Kate has both feet up on the dashboard, listening as her father describes in measured detail how they are going to kill a nest of goose eggs.
They had pulled up to the rental office—a one-story replica of the faded-yellow apartment buildings that surround it—about half an hour ago and parked in a visitor spot labeled, “Future Resident Parking.” The office doesn’t open until 7.
Tom plays with the radio, pushing button after button, presumably trying to figure out what his daughter would like to hear. Eventually, an old Ford Escape pulls into the parking lot and a middle-age woman gets out wearing a polyester pants suit.
“There she is. I’ll be right back,” Tom says, unbuckling his seatbelt and opening the car door.
Kate watches as Tom shakes the rental agent’s hand before the woman unlocks the office door. They disappear into the building and Tom emerges a moment later with the bucket and umbrella. He motions for Kate to follow him and they head down the hill.
“Are you ready?” her father asks. When he squints in the sun, soft wrinkles appear on the sides of his eyes. There are tan lines on his arms around his t-shirt sleeves.
“I guess so.”
With one hand, Kate picks up an open bottle of corn oil and, with the other, the empty bucket. Tom carries the red and white golf umbrella.
“Well, let’s do it then.”
The apartment building behind them is quiet; it’s early enough to assume most of the residents are still in bed. The property has a problem with what her father called “population control.” “Population” referring to the geese; “control” being their extermination. The geese are protected by the state, so the management company hired her father kill, they say “addle,” the unborn eggs instead.
Tom takes slow, purposeful strides towards the goose nest. His straight-legged jeans are both too long and too loose on him and they fold under the heels of his sneakers as he walks. Every once in a while, he rubs his arms and legs, massages his lower back, bends his elbows a few times like the Tin Man, struggling not to rust. At sixty-eight, Tom is older than most of her friends’ parents, but it is only over the last twenty-four hours that Kate has taken notice.
She arrived home yesterday from her first year of college and was startled by how much her father appeared to have aged since she saw him in the fall. After a brief visit for Thanksgiving, she had stayed at school through winter break, snatching up extra shifts at the restaurant when other servers took off for the holidays.
Last night, Kate had stood in the kitchen staring at the refrigerator door before opening it, her arm extended, gripping the handle in anticipation. Until she opened the door, she could imagine it filled with sustenance: fruit, vegetables, whole grains. The type of food a man her father’s age should be eating to stay healthy, to stay alive. The problem isn’t exactly that he doesn’t want to take care of himself, or that his memory is slipping, which it appears to be, but that the man harbors a formidable disdain for both grocery shopping and cooking (“too many widows stalking the produce, if you know what I mean.”). Tom has a drawer in the kitchen stuffed so full of menus that the mere act of opening it sends coupons for Pizza Works and Crabby Pat’s flying across the room. It’s within the realm of possibility that her father has eaten take out every day since Kate left for school.
Somehow, despite a lifetime of experience, Kate was still shocked by the empty kitchen. The cabinets were semi-occupied, but with cans of baked beans, saltines, pancake mix, and protein powder. She recognized an unopened jar of apple butter she purchased at the farmer’s market last Fall.
She finally gave in and opened the refrigerator, its contents predictably depressing. The door was lined with various bottles and jars: ketchup and mustard left over from last summer, or the summer before that, ginger salad dressing, maraschino cherries. The top shelf held the unopened case of store-brand bottled water that Kate bought months ago when there was concern about the quality of the city reservoir. The bottom shelf had six eggs resting undisturbed in the plastic holder and a carton of milk pushed all the way to the back.
“I’ll go to the store tomorrow.”
Kate had turned around as her father came in through the back door wearing old jeans with dirt caked onto the knees and a blue t-shirt worn so thin that she was sure if she held it up to the light, she’d be able to see through it. She scanned him up and down and thought maybe he lost more weight.
“That’s okay, I’ll run to the store now and cook something for dinner,” she said. Tom grunted a dismissive reply and then made his way upstairs.
Kate turned back to the refrigerator to see if the milk was any good; one quick sniff revealed that it wasn’t. Shutting the door, she realized there have never been any magnets on the refrigerator. No photographs; no save-the-dates or birth announcements. Nothing to indicate a person with friends or family lived there. Her father has neither. It hasn’t always been just the two of them, but Kate’s childhood memories are only of Tom. At her dance recitals. At her softball games. Her first day of Kindergarten and her high school graduation. He wasn’t always engaged, often if she glanced at the metal bleachers from her position on first base she would catch him distracted by a phone call or just staring off in the distance, but he showed up. He was perfectly adequate at being there.
The geese were smart when they situated their eggs between the water and a cluster of short, pointy bushes with sharp thorns on every branch. Kate wonders if she and her father were the predators the geese had in mind when they built their home here. Tom extends the umbrella and gives the nest a little poke until a goose comes out with her wings extended, hissing and flapping. Kate is caught off guard by the gander rushing towards them from the trees off to the side of the building. She shields her face with her arms, dropping the bucket and oil.
