by Hubert Vigilla
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This thing is Greg all over. He read a Greek mythology book and the assignment was to make a board game, so here’s our beat-up Fireball Island from the garage with “Olympus! The Game!” written on one side in white out. He’s hot-glued some of his action figures at the corners. Superman (minus the cape) is Zeus, I think. I can’t really figure out the rest so I ask.
“Dad,” he says and rolls his eyes. “That’s Batman, Wolverine, and Spider-Man.”
“But which Greek gods are they?”
“They’re just Batman, Wolverine, and Spider-Man.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
He points at a sticky note that reads, “This is very creative, Greg!” A-minus, smiley face. Greg beams and presses his tongue through the gap where a baby tooth used to be.
I put my hand out for a low five but inwardly shake my head. Times like this I wonder how Harney Hills is considered a decent public school.
“I used to have Fireball Island,” someone says from the door. “It was hard to grade objectively.”
For some reason I pictured Ms Maynard as one of those matronly teachers with the plume of white hair and a face that screams shirtless-firemen calendars. But she’s young, like she still gets carded. Outdoorsy tan, freckles that make her seem dusted in nutmeg. Short hair, chic, almost black, artsy. A look that says she grew up back east and used to play softball, but since moving west she’s switched to tennis — no, beach volleyball.
We shake. “You must be Greg’s father,” she says. She looks down at Greg and she smiles big and open-mouthed. Greg waves with his thumbs hooked in his belt loops.
“Great to finally meet you, Ned. Gunderson.” She gestures to her desk where some chairs are waiting. “I met your wife last semester. I’m sure she told you that we all think Greg’s really bright.”
I should have come with Cheryl last time, and would have, but they kept me late at the office. I mention Cheryl isn’t feeling well but says hi. Ms Maynard says something about doing additional parent-teacher conferences in the spring to keep everyone up to date. I nod and scan her hands for a ring. She smiles and tilts her head when Greg says something about her class being the best. Just something decorative with a ruby.
Good grades, he’s on an advanced reading level. Something about math, and something else I should have remembered. I’m not too attentive, Cheryl keeps telling me. I kind of wish she was here so she could do all the talking and I wouldn’t just be gawking at Ms Maynard. I don’t even know her first name. Maybe she said it and I didn’t notice because I was too busy trying to look at her like I wasn’t ogling her.
Ms Maynard says there’s the science fair in about two weeks and Greg jumps up and yells, “Volcanoes!”
She laughs and says, “Volcanoes!” back. Everyone does volcanoes.
On the drive home Greg keeps asking for McDonald’s. I tell him mom’s making spaghetti. I try to think of Cheryl to keep my mind off Ms Maynard, but all my thoughts about Cheryl are in terms of Ms Maynard, like I’m converting currency. Cheryl looked like that once. She still does, sort of. Only sort of. She smiles less and when she does it looks labored. Her hair’s curlier, longer, and a different color — autumn in Vermont in a home movie.
“Dad,” Greg says from the back seat. “Who are you talking to?”
Cheryl’s in the living room wrapped in a blanket on the couch with her laptop. She looks more haggard than she did in the morning. Greg yells, “Volcanoes!” at her and then clomps around the house in his shoes. Cheryl asks how the parent-teacher conference went, but I can hardly hear her over Greg. I tell her it was good and that our kid’s a regular Einstein, as we can both see. She asks if I picked up dinner, and we get into another small fight. Last time it was over the hand soap I bought (antibacterial hand soap is bad for you, apparently), and the time before that it was the dish soap (I should have picked up antibacterial dish soap, apparently), and before that it was how I never fold the laundry right. And yeah, I guess I shouldn’t have expected her to make dinner when she’s feeling sick and had to finish work for the firm remotely, but I figured it’s just spaghetti so it wouldn’t be too hard. I mean, at least fucking call.
“At least fucking call,” she repeats.
“I’m sorry you think I screwed up again, okay?”
Greg goes quiet. I might have been louder than I thought I was.
Cheryl shoots me one of her looks. She has a lot of looks. Greg’s inherited most of them by now. This look says, See what you’ve done this time?
I ask Greg what he wants from Boston Market and he says he wants McDonald’s. I ask him what he wants from McDonald’s and he tells me, but I only pick up Boston Market. During dinner, Greg doesn’t say anything as he forks through his chicken and creamed spinach. He looks disappointed.
Get used to it, I almost tell him.
* * *
Ethan’s been at Rainier Media Solutions as long as I have. He’s my least favorite co-worker. That says a lot since I can’t stand most of those alpha-male douchebags in sales. Whenever I’m on a copy deadline, Ethan will want to talk about some bullshit he bought or vacations he has planned or how great his kid Skylar is. There’s a photo that’s been on Ethan’s desk since he started. It’s of him, his wife, and his kid on some deep-sea fishing trip. The kid and his dad look like a cross between blowfish and shark — puffy, predatory, jagged teeth. His wife, to be kind, smiles like a feeding bass. Skylar’s in Greg’s class and Greg can’t stand him. He calls him Turd Nerd because he had an accident in class this once.
“Hey, Gunshow,” Ethan says. I hate that nickname. “Bang-bang,” he whispers with his hands like pistols. He blows imaginary smoke off his fingertips and then smooths down his goatee. “What are you and Young Gun doing for the science fair?”
“He’s thinking a volcano.”
“Volcano? Oldie but a goodie.” He leans back with his hands behind his head until his chair squeaks and then he sits forward. “Big Sky’s doing something pretty sweet. New take on an oldie. A cover, if you will. A Beatles cover.”
