The Only Time I Heard My Father Swear
My father, Maurice Daniel, was a good man. He worked on cars and only spoke when necessary. I remember him in smells—crisp and leathery on the days he drove me to school, sweaty and oddly fresh when we worked in his garage, lemony and pressed on Sunday mornings. He filled up rooms. Even when I managed to avoid his heavy-handed back pats, whatever smell he inhabited that day always managed to stick to my clothes until lunchtime.
He didn’t like laziness and wouldn’t tolerate interruption. I often wondered how my father occupied his time before he had work to fill it, as it was impossible to imagine him without a tool in his hand or a dirty rag over his shoulder. Every weekend there was a new project. If it wasn’t cleaning out the gutters it was tarring the driveway, and if it wasn’t re-thatching the roof, it was waxing cars in the shop.
“Customers will love it,” he always said.
My mother was a plain woman who spoke less than my father. She worked at the school with the kids with autism and things of that sort. She bought gifts for them at the Dollar Tree and she always came home looking tired. Her hair was usually tied up, except when she came downstairs in the morning. Sometime during hastily made scrambled eggs she would pull it back, but the strands around her face always managed to escape as she bustled around the kitchen. My father and I would watch as she flew about, all business, pouring orange juice and jotting down lesson plans in her loopy penmanship and sprinkling the page with little tan dots escaped from a coffee cup packed too full of creamer. She never raised her voice.
Years after I graduated, I ran into an old English teacher of mine at the bar.
“Your mom was the best,” he slurred. “She kept ‘em so calm. I think it was something about her face that helped. Glad it could help someone, she probably was. How’d she get to be so good?”
Then he bought me a beer.
It was common knowledge around town that my mother was not my father’s first love. He had been mad over his high school sweetheart, a farm girl whose mother was part Native American. This would have been enough to condemn her in our small-minded town, but my father’s affection and her father’s annually successful corn crop kept her in everyone’s good graces. Apparently, she was a knockout. I’m sure that didn’t hurt.
Anyway, her father had a bad year, as all farmers eventually do. The thing about this particular year was that it coincided with the year my father was meant to leave for school. He was good with numbers, see, and the university downtown had offered him a scholarship. She ran through the town after he told her, crying and swearing. That’s what people said anyway. It was cold then, early December probably. She didn’t stop when she reached the lake, just kept running out across the ice. December is cold, see, but it wasn’t cold enough.
Our teachers told her story in elementary school. Don’t walk on the ice unless you’re absolutely certain that it’s solid. Never go alone. Wait until January. February, even. Even if you’re a strong swimmer, you won’t beat the cold. You don’t want to end up like Rebeccah, do you?
Her name singed my ears as a kid. My father’s love was our cautionary tale. A while back, there was talk of renaming the bay after her, but this idea was shot down. Instead, a simple plaque stood watch over the lake where we swam in the summer. I’d always pause to look at it before jumping on my bike and scooting home. I couldn’t remember how I first heard about Rebeccah, or found out that my father drove her out onto the ice. It was something I’d just grown up knowing, the way you know how to shit on the toilet but can’t remember learning to wipe your ass.
Sometimes, when my mother assigned me extra chores on the weekends, I would imagine my life with Rebeccah as a mother. The things she could teach me about tracking a deer or sharpening an arrowhead—knowing next to nothing about Native American culture, I was stumped after cycling through what I’d seen on television and cigarette cartons. Still, I felt I was destined for an infinitely more interesting life that I had been cheated out of by hasty assumptions and some thin ice.
My father never spoke of her. I understood why he didn’t, but at times I wished he would. I wondered if he ever felt that same pull—if he knew I had taken on regrets I couldn’t comprehend. Winters confined the haphazard projects he could toss my way to the garage. There, he’d ask me about things like school and girls.
“Got any girlfriends, Will? Someone you wanna take to the movies or something? Horror, dramatic stuff, those are good for that kind of thing. When you get a bit older, maybe. I took your mother to see that stupid shark one—Jaws—on our first date. She hid her face the whole time. You should try it, son.”
I never knew what to say, not wanting to lie but hating to disappoint. Instead, I’d shrug and continue working, trying to shake off the feeling I got whenever he called me son. It landed too heavily.
He seemed quieter during the winter. Sometimes, I wondered if the silence between us while he changed the rotors on oxidized Chevys was due to other thoughts, thoughts of Rebeccah, rather than a quiet ease. Yet every time I worked up the nerve to ask, he would ask me to check the rear drums, pass him the lathe, or put on a fresh pot of coffee. And the words slipped back down my throat.
High school began, but instead of erasing Rebeccah, it only drew her clearer. Perhaps knowing that she walked these very halls strung on my father’s arm was enough to raise her up.
