Joyland

a hub for short fiction

Lou Schultz

When Lou Schultz got to the Avis desk at the Orlando airport, the compact car he’d reserved was not available, nor was there a midsized left on the lot. They’d had no choice but to upgrade him straight to the top: a brand-new 1973 Chrysler Imperial, white with cream interior. He decided to let the kids believe that he’d splurged and was kicking off their holiday in style. Jonathan, ten, was splayed out in the backseat with a map he’d gotten at the rental desk, and seven-year-old Kitty, winner of the coin toss, sat up front next to Lou playing with the radio dial. The three of them were cruising under a pale Florida sky, en route to Villa Serena, a real estate development in Winter Haven. Lou had planned their vacation around the coupons and discounts he’d been promised in return for touring one of the model homes.

“Doesn’t it sound grand, kids? Vee-ya Serena.

The driver’s seat of the Imperial was like an overstuffed recliner, so preposterously plush that he could bury his fist in the armrest, and the steering and brakes responded to his slightest touch. Looking down at the imitation-burl instrument panel, he saw that he was going fifteen miles over the speed limit without even trying. On the subway ride to the airport and all during the flight, Lou had felt a mounting irritation at the thought of five days in Florida—and particularly the two days at Disney World he had promised the kids—but his mood was lifting now that they were on the road. The week’s theme, he decided, would be unapologetic leisure: motels, swimming pools, sunshine and Donald Duck. He’d brought along a mycology guide, and he even hoped to get in a little mushroom hunting.

Kitty at last found a station. A lugubrious male voice crooned over a bed of strings: “I remember all my life / Raining down as cold as ice.”

“Aaah! Barry Manilow!” Jonathan shouted. “Turn it off!”

“Ba-ree Ma-nee-loff. A Polish singer?”

“Dad!”

“I want to hear this Polish singer, this Maniloff.” Unforgivable schmaltz, but having committed to the joke, he made them listen to the entire song.

Lou taught Slavic languages at Harvard, and every summer he took groups of tourists around the Balkans and the Soviet Union, ditching their Intourist guide and leading by improvisation. They drove all day in rented VW Microbuses and slept in army surplus tents. When Lou and his wife, Helena, separated a year earlier, one of her chief complaints was that she’d been left at home with the children for eight summers in a row. Lou hadn’t taken her protests seriously until it was, perhaps, too late, but since she’d moved out, he’d discovered that he enjoyed spending time with his family.

Kitty leaned out her window watching the furniture showrooms and car lots roll past. “A Gilligan’s Island tree! And another. Andanotherandanotherandanother,” she chanted.

“It’s like Ohio, only with palm trees,” Jonathan said, looking up from his map. 

“Sohio. You mean it looks like Sohio,” Kitty said.

“Sorlando,” he answered, picking up the thread. “Sorlando, Sflorida.”

“Spine Hills,” Kitty said. “Scocoa Beach. Daddy, are we going to Scocoa Beach?”

This was the Sohio Game, which Lou had regretted inventing ever since their trip to his sister’s house in Akron a few years earlier. The game was named after the Sohio gas station chain, and there was only one moronically simple rule: add an ‘s’ to any place name. Smassachussetts. Snew Hampshire. Scambridge, Smedford, Spittsburgh, on and on, ad nauseam.

“Let’s play Three Thirds of a Ghost,” he said, hoping to nip it in the bud. “I’m thinking of a word that starts with ‘h’.”

“‘h’… ‘a’,” Jonathan said. “Kitty, it’s your turn.”

“‘h’, ‘a’, ‘p’,” Kitty said.

“‘h’, ‘a’, ‘p’… ‘a’.”

Jonathan thought for a moment. “I challenge.”

“Hapax!” Lou said, smiling into the rearview mirror. “One third of a ghost for Jonathan.”

His son slumped angrily in his seat. “What’s a hapax?”

“As in hapax legomenon. Remember, we were talking about hapax legomena yesterday?”

“Forget it,” Jonathan said, picking up the map again. “I don’t want to play.”

