“She made me sit up straight.”
“All the time.”
“Even in bed?”
“Not in bed. Know why?”
“That would be silly.”
“It would,” I agreed.
“How long’s this cute-fest going to drag on?” Bubba appeared out of nowhere. He’s the size of a young rhino standing on its hind legs, so his gift for sneaking up on people never ceases to amaze me.
“Where were you?”
“I stashed something on the way in, so I had to pick it up on the way out.”
“I’m surprised you didn’t smuggle one through security.”
“Who says I didn’t?” He jerked his thumb at Angie. “This one has luggage issues.”
“One little bag,” Angie said, spreading her hands the length of a bread loaf. “And another little bag. I did some shopping yesterday.”
“To baggage claim,” I said.
It was Logan, so they changed the baggage carousel location twice, and we trekked back and forth through the claim area. Then we stood with a bunch of other people, everyone jostling to get closest to the belt, and watched as nothing happened. The belt didn’t move. The little siren light didn’t spin. The clarion bell that announced incoming luggage didn’t sound.
Gabby sat on my shoulders and tugged at my hair and occasionally my ears. Angie held my arm a little tighter than usual. Bubba wandered over to the newsstand and next thing we knew he was chatting up the cashier, leaning into the counter and actually smiling. The cashier was toffee-skinned and in her mid-thirties. She was small and thin but even from a distance she had the look of someone who could kick some major ass if pissed off. Under Bubba’s attentions, though, she lost five years in her face and began to match him smile for smile.
“What do you think they’re talking about?” Angie said.
“Speaking of which, you really threw it in the Charles?”
I nodded. “But I’m a big recycler, so I’m allowed the occasional eco-sin.”
She squeezed my arm and put her head to my chest for a moment. I held her tight with one arm. The other was deployed keeping my daughter safe on my shoulders.
“You shouldn’t litter,” Gabby said, her upside-down face suddenly an inch from mine.
“No, I shouldn’t.”
“So, why did you?”
“Sometimes,” I said, “people make mistakes.”
That must have satisfied her, because her face rose back up from mine and she returned to playing with my hair.
“So what happened?” Angie said.
“After I talked to you? Not too much.”
“Boy,” she said, “you risk your life to find her and then you just let her go?”
“Ex-detective,” I said. “Ex.”
On the ride back from the AIRPORT, the girls razzed Bubba about flirting with the cashier. Her name, we learned, was Anita, and she was from Ecuador. She lived in East Boston with two children, no husband, and a dog. Her mother lived with her.
“That’s scary,” I said.
“I dunno,” Bubba said, “those old Ecuadorans can cook, man.”
“You’re already thinking about dinner with the parents?” Angie said. “Dang. You name your first child yet?”
Gabby squealed at that. “Uncle Bubba’s getting married.”
“Uncle Bubba’s not getting married. Uncle Bubba just got some digits. That’s it.”
Angie said, “You’ll have somebody to play with, Gabby.”
“I’m not having a kid,” Bubba said.
“And dress up.”
“How many times do I—?”
“Can I babysit her, too?” Gabby said.
“Can she babysit her?” Angie asked Bubba. “Once she’s old enough, of course?”
Bubba caught my eyes in the rearview. “Make them stop.”
“You can’t make them stop,” I said. “Man, have you guys met?”
We emerged from the Ted Williams Tunnel onto 93 South.
Angie sang, “Bub-ba and A-ni-ta sit-ting in a tree,” and my daughter joined in, “K-I-S-S-I-N-G . . .”
“If I gave you my piece,” Bubba asked, “would you shoot me?”
“Sure,” I said. “Hand it up.”
We came out of the dark of the tunnel into the late-afternoon traffic as the girls sang and clapped their hands to the beat. Traffic was light, because it was Christmas Eve and most people had either not gone to work or had left early. The sky was purple tin. A few flakes of snow fell, but not enough to accumulate. My daughter squealed again and both Bubba and I winced. It’s not an attractive sound, that. It’s high-pitched and it enters your ear canals like hot glass. No matter how much I love my daughter, I will never love her squealing.
Or maybe I will.
Maybe I do.
Driving south on 93, I realized, once and for all, that I love the things that chafe. The things that fill me with stress so total I can’t remember when a block of it didn’t rest on top of my heart. I love what, if broken, can’t be repaired. What, if lost, can’t be replaced.
I love my burdens.
For the first time in my life, I pitied my father. It was such a strange sensation that I allowed the car to drift over the white lines for a moment before I made a correction. My father was never lucky; his rage and hatred and all-consuming narcissism—all of it unfathomable, even now, twenty-five years after his death—had robbed him of his family. If I’d squealed like Gabriella in the back of a car, my father would have backhanded me. Twice. Or he would have pulled the car to the side of the road and climbed back there to give me a beating. Same with my sister. And when we weren’t around, my mother. Because of this, he died alone. He’d demeaned my mother into an early grave, my sister refused to return to Boston when he was terminally ill, and when, at the hour of his death, he’d reached across the hospital bed for me, I let his hand hang in the air until it fell to the sheets and his pupils turned to marble.
My father never loved his burdens because my father never loved anything.
I’m a deeply flawed man who loves a deeply flawed woman and we gave birth to a beautiful child who, I fear sometimes, may never stop talking. Or squealing. My best friend is a borderline psychotic who has more sins on his ledger than whole street gangs and some governments. And yet . . .