Old age has husked her father. Blotched meat. Bared nerves. Engorged prostate. Golf pants. Enough of him remains for the weekend visit, if not the wedding. Barnes last came a couple Christmases ago. Back then, the old man was still troweling around the yard with distracted enthusiasm, timidly stabbing green weedy things. He was a regular pouter and weeper at his widower coffee collective. Now, he frugals away his afternoons in a basement bunker that smells of gray mildew and lurid neglect. His old raptures and grudges have been mothballed. Old hobbies, too. Instead, stapled and tacked and taped around his bunker walls are pictures of a preteen pop act from Estonia. Five young boys in variant shades of disposability. The kind of polymath talent that can sing and model and act, then die hideously young in central Florida. The images are grainy, low-res printouts produced by a primitive computer system that Barnes’s dad—the owner of many paradoxical superstitions—keeps sequestered in a closet upstairs.
“Is this what dementia looks like?” Barnes asks. “Estonian boy bands and lurid neglect?”
“Don’t touch my workspace.”
“What kind of work?”
“You show up,” he says. “You insult me.”
“I’m wondering if you have a restraining order hanging up here, too.”
“Just let a tired old pensioner have his passions.”
“Passions? Jesus, Dad. Keep talking like that and we’ll have to put you on some kind of federal registry.”
Her father is leaned forward, slurping spirals of plastic noodles from a platter. Barnes touches his cold skull, that necrotic landscape, its dwindling shreds of white hair and red lollipop scabs. His dander fails to distract her from the lechy wallpaper. The hair. She’s trying to, like, collate it.
“All these graven images,” she sighs. “And you a churchgoing man.”
“I enjoy their music. It speaks things to me. Especially the early stuff.” He says this with a shoelace of noodle protruding from his face.
“They’re twelve. It’s all early stuff.”
The workbench is congested with half-pillaged take-out cartons: Italian, Korean, Chinese, Mexican, Thai. A whole international campaign of dietary sloth. The tabletop is lacquered and faded at its middlemost point, and the old man’s forehead is swirled with a similar grain. Is he sleeping down here, face planted, dreaming among the dregs? Barnes surveys the belligerent loneliness of it all.
“If Mom were alive to see this,” she says, “she’d beg for another embolism to drop her back into her grave.”
Her dad, doubled over, emits a wet, gurgly hack. She could try giving him the Heimlich, but she’s afraid he’d cough up an adolescent’s femur, flavored like the Baltic Sea.
“I chew fine,” he says. “My throat just forgets the rest of me is here.”
“You are such a weird old fucker, Dad.”
He smacks her hand off him. “The Estonians don’t see me that way.”
“The Estonians don’t see you at all.”
“Exactly,” he replies. “That’s what I’m saying.”
Barnes is almost manic with dismay, but her glossary of quips and gouges and lashings cannot sustain her. The stammering sitcom machine is crapping out.
“Is my killjoy daughter staying here for the weekend?” the old man asks, “or will she be parking her wagon of endless sunshine at a motel?”
Barnes regards the leather satchel she is clutching with her free arm. She’s having second and third and fifty-eighth thoughts. She’s so distracted weighing the terms of her surrender, she doesn’t notice the old man cueing up the boom box, a battered relic from some distant cul-de-sac of Barnes’s girlhood. That long-ago, purple-poisoned dream.
“I want you to listen to something,” he says, tapping an extraneous amount of buttons.
“For god’s sake, why?”
“This is an era of new awakenings.”
“It’s bad enough I’m your daughter,” she says, retreating up the stairs before the blitzkrieg begins. “Don’t make me an accessory, too.”
The coffee-bar-patisserie-yoga-mom-hub is housed in a decommissioned bank. Even though the Motley Cruller’s walls are slathered fuchsia and the prevailing aesthetic is beatnik upper-crust, the structure retains the desperate, hapless aura of community finance. If Barnes holds herself perfectly rigid, she can feel a preternatural tingle rising up her backbone, the spectral creep of rejected credit applications, unpaid mortgages, foreclosed homes. Somehow, the sensation reassures her.
The Cruller has been colonized by an eclectic range of emotional-support groups. The booze addicts are slumped by the old steel vault. The sad-mommy posse’s two warring factions—the postpartums and the empty nesters—sit at opposing ends of the service counter. The suicidal recoveries share a lilac loveseat in the lounge, one of them a middle-aged man with a much-abused oilpaper umbrella in his lap. The twiggy chairs by the shuttered ATM are occupied by a trio of fluoride conspiracists.