After turning into a golf course by mistake, Lou found the entrance to Villa Serena. A prim decorative fence edged either side of the driveway, and a sign planted in the bright green lawn announced “Model Home Information.” The only landscaping was a stand of date palms off to one side, shading nothing in particular. A cluster of low ranch houses ringed the parking lot, each with its own white gravel yard. Lou moored the Imperial in a space between two golf carts.

“Who’s coming on the tour?” he asked. Kitty got out of the car, but the boy was still sulking.

The agent, an attractive woman in a white pantsuit, met them outside the sales office with a ring of keys. “Mr. Schultz?” She held out her hand. “Welcome to Villa Serena. I’m Mrs. Dale.” Her smile stayed fixed as her eyes moved to Kitty and then back to Lou.  “There are not a lot of children here, Mr. Schultz. In fact, most of the residents are retired. I think that’s mentioned in our brochure?”

“You’re never too young to retire!”

They followed Mrs. Dale around the model home, tactfully admiring the drapes and wall-to-wall carpets as she pointed them out. The living room was divided into two levels separated by a wrought iron railing. The “his and hers closets” in the “master bedroom,” to which Mrs. Dale drew Lou’s particular attention, had plastic bi-fold doors. In the kitchen, a florescent light fixture hummed over the no-wax floor.

“Mrs. Schultz would certainly appreciate the trash compactor, wouldn’t she?” Lou winked at Kitty. “And she’s been pestering me for a dishwasher, too.”

Back at the office, Lou went over next week’s lesson plan in his head, on Russian palatal mutations in the conjugation of –at stemmed verbs, while Mrs. Dale yammered on about “customization options.” When she’d stopped talking, he filled out a travel voucher and collected his coupons, and they were back on the road in under an hour. He cocked his elbow out the window and relaxed into his pillowy seat, taking in the Cinescope view of shopping plazas and country clubs through the Imperial’s wide windshield.

“So, what do you think of this car?” he asked Jonathan, who had switched places with his sister and was now up front. “Like riding on a cloud, isn’t it?”

“Like floating on a marshmallow,” Jonathan said, bouncing.

“What say we keep it?”

“Yeah!”

“How about you, Kit? What do you think of Daddy’s new car?”

She was quiet for a minute. “I don’t know.”

“And what about that house, hah?” he said, warming up to the bit. “How would you like to live in a gracious new home at Villa Serena? We can all take up golf!”

Kitty turned her back to him and leaned on the package shelf. “Can we call Mommy?”

“You just saw her this morning. Wouldn’t you rather wait and call her when you have something to tell her?” Was it possible, he thought irritably, that she was already homesick?

Lou had a coupon for the El Morocco Motel. The sun was already low when they checked in and the day hadn’t been warm, but Jonathan and Kitty were in the pool by the time Lou got out of his shower. He went outside and sat on a lounge chair in the astroturfed courtyard with a newspaper he’d taken from the lobby. First Jonathan, then Kitty climbed out and stood on the lip of the pool holding their noses. Jonathan counted 1-2-3 and they jumped, upright and stiff-legged, back into the water, then climbed out and jumped in again. The sun sank below the cement wall and the underwater lights came on, casting the children’s faces in a cathode glow as they paddled back and forth.

Lou wished now that he’d tried harder to convince Helena to come with them to Florida, but she’d said she was too busy—substitute teaching, waitressing at a coffee shop. That was Helena: serious and self-sufficient. She’d refused his financial help when she moved out. Well, he hadn’t explicitly offered any, but only because he knew she would refuse. And perhaps, a little, because he’d hoped she would become discouraged. Even exhausted, Helena was beautiful—as desirable as ever to him, perhaps more so. He had coaxed her into his—their—bed a few times over the past year, and he hadn’t abandoned the idea that he might persuade her to give up her apartment and move back in.

The sky was completely dark when Kitty and Jonathan got out of the pool. They were shivering and their lips were blue, so he made them get into a hot shower. They ate dinner at the coffee shop next to the motel and went back to their room and played a few hands of gin rummy.  Lou supervised the flossing and brushing, tucked the kids in, and turned off all the lights but the one on the nightstand between the two big beds.

“We’re going to Disney World tomorrow, right?” asked Jonathan.

