Mother never liked Daddy and I never understood why she didn’t. Every night after he worked outside all day, Daddy’d stretch out on the lazy boy, dirty and tired, smelling like a mix between oil and stale beer. He’d try to hug her first but she’d squirm out of it, saying to shower, that it made her sick. She went to college. He didn’t. But he was the one paying the bills and she was the one washing our socks. I felt sorry for him.
She hated his calloused hands. I loved them. They felt like sandpaper. I’d crawl into his lap at night and trace my fingers along his, twigs on tree stumps. It was quiet and calm, like the naps Mother made me take after school when she wouldn’t let me outside to “roll in the mud like some pig.” But Daddy wasn’t like that. He didn’t pay me much mind and just let me sit there. Every once in a while he’d ruffle the curls on my head, like he sometimes did with our mutt Burt’s ears. I liked Burt. Mom said he smelled but he wagged his tail a lot and sometimes when he was close enough it would sweep picture frames off the coffee table, sending them clattering to the floor. Mom complained that Burt was a “bull in a China shop,” just like me. Daddy and I would laugh on rainy days when Burt would dart in between Mother’s legs and leave Burt-sized paw prints all over the floor. She’d chase after him like an angry babysitter or the cat from Tom and Jerry.
Sometimes Burt and I used to go hunting for an invisible squirrel. He was invisible because that made him harder to catch so I got to be outside longer-and because I was too afraid to have to kill something. You can’t kill a squirrel you can’t see. Once Daddy brought home a deer–Daddy brought home lots of deer actually and I would usually hide somewhere and try to pretend it was just another stuffed animal and the last look of fear on its face was just a trick. Daddy’d be proud of his catch and would want us to have dinner of deer steak and noodles and sit together as a family. Last time though Mommy said it was out of season and left the room. I always thought Daddy was much braver than both of us.
I stopped hunting after that though and Daddy did too because he went away for work for a few weeks. That was the same week Mom broke her wrist, fell down the steps Dad said, and I had to be extra good and help her carry things into the house. I also couldn’t be knocking all my toys to the floor and forget about them. I did a good job, at first, until once when Mom called me away from an epic game of checkers I was playing against myself. I groaned and asked why she couldn’t have picked up her feet going down the stairs like she tells me to, then she wouldn’t have broken her wrist. Mom said she did it carrying groceries–I asked if there was Rocky Road ice cream in the bag and did we have any more. She itched a spot in the corner of her eye and went into the other room, breathing strangely like a wounded monster after it’s been caught. She had never really tolerated my questioning but Daddy always had on account of I played in the woods and not in jumpers and pig-tails like a “sissy.”
One day though, at the end of summer, I went to the elementary school instead of my old church one. We had recess there instead of naptime because that’s first-graders are much too old for naps. There were girls everywhere in pink jumpers and purple ones and blue ones. The first day I went over to the soccer field to play touch football. I shoved one boy down and he got a rock in his knee. I spit on the ground next to him–just like Daddy taught me- and told him to get up, hooking my thumbs in my belt loops and puffing my chest out. The teacher saw and called my mom on me. Mother brought me home jumpers and a brand new brush. There was a gleam in her eyes and she smiled a broad, pretty smile. I liked her until she threw out my muddy hunting boots and my jeans with the pockets ripped out. That night I told Daddy on her. Later when it was dark and I was in my bed I heard him call her a “snotty bitch” and made her go outside in the trash and dig them out. I didn’t know what a bitch was but I hoped he was going to give her a timeout. He loved me.
The next morning Mom sat on her bony knees and raked the turquoise brush through my ratty hair–I knew it was turquoise because that was the crayon in the teacher’s box that I had accidentally broken the day before. She tried to kiss my cheek. I leaned away and wiped it off just in case, glaring at her in the mirror. She pulled a curl behind my ear, looking at it and sighed like she had just lost at Red Rover.
“Be good at school today, please.”
“I’m always good.”
“I know. But just maybe try to play a new game today, just to see.”
I didn’t answer her and I didn’t do it. But I wore the jumper and didn’t try to tear the buttons off.
The next day on my way over to the kickball game this girl named Lane stopped me. She told me she needed somebody else for Four Square. She wore a green jumper with cream-colored shoes. A black barrette held back a chocolate curl. I decided I liked her. I played with her that day and the one after that. She was nice to everyone and never spat.
We were best friends by the time we got through the times tables in class and one Friday after school Lane road the bus home with me. We stepped off the asphalt and into the dusty, gravel road that ran like a snake through the neighborhood. I got the urge to spit, and then, embarrassed by Lane’s reaction, wiped it out with my shoe. She just shook her head and giggled, walking with skinny arms that matched her skinny legs. Mine were scraped and had mosquito bites, my arms bobbed at my sides.