At the former rent-a-cop’s station, Barnes finds the gray-headed widowers glaring through a pane of bubble glass into the midday sun.
“Hiya, new blood,” says Ted, the grim-mouthed Hugging Hearts founder. “Always good to be reminded that today’s brittle youth are having their world wrecked, too.”
“I think you know my dad.”
“You’re Barnes the Younger. The papergirl.”
“I work at a newspaper, yes.”
“Secretary, was it? Sales gal? You serve espresso and give break-room foot massages to the fourth estate.”
“I’m also the sports editor.”
An older woman, stringently erect and tremoring with Parkinson’s, tugs the elbow of an elderly widower bedecked in flannel. “Did you know Barry had a militant lesbo daughter?”
“A lot of straight women appreciate sports,” Barnes replies. She gestures at the clustered paranoiacs near the ATM. “It’s the fluoride that turns them gay.”
“How is Barry doing?” Ted asks. “The old crybaby hasn’t clocked out, has he?”
“He’s still alive and occasionally lucid. He wants me to pay for him to take a ridiculous theme cruise. This schlocky boy band and their rabid followers book passage on a transatlantic voyage to the Isle of MDMA. There are religious visions and hula dancers, I guess.”
“That’s great for him.”
Ted squints through the window, making tetchy expressions at the sunlight. The once-handsome symmetry of his face has been marred by a dizzying geometry of pale pocks where the surgeons sliced off the precancerous moles, folded crustacean flesh. “You want us to, what, dissuade him? Stage an intervention? Ambush the old fart?”
“He was coming to your group for years. But something happened. All of your Hugging Hearts failed him.”
“Hugging Hearts got dissolved by unanimous decree,” Ted says. “We’re Shrugging Hearts now. No big hopes, no big gestures, no big regrets. Everybody’s a lot more relaxed since the rebranding, let me tell you. You should try the scones here.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“You should stop being such a rude, cantankerous butchie.”
“I think we can all agree,” Barnes smiles, “this is going exceptionally well.”
Ted nods. “Would you like a seat?”
Barnes takes a measured sip of her overpriced mocha-melted-tire-sludge latte and makes a reluctant move for the stool. Ted has already slung a frail leg across it.
“This isn’t the rueful-offspring group,” he says. “Those brats meet by the unisex bathroom every other Wednesday. We’re just griefers. We talk about our grief and the things our grief means to us. That’s all. You see blind Argus? He lost his wife to cancer of the mouth. A few weeks on a cash-sucking novelty cruise in the Mediterranean isn’t quite so tragic, yeah? Most of us are just looking for a little frivolity and distraction before we tip over and die at the croissant case. You want solace, buy a sex toy. Adopt a dog.”
“Shit,” says the flanneled man. “I thought this was the rueful-dog-owners group.” He unplugs his hearing device and drops it in an empty coffee cup.
“He had friends and hobbies,” Barnes says. “You should see what’s become of his garden. It’s downright apocalyptic. The homeowners association is going to string him up from one of their quaint, wrought-iron lampposts and let the vultures peck out his cataracts.”
“At our age, that doesn’t sound so terrible, either,” Ted replies. “The vultures are coming for us all. Might as well replenish the ecosystem on our way out.”
The Parkinson’s lady latches a trembly hand on Ted’s arm. “Great speech, drizzle dick.”
Barnes buys a half-dozen chive scones and eats four of them in her car, chewing so aggressively her TMJ-afflicted jaw pops with every chomp. Everything tastes like chive-flavored despair. She may have chipped a tooth or swallowed a filling. Two of her tires are just about flat. Life, death, auto repair, fluoride: You can’t outrun the buzzards forever.
Her dad’s senior village, like the six identical senior villages located within a half-mile radius, is restricted to adults age sixty-two and over. So how to account for the small Vietnamese child perched on Barnes’s dead mom’s favorite couch? The boy doesn’t have any ID tags or an honorary AARP card. Barnes visits the kitchen fridge and checks the carton of expired milk to make sure he isn’t featured in a missing-child advertisement. She returns to the living room with a glass of sour curd for the kid, and a cardboard coaster for the glass, and a generous saucer of bourbon for herself. Barnes sops the last nub of scone in her booze bowl and nibbles it slowly so her mouth has something interesting to do, other than scream. Two teenage girls in neon eye makeup, their hair a nuked pink, are cross-legged on the rug.