I nod blankly.
“You know how kids figure out what music makes plants grow best? Classical, rock, rap, country? Well, we’re going to see which of The Beatles wrote plant-friendly songs.”
I close my eyes and turn back to my computer.
“One plant, the John plant, is going to listen to nothing but ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’. The Paul plant, nothing but ‘Hey Jude’. The George plant, nothing but ‘Here Comes the Sun’. And there’s a Yoko plant — technically not a Beatle, but whatever — and she does ‘Revolution 9’. But I know what you’re going to say.”
I don’t say anything.
“‘What about Ringo,’ right? Well guess what the Ringo plant listens to.”
“Nothing,” he says. He hovers over my shoulder now, his coffee breath landing just in front of my ear. “Why? Because Ringo never wrote any Beatles songs.”
He’s wrong, of course, but I don’t tell him.
He falls back into his chair, swivels, and laughs. “Clever, witty, total riot, right?”
Christ, just shut up.
“Veronica said it was a great idea.”
“In accounts payable?”
“No — Veronica Maynard. Young Gun and Big Sky’s teacher.”
I turn and look at him out of the corner of my eye.
“She expects lots from someone like Skylar. Smarts are in his genes, you know. But, like, we’ve got to figure something out: Beatles songs on CD, or on vinyl, or just digital audio? Right, Gunshow? I mean, you’re a music guy. Do you think sound on physical media will — ”
I escape to the bathroom. This is the second of five bathroom visits I make every day. It’s calming, a Zen rock garden almost. Usually I just sit on the pot for ten minutes examining the door or inspecting floor tiles. I always take the handicapped stall because it’s bigger and more tranquil than the others. I’ll even wait for that stall in particular and just splash my face in the sink or wash my hands until it’s free.
The seat’s cool. The only other person in the bathroom leaves. There’s just me, my breathing, and the hum of the lights above. I mouth the name Veronica Maynard. I sit there until the seat’s warm.
* * *
Mount Benson is an extinct volcano near Lake Rother, about twenty-five minutes away from our house. It’s the tallest bit of the Coco Peaks. Not a difficult feat. It’s a place where kids used to drive at night. They’d park on an access road and then climb up to drink forties, get high, and maybe get laid. We called them The Coconos in college.
I haven’t been up at the summit in years. Last time was with Cheryl before we were married. We were juniors at Benito State. We took a rowboat out to this small island at the far end of the lake. We never figured out what it was called or if it even had an official name, so we just called it Ginko Island because of the trees. We swam and laid out in the sun and then stayed in the shade when it got too hot, just the two of us. We rowed back and slept in the bed of her dad’s truck without blankets since it was summer. We used our backpacks as pillows.
Cheryl and I eventually made our way up Mount Benson around three in the morning. We traveled by moonlight in the clearings, and then by Zippos when it got too dark under the canopy. Everything around us was leaved and blossoming and noisy with life. Occasionally we caught a pair of flashing yellow eyes that turned away and sped off when they saw us. We were the only ones at the top; the lake was like neon below. We laid out damp towels and made love until the sun was almost up. At dawn a ranger yelled at us through a megaphone. All the birds of Mount Benson darted out from the trees. We ran to safety down the makeshift trail in our underwear, laughing. And once we were in the truck we made love again because our hearts were beating so fast and because we were beautiful then and we were alive. We left some of our clothes up there — her thin cardigan and New Order t-shirt, my chinos and that army surplus jacket with the patches. We also left her dad’s flask, with a swig or two of Blue Label still inside.
It’s Saturday, so I have to peel Greg away from the TV. Cheryl says she wants to come along. She’s feeling better than she was earlier in the week and the sun and fresh air will do her good. The plan was to be out of the house by eleven, but we get on the road a little after noon. Cheryl half-snores in the passenger seat. Greg’s pouting behind us. I don’t know if it’s about dinner the other night or if it’s because I kept him from playing video games, but I tell him that if he wants to do well on his science project it’d be a good idea to go to an actual volcano.
“But Dad, Mount Benson’s stupid and doesn’t even work.” Thankfully that’s his only argument.
There’s traffic all the way up to Lake Rother because of a jackknifed truck. Cheryl springs awake and we both complain. If there’s one thing we excel at, it’s complaints. Greg says he’s hungry and asks if we’ll get lunch. Cheryl and I mention this diner near the lake that has cornmeal pancakes the size of manholes. We used to smoke out and spend afternoons there baked out of our skulls before Greg was born. (We don’t tell him that.) He says that sounds awesome, and we go back to complaining until a lane opens. We can see the Coco Peaks rise above Lake Rother. Mount Benson is in the middle with a light halo of steam around the summit.
Turns out the diner’s under new management and just serves normal-sized non-cornmeal pancakes. It takes a long time for us to get a table because too many people stopped in for lunch. Greg mopes, Cheryl and I complain some more, and we share our gripes with other poor-fuck families about a young couple who got seated before us.
We finish half of our pancake lunch, don’t get it boxed, and leave for Mount Benson. A ranger stationed at the access road to the summit tells us Mount Benson is closed to the public for the next few weeks. People at Benito State are conducting research, he says.
Greg gives me a look (This blows, and you blow) and Cheryl gives me a look (So what now?) and I say we should go check out some of the other trails at least. Parking’s free, so the afternoon isn’t a total crapper. We hike. It’s a nice enough day. We get to the second highest peak and look out over Lake Rother. Cheryl’s got her birding binoculars and points out Ginko Island, which is now barren of trees. There are people all over it and the wakes of jet skis and motorboats around it. We gaze at the summit of Mount Benson for a few minutes. Greg says an outcropping of rock at the top looks like a beak. Then he says he’s tired and we go home.