We walked side by side and I tried to be graceful like her. Once we rounded the corner my dad’s red truck was there, one of the headlights out from where he swerved to hit a deer. I tried to shrug it off like it was no big thing, like he would, but I couldn’t wait to tell him how I had climbed to the big Oak tree on the playground to the highest branch I could–I would have gotten higher if Miss Crabtree hadn’t raised her pointy nose and snapped her fingers at me. At least he would appreciate it.
I bounded up the steps onto the wooden porch, stomping in a way that would have shamed thunder as I tried to dance across, tripping halfway. Swinging open the screen door, I welcomed at least three moths into our home. Daddy came towering through the living room, looking like he had just eaten cabbage.
He passed me–walked right past me.
He wheeled around.
“This is my friend Lane from school. Do you like my new boots?” I stuck a bony leg out at him. He nodded at Lane then grunted at me, continuing to the kitchen. I heard a bottle clang against the inside of the fridge.
“That’s my Daddy.” I said to Lane. She nodded and smiled, kind of the way teacher did when I showed her my paintings. Mother came and took our book bags. She said there were apple slices and caramel on the table. We could do our homework there.
Lane and I did our math problems. She was done first so she checked mine. They were all right. Lane was smart. She always got top marks in math and science like when we learned about earthquakes. I was better in reading and when we talked about dinosaurs. Mom told me to stop biting my pencil or an eraser would grow in my stomach. Lane giggled. I didn’t. Mother thought she was so funny. She tried to ruffle my curls like Daddy but I shrugged her off, pushing my fingers into her stomach to shove her away. She told us to go outside and play until dinner. Instead Lane and I went and played dolls.
For dinner we had baked potatoes and ham. Daddy told me to stop stabbing my potato and eat it. He didn’t buy it for a toy. I always stabbed my potato.
“Daddy, Lane and I went to the art museum last week. There was a picture of a man fishing and I thought of you.”
“Did you do any fishing while you were away this weekend?”
Mother gave me a smile. Her dimples didn’t show and her eyes didn’t crease like normal. I pretended not to see and put my head down, slamming my fork into my ham but it wasn’t as satisfying so I looked to make sure Daddy wasn’t looked and slammed my fork into my potato. It got away from me and flew off my plate like a wet bar of soap when you grip it too hard. Burt ate it. Daddy said a word I wasn’t allowed to and Lane blushed. I just stared at him. He only cursed at Mother. I was sorry. I waited a few minutes and decided to make it up to him.
“Daddy, thank you for buying me the new boots and jumpers. Mom gave them to me.”
He looked at her like he didn’t know the answer to something and muttered something about her allowance. She said they’d talk about something later. There was a creak in my chair that whined when I rocked. I leaned back a few times.
“Stop it.” Daddy said.
I tried to tell him about my new clothes and how I played with the doll Aunt Sally bought me last Christmas. She had brown, curly hair, like ours. He got up, taking his plate and beer with him to the lazy boy in the other room. Mother smiled her smile again. I ignored it.
From then on Daddy didn’t eat with us. For a while I blamed it on Mother never letting him hug her but then I slowly forgot about it. I talked to her a little at dinner and before bed. Daddy didn’t seem to like my new boots. I put the old muddy ones on one day and pulled my hair back like I used to and he looked at me like he was about to say something. Then his show came back on.
I started trying real hard in school and not causing a “ruckus,” thinking maybe Daddy heard about my fight with that rat, snotty, wimpy Joey Brown. And then, just when I thought he wouldn’t, Daddy came back to dinner. Mother and I were having bratwurst, his favorite, and he threw himself down in the chair and started eating before she had sat down. I looked at him for a moment like I would at one of the first graders for eating without washing their hands. Daddy’s hands were dirty and his boot laces untied. My fingers were clean, nails and all. I was proud of myself. The fan above me made a whipping sound through the air. Daddy told me to eat my food. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him staring, waiting for me to obey and look down. Mom decided to talk to me. She never did that much in front of Daddy.
“Jaimie, you still want that hopscotch chalk or did you decide on a new baseball? If you wanted the hopscotch, I could show you how to play.” Her eyes were hopeful, like mine when I thought I had heard the ice cream truck but wasn’t sure.
Daddy growled like a grizzly. “No James don’t need to be playing with chalk. It’s a waste of time. Any retard can scribble on concrete.”
I put my head down like Mom usually did. She didn’t. “A lot of little girls play with chalk. And little boys.”
“No queer son of mine would.”
“Well you don’t have a son. You have a daughter and her hobbies have been fine up to now but if she chooses to change her mind and try something different, you need to support her.”
He put his fork down. “I can’t do that.”
Mom glanced at me then straight back at him, asking me to leave the table.
“No, you’ll stay.” Daddy growled.
“She’s not you and you’re not your father so stop trying to be a tyrant, Tim. She’s a little girl.” This was not my mother.
