Gazelles

By  |  December 9, 1995
Art courtesy of Kyle Ragsdale | kyleragsdale.com Art courtesy of Kyle Ragsdale | kyleragsdale.com

 

All the way up to Brookhaven, or Pinedale, or whatever the hell it was called, Tansy’s father had been driving like an old woman. Specifically, he drove like the old woman in front of them, whose put-put flatbed truck had a “GARDENERS DO IT IN THE DIRT” bumper sticker and a load of bedding plants, swaddled in clear plastic and blooming their tiny heads off. Tansy could just imagine how her father would react ordinarily to such pokey driving. She closed her eyes and saw him draped over the horn in the Lexus, an automotive version of the Pieta in her sophomore art history book. But today her father neither honked at the old woman’s truck nor passed it; he simply stayed put in the slow lane, a prim car-length behind. And—this was even weirder—Tansy’s mother was letting him get away with it. She was right there next to him, law office files and faxes piled high in her lap, but not once in the hour since they’d left North Dallas had she rolled her eyes, or offered to get out of the car and push them the rest of the way to East Texas.

It was driving Tansy crazy, but she didn’t say it out loud. The last thing the world needed was another straight line. The truth was that Tansy, just turned sixteen, was already crazy, and Brookdale, or Pinehaven, or PineBrookHavenDale, was a school for her own kind. No adult she knew said crazy, of course. They said adolescent despair; they said anger turned inward; if they were Sidney Grau, M.D., Ph.D, consoling Tansy’s mother by the family’s blue expanse of swimming pool on New Year’s Eve, they said troubled child at the end of the twentieth century. But Tansy’s sadness, which was hers and no one else’s, didn’t explain why this pair who looked like her mother and father suddenly had morphed into Mike and Carol Brady on an extended car trip: sharing the road, taking time to smell the flowers, smiling vacant, creepy smiles.

They were another two exits down the highway, that much closer to Nacogdoches and the school, before Tansy figured it out. Her mother leaned into the dashboard, her face practically fastened to the windshield, and made sweet little cooing noises at the blooming plants up ahead. Tansy’s mother—her real mother—did not coo. At the same time, Tansy’s father’s size eleven Topsider eased up even more on the gas pedal. They were going forty-three miles an hour now, at high noon on a Texas highway, and finally Tansy understood that all this torpor was for her. It wasn’t how slow her father was going, she decided, it was that he and her mother had conspired to stay stuck behind a truck carrying bright new flowers: resurrection, the promise of growth, one universe, no waiting. The only thing missing was big neon letters mounted on the back of the truck that flashed: TANSY! LIGHT OF OUR LIVES! CHEER UP! She stared at her parents—the back of their heads were attractive, but tense—and decided to act before her father drove the Lexus over the truck just to make her see the flowers. A child of the late twentieth century is not stupid, Tansy thought, and she made a V with her fingers, pushing the line of her mouth gently upward.

“Mom, do you know what the flowers are in that truck in front of us?” she asked. “I don’t recognize them.”

“They’re daisies,” Tansy’s mother said, and Tansy almost choked, because of course they were daisies, and now her mother would move up brain damage on her list of worries.

“They’re sweet flowers, aren’t they?” her mother said. “Remember when you were little and you called them lazies? You were the cutest thing, running through the house in those little pink sundresses, carrying lazies from the garden.”

“Holly did that,” Tansy said flatly, and sat back to watch the panic in the front seat. Holly was her older sister, a first-year med-student in San Antonio, and lately their parents had taken to pretending she didn’t exist, at least in front of Tansy. More than once, coming downstairs at night, she’d heard her mother whispering the truth into the phone: Holly was happy; Holly was born happy; nothing in the wide world was wrong with Holly.

Her mother looked like she might cry, and Tansy’s voice when she spoke was bright and loud. “Mom, don’t you remember? When I was little, you believed in calling things by their right names. I was the only kid in kindergarten who knew Ashley Martin’s grandmother couldn’t really live in Norfolk, Vagina.”

No one laughed, and Tansy knew she was pushing it. Her parents were, after all, about to leave their baby girl at Our Child Has No Future Prep School. But she didn’t care; she was tired of them drooping all over her every minute of the day. It was even worse in the car, like taking a pair of philodendrons for a drive in the country.

