I never would have lost my father if Social Services had not sent that letter requesting that I please call regarding our concerns about Reuben Stotz. I did not like the idea that social workers and police officers were expecting me to act with authority over my stubborn daddy, who had pretty much killed my mother and then begrudgingly fell by default into my care. But while mulling over the letter throughout that day, I decided to go on the offensive. Despite the 50-mile round trip, I would check on Daddy every other day. I needed to prove to myself that he was not, as the letter stated, an adult at risk. So the next day, I gave up my Saturday downtime and drove to Daddy's with a smile, straight from the smile therapy manual, you know the one that claims it takes more effort and muscles to frown than to smile, so force yourself to smile. But when I saw through the open garage doors to those trash cans chock full of garbage around which flies swarmed, that smile got wiped clear off my face. He had been burning again, too. I just knew it, could smell the sulfuric residue of his shenanigans in the air.
Inside the house, I could not get the windows opened fast enough and I got the dry heaves, which I got under control by putting my head down between my legs. A glass of water helped, too, but then I saw that the refrigerator was wide open, the shelves empty except for my dead mother's homemade jelly and some margarine. A package of warm salami sat atop the refrigerator. My eyes burned something fierce. "Daddy?"
He sat on his bed looking at pictures. "Remember Emma, Kristen? Your mother." He stroked her image. "You have her beauty. She gave you. You didn't just take it like you take so much else. She gave you that. Shit you." His stroke had confused his cussing.
I had no other recourse but to hide the evidence of my father's stupor. This is what I tried to explain to the cop later that day. Wearing Mother's pants, tennis shoes, and sweatshirt, I loaded rotten food into my car. I helped Daddy into the car and buckled him in. "It stinks," he said. "Shit you."
All the Dumpsters in town sat too close to the possibility of someone seeing me and I didn't have money to pay any fine for unlawful dumping. Out of town, I considered dumping the trash in the woods surrounding a lake. Then I considered the licorice factory Dumpsters that lined a back fence along the woods. If I took the road that forked off from the county road, I could park on the other side of the woods, haul the trash to the Dumpsters, lift the lid, toss in the two bags, and hightail it out of there. A solid plan. I drove to the edge of the woods and parked. "Stay here."
"What for?" my father asked. "Go home."
"Stay here. If you don't, we'll get caught. So stay here. I'll be right back. Understand?" He nodded. "I mean it." He waved me away.
Thorny ash slashed at my ankles as I hauled the trash. Cold muck seeped through my mother's shoes which stirred up mosquitoes to land on my cheeks and hands. I put the trash down and swatted at the bugs, pulled the collar around my face. The underbrush provided cover from detection as I crouched toward the Dumpsters. I tossed one bag over the fence. I ducked, waited, and then heaved the heavier bag up and over. The Dumpster sign warned: For use by renters only. Violators will be fined $500. I lifted the lid, hoisted the bags in, closed the lid, and hopped the fence, staying low and swatting mosquitoes on my way out of the woods.
I returned to find the car empty.
"Daddy?" I did not want to shout. I checked the backseat. "Daddy?" I scanned the woods, hoping to see Mother's blue sweater that he insisted on wearing. "Daddy!" I kicked the car. "Shit you." A cumulus cloud hung low to present a picture of Mother's face above me. "Shit you both," I said. I calmed myself and had to figure some logical path. Maybe he walked the dirt road in search of home. I could drive in that direction and find him, but then I realized that to drive meant to move the car and what if he decided to return and found the car gone? Could he have crossed over into thicker woods? A chickadee sang all happy and content as I walked the woods' edge. I cupped my mouth and screamed. "Rueben Stotz!"
I waited and watched for that damn blue sweater to come from the green woods, but the only one who appeared was the cop in her cruiser. I forced a smile and rolled down my window, the buzz of mosquitoes as irksome as the look of authority she gave me.
"Got a call about someone dumping illegally. What are you doing out here?" Debby asked.
She scanned the scene, looked into my car. "Particular reason you stopped here?"
"To pick baby's breath." I nodded toward the ditch, shifted my weight, and looked away. "My father used to do that with Mother."
"Why you dressed like that?"
"I was helping Daddy clean up and—"
"Where's your father now?"
"Daddy likes the country. I'm just waiting for him to . . . you know . . ."
