Dad started small, jumping off the roof of the warehouse where he worked. The principal called Max’s name over the PA and there was Mom, order pad stuck in the pocket of her apron, gnawing her lip bloody.
“We have to go to the hospital,” she said, “Dad’s in the hospital.”
“Is he dying?” Max asked.
“No, of course not,” she tried to laugh. It hurt her lip, the smile tugging on the broken skin.
Dad wasn’t dying, he was trying to stand up, heaving the cast that ran from his hip to his toes over the edge of the bed while a nurse in a white polyester skirt told him to lie down, dammit, lie down. He lit up when he saw his wife and son.
“I’ve got news,” he said, “fantastic news!”
“What happened?” asked Mom.
Dad followed her eyes to his cast, “Oh, I just need more practice.”
“I’m going to be a stuntman.” Dad grinned at Max, “won’t that be cool? When your old dad’s a stuntman?”
Then Dad stepped in front of a bus. He broke two ribs and his wrist and the hard plaster of the cast on his leg was torn and speckled with grit because the bus had dragged him twenty feet.
“He’s lucky,” said the nurse. “If he didn’t have the cast he would have scraped all the skin off his leg.”
Mom said, “Why are you doing this?”
“I still need more practice,” said Dad, “that’s all.”
The shouting woke Max. Mom yelling, “How are we going to pay for this?”
“Do you know how much stuntmen make?” said Dad.
Max opened his bedroom window and stuck his head into the sharp air and the hush and hiss of traffic on the freeway behind his apartment complex, hidden by an ivy-hulled chain link fence. He couldn’t hear the shouting so well out there. He climbed up onto the sill, dangling his toes over the edge. Falls were supposed to hurt, but Dad seemed fine. Dad seemed better, happier. Scarier, with the casts and determination, but happier.
Max closed his eyes and jumped, stretching his body, and belly-flopped into the shrubs just outside the window of the ground-floor apartment. The branches scratched him and pitched him forward, dirt driving into his chin, jaw clacking shut, catching a bit of his tongue. It hurt, and Max started crying. After a few minutes he dragged himself up and back through the window, and he sneaked to the bathroom to wash away the sap and dust and blood as best he could so Mom and Dad wouldn’t see.
From the hallway he could see into the kitchen, where Mom pressed her face into Dad’s chest while he stroked her hair with his good hand. She said, “What would we do if you died? What were you thinking?”
Over the next few weeks Dad dislocated his shoulder jumping onto a moving train, sprained his ankle jumping down a flight of stairs, broke his nose trying to jump through a plate glass window that didn’t break, and got eighteen stitches and a smattering of bald spots trying to break a bottle over his head. When he burned both his hands all he would say about what happened was, “Plausible deniability,” and wink and touch his nose with a bandaged finger.
During career day at Max’s school the roaring of a motorcycle engine interrupted Mindy’s mother while she was telling the class about how they wouldn’t get to be orthodontists like her unless they stayed in school. Then the bang of a motorcycle crashing into a parked car, and the window burst inward, Dad sailing through, skidding over the top of the teacher’s desk and slamming into the blackboard.
Seven students had to go to the hospital with shards of glass in their hands or faces, two more were knocked down and stepped on in the panic that followed, and Mindy’s mother chipped a tooth when she tripped on the school’s front steps.
The police handcuffed Dad to his hospital bed and told Mom they would arrest him officially when he woke up. Even unconscious, even with a plastic tube pulling one corner of his mouth down, Dad was smiling.
Mom chopped all the vegetables in the fridge while an empty pan smoked on the stove. She listed things she didn’t know to Max, things like where Dad got this idea, what Dad was thinking, what they were going to do now, if they could still afford the apartment, how she could show her face at the school again, what was going to happen next, what was going to happen now, what was going to happen to them, what was going to happen. She chopped three onions, six carrots, a dozen celery stalks, a zucchini, a head of cabbage, and two bell peppers, and she cut her fingers, little cuts, little red drops, the pile of vegetable bits growing larger on the counter until it spilled onto the floor. Then she cried. Then she ordered a pizza.
That night Max opened his window and again perched on the ledge. He knew how much jumping hurt, even though it was so short a fall. He knew what Mom would say if she caught him jumping, what she always said when he broke a glass or a plate or when he fell and hurt himself. “What were you thinking?” It was a question he could never answer. He’d say, “I don’t know,” and Mom would scold him, then kiss him, then send him to his room.
Max tried to remember what he was thinking when he jumped, or when he hit the ground. Maybe it was the same thing Dad thought. But the more Max tried to remember, the surer he became there wasn’t anything in his head when he jumped. Maybe he should do it again, really try and pay attention to what he was thinking this time. Then there was a bang from the freeway, and squeals and screeches and shatterings, louder than Dad’s crash in the school parking lot but made of the same parts. Max climbed down from his window, pushed through the shrubs, and ran to the chain link fence at the bottom of the embankment.
