|Publisher:||Prospect Park Books|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)|
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All the Happiness You Deserve
By Michael Piafsky
Prospect Park BooksCopyright © 2014 Michael Piafsky
All rights reserved.
The Three Gates
Charlotte wakes you by jumping on your bed. "Look what happened," she whispers, opening your curtains to reveal a foot of snow on the ground. She laughs in delight as you struggle out of your sheets, your eyes clumsy in this new light. She helps you into your snow pants and raises the zipper, careful not to catch its teeth in your shirt, then drags you to her door. You pause at the threshold—surely she remembers how she has decreed this room "boy free" and yes, that means especially you too—until she laughs, "come on," and takes your hand to pull you across.
Her room, opposite your own, stays dark in the mornings so that invariably you wake up first and have to coerce her (always from the doorway, never farther in) downstairs to help you with breakfast. Some mornings she is good about helping, dutiful in preparing your cereal and readying whatever you will need for second grade. But most mornings she refuses your pleas, covering her ears with her pillow, hurling stuffed bears at you until you retreat, taunting you that your breakfast can "wait until Mom gets up," a solution certain to result in starvation, as she well knows. Never is Charlotte as giddy as she seems this morning, as optimistic, and as willing to share her world with you. You sit on her bed while she gets ready. "Turn around," she admonishes, removing her pajama bottoms, "in the presence of a lady," and you face toward the wall, to a postcard she has tacked up from a friend's trip to a desert country, a shard of sea glass dangling from a string and a small picture of Sal Mineo dotted liberally with sticky pink hearts, symbols of her ten-year-old body. When she is done with her own layers you are invited to turn back around, and, while she brushes her hair, she describes the snow fort to which you will devote your day.
Charlotte has drawn up a plan. While she brushes, you examine it. It depicts the snow fort from any number of angles, all superimposed on one another, so that the drawing resembles the spider webs that accumulate under the eaves of the carport in the springtime, and its intricacy confirms even to your eight-year-old mind that you and Charlotte could never hope to build such a palace, not in one winter morning nor in a thousand of them. But of course you would never think of telling Charlotte this—Charlotte, who gushes about the moats and walls and drawbridges ("We can use the old rusted grill top from Dad's barbecue"), who uses the word "us" to describe the day's participants, whose reflection smiles at you from the silvered mirror, whose hair crackles with electricity in the dry air, and whose crayoned blueprint suggests in its fanciful geometry that anything is possible.
You are out of the house and into the yard before your parents wake, admittedly not a Herculean task considering it is Sunday and you could hear their laughter and the clink of glassware last evening as you slipped between the cracks of dreams. This morning, this winter Sunday, is for you and Charlotte alone.
As everyone knows, a good fort begins with high walls. Unfortunately the snow, tantalizing as fallen clouds from your window, is not the right kind for fort making. It takes only a few gathered handfuls disintegrating as soon as you release them, floating gently back to the earth instead of clumping together, for the two of you to realize that this is not going to work. "You're not doing it right," Charlotte snipes, her goodwill ebbing away in disappointment, even while the remains of her own attempts lie at her feet, no more substantial than yours. Finally she gets up. "Wait here," she warns.
Beyond the wreckage of your fort, the snow is as flat as an untended field, with only the paired sets of footsteps to disturb it. When you lie down, it makes a wonderful bed. The snow, poor for fort building, is perfect for lying on: so dry it does not melt into slush, so cold it resists your heat. The sky above is an uninterrupted blue, the clouds having spent themselves into nothing with the snowfall. Lying there you can feel the earth spinning underneath you (in all the years you will tell this story, almost nobody will understand the phenomenon, but every once in a while you will catch a certain look that encourages you to keep trying), the entire world rotating counterclockwise, a funnel with you at its stem, and you watch the naked branches skate their circle above you, no sound, no interruptions, until Charlotte's face appears, upside down, so that the look of consternation she wears presents itself to you as a smile.
"What are you doing?"
"Making snow angels," you reply.
In her arms she carries your mother's mop bucket, filled to the top with water, and the rinsing cup from your bath. "Watch," she tells you, and ladles the water from the bucket.
Where the water touches it, the snow becomes malleable and firm. Used judiciously, and you both learn quickly all manner of tricks, the first bucket is enough to forge the walls into a rough omega, with a narrow passage for you to leave and return by. Working together, you fall into a rhythm, until your building process becomes automated, your breathing in syncopation, your hands as courteous to one another's as valued guests, your fingers arriving just as hers pull away. You work together through two buckets until the walls are smooth, reaching as high as your waist, until the sun is nearly overhead, until there is only an inch or so of water at the base of the bucket. These dregs Charlotte dumps near your leg as she rises to trudge the bucket back to the house. "When I get back we'll start on the tower," she promises.
