As in every dream I’ve had of late, my mistress is there. She’s wearing a short black dress that she wore on days we’d get to spend together, kissing in elevators or coffee shops, stealing hours. She was on the phone, saying I know, I know, over and over while I drove us out of the city, through the tributaries of traffic and into the nearby countryside of blue hills and deciduous trees—oaks yellowing and a row of maples turning an intense red.
After she hung up, I glanced at her, brushed a strand of brown hair from her face.
Watch the road.
Why doesn’t the road watch me?
The road isn’t a spider, possessed of many eyes. The road needs watching.
We drove in silence for a while or maybe it was years. A pair of unimaginably large condors appeared on the horizon, remaking the architecture of the sky, wings wide as angels falling from heaven. It made me sad that they were extinct, ugly though they were. It was a dream after all, and I suppose my mind meant to bring in passenger pigeons but couldn’t get the details right, like Renoir painting Sainte-Victoire over and over again, fucking it up every time.
Look at those big bastards, I say. Just look at them, sounding just like my father.
The birds will remain there, she says, but the road always bends.
She was speaking in poetry, a thing that had first drawn me to her as hummingbird to nectar.
And then it happened, I saw my father, or someone who looked like my father, standing at a roadside peach stand with a crudely-drawn sign, chalk on wood. I pulled the car over, and my mistress stayed inside on her phone, resting her heels on the dashboard, blackened from constant running.
The man was wearing a brown suit jacket, and the candy-striped collared shirt that my father had worn some variation of during his thirty-year career as a math teacher. Father too, had had an affair, but it had been with one of his students. My affair felt like the smaller transgression, a less-than sign as opposed to an equal to, but that wasn’t the sort of thing you talked about on the side of the road with dust rising like spirits in the heat, fathers rising from the depths of memory.
I couldn’t tell if he was selling the peaches or if he was just showing them to people on the roadside, displaying what he’d picked for an audience. I could tell he was nervous, his hands kept twitching, perhaps because he wanted a piece of chalk and the firm structure of a blackboard on which to work his algebraic magic.
He reminded me of the teacher from Stand and Deliver. Jaime Escalante. My father had the same receding hairline, and the same love of math. I wanted him to say, a negative times a negative equals a positive, because I’d seen that movie a thousand times, chanted those words, seen them change lives in the way I wished prayer, God, or marriage had changed mine. But the truth is, outside of math class, chanting those words made no fucking sense. I never saw the correlation in my own life, negatives merely led to other negatives, in an endless regress.
My father smiled and beckoned me over with a wave.
You were always quite the writer, the man impersonating father said.
I used to love all of your stories. But why did you have to write that one about the affair? Affairs don’t just happen, they bloom. Look at this, he said, and started to juggle the peaches, two, then three, before his clumsy hands dropped them in the street, and the juices ran slowly through the road, and the condors eyed them hungrily, waiting to tear into the rest of the flesh.
I’ve gotten it wrong again, he said sadly, shaking his head and looking at me imploringly.
What was your favorite story of mine? I asked.
The one about the crane and the shifty fiancé.
I didn’t write that.
Another family had shown up, and he turned towards them, drawing equations on an imaginary chalkboard, using the peaches as variables in a math problem or figures in some discussion about the heliocentric universe. The truth is, I don’t understand math, or my father, or physics. For instance, my father, who always cared more about his appearance to others than anyone I knew. How had he slept with one of his students? Life is full of incongruities.
I was confused, and the sky was turning a strange kind of orange that may have just been the light coming in from a distant window. I got back in the car, and my mistress said her friend thought we were all wrong for each other, that one day, we’d make one another terribly unhappy.
I told her I couldn’t wait to be unhappy with her. That I could imagine swimming around in oceans of great unhappiness just to get to her shores.
But there is no other shore, she said. All shores are the same shore.
I put my hand on her leg and drove slowly westward, where all the failing men in my family wind up until the ocean blocks further escape, and the last place to look is inward. Where we all just a hollowed-out space.
In the rearview mirror, I watched my father juggling peaches again, meaty hands flashing magnificently, two, then three, suddenly five spinning peaches whirling through air, my father’s hands keeping everything aloft, briefly.
Andrew Bertaina's short story collection One Person Away From You (2021) won the Moon City Press Fiction Award (2020). His work has appeared in The Threepenny Review, Witness Magazine, The Normal School, Orion, and The Best American Poetry. He has an MFA from American University in Washington, DC.
Photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash
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