Dad was the last man in California trained to run a Union-Pacific steam-driven train engine

The road to parental reconciliation

No sleep comes, even after Mom’s sour-milk kisses goodnight. My sister, buried beneath a Day-Glo paisley bedspread matching mine, quiets or whispers to the cat. Mom-breath lingers on my upper lip, both comfort and disquieting mystery. My eyes are riveted to the door-crack of hallway light, my ears strain for low murmurs in the living room. I hold my breath so the air sound won’t muffle what might be footfalls in the shag-carpeted hallway. I wait in a state I later come to think of as suspended animation. I wait until Daddy’s silhouette fills the door frame. What remains of him now is in my then: his silhouette. My waiting.

“Lie still,” he says. He presses the sheet around my sides with brisk chops of his hands. His dress-shirt sleeves are rolled up to the elbows. Coarse black hairs are pasted to forearms warm and moist from dinner dishwashing. His big hands leave a dampness on the sheet. I thrash from side to side, kick my legs against the mattress. I giggle: ashamed, pleased.“Settle down,” he says, or “What a giggly girl you are.” He leans toward me, bares his white teeth, threatens my plump peach cheek with a bristly chin. I pull my body to soldierly erectness, every muscle stiff with some nervous tension I can’t discharge. He folds sheet border over blanket, pulls it taut, tucks it around my shoulders so tight I can’t move. He tucks it in with exaggerated attention. Making fun of it.

On our bedroom’s cor ner shelves, Dolls of the World stare straight ahead on their stands, stiff in taffeta and beads. Outside the high window a branch of fig tree rubs the sky. Our rabbits sleep in their hutch by the tree’s trunk. With the win dow slid open, the breeze moves a smell of alfalfa and musky fur and moldering figs into the room.

He plays too rough. He pretend-suffocates me with a pillow. He tickles, he wrestles, not knowing that by the time laughing becomes crying, he has gone too far. Apologies come too late. Once he dislocates my arm at the shoulder socket. We are playing “Ring Around the Rosie” and I, excited by the impending punchline, fall down too soon. As I fall, he jerks up on my left arm. An accident, certainly.

When I am older, old enough to have body hair, old enough that he drives me to school some days — my sister in the passenger seat, me in the back — he reaches a hand around behind his seat to pinch hair on my calf. He does this when I least expect it, when I am craning forward to eavesdrop on front-seat conversation. It pleases me, to know he is thinking of me while talking to someone else.

He is a big man, slow and wide-hipped. When he lathers up my hands at the bathroom sink before dinner, my fingers can’t span his palm. Years later, his hands still measure nearly twice the size of mine. His fingers are so thick that his wed ding ring slips easily off my thumb — we discover this at a family dinner, when he puts it there so I can admire its new stone, one-half carat.

My women friends, shown his picture, tell me my father is handsome. He fell once when he was a kid, breaking his nose. And when he was 16, his father punched him there, breaking it a second time. The deviations in his septum add an extra plane to his nose, a sloping, triangular field below the bridge on the left side. His skin is swarthy enough from California-sun-since-birth that his mother forbids him to wear a mustache, for fear he will be mistaken for a Mexican. (And he still obeys.)

As a child, I hide from my exasperated mother in his closet. His polyester suits, smelling of Old Spice and menthol cigarettes, are satiny against my face. I wedge both my feet into one of his leather oxfords. These he often polishes while I watch. Some times he invites me to con tribute saliva to the spit shine. I drop it from my full height, missing the target. He laughs. He buffs away at the leather, lips compressed, staring intently, finishes with a flourish and slap — more making fun. As if he doesn’t know what else to do, how to be serious.

Around the house, he wears old chinos and a maroon football jersey from Stanford, which he did not attend. When he removes his shirt to mow the lawn, his upper back is deep russet. We climb aboard this clammy beast while he lies in bed on Saturday mornings or swims slow laps in the pool. We pull off flakes of peeling skin, fascinated by adulthood, by manhood.

Unlike our mother, my father has country roots. His father’s family homesteaded in Nebraska. Farm-bred phrases and habits surface today and surprise me: giv ing trousers a stiff shake before drawing them on, as if to dislodge insects that may have crawled inside. Jokes involving farmers and cow chips. Words like “teeninesy” for small and for damn it, “dad burn it.”