Perish the elf that plots in your mind and compels your actions. You tend to the watered snow, assured in your timing, deliberate in your preparations, so that when Charlotte reemerges a few minutes later, a full bucket in hand, your mother's wavering voice promising lunch in a half an hour, it will be to this image: you, buttressed inside the fort, protected by its heavy walls, a single immaculate snow globe poised in your hand. You will recognize the disappointment in her eyes, but also some measure of gratification. She devoted her morning to building the fort, after all. What hollow veneer of honor could be claimed by depriving the fort of its battle?
"Picture it," your father says, glass in hand. The family lore. "Christmas party, revelry, eggnog, you know the rest."
You're seven years old. And you do know the rest, having heard it all many times. The family lore.
And then your mother: "I'm sitting with Sharon Bingham, discussing her cheating boyfriend and along comes this, this creature. Ten miles tall and wearing a lampshade on his head." She shifts back on the sofa. "Can you imagine such a thing?" You—fidgety, weak of bladder, increasingly myopic, a nascent male—cannot possibly be the audience she has in mind. Even your sister, newly nine, her birthday dolly always close at hand, is far from ideal. "Honestly, who can imagine such a thing?"
"So I wander up, cool as a cuke, and extend an arm. 'I'm Garland,' I say, and shake hands with the both of them."
"I had this terror, as this apparition reached for my wrist, that he was going to do something awful," your mother confides. "I thought he was going to try to kiss the back of my hand."
Next to you, giggling, Charlotte takes this liberty with her dolly.
"Wouldn't have done that, Lu," your father says, shaking his head. "Wouldn't have done that."
"I thought he was going to do something awful."
"Wouldn't have done that," your father repeats. "Couldn't get my lips under the lampshade."
"Anyway," continues your mother, "this giant creature, reed-thin back then if you can imagine it, introduces himself and asks what we're talking about. Sharon turns beet red, looking for that lout of a boyfriend—bad as he is, he trumps a space alien, she'd tell me later—and I say to him 'We're discussing the issues in Berlin, if you must know.'"
"All I had was this opening," your father says. "Good opening, but still. I'm there with two guys from work, mostly for the free hooch ..." He trails off, finally remembering his audience. "I'm slated to meet this woman Eileen. A matchmaking thing. Everyone swears we're perfect for each other. Destined to be together, the whole sales pitch. Never got to lay eyes on her, turns out she missed her bus. So my friends, we're bored stiff five minutes in, and then one of my buddies takes a lamp from the corner, drops the shade over my head. 'Well, Garland, you're the life of the party,' he tells me. Hal Scott, moved down to Dallas. Anyway, I'm looking out through the muslin of the shade and all I see is this shadow ..." He glances at your mother and winks, "a nice shadow, if I may add." Your mother, smiling, brushes him away with her arm as he continues: "I'm so scared that I just stand there and a little voice inside my head speaks to me. Hell, I'd been living in my parents' basement, back from overseas nearly a year. Something told me to be open to it all. Just let it all happen." Your mother looks over to him expectantly, but your father misses this cue. He looks confused, disoriented. Then his lacquered eyes refocus on yours. "And that's when I knew." He reaches for his highball glass. "The trick to comedy comes to me like my gift from the heavens. For the rest of the night I stood there, Cary fucking Grant, excuse me the language, kids. Discussed world events with a lampshade on my head. Refilled her drinks. Talked about housing shortages and the new GM line. And I never needed to look at her face."
Your mother raises her eyes reproachfully to the ceiling, "How was I to know that fool didn't mean it ironically? Like expecting irony from a houseplant. Underneath the lampshade Cary Grant, and underneath Cary Grant? Another lampshade. Story of my life."
"You loved it," your father says. "And you love me." And the way she looks at him, almost shyly, over her own glass, and the way he grins back, the frequency with which they tell the story, their legs on the couch kissing at the knee, all tell you that she did and that she does.
His breath is a cloud hovering above your pillow.
"Get up," he says, and you look around blearily.
He's wearing his heavy coat, lambskin and wool. You try to reason through the hands of the clock to conclude that it is four a.m. Even at twelve years old, you know that nothing good has ever come at four a.m. Even Christmas needs to wait till daybreak. But your father is standing over your bed, holding out your winter jacket and a pair of shoes. The keys to the Buick twirl in his fingers.
"Get up," he says.
Outside, the air is so cold you can feel it hammering into your sinuses. The liquid in your eyes crinkles. Giant snowflakes are falling, soft as the pillow on your bed. There's baby-blue light coming from the streetlamps and you don't know if it's from the cold or the time of day. "Are we going to wait for Charlotte?" you ask, looking out the window at the house. No lights on. Your sister allowed to sleep. The Buick coughs to a start and your father pulls away from the curb.
