A Good Problem to Have

by Kristin H. Sample


Virginia Beach, 1994

I.  Clancy the Labrador

       In Japan, my father continues, they have this art form where they fill in cracks of broken ceramics with liquid gold. So, the fancy bowls have gold veins running through them.

      
My father has been describing how the Japanese fix their dishes for the past ten minutes. His effort in consoling my mother about one of her good dishes that broke last week.

       My mother ignores him. Just sips her Diet Coke in righteous defiance of his concern. My father drones on, happy to ignore my mother ignoring him.

       They are having one of those conversations that are more like monologues switching off than an actual dialogue. They do this sometimes.

       We have been driving to Virginia Beach for about six hours now. So, at this point, all conversations are just talking or waiting your turn to talk. But never listening.

       It’s called keensoogie. Or something like that, my father continues.

       My mother sighs.

       It’s a Japanese art form.

       I shouldn’t have left it out. She finally answers.

       Our cleaning lady broke the dish while dusting. For some reason, my mother can’t be upset with the cleaning lady.

       Why can’t you ask Marta about it? I probe from the backseat.

       Elizabeth, you’ve never had a whole house to clean on a weekly basis. After Marta started, I got my Saturdays back. My mother sits directly in front of me, so it’s the back of her head that answers.

       Kintsugi! That’s the name! My father exclaims and takes both hands off the steering wheel for a moment of terror.

       The dish was my mother’s.

       I saw a documentary about it, my father explains, completely undeterred by her despondence, Kintsugi.

      
I saw the same documentary. Well, I was in the same room when my father was watching TV. Doing my chemistry homework and half-listening. I decide to offer another opinion. I can’t take naps anymore. There’s nothing else to do in this car.

       Yes, I say, it’s called kintsugi. They put gold in the cracks. Then the brokenness is part of the china’s history. It’s kinda nice, I think.

       It’s Japanese
, my sister chirps. Daddy said Japanese. It has nothing do to with Chinese history.

       Not the country. I’m talking about ceramics, pottery . . . porcelain bowls that no one uses. They’re called china, I snap back. With Margie going to sixth grade, she’s really found her voice. She’s found her attitude, too. She shifts her legs. Margie has been forced to sit in the middle because our enormous dog Clancy took her seat.

       That was a candy dish, my mother corrects. I used that bowl for candy, Elizabeth.

       Her tone implies that—somehow—the broken dish is my fault. I roll my eyes. Then, I try reading my book again.

       Our dog interrupts the lamentations and lessons on Kintsugi. Perched on the backseat of our Jeep Grand Cherokee, Clancy rests his huge head on my father’s shoulder—his snout making a fog on the driver’s side window. I keep wondering why my mother won’t make Clancy lay down in the trunk. His bed is back there.

       The dog, nervous the whole ride, won’t sit down. For hours. His head rests on my father’s left shoulder. Long strands of saliva hang from Clancy’s mouth, getting worse whenever my father snacks on the Pringles we brought for the ride.

       My father has a dish towel on his neck and left shoulder to collect the slobber. Like a burp cloth.

       The things my father does for his wife.

       The things my mother does for this dog.

       Both are astonishing. And yet, I’m touched by it all.

       Clancy farts. It’s soundless but deadly. The cabin of the car fills with a poop cloud. Margie begins to cry and heave like she might puke.

       Don’t throw up, Margie! Don’t you throw up in this car! My father turns his head to see her. The whole car turns with him. We scream.

       I try to open my window, but I’m “child-locked.” A new feature my father bragged about when he bought the Jeep. An unnecessary one as neither my sister nor I are small children. Surely, we can decide the appropriate time to open a car window.

       Dad, it’s child-locked! Let me open the window before Margie lets it rip!

      
My father curses and fumbles to get all the windows open.

       He’s just nervous, my mother says as she reaches back and pets Clancy’s side.

       With all the windows open, we drown in highway noise and hot air. At least the flatulence dissipates quickly. My father curses again and pushes Clancy’s face away.

       It’s all over my face, Anne!

      
He uses the dish towel to wipe his face and then throws it on the floor. Apparently, the wind has streaked Clancy’s slobber all over my father’s lips, chin, and throat.

