Writing Down Dad             (2005; 4394 wds)

Shauna left the room she shared with Mom, stepped past the bathroom door and stopped outside Hubert’s room. Her brother was, as ever, motionless on the bed, and Shauna held her place, straining to recall a decent shared memory between them. Now that he was expected to die within the week, he was home and in his mother’s exclusive care. Today would be Thursday, his fourth day home.
    “Three more days, you think, Hubie?” said Shauna, leaning on the doorsill.
    “His name is Hubert,” a whispered scold came from behind her. But she didn’t cringe or start because their mother’s voice was so deep in her head that it sounded to Shauna like her own. “Hubie is a degrading name.”
    “He didn’t think so, Mom.”
    “And quit talking as if he was dead!”
    Mom swept past Shauna into the room, carrying a tray laden with a steaming, white linen towel, a manicure set and an eighty-dollar bottle of lotion for dry skin. Already murmuring sweet words to her son, she took her place beside him on a dining room chair with a flowered seat-cushion. She gently grasped his limp left arm and began to trim his thumbnail.
    Shauna made no sound, turned away and went for her shower. After yanking off her flannel pajamas, she paused in front of the spattered mirror under fluorescent light and looked at herself without the aid of her glasses. Her hair was piled on her head, pushed there by pulling her top off, and she had, of course, no makeup. But she wasn’t looking for elusive beauty; she was examining the fuzzy image of pale flesh that seemed far too weak and thin to protect a person––a body and a set of bones including the skull, the guardian of her brain.
    Her brain. This third year in college had scraped its synapses with painful regularity, but the periodic mental ecstasy of the previous two years had faded. She no longer found herself waking up in the library, drooling after having fallen asleep with an open lit crit book across her chest. Instead, she had been sleepless, agitated and in need of stimulants and depressants in order to approximate a normal schedule for herself. Even after she lost interest in school, Shauna was spared confronting Hubert’s placid ordeal by the thousand miles that separated them. But here, at the unkempt apartment that Shauna had never called home, death and its effects were the only subjects under consideration.
    She stepped into the narrow, fiberglass tub with the water-saving showerhead badly installed by her mother the day they had moved into this apartment four years before. As much water came out at the connection of the head to the pipe as it did through the little holes. Reaching up through the weak strands of warming water, Shauna easily unscrewed the head and let the solid stream land on her face. Dad would never have let Mom put that crappy water-saver thing on to begin with. He had always had his way because, well, Dad was often an asshole. An asshole that was good with his hands and at tricking people other than his family. Those friends of his were fooled all the way up to the day he wrecked his pickup, killing himself and turning Hubie into an aquarium. (Most people said he was a vegetable, but Shauna preferred to say “aquarium,” the implication of the word being that there was much to see and appreciate for the person willing to sit still and watch him.) As the water began to turn cool on her face, she realized she had forgotten to wash her hair and hurried to finish, finally shivering spastically as she stepped onto the pink chenille bath mat and wrapped herself in two of Mom’s flimsy towels.
    Her little makeup kit had but a few components: a tube each of lipstick and mascara, nail clippers, a powder brush and compact. She squinted and went to work. “There’s only one choice,” she silently affirmed as she leaned into the mirror and did her eyes, “To quit college till I get my shit together. Can’t get shit together till this Hubie thing is over.” Her scholarship would be cut to the bone after this lousy semester, and student loans would be harder now that her GPA had fallen for the first time. With another good semester paid for out of her––or her mother’s––pocket, she could be back on track. Maybe. So, wait till it’s over with Hubie and break the news to Mom.
    “What in the hell is this?” Mom was shouting from the front of the apartment. She then thundered across the weak floor, making it move under her feet with each step, all the way to the bathroom door. “What does this mean, that you have missed the deadline for registration?”
    “That was addressed to me, Mom. I’m an adult and at least the college knows that.” Shauna spoke around her lipstick tube, catching her mother’s pained expression only in the mirror’s reflection. “It’s a federal crime to open my mail.”
    “Well call J. Edgar Hoover, then, because as long as you live under my roof, goddammit.” Mom didn’t finish the meaningless threat because they had talked about this many times. Only Shauna had any power over the course of her school career.