"No I don't know."
"You know, take a leak. He'll be right back." I pointed toward the woods from where I wished he'd just appear or she'd just disappear, either way would offer breathing room.
"I'll wait with you." And then she started to whistle. I hate that. It's so obvious when whistling is meant to irritate the other person, filled with a message to let you know you're not in charge. It's passive aggressive, that's what it is and she just kept right on whistling, some tune I didn't even know. Her intent to ride me was so obvious, I almost laughed. Then I demanded more of myself and smiled wide. Yep, forcing yourself to smile when you least feel like smiling helps you deal with stress and unhappiness. It's as if the smile muscles can trick the mind into believing it's not so bad after all. She let out a long, high note then said, "So where are the flowers then?"
"You said you stopped to pick baby's breath."
"Don't see any in your car and I don't see your father. If you were only after them flowers, how could your father get so far away?" She pointed toward the ditch. "I mean, there's the wildflowers. Here's the car. Hard to understand how he got out of sight."
I forced a laugh. "Yeah. But . . . " I shrugged. "He clearly isn't here."
"Clearly." She looked stern. "Your father's missing, and you can't explain it."
I wanted Daddy to shuffle his bony butt out of the woods and get this woman away from me. Then a horrible idea came to me. "What if he was abducted?"
Debby frowned. She looked way too old when she frowned. Smile my mother used to say, just smile. You look so much prettier. "Listen. You say you're hunting for wildflowers in that ditch. Or maybe you were dumping illegally. Who knows. But so. He's in the car while you're doing whatever it is you claim. Did you see anyone else around? Did a car drive down the road?"
"Then explain abduction."
Something like bee stingers pricked at my skull. "Guess it's not a sound theory."
"And what's with all them scratches and mosquito bites on your face?"
"Nasty little pricks, aren't they?"
"Pretty thick in the woods." She looked at my mother's shoes. "Them baby breath ditches muddy, are they, Kristen?"
"Wait here while I make a call."
"I'm not stupid. I know what you're thinking."
"What am I thinking?"
"You're thinking I did something."
"Yeah. I dumped my father's trash in the factory Dumpsters. I had to hide the evidence and clean up his act to show you people that he's fine on his own. But I tell you, it was gross because he can't even shut the damn refrigerator door. Keeps having that senior van drive him to the store and he wastes it all, wastes our money. Money I could use. So I dumped it. I told him to wait here. I couldn't have been gone more than ten minutes." I hated explaining to Debby, who stood with her arms crossed against her chest. A low level memory of childhood bullying seemed alive in the shiny face of her badge. "So fine me 500 bucks. I don't care."
"Let's check it out." She didn't want to walk through the woods and told me to get into the cruiser. She put on those damn flashing lights, which attracted licorice factory workers to the windows where they took a break watching that cop and me rummage through the Dumpster. I stopped long enough to look at them and wonder which one was the snitch who called Debby the cop on me.
"These two bags," I pointed. Debby moved toward them slow and unsure like she expected to find Daddy inside. "It's his trash. Eggs, milk, cabbage, cheese. Some of his junk mail is in there, too. Some catalogs still come addressed to my mother. It's easier to bury a body than to get a dead woman's name off of catalog mailing lists. Go ahead. See for yourself."
"You want me to go through the trash?"
"That's right. To prove my story."
Debby loaded the bags into her trunk. "Let's go."
"You arresting me?"
"I'm asking you to come with."
"But my father may come back to the car."
"Or he may not."
"You tell me." She turned on the engine then revved up the lights and added the siren, being the drama queen she had always been. She whistled off-key while she drove. I wanted her to shut up and to schedule an appointment for a decent haircut. I expected to see Daddy walking along the road. "Hey," I said, "Maybe someone gave him a ride home. Could you drive to his house?"
"Fair enough." She looked at me like maybe she actually felt pity. Inside Daddy's house, I ripped a sheet from Mother's stationary and wrote a note, which I taped to the door. Daddy, call the police station when you come home. PLEASE. I wrote the number as Debby dictated it.
~ ~ ~
The latex gloves she wore seemed to make her hands appear large and eager and the gauze mask covered up her ugly nature. She handed me gloves and a mask. "What for?"
