Collateral Damage


All this time. Only 100 miles apart.

Manny, on Route 41 in the Everglades, just past Forty Mile Bend, early September, bleary from a red-eye flight. Top down on the rental, a Jeep, roll bar whining overhead. Blacktop stretching out for miles. Like driving into a stretch of shiny swimming pool. Crushed lovebugs in a hundred black-and-gray smears on the windshield. Stale morning breeze lifting off the canal. Swamp air.

Swarming with creatures: alligator, coral snake, snapping turtle, red-tailed hawk, turkey vulture, black bear, panther, raccoon, gar. And boa constrictor. Slithering and slinking, swallowing up birds, mammals, household pets, small deer. Boas on the lam. Thank you, exotic pet fanciers. No really, thank you so very much.

Or hurricanes and blown-over mobile homes with cracked aquariums, dead heat lamps, owners gone. Fancy a boa? Nothing stays in a box forever. Not memory, not life, not animals, not stuff. And wasn’t there such a hell of a lot of stuff.

Parents and a twin sister never able to come together. A baby, a son. Who names a kid Martin—in 1975? Your ex-wife, buddy, that’s who.

Always feeling so apart from his son. A tiny baby. Helpless and needy, but foreign, somehow, not a part of Manny at all. Frail. Little bigheaded alien son. A lifetime of guilt born right along with him. Weighty package, that. Then, with the same people raising him and his son, more like a bug-eyed baby brother. But Bart, his father, so much softer as a grandfather-father, unrecognizable from the stern, disapproving parent he’d been to Manny. To Rosarita.

And then, a do-over. Miraculous. Manny, at forty, a real father, finally.

Echo. Rewind. Children accruing like the military alphabet. Melody his Echo. Alpha-Martin. Bravo-Tabitha. Charlie-Reese, and now Delta-Dani, his child, too, by virtue of his sister dying. Drinking herself into oblivion. No, literally—oblivion.

But Martin had done all right, hadn’t he? A geologist. Head of a research station in Dominica. Nothing shabby about that. A college boy—Manny had raised a college boy. Or not raised him—sired him, paid for his raising. Supplemented his own parents as they raised him, as he listened to accounts of Martin’s life transmitted from halfway around the world: Little League games, Boy Scout patches, choirboy honors, whatever kids did back then in the seventies and eighties. Whatever kids raised by grandparents did.

Now Danielle—Dani—his de facto daughter. Son. Never will get used to that change. The big change. Dani, same age as Martin. His twin sister’s dark child and he’d hardly been there for her. Him. He could have done so much more. Little Dani, loved to suffocation by her mother. His mother. The constant motherly narration as backdrop.

At ten: All good little girls paint their fingernails, honey.

At twelve: Dani, my goodness, must you walk like John Wayne?

At thirteen: Would it kill you to wear a dress to church once?

At sixteen: Trust me, you loved those frilly things. You would twirl and twirl.

Looking back, he sees it now. Twirling as Dani’s escape, and Rosie a twirler, too, with him. Twins, they twirled together. Two as one, coltish, early. Front teeth missing. First grade? Second? Different teachers—they divided twins back then—same recess. Holding hands to spin together, faster, faster. Tandem spinning. Spinning till your hands broke apart and you staggered around, drunk with the swirl in your ears.

Years later, thinking that was the start. The start of Rosie’s fatal love affair—the altered state, the boomerang consciousness, the Bill W struggle. The thrill of the twirl. Swings and gymnastics and the Merry-go-Round and boys and booze. Definitely a pattern. If only he’d seen it, been a better twin. An older twin.

Ridiculous. An older twin.

There is no parallel.

And yet. Martin and Dani. Son and niece the same age. One parent each. Would Dani’s father have stayed if someone had taken the time to say, Jack, you have a child (yes, you!)? Would everything have been different?

Rosie only remembers having a daughter. A lesbian, but a daughter. Would she recognize her daughter now? In heaven, someday, what sex will Dani be?

He should have chaperoned his sister’s debutante ball. Oh, sweet irony! She got pregnant with Dani at a coming out party. There’s some Karma. If he had chaperoned, Rosie’s whole life would have been different. No Dani, no banishment, no family rift. He should have been there for her.

