My Daddy’s Voice
Daddy and I were close before it all happened. Not that it just happened. I made my choices. I wish I’d known how secrets can grind you down, how far apart they can make people feel. Not saying a dead man would still be alive today. Just wish I’d known.
I learned early on that our neighbors in Croft’s Corners saw Daddy as different. The first time I knew for sure was in a soccer game at recess back in third grade. I don’t even know what other girls did during recess, but I always rushed to be first on the soccer field. It was Brody, of all people, who said it. We were always on opposite teams because we were both the fastest, though I couldn’t muscle through a crowd the way he could, and he couldn’t fake kids out the way I could. One of the smaller boys on Brody’s team broke free, and Brody trotted up the field behind him shouting, “Yes! Yes! Sweet Jesus, yes!”
One of his own teammates said, “Not everyone believes.”
By then the kid who broke free had let the ball get too far ahead of him, and my team’s goalie scooped it up easily.
“Man,” said Brody, “if you don’t believe in Jesus, you’re crazy.”
“What about Carla’s dad? He doesn’t believe in Jesus.”
Before that moment, I had no idea it was common knowledge around Croft’s Corners.
“That’s different,” said Brody. “It’s against his religion.”
Daddy dressed differently, too, being the only lawyer in town. When he took the train to the city, he’d wear a wheat-colored trench coat over a three-piece suit. Mama would drop him off at Manitou Station, which should have been called Manitou Crossing because nothing except a lone sign on the southbound side set it apart from every other railroad crossing in the county. Sometimes the ride left Daddy all rumpled and sweaty when we picked him up at seven or eight in the evening. Those puny metal fans in the corners of the cars didn’t do much against the heat of summer or early fall. If Daddy was running late in the morning, I’d be sure to grab a book because Mama would rush me into the car and drive all the way to Peekskill so Daddy could catch the express train. Daddy would kiss mom on the cheek, grab his briefcase and slam the door of the Plymouth behind him. At Peekskill Station everyone dressed like Daddy, all trench coats and briefcases. He’d jog up the stairs in a pack of trench coats to the covered footbridge that crossed the tracks. It was the briefcase that did us all in.
Fall of junior year, I didn’t ride with Mom to ferry Daddy around anymore. We had dinner late on weeknights so we could all eat together. The three-bulb hanging light bathed the kitchen table in glaring white but left the plaster walls and the windows in dark shadows. Daddy had made innocent mistakes on the train before: a lost fedora hat, a lost scarf in winter. When the phone on the wall rang, my mom answered with her extra-surly tone for people who interrupted mealtimes. Yes, Mr. Kirshner was there. Could she ask what this was regarding?
Her eyes turned to daddy, who was spooling a perfect ball of linguine onto his fork by turning it against his tablespoon. She offered him the phone. “Man says you took his briefcase on a mistake.”
Daddy set down his utensils and took the phone. “Yes. Fine. And yourself?” Daddy had that same buttoned-downed way of talking to everybody on the phone. Didn’t matter whether you were some stranger from the train or my Uncle Shane. “I’ll certainly check. Just a moment.” He let the phone dangle by its curly-cue cord over the back of his chair.
Daddy flicked the foyer wall switch, and it cast its feeble light down on his thinning gray hair and the hat rack with his fedora on it. He approached the briefcase parked beside the front door real slow, as if he were taking in the scent of it. His face soured as he picked it up. Holding it over one forearm, he unlatched it and checked a few papers inside. Then he latched it up again and set it down.
Back at the phone, Daddy apologized in his same buttoned-down tone. “Terribly sorry, Mr. Dubois.” He said Da-boys, like my trigonometry teacher, Mrs. Dubois, so the voice on the line must have said it that way, too. It was only later that the news anchors would say his name all French. We didn’t see any of it coming then, not Daddy and me. Daddy told Mr. Dubois our address nice and slow so he could write it down, told him he’d know he went too far if he saw Pete’s Bait and Tackle on his left.
“So, you just letting him come right to our front door then?” Mama’s words never made you squirm in your seat. The silence after did.
“It’s my mistake as much as his,” Daddy said. “Least I can do.”