He dropped out of UCSB to marry my mother, worked on the railroad — I find out in 1994, he was the last man in California trained to run a Union-Pacific steam-driven train engine. He finished his degree at a city college, went to work for an insurance firm. Then my sister and I come along.

We move closer to the city, camp out in a temporary apartment, sleep on plastic-covered mattresses, and fish our clothes from cardboard boxes. Our mother house hunts. He attends a training seminar in Connecticut. My sister and I spend the dull mornings in the apartment complex pool. We pretend to wash and style each other’s long hair by pil ing it high on our heads and mashing it into shapes with water. We recite the Dippity Do commercial.

He is gone for six weeks. We move into the new house when he comes back. He is gone all day. We eat our din ner at the kitchen table, which is covered with a flowered plastic cloth. For dinner, we eat tacos in fried flour shells, or hamburger patties with peas buttered and salted. We drink big glasses of orange juice. He returns after we have taken our baths, donned nighties, and are watching TV in the living room, lying with our stomachs pressed to the scratchy, braided rug. He visits with our mother in the kitchen, pacing the linoleum while she cleans the stove top.

He may come in and sit in his big chair, behind where we are stretched out, where we can’t see him. He may shield his body and face with the paper and ignore us, so that when he suddenly guffaws at some variety-show joke we are jubilant, proud. When there’s a football game on, he is there in the living room first, and if we agree to be quiet we may stay and watch with him. On these occasions, he consumes odd snacks: a tall glass of milk with Ritz crackers, a column of saltines in a tumbler of water. His diet confounds us, as if he were a zoo animal.

On my sister’s ninth birthday, she and I are at home alone and the phone rings. It’s a lady from the phone company, asking for him. She leaves the message that the telephone at his new address — an apartment in a suburb, and why a phone company lady reveals this to a nine-year-old girl is still a mystery — has been installed.

After that, there is more waiting. We wait for our parents to make decisions. We wait for our father to move out. Then, we wait for him to call. We wait for him to visit. I wait, in suspended animation, for my father’s appearance, for the big res cue. I wait for 30 years.

I remember him in pro file, as he drives the car. Sometimes he shuts his near side eye, so that I will think he is driving with his eyes closed. When my sister or I notice, we shout at him to stop. This joke is best on curving mountain roads in the Cuyamacas or heading to snow parties in Idyllwild or Big Bear. He takes the straightaways fast, not braking for the hairpin curves until after I have gripped the armrest and slammed my feet down as if the pedals were under them, sucking my breath in sharply between clenched teeth.

My fear seems to amuse him. He raises his hand fast behind his shoulder as if to strike me, then brings it down slow through the air to pinch my cheek instead. He laughs. He also laughs when, pitching us a softball, I flinch, raise my arms, and get hit in the face. Several times he has to talk me down from trees I’ve climbed. Crossing creeks on logs or stones, climbing rocks, I freeze in my place (fourth in line behind Mom, Dad, Sis). He tries to move me with nonchalant coaxing, commands, the threat of abandonment. Nothing budges me until he returns, takes my hand, directs me to step on top of his feet. I ride him out of the creek. My feet are on top of his feet. My hands are in his hands.

He moves north. He drives all over the San Joaquin Valley, threading through little towns in clean leased cars, selling insurance. He sells it to farmers and ranch ers, equipment salesmen, blissless older couples in sub urban outposts who moved to California for their health. His cars are always clean, except for a tinge of spearmint gum and stale cigarette smoke (he permits himself two a day).

During our visits — a week in summer and Thanks giving or Christmas — he takes us on the road with him for one day. The three of us play “20 Questions” or he tells stories about places passing by outside the car windows: who owned an old oil derrick, how much acreage a rancher sold off to a commercial developer. In the silent parts of the trips, when we, engine-lulled, rock our heads against the plastic seats, he sings. He sings “Red River Valley” and “Water” and “Genevieve, Sweet Genevieve.” On bleak stretches of road — and my memories include endless bleak stretches of road — I watch out the side window.

