Gray Metal Faces – January 6

Her mother’s sudden behavior caught The Bird by surprise; never before had she seen her this vulnerable, as if she were finally acknowledging the burden of caring for a daughter largely on her own. Her mother was too independent to ask for help, even with mundane tasks such as pulling garbage cans out to the curb on Monday evenings; she would, though, accept help when it was offered, and this knowledge inspired The Bird to begin a conversation she had long contemplated.

Licking her lips, the slender teen with curtains of black hair on either side of her face asked her mother when she had last talked to her father.

Janet Wernick immediately withdrew her hand, as if her daughter’s arm had suddenly caught aflame. “Whenever I need to communicate anything to your father, I let our lawyer now.” The hum of the car’s engine grew louder; The Bird glanced at the speedometer, a full ten MPH faster than her mother typically travelled. “A few phone calls, right after you were born. Mostly legal stuff — child care, not divorce, we were never married. That, was the last time I spoke with him, or ever care to do so.”

Her mother’s agitation was palpable, and The Bird considered dropping the conversation, even apologizing for upsetting her. Withdrawing was her instinctual reaction, comfortable and safe, yet unsatisfying; driven by an inspiration she didn’t understand, she decided this time to stand her ground.

For the first time, The Bird asked what her father’s name was.

Her mother snorted, smiled. “Why do you want to know?”

Because, The Bird said, he was her father.

“Biologically, only.” Her mother leaned forward, as if confronting the driving wheel. “He’s never been part of your life, has never seen you, Sandy. Not even a picture.”

The Bird asked if he was still alive.

“Well of — ” it was as if someone had put a hand over her mother’s mouth — “Yes. He’s alive.”

When —

Never.

The Bird objected, said she hadn’t even heard what she meant by when.

“Doesn’t matter. Anything in response to a combination of your father, and time, the answer’s never. Always.”

Another first experience for The Bird, hearing her mother speak in such a desperate, defensive tone. She could get angry, of course, and she often kept her thoughts and feelings private. But to dismiss her daughter’s curiosity so abruptly . . .

The teenaged girl sensed that further engaging her mother about her father would lead to a heated argument that would cloud the long evening ahead, so she  turned her attention back to the barren fields outside the passenger window. They passed a green mile marker — The Bird began counting silently, starting a game she had begun playing years ago to distract herself on the long car rides to the city for her mother’s work. She would count the seconds between mile markers, and based on the time elapsed she would guess the car’s current speed. The idea had come to her when reading a Sunday newspaper comic strip. A car travelling 60 miles per hour will travel a mile a minute, a fact that fascinated her eight-year-old mind. That Monday, she had tested that statement while travelling with her mother, using the mile markers and a wrist watch she had received as a present that Christmas. She had looked down at the watch as the car crossed marker 242 — 11 seconds past — then kept her eyes focused on the road until they crossed 243, at which point she had looked down — eight seconds? But if the car was — and then she had looked over at the dashboard, saw space between the speedometer’s needle and the 60 indicator.

She had brought that watch on her next several car trips to the city, and discovered that knowing the time between mile markers enabled her to make a reasonable estimate of the car’s speed. She knew even then that the car’s speed would never be a constant, but that variable made the game more interesting to her, the subtle sound of engine acceleration and deceleration forcing her to engage more of her senses, increase the difficulty of her mental calculation. And when she forgot her watch one day, she began counting seconds in her head, and found the additional complexity made the game even more engaging for her.

Fifty-two. Fifty-three. The next mile marker passed. Her mother had slowed when approaching a pickup truck (add one second), accelerated when passing, sounded faster than before — subtract three seconds. Fifty-one. She knew from past experience that meant a speed of about 70. She looked over at the dashboard — 71, maybe 72.

The Bird turned back towards her right, and waited for the next mile marker. They were about ten minutes away from the theater — time for a few more games.

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