People ask me all the time what having Vince MacKenzie for a father was like. What they mean is: Was he always crazy? Did he walk around the kitchen with an ice pick in the pocket of his flannel bathrobe every morning as he poured himself a cup of coffee?
Some ask flat out, as if it's their right to know. Others circle it, talk about the weather first, thinking they're being so sneaky when really they're as obvious as a dog circling a tree.
When they ask I always say the same thing. I say, "He was an optometrist for God's sake. You know, the guy who sits you in the big chair and says, 'Better here, or here?' The ones with the little pocket-size flashlights?" And that's all I say. I try to keep it all in the tone of voice. I don't even add a, If you must know, you insensitive jackass. Well I did say that once. I don't count it though, because it was to an old man who probably had bad hearing.
What I won't do is tell anyone what he was really like.
I won't say that when I think of him now, I see him outside, at places he can no longer go. I see him mowing the front lawn, wearing his University of Washington Huskies cap, holding his hand to his ear to let me know he can't hear what I'm saying over the mower's engine. I see him dumping the basket of clippings into the garbage can, small bits of grass clinging to his sweatshirt. I see him watering the rhododendrons, his thumb held over the end of the hose to make the spray less harsh.
And I see him -- us -- in our house. The house we used to live in. I see him with his tie loosened after work, pouring himself a glass of milk and asking how my history test went. I remember sitting next to my father at the kitchen table, him trying to explain my math homework but making it more confusing. And me, saying, Oh, I see! when I didn't, because I didn't want to hurt his feelings.
I won't tell anyone his faults either. That he swore when he fixed things and flirted too much with waitresses and swaggered around more than he deserved to when he was wearing a new shirt. Good or bad, I keep those things to myself. I don't want those parts of him, the real him, to turn into something cheap and meaningless. It would make me the kid with no friends, giving out candy on the playground. People would grab up those bits of him like greedy children with a roll of Lifesavers. They'd peel off a piece of him, roll him around in their mouths for a few seconds, and then swallow and forget about him.
Besides, that's not what people want to hear anyway -- that my father was just a normal guy whom I loved, love, with all my heart. It makes them nervous. Because if he was normal, if he wore Old Spice and liked nacho cheese Doritos, then why not their own fathers? Or themselves? Deep Inner Evil -- we like that. It's easier to accept than what Big Mama says, which is that wanting things for the wrong reasons can turn anyone's life into a marshmallow on a stick over a hot fire: impossibly messy and eventually consumed, one way or another. People want to think that I lay in bed awake at night, my heart pounding in fear of him. They don't want to know that I slept just fine, dreaming I'd forgotten my locker combination just like them.
Or that I went to live with Dad because he was the regular one; that it was my mom who I was convinced was nuts. Claire was the one I never wanted my friends to see. She had this shaggy hair under her arms that always made me think of a clump of alfalfa sprouts in a pita pocket. And you never knew when she might suddenly flop out a boob to nurse Max, which she did once during a parent-teacher conference to the shock of my new math teacher, Mr. Fillbrook. By the look on his face I'm positive Mrs. Fillbrook always got dressed in the dark. Or else she did that trick when you slip your bra through your sleeve every night when she put on her nightgown. All Claire had to say about the whole thing was, "If he was titillated, pardon the pun, that's his problem."
When I lived with my mom, it was her house that embarrassed me, never Dad's. Mom had turned our old house into a bed and breakfast, which is one way to make a living on Parrish Island if you don't want to rent kayaks or work the oyster beds. At Mom's house you never knew who was coming or going. And Nathan's metal sculptures were spread all over the yard, spinning like mad in the wind and hanging from the trees like giant Christmas ornaments. Nathan is my mother's husband; he's ten years younger than she is. He's also an "artist." His work is "kinetic art for the outdoors." That's how I thought of their life. Like it all belonged in quotation marks.
When I moved in with my dad, that's when my life got normal. I moved into a regular neighborhood with a regular house. I transferred from that goofy alternative school I hated, where we made quilts and "worked at our own pace" and where the teachers all wore sandals no matter what the weather, to Parrish High where you had to sit in your seat and learn English and the kids weren't weird. I met Melissa Beene, who lived down the block and whose parents had a big black Weber barbecue and electric garage-door openers. Everyone in my dad's neighborhood mowed their lawn and thought breakfast was the most important meal of the day and got upset if their kids missed their curfews.