Through the thick ivy Max could only see flashes of light, but he could hear horns honking, people shouting, then screaming. Clear and high, a woman screaming, gasping, screaming, on and on. And a second voice joined the first, another woman screaming, the start of some disharmonious wolf-pack expression of the loneliness of pain. The second woman was not on the freeway. Max turned and saw, through the window of his bedroom, Mom standing over his empty bed, clutching his empty sheets, eyes screwed tight shut and jaw unhinged as though the scream were a buffalo she could swallow whole.
Dad started a fight with the cop who read him his rights when he woke up, wound up with all his stitches busted wide and a chipped maxillary bone. The cop didn’t press charges.
“Damnedest thing,” said the cop, “I popped him in the face and he thanked me, said it would’ve been a great take. Don’t think he knew what he was doing.”
Mom and Max didn’t tell the cop that Dad knew exactly what he was doing.
Mom hammered a nail into the window frame in Max’s room so the window wouldn’t open more than an inch. Flowers showed up on the freeway, a pile of them big enough that at first Max could smell their perfume mixing with the exhaust that filtered through that open inch of window, then a smell like rotting vegetables as the pile went bad.
Max asked about the flowers and Mom said that some people had died in the accident. Max said it was too bad none of them had stuntmen and Mom slapped him, then made him promise he’d never do anything stupid like Dad, then held him and cried.
She did that more and more. Max would wake up in the middle of the night because Mom had come in and wrapped him up in her arms and started sobbing into his hair. Now Max was scared of her, too, and he couldn’t get out his window anymore.
During recess Max apologized to Mindy about her mother’s tooth. Mindy said it was okay, her mother could be such a bitch about teeth. Mindy’s mother didn’t have any fillings or crowns or anything. At least, she didn’t used to. Besides, her father was just a stupid accountant, Max’s dad was way cooler. All the kids who hadn’t been hurt agreed that stuntman was a cool job, and Max’s dad crashing through the window had been cool.
When Mindy said, “cool,” she tried to lean against the playground fence but she winced and straightened up.
“What’s wrong?’ Max asked.
Mindy said, “I fell.”
Max said, “Can I see?”
“You just want me to lift up my shirt,” said Mindy. “Pervert.” And she ran away.
But after school, while Max sat on the front steps waiting for Mom to get off work and come pick him up, Mindy marched up and turned and lifted her shirt so he could see the mottled purple and yellow bruises that covered her back.
Max said, “My dad’s got way worse.”
Mindy turned on, tugging her shirt back down. “Well I’m not a stuntman,” she shouted.
Mom stopped telling Max about what Dad was doing. His existence had fallen in with the ranks of things she didn’t know, though Max heard her on the phone one night when he was supposed to be doing homework.
She said, “I can’t afford to.” She said, “I’m not pawning anything.” She said, “Okay,” she said, “okay, I’ll bail you out if you promise you’re done. If you promise you’re done with this stuntman bullshit, I’ll bail you out.” Then she said, “Fine,” and she slammed the phone down.
For dinner she unpacked a paper bag of lukewarm burgers and fries from the diner and stared at Max and when he took his first, tentative bite she started crying. She started apologizing. He needed vegetables, he needed home-cooked meals, she just wasn’t up for it, she was sorry, so sorry, sorry, she’d start cooking again, she would.
She got down on her knees on the floor and draped herself around her son and said things would get better. Things would get better. But the next day and the next she brought home more grease-stained bags, and she watched Max sit himself at the table, and she watched him pick up the sandwich or soggy chicken-finger, and when he took his first bite she’d cry and apologize and tell him things would get better.
And Max was afraid, especially before his first bite of dinner, with Mom watching him. He thought so much. He couldn’t stop thinking. He got thinner.
“She just cries all the time,” he told Mindy, “and hugs me.”
Mindy said, “My mom cries. I wish she’d hug me.”
“How’s your bruise?” asked Max.
Mindy lifted up her shirt and Max saw it was still the same size and shape and color as it had been the week before. “Shouldn’t it be better?” he asked.
“I fell again,” said Mindy.
“Your house must be dangerous,” said Max.
Mindy said, “I should get a stuntman.”
“Yeah,” said Max, and then he had a thought.
At the end of the day Max and Mindy sat together on the steps, waiting for their parents.
“She really hugs you all the time?” asked Mindy, her fingers running a nervous route from her hair, cropped short to look like Max’s, over the neck of Max’s shirt at her throat, to the buckle of Max’s belt at her waist, and back up, tracing the unfamiliar outlines of her disguise.
“But she also cries while she does it,” said Max, keeping his hands still in his lap so he wouldn’t disturb the clippings of her hair Mindy had stuck to his head, or scratch at the strap of the training bra, or tug at Mindy’s shoes, tight on his toes.
Mindy bit her lip. “This isn’t fair,” she said. “You’ll get hurt.”
“I’ve fallen down before,” said Max, “It’s not so bad. I didn’t think anything when I fell. It was nice.”
“This won’t work anyway, right?” said Mindy, “We look dumb. I’ll get in so much trouble.”
“We’re stuntmen,” said Max, “People only see who stuntmen are supposed to be.”
And a car pulled up to the curb.