7: Al Sr., who was standing on the other side of the counter in Al’s kept an eye on Al Jr. at the other end of the bar, was in the habit of naming everything after himself. His son sat spinning on his stool. Little Al, the name the loyal patrons attributed to him, came to his father’s bar every day after school to do his homework, to have Big Al keep an eye on him. It was starting to get dark outside which meant that it was almost time for them to go home. Al Jr. was always surprised at how many people still sat at the stools as him and his dad were coming out. Because it was past his curfew, he believed it was past everyone’s curfew.
Not one for perpetuating his ethnic stereotypes, Al Sr. didn’t drink any of the alcohol he sold but opened a bar in the nineties for those Indians that didn’t care about the stereotypes. In fact, they toasted to them with glasses of tequila. He would warn his son about the stuff when he was tucked into bed like they were bedtime stories.
His dad was the strong, silent type. And, with that, came little morals and aphorisms he’d slip into life like he did straws into drinks. But he did have the biggest ear in all of Puyallup as he listened along to his drowning patrons and nodded along; he never made himself a life preserver but people hung on to him and clapped his back like he was. Big Al thought that if Little Al sat on his end of the bar and watched all the afternoon drunks, it might be better than anything he could tell him or not tell him. How this was the highlight of their day, how this is how they treated happiness and sadness.
As the nightshift bartender relieved Al Sr., Al Jr. held his dad’s hand on the way to his truck and thought about what he told him that afternoon. Washington had only so many nice days so, on those days, Al Sr. left the door to the bar open to let the fresh air in. The wind was blowing that day but just enough to call it a breeze. The little things that looked like helicopters jumped off the trees and flew through in a whirl like the dollar bills people try catching in a wind machine.
“You know what those are, Al?” His dad rested his elbows on the counter opposite him. He shook his head, afraid to say helicopters.
“They’re maple seeds. And there’s been a lot of them this year, coming off the maple trees that line our street.” They both watched them circle down from the sky on to the wooden floor of the bar.
“It’s the rule in nature. Do you know about the rule in nature? Every seven years?” He asked. Al Jr. shook his head again, growing into his strong, silent type destiny.
“Well, every seven years, there’ll be a bump in something around you. Like, this year, it’s these maple seeds.”
“What was it seven years ago?” Al Jr. asked.
“Seven years ago, when you were born, there were so many ants. I held on to your hands in the grass and those little guys would climb all over your toes like you were a mountain even though you were the smallest thing I’d seen.” He smiled.
“What will it be in seven years?”
“Well, I don’t know, son. It could be anything. Caterpillars or pine cones…” He trailed off thinking of more. Then he smiled at his boy, at the maple seeds in his doorway, then went back to work.
So Al Jr. thought about the seven year rule holding his father’s hand. About the helicopters he now knew were maple seeds. He wondered if the rule was true for people too.
That was the year millions of maple seeds came down as often as rain. It was also the year that his dad really went all out for Al Jr.’s birthday. When he thought seven was the age the boy would really start remembering things. He felt bad about him not having a mother. He had always wanted to be a father but was never able to get a woman pregnant and took the bastard child off the hands of a teenage girl in the reservation seven years ago. And he was starting to feel guilty about avoiding his mother questions. Years from now, when he knew about his blood, he didn’t want him forgetting his seventh birthday so he gave him a mountain of gifts and a big cake with lots of frosting for the two of them to share. Sitting amongst his presents with a bellyful of sugar, Al Jr. believed that the rule was true.
14: This was the year they had the least rainfall they’d ever seen. And it wasn’t just a lack of rain, it was an abundance of heat, a sheer bump in how many days the sun came out and stayed out. Little Al wondered if Big Al’s rule was really true for anything.
He thought about how some planets have tons of moons, like Saturn has something like 62 and Jupiter has almost 80, and if, somehow, Earth could have more than one sun right now. There was one that they would spin around and more that would line up and march down to their town like toy soldiers, saluting with their strongest rays. The regulars at the bar said that Little Al had quite the monologue in him.
But, with nicer weather come the sun chasers, visitors that became stayers, people that wanted Washington but with California sun and a decent drive to Seattle. They filled the sidewalks like ants, the grocery stores, and the high school he went to. Now Al Jr. and the rest of his classmates had to squeeze against cold lockers to get by the sun-soaked teenagers whose skin now burned red from the bump in exposure. He waited another week until he saw them peel their tanned skin from their shoulders and knees in homeroom. Their flakes and their pencil shavings being swept up by the janitor. There was more trash in their landfill now too.