    Actually, Mom’s rude opening of her mail made Shauna’s life a lot easier, she realized. Any argument was pointless because no one could change the situation now. No college now for six months at least. But Mom stomped around the apartment some more, mumbling and cursing under her breath, occasionally punctuating her point with another loud “goddammit.”
    By now Shauna’s makeup was done, her hair dry and her size four jeans squeezed over her girlish hips. She pulled on a black sports bra, a huge, gray Redskins sweatshirt that had been too small for her dad, and a black beret to match her narrow-lens, horn-rimmed glasses. Grabbing her green canvas backpack, she walked past Hubie and said, “Bye,” then hurried to the front door. As soon as she closed it behind her, she heard the deadbolt slide into place on the other side. Nice. “Bye, Mom. I’ll be back in a few hours.”
    “Don’t bother,” came the muffled shout from inside.
    The January wind was mild for this part of West Virginia, so the three-mile walk along the side of the highway wasn’t bad. Passing the city limit sign, Shauna glanced to the east, across the highway at the last house the whole family had lived in, the house where dad was always a presence but seldom there, where Mom ruled like a queen until the king came home drunk, charming and somehow invisible.
    To Shauna, the whole college thing had been a fluke, anyway. Dad had wanted her to get the hell out of West-by-God-Virginia in the worst way because that’s what his mother had wanted for him, so that he would never consider going into the mines. But, of all the tricks his daughter could use to get away, college was not on Dad’s list.
    “I never met a college boy who knew how to fix a goddamn flat tire,” he would say. “Let alone rebuild a carburetor.” To him, it was as if college made a person stupid, and he was happy to say so to his kids in all their growing up years. But he was changed when Mr. Akin, the school counselor, made a special trip to the McCarthy home one night and explained how smart this daughter was.
    “Her education will cost nothing except a few presents and things you might buy for her. She could get a scholarship worth a hundred thousand dollars.”
    Dad had repeated the amount. “A hundred grand, you say?” and he began to take credit for his girl everywhere he went, mostly at the garage where he worked and at Harley’s bar where he hung out on his way home. (Shauna assumed that “home” sometimes meant some other woman’s house or trailer, judging from the fights with Mom that shook the house time from to time.) She knew that he’d bragged about her scholarship because strangers would walk up to her in the grocery store and say, “Congratulations.” Dad was proud, it seemed, and that was the closest she had felt to him since he came to her second grade class and played his banjo. As a kid, she had taken his playing as normal, as something any daddy could do. So she was amazed by the applause and the way the other kids swarmed around him after he stopped playing, as he let them pick or strum while he held the instrument, smiling and patient. After school she couldn’t wait to see him, to tell about how her friends marveled at his playing and how she wanted to learn to play, too. With a paper sack full of thank you notes swinging in her hand she skipped home. The second grade was working on manners that grading period, and Shauna believed her note to be the best.
    But Dad didn’t come home till two the following morning, when he tripped over the threshold of the back door and smashed his nose on the linoleum floor. Sleeping deeply by then, Shauna had adjusted her dream to include the sound of Mom’s crying. She dreamed that her kitty had been run over––again––and kept sleeping. When she crept in the next morning to show Dad his bundle of notes, she was less than horrified by the sight of his swollen face with two inadequate band-aids across his nose. Another fight, she guessed. Dad was, after all, the kind of grown man who actually liked to give and take a punch now and then. She’d gone back to the room she shared with Hubie and hid the notes in the corner of the closet. “What would Jesus do?” she mused. “The next time he’s a good boy, he can have these,” she had said aloud, not knowing her little brother was still in the room.
    “I’m a good boy now,” said Hubie from his bed. “What did you get me?”
    “I was talking to my bear,” she answered, skipping over what Jesus might do with this little lie. Her thumb-sucking brother rolled over to sleep some more.
    All of this sentimental stuff, that’s what the glance at that now-tiny house reminded her of as she walked to town. Of how she got to college. Dad was so stupid.
    The Harley’s Saloon neon sign was suddenly in front of her, lit up in the daytime, buzzing as it flashed alternately between the two words of its name. She pushed on the wood plank door and walked in.
