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Issue #7 |

A Girl Walks into a Bar

O’Dooley’s was the place where men told jokes. I’d just turned eleven when Dad started taking me there after swim class, my towel-dried hair dribbling water over the thick green carpet as we made our way to the bar. I didn’t shower after class and the chlorine made my skin itch, but I didn’t tell my father that. My mother would have never allowed me out anywhere sporting wet hair, but my mother didn’t know we spent those nights after swim practice at McDooley’s. She thought we were eating dinner at Marcia’s, the pizza joint just three blocks down from the pub.

He’d been a drinker before that winter, but everyone in Nashquitten drank, especially the men, and I didn’t think my father’s four weeknight Buds were unusual. My friends’ dads could drink twice that during a Patriots game, and my uncles chided my father for being the lightweight of the family. Besides, how else were you supposed to survive the winters? We once had a blizzard so bad that the snow pressed against our windows like packed sugar. No light for two days. There was nothing to be done because the town’s plowing budget had run out, so we just sat in our dark house pretending we were pioneers, which made the whole thing suck more, because Pioneers was a game I played for fun and now it was anything but.

So, O’Dooley’s. It got us through the brutal winters and the unpredictable summers, when hurricanes would topple our power lines and flood our streets. When I was nine I spent the blackout prelude to Hurricane Ophelia at O’Dooley’s. Mom was visiting my Aunt Sally in Florida, and my father said this could be the last chance for us to get out of the house. I didn’t consider that if things got really bad, we might not have a house to go back to. Someone had set tea lights on every table, and most folks were there for the Evacuation Special: a shot of whiskey poured into a glass of clam juice. The bartenders used flashlights to figure out what liquor they were pouring. No one seemed concerned that the building swayed like the drunks it produced, so I tried to be brave, even though my hands shook until we left and my father drove us home in winds so strong that they made the car windows hiss like an angry cat.

Still, I thought of O’Dooley’s as a refuge. Its unassuming shabbiness was comforting; the opposite of our house, where my mother made me clean the bathroom faucet with a Q-tip. The pub easily earned the status of town’s most bedraggled business, precariously balanced on long stilts that extended like spider legs into the ocean. It was in a perpetual state of disrepair, and that winter when Dad and I became true O’Dooley’s regulars, the stilts were sutured with caution tape and the door of one of the stalls in the women’s restroom was missing. The screens behind the windowpanes were torn, and cigarette burns defaced a poster of the Celtics hanging behind the bar. I liked the grit of the place, the way the booths were still covered with crumbs when you climbed into them, and the sticky puddles that covered every surface.

That winter, the pub shook like a turbulent-tossed plane when the ocean grew angry. She was furious that year, flinging a mixture of churned foam and ice at the sea wall. The men liked this, though; the harsh weather encouraged their joke-telling, as though humor generated heat, and I can’t deny that I felt warmer as their laughs echoed through O’Dooley’s.

The men telling these jokes sat at the table closest to the bar, and they were the only other weeknight patrons. There were five of them: Ben, Ollie, Paul, Chad, and Buck. But even before I knew anything about them, not even their names, it was clear that Buck was the only one that mattered. He wore either a navy blazer with tiny holes in the lapels or a leather jacket with wide arms and fleece lining peeking out of the sleeves. The other men could get a chuckle out of the group, but Buck was the only one who made them cry with laughter.

My father pretended not to hear the jokes, because it wasn’t the kind of humor you condoned with your daughter sitting next to you. I understood this by the way the men started whispering when I came in, and because sometimes my father would cover my ears if they got too loud, and I’d swat him away, hating the damp stink of his beer-stained palms.

The first time I heard a joke all the way through was after my third or fourth swim lesson—I’d just learned the butterfly stroke. My father had gone to the bathroom, and Buck cleared his throat, which meant he had something to say. I swiveled my stool so I could look right into their booth. Buck beckoned the men closer with a finger, and they all leaned over the table so that their foreheads were practically touching. “A girl walks into a bar and asks the bartender for a double entendre.” He didn’t whisper, maybe because he’d decided the joke wasn’t risqué enough. He paused, taking time to look each of the four men in the eye. “So he gives it to her!” I didn’t understand, and it seemed to go over his friends’ heads, too, because their necks were still craned forward after he finished, like they were waiting for another line. Eventually, they chuckled.

