My old Jeep Cherokee is loaded down, every square inch stuffed with boxes of books, clothes, Christmas presents, kitchen stuff. Just behind the front seat is a spot hollowed out for Laney’s crib. Laney is Jill’s baby, just over a year old, riding back there with her blankets, toys, books, and the puppy. She’s been walking for a while now, but not talking yet. Jill thinks it will be any day now. When I started seeing her six months ago, I thought being a father would be pretty much like having a pet dog. I pictured a baby lying in her crib, sleeping or making gurgling sounds or somehow else entertaining herself, while I sat at my desk to write. Except for the occasional diaper change or feeding, I didn’t see why a baby would require much attention. I quickly learned how naïve that picture was. She’s bouncing off the walls right now.
It’s the week before Christmas and we’re moving back to Tucson after six months in Mississippi. I taught English at a college not far from the Gulf of Mexico and liked it enough that I wanted to stay. But Jill was always homesick and she thought the people were backwards. We didn’t live there long enough to make friends. She wants mistletoe to hang from the rearview mirror, but I’m not sure that it grows in this part of Texas. I’m not sure I would even know it if I saw it.
I drove from Tucson to Mississippi in twenty-four hours once. That was when I came to interview for the job at Pearl River Community College, the only offer I got. When I brought Jill out she couldn’t get over how green everything was. I’m not in any big hurry to go back to the desert, so with Jill and Laney the drive home will take three days, maybe four.
Laney entertains herself by pulling loose hair off the dog, a mottled blue cur, with silly putty, then she leans over the back of the seat to show us how the hair can be made to disappear inside the ball. Thinking about that hair forever synthesized inside her toy turns my stomach a little, but the game has kept her quiet for thirty minutes, and for that I’m grateful. The dog stares at me with a patient dog expression, his tongue hanging out and drool wetting the mattress.
A few miles later the dog yelps over some fresh indignity committed by Laney. I don’t even look back this time, just pull the pint of bourbon from under the seat and take a sip. Jill turns around in the seat to deal with her, and she starts to cry. When Jill turns back around I offer her the bottle and she takes a drink.
“They’re getting cabin fever,” she says.
“I’ll find a rest stop. Let her work off some energy.”
“A shot of this might settle her down,” Jill says. She slumps down in the seat and holds the bottle out at eye level.
“We can all use a time out. Traveling’s tough on a kid.” Jill gives the bottle a shake, measuring her drink.
“Yeah,” Jill says, and twists the radio on. “That’s Parenthood 101.”
There’s nothing but static so she hits the seek button and we get a country station. She hits it again and it stops on gospel, and a third time finds Rush Limbaugh. The next time it goes through the dial to the first station, so she turns it off. “I meant it to be a joke,” she says.
I put my hand on the inside of her thigh and feel the coarse jeans.
Jill turns her back to me, stares out at the brown country. The sky is empty and blue from the front that came through last night. “Six months and you still don’t know when I’m joking,” she says.
I reach up and touch the back of her neck under her heavy red hair, knowing I have to work hard when she gets like this. Sometimes Laney gets to be too much. Still looking away Jill runs her fingers over my wrist, tugging at the hair. I pull her over and she leans her head against my side.
“You shouldn’t be so mean,” I say.
She nods her head, takes my hand so it’s touching her cheek, kisses my fingers one at a time. Laney leans across the back of the seat with her arm around the dog in a strangle hold.
“Hersu,” Laney says. It’s a new word she’s been trying out lately. She has thin curly hair, and eyes that can stare right through me. A perfect version of her mother.
Jill sits up and gives me a proud look. “She said ‘daddy.’ Did you hear that?” She pulls Laney and the dog into the seat with us. The dog falls into the seat between us and then rolls onto the floorboard under my legs. I reach down for the puppy but find the pistol instead, and slide it back under the seat where I carry it. I hardly ever use the thing, but I remember my dad always carried one on trips when I was little.
“Did you hear that?” Jill says again.
I smile at Laney and tickle her stomach. She giggles and hides her face against her mother. A rest area is coming up and I slow to exit the interstate. “Hersu” is Laney’s best word after “Mama.” It’s what she uses to mean me, the dog, the Jeep, and any manmade thing that flies.