    “Can I see some ID?” said the bartender. Then, he quickly changed his tone. “Hey there, little girl! My, my, my! What the hell are you doing here?”
    “I’m 21,” she answered, not smiling. “I can come in if I want.”
    The familiar face in front of her darkened, as if involuntarily. This was Lloyd, Dad’s fishing buddy and favorite purveyor of liquor drinks. His change of expression showed her that he remembered everything, all at once, about the rotten life remaining for Shauna these days. All at once he remembered everything, she knew.
    “Aren’t you in college?” he said with a frown.
    “I’m taking a semester off. You know. To help Mom.”
    “Oh, lord yes, you poor thing,” he said and came around the bar to embrace her. She accepted his gesture then leaned back.
    “I just want to sit here and read, I think. Maybe drink a beer.”
    “It’ll get noisy later, but sure, take a seat. Here, I’ll put this lamp next to you,” he said, dragging a small, lighted Budweiser sign closer to the stool she chose at the end of the bar. Taking out a Dickens collection with tiny print, she opened to Great Expectations and began to read. Lloyd placed a bottle of Miller Lite and a basket of chips in front of her.
    She had munched chips before, sitting on the sofa––minus the beer––when she was sixteen and first reading this book for English class. While Mom ceaselessly flipped channels from Jerry Springer to Ricki Lake and back, Shauna had practiced savoring written words while absorbing the staged stupidity on TV.
    “I’d never put up with that!” Mom would yell at the screen.
    “Neither would Mrs. Havisham,” Shauna might say.
    “Mrs. Havisham? Is that the new preacher’s sister?” Mom might answer, not looking away from a commercial with the dancing sponge, or from the one that followed about feminine hygiene.
    In the bar now, with the Budweiser lamp to read by, Shauna couldn’t concentrate as she had back then, even though the place was quiet except for the country music station. She looked up from her book and called to Lloyd, who was leaning on the bar talking to a skinny woman with a long wool coat wrapped tightly around her.
    “Lloyd!” said Shauna in a voice too loud for the empty place.
    “Yes, sugar,” he answered, moving quickly to get her another beer.
    “No, I don’t want that,” she said, right after he had popped it open. “I want what my daddy used to drink. I want us to drink to that son of a bitch. What do you say?”
    “Are you sure you want to tackle old Jack Daniel this afternoon?”
    “I’m walking. Besides, I’m his daughter, ain’t I?” she answered, adapting her language and accent to the sound most comfortable to those around whom she had grown up.
    “You sure are, baby doll. You sure are,” Lloyd said and grinned, showing a gap in his upper teeth on his right side. He poured two fingers of Jack and squirted some Coke on top, then put the glass in front of “baby doll.”
    She drank.
    Shauna was recently practiced and aware of her limits when it came to alcohol, not that she had been bound by those limits when she was at school this past semester. She believed she’d had good reason to self-medicate when she started to drink liquor on her 21st birthday the previous September. Not knowing that her brother was really going to die––Mom had waited to break that to her until she got home last week––she had been trying to remember her dad, trying to “own” him again. That’s what the clinical psychologist at college had encouraged her to do in their talks. During these therapeutic sessions, Shauna had never spoken of what Dad did in the accident that had killed him and crippled her brother. Hence, they only talked about poor, dead Dad and poor, lonesome Shauna––not pitiful Hubie. But most of what Shauna had to say came out like a negative testimonial from one of those screaming afternoon TV shows her mother used to love; it had felt like she was lying through fake tears as she spelled out the transgressions of her father, Carl McCarthy.
    Sitting here, drinking her two fingers of Jack Daniel’s in Dad’s hangout with his old friend, might help her “own” the bastard who had selfishly exploded his own family.
    “Tell me a story about you and Dad,” she said to Lloyd, who was again absorbed in conversation with the skinny woman in the long coat. He sauntered over to her spot, hands in pockets, moving a toothpick back and forth in his mouth with his tongue. Leaning in to her, he smiled.
    “There’s some things that are real funny but you just shouldn’t tell a man’s daughter, know what I mean?”
