What if the fantasy Dad you create at four refuses to make room for the real one who, a decade later literally returns from the dead?
A bloated avocado lies on the ground nearly bursting with green goo. The orbit is as big, if not bigger, than my three-year-old foot standing next to it. I should be able to run from it, but the threat that the ugly goo Dad cherishes and repulses me will at any moment ooze forth, leaves me breathless. I can’t move.
That fruit tree is the only tree in our back yard. It’s our outdoor hut; a black-caped villain dropping offspring like dead leaves in winter. I’m under it, not for relief from the hot sun that summer’s day, but because I’m testing how long I can stay there this time, before something happens.
The avocado splits and exposes itself, daring me to examine at close range. I stare to see if anything else happens, then cup my hands over my knees and slowly bend down to inspect the skin: hard and tiny goose bumps. An urge to stick my finger into the goo and get it over with tempts me. I avert my attention to the grass around it instead. Just then, a fat swollen one drops and breaks open on my hand, staining it a bright green.
It touched me!
I scream for my life and run up the wooden steps that lead into our house, and while frantically rubbing the back of my hand on my cotton pinafore, I enter under the safety of a solid roof.
Our two-story house, several blocks from the Pacific, is set into a modest slant in the hills of Santa Barbara and faces the ocean. Like the home we had before this one, I’m allowed to wander free.
Still squealing, I hurry through our utility room, through our kitchen, dining room, past the stairway and to the opened living room door that looks toward the sea. The sight of blue in the distance soothes me silent. Salty air tickles my nose and sparks a vision: White sand, wet sand, white-ruffled foam along the shore of the evermore sea.
The walls, floors and ceilings of our house have been built with dark wood and make it shadowy. Mom’s not keeping the ceiling and table lights lit during the day like last winter, when we moved in. We do have windows, which, shaded by trees, prevent any meaningful light from entering.
There is one sunroom and that is wherever Dad is.
I cozy into the bottom step of the staircase that’s across from the front door: My perch to wait for Dad to come home from the theater where he playacts and pretends. Mom strolls past me as if looking for something. I crunch the stained part of my pinafore under me. She glances my way, to the opened door, shakes her head and strolls back out.
My Dad is handsome. I’ve seen him in magazines in crisp and cheery men’s shirts and stern and serious men’s suits.
When he’s home, he always wears shirts with tiny checks, or shirts with stripes: Blue and white, red and white, yellow and white. Sometimes he comes home in a costume but only if he’s had a dress rehearsal.
A long thin blade of light slices across the stairway and into the living room from a side window. Dust floats inside its slivers. He whistles in the distance, which means he’s past the sidewalk and starting up our pathway. My eyes blur from excitement, and I can’t focus on anything but the exact spot he’ll walk through.
He stomps into the house the screen door slams behind him. He looks around as if he doesn’t see me. He’s not in a costume.
“Where’s my little girl?” he says in a big booming voice.
“Here, daddy. Over here.”
“Are you sure you’re my little girl?” He hovers over me, hands on his hips. “My little girl might have a green stain on her dress. Do you have such a stain?”
I stand up and show him my pinafore.
“You are my little girl,” he says.
He swoops me up in his arms and twirls me. I stop giggling so he can put me on his shoulders. He holds my legs while we go from room to room to find Mom, Joy, and my brother Jolly, who is six, three years older than me.
Mom’s name is Joy, but Dad has it. I’ve asked the meaning of the word. Both Mom and Jolly have names that mean happy. Jolly is jolly, though Mom is not joy. Since my name, Terry, rhymes with Harry, I am, in secret, connected by sound, which softens the sting of terry also meaning a cloth you wipe yourself with.
Jolly stands on a stool at our bedroom dressing table mirror. He’s got a black make-up pencil in his hand and is drawing thick strands of hair on his upper lip. The drawn-on hair is much darker than the brown curls atop his head; he scowls at his reflection and looks around to me. I sit up in my bed, watching him. I nod, giving him my approval.
