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tearing the rag off the bush again
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My son, Alexander, wears spurs on his boots, pistols on each hip. He prefers to be called “X” these days. “Alex” wasn’t shortened enough. He gives me a sharp look from beneath the rim of his black hat. His blue eyes shine with impatience. “Can we go?”

“Not yet,” I say.

“What’s taking her so long?”

“She’s coming,” I say, and X stomps off toward the stairs, shouting, “Katie!”

X is six years old, full of piss and vinegar. We’ve been watching cowboy movies all afternoon, and it’s time for ice cream. Now.

Katie, four years old, appears at the top of the staircase. She descends carefully, wearing a gauzy green costume with wings on her back and long black antennae attached to her head on a hairband. With wavy dark hair and dark eyes, she looks like her mother, Molly, but still sometimes when I look at Katie I’m convinced we stole her from Persian gypsies. A train of gauzy lavender fabric follows her down the carpeted steps.

X is incredulous. “You’re supposed to be an Indian.”

“Behold,” she says, pausing to spread her arms and wings, “the beauty of the luna moth.”

“The what?”

“The luna moth,” she replies.

“Is that some kind of Indian?”

“I don’t want to be an Indian,” she replies.

“Why not?”

“What if I get shot?”

“I’m not gonna shoot my own sister,” he says.

“No one shoots a luna moth,” she says.

X turns and gives me a dirty look. “You knew.”

I shrug my shoulders. Of course I knew. Someone had to help her get dressed. “What the hell?” I say. “Let’s go.”



At the diner, we are two cowboys and a luna moth occupying the center booth in front of the long front windows. The jukebox, full of old country and rock and roll, is playing “A Tear in My Beer.” The cowboys are on one side of the booth, wearing black hats and working on pineapple sundaes. The luna moth sits on the other side, on a throne of red vinyl, using a ten inch-long straw to pick apart the ball of ice cream in a root beer float. “Careful honey,” I say. “Don’t make a mess.”

“Behold,” she says, dripping ice cream on the table, “the delicious.”

X looks at me. “What is she talking about?”

“Beats me.” Katie and Molly put the luna moth costume together for some event at the pre-school last week. All I know is that there has been a lot of beholding ever since. Behold the kitty. Behold the Cheerios. Behold the dirty underpants.

“I have beheld the delicious,” I say. “And I am amazed.”

She smiles sweetly. “Cowboys are ridiculous,” she says.

“Are they?” I take off my hat and put it on the table.

The seventeen year-old waitress, Amanda, comes by to see if we need anything. She chews gum, has a blackbird tattooed on her wrist, and wears dark eye makeup. She laughs out loud when Katie asks for an enema. “A what?” Amanda asks.

“A what?” I say, turning to Katie.

“An enema,” she demands.

“Honey?” I ask. “What do you mean by enema?”

She points at the bowl in front of me. We all look at it for a moment, the melted soup of an ice cream sundae. “Pineapple?” I ask hopefully.

Katie nods her head.

I push the bowl across to her. “Here, have some of daddy’s.”

Amanda lingers a moment, glances at my wedding ring, smiles, and walks off. I glance at my wedding ring, and then look at Amanda’s back as she walks away. I turn to X and Katie. “Did you see that?” I ask. “I think she just checked me out.”

“Girls like cowboys,” X says, and I put my hat back on.

If Molly were here, she would say something kind right now like, “She was probably just wondering who would actually join their genetic code with yours to produce these mutant children.”

I would say something like, “I just found these mutant children by the side of the road and they followed me home.”

Molly would wonder out loud how much money we could make by starting our own circus until the children were in giggling fits, and then we would go home, and Molly and I would wait until the kids were asleep and then have sex downstairs on a kitchen chair.

Molly is a medical writer, working for the National Institutes of Health, and the kitchen chair is one of her favorite spots in the entire house for some reason. She’s attending a conference this week in Atlanta, so I have taken a Saturday off from the job site to look after the kids. It’s sweet, like playing hooky, and I’m imagining the look that would be in Molly’s eye as she pushed me past the butcher block, but then X says, “What the hell?”

“Hey,” I say absently. “Watch your mouth.”

“He has a gun too,” X says.

“Who has a gun?”

“That man.”

“What?” I ask. “Where?”

Just then, loudly: “Listen up, mother fuckers!”

I snap up in the red vinyl seat and look over, and three people have stormed through the front door. All three display handguns. They wear panty hose pulled over their faces. Two men, and one woman. “Oh hell,” I say.

One man, wearing a Redskins jacket, stands by the door. “Nobody move!” he shouts. He shouts some more, but I can’t understand what he’s saying. His voice is muffled by the panty hose and aimed at the other side of the diner. My ears tingle with rushing blood as I try to understand what, exactly, his intentions are and what, exactly, he wants from me and my children. The music from the jukebox seems strangely loud all of a sudden.

The woman opens a bag in her hand and begins moving from table to table collecting wallets and jewelry. The bag in her left hand looks like a vintage leather bowling ball bag. The small revolver in her right hand looks dull and black. She makes jerky motions with her hands, speaks in a shrill voice. “C’mon! C’mon! Gimme the fucking money. Gimme your fucking watch.”

She swings her head around haphazardly when she speaks, and the gun in her hand veers as well.

The last man, the quiet one, wearing black steel-toed work boots and desert camouflage army pants, strides over the linoleum tiles to Amanda, who is standing still with her small order pad in her hand. His mask is only pulled down to cover his nose, and the elastic band makes his upper lip stick out, large and pouty. He grabs Amanda by the hair and places the gun against her cheek. “Where’s the safe?” he says. “Bitch.”