One-armed Jack-in-the-Swamp and Dani. Quite a pair. Motley Crew. Bringing them together was an act of genius—or fool, he isn’t sure—but it should have happened years ago. Rosie refused.

He wonders, did she want it as she took that sip-too-many? Was her final bottle filled with truth serum? Elixir of honesty. Did she slip away thinking Lord, what have I done?

Hoping and driving.

Jack better have the sense to clean up. September, still beastly hot in Florida. Hopefully he’s shaved, at least. Put on what passes for a clean shirt . . . when you live in a tent.

Top down, the wind encouraging Manny to believe in possibilities. Cautiously optimistic. That spineless phrase, coined by . . . Reagan, was it? To keep from disappointing either side. We need a catch-phrase. Let’s go, fellas. CYA all the way. Something long-lived. Useful. Something a Press Secretary can throw about during a future war. We remain cautiously optimistic that rebels will take out a weakened Saddam Hussein. Ass hats. Fucktards. A meaningless straddle: We, your government, want credit for having believed a good outcome was possible, but no culpability when it all goes to hell.

Cautiously pessimistic, the better phrase. Cautiously pessimistic that Shrub will be a better president than his father was. Manny had survived Clinton’s draw-down, his Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, Bush Senior’s thousand points of light, his Read My Lips and wouldn’t-be-prudent finger wagging, Reagan’s Tear Down This Wall and Ollie North thrown onto his own grenade, Carter’s oil embargo and sandstorm-foiled hostage rescue, Ford’s post-involvement recession and a wacky Helsinki Accord. Career Army, he’d served under six Commanders-in-Chief. Respected the title? Absolutely. Respected the men? Not so much.


Jack is dressed and nervous. Fidgety. A good sign, frankly. Shaven, good, good, all good. Then he calls his shaggy mutt over to the Jeep.

—You’ve got to leave the dog, Jack.

—Ripton goes where I go.

—You want to see Dani? Or you want to take your dog on a tour of Miami?

—He’ll stay in the Jeep. I’ll tie his leash to the roll bar.

—It’s a rental. And a college campus isn’t safe. And a rope isn’t a leash. It’s a rope.

—All the more reason.

Jack lifts himself in, whistles and the dog loads up. He ties Ripton with his good hand doing the moving and his bad hand holding the rope. The mosquitoes swarm around the dog’s patchy fur.

—He’s got mange?

—Nope.

—Fleas?

—Nope.

—Hope to hell he doesn’t hang himself.

—He’s a smart dog.

The dog opens his mouth and starts panting, a smiley face with its tongue stuck out.

—What’s on his tongue?

—He’s chow. Part, anyway. They’ve got black tongues.

Manny watches drips of dog saliva. One, two, three. At least it’s a rental. Jesus. A dog.

—You ready?

—As I’ll ever be.


Jack and Manny don’t speak for most of the drive. They enter the campus gates—each brick column nearly as big as Jack’s old house in Stuart—and he stares at the manicured grounds, the grass so green it hurts his eyes, the coconut trees, each one precisely trimmed, concentric chevrons climbing the trunk. As he’s taking in this Eden, this oasis of green smack in the scrub of South Florida, small sprinkler heads rise up all around them and shoot water in crisscrossing arcs across the grounds. Manny pulls into a parking space and Jack notices that the sprinkler closest to the Jeep has malfunctioned. Water is bubbling onto the sidewalk. By the semicircle of yellow grass, it appears to have been that way for a while.

—Ready?

—You keep asking that, I’m going to change my mind.

Jack pulls out a pack of Marlboros and lights one. He takes a long drag, feels the nicotine buzz spread to his extremities.

—Your dog going to be all right in the heat?

—He lives in the Everglades—in a tent. What do you think?

He blows out a long plume of smoke.

—I just don’t want some animal rights activist suing me for leaving a dog in a hot car.

—In a hot convertible.

—Point taken.