Her mother was talking. “Sweetheart, did you mind knowing what a vagina really was?” and Tansy heard in her voice the genesis of yet another theory: My youngest child is sad because I never said wee-wee.

“I think it’s why I turned out this way,” she said, and waited until her father groped sideways for her mother’s hand before she added, “Mom, I’m kidding. Jesus. Of course I didn’t mind.”

Her mother sighed, and Tansy remembered, a beat too late, last Christmas morning. She’d stood just outside the kitchen, barefoot, shivering on the cold Portuguese tile, listening as her parents tortured each other with the Martin family’s annual holiday letter. Ashley Martin was a sixteen-year-old concert pianist now, or she’d discovered a solar system, or she had a new nose, Tansy didn’t remember which; she was only sure that Ashley, who really had been the dumbest kid at Country Day, was not about to enroll at a school where current medications was a category under the seniors’ yearbook pictures.

In the covering silence, Tansy’s mother made a pillow of her closed fist against the car window, and pretended to go to sleep. Tansy waited for her father to slam down the turn indicator and whip the Lexus around the old woman’s truck. When he did it, she didn’t turn around to see how the daisies survived the shock. Grow up, why don’t you? Tansy whispered. She shut her eyes, inviting the dark, and she was back in Mr. Gruber’s ninth grade biology class at Country Day the spring before, in her old seat by the window, watching a film about gazelles in Africa. They were a lucky herd, touched with grace and sunshine, moving across the Serengeti Plain in springtime. They’d come a long way before one of their young went down, pitched forward on its front legs at a watering hole, the delicate brown mouth working in the dirt, learning the unfamiliar language of sorrow: the word for history, the word for surprise. And out of nowhere, a lion was there, watching from the top of the grassy rise. The lion held still, waiting, as the older gazelles moved to surround the sick and smaller one. All the sunshine was gone—it was cold now—and the gazelles moved stiffly, without grace. Night was coming, but still they circled, protecting, for as long as they could, what they did not believe could be saved.

 

They got to the little city of Nacogdoches just past noon, and Tansy swanned her neck to check herself in the rearview mirror. It couldn’t be far now, and her immediate goal in life—maybe her only goal in life—was to arrive looking like it was the last place on earth she needed to be. The school’s real name was Timberbrook, and Tansy practiced saying it in her head, straight-faced, without adding that it sounded like somewhere Ma and Pa might have committed Laura Ingalls Wilder.

In the front seat, Tansy’s own ma and pa were talking, too low for her to hear, and she felt a cramp scaling the small of her back. She’d had months to learn the signs, and she knew her parents couldn’t be through trying to cheer her up. The old woman and her flowers had been a diversion, nothing more, and somewhere between downtown Nacogdoches and the school they would mount one last offensive to make Tansy happy again, to make the bad things disappear. Those were the words her mother’d used when Tansy was little, whenever there was medicine to be taken, and all these years later, it was her lawyer-mother who believed in magic cures, who carried a healing crystal in her change purse, who dragged a lawn chair out to the center of the backyard when there was a fingernail moon. “This is the lucky moon,” she told Tansy every time. “You were born under this moon.” Holly’s was the hunger moon. Tansy snorted, thinking about it, and saw her father’s hands choke the wheel.

“Are we late?” Tansy asked. “It’s not much farther, is it?”

“We’re fine,” her mother said. “You just need to be there for a new students’ meeting at 6 P.M. We have the rest of the afternoon if we want it.”

“What is there to do?” Tansy asked. “Aren’t we in East Texas?” This time her father almost laughed, but he touched his mouth and, just as quickly, let his hand drop to the steering wheel, where he was careful not to look at it. A few weeks before in family therapy, Dr. Grau had used up the hour with a lecture on hostile body language. He’d shown them pictures, too, and Tansy was betting it would be another generation, at least, before anyone related to her felt free to gesture.

“Are you hungry?” her mother said, and Tansy saw the Texas guidebook open on her lap. “There’s a hole-in-the-wall barbeque place down the road that’s supposed to be great. Do you want to try it?”

