The day the daughter is dressed in new everything, the father brings home the kids: Kid boy. Kid girl. Shoulder-size, of cement. Blind kids with open mouths and big cheeks. Chink twins imported from China.
“I had to,” the father says, cradling a kid in each arm. “In all good conscience I couldn’t leave them sitting as cute as kids, among Saint Francis, a porcupine, and a gladiator with half a helmet for a head.”
“I have a new blouse,” the daughter says.
“What to name them?”
“I have a new skirt.”
“Sue Yen and Michael Yang.”
“I have new shoe-zees.”
“I will scrub you up.”
“I have new toes.”
How to describe the father?
He is a man of legs, loosening his tie and looking out over his garden. A garden of grass stretching back to pussy willows along the fence heaped with honeysuckle, and evergreens coming down towards him, a forest of his own making with white pines, a few birches, a magnolia tree and a Chinese dogwood. There are flowering shrubs and flowers too: rhododendrons, azaleas, forsythias, lilacs and zinnias encircling a stone bench and a bath for birds, all wound up with ivy the father regrets ever having asked Mr. Watson to plant as fill.
The father is a man who sleeps on his back, with his legs crossed at his ankles and his hands crossed over his heart.
He is a man with a pipe in his mouth, a shovel in his hand, and packs of seeds in his pockets.
It is the season to plant.
Down in the cellar, gathering steel wool and rags, filling a bucket with water, not too hot, not too cold, the father does not see that Mr. Watson’s new men, Larry and Bill, are not doing what they are being paid to do. Larry is not digging out dirt to make holes for the new shrubs Bill has been bringing round back from the truck. Larry has jammed the shovel into the dirt, Bill has pushed the shrub over, and they have walked over to look through the sliding glass door at the daughter.
The daughter, she smiles. She pulls her new blouse over her head and shakes her curls once she is free of it. Her fingers unsnap the front of her new bra. She moves the thin straps over her shoulders, down her arms and off her wrists. She shakes her newly-grown titties.
Larry lets his hair out of its ponytail. He runs his fingers through, smoothing the sides, pulling it tighter and tying it back up again with the rubber band he’s been holding in his mouth.
The daughter lifts her skirt and looks down at her lacey panties. A hand slides underneath, and her fingers pull at the hair there.
Bill goes down on one knee. He keeps his chin up, his eyes on the daughter.
She opens her mouth. She turns her back to them.
Bill fishes out the fresh pack of cigs he’s been keeping between his sock and his skin. He slaps the bottom of the pack against the palm of his hand.
The daughter bends slowly low. Her skirt goes slowly higher. She reaches back and puts her hands up underneath her skirt. Her panties are coming down. At her knees, she keeps them. She looks at Bill and Larry, their upside down faces slack and worn.
The sound of the cellar doors being opened from within.
Larry and Bill look away from the daughter to see the cellar doors, the left and the right, opened and placed flat against the brick of the patio. The father’s head is surely soon to be rising.
The daughter turns around and presses her body against the sliding glass door.
Larry and Bill walk back to where they had been working. Larry picks up the shovel, which has fallen over. Bill squats by the shrub, takes out his knife and cuts the burlap bag from around the roots. Larry shovels in, throws the dirt, shovels in. Bill re-adjusts himself.
The daughter moves back and looks at the faint mists some of her has left on the glass, slowly fading away.
The father is on his knees on the brick patio.
Before him sit Sue Yen and Michael Yang. His long sleeves are cuffed up to his elbows. His tie is gone. His hands are scrubbing their little faces first with steel wool, then with soap and rag. He whispers for them to be patient for he has the dirt of four thousand years to clean off of them. He kisses Sue Yen’s cheeks, rubs Michael Yang’s nose. “My babies,” he says, “my sweetest darlings.” He rises, in need of more water.
The daughter stands naked in front of the father’s closet. All his clothes hang there, waiting for him to come in and put them on. She reaches out her arms, rushes in and hugs the clothes to her.
