He put me up on his shoulders so I could see down into the freeway. They had built a park atop it. They call that a freeway lid. And tall walls made of red brick to dampen the noise. Inside the park all the old Russians sat on grated metal seats and whispered to one another under the cover of juniper bushes happy to co-conspire. A few men in wife beaters hung from the bars of the exercise platform and brought their knees to their chests, sinew and wince.
My father had come back. I was six and my father had come back. He had a beard that reminded me of the tumbledown cat that the woman across the hall fed from her patio. Saucers of brown mush, which wizened and grew a shape after some time out of the package. His beard reminded me of that, too. The wizened mush.
I held onto it, threaded my fingers through its fibers. It could’ve been anything in there, I thought, not hesitating.
I peered over the edge of the red brick and saw the cars swimming upstream, out from the tunnel below.
“What do you see?” he said.
“Horses don’t talk!” I said.
We had agreed that he was a horse, my horse, and I suppose his beard was the reins.
“Ah. You’re right,” he said.
I looked at him. He neighed.
We galloped over to the other side of the park, where a large field quickly rose into a hill. Later I learned it was man-made, stuffed with garbage the way Mom stuffed peppers with that sickly ground meat. We got to the top and he kneeled down so I could dismount elegantly, in a fashion befitting my title.
There was a bank of houses now to our left. The red brick of the freeway snaking far ahead, past the open field. A baseball diamond where one Orthodox kid threw pitches to another. Their suits had picked up the color of the dirt. Every now and then the bat would make contact and I would remember that time must be moving. Somewhere.
“You’re not a horse anymore,” I said.
He seemed relieved. He smiled and shook out years from that beard of his. I could see something of myself in his smile and his wet eyes. We sat a while and listened to the freeway make its ghost story sounds. He asked me questions about Mom, about Richard. He told me that nobody liked school at first, which I knew wasn’t true.
I considered turning him back into a horse.
Then he said, “Would you like to go back with me?”
I knew what he meant.
“What about Mom?” I said.
“She wouldn’t have to know. She would know eventually, but by then we would be up there,” he pointed to a wound that had opened up in the clouds, that was now releasing light.
I thought about running back to Mom and telling her what he had said.
There was another thud, hollowed metal, the ball hurtling toward us, loosed. The second kid had really gotten some purchase on this one. It landed at the foot of the hill and rolled halfway up, stuck on a tussock. They motioned for us to take some action and toss it back. They seemed already tired of waiting.
We walked the way back.
The sun had just about gone and most of the old Russians with it. A few remained in a tight circle, arguing in that familiar way that was actually agreement.
The freeway had slowed to a trickle. I followed the taillights as they receded and disappeared around a bend. Somewhere up that way the road rose back above ground. The mammoth slate of its inside walls gave way to slight grades with trees and men in bright vests.
I told my father what I saw:
A man on a horse. A trusty steed, tail swinging like a pendulum. He wasn’t a knight, though, and he wasn’t a cowboy, either. I wasn’t completely sure he was a man. And they didn’t ride through a verdant lea. And they didn’t trot along in the desert heat. They stuck to one lane, hooves heavy against the pavement, nearly one body. They took the bend together.
No. I didn’t tell him that.
I said, “That’s the way up to Richard’s. We go there for dinner on the weekends. He has a house with a pool table and a ping-pong table.”
I lied. I am not sure why.
My father nodded along. I reached down and splayed my fingers across his face. His wet eyes closed for business.
“Can I think about it?” I said.
He neighed. I knew what he meant.