    “Oh, let me buy you a drink. Then you’ll talk. The old man is dead; you can’t hurt his feelings. Or mine.” She felt a tightening in her stomach as Lloyd poured a short whiskey for himself.
    “This is my bar and you aren’t buying a damn thing for me, for you or anybody else today. This will be our little party for my best friend,” he said, in a manner more avuncular than before. She wondered if she wanted to hear more.
    He continued. “I’ll tell you about the day he sold his banjo.”
    Now Shauna’s apprehension caused even more physical discomfort. As much as she had wanted to hear her father play that instrument again, she had never asked him to after that second grade day. Funny and sad that he had sold it and his only daughter didn’t even know. Ironic that Lloyd would pick a memory about Dad’s music, just as Shauna had done on her walk into town.
    “What about that damn banjo?” she said and took a sip.
    Lloyd began his deliberate story-telling, and Shauna was reminded, by the form and style that he used, of all the tales she had grown up with––the ones told by old men like Mom’s father, Papa as she called him. Far too much exposition, she thought, as Lloyd took his time setting the scene of a revival tent meeting by the river, describing everything from the hats on little old ladies, on down to the worn-but-clean-and-pressed “dungarees” of the little boys, children of coal miners. Even as she evaluated his presentation as if she were in a writing seminar, Shauna felt vulnerable to what might come.
    Lloyd continued, sometimes seeming to talk to himself, lost in his memory, no audience required.
    “There was this young mother with three little ones marching behind her in a perfect line. You could tell that this little mama had put the fear of God into them kids before they even got to that tent meeting. She took them right up to the front row.”
    “Excuse me, Lloyd, but where was Dad all this time? Why weren’t we with him.”
    “Well, he was to help with the music that day.”
    “Banjo at a revival?”
    “Maybe. But mostly guitar and singing.”
    Shauna knew her father sang a little, but she was stunned to learn that he played guitar. She knew how different the instruments are, how it takes a special musician to switch between the two. Lloyd could stop right now with his story. This revelation, by itself, made her feel keenly again that she knew her own father so little.
    But Lloyd didn’t spend much time on Dad’s secret talent. He went back to the woman and kids and explained how the whole revival went on for hours and the little kids sat there looking up at the preacher who was jumping, gyrating and calling the Son of God by his first name, over and over. They gawked at the singers and the band.
    “And your daddy looked up one time while he was pickin’ like a wild man on ‘I’ll Fly Away,’ and he winked at them kids, like this crazy playing he was doing was easy as falling off a log. I was supposed to be helping with the collection, so I was just standing there watching them when they busted out laughing after he winked. Now, that was your daddy.”
    Lloyd paused and Shauna waited. He laughed to himself and looked away, the picture he had painted still worth his own admiration.
    “Selling the banjo,” she said, knowing from years of experience with grandparents how to get someone old back onto the topic.
    “Oh yeah. That was a couple of months later when the woman with the three kids came to the shop to see if Carl would help her with her car. Well, he drove her back home, ten miles she had walked from where that damn Plymouth quit on her. When he told her it wasn’t no use to fix it, she burst out crying, like the world had come to an end. ‘You need a new transmission,’ he told her. ‘That’ll cost more than the car’s worth.’”
    Shauna grew impatient. “That’s so sweet. He sold his banjo and bought a transmission. He was a good guy. I’ll drink to that,” she said and slid her empty glass in Lloyd’s direction.
    “He did that,” said Lloyd, fixing his warm eyes on Shauna’s. “And that’s no small thing. But he did more. He looked after those folks, that little family as best he could until the day he died. Even when that mama got married, he would check on them at least twice a week. Then he’d come here and brag on how good the kids were doing.”  Lloyd stopped speaking abruptly, looking like he realized what he had said: “the kids.”
    “The kids” were Hubert and Shauna, not the offspring of some other poor person with snot-nosed kids, pressed dungarees or not.
     Did Mom know?
    Without warning, as she was absorbing what she had heard, Shauna felt a hand on her shoulder. The skinny woman was standing behind her and speaking, uninvited.
    “Your daddy was a wonderful man,” she said from a few inches behind Shauna, who turned to look into her face.