“Yes, tomorrow,” Lou said. “Probably tomorrow. If not, then certainly the day after. Now, who is in the mood for a Comrade Borodin story?” he asked, removing his shoes and lying down on the other bed, arms folded behind his head. His mind was already working, and he didn’t wait for a reply. “It seems that Comrade Borodin’s wife, the beautiful Grushenka—“

“The countess?” interrupted Kitty. “The one who liked to catch flies in her mouth?”

“The former countess,” Lou said, remembering that he’d used the name before. “She’d renounced her title, as Comrade Borodin considered the aristocracy to be decadent.”

“Is there a hedgehog in the story?”

“As it happens, yes, there is a hedgehog. Borodin’s best friend was a hedgehog named Chauncey. But more of that later. As you will recall, Comrade Borodin worked at the F. Gladkov Main Moscow State Institute of Physical Culture, which is sometimes called simply—“

“Glavmosgosfizkult,” Jonathan said.

“Precisely. Glavmosgosfizkult. One summer, Comrade Borodin’s brigade went to the Ural Mountains to construct a hydroelectric power station. In fact, Borodin’s brigade had been called away every summer for eight years to some eastern province: a cement factory in Kamchatka one year, the next year a magnesium processing plant on Lake Baikal, and so forth.”

“Dad?”

“Yes, Jonathan?

“Next time you go to Russia, can I go with you?”

“Maybe so. Could be.”

“Dad, what about Chauncey?” mumbled Kitty, already half asleep.

“That was what Grushenka wanted to know—what about Chauncey? Because during these summers, it fell to Grushenka to change Chauncey’s litter box and take him for walks.

“‘Dearest Chauncey,’ Grushenka would say while they walked, for indeed they had become very close, ‘why does Borodin prefer the companionship of his brigade?’

“‘Ah, but you are wrong, Grushenka,’ said the hedgehog. ‘He thinks of you day and night, and even keeps your picture on his footlocker. It is well known that he gazes tenderly at your yellow hair and red cheeks before he falls asleep, so that he may dream of you, and that every day, as he mixes concrete for the foundation of the hydroelectric power station, he whispers the name Grushenka.’

The sheets rustled as Jonathan turned on his side. Lou saw that they were both asleep now. They looked so much alike: the same sharp chins and messy, shoulder-length hair—as dark as his, but straight and fine as corn silk, like Helena’s. Kitty had on her brother’s old tiger-striped pajamas, the ones she’d worn for Halloween last fall. She’d invented a mythological creature with the pajamas and a rabbit-fur hat and a facemask of a mouse that she’d picked out at the drug store. As Lou undressed, switched out the light, and lay down again on his own bed, he thought about another story.

She was nineteen years old when they met, and already a graduate student at the University of Chicago, where she’d enrolled in the college at age fifteen. He was studying on the GI Bill. She’d been looking for a Russian tutor, and they’d given her his name at the department. She came to his basement apartment on Drexel Avenue—shy and quiet, a sylph in a peasant skirt. He told her to memorize Tatiana’s letter to Onegin. When she returned the next week, they sat on orange crates in his room, and she recited for him in halting Russian:

I write this to you - what would one want?

What else is there that I could say?

‘Tis now, I know, within your will

To punish me with scorn.

But you, for my unhappy lot

Keeping at least one drop of pity,

You’ll not abandon me.

*

In the morning they spread out Jonathan’s map on the table in the coffee shop. “Look at this,” Lou said, “we’re only ten miles from Cypress Gardens!”

“But that’s the opposite direction from Disney World,” Jonathan said.

“I think we have a coupon for Cypress Gardens.” He looked through his billfold. “Indeed we do; two free passes. We can leave Kitty in the car.”

“Daddy!”

“All right, I guess I can pick this one up. You got the hockey tickets.” Lou had been saying this for years. “You got the hockey tickets,” he’d say as he put a dime in the turnstile or paid for their pizza or handed over their tickets at the movie theater.

“It’s a garden, Daddy?” Kitty asked. “A flower garden?”

“Flowers of every hue. And Spanish moss.”