       Margie announces, We should get a weenie dog for our next dog.

       A Daschund wouldn’t be able to swim in the ocean, my mother replies. Her dream is for Clancy to swim in the ocean and fetch a tennis ball in the waves. She always says our dog looks like he could be on the cover of a L.L. Bean catalogue. Besides, Clancy has never stepped foot in the ocean. His unpredictable behavior and unwieldy size limit any photo-worthy ocean swimming.

       Still, we are taking him all the way to Virginia Beach to play in the surf. And we brought lots of film.

       Wishful thinking, Anne. This dog is not going in the ocean. My father laughs. My mother begins to protest but my father is on a roll. Anne, he’s not going to go in the water. We own the only Labrador in the world who can’t swim.

      
As if offended, Clancy withdraws his huge head from my father’s shoulder and finally sits down on the back seat. My sister pets behind his ear and he leans into her. His big brown eyes look at me, and I can’t help but smile.

       Clancy isn’t ideal, but he’s ours.

II.  The Punishment Room

       Greg is getting here tomorrow, Aunt Lyla says. Baby Jessica is with her. She stands on the gravel driveway in front of the house we rented. A massive gray boxy structure with gleaming white shutters.

       We unload a cooler and bags from the Jeep. My mother shows Margie and I our room. It’s on the bottom floor of this great big beach house. We put our things down and try to ignore the smell—fishy with a side of Lysol Ocean Breeze.

       There are cute bunk beds which look like the lower quarters of a ship and circular windows to match. But the room is dank, and that night when Margie and I get into our beds, the sheets feel damp. They itch with saltwater like they were washed in the ocean and dried in the sand. We can’t stand it.

       As the eldest, I take up our cause. This will not be a vacation if we have to sleep down here.

       In the living room, my mother, Aunt Lyla and Uncle Sal watch reruns of The Arsenio Hall Show. My father reads a book. He has no interest in Arsenio ever since Bill Clinton played the saxophone on the show.

       Mom?

       What are you still doing up?
Already, she’s on the defense.

       We can’t sleep. The room is gross. The sheets are gross.

       So gross
, Margie pokes her head around from behind me.

       Go back downstairs, my father says.

       No, really, I begin again. The sheets are terrible and the room smells. Plus, you said that if the ocean swells, that room will flood.

       Smells like it already flooded
, Margie remarks.

       None of the adults respond. Defeated, Margie and I go back downstairs. This will be a long week.

       Can you feel seasick in bed? Margie asks me.

       In these beds you can.

      
After a few minutes, my father knocks on the door. Come upstairs, he says. Bring your stuff.

      
We get the room with the queen-sized bed on the top floor. It was supposed to go to Uncle Greg’s family, but he’s not here yet. Apparently, Uncle Sal—the voice of reason—came to our defense. Only he and my father are splitting the cost of this big house. So, us kids shouldn’t have to sleep in the basement.

       The punishment room, as Margie and I dubbed it.

       What about Uncle Greg? I have to ask. I’m nosy like that.

       You snooze, you lose, my father says and chuckles at his own joke.

III.  Uncle Greg

       Uncle Greg finally arrives. His wife Martha with him. She has a big belly, but not a pregnant one. She’s bloated because she’s an alcoholic, my mother whispers to Aunt Lyla. Uncle Greg brings Martha’s little girl, too. A blonde wisp of a child who doesn’t speak much. And Uncle Greg brings a dog named Mugsy.

       Like the mobster, he tells my father.

       That’s Bugsy, Greg.

IV.  The Sprint

       My mother achieves her dream of watching Clancy run on the beach. My father throws the ball in the shallows and Clancy retrieves it easily. My father is careful not to throw the ball too far. As he predicted, Clancy won’t actually go in the ocean. We’ve already lost two of the three tennis balls in the container.

       I stand on the deck with Aunt Lyla. She holds a camcorder to her eye and offers some commentary.

       Your father is so funny.

      
Then . . .

       Look at baby Jessica.

      
The toddler waddles around in the sand. Uncle Sal with her. But he has to watch both the baby and Roxy—their white bulldog.

