“Daddy’s Done,” B.D. Fischer
“Daddy tole me there warn’t no such thing as race mixin’.”
“Well, if your granddad”–the little girl had meant granddad–“said that, I think that what he meant is that he, personally, doesn’t like, or approve of, miscegenation, but in our family …”
“What’s mixing the nation?”
“It’s ‘miscegenation,’ sweetie. All one word. Mis-ce-ge-nation. Sound it out.”
“But what is it?”
“Miscegenation? Miscegenation is … well, it’s race mixing, but in our family we don’t say race mixing, we say …”
“Well, sweetie, because, adults, polite people …”
“Granddad is polite. He even bows. To women. I seen it.”
“Yes, he does.”
“And Granddad says race mixin’. I hear him say it. All the time.”
“I know that he does. But in our family …”
“Ain’t we part of Granddad’s family?”
“Yes, but, Hannah, there is a difference between what we call the nuclear family and the …”
“Nuclear? Like Daddy says with them Russians?”
“No no no …”
“Daddy says ain’t nothing that can help with them Russians. No use even hiding under the bed. That works with the monsters but not with them Russians, Daddy says. Daddy says it’s just a guv’ment lie. There’s nothing we can do.”
“If it’s a-gonna happen it’s gonna happen, he says.”
“But Granddad says them Russians don’t have no chance. Says the Russians will have to hide under their beds. Ain’t got no chance ’gainst us, he says. Not ’gainst … what do he say?”
“I think you mean … the U.S. of A. He says the U.S. of A.”
“No he don’t. He says … what do he say?”
“The good old U.S. of A.”
“Right! And he says them Russians don’t have no chance ’gainst the good ol’ U.S. of A. ’specially not if they go nuclear, he says. But that’s not what Daddy says. Daddy says if anyone goes nuclear it’s all over, he says. We’ll all be deaded. In a flash.”
“Hannah, I’m not talking about the Russians. They’re two different things. Semantically related but different. Plus we should really say ‘Soviets.’ You remember how we talked about how words sometimes have two meanings, right? ‘Nuclear’ is one of those words. You remember?”
“Sometimes more than two.”
“That’s right. Sometimes more than two. You’re right.”
Hannah smiled, and shifted her rag doll from one arm to the other.
“Sometimes more than two meanings. Sometimes things mean even more than two things. Remember? That’s right. Good girl.”
Her mother took her hand from her pocket and gave Hannah a piece of candy and stood up.
“Don’t tell Granddad.”
She smiled and rustled the girl’s hair and patted her bottom and sent her stomping through the parlor. She brushed a strand of graying hair behind an ear and watched her daughter with folded arms until she was out of sight. It’s funny; how heavy a child’s footsteps. Heading toward the kitchen, Kate saw herself in the hallway mirror. She never wore makeup, but wished suddenly that she did, a wish that was like a longing. They had been there less than a week but that was long enough for Hannah to pick up the accent, and everything followed from that.
The difference, she would have said, and would tell her daughter when she was older, is that her grandfather sometimes adopted the very strong rhetorical tactic that tenured experts, like Jane herself, called “descriptive/prescriptive elision,” and stated his preferences, even his beliefs, as facts about the world, when the truth is that they were just dispositions. Jane had learned the term in graduate school, where it struck her dumb. She had tried to explain it to her father from the pay phone in her dormitory, collect, of course, because no one ever had that many dimes. It was hard to believe that she’d believed the term might change him, but the memory was right there. To her, looking back now with the plain jaundice of a prosecutor, it was the evidence. Of course, he’d told her to skip the debriefing, and demanded to know whether she was keeping herself clean, and why she didn’t call more often.
Her husband had refused to accompany them, no matter how she begged and bribed with voluminous and exotic sex acts. Her efforts were doomed to failure, she knew, because there was little he’d proven over the decade of their relationship that he couldn’t convince her at least to try, an advantage he lorded over her like a fake rabbit at a dog track. And yet it was, she felt, all she had. It was all she could think of. Among the many qualities that made her father so difficult (he had ruined their wedding with complaints about the myriad flowers, which he alleged made her look like a hippie, and un-American) was a militaristic (he’d retired just the previous fall a full bird colonel) antagonism toward refined sugar. His letters to his daughter in the months leading up to the visit had taken on an increasingly shrill tone. Kate (she went by Jane, or Kate, which was her middle name, after her mother) feared, correctly, that Hannah’s diet would be one of their biggest challenges. She’d only agreed to come when he wrote that the doctor had said that he wasn’t feeling good. It had been two years. But the week was coming to its end.