“I don’t want to look at moss!” Jonathan protested. “I thought we were going to Disney World today.”

“Well, I don’t think we should be too rigid. Let the wind take us where it will, right? Drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds.”

They spent all morning at Cypress Gardens. Actresses in antebellum dresses fanned themselves on rustic footbridges. They saw a waterskiing exhibition, and then Lou took a picture of the kids sitting on a bench on a carpet-covered platform in front of a painted plywood backdrop that said “Citrus Royalty.” It all reminded Lou a bit of strolling the grounds in a faded European spa town: Marienbad, with an overlay of all-American bunkum.

Lou hoped they could find a cheap place for lunch, perhaps a roadside hamburger stand. But after driving for an hour, he gave up and pulled into the parking lot of the Seminole Diner, in a sprawling new building clad in sheet metal and pebbled stone-face. Out of habit, he steered them to a booth that hadn’t been cleared off yet and swiped a few onion rings off a plate before a scowling waitress snatched it away.

“Who’s in the mood for a tuna sandwich? ” he said.

Jonathan leaned his elbows on the table and scrutinized the menu. “I want a Monte Cristo.”

“I don’t think you’d like it,” Lou said, hoping to redirect him to something less expensive. “They’re usually made with tongue. Fried pig’s tongue.”

“That’s not what it says here. ‘Danish ham and cheese, served on French toast and dusted with powdered sugar.’”

“We could go back and forth on this all day. How about a tuna sandwich? That’s what I’m having. What about you, Kitty? What looks good?”

“When can we call Mommy?” she asked.

“Why don’t we wait a day or two and then call her when we have something interesting to tell her? Or you could write her a postcard. I’ll bet she’d love that. Now, what do you want to eat?”

“Can I have French toast?”

“French toast it is.”

“How come she gets to have French toast and I can’t have a Monte Cristo?”

“For Chrissake. Have a Monte Cristo, then.”

Jonathan only picked at his sandwich when it arrived. While poring over the menu, he had overlooked the fact that it came with jelly, which he didn’t like. Lou gave Jonathan his coleslaw and ate the rest of the Monte Cristo himself.

A few miles south of Interstate 4, they stopped at a filling station. While their gas was being pumped, Lou got out to see if he could find a better map.

“Dad,” said Jonathan, who had followed him inside, “don’t get mad, okay?”

“What is it?”

“You have to promise not to get mad first.”

“All right, I promise. I promise I won’t get mad.”

“I’m hungry. Can you buy me these?” He held up a packet of neon-orange crackers.

Lou took the crackers from Jonathan and looked at the package. Milk solids, palm oil, monosodium glutamate. Junk. He sighed and handed them back. “You’re really hungry?”

“Yes, really, I am. I’m really hungry.”

Lou spotted a cardboard box next to the cash register filled with little paper sacks. He picked one up; the bottom half of the sack was transparent with grease.

“Boiled peanuts,” the attendant said as the cash drawer sprang open. “Wife makes ‘em.”

“Boiled peanuts! Now that’s something you won’t find in Cambridge. Let’s get a bag of boiled peanuts instead of these.” He took the crackers out of Jonathan’s hand and put them back. “Where’s your sister?”

Kitty was standing in front of the soda machine with the door open, tugging at a bottle.

“Daddy, can I have an orange soda?” she asked.

Lou pretended not to hear her. She followed them back to the car with her fists jammed in the pockets of her windbreaker, dragging her sneakers along the pavement, and got in next to Lou. There was a dispute about whose turn it was to sit in front. Jonathan and Kitty had agreed to switch off at each stop, but they’d neglected to agree on what constituted a stop, and since it had only been twenty minutes since they left the Seminole Diner, Kitty didn’t think the gas station should count. She put up a half-hearted fight before climbing over the seat.

As they pulled out of the station, Jonathan popped a boiled peanut in his mouth and spit it out the window. “Blekh. This tastes like a boiled toe.

“God damn it, Jonathan. You want to come with me next summer, and you won’t eat a bag of peanuts? What do you think we eat over there? French toast and orange soda? If you want to spend two months in the Soviet Union, you’d better be prepared to live on cabbage soup and black bread.”