“He doesn’t sound right.” Now, you might be thinking Mama saw it all coming, plain as day, but truth be told, Mama warned us like that all the time. Lots of people didn’t sound right, didn’t look right, didn’t act right by Mama’s way of thinking.
“But he should trust me to go to his front door? What if I don’t sound right to him?” Daddy had that way of flipping things around.
About a half hour later, the headlights of a sedan with a wide grill pulled into the driveway. Mr. Dubois turned out to be a red-faced man with a shock of greasy black hair that shot off at an angle from his widow’s peak. Daddy mustered a little chuckle to go with his buttoned-down smile. Looking up from my trigonometry homework as Mamma dried off the big pasta pot, I couldn’t see his mouth over Daddy’s shoulder, but the eyes never smiled back at him.
The phone calls started the next day. Mama took the first of them, at least the first I overheard. She waited five rings before taking up the phone. She said she’d let Daddy know Mr. Dubois called. Daddy used his buttoned-down phone voice when Mr. Dubois called again that night, but his voice strained on the two calls the night after, the same words jabbing in starts and stops. There couldn’t possibly be any missing documents. He had no interest in any trade secrets. No one was conspiring.
On Thursday night, Uncle Shane stopped by to leave one of his shotguns and a box of ammo. Daddy didn’t mind when Uncle Shane took me hunting or fishing, but normally he didn’t allow guns in the house. That night he didn’t say a word as Mama pushed the top lever to one side with her thumb and folded the double barrel down to check inside for rust. I stayed curled up on the couch pretending to read Moby Dick for English class as Daddy struggled to keep his cool through the first three calls from Mr. Dubois. Uncle Shane and Mama shared quiet glances. Uncle Shane left around nine thirty. The fourth call came when we were all in bed. After that, the phone didn’t ring, it just buzzed all night with its off the hook sound.
It was Mama who had the idea to just disconnect the wire behind the phone during dinner the next night. She made shepherd’s pie, Daddy’s favorite. Usually Daddy did most of the talking at dinner or at least got me talking about school or my friends. That night, Daddy didn’t have much to say. We all just chewed our food and waited, the silence hanging, stark and heavy, between the clatter of forks against plates. The pounding on the front door shattered the stillness. Mama stared over at Daddy. He kept chewing his food for an endless moment or two. The pounding came again, and he brought his napkin to his lips as he rose.
Mama put a hand on his arm as he went to step around her chair. “Be careful, Ez.”
This time Daddy didn’t open the door very wide. He stood in the opening, so I couldn’t make out Dubois’s red face at all, just the low rumble of his voice above the hum of the cicadas outside.
Daddy’s words came out taut but measured, like a teacher’s last warning before a trip to the principal’s office. “Mr. Dubois, I have nothing of yours. You need to remove yourself from our property before I call the police.” After a few more rumbles from Mr. Dubois, Daddy cut him off. “Then I have no choice. Leave, and don’t trespass here again.” The door shut, and Daddy stepped back to the table. Though his voice had kept steady, his fork shook off all the shepherd’s pie a few times before he could manage a bite just for show. Then he plugged the phone back in and called the police.
Mama and Uncle Shane kept saying restraining orders were good for nothing, but for a little while, it seemed like Daddy had proved them wrong.
Then walking home from field hockey practice on Thursday, I heard a car creeping beside me along Church Road.
“Carla Kirshner?” The voice shot out from the open driver’s side window of a sedan, turquoise, with a wide grill and sharp protruding fenders. That red face with the widow’s peak angled towards me, the eyelids swollen and lined.
I turned my head away and picked up my pace.
The emblem on the long hood inched past me.
I could have turned around, headed back towards the school. But I kept on, my backpack bobbing behind me. I tightened my grip on my field hockey stick.
“Carla, I need a word with you.” He leaned sideways, his loosened tie still pointing straight down.
The car pulled a length ahead and squeaked to a stop. A seatbelt made a hollow click as it unfastened.
I heard heavy footsteps behind me and turned.
Brody’s white football jersey flew to the car door. “What the hell you want with her?” I’d never heard him shout so loud. He charged up to the window, nearly grabbed Dubois by the collar. Then the tires screeched, and the car sped off, spraying pine needles and shredded elm leaves behind it.
Brody knelt down to pick up his cleats and sling them back over one side of his shoulder pads by the laces. “You okay?”