“I don’t get it,” I told Jill, the main bartender. She was young, probably just out of high school, but regarded the men with the weariness of a much older woman.

“Don’t listen to them, honey.” She plucked a jar of maraschino cherries from the shelf behind her and set them in front of me. “Boys being boys.”

“Why’d the girl walk into the bar?” I asked my father when we walked home later that night. Our house was a fifteen-minute walk or a five-minute drive from the bar. My father claimed that he liked the cold because it helped him think, and I didn’t know much about drunkenness back then besides the fact that it made my dad happier than I ever saw him at home. Plus, Sully, who owned O’Dooley’s, was one of my Dad’s high school buddies and wouldn’t tow our car from the lot if it stayed there overnight. Sully was the reason why I was even allowed to be at the bar, drinking Shirley Temple after Shirley Temple. I saw our strolls home, like our nights at O’Dooley’s, as proof of my father’s desire to spend more time with me, so I didn’t mind them either, not even when the temperature dropped so low that the snot in my nose froze.

“Why’d the what?” he asked. He couldn’t get his earmuffs to stay on and kept fiddling with them. “Why’d the girl walk into the bar?”

“I’m asking you,” I said. “Finish the joke.”

“Ruthie, I love you, but I’m too tired for jokes.” I would have felt defeated, except then he wrapped his arm around mine and suctioned me to his side, where it was warm and soft and safe.

The next week I walked up to Buck’s booth while Dad went to say hi to Sully in the back. I was a bold kid. I once punched Jeremy Jones in the mouth, knocking out one of his front teeth, because he opened his Swiss Army Knife and threatened one of the squirrels climbing the jungle gym. I was an adrenaline junkie, but not for roller-coasters or log flumes. I got my high from inserting myself where I shouldn’t be.

When I approached Buck my heart flipped the same way it did when I wound up my arm to punch Jeremy. I wanted to be like him. I wanted to feel the way he did when he landed a good joke, the men laughing so hard they had to wipe their eyes with napkins. “Why’d the girl walk into the bar?” I asked.

Buck turned towards me in surprise, toying with a speck of food stuck in his moustache. “Where’s that dad of yours?”

“Why’d the girl walk into the bar?” I asked again.

“Let her tell the joke,” Paul said. The rest of them joined in, yeah, let her tell it, let the girl speak!

Buck stopped tugging at his moustache. “Fine. Why?” He crouched down so our heads were the same height.

I took my time looking all of them square in the face before I continued. They didn’t like that—everyone looked down at the table except for Buck. “Because her eyes were closed.”

“Ha!” Ollie snorted. Paul, Chad, and Ben snickered, too. When Buck cast Ollie a look he shrugged. “Pretty good.”

“You make that up?” Buck asked.

“Yeah,” I lied. I’d found it in an old joke book at the library.

At some point my father emerged from the back room, but I didn’t realize he was standing behind me until I felt his hand on my back. “Sorry, fellas. She bothering you? Got her mother’s lip.”

“No I don’t,” I insisted, which made the men laugh again.

My father tightened his grip on my shoulder. “Apologies if she disturbed the peace.”

“No, no, not at all.” Buck rubbed his bottom lip with his thumb. He was thinking something over, that much was clear. “You two wanna sit down?”

My father hesitated. He didn’t have many friends, and the ones he did have he’d met decades ago. It wasn’t that he dreaded making friends (though this was also true), but that he had absolutely no desire to expand the social circle he’d maintained since high school. This infuriated my mother, who was always trying to get him to go on double dates with her, but it wasn’t unusual behavior for people raised in Nashquitten. People stuck to the town like barnacles, unwilling to migrate from what they knew.

“Please, it’d be our honor,” Buck said. He patted the booth’s leather cushion.

It was hard even for my father to resist Buck. He had a unique brand of charisma that made your self-worth triple just by looking at him. So my father and I sat down. Which was both the start of things, and the end of them.