Their school was on a budget. They had to share one tray of paint amongst two people, careful not to use too much which meant that their abstracts or landscapes looked drained of color. His paint buddy was a new boy named Two Rainbows. The rumor was his mother saw two rainbows outside her hospital window when he was being born. Skin whiter than milk. He had small eyes that were made smaller every time he squinted, concentrating hard on his canvas. Everything about him was small in fact: his nose, his waist, even his blonde hair was thin as tissue paper. The only thing that didn’t match the rest of him was his hands. For some reason, they were huge, his fingers pudgy which made it hard to maneuver a paintbrush. They became friends in art class because Al didn’t like his feet as much as Two Rainbows didn’t like his hands and they would share sandwiches and whispers at lunch. Two Rainbows would come over to his house where he would whittle something out of wood to make his hands useful while Al laid on his bed doing both of their art assignments.
Al called him Two for short. When they would go out, people thought Al was the one named Two Rainbows and vice versa. Two never talked about his family, except that the rumor was true, and Al didn’t talk about his family. Mainly because neither knew everything about their families, were too afraid to ask and knew they would know when they were older.
It was getting into the middle of October and the sun showed no sign of hibernating. The two of them talked about what they should dress up as for Halloween, if they should dress up at all. Were they too old to trick-or-treat? Were they at the age where they were expected to go to parties with little to no costumes with little to no candy? They said screw it and dressed as fairies. Two would dress in purple and Al in green, running around the backyard so no one would see them, granting each other’s wishes.
He loved that, to Two, he was just Al. Not Al Jr. or Little Al. Just Al. Like he was the only one.
But somehow, with the flood of people that took over their town, Al picked the only boy that didn’t come for the weather but came because his dad’s job sent him there and was now being sent elsewhere. To Topeka, five states away and two hours ahead.
Al waved at Two as he sat in the moving truck with the paint set he had given him in his lap. Knowing he probably wouldn’t use it, he gave it to him anyway as he thought that’s what you do when people leave. The truck’s exhaust as it drove away made the hot day even hotter. Al wondered when the sun would go away, when all the people would go away in moving trucks in a cloud of exhaust.
The nights were the only reprieve from the hot days. It was finally cool enough to cover your body with clothes or blankets or another person. But Al Sr. couldn’t ignore the cries coming from his son’s room that night and many nights after. With his tall glass of water, he sat on the side of the bed. And, without any bells or whistles, he said that sometimes people leave because they have to or they want to but, either way, they are not in your life the same. There’s phone calls and letters, he told him, but, sure, it’ll be different. Taking a gulp of his water, he left him knowing that he wouldn’t leave. His good, ol’ dad was staying right where he was. And he kissed the top of his head, listening for anymore cries in the night that did not come.
21: This year was when Big Al’s guess came true. There was a huge bump in caterpillars crawling through the cracks of sidewalks and up the frames of doorways. He thought it was their biblical swarm of locusts. Kids took them home in jars to see them become butterflies.
Angelica wasn’t looking at him, focused on the caterpillar walking along her finger, when she told Al that she was pregnant. She was working at the grocery store and took the test during her break. During lunch, Angelica had Al meet her at the park where she could tell him, where she still wore the green vest with her name tag.
On the way back home, the weather turned. Driving his truck, the sky rumbled with thunder and lightning and he remembered his dad had told him how to figure out how far away the storm was. You count the number of seconds between strikes of lightning and that’s how many miles away it was. Or was it that number divided by five? Or two? He couldn’t remember and was getting frustrated and couldn’t focus on counting the lightning when he was driving and becoming a father. Angelica wanted to keep it.
Sixteen weeks later, there was a bump in her belly. A bump that only grew and grew until she was the biggest thing he’d ever seen. Al would come over to her place, help her stock up and baby-proof and he couldn’t believe how big she was getting. She looked bigger than doorways, than couches, than her whole apartment. And he looked on in amazement, truly dumbfounded at the miracles of a woman’s body.
They talked about it. How this was obviously something he didn’t want but he could be as involved as he liked. He decided that he would be involved enough for the baby to know him but not to miss him.