       Will Roxy swim? I ask Aunt Lyla.

       Roxy will sink, Aunt Lyla laughs and turn the camera on me. Say hi, Liz. Aunt Lyla sings the word “hi.”

       Hi! I sing the word back and wave.

       Liz, tell me, how excited are you about starting high school? Aunt Lyla asks the question like she’s Oprah. I’m not expecting the question, and I don’t have an answer. Even a canned one.

       So, I stammer a few “uhhs” and “uhms” until I’m red in the face. God, I must look so dumb on camera. Why can’t I just relax? It’s just me and Aunt Lyla here after all. She’s not actually Oprah Winfrey. I’m so awkward sometimes. I start to figure out an answer—something pithy even—when screams echo from the beach. Uncle Sal holds baby Jessica. My mother grabs a leash for Clancy. My father sprints down the shoreline. Margie follows behind, melting popsicle in her hand.

       And then we see it. Roxy the bulldog has taken off. She gallops—it’s the most ungraceful run I’ve ever seen. Panting hard, Roxy’s wide mouth opens to catch the wind. Even from the deck, we can see her rosebud-shaped ears flapping wildly. My aunt gets the whole thing on camera. I realize quickly that she and Uncle Sal are laughing hysterically. But why? If that were Clancy running away, we would be freaking out. Basically, my father would be sprinting down the beach . . . like he is right now.

       John! Aunt Lyla calls from the deck. Johnny, stop! You don’t have to run after her.

      
It’s not even a minute of running when Roxy slows down, stops completely, and topples onto her side. Her rounded body heaves with exhaustion. Her short legs jut out.

       Hold the camera, Aunt Lyla says. I think I peed my pants. She whips the sliding glass door open and runs into the house.

       We watch the video several times that night. Laughing hard at the dog’s absurd burst of independence. Laughing harder at my father’s dash to catch a dog that would collapse in thirty seconds.

       You didn’t even move to get her, my father points at Uncle Sal through his laughs.

       Cause I knew she wasn’t going nowhere, John!

V.  Aunt Lyla

       Aunt Lyla and I walk on the beach late at night. It is the most fun I’ve had since I’ve been in Virginia Beach. We amble along the shore—barefoot—toes in the sand. When we get inside, it’s after ten o’clock. We eat bowls of Lucky Charms in the dark kitchen.

VI.  The Cops

       It’s mid-morning. My father drives Uncle Greg to Walmart because he needs a special knife to open clams. You can’t use a regular knife.

       You’ll be in the emergency room, my father warns Uncle Greg. But Uncle Greg really wants to make clams on a half shell for lunch. Just like a restaurant, Uncle Greg explains, but for a fraction of the price.

      
So . . . Walmart run. My father drives Uncle Greg to town for the special clam knife. A twenty-minute drive according to my mother. A ten-to-fifteen-minute drive according to Aunt Lyla.

       When my father and Uncle Greg come back, they are laughing a lot. Apparently, Uncle Greg took Aunt Lyla’s camcorder along for the ride. He’s recorded a mock-documentary of their excursion. Uncle Greg pretended that he and my father were on the television show COPS. My father said it was fun—that is, until an actual police car started following them and my father told Uncle Greg to shut off the camera.

       C’mon, Johnny, Uncle Greg still laughs as he hands my father a beer. It would’ve been fine.

       He was following us cause of the plates
, my father replies.

       My father loves pointing out how people in other states hate New York drivers and cops love pulling New Yorkers over.

       Did you get a ticket? My mother asks. She’d been listening the whole time, one eyebrow arched.

       No, we didn’t get a ticket, Anne. My father scoffs and drinks his beer.

       Of course, we didn’t, Uncle Greg agrees then coughs his smoky cough. We didn’t even get pulled over.

       Yeah, cause I made you put away the damn camera
.

VII.  The Menu

       Uncle Greg decides to make dinner for us. A way to say thank you for inviting his family. He’s gone back to Walmart and returned with clams, mussels, and calamari.

       Frutti di Mare. Means fruit of the sea, he tells me like I don’t already know.

       I love eating that same dish at the Italian restaurant we go to back home. Uncle Greg announces he’ll make garlic bread, too. Even better.