* * *

A girl walks into a bar with her mother. At twenty-five she’s no longer a girl, but that’s what men in bars still call her, so hell, we’ll do the same. She thought suggesting a dive in Southie would cause her mother, who viewed Back Bay as Boston’s only acceptable neighborhood, to cancel, or at least reschedule (“Let me make a reservation and call you back”), but all her mother said on the phone was, I don’t know why in God’s name you hang out at these places.

Her mother wants to know if there is sugar-free sour mix, and there isn’t, so she orders a whiskey Diet Coke instead. She’s shrunk in recent years, and now her head’s too big for her body, but the girl doesn’t bring this up because it would make her mother happy—she’d imply the girl is jealous. The mother thinks girls are most attractive when they’re small. The girl orders a Lagunitas and dips her pinkie finger in the foam when it arrives. This drives her mother nuts.

“How’s work?” her mother asks, ignoring the pinkie. For once she isn’t tapping at something on her iPhone. After she divorced the girl’s father she went back to work as an interior designer, and now spends her days muttering about swatches and feng shui.

“Oh you know,” the girl says. She works at the Coastal Art Center near the harbor, giving tours to elementary school students and trying to convince them to enroll in the after-school program. “Work-y.”

“Work-y,” her mother repeats. Her painted lip curls, leaving a splotch of red on her waxed skin. The girl remembers when she never wore make-up. “There’s no possibility of promotion there.” Promotion, that essential rung on the ladder that leads to the girl’s Ultimate Potential, which involves blazers and home ownership and some kind of hypoallergenic dog.

“That’s not true,” the girl says. “I could start giving the spin art demonstrations.”

Her mother tips her glass to her mouth. “You’re a real comedian.”

“My mom tells me I’m not very funny.”

Her mother pretends she hasn’t heard this, but the girl senses something else in her terse pause. She needs to steer the conversation elsewhere, and she’s dreading it. “What’s wrong?” the girl asks.

“We need to talk about your father.”

“What about him?” There is just one rule both parties follow in this relationship, and it’s Do Not Talk About Dad. Sweat slides from the girl’s armpits down her ribs.

The girl’s mother takes a long, noiseless sip of her drink. “There’s been an accident.”

“An accident?” the girl repeats.

“I wasn’t exactly sure how to tell you,” she says, which the girl translates as: this will hurt.

* * *

Buck took a liking to me. He insisted on buying my Shirley Temples and started calling me Freckles because of the sprinkling on my nose. One night he said I reminded him of his daughter, and I was about to say, “I didn’t know you had a daughter,” but then the rest of the group went quiet and I realized that he probably didn’t, not anymore.

That same night, when we were all getting ready to leave, he took me aside and made me promise that I wouldn’t turn out like them. “Turn out like who?” I asked.

“Do something with yourself,” he said. “So we can say we were the sad sacks that knew you when.”

“Okay.” It seemed important to him that I agreed to this.

“What happened to Buck’s daughter?” I asked my father when we walked home. The sidewalk was icy and he made me hold onto his arm as we navigated the slick ground.

“I knew you were going to ask that.” His sigh puffed through the cold air like cigarette smoke. “She died.”

“But how?” I pushed.

“Impaled.”

“Impaled?” I didn’t know what the word meant. It was sharp on my tongue, like the icicles I would break off our gutters to suck like lollipops.

“We’re not talking about this. Let’s be quiet until we get home.”

I stopped walking. “But I want to know.”

He hadn’t realized I was no longer moving, and lost his balance for a moment when I tugged him backwards. He wasn’t a particularly large man, five-eleven on a good day, and all of his body fat had funneled into his stomach, which made his limbs perfect for grabbing, thin and noodley like a cartoon character’s. “Don’t do that.” His cheeks were so red they looked sunburnt. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“I don’t care if you don’t want to talk about it.” By eleven I was angry, a flammable wick of a girl. Anything could set me off: a cruel joke, an overheard whisper, a suspicious glance. My dad was especially dangerous because I loved him like crazy. In my experience, love doesn’t make you blind. It makes you demanding. I couldn’t let my father fall short of the person I knew that he could be: compassionate, forthcoming, gentle.

