By Sherry Shahan
This excerpt, originally published in Normal School, is from a a work-in-progress memoir titled Dancing on the Roof of a Fleabag Motel.
Daddy had on his red swim trunks with fish that squirmed when he walked. Stains rimmed the armholes of his wife-beater undershirt. The worst name ever. He pocketed his car keys and grabbed the deck of playing cards with pictures of naked women.
I pinched his arm hair. “Can I go with you, please? I won’t make a peep. Promise!”
“Not this time, honey. Besides, Mom is on her way home.”
He could’ve at least pretended to have a job—to pack a lunch pail and head out in regular clothes. Every time he left I had this fear he might not come back. He was in such a damn hurry he forgot to kiss me good-bye.
His shadow wobbled inside the truck cab as he backed out the driveway. I pressed my nose to the smeary front window and flipped him the bird. He slowed at the curb to wave but my nine-year-old fists were frozen to the glass.
The truck evaporated, and I wondered when mom would really be home. First she had to stop and scoop up my little brother from a lady with a house full of other people’s kids.
I slid off the couch and attacked Daddy’s argyles with scissors, making a spiffy skirt for my doll Carol Sue. Then I scampered off to the bathroom, squinting at the peach fuzz between my eyebrows. Mom said I was too young to pluck. Maybe a razor would work? But I worried about stubble.
In the kitchen I stretched the curly cord on our Bakelite phone. It had a pullout drawer with a thin pad inside. The number of Mom’s work was written in red pencil. I’d only called a couple of times because the manager always sounded like he wanted to smack someone.
I traced a hole on the dial with my finger, wondering if my friend Bonnie could come over and practice smoking. We’d never truly be grown up until we could inhale without coughing. And I wanted to teach her the right way to hold a cigarette. Not between her two middle fingers.
Our wall clock said six-fifteen. She’d be combed and spruced at her dining room table with cloth napkins her mother had ironed while wearing red bareback pumps. Her father would be passing a bowl of fluffy potatoes made from a box and a platter of pork chops with crispy fat.
Sometimes it was hard being Bonnie’s friend.
Roger would ditch dinner to come over; he loved me that much. I picked up the phone and started to dial his number, then slammed it down, because there was this birdbrained rule against girls calling boys. Instead I called the cocktail lounge around the corner. “Is my daddy there?”
The guy who answered said, “What’s his name?”
“Hang on, kid.”
I heard him holler, “Anyone in here named John?”
“Sorry, kid,” he said when he came back. “He’s not here.”
“Are you sure there isn’t a John?”
“I’m pretty sure.”
“Then what do you people do? Pee on the floor?” He laughed before hanging up, but it didn’t make me feel better.
I slid a stick of Beech Nut into the phone drawer for later, snatched a steak knife off the kitchen counter, and wound it in a paper napkin.
The sun gave up on the day beyond the window and backyard fence. It blew me a fiery kiss and I blew one back, heading to the tree in the front yard. It grew from a square of dry weeds between the sidewalk and gutter.
Since our nosy neighbors were probably watching I made a big show of hiking up my skirt before hoisting myself onto the lowest limb. From there it was an easy climb to the branch that was all mine—the one near the top under the streetlight. Not that I was afraid of the dark. I liked places where no one could see me.
My legs dangled, ankles hooked, as I uncurled a thick strip of bark. The flesh underneath glistened, and smelled slightly sweet, as if Green Apple Kool-Aid gushed through its veins.
I felt light-headed from going all day on a single peanut-butter-and-graham- cracker sandwich. The leftover goop that stuck to the roof of my mouth was long gone. I carved a lazy S, pressing down hard, watching the tree bleed. I didn’t care that I was scarring it, because there was love in what I was doing.
“Sherry and Roger sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g . . .” I hacked a crooked W for my last name. “First comes love, then comes marriage . . . ” I wiped the blade on my skirt, then dug in to carve Roger’s R.
I heard our Rambler before it floated below me into the driveway. Mom got out and walked to the passenger’s side, her kitten heels clicking. She moved slowly, like she didn’t want to get to where she was going.
Once inside the house, the lights flicked on. She’d put my brother to bed, probably still in his play clothes, without brushing his teeth. I’d never get away with that.
Would she come outside to look for me? Maybe if I faked a cough she’d smear an old t-shirt with Vicks VapoRub, wave it over a flame on the stove, and smooth it on my chest.
The porch light twitched. “Sherry, are you out here?” Mom moved into the amber light, shading her eyes, a skinny shadow of herself. “Are you up in that tree?”
“Coming!” She hadn’t forgotten about me after all.
“Oh, honey. You shouldn’t be up there in the dark. Where’s your father?”
