Writers Institute

My Father, Wet Sneakers, Ant Cemeteries, and the Blues

A warm hand closes around my wrist and my first thought of the day is of how gently my father wakes me. When 1 open my eyes he is standing over me telling me to get ready if I want to go get a newspaper with him. For a moment I don't know where I am. I'm not scared, I just feel like someone else living another life, I remember we are in Rhode Island and staying at someone else's house, and that is why nothing around me is mine. As I shift out of bed the cold air in my room stuns me as it does every morning. The hairs on the back of my neck raise and goose bumps begin to spread over my arms. There is a dull ache behind my right eye and I consider surrendering myself and dropping backwards and going to sleep again in the nest of sheets and blankets already warm from my body. But I don't. My father is going to drive out for breakfast and the New York Times and going anywhere with him makes me feel important. As I stumble around to get dressed I examine this room that isn't mine. The sunlight from the east floods everything, casting its brilliance over the chalky white walls and dirty cornflower blue carpet. The bed frame is dark wood, and high enough off the ground to be intimidating. The overstuffed mattress is too small for it and slides around when I writhe and twist trying to get comfortable on hot summer nights. The radiator is jammed between the bed and the wall, leaving a gaping hole, which I sometimes slip into in my sleep. I wake up with my face pressed against a cold wall and my legs swallowed by the hole beside the bed and my arms tangled beneath me. The jangling of my father's keys halts my rambling mind.

I tiptoe down the hall avoiding the black spots on the carpet by the kitchen where ants have been squashed into it. The family that owns the house must have had some kind of ant problem that resulted in the scattered ant burial grounds littering their floor. I carefully step around them; afraid their bad luck may somehow be contagious. They make me think of Tuli Kupferberg, someone my father knew, who was part of the rad-rock group, the Fugs, and how h lived in New York City and never killed a cockroach. He refused to kill any of God's creatures. Guess sometimes having too much humanity can be a nuisance.

I rush to put on my shoes, tying them carefully. I'm good at tying shoes; it's just something that came to me instinctively, like blowing bubbles with chewing gum. I was not like the other kids I knew, fumbling with the thin laces in their clumsy hands.

My father is waiting for me at the door, holding my sweater. He looks so tall and strong as he leans one sinewy shoulder against the doorjamb. The light of the morning glows behind him, illuminating his shoulders and silver hair with a glorious light. He is a deity in the simple room. I run to him, forgetting to avoid the ant cemeteries underfoot. I stop in front of him as he bends down his face inches from mine. I raise my arms up as he tugs my sweater down over me. I grimace remembering the ants. Now I will have to go the whole day with death on my shoe.

As we walk down the steps of the porch I want to tell my father to lock the door in case robbers or murderers come by while mom is asleep. I know to keep my mouth shut though. There are no bad people here. My parents are already afraid I am too much a city girl, so I have to try to pretend to be flexible and conform to this strange country life. My father points ahead at the pearly mist dusting the houses and trees. "Look at that" he says, his voice electric in the still morning air.

We get into the car together, our wet shoes squeaking on the side of our beige rented midsize. I grab hold of the door's handle and jerk my body back; making sure the door is closed tightly. My father turns the key in the ignition and the car comes alive at once. The radio begins to talk, the lights on the dashboard flicker on, and the engine purrs. I watch his foot sink on the pedal. His shoes are wet from the dew like mine. He is wearing those audacious lime green Adidas shoes with ostentatious yellow racer stripes down the sides. Some strange woman accidentally stole them once when we were on the beach. I told my mother and we chased her down. I held my mother’s hand and stood behind her as she explained to the woman that she had just taken my father's shoes. She was very embarrassed and gave them back. She apologized saying she didn't think anyone else's husband could have had the same ugly shoes. My mother wasn't offended, she understood perfectly. I wasn't offended either. I was glad that they loved their husbands, even in the world's ugliest shoes.

My father clicks off the radio. We are diving slowly down the road now; the countryside grows before me, shades and shadows undulating beside the car. A white house with blushing pink shutters glides swiftly by. Tree limbs dance past my window, then a clean white house with robins egg blue ornamenting the roof and windows like icing on an enormous cake. The windows of all the houses are menacingly vacant like the empty dark stares of shark eyes. My father and I are the only two people in the world. The city is never like this and for a moment I feel a lost, or betrayed by the silence of everything. My father must sense my dis-ease because he switches the radio back on. I recognize immediately the soulful salty sweetness of Lady Day as she croons "Let the poets pipe of love, In their childish way, I know ev'ry type of love, better Jar than they". I love my father's radio station where no one has a name, everyone is just Empress of the Blues, 01' Blue Eyes, Chairman of the Board, or the First Lady of Song. I sit on my hands and swing my legs because my feet can't touch the floor. The carpeted seat is familiar under my fingers, comforting and a little prickly, like the soft part of a horses nose.

We turn steadily and park evenly in the designated space between two slightly crooked yellow lines. There are no other cars there, but we park courteously anyway. We get out of the car and my father takes my hand. The tips of his fingers are soft and cool like new leather. As we walk a gust of wind blows by filling my father's shirt, making it billow like a sail. We walk into the little deli together and a bell on the door jangles as it swings closed. My father picks up a copy of the Tunes and asks the man behind the counter for a loaf of sour dough, coffee, and a plain bagel. The man behind the counter nods and as he bends down behind the glass display of bread. Vie grins at me, a wide toothy grin, that makes the skin beside his eyes crease. 1 carefully direct my gaze away from him and feign a detached fascination with the peeling Boars Head label on the counter. My father hands me the bagel and I go to sit down on the wooden bench. An old man wanders in slowly. His walk is jangly and there is a sadness in the way his clothes hang crookedly off his hips and shoulders. He stands next to my father at the counter. My father says something to him that I can't hear and the old man laughs in the heat of my fathers charm. I just sit on the bench and watch my feet swing under me. I am not hungry but I eat my bagel dutifully. I strain to listen to the faint sounds of the radio. The static mixes with the twangy sound of a sitar, suspended in the air like a held breath. The old man turns to leave, a white paper bag clenched in this tight fist. He looks at me and I smile graciously, a smile without a hint of sorrow for him or childish fascination with sickness or frailty or age. He smiles back, an appreciative smile straining across his face. He waves at me as he leaves. My father comes over to me and I take the bag of sourdough bread from him. He tucks the Times under one arm and cradles a paper coffee cup as he holds the door open for me. We get back into the car as Nat King Cole's husky voice fills the car with yet another torch song. My father sort of shimmies his shoulders and does a little dance in perfect rhythm with the song for me. I cannot suppress smile. I look at my father once more before closing my eyes and losing myself, wrapped up in all the pleasures of the morning.

Grace Wilentz
The Chapin School
New York City
Teacher: Howard Schott

 




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