In that year, she would lay in the grass outside her apartment complex as other families barbecued or watched their TVs too loud and helped the caterpillars climb atop her belly and crawl to the other side. Al watched her as she did this. He thought that, in her green vest and her bump growing, she looked like she could be part of the earth.
Approaching her due date, it would be nine months since he felt a bump of love on that Sunday night. He specifically went to her checkout line at the store and dreamed of getting tangled up in her long, black ponytail. There were a couple dates here and there where the only touches he stole were hand grazes that never turned into anything more. Angelica felt like they were fourteen again, charmed by his slowness and respect. She felt so respected that that night, when she invited him over for dinner at her apartment, she guided his hands and lead like they were waltzing. Al’s body agreed because he liked her. After they were done, not knowing what else to say and knowing they weren’t going to do it again, he whispered I really really like you which Angelica thought meant love. Al thought that it meant, in those few minutes, an answer to a question. But, he realized pulling on his shirt and kissing the top of her head, that he was still asking. It wasn’t until he was back in his own bed, laying in his own arms, that he realized they hadn’t used a condom.
When Al Sr. heard that his son had accidentally gotten a girl pregnant, he was jealous. He spent the better part of his twenties and thirties loving women enough to want babies, sticking around after mornings without sickness and bellies without bumps, things crumbling soon after. But then it sunk in that he was going to be a grandfather and he was happy.
“You know, you could have something else,” Big Al said. Al Jr. had listened to the bedtime stories as a kid and never touched a drop of alcohol. He still came in quite a bit to Al’s to see his old man. To sit on his stool and hear what his dad had to say when he had to say it.
“I’m good with the water, Dad,” Little Al said, twisting the glass in his hand.
“No, I mean, you could have something else. You don’t have to do this, be this. You know what I mean?”
“Can’t say I do,” Al Jr. said.
“You’re gonna have this baby and that’s great, he’ll be with you for the rest of your life, but I know that wasn’t your dream. Being a father like it was for me.”
“Come on, maybe she’ll let me name him. We can have a little Al the third on our hands,” Al Jr. laughed.
“Son,” Al Sr. said seriously. And there was so much he said in just that one word, so much in the air between them that they forgot about the other customers drinking to him becoming a father. They toasted him. But father and son kept eyes locked, having a whole conversation without saying a word, until a patron called him for another beer.
A butterfly flew in through the open door and, deciding not to land, flew back out.
28: Al Sr., from his spot behind the bar, saw that this year there was a bump in sadness. More people than usual looked down into their drinks ready to sink. And while his big ears leaned towards those thirsty mouths, no one was talking. Lots of people were being laid off, other people were going on strike for better wages and benefits. But he did as he always did: wiped the glasses clean and filled them with whatever they wanted.
His son was one of the people that got laid off, spending his days now watching movies on TV. He lived only a short drive from Angelica and Alejandro. She named him after her own father and he never called him Al. He was okay with ending that with him.
Al felt the bump in sadness too. On the streets, in his dad’s bar, in the movies he cried to on the couch. It appeared in Angelica’s throat when she didn’t look at him, telling him that her fiancé, Frankie, wanted them to move to Houston with him for more job opportunities. Houston, six states away, two hours ahead. Al told her it was okay. Alejandro would finish up this year at school and then they’d be off. The first grade — where Al secretly hoped they were teaching his boy how to love and not love too easy instead of addition and finger painting.
He was excited to throw his boy a birthday party. There would be lots of presents and a big cake with too much frosting just like he had when he was seven. Al was determined not to see the bump of sadness in his little boy’s trembling lip.
“There’s something about stones being left unturned,” Al Sr. said across the bar as he swiped a rag through a pint glass.
“What’s that?” Al Jr. wasn’t focused, twirling his glass of water around its napkin.
“Son, if you stay here, you’ll know every tree in a five mile radius and thousands more, all the cracks in the sidewalks,” he paused, “but if you leave…”
He looked out the door. “You’ll know so many other trees.”
Al Jr. took that as his father’s permission to go to Los Angeles and try to be an actor. Where he could pretend to be other people while becoming more himself. He also thought about Two and about how, even though he didn’t know where he was in the world, he felt like he could find him in Hollywood.
Al Sr. hadn’t seen Al Jr. smile that big in years. He reached up to scratch his head, going over the bump on the side of his brain.