Jonathan stared ahead angrily, clutching the greasy bag in both hands.

“It’s all right,” Lou said after a bit. “Pass them over here.” He tossed a handful of peanuts into his mouth. It actually was a little like chewing on boiled toes. He swallowed the mouthful and put the bag down on the imitation burl console.

He heard a sniffle from the back seat.

“Kitty, you can switch with Jonathan after the next stop,” he said.

“I don’t care.”

“Are you mad at Daddy about the orange soda?”

“You said we were going to call Mommy.”

“I said we could call her in a few days, Kitty. We can’t be calling Mommy every time you get mad.”

She threw herself down on the seat and began crying in earnest—howling sobs that Lou couldn’t ignore. He pulled onto the shoulder, got out of the car, walked around, and opened the back door. She was curled up with her face buried in the seat back. “Why don’t we go for a walk, Kitty?” He held out his hand for her. “Let’s stretch our legs.” Kitty climbed out, and they walked along the road for a bit. The sun had finally broken through, and bits of crushed shell glinted in the light-colored gravel. On both sides of the road were orange groves behind high page wire fencing.

“Daddy, I don’t want to live in Florida,” Kitty said when she’d calmed down. “Mommy won’t like that house, and I want to stay in Cambridge with Mommy.”

“Oh, Kitty. That was a joke.”

“We were tricking the lady?” She looked up at Lou. Her face, blotchy from crying, still registered uncertainty.

“We were tricking the lady. We’re going to Disney World, and maybe we’re going to see the ocean, and then we’ll get on a plane and go back to Cambridge.”

“We aren’t keeping the car?”

“Of course not! That was a joke, too. We’ll ride our bikes when we get home, just like always.”

He took her hand and they started walking back.

“Bold paynits,” she said after a moment.

“What, honey?”

“Bold paynits. That’s what the man called them.”

“Oh,” Lou said, “Boiled peanuts! What we’ve got here is a failure to commun’cate,” he said, doing his best George Kennedy impression.

“What we got here is a failure to commun’cate!” she answered. Then after a bit, “Daddy?”

“Yes, sweetheart?”

“Can I have an orange soda?”

“Yech. Why do you want an orange soda? It rots your teeth and makes you stupid. We’re in the land of sunshine and oranges, Kitty. Why have a cheap imitation when you could have the real thing? There’s no greater pleasure in life than biting into a piece of fruit that was just picked off a tree.”

As he was saying this, he noticed a place near a fencepost where the bottom of the page wire fence had been bent back. He knelt down, looked around him, and tugged at it a little.

“And if it’s not your tree,” he said, standing back up, “so much the better!”

Lou pulled up alongside the spot where the fence was loose. Behind the cover of the Imperial, Jonathan slipped under with no problem. The back pocket of Kitty’s pants snagged on a piece of page wire, but Lou freed it without tearing the corduroy too much, and she slithered the rest of the way through.

“Scoot!” he said when they were both inside. “Get away from the road so they can’t see you. No, Kitty, leave the ones on the ground. We don’t want those; we want fruit right off the tree.”

They ran a few rows into the orchard. Jonathan could reach the oranges on the lower branches easily, but Kitty sprang up like a kangaroo again and again, grabbing at the air.

“The ripe ones are higher up,” Lou shouted. “Jonathan, give your sister a boost so she can climb up there.” Jonathan kneeled down and made a stirrup with his hands. Just as Kitty put her foot in it, Lou heard a tractor start up somewhere nearby. He whistled and waved them back.

As his children ran toward him, stolen oranges gathered up in their T-shirts, he wished with all his heart that he had not promised to take them to Disney World.

*

Lou had the first premonition of a headache the next morning as the Imperial passed under the Walt Disney World archway and entered the buffer zone surrounding the Magic Kingdom. A three-lane road funneled them into a vast outdoor parking lot. They boarded an open-sided shuttle that dropped them at the ticket office, where the line zigzagged through what seemed like a quarter mile of roped stanchions. When they got to the front, Lou paid their admission and traded his Villa Serena coupon for a booklet of color-coded ride tickets and a map of the park.