What Tansy wanted was for her mother not to make everything she did count twice. It wasn’t enough just to spend a day ferrying her damaged child across Texas; she had to discover a place to eat ribs. Tansy wanted to be thirty, too, and a chain smoker, and to have all this behind her, no matter how it turned out. But telling the truth wouldn’t help her now.

“It’s a three-hour drive home. Are you sure you have time for lunch?” She was picturing the return trip to Dallas, the terrible green sameness of it. She didn’t know anything was wrong until her father fumbled for a CD and Bob Dylan’s voice, thin as string, unraveled in the air above her. This was her father’s emergency music. He’d used it to win his wife, and then to comfort her in the delivery room as each of their daughters was born. Tansy raised her head, looking for some new crisis, and followed her mother’s gaze to the slow lane where, beside them now, three high school girls were tooling along in a Chevy Nova. Two of them were tossing a toy football back and forth, just out of the reach of the driver’s waving hand. They were standard-issue girls, not even pretty, but her mother was holding her breath to watch them, as though she had suddenly found a drive-through entrance to the Louvre. It was the ordinariness that transfixed her mother, Tansy knew. She was always talking about it in Dr. Grau’s office, this idea she had that such routine, such plain good cheer, might always elude her youngest child.

Tansy said damn under her breath, and leaned forward to touch her mother’s shoulder, to make her turn her back on the laughing girls in the little blue car. “I’m starved,” Tansy said. “Can we eat lunch, and then see if there’s someplace to buy a popcorn maker for my room?”

Tansy’s father bit off a mouthful of air and held it. The tips of his ears were cranberry and Tansy wondered if, like her, he was remembering the two or three days before Holly had gone off to college for the first time. Holly’s name for it was The Festival of Small Appliances, and behind their parents’ backs, she had a whole routine about families in which cappuccino machines were the designated coin of love.

“I need a popcorn maker,” Tansy said. “It’s not like there’s going to be a 7-Eleven in the woods.”

Tansy’s mother opened her mouth, then shut it. She’d put on her reading glasses for the Texas guidebook, and she reached up now to take them off. This close, Tansy could see old tears ground into the fine skin around her mother’s eyes.

“Mom,” Tansy said. “Mom, are you listening to me?”

Her mother shook her head. “I don’t want to do this,” she said. Her face was dreamy and soft, but when she heard herself talking out loud, she swallowed and straightened her back, daring Tansy or her father to repeat what she’d said. Tansy almost laughed then, because apparently cheering her up wasn’t such a priority anymore. Her father cranked the sound up on “Lay Lady Lay,” and Tansy flopped backward across the seat, a move Holly had taught her when she was learning to float. Half the time she sank, but she was only in second grade; everybody sank in second grade.

“Stay in your seats and remain calm,” her father said over the music, and Tansy remembered that a million years before, the two of them had watched cartoons together on Saturday mornings, early, before Holly got up and talked them around to Calculus and You on public television. Her father was the quiet one in Dr. Grau’s office, the one who had to be asked what he thought, and then said the same two or three things over and over: he loved his wife, he loved his daughters, he didn’t know at which moment he had become unimportant in all this. But those mornings when Tansy was little, he had been at the center of things, hitting the mute button and speaking all the cartoon voices himself: Porky Pig, Sylvester, Yosemite Sam.

“The restaurant’s five or six miles ahead,” he said now. “We can eat, and then see what we feel like doing. Is that okay with everybody?”

Tansy and her mother nodded, identical bobs of their heads.

In the backseat, Tansy lay still, listening to Dylan’s voice, and—rising above it—the buoyant sound of her mother reclaiming her public self: reading the guidebook entry out loud, listing the features she liked popcorn makers to have, teasing Tansy’s father about whether it was red wine, or white, with pork fritters.

Tansy ignored all of it. Her eyes were open, but she was picturing her mother a few minutes before, thinking how touched the girls in the Nova, the old woman in the truck, would have been by the quiver in her mother’s voice, by the sad declaration: I don’t want to do this. They would have believed she meant leaving Tansy at Timberbrook, and maybe they’d have gone home and called their own mothers to tell them a story, all about this lovely woman’s devotion to a lost cause. But Tansy knew better, and had for a long time.