“I’m sorry,” Barnes tells them. “I don’t understand what—”
“We’re busy here,” her dad says.
He is barnacled to his BarcaLounger, rocking in congress with the steamy pop drivel trickling out the small digital thingamajig on the coffee table. The children are listening along, rapt. In the downstairs bathroom, a maladroit presence is vigorously flushing and reflushing the toilet. The plumbing groans and gasps. Barnes remains clam-lipped, smiling grievously, when a portly man with some kind of aggravated skin condition, his trenchant potbelly stamped in damp handprints, enters the room. Each of the man’s forearms is gothically tattooed: one Estonian boy sealed in a red-pepper latex bodysuit, a mirror twin draped in Christlike rags. The rest of the band must be inscribed on his ham hocks. He settles into Barnes’s mom’s second-most-favorite couch.
Barnes does not cherish the role of headmistress, but she’s pretty certain the irate tsk-tsk noise circulating the living room originally issued from her own throat. The houseguests are swathed in matching muumuus, their feet stuffed into matching cross-trainers, all shiny and neoprene-sleek. Barnes’s dad also wears the uniform, but his is several sizes too bulky for his shriveled extremities. He’s dog-paddling in a lake of nebulous fabric. Barnes is tempted to search his limbs for ritual scarring, maybe a barcode, a microchip.
“When I said you should be on a federal registry—”
“This is my community,” he says, adjusting the ballast of the fan-club medallion that dangles from his slack-lizard neck. “I won’t let you ruin this, too.”
“Too? What else have I—”
Her dad shushes her. She shushes him back.
“All these silly adolescent songs are written by a secret cabal of industry hacks and agoraphobics in pajamas,” she says. “Everything on the radio rolls off the same assembly line. If you’re going to be a fanatic, be a fanatic about something interesting.”
“Aren’t I allowed to feel things?”
“No,” Barnes replies. “You most certainly are not.”
“My pain,” he says, “is authentic pain.”
“You never went this amok when mom cashed out.”
Her father totters on the shelf of the BarcaLounger. For a brief and bewildering moment, Barnes believes he is about to fling his arms around her midsection and inflict her with a churlish hug, wringing out her guts, a cathartic juicing. But he keeps tilting, tilting, tilting—until he’s leaned around her completely.
“Hey, Reggie,” he says to the other man. “You got the Pensacola gig loaded on that doohickey? That’s the peak shit. Peak.”
The man doesn’t respond, just simmers and clenches with hypertension, blinking in frenzied association with the music. Barnes’s dad sighs and wobbles forward a little more, nervously tapping the device on the table.
Everyone is mutely vibrating on the same clandestine frequency, a choir of juddering karaoke, physical gibberish. There is something primordial about the scene. Barnes is reminded of those award-winning nature documentaries in which a migration of endangered sea life swim to a prehistoric island and deposit their speckled eggs in the sand, then float off, never to return. The young hatchlings teach themselves to walk and scavenge and survive on their own, then waste their whole lives wandering the coastline in search of a mysterious authority that will love them back. It’s not the flagrant abandonment that makes Barnes feel so glum and, well, rueful. It’s the hatchlings’ naïve longing, their soft-bellied vulnerability. The rare animals that do find love? They swim to a new island, dump their eggs, and repeat the trauma for another luckless generation. The wistful music swells. The credits roll. That’s the happy ending.
Now Barnes is also blinking furiously, whipping her head sideward, trying to shake away the salt burn that is eating her eyeballs.
“That’s right,” her dad whispers. “Get into it.”
Instead, she grabs the music device and tries to wing it out a bay window, but the bay windows are shut. Her aim is cockeyed anyway. The gadget sails behind the couch into whatever mite-infested oblivion lurks there. The furniture seems to be heckling her.
“Please put on some goddamn pants,” Barnes tells her father. “We have a wedding to go to.”
The wedding is a day away, but Barnes needs the extra time to indoctrinate her father in the protocols of public dining and domestic détente. Passive-aggressive handshakes, meteorological banter, pandemonious chewing, the confounding duplication of silverware. Her dad is not an enthusiastic candidate for reeducation, although he has suffered more egregious indignities in the august years of his life, so what’s a little more harm?