When we’d first gotten to the bar, I told Buck a joke I overheard on the school bus. “What do you call a woman with two black eyes?” I asked, not waiting for him to guess. “Nothing, you already told her twice!” I thought he’d find that funny. I didn’t (what had they told the women twice?) but the older boys on the bus certainly did. And anyways, I didn’t laugh at most of the jokes the men told, because they’d figured out a particular brand of humor they felt comfortable using in front of me, which was Jokes That Went Over Ruth’s Head: “If the dove’s the bird of peace, what’s the bird of true love? The swallow.” I didn’t mind that because I liked being the underdog. One day I’d know exactly what they meant, and I’d show them all up, wipe those smug grins right off their faces.

Instead of laughing, Buck’s mouth turned stern as stone. “Don’t say things like that.” I’d wanted to ask, “Like what?” but then he’d gone quiet and stayed quiet for the rest of the evening.

“You just don’t know when to stop, do you, Ruth?” my father asked on our walk home. He gripped my arm so tightly that it scared me.

You don’t know when to stop!” I was yelling—it hurt to yell in the cold, those deep breaths of freezing air. “That’s why we aren’t driving home!”

We stood still on the icy sidewalk, the road empty, the night quiet. A streetlight flickered above us, turning the snow on the ground a harsh yellow.

My father bent down and moved his face so close to mine that I could smell the beer and fried food on his breath. “She was impaled. Do you know what that means?”

I said nothing.

“You’re impaled when something skewers you right through the middle,” he whispered. “You’re impaled when a tree branch splits through your stomach, rupturing your internal organs so that there’s no way to take it out without killing you. You’re impaled when your friends leave you behind to die.”

I started crying but my father just pulled me along behind him. Even when I slipped and fell he kept dragging me, so that I trailed behind him on my knees the whole way home, scrambling over the ice, never finding my footing.

* * *

A girl walks into a bar with a man. It’s a hip bar, full of exposed light bulbs, rusted pipes, and candle-stuffed mason jars. The man was smoking cigarettes outside, and the girl could see that he was vulnerable, his lips scabbed from endless picking, his face as round and pale as an eggshell. The girl didn’t care if he was recently dumped, or recently fired, or recently diagnosed with a terminal disease. She just wanted his body as a buffer for her own grief. And it looked like he could use her for the same thing.

“Distract me,” she dares him once they’re inside, seated at a table made from a hubcap. He orders her a drink from a man wearing a butcher’s apron.

“You seem a little—” He doesn’t finish his sentence, but makes a series of increasingly frenetic hand gestures, like a mime having a seizure.

“I recently lost someone,” she tells him.

He leans in closer, damp-eyed and open-mouthed. “Oh, god.” He takes her hands. “Me, too.”

“I don’t walk to talk about it.”

He releases her fingers. “Oh, fuck no.”

She had wanted to kiss him, maybe even bring him back to her apartment, but sitting there staring at him, she’s afraid that their cumulative sadness will be too much, a swamp neither of them know the way out of. So instead of touching him, she asks if he’d like to hear a joke.

* * *

Around this time a new family had moved in across the street, the Johnsons, and my mother became good friends with Mrs. Johnson, who came over on swim nights and drank white wine and complained about her teenage son Roger, who she feared was gay, interested in poetry, or both.

“Let me talk. I don’t want to drag you into this,” my father would say during our walk, which I thought was dramatic, because when we got home all Mom would say was, “You two have fun?” and then continue getting ready for bed. Sometimes Mrs. Johnson would still be there, and she wouldn’t say anything to us at all, just wave hello with a flick of her fingers and pour herself another glass. When I got older, I wondered what she thought happened to the car. I assumed my father would get up before her and walk back to the bar to retrieve it, but surely she noticed our flushed cheeks when we returned at night, our chattering teeth and icy eyelashes. She still loved my father then, but a version of my father that no longer existed. Love’s often sustained through delusion, and my mother needed to believe her husband wasn’t so different from the responsible man she’d married fifteen years ago. Because if she couldn’t even trust her husband to deliver their daughter home safely on a weeknight, what did that say about her, and her family, and her choices? And so she focused on my father walking me home, on the responsibility of that act, and chose to ignore the irresponsibility that led to it.