We defrost a pizza and Greg plays video games until bedtime. While we do the dishes, Cheryl says she’s feeling much better. She’s looking better too. There’s this glow to her, maybe from the sun. Her skin has always been so warm. She elbows my side and gives me a look. Try again? We’ve been working on another kid for a few months because we always figured two’s a good number, and it’s now or never if we’re going to have that second one.
Before bed I face myself shirtless in the bathroom mirror. Christ. I look like an old Basset Hound. With a combover. And a beard. And why a beard? To overcompensate for balding? My chest is sunken and starting to droop, and my chest hair makes me look like I have the mange, and I have all these long nipple hairs that freak me the fuck out. My belly button has become cavernous, and a great hiding place for lint. I grab handfuls of flab on my sides and lift up my gut. I’m up close to the sink, so my reflection cuts off at the waist. I stop myself, mercifully, from dropping my boxers and taking a step back to assess the state of my cock.
Thirty-four and it’s like my body’s rebelled; I’ve gone from a string bean to a pear. And then it hits me as I glance back at my reflection. I am Mount Benson. I am inert. I am inactive. Nothing all that great has come out of me. Okay, sure, the kid, but if we had to be honest, he was an accident. When we found out we were pregnant, Cheryl told her friends, “This wasn’t planned, but it’s not an unwelcome surprise.” True, I guess. But there was so much potential. Could have made movies if I took it seriously, could have shopped that demo around, or I could have at least failed at something gloriously and had some stories to show for it. Or could have just done accounting like my dad said. A life of could-haves.
Cheryl asks what I’m doing.
“Just checking the goods.”
She smirks and waves me into bed before turning out the lights. I make sure I’m facing away from the mirror when I take off my boxers.
For the next eight minutes with Cheryl, I think about Veronica Maynard, her ass up and wiggling, eager, trembling, her eyes scrunching up while I drill the ever-loving fuck out of her. I hunch over to bite the back of Cheryl’s neck, but my gut sort of gets in the way. She goes flat on her stomach to accommodate me and I whisper the usual half-sweet, mostly dirty things as I finish. We roll over on our backs and talk about work until we fall asleep.
* * *
“So it’s got to be on CD for the sake of convenience,” Ethan says. He’s over my shoulder again pouring breath into my ear. No coffee this time but something with hot sauce and ham.
“Our hypothesis is that Ringo is best, but George will do sweet too. Paul and John will be pretty much tied. Yoko plant probably won’t grow any.” A pause for a self-satisfied sigh. “You and Young Gun start that volcano?”
“Not yet. Wanted to do a little research.”
“Plop it out. Some pie charts and graphs and —” clap-clap go his fat little hands “ —done deal.” He leans in a little closer. “By the way, what did you think of Veronica?”
“She seemed nice.”
“Such a piece of ass, am I right?”
I probably look like I’m sucking a lemon.
“Oh yeah,” he says. “Wish someone like that taught me something, if you know what I mean. Learn a thing or two.”
“In the third grade?”
“I was an early bloomer, Gunshow.”
There are so many times I hate myself for being a man. This is one of them.
“But seriously, God damn, think about having someone like that as a teacher, like in high school.” His eyes remain closed, rocking in his seat to the slow jam in his head.
I head to the bathroom. It might be a seven-break day. This time I bring a legal pad and a Sharpie. The handicapped stall is occupied. I splash my face in the sink and wait a few minutes. Some guy with crutches and a cast on his leg I’ve never seen before tripods out of the stall and washes his hands. I hold the men’s room door for him and then I sprint into the stall and lock it. The seat’s warm.
I draw volcanoes. They’re scrawled out thick, primitive, like cave paintings; staggered rows of trapezoids and triangles, all with molten stuff shooting out of the tops and with rivers of lava around them. I fill up an entire legal pad. There’s ink on my hands and I stink of the fumes.
I step out of the stall after half an hour. The bathroom’s been empty the entire time. I grab paper towels from the dispenser and I soak them in the sink until they’re like clay, and there on the countertop I flop it all down in a big heap. I build up steadily, layer by layer as if simulating the process of geologic time. There before me is a majestic model volcano, a foot high and soggy, and uneven. Someone enters and walks past me and doesn’t even notice the wet mound by the sink as he locks himself in the handicapped stall.
I look back and forth between the model and the sketches. I think of Ethan and his stupid plants and his ugly little boy, the Turd Nerd, and that fish-mouthed wife who puts up with him. I look up in the mirror.
“This ought to shut him the fuck up.”
* * *
I’ve got boxes of old National Geographic issues in the garage. My parents got me a subscription when I was a kid, thinking it would inspire me to see the world. A few times in middle school my friends and I scoured every issue for pictures of topless women. That’s pretty much all the action those magazines ever got, but I remember a couple of pieces about volcanoes.
One issue has pictures from Pompeii and Herculaneum that have always stuck with me. Mount Vesuvius had this massive eruption that shot through the surrounding cities. In Pompeii it baked everyone where they stood into these agonized statues. Their mouths go all the way across their faces like wounds, the craters of their eyes wide with dread.
The images from Herculaneum hit me harder. Skeletons stacked and cowering in an archway, locked in by a blast of volcanic soot. One picture is a detail of the jewelry: rings three to a finger, bangles to the elbows on both arms, a thick collar of necklaces hovering above ribs and clavicles. The surrounding soot is wet. In another picture, an embraced baby, its cracked skull no bigger than an adult hand. Then there are the two skeletons clutching each other — lovers, I think — with their jaws wide and bodies twisted in desperate angles.
