Dakota's Dad

by Cari Scribner

Later, I realized it was a mistake to hit Joel in the face with the chicken right after I served it for dinner. But it was already cooked soft; aside from a little grease on his face and a brief nosebleed, Joel wasn't hurt.

It was a sparse dinner, though. The potatoes were dry and the llama had eaten the green beans and there wasn't time to cook another chicken.

Afterwards, we didn't talk about it. If we had, I'd have told Joel it was the only response I had to his question.

It's easy to wander off one path and onto another, without even realizing you've done it. After Joel and I got married, I told my mother about my wedding gift. Joel had given me a beautiful llama. I'd wanted one since I was a kid chasing after them at the petting zoo.

When I told my mother how much the llama cost, she said, "Good Lord! He coulda bought you a stand-alone freezer to store your leftovers in!" She didn't see the thought that went into Joel's gift. He had given me what I wanted most, besides him.

What Joel wants most is to buy our farmhouse, instead of renting. Joel says paying rent is like flushing cash down the toilet. I think our farm reminds him of the house he grew up in. His parents sold it and bought a Winnebago when his father retired. Every few months, we get a postcard from Hershey, Pennsylvania, or the Grand Canyon. Joel stores them in his Buster Brown cowboy boot box, where he keeps old report cards and five or six love letters from his one girlfriend before me.

I named my llama Dakota. Sometimes I bring him in the house to lie on the floor and watch T.V. with me. Dakota smells like corn chips. When Joel gets home, he always knows by sniffing the air that Dakota was inside again.

I told Joel, "He's housebroken, he only pees outside."

And Joel said, "I want to be the only one who lies on the floor and watches television with you."

I thought that was sweet. For Easter, I gave Joel a goat.

Sometimes I believe I know Joel's heart as much as my own. But then he surprises me, like the time we were having sex and the condom broke, and Joel said, "Go quick and wash yourself out." I wouldn't have sex for two weeks after that. Was it so terrible for him, the chance of a baby, even by accident?

It's hard to stay mad at Joel. He has hobbies that keep me guessing. He'll stand in the bookstore, reading up on Chinese cooking, organic gardening, or meditation. Once I walked into the barn to find Joel sitting cross-legged on a bale of hay, humming.

"Geez, am I interrupting something?" I asked. It was as if I'd caught him chugging Budweiser like his track coach had in high school.

"I'm speed-sleeping," Joel told me. "Self-hypnosis. After two minutes I feel like I've had eight hours of sleep."

I'm never quite sure what to expect from him. Or from other people.

One day I saw a stranger videotaping Dakota. He was standing right up against our fence with his camera.

I walked over and said, "Who're you?"

And he said, "I'm waiting for the llama to spit."

I told him, "They only spit when they're really mad." And the man looked disappointed. Then I said, "Sometimes they spit at people they don't know, and it's the kind of nasty spit you can't wash off for days."

He took off real fast. Dakota and I had a good laugh.

One spring night, Joel and I went camping. Dakota carried our gear. Being a descendent of the camel family, he makes a good pack animal. Dakota liked going to sleep under the moon with us. But during the night, whenever a stick cracked or something growled from the bushes, Dakota got antsy. He's a domesticated animal for sure, more like our kid than anything else.

We crept around kind of quiet after the chicken incident. Joel didn't speak to me and I pretended he wasn't there. It's a good thing I know most of his habits, such as how he likes his eggs fried, and what T.V. movies he likes to watch, because we communicated with grunts and hand signals that week.

Joel and I were both being stubborn and that's dangerous ground.

My friend Marian left her husband Lou during the silent days at my house. "I married him because he grounded me," she said. "Now I'm suffocating."

I thought, she should have looked for the right path earlier, before she picked out water glasses and bathmats and houseplants.

I remember helping Marian shop for fabric to stitch throw pillows for her living room couch. We covered the chairs with swatches. When I came back two weeks later, the cloth squares were still lying all over the furniture.

"That's how Lou is," Marian said. "He can't make a decision. I'm leaving them here until he decides."

I wonder, if they divorce, if she'll realize how stupid the whole thing was with the swatches. They weren't the real issue at all. I tell you, fear was what made Marian run.

Every day with your significant other is like taking a dive off a pier. You could make a mess of the whole thing, belly flopping and kicking up waves, or you might have such perfect form you expect applause when you surface for air. Sink or float, I guess is what people say.

I knew when I married Joel it was for true love. We were 18, but we both felt it through and through.

After we met, Joel came to my door carrying something small and warm. It was a baby rabbit he'd almost run over on my driveway. As soon as his tire nudged the rabbit, he'd stopped the car. The rabbit was scared half to death. But after a few days of feeding it watered-down carrot pulp, it was strong enough to set free in the trees behind my mother's house. I'd wanted to keep it but it wasn't meant to be domesticated.

When I told my mother we were eloping, I tried to explain, and she said, "Sakes alive! It was a rabbit! Not a sign from God!"