“It looks like Purity Supreme money,” Kitty said.

“What, honey?”

“She means food stamps,” Jonathan explained.

“Can I hold them?” Kitty pleaded.

“Don’t let her, Dad. She’ll lose them. Give them to me.”

Lou decreed that Kitty would hold the ticket book, keeping it in a zippered pocket, and Jonathan would hold the map, and after lunch they would switch.

It turned out they were still nowhere near the Magic Kingdom, which lay beyond a vast manmade lagoon and was accessible only by ferry. Lou had to admire this feat of land-gobbling showmanship; still, his stomach clenched with dread as he followed his children up the ramp. On board, he sat on a bench and watched the dock disappear, along with any hope of a quick get-away. Jonathan sat next to him studying the map. “That’s Blackbeard’s Island,” he said, pointing into the glare. Kitty joined the crowd leaning over the rail. A shout went up when land appeared.

The first thing they saw when they disembarked was a cheery replica of a Victorian railroad station, high up on a landscaped embankment. Lou was momentarily dismayed, thinking that yet another leg of the journey awaited them, but Kitty and Jonathan pulled him into the stream of parents and children that flowed through a tunnel under the railroad trestle and into to a bank of turnstiles, where Jonathan took the entry passes from Lou and handed them to the ticket-taker.

They found themselves in a simulacrum of small-town America circa 1890, complete with a three-quarter-scale town hall built in an imitation of the Second Empire style. Covered arcades lined rows of old-timey storefronts. Everything was freshly painted in candy colors, and atop each mansard roof, an American flag rippled in the mild breeze. They stood for a moment staring up the wide boulevard, immaculately paved and lined with saplings, at the bright blue gothic spires of Cinderella’s Castle.

“Come on!” Kitty said, leading the way.

Lou’s headache was upon him fully now, and he was suddenly exhausted. The all-encompassing artificiality of his surroundings made everything seem foreshortened, so that he couldn’t judge how far away the castle was. He followed Jonathan’s blue windbreaker and Kitty’s red one up the teeming sidewalk until they came to a gazebo, where he sat down and called out for them to wait. While he rested, Kitty and Jonathan hunched over the map. They seemed to have instantly gotten the lay of the land.

“Can we go on Cinderella’s Golden Carrousel, Daddy?” Kitty asked.

“But the Frontierland Shootin’ Gallery is on the way,” Jonathan said. “Can’t we go there first?”

Lou took the map. “I’ll tell you what. I’m going to have a little lie-down over here.” He pointed to a grove of cartoon trees behind a building in Tomorrowland that looked like a flying saucer. “You kids have fun, and come get me when you’re ready for lunch.” He handed the map to Jonathan. “Kitty, you still have those tickets, right?” She unzipped her pocket and took the booklet out and waved it.

Lou walked back the way they’d come. He found an alley, hidden from view by an information booth, which led to an open area. He saw the flying saucer building in the distance, and cut due southeast until he found the grove—in reality just a scattering of spindly young pines—where he stretched out on the grass and shut his eyes.          

*

“Sir? Sir, are you awake?”

Two security guards stood over Lou. They were wearing short-sleeved uniforms with white Panama hats, and red ties patterned with tiny Mickey Mouse heads. Both of them were young and fit. The one who addressed Lou had a moustache. He looked a bit like Lee Van Cleef.

“Sir, is your name Mr. Schultz?”

“Yes, that’s me. Lou Schultz,” he said, sitting up. “How did you know my name?”

“We have your children, sir. They’re waiting at the security office.”

The guards escorted Lou back to Main Street, to a storefront between a candy shop and a photography studio. “Town Sheriff” was painted in ornate gold letters on the front window. Jonathan and Kitty were inside, sitting close together on a wooden bench.

The guard with the moustache kneeled down in front of them. “Is this man your father?” he asked.

Yes,” Jonathan said impatiently, “Dad, tell him we don’t need a babysitter.”

“What are you doing here?” Lou asked. “I thought you were going to Frontiertown.”

“Frontierland,” Jonathan said.

“Sir, we found your children in the park unattended.”