“It’s okay, I got it,” Tom assures her.
He thrusts the umbrella open and shut, over and over, and forces both geese away from his daughter. The umbrella is big enough to cover two or three people and its red and white stripes grow and shrink with each thrust as if it is alive.
“You okay?” her father asks.
“I don’t know if I can do this.”
“You’re doing fine; go fill the bucket up with water.”
Kate pushes on, committed to the operation at this point. She secures her hair with an elastic band and tucks the loose strands behind her ears before dunking the bucket in the water and placing it as close to the nest as she can. Weaving her hand through the sharp thorns, she picks up the first egg that she touches. The shell isn’t smooth like eggs from the grocery store; it feels dimpled like a golf ball.
Kate shakes her head and tries to remember Tom’s explanation of testing the goose eggs to determine whether or not they could be killed—only undeveloped eggs could be terminated. Slowly placing the egg into the water, Kate begs it to sink, willing it to fail the test her father had described. She only has to do this once—if one egg sinks it indicates that all of the goslings are too far along to legally addle. But of course it floats. She retrieves the egg from the bucket and tries not to think about what she is doing as she reaches for the corn oil.
The gander honks over and over, fierce and throaty, desperate to protect the unborn babies, scared of what Kate will do to them. Of what her father is paying her to do to them.
He had asked during their weekly phone call before finals if she would be looking to make some money over the summer. Tom’s business is a little bit of everything—electric work, plumbing, carpentry, extermination. Kate agreed to help him when she was home, not thrilled with the prospect but not in a position to refuse the paycheck. Nineteen years old and she was already accumulating an uncomfortable amount of student loans and credit card debt.
The phone calls home were usually just a quick check in to make sure her father hadn’t twisted his ankle falling off a ladder while cleaning Mrs. Richmond’s gutters or given himself a concussion after dropping a pipe on his own head underneath the Oldham’s kitchen sink. He has always been clumsy and accident-prone, highly inconvenient for a handy man, and it seems to be getting more hazardous as he gets older.
She’s starting to wonder if his memory getting worse as well. He was in the shower when she got back from the grocery store last night so she started boiling water and chopping vegetables. She’d lived in a dorm all year and it felt good to have a full kitchen available. The doorbell rang and, since she hadn’t heard her father emerge from the bathroom, she lowered the heat on the stove and wiped her hands on her jeans.
A man in a China Palace t-shirt was on the front porch holding two white plastic bags. He smiled and held them out to her.
“You have to be kidding me,” she said, glancing up the stairs.
“You’re all set,” the man replied, handing her a credit card receipt.
Kate brought the bags into the kitchen and unpacked the containers—sautéed vegetables in brown sauce, steamed white rice, chicken and steak marinated in different flavors and aromas. She turned off the stove and put everything she chopped into Tupperware, figuring she could save it for tomorrow night. She pulled dishes from the cabinet and portioned the food onto two plates, disposing of the containers to at least make it feel as if the food could have been cooked in their very own kitchen.
Tom came down the stairs a few minutes later, smiling and refreshed.
“Smells good!” he exclaimed, though he stopped short when he saw Kate’s face.
“What?” he asked.
“You ordered Chinese?”
Tom’s eyebrows furrowed. “Yes. I forgot to go grocery shopping.”
“I told you I was running out for food. I was cooking when the delivery guy came.”
“You did?” Tom opened a drawer and pulled out a handful of soy sauce packets.
After dinner, when the house was so quiet she could hear the cicadas singing in the trees outside, Kate wandered downstairs and into her father’s small office. She sat down in his desk chair, bending her legs up and putting both of her feet on the seat. There are clusters of framed photos on either side of the desk—pictures of Kate after her first dance recital holding the bouquet of roses he brought her; posing on her snowboard in the Poconos where they’d go each winter even though Tom hated the cold; dressed in her cap and gown at her high school graduation. She can’t put her finger on what was missing from her childhood, except perhaps authenticity. It felt real at the time, but looking back, it’s more like they only were going through the motions.
The walls of Tom’s office are lined with books instead of wallpaper. It is the only room in the house in which he smokes—he keeps an open pack of cigarettes in his desk drawer. When she was a teenager, Kate would sit in his chair with her feet up on the desk and pretend to take long drags of his Marlboro Lights. Though she’d never lit one, she’d sometimes hold a hand mirror and scrutinize the way she looked when she pretended to inhale and slowly exhale imaginary smoke. There were days and weeks when her father was gone before she woke up for school and didn’t come back until dinner, and Kate spent a lot of time alone in the house.
“I have to get through some invoices,” Tom said softly from the hallway.
Kate lifted her head and stood up, waiting for him to move so she could leave the room, but he remained very still, collecting himself in the doorway. He shut his eyes and inhaled in a way that reminded Kate of watching herself smoke in the mirror.
“Dad?” Kate whispered, not wanting to startle him. His eyes fluttered open and took a moment to focus on her. It is easy to dismiss him much of the time, but it’s during these quiet moments that their truth sinks in: they are all they have.