If it is nighttime, I watch my reflection in the glass. In my head I make up stories about the girl trapped in the glass. I’m there with him in the car and I’m still waiting for him, even though he is sitting a foot from my left arm. If it is daytime while my sister and I are riding in Dad’s car, I watch the grapevines flipping past, punctuated by telephone poles, or vast, low, shiny fields of lettuce. I see bits of cot ton fluff that have strayed to the cracked dirt ditches lining the highway. We stop to pick cotton. My sister and I run over ankle-twisting ruts between bushes, prick our fingers on the wood-like spikes of cotton boles. He gives us a paper bag, the lunch sack from our sandwiches (American cheese for us, salami and peppers for him). We stuff the bag with cotton flowers, which poke right through the paper. He stands sentry by the car parked, tilted, off the asphalt. He will not venture into the fields when called.

We clean the cotton boles of their oily seeds and sharp, woodlike crowns. We do this sitting cross-legged on the floor of his furnished bachelor apartment in some small, flat town, far away from San Diego, hours and hours by plane and car, too far to run back to. This is in the summer. It is too hot to play outside, so hot that there are no sounds, no smells, only the faint hiss of insects. We stay inside. The apartment’s cinderblock walls, painted motel green, remind us of an igloo. It’s about that cold, too.

We are far away from our life — what we will come to think of as our real life, which has diverged from his. We wear batik cotton wrap around skirts or jeans, no bras. We scent our almost furry pits with patchouli oil. We meditate, attend table tippings, channel spirit guides. We conceal from him beliefs in creative visualization, teletransportation, out-of-body experiences, and sexual freedom. Our mother screws around and does drugs, scream-cries at him on the phone for the late child-sup port checks that pay our rent. That is what we are away from, sitting cross legged on his igloo floor. We are on the other side of it, stranded in a place we don’t know.

Our father is off selling insurance, polyester leisure suit, white shoes, and all. He has the car (white Ford, beige plastic interior). His apartment is on a barren street two blocks from a fenced field of burnt grass; the near est store is a mile away; the outside air temperature is 100 degrees. We write each other letters, sitting cross legged on the shag, for hours. In our letters we assume the characters of grande dames, ancient, wealthy, and vain. Each successive letter begins with a more elaborate salutation. The content of the letters — competitive descriptions of villas in Monte Carlo, affairs with chauffeurs, diamond necklaces — becomes more antagonistic. The rivalry between our ladies reaches fever pitch. Then something happens. The essence of our play erupts — we’re at each other’s throat, throwing things.

My sister walks off down the cement sidewalk, stops a block away. “It’s too hot to go anywhere!” She starts crying. We walk back into the dark, cool box. She sits on the couch and cries. I go into the bedroom and cry. Dad will bring us lunch: white bread sandwiches, chips, cans of soda — now exotic to our rice-and-steamed vegetable palates.

Within a couple of years, I am once again craning for ward to hear front-seat car conversation. His sly hand travels back between the seats; his fingers encounter smooth calf. When he tries to pinch, the fingers slide off my shin; he laughs. He catches my eye in the rear-view mirror. He shares the joke with his new wife. Our stepmother is a petite, childlike South ern woman, like his mother but unlike mine. “I reached back to pinch the hairs on her calf, and there weren’t any,” he says to her. She beams at my sister and me, leggy and crowded in the back seat. “The girls are growing up,” she says. Game Over.

We first shave our legs during this summer visit. Although my sister is older, a real teen, the habit is new to her, too — in our real life leg hair and arm hair bleach to softness at the beach. I begin shaving, as I will begin many habits, at the prompting of my new stepsister. We follow her lead, confused and grateful. She provides the template with which to negotiate our father’s nebulous life. She is the Artful Dodger to our Oliver Twist. One day she says,“Let’s shave our legs.” I watch her shave her legs. She is stretched out in the big bathtub in the spacious bathroom with the matching daisy-embroidered towels in our father’s new house. They have bought and remodeled the house.

Our stepsister shaves with a bright-colored, plastic girl’s razor, carefully sliding its head under a gold chain ankle-bracelet she never removes. We debate how much to shave — above the knee? midthigh? We marvel over the numbness of flesh shaved with a novice’s heavy hand.

The stepsister is the older of our two new blonde step sisters. We met her for the first time in the parking lot of SeaWorld. A photo shows us ranked in a Bradyish row, four ponytailed girls in white knee socks, stiff A-line dresses. In the car, our father cautioned us about the older of the girls, the one who is my age. “Be nice to Tammy,” he said. “She is special.” She is beautiful, and she is a bully.