When Marian left Lou, she said, "Come with me. You're not happy, are you? Don't you want to run free, experience life?"

I had to think hard about it. I couldn't let myself slide into the place that's shut off from Joel. I couldn't forget about the rabbit and Dakota and the rows of radishes and perfect lettuce Joel started from seed, and everything else that was wondrous, and just take off to another place and make myself over again from scratch.

Sometimes I think I'm not happy. Sometimes Joel ignores me for hours when he's studying garden plants in the Burpee catalog, or worrying about how the neighbor has cut the lawn two feet onto our property line. Sometimes he asks me such stupid questions I have no choice but to throw chicken. And sometimes I think he might never want kids.

But other times, when Joel's lying in the hammock, watching me feed Dakota apples, and he yells, "He's gonna spit! He's gonna spit!" and I pretend to get hit in the eye, I know I've gotten more than I bargained for. People weren't right when they said we were too young to get married, that we'd never make it.

There's a chipmunk living in the dirt under our back stoop. He eats seed all day at our bird feeder. The feeder is shaped like a house with glass windows. When the chipmunk thinks the coast is clear, he makes a run up the tree trunk and jumps into the feeder, gorging himself. Thinks he's got it all, food and a quick getaway. Then he realizes he's trapped behind the glass, and can't free himself. Joel has to go out and pull out one of the windows to let the dumb chipmunk go.

I've seen the chipmunk leap five feet into the air to get away, hustling to safety under the back porch.

This is how I feel sometimes, like it's too late by the time I notice the glass. I am already trapped.

It's a funny thing, living with Joel, trying our best to lead an adult life. Sometimes at night I still wait for my mother to come and smooth the blankets over my legs, and roll the sleeves of my nightgown back down my arms, or wake me in the morning with the smell of brown sugar oatmeal.

My mother makes wreaths of dried flowers. When I was small, I'd sit on a stepstool and watch her for hours. Straw flowers were her favorite, because even when they were freshly planted and watered, their red blooms were dry and brittle to the touch.

"Feel them," she'd say. "Smell them."

They felt like straw, and had no scent. They were flower-imposters.

Four days after the chicken incident, I was outside, feeding Dakota asparagus, when Joel came over to the fence.

"You want to tell me why you hit me in the face with the chicken?" he asked.

"Okay." I dug my feet more firmly into the ground. "I'm sorry about that. It was your favorite meal, and I didn't mean to hit you with it, especially in the face. I was just mad, real mad."

"How come?"

"You thought I was guilty before you even asked me."

"But I still need to know, did you?"

I tried not to roll my eyes at my husband. "No," I say. "I did not flirt it up with Buddy Haskins at the Quik Mart when I went in to buy pistachios. I would never flirt with Buddy."

Joel leaned his head on the fence. "Ok. I got a little crazy. Marian is leaving her husband. I didn't know if we were in trouble and you would want to take a break, too."

"I'm not Marian." I rubbed Dakota's face. He was getting tired and starting to rest his head on my shoulder.

"You're right, you're not. You could never be Marian. You'll always be my little bug."

Dakota gave a low rumble, like he was glad to see us back on the right track where we needed to be.

"Besides, Buddy gave me cooties in the third grade."

"Real cooties?"

I laughed out right at Joel. "Cooties aren't real, honey."

"But listen," I said, gathering up all my conviction. "We gotta talk about having kids. We said we would after being married a couple years, and here we are."

The air was real quiet, like right before a thunderstorm. Dakota started humming. It's the only noise llamas make. When we first heard it, we thought we left the car radio on, but it was him. We read online that it's a mating call. I think Dakota wants a woman friend, but I'll be damned if he's going to start a family before I do.

Joel's eyes were closed, and for a minute I wondered if he was speed-sleeping again.

"We can do more than talk about it, June Bug."

That's when I knew we were on the same path, and I didn't have to make a wild leap for safety, and our life had not become something that's dry and brittle to the touch.

Joel rubbed his chin. "How about we go camping tonight?"

"Okay," I answered right away. "I'll get Dakota's packs ready."

Joel shook his head, reaching out a hand to clasp my waist. "This time the llama stays home," he said, and his voice was certain and sure.

BIO: Cari Scribner lives in a historic sidewalk village in upstate NY. As a long-time freelance journalist, she has amassed thousands of bylines in local, regional and national newspapers, magazines and websites. She holds a full-time municipal job but would rather write than eat or sleep, as long as her little dog Sydney is at her feet. Cari has been a lucky 6-time participant in NYS Writers Institute Workshops at SUNY Albany, NY, where much of her fiction was born. She has a completed novel, MAGIC, being shopped by her agent, Mary Cummings of Betsy Amster Literary Enterprises, and is at work on a memoir, 6 CAROLINE, about growing up with a father with schizophrenia. She considers DAKOTA’S DAD to be her most uplifting work of fiction to date, and has been encouraged by her husband to write with less angst.