Kevin Sampsell- “Cuckoo”

I come from a long tradition of kids being left in cars. My dad did it to me when I was a baby. Two years old and sleepy. He would drive me around, milk bottle slowly sliding out of my mouth as he spied me in the rearview at stoplights. Some slow blinks and then shut eyes. Then he’d go see Tiffany at the bar for five, ten, fifteen minutes. She always wore different outfits. She danced. She had fun. She took off her clothes. My dad and other men gave her ones.

 I was never taken inside the club. I only knew the parking lot. I was buckled into my seat, the tiniest crack in the window. It wasn’t bad. I could breathe. This was mostly in the mildest weather seasons.

Across the lot, I would often see other babies in locked-up cars, sleeping or bobble-headed with confusion.

Dad said he didn’t want two kids because he thought doing the same things (schools, hand-me-down clothes, etc) would give him déjà vu and likely inspire dementia in his brain when he got older.

He said he didn’t want his life to feel like a loop, like a tunnel shaped like a doughnut. He loved doughnuts though. He’d go to doughnut shops too. I’d wait in the car and he would eat a bunch of them before he even got back in the car. I’d get a small piece of a plane cake doughnut. I thought it was the best thing in the world. I couldn’t wait to grow up and eat the real ones with frosting.

Something else happened in the car when I was a baby. We picked up a hitchhiker and gave her a ride home. It was just getting dark outside and I think it was a holiday. Maybe Halloween, but it was still warm. We stopped at a 7-Eleven and Dad bought some cans of beer.

The hitchhiker turned around and looked at me and said I was cute. I had a binkie in my mouth and I wanted to say something but I didn’t know what to say and I was pretty attached to my binkie at this particular time anyway. She was dressed as a vampire, smiling with her pointy teeth.

I remember we drove over a bridge, and then on a freeway, and then up a long street with bright lights that blinked at Dad and the hitchhiker through the windshield. I watched Dad’s face changing with each flicker of light, from nervous to easy. These strands of light passing between him and the hitchhiker, like a flashlight being handed back and forth. We turned into a gravelly neighborhood and suddenly it was much darker. Dad pulled the car over in front of a small house surrounded by a chain link fence that looked like it was falling over. The hitchhiker said her name was Tommy or Tom Something and she asked Dad if he wanted to have a beer with her.

“Let me let him loose,” he said, nodding his head at me.

Dad unlatched my whole car seat and lifted me out of the car. Still strapped into my chair, he carried me like a picnic basket and walked with Tom, around the side of the house and into a backyard that was barely lit by two small lights poking out of a garden area. “Zucchini,” she said.      

I think this was around the time when I started to understand that Mom wasn’t around any more. She had run away, with a district attorney or a district manager, or something about a district. My grandmother would talk about Mom and “The District.” Like: “Mom and The District are probably having a great time in Mexico right about now.” Whatever they said about Mom, one thing was clear—she was having more fun than us.

“She escaped,” Dad said to Tom, there in the darkness. They were sitting in lawn chairs and the only things I could see were the sparkling orange ends of their cigarettes. I could feel the dampness of the grass on my legs and I couldn’t help but laugh from the tickle of it.

“She didn’t love herself,” Tom said. It was the first time someone pointed that at her, the lack of love. 

I thought I heard a baby crying somewhere close by, and for some reason it made me want to pee, so I did. I remember liking the feel of a wet diaper, at least for a few minutes, until I decided I wanted a dry one to start over with. It also felt good to put a finger in my butt when no one was looking. These were the first pleasures of my own body.

I heard Dad whisper the word “Body” to Tom. It caught my ear and echoed in the air like a bell. Maybe he said, “Where is your body?” or “Where is the body?” or “We all have bodies.”

Tom said, “Bodies are just vessels we’re assigned to. We carry them because we have no choice.” And the crying sounds got louder around us.

I thought I smelled baby powder. Or maybe I was just falling asleep. A rat came out of a nearby bush and weaved pensively through the grass toward me. It stopped right before my outstretched hand. I could hear Dad’s mood changing. His breathing was loud and his words sounded wet when he said, “I had a nickname back then. She called me Cuckoo.”

I could see Tom stand from her lawn chair. She was a shape in the dark, a shadow floating through the air toward him. Dad stood up and they became one big shadow.

Sometimes, Dad drove me and the dogs to a field where they could run free. I don’t know who the dogs belonged to. Some days there were two. Some days more. Once, it was eight. A pug named Karla was always in the group though, and she would stay huddled close to me in the back, licking my elbows and knees.    

There was never anyone else around. I’m not sure where the field was, or if we were even allowed to be on it, but the dogs loved it. He would bring a new can of tennis balls and popped the metal lid off as he scanned the field. I remember the hissing sound of the can opening, and the greenish-yellow fuzz of the balls, the way they smelled like tennis shoes. He showed me how to throw one and the dogs would scamper to get it. I could barely throw a ball though and sometimes one of the dogs would catch it before it even hit the ground. Then Dad would wind up and throw the rest, chucking them so far I couldn’t believe it when the dogs actually found all of them.

“This is like heaven out here,” he said. “You, me, the dogs.” He picked some dandelions and showed me how to blow them apart. The seeds looked like a bunch of tiny white parachutes falling to the ground. I tried but only a few of them got loose into the air. “Let’s do it together,” he said. “Like blowing out a candle. Make a wish.” We blew puffs of air on them and they scattered away from us, twirling. 

The last time I was left in the parking lot of the club, it wasn’t for long. A woman walked out with Dad a few minutes later and they got in the front seats of the car. “Tiffany, I’d like you to meet my son,” Dad said.

Tiffany turned around. She was dressed as a nurse. “He looks like his mom,” she said, and they both laughed.

Dad opened the glove box of the car and pulled something out. A small box. Tiffany looked inside of it and started to cry. “Oh, Cuckoo,” she said.

“Don’t say anything,” he said.

They sat there, in silence, for a long time. I stayed quiet too. I looked around at the other cars but didn’t see any other babies. Every few minutes, the door of the club would open and the sound of thumping drums would come out. No one left or entered the club. The door would just open a little and music would tumble out.

It started to get dark and finally, Tiffany said, “Okay. Let’s go.”

The car started. We went a different direction out of the parking lot. I was never sure where we were going. The sky darkened as we drove and once again there was the familiar passing of the lights on Dad’s face. I started to fall asleep although I really wanted to stay awake. It felt like days, or dreams, later, when we finally stopped.