Bill unwraps the pack of cigs, throws the wrapper onto the burlap bag to be picked up later and first offers Larry. He’s already got the head of the lighter popped back, and Bill lights two. Shit man. Shit. Shit yeah. They hold the cigs to their mouths as though joints.
The daughter dresses. She puts one arm, then the other into the shirt with the pearl buttons. She takes the silk tie he had been wearing when he came home and places it under the collar. She wraps the tie over itself and knots it large and square. She slips on the herring-bone jacket, the cashmere socks, the heavy loafers with the tassels.
But before the clothes, the daughter takes out a pair of the father’s shorts and puts them on. She holds the waist band tight, cinched in with one hand and the other, she balls her fist and shoves it down front.
She never puts on the trousers.
The father paints Michael Yang a fire-face dragon and Sue Yen dogwood flowers across their Japanese kimonos. The fire-face dragon looks too fierce for such a small boy, but the dogwood flowers are so delicate they look as though they have not been painted on at all, but are actual dogwood flowers, that have been shaken down by the wind to fall as they would fall, as they did fall, as they have fallen on the kimono and in the hair of the small girl.
The father takes a rag and dries off his hands, his forearms. He stands, calling, “Larry, Bill,” and walks up the steps leading from the patio into the garden. He sees them finish their smoke, toss the butts onto the burlap bag Bill ties and slings over his shoulder. Larry walks toward the father, and Bill catches up after he’s tossed the trash into the metal can.
The father puts a hand on Larry’s shoulder and walks him over to the stone bench and the bath for birds. He wants the bird bath moved and the children put in its place by the time he gets back with some sealant.
Larry and Bill nod, say they understand, and would like to do as he says, but they’ll have to wait for Mr. Watson to move the bird bath. Last guy moved one about the same size threw out a disc.
“Over there then,” the father says, pointing to the Chinese dogwood. “And get rid of this ivy.”
The daughter hears the father’s car, pulling out. The single honk of his horn, which means he won’t be long.
She hurries to pull on her little girl’s dress: all cotton, with a bib top and puffy sleeves, a flouncey ruffle at the bottom that swirls wide when she twirls. She brushes her curls and clips a ribbon in.
Larry moves Sue Yen and Michael Yang. He pulls up the dandelions he hadn’t seen before. He shows them to Bill, says they’ll spray later. Bill hacks away at the ivy. He gathers up the cuttings in his hands and shoves them into the bag Larry holds open for him.
The daughter presses herself up against the sliding glass door and watches them.
Larry turns his head over his shoulder, and then Bill turns his.
She has her eyes on them.
They set out walking toward her.
She unlatches the sliding glass door.
They slide across the door, wipe their feet, and step on in.
She lies long.
They are on her, over her, in her, all at once.
They smell of sweated dirt, of smoke, of summer.
They leave her as they found her. Though now she is bleeding, and they are sucking on their fingers. They knock on the sliding glass door as they go. She takes their hairs out of her mouth. She puts her fingers inside of her and feels it. She is more than wet. She feels herself stiffening.
The daughter is still lying there when the father comes home with the sealant. He hoists her up to lean her against his shoulder and carries her into the garden. He walks past the flowering shrubs, the rhododendrons, the azaleas, the forsythias, the lilacs and the zinnias and sees the ivy has been cut to his satisfaction. He walks over to the Chinese dogwood, thinking he must remember to tell Mr. Watson that Gaudio Brothers is having a sale on wrought-iron gates and that he should pick up some lavender while he’s out there. The Chinese kids should have something good to smell. He stands the daughter behind Sue Yen and Michael Yang. Even close, he can tell she’s not right. He steps back and looks at her. No, she’ll never do. She’s much too tall. He lies the daughter gently down into the grass. He takes out the sealant and rubs it on Sue Yen and Michael Yang. They glisten. He tells them not to worry, they won’t be wet long, and if he can think of where it was he went to, to find this girl, he’ll go back and get her mate. She must have been part of a pair. Funny, though, he can’t think of what he looked like. Always get the pair, they are easier to arrange.
Janet Mitchell's short stories have appeared in The Quarterly, among other venues.