The bay is dark with seaweed floating just under the surface. No one swims in it, but the houses that back up to this waterway all have docks with boats tied up. There is about five hundred feet of bright green grass between the three-story apartment buildings and the embankment. Each of the apartments on the second and third floors have a balcony and the bottom apartments open to cement patios with a privacy divider between them.
“How’s it going over there?” Tom calls. The gander momentarily stops his attack and paces from side to side.
“Why don’t I do the umbrella and you do the eggs?” she asks.
“Because you won’t be able to keep both geese away from the nest and someone could get hurt.” He keeps his eyes on the geese, never turning his head to look at her.
“You mean besides the goslings?”
Tom clucks his tongue against the roof of his mouth and takes a deep breath, his arm muscles contracting as he grips the umbrella tighter.
“Maybe having you here was a mistake,” he says calmly, his back to her.
Tears return to Kate’s eyes and she uses her wrist to blot them away before Tom can see. He straightens his hunched back and glances at her over his shoulder. His face is sweaty and red and as he opens his mouth to say something, the gander takes the opportunity to save the nest and runs passed them, his stout body jiggling from side to side.
“Dad!” Kate screams and leaps to her feet, holding the egg against her chest. Tom flaps the umbrella at the gander while poking the goose with the toes of his sneakers. The goose pecks sharply at her shins and chases her in circles. As Tom runs over and nudges the goose softly with the side of his foot like a soccer ball, the gander tries again to make it to the nest. Tom continues to flap the umbrella while poking the goose with the toes of his sneakers. It takes a few moments, but eventually he has both geese back at the bottom of the hill, safely away from the nest.
Tom doesn’t take his eyes off the geese, but wipes his forehead with the back of his wrist and removes his hat to run his hand over his sweaty scalp. He rests against the umbrella and takes deep breaths, his chest rising and falling. His shirt has sweat marks on the front and back in the shape of a V. The geese stay on their feet, resting and waiting.
Kate takes a shaky breath as she pours a little oil in her hand and rubs it on the egg. It barely covers any of the shell so she pours more out, this time directly onto it. She smears the oil around cutting off the unborn’s air supply, suffocating it while Tom watches. She feels a heaviness in her stomach made worse by the weight of one egg. By half a dozen eggs: she still has five to go. She works methodically, removing each egg covering it with oil, and replacing it back in the nest.
It is still early in the morning, but the sun is already scorching the backs of Kate’s legs as she lies on her stomach. Reaching with her entire body, Kate stretches underneath the bush to return the final oiled egg to the nest with the same gentle touch with which she removed it. With that last egg still in her hands, something in the nest seems to twitch.
Her heart pounds against her chest.
“Are you okay?” Tom asks.
Kate can hear both geese getting louder and more desperate.
“I think one of the eggs moved.”
“They can’t move. The goslings haven’t begun to form bodies. They can’t even move themselves, let alone the entire egg.”
“I’m not sure if the twigs jostled or the leaves shifted but something definitely moved. I swear.” She can’t stop tears from streaming down her face as she carefully retreats out from under the bush with an oily egg still in her hand.
“But you tested one of the eggs right?”
“I did, but Dad—” She stands up, holding the egg to her chest. The oil saturates through her shirt, wet against her skin.
“No! If you did the test and the egg sank then there are no goslings.”
Kate clutches the suffocating egg closer to her body.
“You said that if egg floated that there were no goslings. You told me that if they sank it meant they were alive. You said it the other way around.”
“Weren’t you listening to me? I said if they floated it meant they were developing.” He finally turns to stare at her. His face is dark pink like a kidney bean.
“That’s not what you said.”
Kate tries to remember, but all she can think about are the goslings choking for air, unable to breath. She drops down to her knees and dunks the egg in the lake, scrubbing it with her hands, trying to remove the oil.
“Just stop, it’s too late. Stop it, damn it!” Her father is right behind her, grabbing her wrists so that she drops the egg. She tries to free her arms to rescue her gosling but Tom pulls her away from the water. The goose rushes to the nest, tapping the eggs with her beak, counting.
“I have to save it,” Kate pleas, freeing one arm and reaching for the bay.
“Katie, you have to let it go,” Tom says, putting his arms around her, no longer restraining but embracing her.
He gets up and reaches into the water, retrieving the egg and Kate believes that he will show her how to clean it, how to save the gosling who is trapped inside, unable to breathe. But instead, Tom brings his arm back over his head and pitches the egg into the air like a baseball. It hits the ground with a muffled crack.
Kate stands up and brushes the dirt and grass from her knees and hands. She wipes the tears off of her face with her fingertips—first one cheek, then the other. They walk silently up the hill, Tom winding the umbrella and securing it with the Velcro strap.
“What will the geese do when the eggs don’t hatch?” Kate asks.
“They just move on.”
Jessica Olivo is a freelance writer living in Connecticut. She holds an MFA from American University and is currently working on her second novel.
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