"Start digging." She lifted a garbage bag from the trunk and dropped it to the city offices parking lot. "Prove it's his."
"Fine." I put on the gloves and mask then started digging for Daddy, for his sake, to get her to file a missing person's report. "Believe me now? It's his. I was getting rid of."
"Still doesn't clear up how your father disappeared. Last time we talked, you were pretty agitated. I almost hated to leave the old guy in his home with you there."
"Impatient and irritated with an elderly person at risk."
"Yeah. So?" I crossed my arms. "Nothing abnormal about it."
She lowered her mask as if to make sure I'd hear her. "Yeah. I remember. You always were a spoiled brat." She smiled. I hated her straight, white teeth. "I remember you sashaying down the hall in your pretty new clothes all aflutter."
"You got something personal going on here against me? Trying to prove something?"
"I don't have to prove you're spoiled. Everyone knew it."
"Spoiled? I did exactly what they expected."
"Sure, until . . . Well . . . we all knew about your . . . 'problem.'" She made air quotes around the word problem.
I wanted to flee her stupidity the way I had fled Mother's accusations that I was killing my brain cells with liquor, Mother and Daddy teaming up against me, and saying that if I wanted to self-destruct, I should do it away from them as it was upsetting to witness. Now twenty years later, look what AA and fleeing to a not-far-enough-away town had gotten me? Enabler and caretaker of Daddy where Mother had left off. I just wanted Daddy to haul his bony butt home. And for just a flash, I wanted to go back to the day Mother and Daddy begged me to check myself into a treatment center near The Cities, and say Okay, no problem. Haul me in. But oh no, not me. Fleeing was easier than commitment to change and sobriety came only after Mother's death a year ago. So when I got thrust into all the concern for my father, I was still fuzzy with how to grieve and unskilled in how to care. Most days I just wanted Mother's forgiveness and on the bad days, I wanted a whiskey sour and Daddys's death. I hated myself for thinking that. I hated myself for being inept. I hated the shame. I'd call my sponsor and confess, which made my bad thoughts a little less reprehensible to me.
"I need a ride to my car," I said, not looking at Debby.
Debby heaved the trash bags into the Dumpster. "I'll assist you with that." She released the lid and let it slam. "You seem to require a lot of help." We soon were back on the back roads and there was no sign of Daddy. I got out of her car as quickly as I could. Debby leaned over and said through the open window, "Make sure you don't leave town."
I thought for sure that I'd walk inside the house and he'd be there, all confused over something, but still at least there. But no. I had gone and lost Daddy. Oh Kristen, I could hear my mother say, emphasizing the last syllable of my name as if it were a weight on her tongue. I went back outside and sat on the patio glider and forced a smile. Hadn't I done it right the last time I visited? I had left with such high hopes that he'd cooperate over the trash.
~ ~ ~
Sun had glinted off the back window of Debby's police cruiser parked in my father's driveway that day of garbage instruction. I was going to be a dutiful daughter. Debby, whom I had known since nursery school, leaned against the car's hood, arms crossed, staring at my father who sat in full sun on the patio glider. A maple tree planted too close to the house shaded the other half of the glider where it had been custom for Mother to sit. Food stains marked my father's white shorts and all but one shirt button was open exposing his thin chest to the sun. Varicose veins burdened his skinny legs. His black shoes were polished to a luster, which harkened to a time of respectable dress. He had been dapper, Mother used to say, and so handsome, too handsome for his own good. Being too handsome, she said, spoiled a man, made him believe others should kowtow to him. My father would say, Emma, to the victor goes the spoils, and whatever he had done to anger Mother disappeared with his smile and kiss.
On that day, he raised his hand in greeting. "Hello Daddy," I said then nodded toward Debby. I placed my baseball cap on my Father's head to shade his face.
"Got a problem here," she said.
"Nothing major I hope."
"Like I told you the last time. He can't burn trash, Kristen."
"Like I told you the last time, I'm trying to convince him to stop. I took his matches."
"He's dug a pit. Maybe he thinks if no one can see the fire, no one can smell the smoke. But neighbors complain."
"Don't talk about him like he's not here."
"Shit you. It's my yard." Daddy left the glider and pulled up a dandelion. "I used to make wine with these." The dandelion bloom cast yellow onto his chin.