"We'll keep this between us men." Your dad taps your shoulder, which, even at this hour, makes you feel good.
He drives a few miles out of town, until the snow on the road gets thicker and there aren't any more streetlamps. The Buick shoulders through the snow, headlights like a submarine's. Your dad's hands shift gears, knuckles hunched up on the steering wheel. When he turns, you can spot something in his eye. Something like hunger or mirth. It's something close to joy, only not quite. This is what joy would look like if it drank too much coffee. You can smell the scotch on his breath, but it's nothing to worry about. It smells like last night, stale and benign. Whatever is pushing him forward, it isn't the booze. Finally he stops the car, his hand jerking the shift upward. The headlights are on high, reaching out to absolutely nothing.
He opens his door and gets out, bending onto the hood. You pull open your door, the steel cold and heavy under your fingers, the air dashing underneath your pant cuffs straight toward your privates. You walk up to the hood and examine your father, who's staring straight outward, eyes sheathed. He's got a ten-mile stare on.
"What do you see?" he asks.
Flat land for a hundred miles in every direction. The snow piled up in dunes that groan and sway like mammals do just before they go extinct. It's a test and you don't have any answers. "Nothing," you offer.
He grunts. Then grins at you, his eye teeth stained darker than the rest. "Ever drive through a snowdrift?" he asks.
You tell him you've never driven at all, although this isn't true. You've pulled the car in and out of the driveway for six months now, and two weeks ago your mother let you idle in front of the supermarket. He motions you into the driver's seat and waits while you calibrate the darkness in the mirrors. Once you're ready he starts talking, gesturing, his hands covering your hands.
"No surprises," he begins. "The trick is speed. Come at them quick but leave enough to accelerate through."
"At least to start, you're going to want to try a lower gear. After that we can experiment."
Then he sits quiet for a while, so long that you think maybe he's gone to sleep. With the headlights straight ahead, the car is pitch black. His breathing is shallow and even. Then: "Don't touch the brakes. We've got a shovel in the trunk but I don't want to use it."
You adjust yourself in the seat. Your jacket is bunched underneath your armpits, constricting your arms. The cotton of your pajama pants is so thin that you can feel the cold vinyl. The pedal feels strange until you realize that your father has brought your baseball cleats, the metal elevating your foot so that you are meeting the clutch midway. With no socks, the hard leather and mud from last fall dig into your heel. Just as you reach out to put the car into first, your dad reaches over, draping you with his body. You can feel the stubble from his cheek and smell him, animal sour, the lambskin and scotch and gum decay. He exhales in your ear and then pulls back with your seat belt in his hand. He straps you in and checks the belt's excess.
You hit the first bank at fifteen miles an hour. The car rumbles through, not enough momentum, only the eight cylinders grinding through the dense snow. The car emerges like it's coming up for air. Your dad grunts, "Faster."
You pick out another one forty feet away, accelerate smoothly. This one you hit at twenty plus, and the car makes a satisfying noise as it connects. The headlights go dark and then light again. You pull around in a long loop and your father points over the wheel to a large target.
By now the car is swerving east-west from the ice, but it's a giant, hogging the road like gravity's litmus. You both seize when the car smashes through, the antenna pointed back at you like a broken arrow. You target another bank and shift into third gear, the wheels in cartoon acceleration until they find the ground and grab. This bank is higher than the rest, maybe wider too.
This time it's like going through sea foam, the car catching briefly before tearing through. You hear a sharp ping and, opening your eyes, you can see that the antenna is completely gone. If your dad notices, he says nothing. Only his breathing, ragged and wet. "Faster."
The car hits forty, everything accelerator and inertia. Your foot pushed so hard against the floor that your bottom thrusts high into the air for leverage. When you come at the dune, your fingers tense against the wheel.
Everything explodes hard and quick. The chunks of snow atomize against your windshield and you can feel the front wheels buck. For a second it feels like you're flying, and then the wheelbase jars back down. You are almost out of the snowbank but not quite, the headlights lighting nothing but themselves, snowbed elevating the front axle just off terra firma. It is ocean-floor dark and quiet. Next to you, your father retreats into the vinyl, his lungs slowing down, finally getting the oxygen they need. His fingers, clenched on your knee, finally relax and recede. Beneath you, the wheels are spinning helplessly, rubber in the air, whirring impotent, lovers mourning their distance from the Earth.
Excerpted from All the Happiness You Deserve by Michael Piafsky. Copyright © 2014 Michael Piafsky. Excerpted by permission of Prospect Park Books.
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