    This was no bony old lady, but a slender, plain-faced girl who appeared to be a couple of years younger than Shauna. And she kept on talking. About her brothers and about how her step-dad admired Shauna’s dad so much because he never made a fuss about the money they owed him. “Uncle Carl was great. Do you remember me from the funeral?”
    “I’m sorry. No, I don’t,” said Shauna. She looked at Lloyd. “One more drink.” He put a few chips of ice into her glass and made another drink, without comment. The girl patted her shoulder and went back to her seat.
    The room seemed to spin a little by the time she reached the bottom of that drink. The long coat woman left a few minutes after practically claiming to be Shauna’s sister, offering a friendly hug, returned by Shauna as if by muscle memory.
    “Give Hubert a kiss for me.”
    “Sure,” said Shauna.
    She knew that the spin in her head and in the bar room was not now from whiskey; she could handle more than she had had today, easily. It was the swirl of disbelief and relief that made her choose to sit tight for a while longer, drinking black coffee and ice water to get straight before the walk home. She picked up her book again and pretended to read David Copperfield. No use trying to concentrate, but the book kept people from talking to her, and time went by.
    Later, as Lloyd’s after-work customers trickled in and smoke began to fill the bar, Shauna made sure to catch his eye and smile from time to time. Once she said out loud, “You either ruined my life or gave me something to live for.” At last, around six o’clock, Shauna packed the book bag and stood to make her exit. On the way out, she pretended to know five men who claimed to recognize her as “Carl McCarthy’s baby girl.” She felt like crying, but she smiled sincerely and took full credit for her place with the man who seemed significant to these strangers. Unwilling and unable to ask questions, she just smiled. She was afraid she didn’t know any questions that wouldn’t reveal her ignorance of Dad’s real life.
    Why had she forgotten the skinny girl from Dad’s funeral? How much was lost? She couldn’t remember her father in the plain ways––walking around the house in his pajamas, as a daddy should do; going to the cousin’s wedding in a too-tight suit like all the other men of the family; making Mom stay in bed on Mother’s Day while he made burnt eggs for his family.
    But maybe he’d turn up in her head. When she could see him, hear him and write him down, perhaps she could think about poor Hubie. And––oh God––poor Mom.
    Writing down Dad.
    Thesis statement for the afternoon’s research: This loveable asshole was the sweetest, most unavailable, accessible, thoughtless, caring man in all of fiction. Compare and contrast him to himself in five hundred words.
     As she pulled the door open to leave, Lloyd called out to her. “Wait a minute, honey. My man is coming with his taxi. You ride with him.”
    The cab was waiting as soon as she stepped out. After giving the address, she didn’t speak again until trying to pay the driver who politely refused her money. She looked up and saw that the outside light of the second floor apartment was on and no inside lights at all. As she got closer, she saw that the door was open a few inches. She hurried up the stairs and called out. When she walked inside, the TV was on with the sound turned off. She called out again, turned on the hall light and walked slowly to Hubert’s room. Her heart thumped. She peered into the half-dark room and its empty bed.
    She walked to the phone, called Lloyd and asked him to get the cab driver back, that Hubie and Mom must have been taken to the hospital––or Hubie was gone for good––and she must go to find them. Though calling around would have been more efficient, the physical odyssey seemed to her appropriate now.
    Before going outside to wait, she made up Hubie’s bed, straightened up the house and turned off the TV. She reattached the showerhead she had removed in the morning, freshened her make-up and brushed her teeth. She changed into her one pair of dress slacks, her grown-up silk blouse and dress shoes. Before she put on her long wool coat given to her by Dad, she sat down to write a note for her mother.
    Now it’s just you and I, Mom, and I hope we can get to know each other better. I’m sorry I haven’t helped you more. I don’t know why I’m selfish. But, just like Dad, I am sometimes. I’ll try to do better and help us both remember the boys we’ve lost.
    When she finished writing and reread the note, she couldn’t believe these were her words: she wasn’t the type to put her own thoughts into a greeting card nor to spell out her emotion. The cabbie blew his horn and Shauna looked around, picked up her purse and a box of tissue and walked out, leaving the door unlocked as she had found it.