Willa knew he was angry because he was wearing the wrong hat: not the one she’d bought him for Christmas but the one from before that, the black businessman’s Stetson with the narrow brim. He’d said at the time, with tinsel all around his feet, that he supposed it was time he packed it away, considering its origins. A thing he’d never explained. But it was back now like it had never left.
“Yes,” he was saying to the cop at the front desk. “Willa Givens, W-I-L-L-A, two L’s, like ‘willful.’”
“‘Willful’ has three L’s,” the cop said. “Just not all strung together.” She had him sign something and then pointed Willa out to him as if he hadn’t clocked her the second he’d walked in, even if he’d been too pissed to look at her head-on. “Your daughter’s over there. She can leave with you, nobody’s pressing any charges. It’s kids being kids.”
“Just had her hauled in to put the fear of God into her.”
“Officially, the city of Miami doesn’t recognize God. And now you’re trying to decide if I’ve got no sense of humor at all or if I’m just at the end of a long shift.”
“I’d hate to think it was the former. A life without a sense of humor runs the risk of being long and dull. And I remember the shifts.”
“Yeah,” she said. “Your daughter made sure to tell us you used to be a US Marshal. How’s retirement?”
“Oh, you know. A lot like life without a sense of humor.” He touched the brim of his hat to her and Willa saw the corner of his talking-to-women smile before he turned around to face her and it went away, changed just like the Stetson.
He didn’t talk to her. He’d dressed wrong for the weather, a denim jacket on a balmy mid-June Miami night, and once they were in the car, he cranked up the AC until a wave of gooseflesh prickled up on her arms. She had always gotten cold easily. He’d given her an afghan and fluffy slippers last Christmas, the same Christmas that she’d given him the hat: “To make the igloo you think I live in more tolerable for you,” he’d said.
Now he didn’t care if she was cold.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” he said. “Should I get out? Did you want to drive?”
“I mean, that’s what you do now, isn’t it? Drive other people’s cars. I could get out and go around the block and leave the keys in the ignition if that would make it easier for you. Though I suppose mine isn’t nice enough, is it, or you would have borrowed it instead of the neighbor’s.” He yanked the car out of the parking spot; turned so sharply Willa could almost smell the rubber being left behind. “I don’t know what disappoints me more, what you did or that you tried to get out of it by telling those people in there I was a Marshal.”
Willa looked over at him. In the dim greenish light from off the lit-up instrument panels and the numbers on the clock, she could see the similarity between them people talked about. “Your daddy,” her mom had said, “is one of the men it’s always a compliment to say a girl resembles, but don’t you run and tell him I said that,” though of course she had.
“You were a Marshal,” she said.
“That about decides it, then. That’s the part that disappoints me most.”
“It was just a joyride.”
“You’re going to joyride two weeks before your sixteenth birthday? Whatever your mom and Richard and I had planned for you, you can sure as shit bet those plans have changed. And no,” he said, turning just a little to look at her, his face somehow pointed with anger, crystalline and sharp like a geode she’d grown in second grade from a kit, “I haven’t told her yet. All the way here I thought about why you might have called me instead of her and not once did I hit on you wanting to get out of trouble by dragging my name into it.”
“What should I get from that, Dad? That you wanted me to spend the night in jail?”
“I can think of worse things.”
Willa felt her jaw stiffen, like she’d been chewing gum for too long. She wasn’t cold anymore. She’d had time to think of worse things, too.
“Sara’s parents picked her up an hour ago.”
“Sara’s parents had a daughter who was in the passenger seat. Not that I won’t be calling them, or better yet letting your mother do it, claiming to watch a girl at a sleepover and letting the two of you slip off to do God knows what.”
“Sorry they didn’t do everything but lay in a tripwire for us,” Willa said. “They took us out for ropa vieja and sat in the middle of the restaurant, too. And there wasn’t any place they couldn’t go to because they’d shot somebody there.”
“That’s your strategy to win this argument, is it?”
“Why shouldn’t I say you used to be a Marshal? I thought it was about time that came in handy for something, besides getting me two Christmases and everything.” It felt like a retort she’d been saving up for years, something so old it tasted like her grandmother’s butterscotch hard candies, something that left a silvery sheen of dust on her tongue, something that came off her with a tug and rip of both bloodshed and satisfaction, like she was peeling off a scab. And it was comforting somehow to hurt him and to know that she’d picked the right tool to do it. It was how he must have felt when he’d dug out that old hat.