       I tell my father the menu as we swim in the ocean. My father shows me and Margie how to body surf. He’s half-listening or maybe he’s just half-believing.

       Your mother made some meatballs for tonight, just in case, he answers and then a wave pulls him into the shore.

VIII.  The Calamari

       It’s almost dinner time and Uncle Greg has been in the kitchen all afternoon. He’s red-faced and sweaty. Pots and utensils are everywhere. I’m starving, so I make my way in. Maybe I can set the table for him and grab a piece of garlic bread while I’m at it.

       But I hear voices and stop at the doorway. It’s my father and Uncle Greg. I move to the side, so they can’t see me. I probably shouldn’t eavesdrop, but I can’t help being drawn to the drama of two adults arguing when they think no kids are around.

       C’mon, Johnny. It’s the same thing! Uncle Greg moves pots around some more.

       Clang.

       Crash.

       It’s not the same thing. You didn’t get it from the seafood counter at the grocery store.

       I got it from the frozen case over in the sporting section. Went back to Walmart this afternoon while you were in the ocean.

      
I have to take a peek. My father waves his arms as he talks.

       The sporting section? Shouldn’t that tell you it’s not food, Greg?

       No, that tells me they are charging way too much for the calamari at the seafood counter. Look at how much I got. Only $4.99. For this!
Uncle Greg holds up a small white box with blue writing on it.

       My father reads the writing on the box and gasps. Greg! You are not feeding my family BAIT!

       I shudder when my father yells. My mouth drops into an oval. I really shouldn’t be listening to this conversation. But that doesn’t stop me from running down to the beach to tell my mother all about it.

       After another hour of silence or stunted exchanges, we finally sit down to dinner.

       Meatballs.

IX.  Kintsugi

       On the last night, we sit in the living room. All of us. The huge sliding doors to the deck are black with night. You know there is ocean out there. You can hear it. But you can’t see it at all. A strip of stars glimmers against the night sky. But who cares about what’s going on outside?

       My family has just finished playing Pictionary. My sister and I got to eat whatever snacks we wanted because we leave tomorrow and my mother doesn’t want to cart all the groceries back home.

       So, I’m full.

       My belly and my heart.

       We watch the video of my father and Uncle Greg’s trip to Walmart. On the screen, you can hear Uncle Greg sing.

       Bad boys, bad boys.

       Whatcha gonna do?

       Whatcha gonna do when they come for you?

      
We see the road, sea grass on the sides, and mile markers. Then, Uncle Greg turns the camera on my father.

       Oh no, Johnny! Five-O.

      
He sings the theme song again. Louder. My father laughs. He laughs the way my sister and I laugh sometimes—like when we are bored, and we sit there and move each other’s faces around. Move an eyebrow up, the tip of the nose to the side. Playing with faces is what we call it. It’s silly and immature, but it’s gets us giggling every time. Sibling laughs. The laughs only someone who knew you in your inchoate state can bring out of you.

       Uncle Greg continues the documentary in Walmart. He plays game show host as he follows my father, picks up different items, and tells my father that he’s won each one. My father is still laughing, but I can tell he’s getting a little annoyed, too. Greg isn’t helping look for the clam knife. The manager walks by and my father turns to Uncle Greg and motions for him to put the camera down.

       The lens points at the floor, still recording. Off screen, we hear Uncle Greg’s voice.

       C’mon, Johnny, what’s he gonna do? It’s a free country.

      
The video finishes and the television screen is gray static.

       Uncle Greg jumps up from the couch. He starts unplugging the camera from the television.

       No, Greg! Aunt Lyla shouts from the couch. Rewind it. Rewind to the spot where Roxy runs across the beach. I want to see it again.

      
My father protests immediately. Aunt Lyla really wants to see my father sprint after a dog who wasn’t going to get very far in the first place.

       You almost peed your pants, I chirp from the floor.

       Aunt Lyla laughs, I know! You’ll see though, Liz. When you have kids, you start peeing your pants when you don’t want to.

      
Uncle Greg continues setting up the camera on the tripod, ignoring all of us. I got an idea, Lyla, he says.