I knock on Greg’s door and hand him the magazine. He opens his mouth like he’s surprised and disgusted. I mirror the look back to him. We do this sometimes when we’re watching nature shows together, like when a lion brings down a fleeing ibex, or when a crocodile surprises a thirsty wildebeest. I tell him to use some of the Vesuvius stuff in the written part of his project. He nods and stares at the pictures when I leave his room. I step back in.
“What’s Ms Maynard’s class like?”
“It’s the best!” he beams. There’s a pointy new tooth coming in where the gap was.
“Is she funny?” He nods. “Is she smart?” He nods. He says she’s good at basketball. He says she assigns fun homework — lots of drawing, lots of creative projects. I assume probably lots of pipe cleaners and construction paper and glitter. I think of her covered in glitter. I think of her sweating. I think of her neck arched back, and the ecstasy in every muscle fiber visible through her skin, which has come alive all over with goosebumps. I think about burying my face between her legs and my tongue digging into her. Greg says she’s a good reader after lunch and she makes funny voices for all the characters.
“So what did Ms Maynard have for snack today?”
“An apple. And a sandwich. And sparkly water.”
“What kind of sandwich was it?”
“I don’t know. I think fish.”
“I think tuna.”
“Probably tuna salad.”
“What kind of apple?”
“A red one.”
“No, but what kind of red one?”
“A shiny red one.”
“That doesn’t help me, Greg.”
He gives me a look I haven’t seen before and then turns away and stares out the window at the street. “I’m sorry, Dad.”
“No, don’t be,” I say, and pat his back. I kiss the top of his head and scruff his hair and tell him I’ll be back. From the doorway, he looks consumed in his chair. His feet swing an inch from the ground.
I go for a drive and then pick up dinner from the sandwich wrap place. I get home and Cheryl’s making beef stew. She gives me a look. Thanks a lot [sarcastic]. She says she told me she was making beef stew just as I was leaving the house. I say I forgot. She asks how I could forget that. I tell her I had a lot on my mind. She says bullshit and that I should pay attention for once. I say I’m sorry. You're always fucking sorry. She tells me to put the wraps in the fridge so we can eat them for lunch tomorrow. We scowl at each other over the dinner table. Greg looks at the ground. We slurp stew.
After dinner in the kitchen I apologize to Cheryl again.
“Yeah, okay.” She nods but won’t look at me. “I’ve been thinking about a lot of stuff too, so just be mindful, all right?”
“Work’s been a real drag.”
“You’re not the only one who hates their job, Ned.”
We go back and forth and then press our foreheads together with our eyes shut. It’s cheesy, but we do our best to calm each other down just by being close. We used to look at each other for reassurance, but now we can only manage it for a couple seconds at a time, just long enough to figure out what we’re thinking. We hear Greg slide his feet along the floor in the hall, like he’s pretending to skate in his socks. He comes in, glides past us, makes us smile, says hi in a cartoon voice, makes us laugh, and then glides out the way he came making pew-pew raygun sounds. We put our foreheads together again for about a minute. We exchange kisses like handshakes. We go to bed without doing the dishes. We work at kid number two.
I spend twenty minutes thinking about Veronica Maynard, but nothing. Cheryl and I writhe around in bed, arms clasped around each other and legs hooked. It’s humid and our bodies are gluey. Maybe it’s these cheap old sheets. We try again above the covers. She unknots us, stands, cracks the window and lingers there, looking out at the night before coming back to bed. Not even the breeze helps.
We try to fuck again, and it’s cheek to cheek and with our eyes focused somewhere else. I can’t stay hard, even after she tugs and sucks and talks nasty. I shake my head. She presses her mouth to my temple and says that it’s okay and that she just wants to hold me. That’s what she always says when this happens. I try to convince myself that it’s okay, but it never is and she knows it. In the heat and desperation, her body shifts. She presses me down at the shoulders and glares as she humps my hip. She actually wants to get off instead of just getting pregnant. Most times this would turn me on and we’d screw the night away giggling in surprise that we still had it in us, but all I can manage is this winded, frustrated look as I lay limp under her. The whites of her eyes quaver in the dark as she bucks against me stiffly, mechanically, without passion — So close, I’m so close — until she gets too tired to finish and rolls off. God dammit.
Just as I’m falling asleep, I remember that those sandwich wraps are still on the kitchen counter.
* * *
The double doors at the school auditorium are six feet wide, which means that Greg and I can make this volcano pretty damn big. Since it’ll be raised on a dolly, the volcano should tower over most of the kids, maybe even some of the adults. Can’t believe the science fair is Friday already.
On the way back to the car after dropping Greg off, I run into Veronica. She looks livelier than she was a week and a half ago. Her hair’s beginning to curl at the ends, and there’s something about her eyes — narrowed and scheming a little, or maybe she’s just squinting in the morning sun. She says hi and I say hi, but I call her Ms Maynard. I correct myself. She laughs and says it’s okay. She’s looking forward to Greg’s science project. “Friday-Friday-Friday!” she says like a monster truck ad.
I stick my arms out in a big “V” like I’m doing jumping jacks and yell, “Volcanoes!”
She laughs and says, “Volcanoes!” in that sort-of-whisper people do when they want to simulate shouting without actually shouting. She mentions some of the ideas for the science fair sounded really clever — chicken bones in vinegar, eggs in vinegar, chemical reactions (e.g. baking soda and vinegar) — but doesn’t mention Ethan’s stupid Beatles plants. I ask if anyone else is doing volcanoes and she says there are three, counting ours.
