There are a lot of cars and trucks in the rest area, but it’s cold enough that no one lingers, they just dash through the wind to the rest rooms and back again. I stand beside the truck and smoke a cigarette, watching the dog sniff around. It moves in short pounces like he’s stalking an insect. Jill calls the dog Cola because we got him in Pensacola. She’s going through the routine with Laney about checking her diaper. It’s a standoff, but finally Jill gets her to lie down. I laugh at the way Laney goes limp finally, fiddling with the steering wheel and ignoring what goes on during the diaper change. It reminds me of the way my mind wanders when we make love sometimes.
Jill gets the diaper changed and they start the next routine about the coat and knit cap. There’s nothing to the rest area except for a stand of oaks around the picnic area. I light another cigarette and wait. One of my favorite things is watching Jill and Laney, the way Jill maneuvers Laney into doing what she wanted her to do all along. Jill is a master of pleasant manipulation, even with me. Most of the time I don’t mind. I like to know what’s expected of me.
Finally Jill steps back, her face dark. “Your turn, Dennis,” she says. She takes the cigarette out of my hand and walks across the grass trailing smoke. The dog follows her.
I step to the open passenger door to get out of the wind, and try my standard line. “I wish I had a pink coat and a fuzzy cap.” I start to say, “I’d wear it all the time,” but Laney’s not paying attention. She leans against the steering wheel and traces the finger grooves, then gives me the look that says nothing I try will ever work.
I reach under the seat for the bottle and wait for her to decide she’s ready. I take a look around and then sip at the whiskey. Jill is over by the picnic area, tying her hair back with a bandanna, the cigarette still in her mouth. The dog is squatting to pee.
“You have to put this on,” I say. Laney giggles and gives me a shy look. A natural flirt.
Jill and the dog are running in circles, Jill chasing and being chased.
The day we got the dog, we had driven over to Pensacola. That was our thing in Mississippi, to drive to the Gulf on Sundays. I saw him in a local Advertiser News I was reading on the beach while Jill splashed around in the surf, her jeans rolled up to her knees and still getting soaked. We went to get the dog and then fought all the way home about a name. Lying in bed that night, our backs to each other, Jill said she didn’t think it was working out, and for the first time that she wanted to go home to Tucson. Things cooled off, but she still wanted to try Tucson.
I finished out the semester, closed our bank account, and got the Cherokee in highway shape. The plan was to move back, find work, see what happened. Laney’s father, Jimmy, still lived in Phoenix. He called late nights wanting a second chance. I didn’t like the way Jill talked to him, like a high school girlfriend. She’d laugh, tell him Laney missed him. I never said anything. She always told me I didn’t say enough and I promised to do better.
Laney sees the dog chasing her mother and comes over to my side of the truck. She sticks the silly putty against my beard and then pulls it away, looks at it closely for new hair. She throws her hands over her head and falls back in the seat, laughing about whatever she saw there. I pick her up and hold her, turning my face away from the putty, then work her arms into the coat sleeves and zip it up. She runs toward her mother and the dog in her under-balanced way while I jog along beside.
Jill is sitting on a picnic table, her face red and her arms crossed, hands tucked under the armpits of her blue Jean jacket. She looks prettier like that than she has in a long time. Laney and the dog pile up on the ground together and I wait for the opportunity to pull the hat over her ears. Her cheeks are already red too, and she doesn’t notice the cap being adjusted. Only the white parts of the dog’s eyes show as he struggles to break away from Laney. He snaps at her and she lets go long enough for him to get away.
I push Jill’s knees apart and step between her legs, running my hands under her coat and shirt. She uncrosses her arms and moves my hands to her breasts. Her nipples are hard and I like the warm feeling there. Jill crosses her arms over mine so that I am held there. When we kiss I taste bourbon and cigarettes.
“Been a while since I had this much fun,” she says.
Laney is running from the dog and falls down. The dog tugs at her hat until she starts to cry. Jill mumbles something and shakes her head. She releases me and I pull my hands out so she can pick up Laney.
The attention only makes Laney worse and she goes into a crying jag that leaves her short of breath. Nothing works to calm her down so we all three sit on the table with Laney bawling in her mother’s lap.
I take out another cigarette and start to light it, but I look at Laney and put it back in the pack. We’re supposed to be trying to quit, at least in front of the baby.
“Look, mistletoe,” Jill says, pointing up in the tree above our table.
The grove is loaded with twigs of mistletoe standing out in sharp green from the bare branches. Laney refuses to look. I put the pack back in my pocket and climb into a crook of the tree and shinny out onto a limb, break off a twig of mistletoe and drop it to the ground. Laney stops crying and stares at me in the tree, and I wonder if she recognizes new possibilities the world might hold. She climbs down and runs over to the mistletoe, picks it up and shows it to the dog. When the dog tries to take the twig away Laney holds it over her head and runs around the table. The dog chases her, leaping at the twig.
I break off a whole branch and drop it to Jill, who picks it up. She touches the cluster of white berries, then holds the branch close to smell it. “Throw down some more,” she says.
I move around the tree, breaking off branches and dropping them to the ground, until they cover the table where Jill has been stacking them. After a while I stop to look down at this family I’ve taken on, the four of us somewhere in Texas, with no one to depend on except each other. When I drop to the ground Jill comes over. She wipes the bark and the green mistletoe stain off my hands with the sleeve of her coat. I put my hands around her, into her back pockets, and we start a slow dance under the tree.