Dad is terrified of my toys, and with good cause. The local news
is full of stories. Over breakfast he reads the headlines to us
in a quaking shout: Boy Chases Runaway Top into Heavy Traffic.
Two Girls Found Hanging From Both Ends of Jump Rope in Possible
Suicide Pact. Last week, in the suburbs, a group of children
constructed a fort of folding chairs with walls of waxed paper.
They disappeared inside, giggling, and were never seen again. Playtime
No Longer Laughing Matter, blares the Op-Ed page.
Enough, Dad declares. One Sunday he takes all my toys to the incinerator and drops them in, one by one. Mom sits primly on the porch swing, sipping iced tea, nodding at every wooden thunk and whoosh of flame. From time to time Dad glances at me, waiting for histrionics, but secretly I'm glad. I'm tired of clowns and little cars and tiny plastic samurai. But I start crying anyway, as soon as the last toy vanishes into the incinerator's mouth, just to see what will happen.
Make him some toys, Harold, Mom
suggests. You've always been handy.
Two days later Dad presents me with an old pillow from the guestroom closet, with feline features drawn on it in runny ink. I do my best to hug it and love it, but of course I sleep on it too, pushing the cat-face into bleary, frightening shapes.
Harder, Mom says, make him a harder toy. Something more solid.
A week later he gives me a metal box that contains, he says, a fabulous prize. But there's no lid, no keyhole, no way to open the box, although it does rattle suggestively when I shake it. Dad finally admits that he has no idea what's inside.
Oh, come on, Harold, Mom says. Make him a real toy. A bigger toy.
Over the next few weeks Dad practically lives in the basement, making a terrible racket-saws, drills, blowtorches. Late one night I wake to hear him stumbling and grunting downstairs, pushing something very heavy very slowly through the rooms of the first floor. I've almost fallen back to sleep when he bursts into my room and drags me from bed with clammy hands, his eyes bright and feverish. We tramp outside over the dewy grass, lit orange by the sun rising over the bluffs. I look, rub my eyes, and look again.
He's made me a horse, a wonderful horse, life-sized and frozen in an eternal canter, a splendid structure of yard-sale remnants and junkyard debris covering a shell of rusted sheet metal. Its tail is a bouquet of flyswatters, the ribcage a network of gently curving golf clubs. Its hooves are ceramic beer steins and discarded track lights, the legs prosthetic braces and hollowed baseball bats, hairbrush bristles for its spine, a row of mopheads for its mane. But the head fascinates me most-a real horse skull, with sheathes of lead piping along its jaws. He's gone and collected all the junk in the world, just for me.
I gape for what seems like hours. Even Mom is impressed, her coffee cooling and neglected in her hand. Go on, give her a try, Dad urges, rubbing a long red scratch on his forearm. I climb up on stirrups made of welded boathooks. Its back and sides are bone-cold beneath my thighs. Dad nods and gestures encouragingly. I give the horse a tentative kick, but nothing happens. I wait a little, then kick again; still nothing. Mom rolls her eyes and goes back into the house.
Dad scratches his head and walks around the horse several times, grunting, tapping its rump and chest. She hasn't got her legs yet, he says anxiously. Maybe give her a day or two. That evening he doesn't come down to dinner, and as we eat in silence he stomps around upstairs, talking to himself.
Later I can't sleep. The streetlamp glare throws the horse's silhouette onto my bedroom wall. The shadow-head tilts slightly in the early fall breeze, the jaws chewing on themselves. I tiptoe downstairs and outside, to see if the mouth will open for me, but the horse looks the same, silent and stoic and swimming in moonlight. There's only one difference: its crotch-a bedpan on a hinge-hangs open like a trapdoor, just big enough for me to fit.
The horse's belly smells musty and brown and vaguely comforting. I lie on my stomach and insert my arms and legs into the hollow ones of the horse. Through the chinks and seams I can see slivers of orange-lit grass. If only my neck were longer, I think, if only my head would flatten and taper to an air-slicing point.
Soft footsteps swish toward us over the grass. The bedpan suddenly claps shut and Dad says, Fucking kids. He starts tapping the belly and sides, making hard little pings near my head and sides. It almost tickles. I'll show you, Dad hisses, and with a sharp grunt he mounts the horse himself. The hairbrush spine presses into my own; Dad's legs are spread parallel with my shoulders. My face scrapes against the chest. Flakes of rust slip up my nose.
Dad kicks the horse's flanks, and the whole shell shudders around me. He kicks again, muttering in a low, urgent voice. I grow queasy, but I don't cry out for him to stop; I won't let him know I'm under him. The horse shakes like a great bell. I feel a sharp twinge in my right arm, which curves along with the horse's leg. A great creaking groan fills my ears. All my limbs begin to move along with the horse's flexing legs.
Dad leans forward and talks into one of the horse's measuring-cup ears, now in a higher voice, fast, slow, fast. The stomach buckles and shifts underneath me; the rump shakes with every fresh slap. An odd sensation blooms in my rump as the flyswatter tail gives an experimental flick. We trot toward the edge of the lawn; through the chinks the grass slips past me, giving way to cement, pebbles, a glimpse of a gutter. My knees and elbows snap apart in a rattling symphony, like a giant cracking his knuckles. A power I've never felt before ripples through the growing jelly of me.
The weight on my back increases, doubles, my spine goes the way of my other bones, and I hear the clink of ice in a glass. Mom has joined us. You're so clever, Harold, she purrs. Take me to the moon.
I prance in place for a while as Dad settles into my new back, resuming his frantic, guttural endearments. The flyswatter tail happily lashes my sides. As they whisper and coo to each other I fill the horse completely, feeling the force of my new leaden jaws. Mom's glass shatters on the pavement behind us. We pick up speed as Dad kicks and slaps and laughs and kicks, spurring us beyond the lawn, into the hinterland of empty streets.