One night, a few days after a blizzard froze our garage shut, I was mad. My father had been uncharacteristically bold that night, drinking more than his usual (eight or nine beers), and he wouldn’t stop talking over me. I’d been practicing a new joke all week, but he was being so obnoxious that I couldn’t get a word in. He kept making bad jokes, jokes that the other men found funny because my father was an outrageous, dopey drunk, a sharp contrast to his usual stoic demeanor. “Who am I?” he asked over and over, doing stupid impressions of elephants and lions and various beasts. “Who am I?” I’d learn a few days later that my father had lost his job at Shoreline Realty earlier that day. Years later I’d learn that it was because he’d shown up to two showings drunk that week.

My anger had been fanned to flames by the time we got home. My father was one of the few people who allowed me to speak without interruption, without guessing at the ends of my sentences or cutting me off with oh, I see what you mean.

When my mother asked how the night had been, I said, “Dad took me to O’Dooley’s.”

My father, busy untangling his scarf, snapped to attention. I’d been thinking about saying those words over and over during the walk home, silently shaping the syllables, but I didn’t know I was going to follow through until the truth had already escaped. My father looked at me as if he didn’t know me at all, which was its own strange reward. Keeping looking, I wanted to dare him, and I’ll change just like you did tonight. And I won’t even need a beer to do it.

“What?” My mother was lying on the couch watching TV, and she sat up suddenly, flipping a pillow off her stomach. “Why?”

“Kid’s night.” My father sounded confused by his own lie. “They do kid’s night on Thursdays.”

“No, they don’t,” I said before my mother could ask. It was then, my father rubbing furiously at his stubbled chin, my mother reaching out to touch my shoulder, that I realized our nights at O’Dooley’s weren’t a shared secret. I was no collaborator. I was a witness. “We go every week after swim practice.”

Every week? How long has this been going on?” My mother shot up, the tuft of her braid swinging against her shoulder. The vein in her neck wobbled with such intensity that I had to resist the urge to touch it. “How long, Ruth?”

“Since December.” I watched my mother calculate how many months that made; it was February. I couldn’t stop talking—a motor whirred inside me that I couldn’t shut off. “We sit with these guys and tell jokes.” My father fixed his gaze on a painting of an apple core that hung beside our La-Z-Boy, and I watched him raise a hand to his mouth and sniff his own breath.

My mother’s lips puckered so tightly that her cheeks caved in like canyons. “What guys?”

“Friends,” my father said hoarsely.

“Old men,” I clarified. The motor still whirred.

“Jesus Christ, Adi.” My mother pinched the skin between her eyebrows. “Go to bed,” she told me.

For the last month of swim class, Jessica Kimball’s mom drove me home.

* * *

A girl walks into a bar with a suitcase. This isn’t unusual, because the bar’s in a train station, and everyone’s companion is a purse or a duffle or a trunk.

“Where ya headed?” the bartender asks, simply to make conversation.

“Western Mass,” she says, and then the conversation ends. She probably looks like one of the trust fund kids that fuck off to the Berkshires to play starving artist. After all, she is wearing a beanie and a ripped flannel. She’s wearing many layers today—a sweater beneath the flannel and an undershirt beneath the sweater. Sweat begins to trickle down her neck, but no matter. The overzealous mix of cotton and fleece gives her a small sense of comfort, of insulation. She’s never been to Anderson before, the tiny town her father mentioned a few scattered times during her youth. She learned the news about him a week ago, and yet every morning she struggles to remember, like those words whose definitions she can never recall, despite looking them up over and over again: obfuscate, prognosticate, florid.