It was how she had felt, a little, when she’d opened the door of that car: for a moment, just opening it had been enough, seeing the frosted dome light click on, watching it shine mellowly against the cream-colored interior. Sara hadn’t wanted to do it, but she’d been, like Willa’s dad had said, on the passenger side, that door not open yet, so Willa had lost sight of her as the inside of the car brightened: she hadn’t been able to make Sara out clearly through the glass. And the car had seemed like something. What it was, she couldn’t put her finger on exactly. The joyride hadn’t been it, even though she’d liked it.
He made the turn-off that would take her to his house, not to her mom’s, and some hitch in her throat that could have turned into tears relaxed instead and became nothing. She felt flat.
Her dad didn’t talk again until they were pulling into the driveway. Then, as if he’d been considering it a while, he said, “I always thought it would make me proud, you not having an accent. Like you would be something new. Maybe you are.”
Willa didn’t feel new.
They didn’t talk much more before bed. She brushed her teeth again, even though she’d done that at Sara’s back when they’d been pretending they were going to stay in: she did it hard and then spat blood out into the sink along with the mouthful of Crest. She looked at that and ignored her own reflection. Washed her face, because her mom had taught her always to do that, to clear off the makeup and the oil and the grime, and that was the one thing she hadn’t done at Sara’s, because she had known they were going out again. Her fingers were still against her cheekbones when her dad knocked on the doorframe.
She had left the door open. Some passive-aggressive thing: let him hear the roaring faucet, like he gave a shit that they’d told her in school that the right thing to do was to turn it off while you were brushing your teeth and only turn it back on to rinse.
“I didn’t mean what I said, Willa.”
Now she looked at herself in the mirror because it was better than looking at him, but she could still see a sliver of his reflection: denim and gray temples and stubble.
(“Why do you dye your hair?” she’d asked her mom. “Dad doesn’t.”
Her mom had snorted. “Honey, your dad has been going gray at his temples since before you were born, there’s no way the rest of that color comes out of anything but a bottle. Not that he’ll ever admit it.”
“I guess I get it with you. Nobody else has your hair.”
“Uh-oh. That much buttering-up must mean you’re after something.”
“So mistrustful,” Willa had said, although she remembered that she had been—but that she’d liked her mom knowing that and not being bothered by it. “Anyway, dad’s hair is just like mine, it’s not special.”
“I, for one, love your hair. And I love that it’s like your dad’s, because take it from me, Willa, a little touch of red in your hair may look nice on somebody else, but it’s a nightmare when it comes to clothes. There’s so much I clash with that sometimes it makes me just want to sit down on the floor and weep. And you’d hear nothing but jokes about your temper.”
“I don’t have a temper. Sweetness and light, that’s me.”)
Sweetness and light, she thought, and when she said, “But you did, though,” it was her mom she heard in her voice, not her dad: that much buttering-up means you’re after something. That much anger didn’t come from nowhere.
“No,” he said, and he sounded confused. “I surprised myself. That’s what having kids does to you, for the record—not that I want you to find out firsthand for, oh, twenty, thirty years. Forty maybe.”
“Sure,” Willa said, “I’ll get knocked up at fifty-five. By then I’ll have my feet underneath me.”
“You would think so, but actually no. I stand before you as living proof that your feet are never anywhere in particular. It was a shitty thing to say, Willa, and I’m sorry for it.”
“In your defense I did kind of steal a car.”
“Which ought to have been what told me you aren’t anything so new and shiny after all. Not that I should regale you with stories of my childhood trespasses.”
“I’m not a child.”
“So I should drive you back to the hoosegow then? Let you wait out the consequences?”
“Hoosegow?” She didn’t mean to laugh, and she definitely didn’t mean to feel sudden, unwelcome warmth at her eyes: the temptation to blink a lot. She ran more water and splashed it on her face.
“I suppose you’re more advanced than I was. I was, oh, nineteen, I think, when I got dragged into lockup by the collar, and I didn’t have family connections likely to get me out. The opposite, really—a long story, sweetheart, and one for a different day.”
“Who bailed you out, then? Or picked you up or whatever.”