 

Five months before, almost six now, Tansy had been in her seat in Mr. Gruber’s class watching the film about gazelles. She was failing this class, and maybe another, and she was sleepy; at first the gazelles were only flickers on the screen. Just before dawn on the Serengeti Plain, the lion came down from the rise. The circle of gazelles broke apart—the music swelled and darkened—and the young gazelle at the watering hole tried to lift her head. The lion was on her then, and Tansy cried, quietly at first, into her hand, and then louder, until she was inside the sound, not the other way around. Mr. Gruber turned off the VCR—the gazelle was dead, only the credits were left—and walked Tansy down the hall to see the nurse. She remembered his hands on her shoulders, bumping her along, but nothing else until she was alone, lying on a crinkly, tissue-paper sheet on a narrow bed in the nurse’s office. The bed was short, and Tansy rolled onto her side and drew her knees up. Then she scooted all the way over and hung her chin off the edge of the mattress, because anything else was like lying on a giant Kleenex. She didn’t know why she was crying—the world was tough on gazelles, it wasn’t exactly a news flash—but she was interested in her own tears, in their dimension especially, in how many thousands might form an icicle, a rain cloud, a watering hole on the Serengeti Plain. She cried, and she counted the tears as they fell, and an hour later, maybe two, she heard her mother’s courtroom voice just outside the curtain, her size five, t-strap Ferragamos sounding taps on the linoleum floor.

“Tansy feels things,” her mother said. “She cries, and she gets over it; it’s been this way since she was in kindergarten.”

She heard the nurse speaking, the soft murmur of doubt, and her mother answering back. “Of course, it seems worse lately. It is worse. She’s a fifteen-year-old girl, and fifteen-year-old girls are hormones dressed in black. Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed.”

They talked on for a moment, trading Teenagers They Had Known stories, and Tansy slid off the table and turned on the water in the sink. She raised her face to the mirror, and she was eight-years-old and out of bed in the middle of the night, because the third grade at Country Day had voted her their pageant’s Snow Queen. Holly had been Snow Queen, too, the year that Tansy was born; there was a picture of her in the family room, dressed all in white and sprinkling plastic snowflakes on a sweaty, adoring crowd.

Tansy’s Queen costume was even prettier and for a month now, restless with joy, she’d floated through her kingdom night and day, blessing the villagers and naming each snowflake as it fell. At first her mother’s voice was only in Tansy’s head—she was one of the villagers on the green—and then it was real, coming from behind the half-open door to the kitchen.

Tansy started for the sound—her mother would be able to tell her what queens ate for breakfast—and then stopped, because her father was in the kitchen, too. She slid to the floor, charmed by the idea of listening to her loyal subjects’ conversation.

“I’m just not sure all this Snow Queen business is a good idea,” her mother said. Tansy stretched, getting ready to stand, because her parents were teasing her. They knew she was out here and, any minute, one of them would come through the door, smiling, to get her. She waited, but no one came, and she pulled her arms close to her side.

“Have you forgotten we’ve already done this once?” her father said. “Holly got through this brush with fame. Tansy will, too.”

In the hallway, Tansy hugged herself.

“It’s not the same thing. Tansy loves being Snow Queen. It’s the most attention she’s ever had at school. The other kids are making over her; even the teachers are treating her like royalty.”

Her father said that for $12,000 annual tuition, a little excess was fine, but her mother talked over him, her voice carrying with­out effort to the hallway where Tansy sat, frozen, colder than she had ever dreamed of being. And on the other side of what she had first imagined to be a castle wall, her mother talked on and on. She said maybe it wasn’t good for Tansy to like being Snow Queen so much, because how would she feel when the play was over? She said Tansy was a sweet child, the sweetest in the world, but girls didn’t get attention for being sweet, not after the third grade anyway. She said, “Look at Holly. Holly’s ruthless.”

Her father laughed, but Tansy didn’t hear the rest of it. She was moving away, without sound, and the hall was a hall, not a castle corridor lit with lamps; she was eight years old, and she was sweet—a pretend Snow Queen in a pretend play. But there were still some things she knew: she knew her mother’s voice inside­out, its different shadings of admiration and of worry and of love, and now she knew how much better it was to be ruthless, whatever ruthless was.