Barnes doesn’t know which cousin is getting married. She’s lost track of the various sects and schisms and everlasting blood grudge that may or may not unite their far-strewn brood. She hasn’t seen any of these people in a decade, and she doesn’t remember what they look like or what she needs to fear about them. After her mother’s death, the scrapbooks and family annals were exiled into garage storage, and the wedding invitation is buried in the trunk of Barnes’s car among empty vodka bottles and the pit-stained polo shirts she wears for work. Barnes doesn’t want to go rummaging. She’d rather sit on this cheerless couch in this cheerless bunker, a fork in each fist, amiably brainwashing her father.
The old man is more absorbed in the greasy, foil-swaddled burrito he is struggling to chew via a lifetime of bargain dental plans. Barnes puts down the salad fork. Maybe it’s the dessert fork. She isn’t sure. The demonstration had been going so well. “What is it?”
He gives his food an anguished stare.
“Do you think they have burritos in Estonia?” he asks.
“Oh, Jesus Backflipping Christ.”
Some history: Barnes has spent the back end of her thirties managing the sports desk at a small-town newspaper with an eroding circulation and seditious staff. She works fourteen-hour days, noon until two a.m., and spends most of her waking life traipsing around muddy athletic fields and high-school gymnasiums fetid with the smell of teenage failure and IcyHot. Parents scream obscenities at her. Coaches scream obscenities at her. Teenage basketball players stroke their patchy facial hair and give her false names, make up absurd stories, then demand retractions and public apologies when their hoaxes appear in print the next day. She works weekends and holidays and split shifts and never knows what day of the week it is. She has difficulty falling asleep without a caustic whiskey nightcap, and she has difficulty rising and motoring to work without same. The paper’s other editors in Living and Opinion and Metro have conspired to keep her floundering among incoherent shot-putters and soccer goalies the rest of her life. The monolithic corporation that owns the newspaper, and hundreds like it, is plotting to consolidate their regional properties and slash the workforce by two-thirds.
Barnes’s main ally at the office is a sports stringer named Toby McPhulge, an opaque twenty-two-year-old community-college dropout and appallingly inept writer, who doubles as an occasional drinking associate and bad-sex fling. Toby lives in his parents’ pool house and will smell forever of teenage failure and IcyHot and chlorine. Every day, he brings to work a brown-bag lunch prepared by his mother, a beautiful and stunningly fragrant woman nearly Barnes’s age.
“Toby,” Barnes says into the pay phone. “Your grandfather had Alzheimer’s, right? What did you do when he threatened to jump out of a moving vehicle? You didn’t ever, like, give him a little shove, did you?”
“I’m calling you from the world’s cleanest phone booth.”
“That’s great,” Toby says. “What’s a phone booth?”
“It’s this tiny Plexiglas coffin that you visit just to feel old.”
“Hey, do you listen to music? Like actual decent music? Not the popular pap-smear stuff? I need a few recommendations. I’m brainwashing someone.”
“What is playing in your car stereo, Toby?”
“Is there a genre? A style? Do you just listen to it ring?”
“I’m not really into that angry solipsistic stuff that your generation subscribed to. My generation has a more empathetic sound.”
“Generation? I’m not that old.”
“Aren’t you forty-two?”
“I’m thirty-nine, Toby.”
“You’ve been thirty-nine the last three years,” he replies.
“When I get back into town and have some free time,” Barnes says, curating her words carefully, “I am going to take a special trip to the SPCA.”
“Thinking about getting a dog or cat to keep you company in your dotage? That’s smart, Barnes. Very smart.”
“I wanna ask them to spay me.”
“Statistically speaking, you’re probably too old to have children even if you wanted them,” Mr. Empathy informs her.
“Did I really say my gramps had Alzheimer’s? I think he was just old. He was tired of retaining pointless trivia and painful memories, so he let it all go. Also, you picked a hell of a time to take some time off. Consolidation has begun. The Layoff Fairy hath arrived.”
“They’re giving you a real nice compensation package in which you get to stay home and wear pj’s and collect unemployment until the government cuts you off.”
“I think they’re giving me your job.”
“You’re just a stringer!”
“That’s no way to talk to your successor,” Toby says.
“You’re laid off, okay? Look on the bright side. Now we can have sex in my parents’ pool house without filing any paperwork with HR. You want me to save anything from your desk? Your mug? Your lamp?”
“My dignity,” Barnes says.