As they walk past the malfunctioning sprinkler, Jack stoops to examine it. He puts the cigarette between his lips and his hand into the bubbling water, turns the head a quarter turn and then smacks it with the heel of his palm. The sprinkler comes to life, spraying a wide arc of water across the front of his shirt. He removes the cigarette and grins like a maniac. Manny shakes his head and they continue on. At the steps he drops the butt and steps on it. With a vacuum-sealed swish of doors they enter the Cox Science Center. Cool marble squeaks beneath their rubber soles, still wet from the sprinklers.

Jack looks up at the high ceiling. A giant, hanging mobile sways in the upper air-conditioned reaches; he lets out a low whistle of appreciation and his discount-store shoes make a scrunching sound on each step of the grand, wide, glass-and-metal staircase.


Manny locates the biology listing and runs his finger down the menu. Dr. Dani Stackowski. At least it doesn’t say Danielle. Or worse, a leftover Ms. He struggled over whether to tell Jack about the whole gender thing. Leslie urged him to, but how the hell do you bring up such a thing? By the way, there’s this thing I’ve been meaning to tell you. You know that son I’ve told you about? Well, he used to be a girl. But don’t worry, he’s packing now. Not that Manny knows for sure, although there does seem to be a bulge. He tries not to look, doesn’t want to ask. Like seeing a breastfeeding mother out in public, first there’s the automatic double take that you try to turn into a casual sweeping glance at the last minute, followed by the overly self-conscious refusal to look by becoming intensely interested in something off-stage, something that is definitely not a breastfeeding mom, a dwarf, a cripple, or a transgendered individual.

Jack touches the name on the board, too.

—Hadn’t thought about that. Just assumed.

—Assumed Rosie knew your last name? Or assumed she’d give you credit?

—Deringer.

—Say again?

—My last name. Back then. I go by Dell now. Deringer was a spiteful old man’s last name, a weak woman’s assumed name, a pistol I couldn’t carry around one day more.

—You go by Jack Dell.

—Yup.

—Sounds like a nursery rhyme. Dani Dell’s not so hot, either.

—No, I don’t suppose it is.

It was a relief to be blunt. To be matter-of-fact. Leslie always wanted to discuss. Wanted to drive every subject to its knees with talk. Since retiring from the military, the only male left in the household, he’d been overwhelmed by words. And, Damn, he’d forgotten to call Leslie and tell her he landed safely. He checks his cell phone. No bars. She’s a worrier. Ever since the tsunami, being stranded like that, she’d been a lot clingier whenever either one of them traveled. Call me when you get there. Don’t forget to check in this time. Give me a second number where I can reach you.

Leslie supports this father-child reconciliation mission of his—more or less. She’d never searched for her own birth mother. And there had always been a whiff of jealousy over the time he spent with Rosie, or maybe it was the time spent with Dani. He didn’t ask for clarification. She was definitely jealous of Martin, at least in the early days of the marriage. The precise wellspring of her jealousy was never clear, but she would sigh loudly when he told her he’d written another check to Rosie, or wonder aloud why he made so much effort to stop and see Rosie and Danielle on his travels, while his own daughter sat at home.

He’d asked Leslie if she didn’t wanted to find her birth mother. “Sure,” she said, a little too casually. “But she’d come find me if she wanted me to know who she was. I wouldn’t want to force myself on anyone. She made her choice. I’m sure she had her reasons.” He suspected it wasn’t as matter-of-fact as all that, but refrained from any platitudes about how time changes people. The circumstance of her birth was her personal demon to wrestle. He had his own.

And yet here he is, pushing two other people to confront their histories. Spending more time reaching out to his sister’s kid, even though Rosie was gone and the “kid” was thirty-two years old.

People assumed that losing a twin was a terrible blow. In some ways it was, but they’d been fraternal twins, no more alike than any other brother and sister except for being the same age. No, it was his father’s death in May that had been the bigger blow. Not because he didn’t see it coming, he did. And not because they were close. They weren’t, not particularly. It was a blow because his dad’s dying took away the last line of defense against his own death. As long as he still had a father alive in the world, he had someone between him and the grave. He was still somebody’s kid. And that somebody kept him from stepping into the gigantic shoes of The Family Patriarch. It caught him by surprise that a person could be fifty years old and still feel orphaned.

Manny knocks on the frame of Dani’s office door and then looks inside.