He was still in the doorway of the bathroom, leaning with one narrow hip against the frame, hatless and tired-looking, but for some confused moment Willa thought he had stepped either forward or back, or that he had pushed the hat he wasn’t wearing further up his head, but nothing like that had happened. It just seemed like the light fell differently on his face.
“A friend of mine. Willa,” he said, his voice snapping back into parental irritation, “you’re slopping water all over the counter.”
She pulled the hand towel off its hook and mopped up, even though it had always been her mom who had cared about that kind of thing; even ten years after the divorce, Willa stumbled upon these things her parents had borrowed off each other and never given back. The way her mom tracked cars behind them in the rearview mirror and got jittery, fingernails tapping hard against the wheel, if any stayed with them for too many turns; the curtains her dad bought, the same shade as her mom’s, like he expected her to walk through the door any minute and admire them.
“I don’t know why I did it,” she said, her fingers still tight on the towel, dampness bunched around her fist like she’d stuck her hand inside some kind of mouth. Something that could bite.
Her dad didn’t rush her.
“I mean, the keys were in it, that was one thing. I didn’t know who would leave their keys in their car like that, and I thought, it would serve them right. And then I opened the door,” and she realized she was talking herself through it, step by step, a snake charmer’s bob to her head in the mirror. She didn’t like that. She had come across something strange inside herself, some glowing bit of kryptonite or cragged bit of Stonehenge, something alien that she had no relation to except that weird fucking hypnotic pull, and she felt like trying to explain it would turn it keychain-sized, make it a junkstore novelty item.
But she owed it to him, didn’t she? He had come, after all, even if he’d come slowly and in the wrong hat. And he’d apologized.
They really didn’t sound alike, her and him. She didn’t sound like either of her parents.
“I wanted to know if I would do it or not,” Willa said. “And then I knew.”
“You knew that you could.”
“Like slipping on a pair of shoes.”
He smiled a startled kind of smile, like his mouth had tripped into it. “You tried it on and it fit.”
Inside the toweling, her fingers relaxed. “Yeah.”
“Believe it or not, Willa Givens,” her dad said, “I understand that. There are, in life, certain situations where you don’t know what you’ll do until you do it—or don’t. Don’t construe that in any kind of fucked-up teenager way as me saying you should make a damn habit out of it.”
The profanity, Willa knew, was a kind of bribe, like the way her mom had given her a glass of champagne on her last birthday. Usually she rolled her eyes at that kind of thing—at teachers saying “hell” to emphasize their points and wake up their class a little—but she did feel older, like the ride itself or the wait in the police station afterwards had tacked years onto her or at least gummed them to the sole of her shoe. He was alluding to years and years ahead of them, to the future thrown out like the anchor on the end of a chain, like what the two of them were getting pulled towards together wasn’t her crime spree or the next disappointment she’d cause but some future day when they’d sit on lawn-chairs together and he’d hand her a beer and she would criticize his fantasy football line-up or something.
Like he believed, despite tonight, that he would still love her all those years later.
“I think I’ll stay law-abiding for a little while at least,” Willa said. She turned against him and pressed her face against his shoulder.
She would have thought after all that heart-to-heart stuff that they’d come to some kind of understanding, but when she woke up in the morning, her mom was there, pacing back and forth across the living room with her heels still on.
“Young lady,” she said.
Willa’s dad snorted in an undignified kind of way, like he was still on her side.
“Raylan, you have something to add to this?”
“I just don’t know that we should go throwing terms like ‘young lady’ around,” her dad said.
“Well, I don’t know that you need to pick our daughter up at a police station and then not tell me about it until the morning, so I think you still owe me a couple. I think I get to call her ‘young lady’ if I feel like it and I get to call you about whatever I want.”
“I asked him not to call you,” Willa said.
Her dad waved her off. “No, you didn’t. Winona, she didn’t. It was late, I was pissed, we were both tired, and I wasn’t handling things well. I made a judgment call and I woke up this morning and made another one. Willa, sit down.”
“Go make her waffles or something and let the two of us talk,” her mom said. “You can still make waffles, right?”
“Nobody forgets how to make waffles. Now you’ve just stooped to slander.” He squeezed Willa’s mom on the shoulder before he passed into the kitchen and she briefly put her hand up on his. People were always telling Willa that she was lucky her parents still got along so well. She figured she wasn’t. If they were the kind to bite at each other like gators going after her like a hamhock between them, her dad at least would’ve kept last night to himself.