“Course.” I tried to hide the adrenaline still vibrating my hands. “Was just about ready to smash that car myself.”
Brody rose up and looked down into my eyes. He gripped my shoulder. “You know that guy?”
“He’s some crazy business guy decided my Daddy’s part of a conspiracy or something. Daddy already called the cops on him.”
“I can see how much good that’s doing.”
Brody and I walked together to my house the way we did sometimes. I was glad for the company. He told me Sunday was a home game, and I should come. I told him Saturday was hay crew at Uncle Shane’s farm, and we’d probably need him. He said he knew. Uncle Shane already told him.
Friday afternoon Mama baked apple pies with Jerry Lee Lewis blasting on the living room stereo. The whole time the phone kept ringing, but she just ignored it.
I helped her slice some apples. But the constant ringing riled me. “Can’t we just unplug it again?”
“What?” Mama shouted.
“The phone, can’t we leave it unplugged again?”
“Soon as your father tells us what train he’s making.” We’d worked out a signal ahead of time with Daddy and Uncle Shane, three rings, then hang up and call back.
Mom went on rolling out her pie crusts. Mrs. Oliver down the street had borrowed our rolling pin and forgot to return it. Mama valued a good grudge better than a dumb rolling pin any day, so she had to roll out her crusts with a bottle of Irish Whiskey that Uncle Shane was partial to. It worked fine.
The oven preheating began to make me sweat under my T-shirt. I unbolted the front door and stood behind the screen.
“Shut that door, Carla.” Mama drew the back of her arm over a bead of sweat on her forehead, the kitchen window behind her closed and locked.
Savoring one last breath of fall air, I shut the door. When she stared at the deadbolt, I twisted the little knob to lock it.
I couldn’t count the unanswered calls before the phone finally silenced after a third ring. Daddy called back to tell Mama what train he was making, the five ten at Manitou Station. Daddy had never made a train before six thirty before, but he never had to plan around someone he didn’t want to meet by chance before either. I didn’t tell Mama or Daddy I had first-hand information that Mr. Dubois took at least some weekdays off. We ate an early dinner. No dessert, the pies were for tomorrow’s lunch after hay crew. I told Mama I didn’t mind the outdoor part of hay crew, but I couldn’t work in the barn if I started getting a migraine again. She said I could leave whenever I needed if it was okay with Uncle Shane.
It was the first hay crew that Mama didn’t need to wake me for. Sleep wouldn’t come to me except in tiny wakeful dreams. I heard her rise at a quarter of four in the morning, the scuffing of her slippers, the creaking of the floorboards, the belching of the coffeemaker.
I pulled on overalls, picked out my lightest T-shirt and stuffed a bandana in my hip pocket. I followed the scent of coffee into the kitchen. Mama had three pairs of work gloves waiting on the counter.
Through the back window of the Plymouth on the way to Uncle Shane’s, the red taillights gave a crimson glow to the brush along the roadside. The headlights probed the shadows between the trees as we snaked between the mountains. Everything else waited in the predawn black.
Even in the dark, Brody’s figure was easy to pick out as we pulled up next to the flatbed truck. He towered over a few seasonal ranch hands I didn’t know too well. One, a fireplug of a man with a black ponytail, had come the last three years running and brought his dog, an old pit bull named Hondo. The orange tip of Uncle Shane’s cigarette traced broad arcs as he gestured to others to emphasize something important I couldn’t hear.
I climbed out of the car, and we all nodded at each other.
“No dog today?” I said to Ponytail.
He looked down and shook his head. “Had to put him down.”
“Aw. How old was he?”
“He was just nine, but he got some bone disease. Had to do it.”
Daddy climbed out of the car in his oversized white dress shirt and his refinishing mask. Daddy got terrible hay rash in years past, but he’d learned how to keep it at least partly under control.
Ponytail stared at him and snickered. “We working a hay crew or a space crew over here?”
Uncle Shane straightened the bill of his cap. “You can take the boy out of the city…” He ground out his cigarette butt.
Mama revved up the Plymouth again and drove up the hill to get things ready in the barn.
A thin purple strip along the horizon replaced a few of the morning stars and signaled us to begin. I pulled my work gloves from my back pocket and fell in behind my uncle as we formed a line from the first cluster of bales to the bed of the truck.