Anyway, evil. If anyone was truly evil in all this, it was Gayle D'Angelo. She put that gun in his hands. I don't like to think about her. I hate thinking about her. But Mom and Nathan and everyone else keep telling me that it's healthy to get the feelings out. Big Mama says that even salmon carry their life stories on their scales, the way a tree does with its rings. And my old English teacher, Ms. Cassaday, claims writing this out will be good therapy. "What is therapy after all," she says, "but telling your tale to someone who won't get up in the middle?" So okay, fine. Just so I don't suddenly fall apart one day when I'm thirty-five in an aisle of the grocery store or something. Carried out kicking and screaming while the ladies squeezing lemons pretend they don't notice a thing.
I will think about her. And it will be all right. Because, true, the story starts there, with Gayle D'Angelo. But it does not end there.
I first met Gayle D'Angelo at the True You Health Center. My best friend, Melissa Beene, got me the job at True You. We worked after school, the occasional evening, and more hours in the summer. True You is in a strip mall, in the new part of town that the original Parrish Islanders hate. If you took one of those snoots who say they watch only PBS and dangled a game show in front of their eyes, that's the kind of reaction I'm talking about. I used to think the whole argument was stupid. My mother would go on and on about the yuppies coming from Seattle and Microsoftland with their plastic money, building plastic things, intent on destroying the spirit of the islands. The San Juans had always been an escape from all that, she'd moan.
"And what's with these minivans?" she said once. "I feel like I'm in some sci-fi movie. Revenge of the Pod People. Invading the world in Dodge Caravans. You watch, those people are going to wreck everything. I bet even the whales will get wind of what's happening and stop coming around."
"That's what the farmers said when you hippies started moving out here, Claire," I said. Parrish, and the other large islands of the San Juans, used to be mostly orchards. There were still stretches of sprawling farmland and spots of gnarled apple trees where the deer met up with their friends for garden parties. "And what the Indians said about the farmers."
My mother glared at me. "Jordan," she said.
"I'm sorry," I said. I used to say this a lot, especially when I wasn't in the least. "I just never got that, the way people yelled about trees being cut down as they sat in their own cozy home in front of a blazing fire."
"This is not about selfishness," she snapped. "It's exactly the opposite. It's about having something pure and true, and trying to protect its essence." This is the way my mother talked. She was getting worked up, flushing the shade of a ripe peach. "What's happening is a crime. An abomination. A bête noire."
"What's that, a perfume?" I said.
"Sounds like a perfume. 'Purchase a three-ounce bottle of Bête Noire and receive a one-ounce line minimizer and cosmetic tote as our gift to you.'" I chuckled. I was happy with my misbehavior.
My mother stopped glaring. Now she only tilted her head and looked at me oddly, as if I were, say, the produce guy from Albertson's suddenly in her home. It was a look that said, I know I know you from somewhere, but for the life of me, I can't figure out who you are.
She gathered up her long hair into a ponytail, held it in her fist, and set it loose again. Finally she said, "I should send you to your room for the rest of your life."
"Too late," I had said.
I used to think a lot of stupid things. About Parrish Island, about my parents. But Big Mama says thinking we're ever done being stupid is the dumbest thought of all. Being occasionally stupid is just part of the human job description, she says. Big Mama's voice is like molasses pouring from a bottle. When she calls, I press that phone so hard to my ear, it's as if I'm getting her strength right through the wires. And right when that strength seems to be running out, there she is again, filling me back up.
You can imagine how my working at True You got under my mother's skin. I didn't always purposefully try to get under her skin. I didn't. It's just that sometimes things can be too real. Too intensely real. Too honest and bare. Like the way you feel looking into the eyes of someone who loves you, or someone in pain. Or the way you feel when you hear beautiful music. It can be like looking into the sun. You've just got to close your eyes. Even go inside for a while. Or keep it all at arm's length with words like crazy, covering it with a smooth layer of embarrassment. My mother and Nathan were like that. Parrish Island was like that.