“So,” her mom said. She crossed her legs. “I’m not gonna ‘young lady’ you again, if that’s what you’re wondering.”
“Dad already said whatever plans you guys had for a car for me had gone up in smoke.”
“Mm, yep. Is that it? That’s all you want to say?”
Willa shrugged, thinking how she didn’t like mornings and how this was the flipside of two Christmases and two birthdays: how she had to live through every bad decision twice. “It feels a little like re-gifting or something to tell you exactly what I told him.”
“Tell me something new, then.”
“Because he’s already told you?”
Her mom nodded. “Your dad—knows that I have some experience with doing something crazy kind of on the spur of the moment. I don’t know that I buy that it runs in the blood, but Willa, if it does, you got it from both sides. In some kind of just universe, the both of us would step aside and let Richard raise you. I mean, you know we never would, but if we were picking families out for you like picking out a college or something, that’s who I’d give you. Insurance agent. Big family with lots of handmade sweaters that they keep on knitting even when it’s flat-out ninety degrees.”
“With reindeer,” Willa said. “Reindeer even on the Fourth of July ones.”
“I swear to God, Wills, the first time I saw his mother in one of those, I had to excuse myself to the ladies’ room and laugh myself sick.” She shook her head and some of her hair jounced out of its bun. “Point is, though, we wouldn’t. Your dad and I, we wouldn’t give you over to anybody. Whatever we passed onto you, whatever you’re making of it, we’re all stuck with each other, okay? And I’m gonna yell at you a lot later for this whole joyriding thing—you could have been killed. But for right now, I just want to hear that you know that it was wrong. Not just illegal, and not just some really dumb shit to pull, but something that could have really messed up your life.”
That was what she had wanted her mother for, like a kid with a cut-up knee: that was why she had almost called her mom instead of her dad when they’d let her pick which. Only her mom would have understood—really understood—the way she’d felt sitting in that plastic bucket-seat at the police station, like she’d been paralyzed and she was only allowed the shallowest of breaths, the smallest of twitches. Like fear had actually rewired her body.
The way her mother talked so brightly every time her eyes went to the rearview mirror, Willa knew she would have gotten that.
“I know, Momma,” she said, and then she was embarrassed. She hadn’t called her mom that in years. “I knew it right away. I—I saw the lights behind me before I even heard the siren, we had the radio on—I thought I was going to break my fingernails off on the steering wheel. And Sara was crying, and—all I could think to tell them was that dad used to be a Marshal. Which pissed him off.”
Her mom’s mouth tightened. “If you’re ever in trouble,” she said clearly, “you do whatever it takes to get yourself out of it, so long as that doesn’t hurt anybody else. Your dad will live with somebody thinking he’s spoiled you.”
“Dad said he’d gotten arrested before.”
“Well, that doesn’t surprise me.”
“I think it was the first thing he ever told me about growing up over there.”
“Yeah,” her mom said. “That’s about how your dad runs his life.”
“I don’t know anything about him,” Willa said.
Then her dad was in the doorway again, like that was just where he’d gotten in the habit of standing lately. This time with a dishrag slung over his arm. “Waffles are ready.”
Willa’s mom looked over her shoulder. “Were you eavesdropping?”
“I was turning out perfect golden-brown waffles until just a minute ago,” he said, with pained dignity, “when I came to tell you all that they were ready and I couldn’t help but overhear. If you’ll dish out the butter and the powdered sugar for her—still no syrup for you, right, Willa?—I’ll tag in for a bit. She likes hers cold anyhow.”
“Which is still disgusting,” her mom said, standing up. She smoothed down her skirt. “She gets that from you, Mr. Lived in a Motel for a Year and a Half and Ate Vending Machine Sandwiches,” and that was as much of a gift as her dad cussing the night before had been, her mom throwing a line back just like her dad had thrown one forward.
“I’ve actually been thinking I’d like to try them warm,” Willa said.
“Broaden your culinary horizons some day after you didn’t just steal a car,” her dad said, sitting down where her mom had been. Willa started to wonder if they’d bring Richard in after all and just tag her parents in and out all morning and into the afternoon. “It bothers you? Me not talking about Kentucky?”
“I don’t know.”