Tio Manny first suggested a meeting back in February, after Grandpa Bart’s funeral, when family was in the forefront of his mind. September had seemed a long way off and Dani said yes then, thinking he would have time to adjust to the idea. Except here the day is, and here he hasn’t. How does one suddenly just have a father after not having one for thirty-two years? How is that change made? Where is the manual for that?

Bart had been the closest thing to a father Dani had, and still he’d only visited his grandparents in Puerto Rico during the years of graduate school.

Everyone seemed to want this reunion more than he did. Carlita pushed him, saying it would help him understand his past, get in touch with the masculine side of his heritage. Tio Manny pushed for it, probably because he was tired of feeling responsible. And Aunt Leslie, too, for who knows what maudlin reason. Even Martin, who turned out to be a surprising advocate and an awesome cousin once they got to spend a little time together, said he should do it. Martin joked that since he was three weeks older, Dani had to take his advice.

Still, there was something decidedly off about sitting and waiting for them to arrive. What should he call him? Papá Jack? He stands and paces his office, such as it is. There’s only a small space for a chair on the other side of the desk, and behind the desk are stacks of peer-reviewed journals, a box of dive weights, a knee-high pile of final papers from last semester that he had read, graded, and forgotten to return the last day of class. Even now, the odd student would pop in and ask for last semester’s hard copy and he’d have to shuffle through them. It wasn’t like him to be so disorganized, but the funeral for his grandfather came suddenly, during finals week. He’d had to pay a substitute to administer the exam.

There’s a knock and suddenly, the two men are standing outside his office door.

—Come in, come in.

He says this before he remembers that the space is barely big enough for him. The three of them stand awkwardly, shoulder to shoulder.

—Go out, go out!

He hopes for a lighthearted tone, but his voice cracks like a fourteen-year-old boy and he feels his face flush as they move into the hallway. At least their backs are to him for a moment and he can make a quick assessment. Jack is a good three to four inches taller than him. He’s got long wavy hair, brown with thick gray streaks, tied back in a ponytail and there’s a ring of grime at the collar of his Red Cross blood donor t-shirt. His right sleeve hangs funny, hovering just above some indistinguishable tattoo, cut through by a long white scar. His jeans are faded with a hole at the corner of the back pocket where a wallet has rubbed. He smells like an ashtray. He looks shaky and younger than expected and when he turns, his face is leathery tan, creased with a starburst of white squint lines at the outside corner of each eye.

—Danny. Good God. I’m looking in a mirror.

Dani doesn’t think he’s looking in a mirror at all. He doesn’t see himself in the older man’s face, and is disturbed that Jack does. He holds out a hand and they shake. Jack’s grip is strong, forced. His smile doesn’t travel past his teeth and his lips give a slight tremble. Dani grips harder; there’s a crunching sensation as the bones in the older man’s hand shift under the pressure of his grip. He winces, shakes his hand when Dani lets go.

—I can answer any questions you have.

—Same here.

Jack turns to Manny, who tilts his head slightly and shrugs.

—My mother never talked about you. When I agreed to Tio’s suggestion that we meet, I didn’t think beyond that. I didn’t want to have expectations.

Although he does wonder now how much Jack knows about the gender reassignment. He must know. Did Tio Manny tell him? He would have liked to have been a fly on the wall for that conversation.

—Expectations.

—Expectations that might not bear out. This isn’t a Disney movie.

—Good thing.

—Are you married?

—No. And I should probably get this right out in the open: I sold my house six months back and I live in a tent in the Everglades.

—Right. The treasure ship. I read about that in the paper. And that was you. Go figure.

—Settlement is in the courts right now. They’re hashing out my share. I expect to come into some money soon. That could be your inheritance. Although the lawyers will get the biggest payout. Ain’t that ironic?

Inheritance. This scruffy man offering up the potential spoils of some ill-gotten gains. That’s ironic.

—That gold was probably slated to fund a military conquest for Spain centuries ago. Paying for modern litigation must be slightly better than paying for ancient blood.

Manny coughs into his hand and leans into the conversation.

—Is there a coffee shop nearby?

—I don’t drink coffee, says Jack.

—The student center is a few blocks away. We can walk, if you don’t mind.

