The dimpled moon hung like a dim chandelier. Clouds were lampshades; stars wrestled for attention against the backdrop of infinity. Elizabeth crossed a leg over her knee on the front porch swing and nursed a vodka cranberry. She sipped from a pink straw in a children’s cup. The screen door opened at the pitch of a dog whistle.
“Sure.” Oscar replied and walked inside.
Elizabeth smiled at him. Brown hair fell upon her young shoulders. She shivered under the porch light from the late summer chill and tucked her knees close to her chest for warmth. Candy wrappers, plastic cups, confetti and shredded wrapping paper lingered from the afternoon’s festivities. Cone shaped hats littered the lawn like sparse traffic lights in country towns. They sparkled in the glittered distance and won attention before stars. Near the edge of the porch, in plain view from the swing, a yellow hat read: “Happy 3rd Birthday!” The words were gilded and in bold, block letters. Last year on his birthday, Jacob cried every time Elizabeth picked him up.
The front door opened again; a black lab trotted out of the house and circled the yard with enthusiasm. Its nose grew lost in sugar coated grass. Oscar followed behind with a fresh drink in hand and a lit cigarette parted between his lips. He sat next to Elizabeth on the swing and passed her a pack of cigarettes and matches.
She smiled and kissed him on the cheek. She struck a match and lit her cigarette with the tiny sparkler. Their dog circled the giant Oak tree as it towered into the evening.
“Here, boy! C’mere!” Oscar called the dog as he made summoning noises with puckered lips. It reminded Elizabeth of sounds she heard construction workers make at women downtown.
The dog turned his head and jumped on the porch. His tongue swung from his mouth like young legs off tree branches. She remembered how, and on frequent occasion, her grandfather pointed to the Oak tree.
“That tree’s as high as heaven!” he would say. “So, you’d better start climbing.” Then he would tickle her and she would ask incessant questions about the universe. After moments of deep thought, he would reply with infallible wisdom; and, always, with the deepest sincerity.
Elizabeth stopped trying to reach the top after he passed. Her parents told her he “went peacefully.” She said she didn't understand; they told her she would someday and bought her ice cream to cheer her up. It melted in the back of her father’s Audi on their way home.
The dog came to a halt and sat submissively by the swing. “Good boy! Lay down! Lay down! That’s a boy.” Oscar gave the dog’s head a loving pat as it curled beneath his feet.
A car passed. For a moment of brevity, the headlights exposed the couple’s eyes; but, the dimly lit sky and spider webbed porch light cloaked their conversation in dusk once the vehicle neighbored distance.
“Honey,” Elizabeth whispered.
“I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
Elizabeth nestled her head on his shoulder. Oscar took a sip from his whiskey; the ice made a dull, clinking sound as they drifted against the glass. A short burst of wind scattered tiny rocks on the pavement, echoing the ice. He inhaled deeply through his nose.
“Hm?” Oscar replied in an exhale.
“Remember we planned to take our honeymoon a little late?”
“Because we couldn't really afford it at the time?” She waited on a reply that didn't come. He stirred his drink. The ice seemed louder than before. “It’s been a couple years now since we said that, Oscar.”
“Yeah. Well, things haven’t gotten any easier.” He took a large gulp and chewed the ice.
“That’s just my point. You know? What’s the use in waiting for things to get better? I’m not sure they ever get easier.”
“Jesus. What? Are you feeling down again or something?”
“What makes you say that?”
A dull leaf landed on the shores of the scintillating lawn. The dog’s eyes followed its descent.
“I don’t know. Talking like that is what I mean.”
“Like things ain’t ever going to be better. I’m doing the best I can, alright? I’m busting my ass supportin’ us. And I don’t know how many times I have to apologize for what happened. I’m tryin’ for christ’s sake.”
“Oscar that’s not what I’m saying.”
“Well, what are you saying?” His tone stirred the dog. It raised its head and stared at him.
“That we have to live our lives together.”
“This is all because of that one time.” Oscar crossed his arms and spit off the porch. His eyes were glued to the happy birthday hat. “Isn’t it?”
“That’s not what I’m talking about. Honest. Look, I love him like he’s my own. I just want an us still.”
The wind picked up. More leaves crashed upon the lawn.
“Oscar?” She grew annoyed by his silence.
“I forgot I left the lights on in the kitchen. The electric bill was ridiculous last month.” He rose from the swing with haste and startled the dog. It waited his command. “Excuse me.” The dog followed him inside and nearly caught its tail in the screen door as the wind’s howl swung it shut.
Elizabeth’s eyes grew fixed upon the limbs of a broken piñata that she hadn't noticed earlier; or, maybe it was that she didn't recognize it in its newest condition. Prior to its execution, the piñata was a clown. Now, its guts lay in sugar canes among patterns of leaves. Several more fell from sprawled branches that crawled across the night.
“When you lay like this, underneath, and look directly up, you can learn cursive from the branches,” he would tease her.
“What? I’m serious! Look, see how the thinner branches twist?”
“Come on, Papa.”
“And doesn't that one look like it’s giving the moon a mustache?”
The clown’s plastic lips were stuck in a smile. Elizabeth swore she saw a tear caught in its plastic canopy of eyelashes. It reminded her of last year’s Christmas. On her walk home from the crowded mall, she hung a wreath on her grandfather’s abandoned front door. She didn't know why she did it. She didn't know why she imagined the clown crying. She didn't know if her Papa ever made it to the top of the Oak.
After fifteen minutes had passed, Elizabeth assumed the whiskey knocked Oscar out. She finished half a cigarette and retreated inside. Dog and master were asleep on the couch. She tossed a blanket on them and put herself to bed upstairs. Under the warmth of covers, Elizabeth imagined the falling leaves outside the window as tiny messages.
“How brittle are the branches in Heaven, Papa?”
Sudden waves of Jacob’s cries crashed through the hallway. She was unsure how long he’d been hollering before it stole her attention and wondered if it would ever feel right to cradle him in her arms.
“Elizabeth!” Oscar called from downstairs. He often drank himself into paralysis.
“I know. I hear him. I’m going.”
The dog ran up the stairs and wagged its tail in front of Elizabeth. Outside, the summer melted into minor chords. She remembered the ice cream that fell from her cone and on to her father’s leather interior; the look she gave him to express that she tried all she could to stop it, but couldn't and how he smiled to say he understood. The days of traveling safely in the backseat of her family’s Audi were far behind her.
“Elizabeth!” Oscar yelled. The dog’s stare questioned her hesitation.
Outside Jacob’s room, she practiced a smile that couldn't compete with the clown.