"He's not going to be able to stay here alone." She whispered as if taking me into her confidence. "He hasn't been right since your mother's death."
"I know that!" I yelled. "I got the letter."
"Pine Haven's not such a bad place."
"Never said it was." I could tell she was trying to irritate me. I slipped out of smile therapy and I frowned. "Look," I said, "I'll find and destroy his matches. Make him understand."
"He doesn't sort his recyclables. They won't pick up unless he sorts. So he burns."
"Geeze Debby, don't you have anything else to investigate?"
"Just make sure you fill in that pit." She looked smug, ignoring my anger like she was above it. I never did like Debby and I imagined her as she had been in high school, a bossy and overweight girl with skin pocked by acne scars, a voice that traveled down the hall loud and fast. I remembered avoiding her. I remember someone brave enough had once tripped her and caused her to fall, splayed out on the cold linoleum, skirt up above her waist. "What're you smiling about?" Debby asked. The gun tucked into her holster made me realize that it was better not to screw around with a girl I used to call Dubby who now had authority and a gun.
After Debby drove away that day, I sat in the grass and watched Daddy lick his finger then rub at a stain in his shorts. I wondered why it had to be that Mother had died and not him. I then asked some power of authority who might be milling around my thoughts to forgive me for that. What good did it do?
~ ~ ~
That day I lost Daddy, I did not want to go into the house, so I sat on the glider as if I were waiting for company to come so we could all go inside and talk about the good times, waiting for Daddy to stumble down the road, waiting for night to hide my fear. I stepped into the garage where my project of hope stood neglected. My foot hit a tin can and caused it to roll across the floor. That day I had yelled at Daddy, "You have to learn to recycle." I had yelled very loudly and worried that a neighbor might have heard through the open window.
"First. Give me my lunch," he had demanded.
"No," I said. "You learn to recycle."
"Ahhhhh." My father waved his hand. "Shit you."
"I'll make labels for containers." We were in the living room, and I opened the desk drawer and found a notepad with From the desk of Emma Stotz printed along the top. I stared at a list she had written, her perfect handwriting: Pamida: jar lids and rings, flyswatter, three-way light bulbs. I tore that list from the pad and crumpled it. On four separate sheets in black letters, I wrote: TIN, ALUMINUM, GLASS, PLASTIC.
"Now." He stood.
I gripped his shoulder. "Just sit down. Listen for once." I rubbed his shoulder. "Just listen. Okay?"
"Lunch." He wore Mother's blue sweater that she put on at night while reading. He played with a button. "Mustard and jelly with ham."
I sniffed the sliced ham. "How old is this stuff?" I ran my finger over the top slice; it did not feel slimy. "Where's the mustard?" Daddy nodded toward the pantry where the mustard sat near the cereal. I slapped his sandwich together. "You're supposed to keep mustard in the 'fridge. You want to make yourself sick?"
"Throw it all out. Bossy." Daddy ate the sandwich, licked his fingers, and stood. "I'm napping."
"Later." I grabbed his hand and yanked him outside.
The garage smelled of fertilizer, rust, and motor oil. It had been without a car ever since the accident. "You will learn." I set wooden crates and galvanized tubs on the floor then taped labels to each one. Flies buzzed into the windowpane through which sunlight filtered onto cans and jars. "A—lum—I—num." I stressed each syllable and threw a soda can into the basket.
My father stepped back. "Burn it. It's better. Just burn it."
"This stuff doesn't burn! Pay attention." I held a soup can then dropped it into a tub. "Tin. T—I—N." I lifted a ketchup container. "Plastic—marked with 1 or a 2." I pointed to the bottom. "See the 2 in that triangle?" Daddy nodded. I suspected he nodded to get me to leave him alone. "Plastic, which will kill you if you burn it and breathe in the fumes." I threw the container into a basket. "So don't burn it again," I shouted.
"Ahhhh," he waved in my face.
"G L A S S." I lifted a jar. "You don't have to peel labels off." I threw the jar into a tub, shattering it. Daddy turned the dials of a battered radio. "They won't take it if you don't separate it." I made him stand next to me. "Plastic." I handed him a jug. Instead of placing it in the proper bin, he set it down. He fiddled with the dials then stopped and lifted a jar. "Throw that in the binmarked G—L—A—S—S."