—Ripton, says Jack, his hands shaking.

The two men exchange a glance and Manny seems to understand the one-word objection.

—There’s a faculty lounge down the hall. I can’t vouch for the coffee, but the chairs are soft.


My son ushers us into the lounge. We pick seats that form the points of a triangle. The dark, burning smell of coffee fills the room. My hands start to shake and my gut clenches. He doesn’t say anything so I do.

—Tell me about your mother.

I’m not even sure I want to hear about his mother. It just seems like the right thing to say.

—She was a beautiful person. She loved me. She accepted me. What else is there? You knew her.

—Thirty-two years ago I spent one evening with her. Why do you think she never told me?

His eyes turn hard and I understand I’ve said the wrong thing. But what the hell is the right thing? What am I even doing here? How can someone make amends for thirty-two years of silence?

—You didn’t have to come. My life is fine the way it is.

—I thought you wanted me to come.

—Me? I thought you wanted it.

We both turn and stare at Manny.

—Someone tell me how this is a bad thing, Manny says. You (pointing at Dani) now you know where you’ve come from. And you (pointing at me) now you know you have a son. Where’s the harm?

—The harm is all the years my mother worked two jobs to put food on the table, got up nights when I was sick, worried all alone—

—She didn’t tell me. How could I know? She made that choice. She could have put you up for adoption.

—What choice? The choice to have sex with you? She was seventeen. Her parents kicked her out of the house. She never got to go home again.

—I was eighteen. My father was an asshole. I didn’t know. We were just a couple of stupid kids.

—And she paid the price.

—Look at you. Smart, successful. You’re not anybody’s price. You’re the best thing I’ve ever done.

—I’m not something you’ve done, for Christ’s sake. You can’t take credit now. The hard work’s already been done—by others. Me, my mother, Tio. You can’t bask in the glory of a five-minute sperm donation.

Silence.

—I don’t know what you want from me.

My son looks into his Styrofoam coffee cup, swirls it around, and studies the whirl of liquid. The hot black smell fills up my brain and the walls close in.

—I want what I’ve always had—nothing.


Manny watches Jack’s back all the way to the door of the science building. He’s even more agitated than he had been when he was waiting in the Everglades. They step outside. He lights up a cigarette, sits on the step.

—He’s a twink, isn’t he? That’s what nobody’s telling me. I’ve been trying to name the eggshells everyone’s walking on and it’s that I’ve got a queer for a son. I knew right away there was something off. Him saying his mother was accepting. I should have gotten it then, but I’m slow.

—He’s got a live-in girlfriend, Jack, not that it should matter. He’s your son.

—Still, he’s not a man like you or me, is he? He’s different. I can tell he’s different.

Manny sighs.

—I guess.

—I could tell first thing.

Jack looks toward the parking lot. He lasers in on the Jeep.

—Ripton’s sleeping?

—That, or he’s hung himself.

Jack glares and spits on the sidewalk. He walks faster and blasts a short, sharp whistle that goes up at the end like a question.

—What? It’s a joke. He’s down in the floorboard where it’s cooler. I’ll bet you.

Except he isn’t. The rope dangles loosely from the roll bar, still tied firmly at the upper end. The bottom curls like a squash tendril looking for support. Jack lifts it and lays it across his palm. He swallows hard and stares at the frayed end of rope.

—Ripton?

—We’ll drive around. We’ll look for him, Jack.

—Ripton!

—We’ll find him.

—Rip-Ton!

They drive around for two hours, then eat dinner at a drive-up barbeque joint and drive around some more, Jack calling out, insisting Manny pull over every few blocks so he can question the homeless, the bag ladies, the prostitutes. But the dog is gone, Absent Without Leave. Or captured, Missing In Action. No one knows anything. No one has seen him.

Finally they stop at an underpass and Jack gets out. He sits on the sloping cement and the vehicles whump-whump overhead. He puts his forehead on his knees and slides the coil of rope over and over through his hands. Then he carefully places the rope on the ground, adjusting the circle just so. When it is perfectly round, he whistles one more time, then brings his hands to his face and cries for the dog he has lost, for the son he has not gained.  

Copyright © 1999-2017 Juked