7.08 / August 2012

What Happens

listen to this story

I’ll give her this: the black lipstick really enhances her sneer. But it’s all the further she’ll go, the sneer, at least this time. If I didn’t have something she wanted – the keys to the Civic – she’d make it a hat trick by giving me the finger and yelling fuck you. But nothing she can do will convince me to let her drive to God-knows-where with some random poor-intentioned guys without providing me locations, names, periodic phone calls, and a solid curfew.

“Why do you even care?” she says.

“I always care.”

“But I’m seventeen.”

“Doesn’t matter. You’re still my daughter.”

“So? You’re still my father and I don’t need to know everything,” she says. “You just don’t trust me. For no reason.”

Recognize this conversation? Most people lucky enough to have had parents that gave a shit took part in some form of it dozens of times.

She’s wrong, though. This has nothing to do with trust. This has to do with the fact that I can’t concentrate when I don’t know where she is. It’s a lifestyle issue for me. Because the big problem here is that I love her, and since she was born her existence has made me very, very afraid that something might happen to her. But explaining that has never worked – she can’t see it, not yet. So I flip it on her, tell her something that happened before she was born, something I know she’ll think is unfair and manipulative. And she’ll be right – what happens in life is often unfair and manipulates everyone and everything.

A year before she was born, I tell her, I found my father dead on a white plastic chair in the middle of his back lawn overlooking Puget Sound. His mouth was open just slightly, making it look as though he didn’t care at all that the rain had scattered what little hair he had left, revealing too much of his freckled scalp, or that his sopping wet flannel shirt sagged over his belly, revealing too much of his yellow chest.

I tell her that beside him sat an empty coffee mug smelling of orange juice and rainwater and in his pocket hid an empty plastic bottle of the Percocet he’d been taking for his hips. Also in his pocket was a note that was too damp to open – I had to wait for it to dry before I was able to read what he’d written. The note contained a list of instructions detailing what to do with probate as well as the locations of the keys and access codes for the lockboxes, safes, and bank accounts. But it said nothing at all about the decision itself.

Nothing.

As I spoke, she stood there, that black lipstick still helping her show how cruel I was to tell her such a thing. A bastard.

And maybe she’s right.

I told her the story in order to illustrate how a moment like that would change a person’s entire outlook on life and instill in them not only a deep seeded fear of losing those they love, but also the need for those loved ones to provide locations and names, check-in often, and adhere to curfews. I was trying to coax some empathy from her in order to more easily obtain the information that would allow me to thrive for the next six hours. But if I’m a bastard, it’s because I made a few parts of the story up. It was the gardener who found him initially, it hadn’t rained, and the note was far from empty – it was really more of a novella illustrating a whole mess of reasons why he killed himself. But none of those facts would help deliver the message I needed to get across.

And it did get across. I know this because now that I’m done talking, she just stands there, no sneer, arms crossed, motionless by the door. She doesn’t know quite what to do. But she gets the point. I can tell. And I’m not surprised. She’s a sharp young woman. My guess is she’s hasn’t said anything because she’s trying to figure out how she can still be indignant after what I’ve just told her.

For a millisecond, I spot what I think is suspicion pinching her penciled brows, and I think she might call bullshit on the story. But some of what I’ve just told her confirms what she’s already heard about her grandfather. There’s enough truth to it that she won’t take the risk.

And she doesn’t. But I know soon she’ll find a way to continue the argument, a way to be pissed, probably inside of a minute. Like I said, she’s sharp. And she’s too much like me not too.

As she watches me, I feel something happening in my stomach, the kind of discomfort that usually comes when I’m not being as straightforward as I could be – perhaps should be – with my daughter. I can see how it might seem unethical, even cruel, to invent extra details about an already sad event in order to make it more powerful so I can get what I want. But the truth, what I know for sure, what I’ve already tried to tell her before – multiple times – is something that she really can’t hear, and will never spark her empathy.

It’s this: I know that teenage boys are, at all times, an inch from indiscretion. And the boys she hangs out with? What can I say – I don’t trust them. And while she’s strong and willful, she’s also seventeen and prone to giving boys the benefit of the doubt when they don’t deserve it. I hear her talk on the phone with her girl friends. These boys, these victims of suburban angst, they can do anything they want and she’ll psychologize about why they did this and that until it seems the punks are completely justified in their actions. “No wonder he’s like that,” she’ll say. They could steal her car – which is actually my car – and she’d find a way not just to forgive them, but love them for it.

I remember when I was sixteen wearing a jeans jacket loaded up with band buttons and some Robert Smith starter-set eye shadow and how I viewed women even in spite of my bleeding heart. I was a dog. The only thing that interested me was finding a way. There was this one girl who I invited to see The Cure when they came to town and after the concert we found ourselves in the back seat of my car going further then we should have. She didn’t exactly say no, but she didn’t exactly say yes, either. It’s not something I’m proud of now. But it was something I bragged about then. You get the point: I know what teenage boys are like, I know what my daughter is like, and I know how easy it can be for boys to push things too far. And I know how convenient it is, afterward, for everyone involved to pretend nothing happened.

My daughter and I are silent together for an amount of time that is beginning to get uncomfortable, even for me. I rock back on my heels, trying to be patient, trying to give her a chance to respond to what happened. But in the end I can’t help forcing the issue.

“Address, or no keys. Names, or no keys. Phone on, or no keys. A call at ten, or no keys. Home by midnight, or no keys.”

“Dad, c’mon.”

“The truth, or no keys. That’s final.”

She cusses under her breath and pulls out her phone. “I’m texting you the address.”

In his note, my father said he wished he’d told my sisters and I more, which was odd, because it seemed like he spent so much of his life telling too much. Our ears got so bruised that the last thing any of us wanted to do was hear another word. Yet he hated it when we talked. You could see it in how his face would scrunch up with pain just before he was about to interrupt us and finish the conversation himself, a move that remained his signature to the very end.

I get the keys out from my pocket and toss them to my daughter.

She grabs them from the air.

I turn and walk away before she can beat me to it.

 


Ross McMeekin's stories have appeared recently or are forthcoming in Dark Sky Magazine, Prime Number Magazine, FRiGG, Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Necessary Fiction, and other fine journals. He is the assistant fiction editor at Hunger Mountain, lives in Seattle, and blogs at www.rossmcmeekin.com.
7.08 / August 2012

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