“I know the one you’re helping Greg with will be something special.”
The bell rings. She smiles and then says she has to go. I smile and nod and say I have to go too. Before she turns around, I ask if she has time for a parent-teacher conference this week. There’s this sudden hardening of her face as if she’s just stepped in something. She looks to the side and then slowly back at me. She smiles politely and then shakes her head.
“I’m busy with the science fair and lesson plans.”
“Well, maybe next week, then?” I say. My hands toy with the holes in the corners of my pants pockets. “I think Greg might have a real knack for the sciences.”
Her mouth is a lipless line. “Okay. We can try to schedule one. Got to run.”
Her head floats above the crowd of kids. Everything about her seems weightless. She turns and waves to one of the passing students and then, briefly, she looks back at me, or just past me. For that instant she looks just like Cheryl did that morning on Mount Benson as the sun came up; that moment when she wore nothing but that cardigan, and she slid it down her shoulders and arms, and it fell to her ankles. Her skin was gold, her hair was fire. Then the ranger yelled at us.
The second bell rings. The students have disappeared. A boy, maybe a first grader, sprints by me down the hall. He drops a chewed pencil by my feet but doesn’t turn back for it. The principal, Mrs DeCarlo, waves at the boy as he passes her. She waves at me less enthusiastically, confused really. I spin around and run in the opposite direction to the parking lot.
I call in sick while on the road. I tell them I have whatever my wife has.
I drive to Lake Rother. All the traffic is in the opposite direction. Mount Benson seems larger and grander than it did last time. It’s hazy under a faint fog at the top. Its trees are becoming lush and green. I drive up the access road. No ranger, just an empty lawn chair. I park and run up the slope, stepping in the vestiges of an unmarked path. In steeper sections I pull myself up by clinging to trunks and exposed roots. I stumble and tear my pants on the branches of a fallen tree. My palms are covered in dirt and scratches. I loosen my tie.
The fog grows thicker the higher I go, and I bite breaths from the air as I claw, crawl, grab. The dirt under me is moist and warm, and my hands dip into it and come away tingling and black. I almost lose my watch when my arm sinks in the ground halfway to my elbow. The critters below squirm against my skin. I wipe my face and smell the life of the soil, the sharpness from the tree sap.
At the summit, the air is earthy with a hint of sulfur. That’s when I see the crater, a steaming, slanting, sinking pit as big as five parking spaces. It’s cordoned off by police tape and wood poles with fluttering orange ribbon. The sides of the hole shrink away into abrupt darkness. It looks like it’s been growing. The bottom isn’t visible.
I walk around the hole hyperventilating, the air hot in my lungs as I inhale, and then cold, almost mentholated, when I breathe out. I marvel at this thing in front of me. I circle it again and again, and then I start to run around it. I get too close to the police tape and suddenly my leg sinks in down to the knee. I scream as I lose balance and fall over. I tug on my leg with both hands until it’s free. I’ve lost my shoe. I laugh. I dig in the hot dirt for it, turning up rocks and bottle caps and fistfuls of cigarette butts. I find my shoe, turn it upside down, smack the side of it, and I slip my foot back inside. Mud squelches between my toes.
I rush to the edge of Mount Benson, climb up onto the boulder that forms the beak at the summit, and take a knee. Birds skim the surface of Lake Rother. I run back along the boulder and race around the crater again. Then I forage around in the bushes and trees, pulling away loose branches and tossing them behind me. I kick away small piles of rocks and leaves. I find bottles and cans, mismatched sneakers, a pair of kingsnakes coiled and fighting or maybe mating, some used condoms, a thong, a sponge, a pair of torn briefs, owl pellets, broken flashlights, a deflated basketball, a small bleached animal skull. I find a flask, but it’s not the one we brought up years ago. It’s just after noon.
I call Cheryl and let her know Greg doesn’t have to go to his friend’s place after school because I’m picking him up. I tell her that I cut out of work early. She says I sound strange and asks if I’m okay.
Greg hops into the car and looks at me. Ummm. He asks why my clothes are dirty.
I smile and yell, “Volcanoes!”
He yells back, “Volcanoes!” Then he tells me I have dirt on my teeth.
* * *
I take the rest of the week off to work on the volcano. I build an inner frame from wood and chicken wire, Greg rips up old newspapers and phone books for the papier-mâché. On the small shipping dollies (we needed two because the volcano got so big), the frame is almost five-and-a-half feet wide and six feet tall. Greg and I smile conspiratorially, like when we made that downhill racer two summers ago. We didn’t care that it couldn’t turn left, and we didn’t care that we’d technically made a battering ram. Cheryl glares at us from the doorway with her arms crossed.
“Are you sure about this?” she says.
“Mom,” Greg says with a You’re being dumb look.
“Ned, you don’t think this is... excessive?”
“I know what this looks like, but we know exactly what we’re doing.”
She blinks too much and shakes her head as she leaves the garage. Greg nods and gets busy again with the newspapers and phone books. I start twisting the chicken wire over the frame, nicking my hands a few times. After a while I notice the tearing has stopped and Greg’s just looking at me, smiling. I smile back and we make our funny faces at each other — the lion eats the ibex, the crocodile surprises the wildebeest.
I love Greg to death, but there are plenty of times that I wish we’d never had him. Cheryl’s probably thought this too. Moments like this, though, make me regret the idea of life without him.