 

Tansy saw a swelling cloud of smoke as soon as they turned off he highway onto the blacktop, and when she cracked her window, she smelled not the tall trees, but onions—onions and burning sugar. The barbeque place was a mile or two straight through the piney woods, a white frame house set back from a parking lot full of pick-up trucks. Her father made two trips around the lot before he found a space, and Tansy and her mother passed the time looking out their separate windows at the families walking back to their cars after lunch. Skinny kids in t-shirts and shorts chased each other, but the adults walked slowly, their hands folded reverently over their stomachs. Every few steps the mothers roused themselves to see if their kids were safe. Their warnings floated over the parking lot: You kids slow down; You kids look out for cars now; Darlene, you put your brother down.

She could see her parents changing their minds about lunch—lately other people’s luck unnerved them—and when her father parked the car, Tansy jumped out before anyone could tell her not to. She ran for the porch. The restaurant sign, RUCKER’S BARBEQUE, was nailed to the front wall, and at the top of the sagging stairs, she stopped to read the handwritten comments that filled every inch in and around the name.

“Everyone loves the food,” Tansy reported over her shoulder, pretending her parents weren’t ten feet away, staging a reenactment of the drive from Dallas. “It says right here the whole Connally family loved the grape pie.”

Tansy’s father reached for her arm from behind, and together they stepped sideways to clear a path for Tansy’s mother. She was two or three steps from the door when the screen banged open, all the way to the hinges, and a girl carrying an empty tray leaped onto the porch.

“Jesus, oh Jesus, did I hit you?” she said to Tansy’s mother. “I’ll be working at Wal-Mart if I hit you. There’s no way I won’t be.”

The noise from the restaurant spilled onto the porch, but her voice lifted effortlessly above it. Tansy watched her parents stare, fascinated, at the space directly above the girl’s head, as if they expected to see a cartoon balloon.

“We’re supposed to meet the guests when they come in, not whack them in the head. I just keep thinking the door’s more solid than it really is. It’s not like I’m pushing that hard; I weigh ninety pounds, and some of that’s hair. But I hit you, didn’t I? Please tell me I didn’t hit you.”

The girl folded her arms—it was like capping a geyser—and Tansy’s mother looked at her. Tansy hadn’t seen that look in months, it meant enough was enough, and she was surprised when her mother reached out to pat the girl’s arm. “You didn’t hit me. Can we go in, do you think?”

The girl reddened and leaned over to hold the door, motioning for them to go ahead; when she moved, the plastic name tag over her right breast bounced a little. It said Vaughan. She’d told the truth about herself; she did have big hair, the color of a silver crayon, but the rest of her was tiny, lost in a billowing, polyester uniform.

Inside, Rucker’s was cool and dark, the way Tansy imagined a cave that served barbeque would be. The main room was packed with sturdy replicas of the families outside, sitting knee to knee at long tables. Vaughan led them to the only single table open, by the window, and dealt the menus to Tansy and her parents. The plastic tablecloth, which hung almost to the floor, was cool against Tansy’s bare legs. When she looked down, she saw the pattern: stern, unsmiling cows, eternally marching across the table and over the edge.

“We don’t really have salad,” Vaughan said. “It’s just listed because somebody from Chicago asked for it one time, and Mr. Rucker got embarrassed. We do have pecan pie, except not today, because there was a bachelor party after we closed last night and somebody broke the last bottle of Karo Syrup.” She looked around the restaurant and, when no one confessed, started in on the guy at the next table over, who was waving his empty coffee cup in the air.

“Tyler, you big baby, I’m coming with the coffee. You think Juan Valdez and I are dragging our feet just to annoy you?”

Vaughan didn’t take her hand off her hip until Tyler put his coffee cup on the table and bowed his head, and then she rushed toward the kitchen counter where plates of food were waiting to be picked up. In one motion, Tansy and her parents swiveled to watch her progress away from them.

“I miss her when she’s not here,” Tansy’s mother said, and Tansy and her father stared at her.

“Joke at one o’clock. Dive! Dive!” Tansy said, and when her father laughed, “Does anybody have Dr. Grau’s number? He said to tell someone when I feel disoriented.”