“I don’t see any of that lying around here.”
“I’m the victim in this nightmare. So why am I the one who feels vile?”
“I don’t think you’re vile, Barnes, or too old for babies. You’re just too bitter.”
Barnes stares at the phone-booth window and the graffiti koan—Eat Shit, Floss Daily—notched into it. She was so shocked to see a functional phone booth on the roadside, especially one in pristine condition, she was compelled to stop and inspect. Blame the witchcraft of nostalgia, latent longing, a tourist’s homesick mirage. Now here she is, keys in hand, scratching puerile slogans into the world’s last clean sheet of Plexiglas. She tromps back to the car, where her dad is frantically roving the dial across the famished wasteland of FM radio.
“Happy?” she asks.
“Nothing yet,” he replies.
The historic bird sanctuary seems strangely bereft of actual birds. The trees are naked, and the sky is a dead wheat color, neutral and blank. Barnes and her dad arrive just in time for the entrées to be served. They have missed the bride and groom’s slow gallows march down the aisle, the officiate’s doughy spiel, the solemn vows and fumbled ring exchange, the inaugural face-noshing. Basically the wedding. They’ve missed the wedding. But at least now they can enjoy some mediocre food and dangerously feral dancing without having to sit through the stilted mise-en-scène. The strangest part, though? Barnes is disappointed she missed as much as she did. She doesn’t know these people, not really, and if she drinks as much as she’s anticipating, she won’t remember any of this when she regains consciousness tomorrow afternoon in the hotel bathtub, coat closet, or sanitarium. Maybe she craved a temporary glimpse of that endangered animal—joy—or its skittish companion, rampant-idiot love. Maybe she just wanted to chuck rice at a moving target. Sometimes it’s best not to know.
The reception is held in a renovated barn. Through the arched entryway, Barnes can see a live band, some kind of mutant R&B-soul-funk-balladry revue, playing a lazy somnambulant waltz while two indistinct figures sleepwalk around a prefab checkerboard floor. Barnes’s eyes start to well, not with tears or emotional sap, but boiled sweat. The air is so oppressively hot and swampy, it’s already puréeing her. She leans against a pinewood owl hutch, the ground around which is stained charnel red, and pulls a hankie from her purse to dab her pores. She’s trying to make speedy progress before her pricey pointillist mascara—so dexterously applied—sludges down her chin and doily thrift-shop dress, draining into her shoe. Her dad is still rubbing his gray temples in ire, peeved from the long car ride. Then he notices his daughter seemingly blenderized beside him. He smiles sadly and proffers an arm.
“I hate you,” Barnes says.
She takes hold anyway, and they step towards the entrance. Somewhere between the footpath and the archway, one of the old man’s oversized loafers catches on a cobblestone. He tumbles forward in an impressive stuntman roll that lands him in a spread of stinky mulch. Barnes, staring quizzically at her free hands, feels a nit guilty about how easily she let him go.
She tries to hike him to his feet, but he fights her off.
“Just leave me here.”
He flops flat and stares skyward, as if cataloguing all the magnificent bird varieties that have either fallen extinct or migrated to Pluto. “This is absolutely fine.” He picks a stick of mulch off his cheek and flicks it at an unattended bird feeder. “If you love me, you won’t touch me.”
His reedy legs start to swim and jibe to a waltz tempo of his own. He moans lustily: “I am a sexy boy. My life’s a sexy ploy.”
“Who wants a taste…of that pretty, pretty face? Who wants a piece…of that naughty, naughty fleece?”
Barnes squats low. “Is this what a stroke looks like?”
“Bite me, little doggy. Bite me,” he says. “Shake me like a bone.”
His squirming slows; his body goes still. Barnes creeps a cautious hand up his neck to check for a pulse and maybe also straighten his tie, so the gruesome bulge of his pacemaker is not so blatant.
“Like a bone!” he shouts.
She springs to her feet and hustles into the barn.
The first dance is finished, and now the band has unleashed a feisty disco number that attracts every semi-ambulatory body to the dance floor, toppled senior citizens excepted. Barnes can’t identify anyone in the room, and she certainly doesn’t recall her extended family ever being this sober or coordinated with their feet, but she recognizes the fraught Irish skin of her mother’s side of the dynasty. Across the room, a group of meek wallflower types are seated at a large table, perfectly content as they gaze dreamily into the plutonium glow of their phones. Barnes can’t reach them. A barrier reef of bodies—hip-twisters, finger-jabbers, possible epileptics—blocks her path. Barnes tries to flank her way up a side lane, but the entire dance floor is filled. The crowd has formed a circle around a young man shimmying on the ground.