His lectures against sugar encompassed simultaneously all arguments and objections, as had been his lifelong practice. The length of her life, at least. “Totalitarian” was the word that came to mind. If one did not put up one’s back one found one’s self in the awkward position of agreeing that tax subsidies for refined sugar just might be a Communist plot to weaken the American economy, by reducing our youth to obesity and bankrupting us with the best healthcare system in the world. This is where we were headed, he said, and invited his daughter to mark his words. He invited her repeatedly. Everything looked OK now, sure. But it always does.
Arnold had always fought the Russians. At home over the Christmas break of Jane’s sophomore year, as the niggers were taking to the streets with their firebombs and the Communists were mounting their marches against the patriotic efforts in the Mekong, she’d suggested over dinner that the Soviet system must have something to it; after all, it had tens of millions of devotees. They couldn’t all be the subjects of political manipulation. It just wasn’t possible. She looked up from her plate to his empty visage, and he waited only an endless second before slapping her across the face, sending the mashed potatoes in her mouth to the wall in a clumpy spray. They locked eyes in the aftermath, his a vacant anger, and then he wiped his face with a napkin and left the table. The daughter he left behind began to cry, of course, but not until he was already gone.
And so he had always fought the Russians. He had wanted to be a soldier from the time he was old enough to want anything. The armed services were he was sure the one place that he’d never have to worry about working with a black man. He’d never have to worry about mixing. By the time of the executive order, as he poised on the eve of his majority and enlistment, it was in his blood, degenerated into instinct whether by inborn inclination, accident of culture, or sheer repetition.
Queerly, her husband’s name was also Arnold, although he went by his middle name, which was Arthur, shortened to Art. He had been named after Arnold Palmer by his mother, who enlisted early in his Army and grew simply dipsy at the sight of him hitching up his pants and walking a fairway lined with trees like the statues of great Greek gods, smoking a cigarette. Jane would be startled, years later, to learn that Arnold Palmer was also a drink. Over the course of his youth Art observed his father beaten by degrees by her obsession to a basement retreat, where he practiced his optical illusions. This sanctuary was the site of his eventual demise, a victim of his own increasingly lengthy seclusions and an imperceptible gas leak. It took his wife nearly two days to notice that he was missing; eventually, a certain perception, of offness and bad angles, infiltrated the upstairs, and she called over her son. He discovered the body of his father in the fog of a stink beneath the house where he grew up, and in the aftermath of days he coached his mother through an immobile shock. It was, Art felt, a particular lack of fortune, and quite funny: The president had just the previous week urged the nation to don their cardigans. Some kind of malaise, he said. And so his father missed meeting his granddaughter by a matter of months.
No one knew where Hannah’s extant grandfather acquired his remarkably tenacious racial inclinations. Jane remembered his parents, such as they were, as Southern, sure, Deep Southern, even, and doubtless prejudiced, probably even racist. After all her training, she had no doubt about this. But and yet she was still sure that she’d seen her grandfather shake a black man’s hand. It was a certainty amidst the swirling, although she couldn’t say exactly where or when. But she was sure she had seen him do it. She was sure she had seen him do what to this day his son bragged he had never done and would never do. She was sure of it. Almost.
She stopped off in the kitchen to take care of the dishes. She turned on the water and looked out the window above the sink, an idle hand testing the temperature of the stream. There was nothing to see but the sky. There were few dishes to do, and a dishwasher would have been a waste; her father had only four plates, and he abhorred waste. She let the water run over her hand. She worried that even Hannah’s limited exposure to her grandfather had somehow harmed her irreparably, and yet she worried the same about his absence. She worried that Hannah would never be able to look at Russians as people. She wished she hadn’t said “nuclear.” She wished she could make Hannah see that the kids in Russia were just like her. Sometimes she called out for them in the night, but Art insisted that they leave her alone. He insisted that she be made to deal with her fears on her own. He’d call out for her to be strong and to go back to sleep; she’d cry out about the Russians and the monsters; he’d repeat himself; Jane would keep quiet.
“It’s nothing to worry about,” he’d say after their daughter had quieted, stroking a cheek with a knuckle stained red. “If it comes, it comes. We’ll be dead in an instant. There are worse ways to go.”
She picked up a glass from the counter beside the sink. He had no more glasses than he had plates, most of them premiums from convenience stores and fast-food restaurants. But Jane had solved this problem by purchasing a package of 50 Dixie cups at the grocery store in Andalusia, for her and Hannah to use throughout the week, although she hated filling up a landfill. Her plan had worked mostly well. She brought a sponge to the glass unlooking. All she could see out the window was sky. She made circles with the sponge. She had offered to get him a microwave so that he didn’t eat so much fast food. But then she told him how much they cost–had asked her directly and insisted on an answer–and the discussion had ended.
The Colonel had plenty of silverware.
She missed Art. She was glad he hadn’t come with them. It would have been easier but it would have been harder. She loved Hannah so much. She was sorry her daughter had struck out so roundly when it came to grandparents. She felt obscurely responsible for this. Far off she heard a distant clattering, as if of glass against glass. But she had been bereft of a mother and it hadn’t hurt her. Still there was the guilt. The everywhere and always guilt.