I continue with the chicken wire the next day while Greg’s in school. I’m pretty much done by the time I have to pick him up. He asks why there’s a large hatchway in the chicken wire and I tell him that’s so we can unleash the lava just before the judges make their decision. He scratches his head and I tell him it’s like a teepee. He nods but still doesn’t understand. He asks if he can help, but I tell him it’s dangerous.
“Vinegar and baking soda with red glitter for lava would be cool,” he says.
I shake my head. “Our project has to be special, Greg.”
He nods, the little soldier. Then his eyes light up and he starts jumping in place. He grabs me by the watch band and drags me to his room. He shows me online videos of Diet Coke and Mentos explosions. When combined, the candy and the soda shoot foam almost eight feet into the air.
Greg and I look at each other.
I let Greg drive the shopping cart at the grocery store.
When we get back, we run with our shopping bags from the driveway to the backyard. I open a bottle and dump an entire roll of candy into it. It bubbles like it’s been shaken up and then I get blasted in the face because I’m standing too close. I fall backwards into the sandbox, spitting and coughing. Greg laughs. Eventually, when I’ve stopped choking on lava, I laugh back. I grab another roll and I fire off the next bottle at him like a sticky squirt gun. He squeals, trying to shield himself with his hands to no avail. He arms himself with a bottle and candy, loads, then fires. It’s fucking war.
When Cheryl gets home, most of the bottles are empty and we’re almost out of Mentos. There’s light-brown foam everywhere like the scuzz on top of bad gravy. It’s just then that I realize it’s all over the patio set we bought last summer — the cushioned lawn chairs and the glass table and the large fabric umbrella. Greg waves at her, his shirt and jeans covered in splotches of foam. I shoot him with the garden hose mid-wave and he laughs.
Cheryl’s nostrils flare and then she looks at me. I will beat the shit out of you [sincere]. I tell her I’ll hose it all down and that it’s going to rain tonight anyway. She watches us for a moment as I turn the hose to the air to simulate a heavy rain. Greg dances under the splash. Cheryl looks up where the hose water hovers before coming down. She wants to say something but walks away.
“Is mom okay?”
I let him have it again with the hose.
During dinner, Cheryl mostly talks to Greg and ignores me. She looks more exhausted than usual and says she’s not that hungry. The frozen lasagna is still a bit cold in the middle since I forgot to defrost it. She’s been getting sick more often lately, and while I used to think she was spreading herself thin with the firm and the kid, now I think she’s just sick of the life we’re living. She looks at Greg and smiles and he smiles back. She looks at me and her smile fades. She leaves the dinner table to go straight to bed. Okay, maybe she’s just sick of my bullshit.
Staying in Benito hasn’t been the best for us. We thought we’d be bohemians or something. The indie rocker and the pomo novelist making it on wit, baguettes, and cheap red wine until we died. We were going to be our friends’ cool friends who got cooler when they got married. But we’ve got the house, and there’s Greg, and maybe, hopefully, another kid. (A Scott or a Lindsay.) Cheryl’s already started turning her office into a nursery, and most everything’s done except for the paint. We’ve been working hard at this. “Working” — it makes fucking each other sound like a shitty job.
Greg’s smiling. I give him another square of lasagna and watch him eat with a butter knife — where’d his fork go? — and his fingers.
I have to peel myself out of my chair. Apparently I didn’t shower off well enough. A Ned-shaped stain on the fabric. I do the dishes on my own, it’s the least I can do. As I walk up the stairs, I hear Cheryl reading to Greg before bed. It’s the book about a boy raised by wolves who spends a week with his human parents for his tenth birthday (a gift from his wolf mother; his wolf dad gets him a thigh bone). She whispers goodnight when he’s too tired to beg for more — that’s how we know he’s sleepy. There’s a lingering creak in the hall after she shuts his door. She walks into our bedroom. The click of the lock. I’m on the couch tonight.
I spend the night in the garage working on the volcano.
It doesn’t rain.
* * *
We do the papier-mâché the next night. I let Greg do most of the work since I did the frame and I’m tired. He layers it on thick and then wipes off his hands on one of my old t-shirts. I scrub down the patio furniture and apologize to Cheryl when she’s back from work.
“You’re a selfish fucking asshole,” she says.
I know. “I’m sorry.”
“I didn’t want to pull this, but I’m the breadwinner, okay? Look at me, Ned. Look at me.”
“Okay? The least you can do is just help out a little. Like this dumb fucking break you’re taking from your job — ”
“I just want Greg to do well.”
“No, no, that’s not it. Jesus, Ned. I know this isn’t for Greg.” She looks me in the eyes. Pitying, not angry. I don’t think you’re a loser. “You stupid prick.” She says it tenderly.
“I’m sorry. You’re right.” I leave it at that and she lets me hug her.
Eventually she pats my bald spot and glares at the ceiling. She pushes off and holds me at arm’s length. “Just grow up, Ned. Or grow into it. Into this.” She looks into the garage then back at me. “It sucks sometimes, but this is what we have, and we have it more than all right.” She walks off, but then turns around. “I’m exhausted. Don’t wake me up when you come to bed.”
I make spaghetti for dinner and set two plates. Greg asks why mom’s not eating with us and I tell him she’s very tired and not feeling well. He nods and then after the first twirled fork says the spaghetti tastes funny.
“Mom puts basil and white cheese in the sauce.” He adds, “And butter and pepper on the noodles when they’re done.”
“You could add some now.”
“It’s not the same.”
I’m quiet when I enter the bedroom after reading Greg a story, and I lie down above the covers so I won’t disturb Cheryl. I wake up after midnight and can’t get back to sleep. I do my best not to think of Veronica Maynard. Her mouth. I honestly try. Looking up at me on her knees. Honestly. Her obstructed moaning. But I can’t stop.