"Put the damn jar in there." I heard my anger echoing around me.
"No. Shit you."
Daddy tightened his grip. "No."
"That's it. I'm not going to play this game because I know—"
"Emma made this. It's her jelly." He pointed to the homemade label. "Emma's strawberry jam makes you smile." A bee buzzed inside the jar.
"There's a bee." I reached for the jar.
Daddy moved away. "I took sugar for her. And new lids. She needed them."
"That bee is going to sting you."
"Ahh." He waved, indicating that I was, as I had always been, a nuisance, and why did I bother coming home anyway? "Put some on toast," Daddy said.
"Okay. Some on toast." I forced lightness into my voice. I threw the jar into the tub where it busted. The bee flew up and landed on Daddy's hand. I swatted the bee to the floor and stepped on it. A red welt swelled on his hand. "It thought you were a flower."
"Ah." He waved my comment away. "Stupid."
I reminded myself that the stress—not my father—was calling me stupid.
Don't try to defend yourself against it. Let it go, Mother often said. It was harder to let it go without Mother around; she had understood the rules of recycling. And maybe Mother had understood what she was doing when she allowed Daddy to drive after his mild stroke and after he lost his license. For some reason on that particular day, she allowed him to drive. He rolled the car down an embankment near Pamida outside of town. Mother died of head injuries and internal bleeding. Sometimes I believed Mother had willed it, had purposely not fastened her seatbelt as a way to escape caring for him. Still, had Mother known she carried a death wish, she could have at least gone over the paperwork with me, given me power of attorney, put the house and all the money in my name. Could have at least said good-bye.
"I'm tired. Go home," Daddy had said that day after the recycling lesson.
I made a paste of baking soda and water to soothe the sting. "This will help." I tried to be gentle so he'd trust my command. "You can't keep burning trash."
"They're not my rules."
"We used to burn. Now look. Pay for everything. They don't let me do for myself. They want to take money. Money and money."
"You can afford trash pick up. Just separate the trash from the recyclables. Then they'll haul your garbage away. You used to know this. Now just do that, would you?"
"Just. Just." Daddy scraped at a stain by a button. He licked his finger and then wiped more vigorously at the stain. Rueben Stotz, your own spit's grease, my mother would say. Eighty-three degrees and he wore that blue sweater as if it kept him from freezing, the sleeves now ragged and dirty.
"Want some tea?"
"Emma makes coffee."
"Stop talking like she's here."
"Ahhhh." He motioned me away. I then watched him walk to his bedroom.
"I'll be here when you wake up. Don't worry," I tried to be hopeful and upbeat and supportive. The marked bins would work. I just knew it.
~ ~ ~
So much for hope. By nightfall Daddy had not come home. Debby called just to make sure I was there, as if she had authorized house arrest. I wandered around the house and into the bathroom where an expired bottle of calamine lotion sat on the shelf. I dotted my face with the pink liquid. The cabinet was full of expired medicines and ointments, yellowed Band-aids, Mother's prescriptions, which I dumped into the trash. I needed to keep moving, needed to stop the images of Daddy lost and scared in the woods, terrorized by an abductor, hungry and wet and tortured. I scrubbed the sink, tub, and toilet then mopped the floor.
I swarmed through kitchen cupboards, threw out a bag of hardened marshmallows and brown sugar, bug-infested flour, and stale graham crackers. I washed shelves, jars, and spice tins and scoured the stovetop. I had lost my father just because I was too lazy to get him into a safer place to live, never took the time to help him with any of this mess after she died, leaving him with a house full of Mother, which no doubt tortured him with constant yearning for her. Spoiled, I heard Debby spit, rotten like that food you dumped. I heard Mother's voice, Ungrateful, my own voice turned on me. I swept and mopped the floor and polished the furniture. I forced myself to smile as I thought of my failing business, the calls from bill collectors. I thought of Daddy's bank account. I made myself not think of his bank account, which was not large, but was sure larger than anything I had ever been able to amass. I had not only been lazy in keeping him in that house, I had been greedy. That expensive Pine Haven would eat up any money made from selling his modest house. There would go my inheritance, cheaper to keep him at home. I made myself smile even after I surprised myself and threw the can of Pledge through the kitchen window, then told myself to clean it up, clean it up now and don't miss one damn shard and don't even think about going to the municipal liquor store for a bottle of Jack Daniels. Clean up your mess.