“Ah! There’s been a misunderstanding,” Lou said. “They were not unattended. You see, they came here with me. But I thank you for your concern.”

“I realize that, sir, but they were unattended when we found them.”

“Yes, but we had plans to meet for lunch.” He looked at his watch and saw that it wasn’t even noon yet. “I suppose we might as well eat now.”

“Mr. Schultz, your children were found taking coins out of the Cinderella Fountain.”

Lou saw that their pants were soaked up to their knees. He furrowed his brow. “Is this true, children, what the officer is saying?” he asked, making his voice deep with concern.

“Kitty lost the tickets,” Jonathan said. “She got to go on the Dumbo ride, and then we were supposed to go on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but she lost all the tickets. The whole book. We were going to buy another ticket book.”

“My pocket came unzipped,” Kitty protested.

To Lou’s relief, Kitty and Jonathan’s outrage at getting picked up by security seemed to have preempted any complaints they might have had about spending under two hours at Disney World.

“Well kids,” he said as the ferry nosed out into the lagoon, “what did you think of the Magic Kingdom?”

“So-called Magic Kingdom,” Jonathan said.

“They acted like we were babies,” Kitty said.

“Did they get all the coins off you?”

“Yeah, and fifty cents of it was mine,” Jonathan said. “I found it in the back seat.”

“Tell you what. Let’s go to the beach and have a picnic lunch.”

*

Resort hotels in various stages of completion lined the highway along the ocean. Lou stopped at a market a few miles north of Palm Coast and bought a loaf of bread and a jar of pickles and two cans of sardines. He asked the clerk where they could go swimming.

“Most of the beaches around here are private, but if you want to leave your car here, y’all can walk up the road a bit to the town boat launch,” he said.

 “Say, is there a payphone around here?”

“Out front, left of the door.”

Lou got two dollars in change from the clerk and stuffed a dollar in a jar on the counter that had a picture of a kid in a leg brace taped to it.

“Much obliged,” he said. “C’mon, kids,” he called to Kitty and Jonathan, who were browsing a rack of comic books. “Who wants to talk to Mommy?”

“I do,” yelled Kitty, but Jonathan was impatient to get to the water.

“The boat launch should be just up that way.” Lou pointed north. “Go ahead and find us a spot.”

Kitty talked to Helena while Lou emptied his flight bag and packed it with motel towels and their swimsuits and a few oranges. Kitty handed him the phone when he came back. “I’m gonna go find Jonathan, okay?”

Lou waved her off. “Careful crossing the street,” he said. “Helena?”

“Hi, Lou.”

“The kids are having a great time.”

“They didn’t mind getting thrown out of Disney World?”

“You know, they really didn’t seem to.”

“I’m glad you called, Lou—“

“I’m glad I called, too.”

“I’m glad you called, because I was over at the house today—I thought maybe they’d sent my 1099 there—and I noticed that the radiator in the front hall was seeping. Did you bleed the radiators last fall?”

“Helena, I was thinking. Maybe we could all go to Europe this summer. I don’t think the Soviet trip would be much fun for the kids, but I’ve got it down pretty well at this point. I can put someone else in charge for three or four weeks. We’ll go to Poland, and Czechoslovakia, maybe even drive down to Bulgaria and take the kids to some monasteries. I think they’re old enough to appreciate it. They really are good travelers, Helena. Very resourceful. Did Kitty tell you about the fountain?”

“Oh, Lou.”

“Oh?”

“I can’t take a month off. I’d lose all my shifts.”

“Oh.”

“It’s a lovely idea, though. It really is. I think the kids would love it if you took them. We’ll have to get them passports.”

“Okay, Helena. It was just an idea. We’ll see you in a couple of days.”

“Tell Jonathan hi.”

“I’ll tell him.”

Lou crossed the highway and looked out at the water, grey and opaque under a thin cloud cover. The seawall was under construction, and sections of concrete slab were stacked on the sand. He saw the boat launch a hundred yards up the beach, and two figures, knee-deep in the surf with their pant legs rolled up. It took him a minute to realize that he was looking at Jonathan and Kitty. They seemed so small.