It’s past bedtime and we’re supposed to be asleep but since we’re far away and down the hall from Mom and Dad’s bedroom, we can do all the things we aren’t supposed to during the day. Playacting and pretending is the most we’re guilty of. Jolly does all the playacting and I pretend I’m doing it too.
There’s a pile of junk on the floor between our beds, odds and ends Jolly’s brought home from one of the neighborhood tunnels, alleys and yards for his costumes: Rags, wood, paper wrappings, and a rounded out old piece of rusted metal.
He climbs down from the stool and ties the cloth around his neck, then places the bent piece of metal on his head. It’s a hat! He picks up the stick of wood.
“Captain Hook,” he says in a low threatening voice. “Come on, you need make up. You’ll be a ship mate.”
We have the same size beds but in order for me to get out of mine, I have to roll over, stomach side down and slide off until my feet touch down. I do so very softly because the hardwood floors vibrate throughout the upstairs and even though they’re far down the hall, any creak could alert Mom and Dad we’re still awake.
The following morning though, when Mom’s screams echo throughout the upstairs and into our room, I slide off my bed faster and harder than I thought possible.
Jolly runs ahead of me. As I follow him, questions run through my mind: Had she seen a rat? Had Dad fallen out of the window? When we get the to their room, we stop in our tracks at the sight: Mom’s in her nightgown, both straps slide off her shoulders, her head is down, way down toward a slip of paper in her hand.
Through the opened window behind her is that avocado tree, which for some unfathomable reason, I decide to never again go under.
Jolly and I gawk. She utters a moan and turns towards us, her face animates with hurt; an emotion I recognize immediately. I don’t realize that moment is going to be one of those moments in time; a freeze frame I’ll remember forever.
“It’s a note from your father,” she says and releases the paper. As it floats to the floor lines of handwriting pass by my eye level. I cannot read yet somehow understand the great power of words.
She instructs Jolly to keep me out of the way for the day. Later he tells me what was on the note so I’ll stop asking questions.
“Mom had Dad go to the store to buy milk and he came home with buttermilk instead. That’s why. Okay? He’s not going to live here anymore.”
“Can’t he go get the right one?” I ask.
“You’re too young to know anything,” Jolly says.
I’m not too young to know anything. In fact, I know to not let anyone know how much I do know. That’s what I know.
I go into the kitchen and open the refrigerator. We have milk. Where did that bottle come from? Did he bring back regular milk and buttermilk, too? But, I don’t see any other bottles of milk.
The first night Jolly does not create a costume for himself, or me, nor does he have the slightest interest in playacting. He orders me to go to sleep. My body hums with doubt, fear and unknown prospects for the morrow. The second night is the same and the third and so on and so on. Mom eventually starts wearing clothes again (she’s been in her nightgown). And, weeks pass with no word from or about Dad.
Without him our house is darker than dark. A strangeness with no name and no future takes over. I wait on the staircase every day. Mom tells me not to. I want to be the first person he sees when he comes home. She gives up trying to stop me. My daily visits to the bottom stair give me hope. I want him back no matter what Mom says.
Weeks of no news turn into months. We ask questions now and again, when the timing feels right and Mom answers without saying much. Usually she says, “I don’t know.”
Her daily deliveries grow more fearful. We are poor people, barely able to afford food let alone clothes. As if poverty will replace him. At least poverty is something we can name.
Now only Jolly is allowed to run free. I am never out of her sight.
One day in the fall, Mom fits an outfit on me that she’s preparing to sew. I’m told not to breathe while she mseasures my waist. We’re on our front porch, facing seaward.
“Stand perfectly still,” she says.
Kneeling beside me, straight pins clenched between her teeth she begins to utter grievances about Dad without mention of milk or buttermilk, which even though I saw for myself was a deception, I still hoped I was wrong. My role in life takes form here as a silent-taker-in-of information, a pose-no-threat, make-no-demands little girl.