I worked my way out of Saturday into Sunday across the living room, dining room and through the bedrooms. After putting clean sheets on Daddy's bed, I lay down and fell asleep. In a dream, I smelled lilac bushes, underneath which I once watched Daddy make love to Mother on a spring night. Purple iris smelled like grape jelly but then grew rotten, rotten like you, some voice said and mosquitoes buzzed so thickly around me, I could not see, could not find Daddy, his face misshapen by mosquito bites. I startled awake, thought I heard his voice calling me.
I believed Daddy was dead and I would forever suffer for what I had done. I ate jelly and stale chocolate candy. I hummed a hymn from Mother's funeral.For all the saints who from their labors rest. I did not feel adequate or good enough to plan my father's funeral and fell back on the useless wish of wanting Mother to come back from the dead, but not to do it herself. This time, I wanted her there so I could help her.
~ ~ ~
The phone rang on Monday morning. "We found him." Debby's voice was perky. When I arrived in the licorice factory owner's office, I saw Daddy asleep on the couch. Someone had covered his legs and feet, put a pillow under his head. Someone had thought to be kind to Daddy. Mosquito bites dotted his face and neck, the back of his hands. "Seems he snuck in after hours through that window," Debby said. "Found the water cooler and all the licorice he wanted." Empty licorice bags lay by the couch. She bit into a licorice twist.
"I'm taking him home." I pulled the blanket off, shocked at the bug bites and scratches among the varicose veins. His socks were snagged and torn. "He'll be fine.
Traipsing around in the woods had erased the polish from his shoes. In that drab and scuffed surface of his shoe leather, I understood how I had failed Daddy. I refused to acknowledge that confusion over the everyday chore of garbage sorting had diminished my father's integrity. Labels stuck to bins may have made me feel better—see what I have done for you—but the black of those words would have cast shame onto him. Had I ever complimented him over the shine that he always had buffed into his shoes?
"I put in another call to Social Services." Debby held out a slip of paper.
"Five hundred dollar fine for illegally dumping." The smile she flashed slapped my face. "Just figure it's Dubby's way to finally settle the score."
"I wasn't the only one who called you that," I defended.
"You are the only one who dumped illegally. And just so you know, odds among town folks were four to one that you had cracked far enough to do away with your daddy."
~ ~ ~
The man from Social Services plotted out Daddy's options: Pine Haven, which also offered assisted living should he need that someday. He mentioned the nursing home and home health care as well, but was pushing more for Pine Haven and I wondered if he had stock options in the place, owned by the Baptists who were getting richer and richer in town. He strongly encouraged me to contact a realtor to put the house on the market, too much for your father in his deteriorating mental health and abilities. He seemed repulsed when he looked at me, flabbergasted that I had not figured all this out on my own. "Fine. Fine," I said. "I'll consider it all." Apparently the man had heard enough about me to refrain from suggesting that I move in and act as caretaker of Daddy. Maybe he had placed a wager against me in the town's betting pool.
He finally got out of the chair and moved toward the door. "Maybe I should stay awhile," he said. "See how Mr. Stotz feels about moving."
"Perhaps you yourself have issues you'd like to discuss. Maybe I can help."
Some questions aren't worth an answer, Mother once said in response to a rude one I had asked about why she loved Daddy even though he was a self-centered narcissist. "Doubt it," I said to the man. "Don't send me any more letters, though. I don't need additional warnings."
He handed me his card. "I'll stop by in the morning, Mr. Stotz," he called to Daddy, who smiled. Pink calamine lotion dotted his face and neck. I had gone out and bought him new bottle. Didn't that prove I cared? Steam rose from his herbal tea, something the good social worker had suggested I make for Daddy. And perhaps I could do my father the favor of getting some groceries into the house, he suggested. "As I said, I'll stop by in the morning, Mr. Stotz." I wasn't sure if he repeated that as an assurance for Daddy or as a threat to me.
Daddy smiled and waved and kept waving even after the social worker disappeared. I took his hand to stop it from waving and ran my thumb along a tired vein.
You're not so different from him, Mother used to say, two peas in a pod, really.