She orders a gin and tonic even though it’s eleven in the morning. She didn’t eat breakfast, and it doesn’t take long for the world to soften, to turn cushioned and formless despite what’s ahead. There are a handful of other people at the bar—a businessman with a thread-bare head of hair, a woman with a lip of fat hanging over her high-waisted jeans, a pair of suited young men. The girl focuses on these people, her comrades. It would be one thing if she were alone here—you have a problem when it’s just you and the bottle, she’d heard her uncle say before. But here are these strangers, all of them out in the open, sunlight from the station’s windows brightening their faces. None of them hiding, no airplane bottles downed in restroom stalls or flasks produced from pockets. The girl raises her glass in a toast, even though none of their eyes are on her. Cheers.

* * *

“When did Dad start drinking?” I asked my mother after they divorced. I was about to go off to college, which they’d decided was a reasonable time to drop the façade of the relationship. They hadn’t made sense in a long time, even before my father’s drinking got out of hand. My mother loved nothing more than getting out of the house, going to museums or movies, while my father’s passion was constructing miniature models of cities in our basement. Though my mother and I are were often at odds, I felt sorry for her. She spent long periods of time staring out our windows, her mind somewhere else.

“When did he start?” My mother scoffed. “Ask your grandmother. He was always drinking.”

“But did you notice it when you were dating?” I felt free because my days under her roof were numbered—I could ask questions without consequence.

“Everyone drinks at that age.” She sat on my bed as I packed, ostensibly helping, but really just remarking on what would or wouldn’t cut it in the world of collegiate fashion. “You split a bottle of wine at dinner, you have a whiskey when you get home, you drink a mimosa on the weekend. You either grow up or you don’t.”

But it wasn’t a question of outgrowing an urge, I knew that much. I’d watched the way my father drank at O’Dooley’s. There was little pleasure in the way he forced down beers, grimacing through the heartburn and indigestion. He drank like the alcohol was prescribed to him.

“Not that.” My mother pointed at the dress in my hands. “It’s dowdy.”

I placed it on my bed instead of in my suitcase, even though it was one of my favorite dresses. I didn’t want her to think I was incapable of growing up.

* * *

A girl walks into a bar with a question. It’s the closest bar to her father’s apartment, according to Google maps: one-tenth of a mile. “Do you know Adi Turner?” she asks the bartender. “Did you know Adi Turner?” she corrects herself. She’d hoped this place would have air conditioning, unlike the train, but there’s just a single ceiling fan spitting hot air into her face.

The bartender puts down the glass he’s polishing with a thump. “Did you?” He fingers his gray lump of a bun with one hand and flicks his tiny hoop earring with the other.

The girl wonders what her father looked like at the end, if he shaved his head like he’d once said he wanted to (her mother would not allow it). She hopes he did. It helps her, to imagine him with a different life, a life where his impulses played out harmlessly, in the form of a shiny skull or an ugly tattoo. “I’m his daughter.” The word is unruly in her mouth, like an oversized bite of food.

The bartender leans into one elbow and looks her up and down. “No shit. Really?” He clears his throat. “S’cuse the language.”

The girl waves her hand, says no worries, though her heart is beating faster.

Then the bartender says the words she was hoping for: “Didn’t know him.”

“Oh, too bad.” Maybe things had turned out differently than her mother had said. Maybe she hadn’t gotten the whole story. Maybe he did get help, like he told them he would over and over and over again.

“The owner, Kyle, was tight with him, though.” He reaches back and pats his bun again. “I just started working here.”

“Tight?”

“Yeah, they used to shut the place down. I heard that Adi once fell asleep in the men’s room with a martini glass balanced on his head.” This is something the girl can’t stand about herself, the way her better judgment will always fail when it comes to her father. “Hey, you okay there?” She’s fallen against one of the stools—it’s too hot. Her layers are pressing against her chest like weighted blankets. The bartender reaches for her arm.

“I’m fine.” She forces herself onto the stool, where stuffing is spilling out of the leather cover.

“Can I fix you something?”

The girl considers the bottles of alcohol behind the counter, amber-tinted in the dim light. When did she last have a drink at a party, or even at home with friends? She hasn’t been looking for fun or company lately, just something to smooth the edges of her anxiety. Something to thin the world into a more digestible version of itself. “How about a gin and tonic?”