He spits the last word. I can see it shining on the side of the girl’s face, and my stomach feels as tight and heavy as a bag of nails. I want to take the metal napkin dispenser from my table and smash this man in his pretty lips, bludgeon him until he’s unconscious, until his panty hose head splits open and spills its dark contents of spit and invectives, bullets and larceny, all while Hank Williams croons from the jukebox.

Amanda points toward the doorway behind the counter. The man holds tight to her hair and pushes her by the back of her head as they go toward the doorway.

The owner of the diner, an old man named Vincent, stands behind the counter with the palms of his hands raised. “Please,” he says. “We don’t want any trouble.”

“Open the fucking safe.”

“I’ll open the safe. Let the girl go.”

“You open the safe or I’ll blow her pretty little head off.”

Go, I think. Just go, and make this end. All three of them disappear through the doorway.

I look at my children. They sit still, with looks of shock and wonder on their faces. They watch everything, absorb everything: the shrill woman making her way from table to table, moving slowly towards us; the gunman keeping watch at the door; the frightened sounds of customers at their tables; the swivel and click of the juke box as it switches records for the next song. I wonder if it’s one of our songs. We loaded the jukebox up with “boogie music.” X and Katie look at me, and I put my finger on my lips. Shhh.

My finger trembles badly.

“And what do we have here?” says the woman, finally arriving at our table. “Happy fucking Halloween.”

Her features are pressed, twisted behind the panty hose. Her eyes look like dark voids, with just a glimmer of something living there. She seems unaware, at the moment, of the gun in her hand that is pointed at my daughter.

“It’s not Halloween,” X says.

“What?” snaps the woman. She seems coldly aware of the gun in her hand now as it swings around on X and me. My throat tightens as I place my wallet and watch into the bowling bag, and I am horrified by my complete inability to stop this woman from threatening, or harming, my children. I lay my palms on the table in front of me, and my skin burns from inside, all over my body.

“It’s not Halloween,” X repeats.

The woman does not smile. She does not glance at my wedding ring. She turns to Katie and says, “What are you?”

“A luna moth,” Katie says.

The woman snorts. “What good’s a moth?”

“They have beauty.”

The woman comes in close, points the gun at Katie’s chest. “Bang,” she says.

And there it is. This moment. Suspended in the air in front of me. A robber in panty hose leaning over the table to point a gun at my four-year-old daughter in the middle of a diner while the Big Bopper starts belting out “Chantilly Lace” on the juke box. It’s one of our songs, our boogie music, and I’m burning and tight, seized with terror. In my mind the fear smells like piss and vinegar, and I struggle with the urge to grab the gun held in front of me. I can take it from her easily. This woman is shaky and shrill. I am angry and quick.

It stretches out like a thread in front of me, this action, this taking of the gun. I can see the thread unfolding, see me knock the woman to the ground, see me turn around with the gun in my hand, aim at the man by the door. I can see the man fall back as I shoot, see the chaos that ensues with people flying and scurrying in every direction. I can see the muzzle flashes as the two men return fire on me, see blood streaked across the linoleum floor under the feet of diners. I can see the pale terrified faces of my children fade away as darkness engulfs me.

Then I see Molly. I see Molly answering a call on the telephone in her hotel room. Dark hair, dark eyes, and I see the smile fade on her face as she listens to the receiver. I see her drop the phone, fall to the floor. The thread ends there.

“Be careful,” I say.

“What?” snaps the woman, turning the gun and her nearly lifeless eyes on me.

“The windows,” I say, motioning with my head toward the large windows we sit by. “People can see you.”

“Guess what happened to my beauty,” she says, laughing sharply, and she moves on to the next table.

It is only a minute more, and then Amanda comes out from the back room, still at the end of a gun barrel. Vincent too. The steel-toed gunman holds a bag of money. It is a thin plastic bag from the grocery store, and I can see the cash through the semi-transparent material. I wonder why he doesn’t use a nicer bag, something more sturdy, but then he shoves Vincent roughly to the ground and points his gun at Amanda. “You too, baby,” he says. “I like my women face down.”

Amanda sinks to the floor, lies down next to Vincent. I can see her eyes from here, dark and shining, her eye makeup smeared across her cheeks. Leave, I think, looking back at the robbers. Leave us alone.

Then they are gone. No announcements, nothing. Out the door, they slip around the edge of the building, vanish past the windows, run away through the labyrinth of narrow parking lots behind the strip mall and the office buildings.

I practically melt into the vinyl seat as the tension drains out of me, and the diner explodes into commotion. The patrons all burst into excited and angry conversation, drowning out the music. Amanda stands up, wiping tears off her face. Vincent grabs the telephone and dials 911. Several people have run outside to try and see where the robbers ran.

Katie climbs around the edge of the table, onto my lap. X attaches himself to my arm. I turn back to the kids, let my head rest on the back of the vinyl booth and put my arms around them. “Somebody could have got shot,” X says, standing on the seat and looking around at the activity.

“No,” I say. “They just wanted to scare us. They didn’t want to hurt anyone.”

“I think,” Katie says, playing with the collar of my t-shirt, “that luna moths do get hurt sometimes.”

“No baby,” I say. “Cowboys keep a luna moth safe.”

“But you’re not a real cowboy,” Katie says.

A chill runs through me, settles in my stomach. I feel foolish and clichéd and outgunned sitting here. What does one say to a four-year old who just had a revolver aimed at her chest? I take the hat back off and set it on the table.

X and Katie and me hang onto each other and peer out, wide-eyed and quiet, at the commotion all through the diner while everyone waits for the police to arrive. “Behold,” Katie says, absently placing her sticky fingers on my face while she gazes out from the red vinyl booth.

“Behold what?” I ask.

“Just behold.”

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