“You hush,” her mother said. It was another phrase from Tansy’s childhood, a car-pool phrase, and Tansy couldn’t help herself, she smiled. She was still smiling a second later when her mother began a sentence: “Sweetheart, about what I said in the car,” and Tansy felt her hands rising to her ears.

“No,” she said, loud enough that Tyler turned around to look at her. Whatever he saw made him drop a paper napkin over his empty coffee cup and toss a dollar bill onto the table. “Don’t explain it to me,” Tansy said to her mother. “Dr. Grau’s not coming to lunch, so you don’t need to explain it to me. No one here cares that you’re a perfect mother, but you’re one-for-two with your kids.”

“Listen to me,” her father said, but her mother put out her hand to stop him.

“Never mind,” she said, and Tansy saw the now-familiar question in her mother’s face, saw her wondering where her sweet girl had gone.

 

Vaughan was in the kitchen now, visible from the waist up through a swinging half-door. She was leaning against the wall, listening to a voice coming from the telephone balanced on her shoulder. There was no expression on her face, not even when she reached up to bang the receiver against the wall, then drop it back into place between her shoulder and her ear. She did it two or three times, but she didn’t hang up.

“Bless her heart,” Tansy heard a woman say behind her, and looked around to see heads nodding, up and down the room. They knew something about Vaughan, Tansy thought, and she turned to see her mother staring toward the kitchen, automatically sizing things up, sorting through categories of disasters, making a list of what might be true.

“Can we leave?” Tansy said, but Vaughan finally had let go of the phone and was coming to take their order, her tiny hips moving to a jukebox song about the jungle, about lions asleep in the jungle. Tansy chewed her lip. Half her sessions with Dr. Grau had been about assigning meaning to the gazelle dying in Africa; after six months, she was pretty sure she could kill a gazelle herself, never mind the lion.

“What can I get you?” Vaughan said. Her voice was different, stripped of detail and life, and all at once Tansy realized Vaughan wasn’t keeping time to the music. She was shaking. Her mother saw it, too, and asked what was wrong.

Vaughan didn’t hesitate. Strangers always did what Tansy’s mother told them to do. “What’s wrong is I married a crazy man, and he’s called here five times this morning to tell me he hates me. I had to bring my baby to work today to keep him away from his daddy, and right now he’s in the kitchen hugging his dump truck, he’s so scared.” She stopped. “No reason in the world why you all can’t have lunch.”

She stuck her order pad in the air over the table, and Tansy and her parents took turns ordering, matter-of-factly, because that seemed to be what Vaughan wanted. It was only a minute before she came back with their tea and barbeque sandwiches, and set a bowl of banana pudding in the center of the table. “My compliments,” she said to Tansy’s mother. “I don’t know what I’d have done if you’d been mean to me, too. And no one would blame you; I did almost brain you and then I made you wait a couple of days to eat.”

Tansy’s mother looked past Vaughan to the kitchen. “How old is your little boy?” she asked, and when Vaughan held up two fingers: “Do you think he’d like to come sit with us? Maybe have some lunch? He’d be right where you could see him, so you could both relax a little.”

“Please,” Tansy said, when Vaughan didn’t answer. “I like little kids; we all do.” Her mother and father were looking at her with new interest, and Tansy suddenly wondered if this was their last plan to cheer her up, bringing her out to the big, dark woods to show her waitresses, women who’d made all their worst mistakes when they were young.

Vaughan said something Tansy didn’t hear, and disappeared into the kitchen. When she came out, she was carrying a booster seat with a carton of chocolate milk balanced on top, her other arm wrapped around her son. He had a bowl haircut and white-blonde hair, and he was listening, open-mouthed, to his mother’s rapid-fire explanation of company manners.

“This is Daniel,” she said, depositing the booster seat on another chair, her son in the seat, and the open milk carton in his hand. “He’s eaten, thank you, but he loves to belly up to the table with a cool milk. When he gets over being shy, he’ll talk a mile a minute, and no, we don’t have any idea where he gets that from.”

Someone called to her from across the room, and Vaughan ducked to kiss her son. “You be sweet,” she said, and then a wave of sound came toward them from across the room: a swell made of gasps and chairs scraping, and footsteps, heavy on the wooden floor. Tansy’s back was to the dining room. She heard the sounds first, and then saw her father’s face, drained of color, staring in the direction of the door. He pushed at her mother, hard, but Tansy was just out of his reach. “Get down,” he said. “Get on the floor.”