* * *

I saw my father for the last time at my college graduation. Before that, I hadn’t seen him since a brief visit sophomore year. I only saw my mother for Christmas. I avoided going home during breaks, and spent the summers working on campus. “Are you estranged?” my boyfriend at the time asked, after begging to be “prepped” for meeting my parents. He was an Entrepreneurship and Innovation major, which meant he liked to plan our dates via Google docs.

“I don’t know.” It seemed like too big a word for what we were, and, anyways, I didn’t want a boy who’d never met my father to label our relationship. “It’s complicated.”

“Don’t worry.” He touched my knee. “I’m here for you.”

I planned a careful schedule of festivities in order to minimize the time my parents would have to spend in a room together. I emailed these separate schedules to each parent, asking them to please confirm. Received, my mother wrote. Then my father: wouldn’t miss it.

The first event was a solo dinner with my father, at a pizzeria known for putting macaroni and cheese on its slices. My father didn’t show up drunk or tipsy—he simply didn’t show up at all. I sat in one of the booths for over an hour, reminding myself of his terrible sense of direction and his perpetual tardiness. I called him once, twice, three times, and then finally went back to my dorm. “How’s your Dad?” my roommate asked when I entered our shared common room.

“Great,” I said. “Fantastic.” Then I hid a box of frozen chicken nuggets under my sweatshirt and ate them alone on my bed, scared that my roommate would grow suspicious if I used the microwave right after dinner.

My father didn’t show for any of the events that I’d e-mailed him about—no coffee at the school bookstore or brunch at the local diner. But he did make it to the ceremony, a huge event in the football stadium on the edge of campus. Look up, he texted as I passed the right side of the bleachers. We all had our phones in our hands, fielding messages from parents trying to take pictures, and I was so surprised to see his name light up my screen that I almost didn’t catch his face. He handed me a bouquet of roses over the railing. “I’m proud of you,” he said. He was crying. That pissed me off—you don’t get to cry now, I wanted to tell him. You don’t get to be proud of me. I did this without you.

I couldn’t say anything, though, because I was quickly swept into line by a woman wearing a headset who stressed the importance of staying in alphabetical order. I planned to talk to him more after the ceremony, but when I dialed his number the second I stepped off the stage, the phone went directly to voicemail.

i didn’t want to see your mother, he wrote in an e-mail a few days later. I didn’t reply: But I planned around that or That was the whole point of the schedule, but simply: Ok. Back in my dorm, I threw the roses dramatically out my window, like a spurned lover in a soap opera. A girl on the lawn below actually caught them, and did a happy dance like she’d caught the bouquet at a wedding.

We e-mailed on and off over the few years afterwards. We made half-hearted attempts to visit one another, but one of us would cancel at the last minute. Our proposed meetings became nothing more than a performance of what our relationship should be. My anger cooled and darkened, turning into something closer to regret. It settled in my stomach like tar.

Our e-mails were the only thing that stayed consistent. We exchanged two a week, usually on Monday and Friday. I told him about my job at the art center, my friends who had moved to New York (Should I try that? I wrote, hoping to gain some rare paternal wisdom for once, but he just wrote: do what you think’s best), and whatever else was new. All he ever said about himself was things are things. Though he rarely answered questions, he liked to ask them: how’s working at the art center? does your boyfriend make you dinner sometimes? are you happy?

It reminded me of being a kid, when he made me feel like my thoughts deserved to be spoken aloud, to take up space. When I cleaned out his apartment, I found our emails beneath his bed, printed and stapled. I imagined he had put them there intentionally, as if to say: Look, I cared. I swear.

* * *

A girl walks out of a bar. The air carries the smell of smoke, but the industrial kind, like it’s been funneled through a factory. She follows the directions on her phone to the address her mother gave her, which turns out to be a pet salon called Doggie Style. “I’m looking for 204A?” She says to the groomer, who’s wrangling a half-shaved poodle with weepy eyes. “Back entrance,” she says, tugging on the dog’s neck.