As I said, Melissa got me the job at True You, and at the moment Gayle D'Angelo came in, Melissa was in the large weigh-in room with Laylani Waddell. Laylani and her husband, Buddy, owned True You. Anyone who names their kid Laylani is looking for trouble, if you ask me. You had to be careful with Laylani. She and Buddy were Christians with a capital C, the type who think they've got God's secret phone number. If you let so much as a shit slip, Laylani would start hiding these little religious bookmarks with prayers and sunsets on them in your lunch bag and in your coat pockets. She wouldn't say a word about them, either. I think she really believed we might be so stumped as to who put them there, we'd start suspecting God himself.
I could hear Laylani's voice coming through the weigh-in room door. Her voice sounds the way a maraschino cherry might sound if it could speak. The door was propped open with a small block of wood, the way Laylani demanded. Large people overheated easily, she always said. She worried about this a lot. I think she had a secret fear one of the fat people might have a heart attack on the premises and sue her and Buddy for the house and the RV with the built-in shower. Melissa liked to get revenge for the bookmarks by hiding this block of wood, which would send Laylani scurrying around in a tizzy, sprayed hair releasing in bunches as she searched for it underneath the furniture. Like a madwoman she'd try other propping devices in the door, like the stapler, which would only slide free and shoot across the floor.
When Laylani's inspiring pre-dinner lesson was over, Melissa and I would do weight and measurement. In the meantime I was copying an article, "Recipe for Success," that would be placed in new "team member" folders. This is what people who joined True You were called, the idea being that they were one enthusiastic group fighting a tough but conquerable opponent -- fat -- with the help of Coach Laylani. I sat on the edge of the reception desk and read the article as the copy machine flashed and made its kershunk-kershunk-kershunk sounds. "It's your total diet over several weeks rather than what you eat in a given meal or even an entire day that determines whether you're eating healthfully and weight consciously," I read aloud.
"No kidding," I said to the paper.
And then there she was in front of me. I'd been so busy being amused by the article's obviousness that I hadn't heard the swish of the door, or her heels, quiet on the carpet Buddy Waddell had installed himself.
"Ah, it's so nice and cool in here," she said.
Which was funny, because my very first thought looking at her was, I bet this woman never even sweats. She was lovely, really. The kind of woman you save that word for, lovely. Dark hair swept up in a clip, two perfect tendrils coaxed down. Short, sleeveless black dress. This great shade of nail polish. Expensive earrings, expensive smile. Warm though. It didn't occur to me then that some people could make a smile warm with the same deliberate efficiency other folks use to put wool socks on cold feet. I was not all that well acquainted with manufactured smiles. I hadn't yet bought a car, met a preacher's wife, or been to a PTA meeting. According to my mother, there are more fake smiles at a PTA meeting than in a false-teeth factory.
The woman in front of me fanned the air with a slender hand. A drift of perfume was set free and roamed around the room as if it owned the place.
"They'll be done in there in a few minutes," I said. "If you want, you can sit down." I gestured to the chairs in the waiting area, done in soothing shades of rose and tan.
"Oh, you think..." She laughed. "Aren't you sweet. I'm not here to pick anyone up. I'm here for myself." She leaned in as if to tell a secret. "We all need a little help now and then, don't we?" She took a pinch of her side.
This disappointed me. Obviously, there was nothing there to pinch. She probably lived on cups of coffee, doing leg lifts as she poured it. That's what her body looked like. She radiated charm and money and capability; I didn't want her to be a self-pincher of nonexistent body fat. This was the kind of woman I wanted to be someday, who would have considered alfalfa-sprout hair under her arms to be repellent as venereal disease. She would even use words like repellent. Unlike my mother, she would not be the type who would pop out her emotions for everyone to see, spraying everyone in the vicinity in the process, same as Grandpa Eugene with his dentures.
"Oh," I said. "Well, in that case I'll have to make you an appointment with our health consultant, Laylani Waddell." I handed her one of Laylani's business cards that sat in a Lucite holder on the reception desk. Laylani loved for us to pass them out. Her name gloated in the corner of those little white cards with the pink stripe across the top. HEALTH CONSULTANT, they read. OWNER. Yep, she was a valid member of the human race. I opened the wide, loose appointment book. "It'll take about an hour."
"Maybe you can just tell me a little about your place here," she said. "Since I'm not even sure what it is you do."