Uncle Shane, still gray and shadowy in the starlight, took up the first bale by the baling wires and tossed it at me. I caught it by the wires and tossed it back to Ponytail. When I turned back, the next hay bail was flying from Uncle Shane’s gloved hands. When I swung it behind me, Ponytail’s gloved hands swept up at the ready. We kept on that way. With each instant, each repetition, the movements of my uncle stayed the same, but the horizon behind him changed, one less star, one shade further from purple, one shade closer to orange.
When the first rays exploded over the hillside, that was when I knew. I caught each bail and slung it into the waiting hands of Ponytail just the same, but I decided. My Uncle Shane’s figure took on the apricot color of the fall morning. The lines across Ponytail’s forehead grew sharper. Maybe I didn’t have a decision to make. Maybe everything was already in motion, just like the ceaseless flight of the hay bales and the silent music of the dawn beyond the hills.
By the time we had all the field’s bales by the truck, morning-blue had overtaken most of the dawn-orange along the horizon. At first, we could all help toss the bales onto the bed, but as the layers stacked up higher, my best toss barely cleared the top edge. I climbed up over the roof of the cab and onto the bales to help my uncle lay them snugly into place. After a few more layers, only Brody could manage to toss them up to us. He flung them skyward the way you’d set a volleyball for your teammate to spike it home. When the last of them was in place, he tossed the straps over too. Uncle Shane and I made sure they lined up straight over the bellies of the bales, and the ranch hands fastened them tight on the other side.
Brody grabbed his football gear from the passenger side of his family’s pickup truck and threw it in the back to make room in the cab. Two of the ranch hands hopped into the bed. I squeezed in next to Brody to make room for Daddy on my right. The doors shut.
Brody started in reverse, then turned towards the barn, kicking up a plume of dust. “We smell like a bag of assholes.”
Over the crunching of shale, the engine of the flatbed truck roared to life behind us. The road to the barn wound through craggy, pine-covered hills, the kind that made most of Croft’s Corners lousy farmland. Behind us Uncle Shane had to take the turns extra slow for fear of dumping half the load into a gully, straps or no straps.
Mama waited out in front of the barn. Uncle Shane had a rickety old conveyor belt that eased the bales up into the loft. I helped drop the bales onto the bottom of the conveyor for a while, carved out a little staircase of bales so Mama could do the rest.
Up in the loft, the heat drenched us in sweat as we got to work staking the bales. The air, thick with swirling hay dust, burned my throat, even with a bandana pulled over my mouth. Uncle Shane coughed through his bandana every few seconds.
Ponytail coughed too. “Agent Orange hay.”
Uncle Shane shook his head. “Maybe some parsnip or poison ivy got bailed in.”
The only one who didn’t cough was Daddy in his green plastic refinishing mask with the filters on the sides.
Uncle Shane glanced at him as he squeezed past me to the conveyor. “Ezra, he’s the smart one.”
That was Daddy’s way. It wasn’t always pretty. It wasn’t always the way most people did things, but he gritted through, and sometimes he came out ahead.
We all soldiered on to the drum beat of the bales falling off the top of the conveyor and onto the planks of the loft. Then my temples started pounding. “Uncle Shane, I’m getting a fierce headache. You think maybe Brody could drive me home?”
“We’ve got it from here. Another hour’s all we need. You sure you don’t want to stay for some lunch? I think your mama made apple pie.”
“I know. I couldn’t eat anyway. I just want a shower and a couch to myself. I’ll send Brody right back.”
I sat on the floor, my shoulder against the fridge, for a long time. The current of air from its base warmed my thigh through the terry cloth robe. The shotgun lay in the kitchen doorway, beyond it the ever-expanding pool of blood. The metallic smell began to overwhelm me. I went up on both knees, afraid I might retch on myself. Daddy had just said “stay right there” on the phone. He didn’t say whether he was coming first or calling the cops or calling an ambulance for what was left of Mr. Dubois, but the whine of the approaching siren drifted in with the breeze. The front door creaked open a little wider on its own. For a second or two, I thought about Mr. Dubois’s spirit walking out that door, but I knew if it did, it’d be back again tomorrow or the day after.