“Um, at the Piggly Wiggly?” No way I’d rat him out. He got in enough trouble on his own.
Mom took my hand as soon as I hit the ground and I knew all I needed was her warmth. “Have you had dinner?”
I took off my headband because the metal teeth were scalping me. “Not yet.”
“How about a fried Spam sandwich? I’ll let you open the can.”
I loved the tiny key that hooked over the thin sliver of metal. I loved twisting it and hearing the sucking noise of salty-jelly just pink enough to let everyone know a pig had been pulverized before being squeezed into a tin. And I loved my mom because she never forgot I loved those things.
The next morning I threw back the covers and slid from bed, hoping to catch her in the bathroom before work, drawing on cat eyes with liquid pencil. She’d paint her naturally plump lips with Pink Minx lipstick in a hairspray fog. I doubted Daddy appreciated his wife’s movie star qualities.
“Mom?” No answer. “Mom!”
The house was quiet. Nothing left but her smells. I stood in the bathroom where they were strongest, inhaling sprays, sticks, and creams, wondering if my parents even liked each other.
I’d seen the employee’s lounge at her work—a square room behind the office where the mean manager hung out when he wasn’t bossing people around. The room had a mini refrigerator, a portable hot plate, and square table to eat on. If I squinted hard enough at the cot, the manager’s idea of getting off your feet, I could picture Mom’s overnight valise and fuzzy slippers between its wooden legs.
I climbed onto the kitchen counter for a box of Cocoa Puffs, figuring Daddy spent the night somewhere else. Then I saw him in the backyard through the window. He was dead asleep in the hammock in a weird position, looking like a rubber toy.
Some kids learned to tiptoe on days when their dad worked graveyard. I learned to do the same after one of Daddy’s all-nighters. I eased the sliding glass door over its gritty runners, stepped out and dropped to my hands and knees, then crawled toward the hammock.
There was no reason to sneak. Daddy probably wouldn’t wake up if I turned the garden hose on him. He never looked like this, not even on his worst hangover days. Pale and grinning too hard, matching that awful snapshot in my dreams.
I got that upside down fizzy feeling in my stomach and inched closer when I saw a spider on his shoulder. I figured a spider could kill a man who cheats when playing checkers with a fourth-grader.
“Daddy, wake up! There’s a spider!”
He jolted from his stupor. “You trying to give me a heart attack!”
“S-s-pider . . . your shoulder!”
Daddy jerked and the hammock swung, nearly dumping him on his empty beer cans. He seized the culprit, squished it gutless with his fingers, and displayed what was left on the tip of his thumb.
“Damn black widows. Females are the worst. That’s why you have to clap your shoes together before putting them on. Always remember that, okay honey?”
“Okay, Daddy.” He pulled me in and I pressed my cheek to his t-shirt, because stinky dried sweat was better than nothing. “You saved my sorry ass, honey.”
That life-saving deed did something to me, made me feel it was my job to look after him. Maybe because we didn’t have a dog or cat that would scratch my eyes out or one of those goldfish from the school fair that you get when your Ping-Pong ball lands in a glass bowl. Or maybe because no one else cared enough about him.
That night I felt like such a baby cradling Carol Sue, when just the day before Roger and I had been practice-kissing on top of my bedspread. She shook in my arms when wordless voices bled through the wallpaper. First rat-a-tat anger, then a dull sob. “Can’t take it anymore . . .”
I stroked Carol Sue’s stiff hair and told her the lie that everything would be okay.
Mom pleading. “Just sign the papers.”
I slipped from bed and pulled a sheet of paper from my notebook. Using my ruler I drew a straight line down the middle. A stick figure of Daddy on one side and Mom on the other. I set the paper on my dresser, folded it in half, and creased it until my thumb hurt. Then I folded it the other way and did the same.
Daddy’s voice. “I’ll get a job.”
“Really? Who’ll hire you?”
I tore the paper carefully, starting at the top, working to give my parents equal halves because I wanted to be fair. The teensiest scrap fluttered away on its own. I figured that lost piece was me.
I grabbed a bobby pin off my dresser and stuck it in Carol Sue’s skull. Dumb doll.
Sherry Shahan lives in a laid-back beach town in California where she grows carrot tops in ice cube trays for pesto. Her novel in free verse Purple Daze: A Far Out Trip, 1965 features a tumultuous year in history. Shorter work has appeared in Oxford University Press, Los Angeles Times, Exposition Review, Confrontation, The Writer and forthcoming from Gargoyle, Gold Man Review, F(r)iction, and Critical Read. She holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and taught a creative writing course for UCLA for 10 years.