       My mother nudges Margie who has been dozing next to her. Time for bed, Margie.

       No, Anne, just stay a few more minutes. It’s gonna be awesome. Uncle Greg focuses the camera on the main sofa.

       My mother looks puzzled but also amused. When she lets herself, my mother enjoys being around Uncle Greg.

       Uncle Greg explains that we are going to do a trick video. We will all pick a spot on the couch. In the frame, he says. And we will stay very still while Greg records us for a few seconds. Like you are a living picture, he says. Then Uncle Greg will stop recording and one person will leave the frame. We will repeat it again and again until no one is left.

       So, when we play the video back, Uncle Greg explains, it looks like we are disappearing. Like special effects.

      
My mother says she’ll stay—but only if she can disappear first. Her fingers make air quotes around the word “disappear.” I can tell she wants to participate though.

       Then Margie goes, she adds.

       Then me, my father says.

       I don’t know why everyone is so intent on going to bed. It’s only eleven. And this sounds really fun. And it’s our last night here.

       We all stay still, and Uncle Greg joins the frame. There are four of us squished on the couch cushions. Me, Margie, my mother, and Uncle Greg’s wife. Uncle Greg sits on the arm of the couch. Aunt Lyla leans on the back corner. My father and Uncle Sal stand together behind the couch. My father even puts his arm around Sal’s shoulder. I can tell he’s into it. I’m giddy right now. It’s even better than walking on the beach with Aunt Lyla.

       All of us together.

       Doing a disappearing act. Doing special effects.

       I can’t wait to watch the video. Immediately—and the thought startles me—I think of my mother’s broken plate at home. Pieces still on the sideboard waiting to be repaired. I think of how I will use my dad’s camcorder to do this trick and put them back together. At least the dish will be whole on video.

       Using the remote behind his back, Uncle Greg begins videoing.

       Record. Pause.

       My mother leaves.

       Record. Pause.

       Margie joins her, yawning.

       I think of how pretty it would look if we could put the dish back together with gold. Like my father said in the car. Kintsugi.

       Record. Pause.

       My father goes to bed.

       Record. Pause.

       Uncle Sal kisses Aunt Lyla good night and heads to bed.

       I’m struck by how alike we are to those kintsugi dishes. All little pieces. Trying to stick together. Occasionally, breaking apart. Maybe we’re fighting. Maybe we’re just doing our own thing. But, in the end, all held together by gold veins. The gold veins are the love. (Okay, the poetry of it all got too cheesy.)

       Liz. Hey Liz, Aunt Lyla nudges me.

       Earth to Liz, Uncle Greg laughs a little. I chuckle in response, embarrassed at how I was swept up in the metaphor. I want to tell Uncle Greg and Aunt Lyla about family and kintsugi. But I don’t know. It feels kind of silly. We are doing a disappearing act right now anyway.

       Liz, stay still. Uncle Greg directs from behind the lens. Immediately, I’m stone.

       Record. Pause.

       Aunt Lyla leaves the frame but stays to watch the finished product.

       Record. Pause.

       Uncle Greg’s wife Martha leaves.

       Record. Pause.

       Uncle Greg leaves. He goes behind the camera. Okay, Liz. It’s just you now. Be very still. Don’t crack a smile. And don’t laugh.

      
Record.

       I stare into the camera’s eye. But I hear Aunt Lyla muffle a laugh in the corner and my lips crack into a smile.

       Uncle Greg waves his arms in frantic silence to get Aunt Lyla to stop laughing. But now I’m belly laughing. Then Uncle Greg is laughing. And he forgets to press stop on the camera, leaving it going a few seconds too long.

       The video is awesome. It looks just like a disappearing act. Just like Uncle Greg said. Like in Back to the Future when Marty McFly’s family disappears one person at a time from the photograph.

       Uncle Greg puts his arm around me as we watch. My favorite part is when Lizard cracks up.

      
I laugh again.

       Later, I have trouble getting to sleep. Too wound up, my mother would say. But I have this lingering feeling that I should hold on to this moment. I should sketch it in my head and put it on the shelf where you keep your nice things, like your china candy dishes.


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