I slide off the bed and go to the bathroom to jerk off in the dark into the toilet. I brace my free hand against the edge of the sink as I finish and finally open my eyes. The confetti in my head gives way to this tiny bathroom. A silverfish races in an arc along the wall. Beside my feet is a balled-up pair of Cheryl’s cotton panties. I flush and wipe off and return to bed above the covers, hating myself as I wrap my tired arm around her. In sleep she almost shrugs me away. I press my forehead against the back of her head and breathe in the mix of sweat and shampoo.
* * *
Greg takes the day off school to finish his report and his poster board. It doesn’t take long. Some magic marker, a little red glitter for effect, and, for some reason, pairs of googly eyes in every corner.
At noon we’re in the garage painting the volcano. We use lots of brown and black and some red and orange at the top to suggest lava. At the base of our volcano we paint some skulls and bones. It’s all dried when Cheryl comes home, and I have chicken breasts in the oven, rice on the stove, and whatever we need for a salad on the counter. She stands in the doorway, hands on her hips. She seems genuinely impressed.
Greg runs up and clings to her leg, pointing at the volcano. I press my mouth to her temple. She just looks at this thing we’ve made, as if viewing it from a ship at sea.
“Is that Mount Benson?” she asks.
I shake my head.
“It’s Mount Maynard,” Greg says before I do. “It’s the biggest volcano in the third grade.”
* * *
We can’t use the car because the volcano’s too big. I really should have factored that into the design. Instead, Greg pulls the dollies with a rope like a sled dog while I push from behind. We barely fit on the sidewalk. Greg makes beep-beep noises when we approach other kids and people walking their dogs. They step aside and marvel as we wheel Mount Maynard along.
It takes almost half an hour to get to school. We get honked at by passing cars. Drivers wave, bicyclists pump their fists in admiration. Greg yells, “Volcanoes!” I flash a peace sign to everyone and think, “‘V’ for ‘volcano’, ‘V’ for ‘victory’.” We almost cause a few accidents, which is a source of pride for both of us.
Kids ooh and ahh as we wheel our monster into the auditorium. Mrs DeCarlo and the science fair judges stop and stare. Greg wants to know if we can make Mount Maynard erupt right now, but I tell him not until the evening when all the parents and students are here. He runs to class before the second bell.
I walk past the other projects laid out on the long tables — tiny volcanoes, plate tectonics displays, comparisons of bulb brightness and power usage, rubber chicken bones in pickle jars. And there’s Ethan and Skylar’s “Meet The Basils”. The display is amateur hour. He’s got five pots labeled with the names and faces of John, Paul, George, Ringo, and Yoko. The basil plants aren’t so tall. They look slumped over, covered in spots like they’ve been overwatered and coaxed to grow faster than they were capable of growing. The tables for their research are bland, with a lot of blank space and soft colors. I puff out a laugh and run a finger under one of the wilting leaves of the George plant.
From the door of the auditorium, Mount Maynard casts a shadow over the adjacent projects. There’s no contest. But I feel something weird. Not sadness, but something like it. Looking at all of these science projects, I realize there is no way they were done by children on their own. There’s too much know-how. A few, maybe, are the works of an actual third grader, but most look like the enfeebled dreams of parents.
I walk home and think about the volcano. As soon as I’m through the door, I make for the sofa and crash.
* * *
We drive to school a little after six thirty. Cheryl asks Greg how everyone liked the volcano and Greg says everyone thought his project was the best. I say I agree and Greg laughs. He has thirty-six rolls of Mentos in his pockets and two fanny packs. I carry two-dozen soda bottles in a camping backpack and two large canvas bags straining from the weight. Twelve more bottles are in the volcano already, pre-positioned for faster, easier set-up. Halfway to the auditorium I ask Cheryl to help carry the soda.
By seven, the auditorium is packed. The kids pose in front of their projects for awkward photos, and some of the parents who know each other chitchat. The judges are dressed in lab coats and walk from project to project tapping their pens to their chins and scribbling on their clipboards with mock-seriousness.
Ethan and Skylar stand proudly by their project and talk up the judges as they pass. Ethan spends a minute glad-handing and fake-laughing. Skylar looks around with his teeth bared, the kind of insincere smile that children are trained to make for class pictures. After patting each judge on the back, Ethan and his kid spot me and wave. I try to hide my eye roll with a smile as he approaches.
“Oh fuck,” I say out the side of my mouth to Cheryl.
“Gunshow, Young Gun, and Mama Gun. What’s happening?”
“Hey, Ethan,” I say. We do introductions. Cheryl’s never met Ethan before, but she’s heard me bitch about him plenty and she doesn’t like him already. Her shoulders tense up to her ears. What a dickweed. Greg and Skylar stare each other down like they’re waiting for the first punch. My kid could take him. I ask Ethan where his wife is and he says she’s not feeling well. I smile. She’s probably just sick of his bullshit too.
Through the crowd comes Veronica. Her hair curls like a wreath around her forehead and ears, and her face is flushed through her tan from too much smiling. She greets all of us, and Ethan plasters on that fake smile and the sing-song voice he uses when he’s one-way flirting with the receptionist.
“A delight as always, Ms Maynard,” he says, bowing a little, his eyes peering into her blouse. “And when will we find out the winning project?”