The guy is flailing his spry contortionist’s frame, bicycle-kicking his legs, caterpillaring on his back. He is demonstrating a whole lexicon of classic break-dancing maneuvers that Barnes remembers from vintage music videos and cult movies available only on degraded VHS tapes from her youth. The crowd is in a frenzy, yelping and clapping, as the band urges the young man along. He’s a ruddy Irish type: druggy-lidded eyes, an isthmus beard that edges his jawline like a chin strap. His jacket is off, feet bare. His shirt is so saturated with sweat, it sloshes loose and untucked, like a waterlogged sail, and Barnes can see a weird constellation of freckles and moles and zigging knife scars on his lower back. His tranche of moves gets only more baroque, and soon includes the pantomime of arthritic-limbed robots and mud monsters and bloated seals. His bald eagle draws a particularly boisterous applause from the crowd. Barnes, despite herself, is caught up in the revelry, the spectacle. She claps along with the strangers and thumps her cloggy dress shoes to the seismic rhythm, making childish wooting noises that feel ventilated from a woman disturbed.
The band halt mid-song, do a fast vamp, and transition to a new tune with the same boxy chord progression. They beat out a verse and chorus and bridge, then segue into another radio staple. A middle-aged guest in an out-of-season seersucker coat gets down on his hands and knees, nearly apoplectic with glee, and shouts at the dancer, “It’s a medley! It’s a medley! What’re you gonna do with that, Dance Beast?”
The dancer handsprings onto his feet and pops a backflip so perfect, so unworldly, an elderly woman in front of Barnes emits a hormonal gasp and faints into her grandson’s arms. There is an almost near-total loss of collective bladder function among the audience. For a moment, Barnes thinks, SPCA or not, she may need to pick one of her ovaries off the floor and deposit it in the nearest trash can or biomedical-waste receptacle.
She steps aside so the middle schooler can drag his unconscious nana to the sidelines, where he sits himself, fanning his glistening crew cut with the hang of the old dame’s skirt. When Barnes looks back, the dancer is inverted, legs in air, doing a complex dreidel spin on his skull. By any sensible metric, he’s outdone himself, but it’s too much. More and more wedding guests, smiling tiredly, are slumping to their seats or retreating to darker corners where they gyrate awkwardly in private conspiracy. Barnes’s cheeks ache from the strain of laughing, and the meat of her hands throbs. She visits the restroom and reconstitutes her makeup, her armpits clumped with paper towels, while eavesdropping on the chirpy biddies taking their ablutions in the stalls.
“The bridesmaids are so beautiful,” says a disembodied voice. “It makes me want to cleave off my tits and face.”
Back in the main room, Barnes finds a chair at an empty table and sits for a spell, watching the carousing with a kind of anthropological wryness. Her default mode. This wryness, it might be a defense mechanism—she admits this—but a defense against what? Disenchantment? Holy grandeur? Her lonely self? She keeps peeking sidelong at an adjacent table where the cataleptic grandmother, already deserted by her grandson, is snoring. The old woman wears a dress nearly identical to the fusty thing Barnes draped over herself today.
The band’s slow-burn doo-wop fizzles away, and they set down their instruments for a brief intermission. Even deprived of the soundtrack, the break-dancer still actively peacocks around, popping crisp movements and drawing nervy looks from a gang of groomsmen who seem divided about how to discard their cummerbunds. The dancer’s shirt is drenched open to the navel, and he’s left a slick and lustrous snail trail across the checkerboard tile. The musicians strenuously try to circumnavigate the sweat puddles as they step offstage, casting about for cigarettes and salacious bridesmaids with their boobs and sex organs intact. Meanwhile, the dancer is wriggling, tummy up, as if he’s being electroshocked by his own marvelous beauty. Barnes walks over and taps him with her clog.
“I think you need to hydrate,” she says.
“I’m okay. Water will just slow me down.” He slides out from under her foot and stands, grabs his left ankle, and hops in and out of the held limb like a jump rope.
“I guess that’s why they called you whatever they called you.”
“Dance Beast,” he nods.
“A good, hearty Christian name. How do you know the bride and groom?”