During this and subsequent visits, it becomes clear that my father and his wife, while cautious not to interfere with our mother’s authority, worry quietly over her “lifestyle.” To fill in the gaps of our mother’s inattention, our stepmother takes it upon herself to offer structure and a woman’s touch. In our Christmas stockings one year, my sister and I find Playtex brassieres in card board boxes. (Back home, even though we are so young, my sister and I laugh at this conservatism.) Our stepsister Tammy also provides an enthusiastic example. Over the years, we learn from her, on our visits to our father: how to apply makeup, to shoplift, to smoke cigarettes and pot, to dance popular dances, to make a car “spin doughnuts”; to memorize the lyrics of Aerosmith, ZZ Top, Black Sabbath; how to French kiss, to give a hand job, to run away.

I also learn to accept the familiar objects of my previous home in a new context. A Danish modern end table, an old leather easy chair, the Magnavox stereo with which our father had surprised us a couple of years before, which had occupied the table by the picture window next to the couch in our living room, was now treated by my stepsisters with more familiarity than we ever had a chance to establish.

This familiarity extends to our father.

And he, the dead hus band of my childhood, retreats. He intercedes between his wife and Tammy. We are quiet visitors, stand ing in the back of the room when cars squeal past the house and boys whisper to her — and us — through the windows, when the phone rings and a boy tells my father that Tammy was “devirginized” at a house party. The issue for him seems to be Tammy challenging his authority. My sister and I are not the issue; he has given us up.

We take our new bad habits home with us, but they slough off like our summer tans. We view our father’s losing battles with Tammy in isolated frames. One summer visit, there is a police whistle hanging by the phone, to be blown whenever “calls for Tammy” come in. Tammy herself calls us periodically, begging to come live with us because our mom is “cool,” reporting the worst blowups — her mother attacking her in rage, leav ing broken fingernails in her hair; my father driving her to the city for an abortion; the dreadful fiasco with the Christian youth counselor. Each time we visit, there are new rules, explained by Tammy, about where she is forbidden to go and whom she is forbidden to see.

Dad conducts his divorce from Tammy’s mom with the same even tone he uses to inform us of job and address changes. The next time we come to visit him, he tells us our former step mother would like to see us. “She thinks,” he says in a rare moment of candor, “she has something to prove.” Our former stepmother greets us at the door in a leotard and tights, fully made up, smoking a cigarette. She has lost weight. Later in the day, we meet Tammy by the side of the high school and smoke a joint. Tammy tells us her mother has become a speed freak and is having an affair with the dentist for whom she works as a hygienist. And our former stepmother her self, giggling, tells us how she prepared a special cement when her rival, our father’s new love, came in to have a filling replaced.

In my father’s apartment, there is no evidence of life. No receipts, wrap pers, crumpled Kleenexes or letters, books or magazines. The room is an assembly of smooth, unbroken surfaces: imitation wood grain tables, plaid couches, shag carpets. He keeps a plastic vase of plastic flowers right in the center of the rented Formica dining table. He keeps big lamps with tall beige shades centered on side tables by the couch, by the bed. In the drawer of a table next to the couch, I find a Polaroid of a woman. She is lying on the couch, smiling and red-pupiled. The photo is taken from between her feet.

On our visits we are deposited into these air-conditioned boxes, where we wait for him to come home for lunch, if he is not driving out of town that day, or to come home for dinner. No longer connected by our stepsister to some kind of social life, we have even less to do. We swim quietly in an apartment complex’s deserted pool. We lie on chaise lounges, crying, while chlorine evaporates off our skins. We read, lying on a couch in the dark and sterile box. At the end of our visit, he drives us to the regional airport, and we fly home to San Diego. When he marries again, to the woman in the photo graph I found, my sister and I drive up for the wedding. We speed up the coast high way in our first car, a ’63 Valiant, eight-track tape player blaring. We cut inland, wind through low hills in the dark, spend the night in a fallow field.