Veronica smiles and says that the judges will be done in about five minutes. She says hello to Cheryl. Seeing them together is like watching a niece with her aunt. They’re even wearing the same colors. Cheryl turns to me and glares. She must notice how I’m looking at Veronica. Veronica turns and looks at me like there’s food in my beard. She must notice how I’m looking at Cheryl. Greg and Skylar are still in silent battle with their eyes. Ethan is looking at Cheryl’s crotch and I want to smack that goatee off his face.
I take a deep breath, straighten up, and turn to Greg, who looks up at me as if the sun was shining behind my back. I nod decisively. He nods back. He draws a roll of Mentos from one of the fanny packs like a saber and presents it with a salute. I take his hand and we both walk to Mount Maynard. A small crowd has already gathered around it and hush as we approach and enter the flap.
I set the bottles at angles on various landings in the frame to produce a wide spray, with eight pointed straight up in the center. Greg works like a god damn machine, handing Mentos without me having to ask. I unwrap and load them into the various delivery chutes built at the mouth of the crater. Greg, his job done, nods and rushes out. Cheryl opens the flap just as he leaves and then grabs my shoulder so I can look her in the eyes.
Holy fucking shit! “Holy fucking shit!”
I’m sweating profusely.
“Uh-uh. No. I’m taking Greg and we’re leaving.”
I wave her off.
“Did you hear me, Ned? This is — We’re leaving.”
I turn and say slowly so each word hangs thick in the air, “Cheryl. I am going to win.” I grab the chute strings, all knotted and taped together in a kiwi-sized bundle.
I walk past her and pull her back out into the crowd by her elbow. I signal Greg. Greg waves his arms to get the attention of the judges and then guides them front and center. It’s time. Outside I picture dogs and cats in the vicinity of the school scurrying for cover, and nearby birds taking flight as one.
I scream “Volcanoes!” and pull the strings.
The eruption crests over the mouth of Mount Maynard, gently at first like the fountains in Vegas. There are, briefly, admiring gasps. The thirty-six separate shots flow out from their respective spouts in straight streams and then twine into jetting, blooming multi-helixes. While ascending, the eruption takes on a different nature. All eyes of the auditorium, mine as well, go from delighted, childlike even, to terrified; the silent, expectant surprise gives way to screams. This is no longer a display at the science fair. This is the surge from a breaking dam. Shoes skid in unison as the ceiling is blocked out by a terrible shade of brown. The lava hangs suspended over us like thunderheads blocking out the fluorescent lights, and then falls.
A few people leap away to avoid the cascade, but they inadvertently knock over nearby tables and the people standing next to them. Down it all comes, not like rain or the spray from garden hoses, but falling pianos. Shreds of loose papier-mâché around the crater blast up into the ceiling rafters and then out like shrapnel at the fleeing crowd. We are pummeled, pinned down, taking it, everywhere is tumult and splatter. In the chaos, I notice that the cola is warm.
Pipettes and test tubes crunch, steel chairs clang over, rubberized eggs bounce once and then break. And then collisions, elbows, head butts, multiple bloody noses. One slipping woman’s leg kicks up so high that she tags a guy in the chin before landing back-first with a grunt and a splush. Some have cowered on the ground, ducking helplessly like they learned in earthquake drills. It doesn’t help, and yet it’s all that they can do. There are pleas for mommy and daddy that can barely be heard.
Loose clods of pulp fire off from the sides of Mount Maynard as some of the cola bottles fall from their perches and explode. Large sections of outer structure blow out. One judge takes a clump of papier-mâché in the mouth and falls backward into a startled family. There is a tangle of bodies trying to right themselves as the furious streams of soda continue to drench the crowd. Even I am in awe of the volume. Feet are stepped on, fingers squashed, and hair is pulled as people reach for something to keep balance. All people, all things, to the dirty ground, splashing; everyone falling but me and my boy and my wife and Ms Maynard.
In the aftermath, the auditorium air is veiled in a sticky brown fog. The cola collects into a pool that gathers up loose hair, dust, lint, and tanbark slivers. It spreads outward. Groans and hacking coughs fill the room. A boy stands, slides on vinegar and yolk, thuds to the ground. He begins to cry. His parents crawl across the wet floor to cradle him, their new spring outfits now tan. The last of the papier-mâché falls off the volcano. Just wood and dripping chicken wire.
Cheryl’s looking at me. I wonder what life would be like if we never met. Greg’s smiling. His other front tooth is missing. The kids who didn’t fall too hard stare at me amazed, like I’m pizza and ice cream and summer vacation. Mrs DeCarlo is stonefaced on her back and gazing at the ceiling like she’s just been in a car accident. A janitor on all fours looks like he’s going to kick my ass. I can’t read anything but blank shock in Veronica’s face. Are those tears? Maybe she got hit in the eyes? The other parents look appalled, Ethan especially. His basil plants are snapped and muddy on the ground and his data sheets are soggy, sopping up soda, becoming something like mud.
There’s a reassuring squish in my shoes as I plan my next move. So much I want to do.
I’m going to grab that blue ribbon and slap it on Greg. I’m going to fold that second-place certificate into an origami box and stick it on Ethan’s head. I’m going to point and laugh at Ethan’s Turd Nerd son. And then I’ll take Veronica in my arms like those lovers in Herculaneum and pray for an actual eruption from sleeping Mount Benson. It will be so gloriously violent, and the super-heated air will shoot over all of us and freeze the impending moment so it can last forever. And yet already, I can’t move.
Hubert Vigilla is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York, which makes him completely indistinguishable from 4/5 of the people who live there. His fiction and essays have appeared in The Normal School, No Tokens, Mud Season Review, The Destroyer, and Territory. He received his MFA from The New School and is currently working on a musical.