The girl goes around the side of the building, past a fenced yard that reeks of dog shit. A gang of growling terriers leaps at the chain-link as she passes, sticking their snouts through the wire diamonds. “Good dogs, good dogs,” she says over and over, though this seems to agitate them.

The flaking door that leads to the stairs isn’t locked. The steps shudder as she climbs them, and to calm herself she thinks good dogs, good dogs.

She can’t find the key her mother gave her. She digs through her purse frantically, tossing coins and balled tissues onto the ground. Why does she have three different ChapSticks, all cherry-flavored? When did she buy miniature hand sanitizer? Why does she have an enormous sanitary pad when she only ever wears tampons? But then—halleujah!—there it is, hidden beneath a pack of spearmint gum. She didn’t ask her mother what she should do with it when she’s done.

The apartment itself smells clean, like artificial lemon, and there’s almost nothing in the studio besides a stripped bed, a bureau, and a card table ringed with water stains. He must have known how poor his health was and prepared. There will be boxes for you, her mother had told her, and indeed there are, flattened cardboard ones that, according to the images on their flaps, once held avocados and apples.

The girl is here to pack things up, so she does She locates a box of extra-large trash bags beneath the sink and slips her father’s clothes into a bag. She’ll donate them.

You don’t have to do this, her mother had said at the bar last week. We can have someone take care of it.

But isn’t this what a daughter does? She cleans up. And so she moves through the apartment, emptying it for whoever’s next.

* * *

Instead of getting on the T when my train pulled into South Station, I found Nashquitten on the train schedule and waded through hurried commuters to track nine. The ride takes an hour, and I watched the buildings turn increasingly smaller outside my window, the houses spread from huddle to sprawl. By the time we reached the trail of small towns that people call “quaint” because they have natural beauty and not much else, only a handful of passengers stepped off at each stop. When the conductor yelled, “End of the line!” I was the only one who exited. I walked the two miles from the train station to the harbor with my suitcase bumping over the cracks in the sidewalk, plastic wheels groaning. It was one in the afternoon. I’d spent a night in Amherst, sleeping on the couch of a friend who begged for me to go to a Barbarians and Librarians themed party. When I told her I was too tired, she left without me. She thought I’d been camping the day before.

I heard O’Dooley’s before I saw it. Men hollering at a Red Sox game from the outdoor patio, screaming like the fate of their only child hinged on the outcome. I paused for a moment by the entrance, which looked as shitty as it had fifteen years ago, spider webs tangled in the awning and a dead box of flowers decaying below the front window. The doorknob felt warmly sticky when I turned it, how I imagined the inside of a body to feel. Inside, it still smelled like burnt hamburgers.

Jill was working the bar, though she didn’t recognize me. Her face had tightened, skin constricting around the bones as though in rebellion of her old nickname, Baby Cheeks. She looked both pissed and exhausted, a woman whose patience had been tried too many times. “What do you want?” she barked.

I ordered a Bud Light that she slid aggressively across the bar, foam trailing behind it like the wake of a wave. I took a sip and knocked my feet against my suitcase, which I’d jammed between my stool and the wall. Why had my father taken me here? Why hadn’t he just come to O’Dooley’s alone, heading back out after he dropped me at home? I waited for a revelation that I hoped would come from this historical reenactment, some sudden understanding that would rewire my interpretation of the past. That would make him better.

It didn’t come. But I was no longer eleven. I didn’t have to wait for my father to say, “Alright kid, time to go.” I left six folded dollars beneath my glass and abandoned the beer at the bar. I rolled my suitcase down the street toward my duplex, thinking of the e-mails in its front pocket. Things are things. One of the wheels caught on the curb and I tugged it free with a lurch. I may shit-talk my mother, but I will say this: she taught me to keep moving forward. I lifted my head and blinked into the sun.

 

Photo courtesy of torbakhooper; view more of their work on Flickr.

Alina Grabowski’s stories have appeared in the Masters Review, Joyland, and Day One. She earned her MFA from Vanderbilt, and has received scholarships from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, and the Juniper Summer Writing Institute. She was a 2019 Emerging Writer Fellow at Aspen Summer Words and is currently at …

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