I was actually relieved. Maybe the woman thought we were a gym. I hoped so. I didn't want her to be one of those diet bimbos we saw so many of, who knew the fat grams in a pretzel stick, and who only wanted to hear how little they needed what they came for. Diet bimbos pissed me off. I couldn't imagine what they did to the truly overweight. On behalf of the real sufferers, I always tried to do what I could during a diet bimbo's Game Plan Consultation. I'd find slices of fat they never knew existed and measure them for long periods of time with my tape. I'd shake my head when I wrote things on the clipboard and mutter "Whew" a lot. I'd be extra cheerful and say things like, Now, we shouldn't think Fritos are the fifth food group!
I didn't think I could be mean to this woman. "I have a brochure," I said.
"As long as it covers price. My husband tends to be tight fisted, bless his heart." People tended to say this, I noticed, whenever blessing seemed the last thing on their minds. "The first time he ever went to Costco, I swear he got a hard-on."
It's not too often that someone says hard-on when you've just met, I thought, but okay, fine. Besides, her voice had an ever-so-slight Southern lilt, harsh twangs polished smooth; it was the kind of accent that can make even a word like hard-on sound harmless and sweet as a mint julep drunk from a porch swing.
"Oh, boy," I said. I mean, what do you say?
"Tell me, do we know each other?" she asked, leaning in to examine me with one eye narrowed. "I never forget a lovely face."
I actually blushed. "I'm not sure," I said. Lovely. It was the word I had thought so perfect for her. I wondered if it could actually be true. Me, with my curly brown hair (chestnut, my mother called it), and legs that seemed too long. My mother said I was beautiful, Melissa said she wished she looked like me, but compliments from your mother and your best friend don't count. I'm embarrassed to admit what pleasure that lovely gave me.
"You must know my sons," she said. "Markus and Remington D'Angelo? Parrish High? They were new last year."
I did know her sons. At the name Markus an image swam up. Tall blond boy, quiet. Hands stuck into the pockets of a swim team jacket. But more than that, I knew her house. It was the recently built one behind our neighborhood in the Crow Valley. Nothing you could overlook. A huge new faux Tudor with its own airstrip. It dwarfed the quaint house of Little Cranberry Farm on the adjacent property. It was the kind of house that made my mother scream.
"Oh, right," I said.
"I thought you must know them. I'm Gayle." She extended her cool fingers, and I took them for a moment. I hoped she didn't notice the shade of pink on my own nails, which suddenly seemed silly and girlish and was peeling besides. "And you are...?"
"Jordan MacKenzie," I said.
"MacKenzie?" She pointed one ear at me as if offering it a second chance to get it right. "You don't happen to belong to Dr. Vince MacKenzie, do you?"
Normally I would have said that I don't belong to anyone, but she was so nice that I only nodded and smiled. At this, she grasped my hand and hushed her voice. "I can't believe meeting you like this. I think your father is just wonderful."
It was the way a middle-aged woman would react if she'd just met the daughter of, say, Elvis. I wondered what my father had done to deserve it. Believe me, if you heard my father sing, you'd know no one was going to throw their underwear at him, even those waist-high control-top ones that women my mother's age wear. And I didn't think that a free glaucoma check or sunglasses frames at cost would cause someone's voice to get all breathy like that.
"Thank you," I said, which I was embarrassed for later. It's not as though I could take credit for my choice of the guy.
"You have his eyes," she said. She studied me. "Beautiful deep brown. You must have to fight off the boys with a stick! My goodness, I would kill for that figure of yours. I bet you are your daddy's little girl."
That thought made we want to gag. "I wouldn't say that," I said.
"No? Still, you must be close. The father-daughter bond and all."
"I saw it in a movie once," I said. I don't know why I said that except that maybe I was trying to let her know the daddy's girl crap had no place in my life. After I said it though, I felt my conscience jab me at this small betrayal of my father. I mean, we were close in our own way. But if we're being honest here, getting truly close to fathers is like trying to dig out a really old tree stump. You get exhausted with the effort and don't actually get very far.
Not only was my conscience being Goody Two-Shoes, but I also started feeling a little embarrassed about what I'd said. It seemed kind of personal for a first conversation, even with the hard-on ice already broken. But Gayle D'Angelo only laughed. I could hear the rustling of bodies in the weigh-in room, papers shuffling, the sudden burst of mixed conversations. Laylani was finished. "Our health consultant should be right out," I said.