“Is that teenager for yes? You have to remember, Willa, I didn’t do interrogations very often, and the ones I did, well, they didn’t go any kind of way I’d want to replicate with you. Had a tendency to either end up in jail or the ground.”
“You always do that,” she said. “I ask you something about Kentucky and you talk about being a Marshal.”
“Spent a considerable portion of time being a Marshal in Kentucky.”
“Spent more time being a Marshal here. Before and after Kentucky. And you spent more years out there growing up than you ever did—”
He held up his hands. “All right, all right. I can see you’d have no problem with interrogations.” He hadn’t shaved yet that morning and there was a furze of grayish brown stubble creeping across his cheeks and chin that made him look both older and somehow less familiar to her. He rubbed at it like he could erase it and make her more comfortable, or maybe just so he could go back to a time when it wasn’t there, or anyways wasn’t gray. “Willa, your mom and I made our share of mistakes concerning you, and concerning each other, but the one thing we always knew for sure we wanted was to give you happiness. Happiness and stability. I didn’t have that growing up—and in the main, I didn’t have it in Kentucky later on, either. Come to think of it, it wasn’t here the first time around, or in Salt Lake where I met your mom. You brought me some kind of reason to believe in peace—keeping that in myself instead of just flashing a badge at it or pulling a gun.”
It sounded nice, but it was still just a speech about her. He hadn’t told her anything new—he’d written this same old story on her birthday cards for about as long as she could remember. She folded her arms and waited.
“My father was a criminal,” he said. “Not an especially good one, because we were never rich, but wily enough to stay alive a while. Not anymore, though, and not your grandmother, either, and not my Aunt Helen, who married my father after my mother passed. I always figured at some point they’d make you do a family tree at school and I’d have to tell you how much blood had gotten spattered on the branches, but they didn’t. Guess I couldn’t dodge that bullet forever. Ask me something, Willa, and I’ll do the best I can to answer it. Short of that, it’s like hacking away at honeysuckle, and I don’t even know where to start.”
Willa was surprised somehow by wanting to be kind to him—not that she didn’t love him or like him, because she knew that she did, and not that she was still holding a grudge from the night before, because she knew that she was, but just: she hadn’t known she’d ever have that kind of power over him, to be kind or unkind. To ask the right question or the wrong one. He smelled like batter.
That kind of family resemblance. The look, even if she didn’t have the accent.
She said, “Was there anything good?” and he smiled.
“Lots of it was good, honey. My mother and my Aunt Helen, some people I worked with, some people I met. One or two surprises.”
“Wow,” Willa said, a little pissed that she’d thrown him a softball and he was whiffing it anyway. “Now I know everything about you. You’re an open book. And you went right back to the Marshal thing again.”
He chuckled and then pointed out to her he could afford to get a kick out of her smart mouth thinking about all the long weeks she’d be grounded to make up for the stunt with the car. “Going stir crazy,” he said, “chewing at the walls like a woodchuck. Winona, I figure any confidential father-daughter time’s withered on the vine if you want to go ahead and bring breakfast in so I don’t starve to death telling Willa little anecdotes.”
“A girl likes to feel rooted,” Willa’s mom said, coming in with the breakfast plates balanced on her forearms like she was waitressing.
“I like how the two of you pretend you can’t hear through half a wall of an open floor-plan,” Willa said, “and then you come right in the second the other one says it’s fine. Not even bothering to talk a little louder for it.”
“Again,” her dad said, “I’m forced to point out that you stole a car.”
“That’s true,” her mom said, and this was another reason Willa couldn’t be glad all the time that they got along with each other. “Moral high ground isn’t really yours right now, no matter how closemouthed he is. Never even mind how kids without a sense of history are condemned to repeat it.”
“Well, she’d have a job of doing that, don’t you think?”
“I drew a line in the sand at the air rifle for her eleventh birthday, which was more than you were willing to do, buying her all that cowgirl stuff.”
“I didn’t want one anyway,” Willa said. “Archery’s cooler than target-shooting.” More work, too: pulling back her hand, the bowstring wanting to push forward and her having to fight a little to hold it back, the bow bending for her, the only sight her fingertips notching the arrow into place. She was good. She knew how to draw that imaginary line in her mind between her and the target and she knew the hum of the moment when she waited for the wind to drop. Like she was waiting now.