He drops the leg and stands there, reamy with sweat in the humid light. “You’re kidding, right?”
Barnes shrugs. “You must not embarrass easily,” she says.
He’s not panting at all, not gasping. An uncanny calm possesses him. “What do you mean?”
“I just thought—”
“I’m Dance Beast. I like to dance. It doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that.”
“It’s good to have passions,” Barnes says. “My mother had a similar rally late in life. She got interested in scuba diving. She decided she’d travel the world while my dad stayed home, doing the usual obstinate-dad bullshit. She was getting her certification at the YMCA. Her tank malfunctioned. It put too much oxygen in her blood. She had an embolism and died in the kiddie pool, because irony never sleeps or takes a vacation. That was three years ago.” Barnes sips her drink, swiped from a nearby table.
“I take it back,” she says. “Passions are awful. Just awful.”
Mr. Beast blinks the gush from his eyes, trying to hold his smile in place.
“You had them,” Barnes says. “All these lonely, unsyncopated people. You had them, and you lost them. Only a fool would squander that.”
Barnes swigs the rest of her drink and hands the glass to a new man who has sidled up to them, some kind of humorless accountant with an unseemly interest in CrossFit. So, too, the gowned woman behind him. Look at these sorry assholes, Barnes thinks.
“Do I know you?” the man asks.
“I don’t think so,” Barnes says.
“Then what the fuck are you doing at our wedding?”
Barnes takes back the glass and licks around the rim, trying to tongue-sponge any lingering spirit, hers or the drink’s. She digs the wedding invitation, an elegant letterpress item, from her purse and casually glances at it, although, really, she doesn’t need to look.
Her face is a battered hull, the paint chipping, overstressed. She manages a droll smile for the bride and groom, Mr. and Mrs. Whoever. “Did anybody else think today was a Saturday?”
Her dad is still lying on the ground when Barnes brings him a plate of lukewarm manicotti that one of the servers—the empathetic type, surely—was kind enough to sneak her on the side. She sets it in front of his face, along with a salad fork, a dinner fork, a dessert fork. She can’t tell the difference anymore. “Just use your fingers.”
“You deserted me,” he says.
“You told me to.”
“My own daughter. My own flesh, blood, seed, etc. You left me on the ground like a goddamn animal. I haven’t seen you in years.” He glances about. “I don’t know any of these people.”
“You should,” Barnes says, joining him on the mulch pile and stuffing the stuffed shells into his stubborn maw. “They’re griefers like us. They just don’t know it yet. Also, we came to the wrong wedding. My work schedule is so screwy, I got my days mixed up. What kind of inbred savages get married on a Tuesday?”
“You’re supposed to look after me. I’m old and feeble. Just because I want to die unseen and alone doesn’t mean you get to abdicate your responsibility.”
“Oh, just shut up and enjoy your stolen manicotti.”
“Did they have cake? I want cake.”
“You were young and feeble once, too. I don’t remember you making any grand speeches about responsibility when you used to drop me and Mom off at the beach house for two weeks while you went fly-fishing with your work buddies and whores.”
Inside the barn, the band have strapped on their instruments for one last number, the big encore blowout that will send all the wedding-goers toddling home in a state of benumbed bliss, which, tomorrow morning, will ferment into bittersweet reverie, then nagging melancholy. By the weekend, everyone will be trundling through the supermarket in a fog of abject gloom.
The music starts and immediately skips a beat, some kind of stylistic hiccup. The song is a romping, herky-jerky party anthem that in recent years has inexplicably entered the repertoire of high-school marching bands and desolate shopping-mall Muzak. Even Barnes, the loather of pop culture, the joy-hating heretic, recognizes the tune and starts bopping her foot. Her father lifts his mouth and nose from the ricotta in which they are interred and tilts forward to better hear the siren song of sanguine Estonian youth. A sour look congeals on his face.
“Not a favorite of yours?”
“It’s not the same,” the old man says.
As the chorus blares out, some shadowy wildlife stirs from the surrounding trees.
Barnes forces a smile. “Finally, some birds.”
She snatches one of the indiscernible utensils and loads its tip with pasta. Despite her poor eyesight and general lack of good judgment or aim, Barnes raises it and slingshots the food into the sky—a faint, pale arc, a splattering velocity—trying to knock something, anything, down. “Hey birdie, birdie.”
Her father sniffles into his sleeve.
“Those are bats,” he says.
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