"That's all right," Gayle D'Angelo said. "I'm only here for the information." She waved the brochure in the air.
Melissa popped her head out of the weigh-in room door. "Show time," she said. She looked at Mrs. D'Angelo, caught my eye, and raised one eyebrow, a trick I always wished I could do.
"Nice to meet you," I said to Gayle D'Angelo.
And it was. Afterward I carried around a strange thrill. The kind you get when something seems possible that didn't before, or after you've been truly seen. I wondered if she was the "influential person" my horoscope that day said I'd be meeting. I didn't consider, until much later, that maybe what I felt were really the hypervibrations that come with warning; the way your heart pounds when you are playing hide-and-seek and sense someone is about to spring out at you. Even salmon, Big Mama says, can sometimes get caught after their instincts have confused them.
Melissa and I usually walked home together after work. Whiffs of Gayle D'Angelo's perfume had lounged around True You's waiting room the rest of the day, and now it was following along behind us. Though it was early evening, and only the very beginning of June, it was hot out, unusually so for Parrish at that time of year. Normally that kind of weather starts mid-August and ends two weeks later. But, hey, if you can guess the weather in the Northwest, we'll probably crown you ruler of the land.
Outside, the air was stifling; it felt like trying to breathe through a knitted scarf. "Wanna get doughnuts?" Melissa said in the parking lot, as True You's door shut behind us.
"Maple bar sugar hit," I said.
"Let me see if I've got money," she said. She swung her backpack off her shoulder and rooted around inside.
"How can we even think fried food after Laylani's lecture?" I mock-scolded.
"Yeah, they usually make me too sick to eat," Melissa said to the inside of her backpack. Two cars started up in the parking lot, one belonging to one of our team members, another to a customer of the dry cleaner next door, a garment sheathed in thin plastic hanging from her back window. The door to True You opened again, and a girl just a little older than I stepped outside. She squinted and blinked, as if the world was more bright and shocking than she could stand. She had stayed behind for a one-on-one with Laylani, something Laylani required when she felt on the verge of losing a customer. The girl looked down, avoiding our eyes when she passed us, and her huge frame, draped with a floral cotton dress, moved with great effort through the parking lot and toward the sidewalk.
Melissa held up her wallet. "We're covered," she said. She followed my gaze. "Aren't you just entirely sick of fatties?"
Her voice was loud. Too loud. I could see the girl flinch, her shoulders lifting ever so slightly. And then her purse slid from her arm, dropped to the sidewalk, and spilled. She stopped, stooped down, and balanced on the ball of one foot to gather her things. Sweat was beginning to darken the armpits of her dress. For a second, so quick I couldn't even be sure it happened, she looked up at me and we caught eyes.
And then I did a horrible thing. A cruel thing. I turned away from those thick fingers picking up loose coins and a half-empty pack of gum and a small bottle of hand lotion, and I laughed. Loudly. To show Melissa how much I agreed.
"Entirely sick," I said.
And then Melissa and I walked away. To buy doughnuts to eat before dinner. Me trying to forget what I had just done, trying to forget the coin rolling away on its edge and escaping those fat fingers.
"We'd better be quick," I said. "You know how pissed Dad gets if I'm not there for dinner."
We hurried past Randall and Stein Booksellers, the shop my father's longtime girlfriend owned, waited for a break in traffic, and jogged across the street to Boss Donuts. The doughnut guy was Mel Thurber. His name should have been Mole Thurber, with his bald head, and eyes that were always squinting, as if they still hadn't adjusted to life aboveground. I got a squeamish feeling when I thought of him touching my food, even when he used a square of tissue paper. I was always glad to get out of there, to escape the smell of hot grease and the container of pink lemonade that looked as though it had been there forever, little skin flecks of lemon pulp clinging to the glass sides.