“After all I’ve done for him,” she says again and again. “That theater he’d been dreaming of for years, I bought it for him! Isn’t that what he wanted?” She accidently sticks me with a pin.
“Ouch,” I say, quietly and barely audible.
Dad and Mom met in Hollywood.
He was a film actor under contract with Universal Pictures (he’s the sheriff in the foto below)
Rain falls hard the day the Bekins’ men in white and blue uniforms invade our house to pack up our belongings. As long as I stay out of the way, I’m allowed to watch. I glue myself to that bottom stair and do not let the flurry of movement around me keep me from hoping with all my might that Dad comes back before we are gone forever.
How will he find us?
Our house empties out in four days. The Bekins van drives away. Jolly and I ride in the back seat of Mom’s car.
“Good riddance,” she says, as she turns left on the street than runs alongside the ocean.
After a long drive south with one stop at a coffee shop to eat and go to the bathroom, we land in Sherman Oaks, California. Our new house is not at all like the one in Santa Barbara. This house is light, sprawling and has no avocado trees. Though the yard is wide, grassy and has a little shed where Jolly and I can make up plays if we want. We still share a room. Our blankets are new: Wool off-white with bold and thick yellow, red and black stripes across the top. We have a TV!
(diagram of our house)
It’s not the same ‘missing Dad’ as before. The relocation has made him distant. In place of his new form of absence Jolly and I rub the magic glow of anticipation harder to force a belief that he will come back to us. Before we go to sleep at night, we polish our belief with stories detailing how he’ll make his entrance.
Jolly: “Dad’s on TV, riding a horse chasing men in black hats. He sees us watching him and gallops out of the TV and lands in our laps.”
Me: “What about the horse?”
Jolly: “Your turn.”
Me: “When I wake up and get out of bed, my feet can’t touch the ground. I float above the floor and when I open my eyes, I’m on his shoulders.”
Jolly: “I thought you said you woke up.”
Me: “I did.”
Jolly: “Then your eyes should already be open.”
Hyper alert to each other’s scenarios, we ferret out any flaws that might make them less real, less likely to come true.
Mom settles with not having Dad around. The other theater people and jazz musicians she meets occupy her nights. The more she seems to move on, the more Jolly and I worry she’ll forget and not try to find him.
While Mom is out, we watch TV and see Dad in a Western. Jolly and I take it as a sign that he is coming soon, very soon.
One Saturday Mom takes us to a hot dog stand close to where we live by Coldwater Canyon, a winding road that leads to the other side.
Each hot dog on the menu has a name, The Mutt, The Chili Dog, The Sunshine Dog, etc. A mechanical horse by the door can be ridden if you’re a kid with a nickel in your pocket. Just outside the front window, by the red plastic covered stools, is Ventura Boulevard. A broad four-lane road that divides the haves, southward on the hillside behind us, and the have-less, northward, on the flat lands of the Valley. That’s where Mom, Jolly and I live. We live on flat land.
Right now we’re at a round table in the middle of the room. My dog, The Mutt, arrives with a complimentary bag of potato chips. Jolly runs over and sits down in front of his, also a Mutt. He’s been by the mechanical horse getting the other kids to pay for his ride. Mom’s purposefully ignoring him and staring at me, a move that alerts me she’s about to change something or she’s getting ready for a lecture or, worse. That stance of hers always makes me fidgety. I ask her for the umpteenth time when Dad is coming to see us.
“Never,” she says, her lips tighten across her teeth. She glares at me. “Your Dad is dead.”
The air sucks right out of me. I gasp and with that bit of oxygen cram nearly half The Mutt in my mouth. I swallow it in lumps and it lands in the empty hole that used to be my stomach. I need more and stuff the thing all the way down until it is gone. Jolly’s saying something to Mom. I’m not aware of what he’s saying or of time passing. Eventually everything quiets and a thought comes to me.
I blurt it out. “That’s why he hasn’t been to see us!”
THANK YOU for stopping by the first three chapters of my California story. I’m pitching it now. Stay tuned.