I was a floating head. My dad loved it. He said it was the first time ever anyone had taken a picture of a sunbeam in the sky.
I hear the door open and I say I’m sorry Dad before I even hear it close.
Mrs. Batchel said she was going to call you. I got in trouble today at recess.
He looks so tired. He says No you didn’t. I asked and she said you were with that Peter Capp kid and I knew it was his fault. He’s such a little shit.
I say Dad!
Sorry, E. Just sort of grumpy. Come eat some pizza with me and talk.
I eat some pizza but we don’t do much talking. He also doesn’t eat very much pizza. He keeps looking out the window and trying to get either a stain or a burn off of his pants. Every so often he looks back and sort of smiles at me and suddenly remembers there’s pizza in front of him and he takes a bite and goes back to what he was doing.
He looks like he has seen better days.
* * *
We couldn’t seem to get rid of Meatloaf. He called it Meatloaf because it was a gross brown color and had little different colored specks all over it and pretty much made him sick any time he had to look at it whenever he went out into the garage. My mom had driven it home one day saying she had just bought it off her editor for a song. I had asked What song. My dad had said I don’t want to look at that thing every day when I go out to get in Pegasus because well would you just look at that thing, Jesus H. Christ. We ended up keeping it so my mom didn’t have to take her bike to the stop and then take the bus all the way to work every day because she said It always takes like an hour. But my dad never drove it.
There was always something wrong with it. My dad would always have to take it to the shop and he’d let my mom take Pegasus to work and he would bike to the stop and take the bus to his work. His work was a lot farther away than my mom’s so a lot of the time he didn’t get home until I was asleep. If he had to take his bike again the next morning he’d always leave a note on the table by my bed. One side of the paper would have something from the Little Orange Book and I would have to get my mom to come read it to me and explain it if I didn’t get it, and I usually didn’t get it. On the other side he always drew a cartoon for me with a joke written under it, and most of the time my mom would have to explain the joke to me too. They weren’t always that funny but I liked them. The drawing was always good.
One time he drew a picture of a room with three people sitting around a table. One of the people looked really angry and was saying something. Above them was a line and a drawing of an elephant sitting in a chair with a trumpet in its trunk and music notes were coming out of the trumpet. When my mom came into my room she told me that the man was saying Is that an elephant or something? I laughed so hard. It was so funny to me. My mom told me she didn’t think it was that funny but she was laughing so hard because it was so great to see me laughing so hard. I kept laughing that whole day. I didn’t rain inside that whole day.
When my dad came home I couldn’t wait to tell him how funny his cartoon was. I told him I didn’t rain inside that whole day. I expected him to laugh with me like my mom did, but he looked so surprised and he started to cry. I asked him What’s wrong. He said he had never had anyone say something that beautiful to him ever ever ever. He asked me to say it again and I did and he cried harder. He hugged me and didn’t let go for a long time.
There was something wrong with the car that first day of kindergarten. That was why my mom took Pegasus on her final flight that day.
My dad doesn’t go in cars anymore. He wants to sell Meatloaf but he can’t find anybody who wants to buy it.
I have seen my dad cry two times.
* * *
After pizza I ask my dad if he still wants to watch a movie with me. He says Sure. He says Hey didn’t I get you that fish movie for your birthday, we haven’t watched it yet have we?
The movie looks very pretty. There is a boy fish and a girl fish. They have so many eggs and they are excited to have so many fish children. Then a long, scary, pointy looking fish comes up to them. I say That’s a barracuda isn’t it. My dad says Yes it is. He looks a little sick. The barracuda swims towards the little cave where all the little fish eggs are and the girl fish swims between the barracuda and the cave. The barracuda swims right at the cave all of a sudden and I jump a little bit. The barracuda hits the boy fish with its tail and the TV goes black. Then it shows the boy fish waking up. He goes to the cave where all the fish eggs were and there’s only one left.
My dad says Aren’t you tired.
I say No, I’m not.
He says Yes, you are.
* * *
I wake up and I hear the sound of the garage door. I can’t tell if it’s opening or closing. I get a little scared. I think I can hear Meatloaf. Meatloaf always sounded like what you would hear if you put marbles in a Coke can and shook it around. Every couple of seconds it would make a sound that sounded like a hiccup.
I wait for a little while and I still hear it. I get out of bed and walk to the door that goes out into the garage. It is definitely the sound of Meatloaf. It seems to have been making noise for a very long time. I wonder why my dad hasn’t turned it off yet.
I open the door. My dad is sitting in the driver’s seat and he jumps when he hears the door open like he just woke up. He coughs and turns off Meatloaf. He starts moving his hand back and forth at me very fast like he’s telling me Shoo. He is shouting something. It sounds like Go inside go inside. It smells like the stove a little. I go inside.
I wait on the couch until he comes in. I hear him say E.
Were you sleeping, Dad?
He says Why aren’t you in bed? He sounds mad.
I say Did you go somewhere?
He asks me why I wasn’t in bed again and he is being very loud and I start to cry.
I hear him say Oh sunbeam. Oh sunbeam I’m so sorry. He comes to the couch and he hugs me very hard and he puts his lips on my forehead and just keeps them there. It tickles. He smells like the stove. Then he puts his eyes in the space between my neck and my shoulder. His eyes are very wet and hot. He just keeps them there.
I say Where did you go?
He sits up. He is not wearing glasses so his eyes don’t look like moons. They just look like eyes. He is holding his tie very tightly. It still has the hole in it where his head goes.
I was raining inside, he says.
I try to make a joke. I say Were you going to the hill with the big tree? It doesn’t really sound like a joke when I say it though.
He says I was going to but I turned around and came back before I got there.
I say Were you going to run up the hill and roll back down five times?
He puts his tie down on the coffee table and he says I didn’t really know what I was going to do.
I know that my dad is raining inside. I feel like I can hear it.
I say Do you know what I wanted to say when I heard Meatloaf in the garage and came and opened the door?
He says What.
I say Is there an elephant in here or something?
My dad laughs his Pegasus laugh and I can hear the rain get quieter. He says That’s very funny, E.
I say Let’s go to sleep, Dad. I say Aren’t you tired.
He says Yes, I am.
I start to walk to my room and I say Don’t forget to come and say goodnight to me. He jumps like somebody just woke him up again and runs right past me into my room. When I get to my room I see him putting something in his back pocket. I ask him what he just put in his back pocket.
He says A note and a cartoon.
I say Can I see it?
He says No, why ruin the surprise? You’ll see it when you wake up.
I say OK, Dad. I get into bed. I ask him if he’s raining inside right now and he says No way, José and I laugh. He says I love you so much sunbeam and I say I love you too so much Dad.
He turns off the light and I turn around to face the door and I see him walk out into the living room. He is holding the picture of my floating head. He goes around the room and makes all the face down pictures face up. He sits down on the couch and he is still holding my floating head and he is still holding it when I fall asleep.
MICHAEL ESPARZA is currently in his last semester at UT Austin, studying English and Creative Writing. He is writing theses in both fields, for reasons he's not quite so sure of himself. He hopes words will take him somewhere eventually.