"I can't see how he can stand to drink coffee in this heat," Melissa said. She was referring to Officer Ricky Beaker, whom we called the Tiny Policeman, due to the fact that he was barely five feet tall and had a voice that resembled one of the Lollipop Twins of Munchkin Land. How he had managed to dodge the height requirement for police officers, no one could ever figure out. The Tiny Policeman could usually be found sitting in the corner of Boss Donuts, nursing a cup of coffee as if it were a whiskey in a cowboy-movie saloon instead of a Styrofoam cup on a sticky table set under fluorescent lights. His eyes glanced suspiciously about, as they always did. He was waiting for the bad guys in black to ride up on their horses and step through the swinging doors. You could tell that he desperately wanted some real bad guys around. There wasn't much crime on Parrish. The most serious crime fighting the Tiny Policeman did was taking down the license plates of the high-school boys who shouted, "You should've eaten your vegetables!" at him from their car windows.
Outside, Melissa held out the waxed bag to me. I took out a maple bar and we ate as we walked. When we reached the entrance to our neighborhood, I looked down the street. "Dad's not home yet if you want to come over," I said.
In our driveway, I had seen only my father's red Triumph, an old one covered by a tarp, which he called his midlife-crisis car. I guess he felt the crisis was over; he never drove that Triumph as long as I could remember, though he started it on occasion to make sure it still ran. The Ford Taurus that he actually drove, and that he washed and vacuumed once a week and wouldn't let you eat in, was not there yet.
"Oh, God, don't look," Melissa said. She grabbed my arm to hurry me along, clasped the collar of her shirt, and raised it to cover half her face. I was sure this strategy had never succeeded in hiding anyone.
"What's he doing?"
"Don't ask," Melissa said. "Probably seeing if the trees are talking to him."
Melissa's older brother, Jackson Beene, lay under the big tree in their front yard, staring up at the branches, hands forming a pillow behind his head. Ever since Jackson got lost in the woods on a hike on Mount Conviction three summers ago, he "hasn't been quite right," as Mrs. Beene put it. He had gone backpacking with a friend, who during the hike fell down a ravine and broke his leg. Jackson tried to get help. The friend was found that night by the searchers, but Jackson had gotten lost and was missing for five days. On the sixth, he appeared at a ranger station. Melissa said he'd lost something like twenty-five pounds and couldn't eat at first without throwing up. What saved him, Jackson had said, was the sound of bagpipes, which he followed to safety. He was sure he had been rescued by a spirit; after that, he mailed away for instructional tapes and took up playing the bagpipes himself. He would play them in the front yard or over at Point Perpetua park or across from the ferry terminal on a busy weekend. The Beenes tried to be supportive (if you looked up Larry and Diane Beene in the dictionary, you'd see that word), but you could tell this embarrassed them as much as it did Melissa.
I sometimes saw Jackson playing his bagpipes at the old oil tank, which sits on its side on a mound of grass at the crossroads of Horseshoe Highway and Deception Loop; a place you must pass to get anywhere on Parrish. Usually the oil tank is a patchwork of messages: HAPPY 40TH WAYNE with a couple of black balloons stuck on, and DISCOUNT CHAKRA READINGS THIS WEEK AT THE THEOSOPHICAL SOCIETY, along with some old stuff painted on, like CLASS OF '79 ROCKS! I would pass on my bike, hearing the music get louder as I got closer, and when I saw Jackson standing on the oil tank with his tasseled instrument, I was glad he wasn't my brother. Strangely though, I was also just plain glad. That music -- it was both mysterious and sad at the same time. It could make you feel things you couldn't quite explain.
Melissa and I sat on the step of our front porch and finished our doughnuts. We licked our fingers, then washed the stickiness off under the garden hose. Dad finally arrived home, looking happy. He teased Melissa and me about something I don't remember and carried in a fat bag of groceries with a bunch of celery sticking out the top.
That was the day I met Gayle D'Angelo.
It's funny, but when I think about that day, I don't think much about Gayle D'Angelo herself, or the fact that when I came back out from the weigh-in room, the brochure I had given her was left behind on the counter. No, what I think about is that fat girl. She never came back to True You. I never even saw her again, although I thought I did once, leaving Bonnie Randall's bookstore.
But she's what I think about. The way our eyes met. The way, right then, she seemed more real than me. I think about the way my own laugh had made my insides twist, made the pink polish on my fingers seem hateful, fingers that had so recently touched her skin.
Fingers that had only moments before slipped a tape measure around her fleshy arm.
Copyright © 2002 by Deb Caletti