Tansy said, “Daddy,” but what she heard was Daniel saying it, too, and then Tansy turned and saw him: a man in jeans and a hunting vest holding a rifle. He was headed for their table, calling Vaughan’s name, over and over, as if it were the end of everything he would ever have to say. He was a step or two away when Vaughan scooped Daniel up and shoved him under the tablecloth, under the cable where Tansy’s mother was kneeling, pulling at Tansy’s arms, yelling, move Tansy, move, move. Tansy slipped out of the chair, and then she was on the floor staring into the faces of her mother and father, the grey eyes of a little boy she didn’t know. Above them in the world, there was no quiet anywhere, but under the table there was not a sound. Her mother’s eyes were closed, but when she groped for Tansy she found her on the first try, found her husband with her other hand, lifted her chest to shield the baby. He was the quietest of them all; Daniel with the hair that wasn’t silver like his mother’s, but white gold, like the Snow Queen’s crown.

Tansy eased her head down and around, looking out at the narrow hem of light below the tablecloth and above the wooden floor. Vaughan had turned to face her husband now; the scuffed backs of her white shoes were just out of Tansy’s reach. She was talking about love, Tansy realized, and about car payments, about the senior class trip to Florida, about Daniel’s first steps. Tansy heard her talking, heard the ugly shouting back at her, but there was no making sense of what happened in the world, and so she concentrated on what she could see, the Power Ranger tennis shoe on the baby’s left foot, her mother’s wedding ring. She saw her father, too, trying to move forward on his knees, to cover their bodies with his own, but he couldn’t do it; he was too tall, and when he moved, his head raised the table, threatened to take the only safe place away. She began to count the tiny golden hairs on Daniel’s neck, but the man with the rifle drowned out the voice in her head. He was calling the baby’s name now, and Daniel closed his eyes. A sigh passed through him—no sound at all, but the absence of sound—and Vaughan’s ankles, white and thin, danced backward, as if she’d been pushed. Tansy saw Vaughan’s legs buckle and fall, saw the blue uniform billow and fold as she struggled to get up, saw the man’s hand reach past Vaughan, under the table, feeling for the baby to pull him away.

Tansy’s father said, “Be still, darlings,” but not quietly, not like a man who was unimportant. He said it again, and then he drew in his breath and pushed the table up and away from them, lunging for the man’s legs, pulling him to the floor. Tansy saw the rifle falling, and she felt her mother let go of her hand, saw her use both hands to take Daniel, pull him farther under her own body. There was shouting, and then Vaughan was on the floor digging Daniel out from under Tansy’s mother. She was kissing her son, up and down his body, and kissing Tansy’s mother, who hadn’t moved. She was too still, and Tansy, frightened now, said “Momma,” the sound her dolls had made a million years before, and then her mother was on her, crying, saying, “I let go of you. Oh, Tansy, I let go of you.” Tansy looked at her, surprised, because she saw now what her mother had done. She had reached to protect what was weakest, and for once in Tansy’s life, it had not been her. Tansy touched her mother’s shoulder before her father reached for them both under the table and pulled them up, and into the world.

Later, when everyone in the restaurant had emptied out into the Texas night, standing close together to tell the story over and over, their faces backlit by the blue glow from the squad cars, Tansy sat on the porch holding Daniel. Somewhere close by, her mother and father were talking to Vaughan, and Tansy rocked back and forth, singing a song she hadn’t known she remembered, feeling the little puffs of Daniel’s breath on the soft inside of her arm. He was asleep, and Tansy closed her own eyes, and moved a thousand gazelles across the Serengeti in springtime. It was a vast herd, but close-knit, and the lions watched until dusk, but they never came any nearer.

Lynna Williams (1951–2017) was an associate professor of English/Creative Writing specializing in fiction and nonfiction at Emory University. Her short fiction appeared in the Atlantic MonthlyLear’s, Crab Orchard Review, and other literary magazines. Her collection, Things Not Seen and Other Stories, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Professor Williams was the recipient of the Dobie-Paisano Fellowship from the University of Texas and the Texas Institute of Letters.