He tightened his fists and leaned over the table towards her, casting a shadow over her dinner. Mom leaned back but didn’t move. She began to look like a little turtle caught outside his shell. This was my mother.
“Tomorrow you better clean that damned trash out of her room and she’ll wear her old clothes to school. They were good enough to wear before.”
“I like them.” I whispered.
Daddy looked at me like he didn’t believe it, like he’d just seen that cow that flies over the moon.
“What did you say?”
“I said I like them, Daddy.”
The shock turned to a grimace, like he had just eaten Mom’s triple burnt mac’ n cheese.
“Well you’re confused.”
I put my head down.
“Exactly. Go take your bath.”
I put my plate on the counter and headed for my room, listening to the quiet. Pulling my bed clothes out of my drawer, pajamas with the Disney princesses on them that Mother had just bought, I could hear Daddy raising his voice. A cookie sheet bounced off the oven. I looked down at my Barbie dolls laying there on the floor and bit my lip. He screamed. I could feel his throat burning. Mother talked back. There was a thud on the counter and then a crash into the fridge.
I scooped up my Barbies in my arms and piled my pjs on top of them, shuffling down the hallway to the beige and forest green bathroom, Daddy’s favorite color. I dropped the dolls and plugged the stopper into the tub. Luke warm water came out, leaking through my fingers when I turned the nozzle. I poured pink bubble bath under it. Within seconds a cluster of bubbles slowly began to rise, like a great big rain cloud.
Unbuttoning my jeans, I dropped them to the floor. I wasn’t much good at folding anyways, everything turned out lopsided. I unbuttoned my green and blue plaid shirt and threw it at the wooden door. Then I slid off my undershirt, socks, and underwear, pink like the bubbles, and draped them over the jeans. The bubbles tickled me as I lowered myself into the water. Normally I giggled. I leaned over and pulled my dolls into the tub, dropping them like anchors. They sank beneath the cloud as soon as I let go of them. I reached below and grabbed a doll, the brown haired, curly one. I stuck her on the side of the tub and peered at her hazel eyes and perfect skin. I didn’t like her anymore. The bathroom was silent and the porcelain tub walls cold against my back and shoulders. It felt good against my forehead when I pressed it to the side. I couldn’t hear them anymore.
Then an increasing stomping, like thunder, heels into hardwood, began to chase my peaceful rain cloud. I sank lower into the water, bubbles up to my chin. I felt like an alligator with nothing above the water but his eyes, watching to decide if he was going to race to the bottom of the river and hide.
Daddy ripped the door open and his towering figure stepped through, like the pictures of that Paul Bunyon teacher showed in the picture book. What was Daddy doing? He never made that face at me, that angry face he made for Mother. I held my hands over my lap and just stared at him.
Nothing happened. He just stood there, glaring at me. Then he looked down and saw my doll on the side of the tub, the legs and arms of the dolls sticking out of the water.
Then there was another pounding, more of a pitter-patter, like a hard rain. It came tapping through the house. Daddy took a giant stride across the bathroom and picked up the doll, throwing it across the room at the sink. The glass toothbrush holder, a giraffe one he bought one year when he forgot my birthday, fell in pieces to the floor, three toothbrushes in three different directions. I don’t know what I looked like but I know I was staring up at him with big eyes because they were as open as I could get them and my eyebrows were raised so high they hurt.
Then Daddy grabbed me. Wrapping a giant hand around my wrist, he lifted me out of the bathtub like one of my dolls, bubbles clinging to the ends of my wet hair. I was unable to cry. Then the crack of lightning sounded, leaving a bright red hand-print across my bare, cold bottom. I began to cry. Mommy burst through the door and grabbed hold of the arm the held me captive. He shrugged her off then backhanded her in the jaw. She hit the forest green wall like a bug bouncing off the windshield of a moving truck.
“She needs to learn manners” he said, “and to not waste money by destroying toys.”
In utter terror, I froze and went lifeless, like a rabbit you run into in the yard late at night and it decides to play dead. He cracked me again, and again, and again, holding me up in the air with me dangling by the wrist. I was a piñata. I wanted him to stop touching me that way. I didn’t want him to see me without my clothes. I wanted the burning to stop. I wanted to be let down and to run away.
Mommy got back up and began clinging to his arm with one hand, beating on him with the other. She looked like an angry child, throwing a tantrum and beating on a wall that just wouldn’t come down. He dropped me and shoved me out of his path, leaving Mommy and I in his wake. She followed after him screeching and they began to fight in the hallway.
I shoved the door shut with my toes and hurried to push in the lock. Then I lay down on the cold wet rug and cried into it, holding a hand over an inflamed cheek. I cried and cried until I drifted off into a half-sleep. And somewhere between when I fell asleep and when I woke, I found doubt. Part of me never woke up from that dream. Part of me is always burning.