I spend the next 20 years waiting for him to rescue me. He stays with his third wife, who is a small and lady like child of the South. As was his second wife. As is his mother. He visits me once, when I’m living with the least impressive of a string of boyfriends. He looks around our dingy apartment, stuffed with his mother’s old furniture. His face is blank. All day, the blankness of him assaults me. For our lunch out together, I wear a dress that is too tight and sheer. I realize this when he offers me his jacket against a nonexistent breeze. He is in town to make a deal with business partners in Poway. Fourteen years later, I find out he almost moved to Poway.

My life goes on. We remain distant. But my history with him is like a cur rent running under my skin, infusing everything I touch. I finally face up to it despite myself and come to the conclusion that I must let go. I let go the way you let go of anything you’ve been clinging to — in increments so small they can hardly be measured. It isn’t a matter of forgiveness or recompense; it is a matter of moving on.

Last June, after five years, we meet for brunch in Los Angeles. He kisses me on the mouth in a way that upsets me. He grips my upper arms. He looks me in the eyes. His are tender, and he smiles sadly, because we are already saying goodbye and we’ve only been together a few hours. He ushers me into the driver’s seat of his late-model white convertible with electronic dash, his proud possession. He demonstrates the seat’s 12 adjustments, causing hid den hands to press the small of my back, smooth my thighs.

His voice on the phone has become, after 30 years, the most familiar thing about him. He fills me in on a real estate deal, on local crops and weather. His tone is diplomatic, descending to sentimental when the past is mentioned. Our tenuous détente is often derailed, jams up with his grief, his uncomprehending embarrassment, and my anger, my 30 unanswered years of resentment betrayed by an ill-chosen word. Every few sentences he mangles a syllable; he admits he’s working on a glass of wine. I worry that he’s turning into his hard-drinking parents. I don’t remark on it. We have learned, in recent years, to make efforts for each other.

I visit him in September. I am proudly introduced to smiling, sport-coated real estate agents, then spend most of my days grilling in the sun by the pool. The house is big and Spanish style. The pool is lined with ornate blue-and-yellow tiles. Most days the temperature breaks 100 degrees, making sunbathing an ordeal. I concentrate on a book. I try soaking in the pool with the book on the pool’s cement edge, which works for about five minutes. I feel big and fat in my skimpy bikini; there is no one around but a dispirited dog to notice. In the evening, my stepmother takes me aside and tells me she had come upon my father at lunchtime, watching me through the dining room window. She tells me he said to her,“Can you believe that’s my baby?”

She intends this as a touching demonstration of his affection. I am torn by the thought of my father seeing my big stomach, breasts, and thighs.

After dinner on the second day, my stepmother retires to the back of the house to watch her soap operas, videotaped that noon. My father sits in the den with me for a while, then prepares dessert for us and takes my stepmother’s in to her. When he returns to me a half-hour later, I feel so tired that I tell him goodnight. He says, “I thought we could talk for a little bit,” and I say, “I am so tired. How about another time?”

On the evening of the third day, I go out to the pool patio for an after-dinner cigarette. I stretch out in a chaise lounge, sip white wine chilled by ice cubes, which I block out of my mouth with my teeth. At dusk, the air has cooled enough to make this activity a relief. I am not thinking,“I hope Dad comes out to join me,” but when he does, I am pleased.

He lies on the lounge chair next to mine, crosses his ankles. The ice cubes in his glass tinkle and break up in the heat. We watch vast flocks of birds high over head, black specks speeding south over pink mist, astral blue. Dad speculates they’ve been feeding on the crops in the north during the day. It could be the beginning of the fall migration.

He asks me about my sister’s marriage. I tell him her husband’s an alcoholic. Then he says something about regrets. He says something about how he “wishes things had been different” and that he knows that things went the way they went between us because of “decisions he made at certain points in his life.”

I say, “What do you mean?”

He says, “Well, how I never broke away from my parents.”

He says,“The one thing I regret is, I should never have agreed to let your mother take you away to San Diego. I should have fought her for custody, if that’s what it took.”

I had fantasized about hearing my father apologize or express remorse for the past thousands of times. My adolescent rebellions, suicidal gestures, my endless swinging from man to man like Tarzan through trees, all courted his mea culpa. Of course it is offered now. Of course, it is because I have given up needing an apology from him that it is finally, freely offered. In the wake of it, I don’t feel bitter triumph but sad, realizing how he hurts for what he did. And it changes everything.

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