Her father’s parents had been born in the nineteenth century. This seemed especially unimaginable. Soon enough it would be the twenty-first century. Her friends had already been excited for a decade. It was inevitable. Hannah would be old enough to drink. Old enough to go to college and surpass her mother. Old enough to …
“Hannah!” she called out.
There was no response, but neither any further clattering.
She loved Hannah so much that things were often hard. What had her mother felt, in the months and years after she left? Do the feelings ever fade, she wondered, or were they like a sun-drenched fruit, dappled and rotten and expanding with maggots? It was nice to have so much time together this week. Special. There would be good memories. There would be good memories even though no one had a good time.
When she was done with the dishes she went out to the porch where her father was smoking his pipe and wearing a cardigan sweater. He was literally rocking in his rocking chair.
The sun was not quite going down. Not another building broke the line of fallow fields to the horizon.
“I’ve told you about letting that screen door slam. Going to ruin that daughter of yours with your laziness.”
“Got to learn responsibility. Never too early, young lady. Counting on you to set that example. The whole country is.”
“Lord knows with that husband of yours her chances aren’t good. Man needs a haircut.”
Jane dug with her toe at a loose nail in the porch.
“Would have been better for Hannah if you’d had some kind of role model growing up. Lord knows you weren’t going to take after me.”
“And better that you didn’t.”
He tapped out his pipe on the railing. The porch was so long and wide she felt briefly as though she were falling, from a great and changing height. He was receding, arm’s length a stride-and-a-half, miles away …
“We’re leaving soon, Daddy. Our flight is tomorrow morning. Do you remember?”
He reached into his sweater and pulled a sack of tobacco from his breast pocket.
“And I need you … I want you … you have to cut back on the racial talk. With Hannah, I mean. Art and I don’t approve of it.”
He tamped down the tobacco with a knuckle.
“We’re not going to come back any more, Daddy. Not if you don’t. Art … won’t allow it.”
“Well, you need to do as your husband says. It’s in the Good Book.”
“Didn’t you … used to have a neighbor?”
“The Grovers. Damn house blew away a few summers back. Moved into Andalusia with her sister. I wrote you about those tornadoes, remember. Power went out and I missed the Gipper’s damn acceptance speech. I was hopping mad.”
“And now … there’s no one else here?”
He shook his head.
“Not all the way to town.”
Jane nodded. Could it really be, that he’d never held a black hand in his own? The rustling dry skin, thick with diminution, fragrant with color. Was it possible?
“Katie Kate … why the sad look?”
“It’s been … good to see you, Dad.”
“Well, you, too. And Hannah, of course. Wouldn’t mind getting a letter once in a while.”
“I know. I mean to. We’re just so busy, with Hannah back and forth to nursery school, and I’m teaching three classes next term, and Art’s paintings have been selling like crazy …”
She went to him, nearly out of breath.
“This is the last time you’re going to see us, Daddy.”
He shrugged her hand off his shoulder. The lighting of the pipe lengthened something, like the inflating of a balloon.
“You’re much too big for me to tell you what to do, Katie. But I’m sure you could do a better job.”
“I know,” she said. “I … know.”
“My only grandchild.”
“We’re not coming back, Daddy.”
“Well, maybe once I feel a little better I’ll make my way back up there. Maybe for one of Hannah’s birthdays.”
He wouldn’t be getting better.
“You wouldn’t … be welcome, Daddy. You wouldn’t be welcome. Not in Art’s home. Not in my home.”
“Well, that’s the American way, I suppose. Freedom and all.”
“That’s what Korea was all about, you know. So that you and your mother …”
“I know, Daddy. I understand.”
“Damn pipe keeps going out.”
He took it from his mouth and tilted it toward the setting sun.
“I want to take Hannah into town one last time, Daddy. She likes to climb on the statues in the square.”
“Good girl. There’s nothing more American than those Confederate heroes, you know.”
She would also get her daughter an ice cream cone, she thought. Hannah loved coffee ice cream, although Art had forbidden it because of hyperactivity. The caffeine. But tonight, Jane thought, she would allow it. She wished her father would come and join them. It wasn’t hard to imagine. Before he grew so jumbled he would have come with them. He would have ruined everything, but he would have come. Still, she wanted to ask him. Old instincts. Quiet, nodding, she turned on the heel of a very shabby shoe and called for her daughter, who came running. Her father told her not to yell, raising his voice, and asked if she cared at all about raising a daughter with any manners. The little girl walked out onto the porch, still holding the rag doll. She walked over to the old man and raised up to his lowered cheek. Then she took her mother’s hand, walked to the car, and they drove into town for the last time.