Maybe it was the photograph of her rumored to be hung on the ancient principal’s wall. I pictured a girl with long dark hair that reached down her back, mouth stretched into an aching smile as she glided around the school’s linoleum maze. That is until my mother, on a break between classes or helping one of her students to the bathroom, would waggle her fingers in a muted hello before whispering, “Do you have enough lunch money?” when she passed me in the hall. Maybe I was just lonely.
I made a few friends. As is the case with most desperate friendships, they were based more on convenience than mutual interest. Even so, we clung to each other, just to have someone to share the silence with as we ate our peanut butter sandwiches at lunch. One boy with floppy hair and a speech impediment—Donny was his name, I think—had a father who worked at the liquor store and we would get drunk in his basement off stolen Canadian Club. It was on one of those sloppy nights that the boys and I began to talk about Rebeccah.
“Does your dad tell you about her?” they asked, eyes wide and chests heaving.
I told them that he did.
“I heard she was the most beautiful girl in the wh-whole state,” said Donny.
“The whole country, man.”
“Yeah. The wh-whole country.”
My mother picked me up after midnight and didn’t say a word as my head bobbed like an enthusiastic marionette. I woke up in the morning with a headache and a glass of water on my nightstand.
After that, my friends and I had something else to intoxicate us. We tracked down every clue we could find, from the little plaque by the beach to the outskirts of her father’s old farm. We thought we could feel her on the air currents. We each felt we understood her in some inexplicable way, but I knew that she was really closest to me. Donny (it may have been Davey) suggested that we go through my father’s things in search of a note she might have passed him during class, sitting in the same mundane rooms we occupied while we plotted how best to know the girl who ran into the lake. I’m not sure what we thought it would accomplish, but accomplishing something wasn’t what we had in mind. We simply wanted someone to call our own, someone that we knew was capable of the love we had read about as kids. The kind that makes you run through town like a maniac, happier to freeze in a lake rather than spend a summer without the other. The girls at school barely moved out of our way in the hall. We would knock into them just to tell ourselves they noticed, but the truth was they thought more about tomorrow’s hairstyle than they thought about us.
I told Donny/Davey no. Invading my father’s privacy in such a way seemed to be a graver violation than some of the things the boys joked about in the cafeteria. Still, I noticed that the top left drawer of his desk had a lock on it. This picked at me, driving a wedge between my father and I that he didn’t understand and I couldn’t explain. Whatever was behind that drawer, I felt, held the answers to all the questions my teenage self had concocted. I finally decided that I simply could not go on without knowing the truth about what really happened between Rebeccah and my father.
I spent nearly a month plotting how to broach the subject. Evenings were dedicated to planning how to find time without my actual mother, casually bring Rebeccah into conversation, and then get my father to give up every little detail that I knew he secretly yearned to divulge. I was so focused on my plans that when he asked me if I wanted to sand the back porch with him one late afternoon while my mother was out, I almost said no in lieu of brainstorming how to do just that.
We worked in silence for the first hour or so, him with the power sander and me with the broom. The whir and swish blended together like a summer song. Fitting for August, when the days were long and the sun still hung low in the sky.
“What’s in your head, Will?” he asked at one point. “Seems like there’s something on your mind these past few weeks.”
My moment had arrived. I felt everything I had agonized over pooling in the back of my head, clogging my bursting brain. But I asked him anyway.
A history spilled out of me, cataloguing what felt like a lifetime’s worth of frustrations. I rambled on, God knows for how long, posing questions that he couldn’t answer (no one really could). My father listened, waiting. When I ran out of air, my hands were white and indented, marked from choking the broom that anchored me to our somewhat sanded deck.
We stared at each other for a while. My father’s face spelled everything between mirth and disappointment. I could see responses forming behind his eyes, each thought chased down by an even graver realization.
“What do you know about Rebeccah?” he finally asked in a way that was opposite of accusatory.
I thought of standing at the edge of a corn farm with withering stalks and the warm breeze that pulled me there. I thought of plaques and ice sculptures and flowing hair. I thought I had a hold, however tenuous, on part of her. I suppose the realization that I didn’t was what caused me to slip.
“Why don’t you ever talk about her? There’s a sign with her name on it not five miles from here and you act like she doesn’t exist.”
“She doesn’t exist, William,” I never realized how fluid my father’s voice was. Perhaps I hadn’t heard it enough. He returned to the deck, abandoning the sander for a scratchy brown square and moving on to the railing. His hands moved in small circles, scratching away years worth of weathering. He did not look up.
“Because of you,” I spat. Immediately, I regretted this. My father chewed the inside of his cheek and rubbed his hand across his face, leaving flecks of sawdust in his auburn beard. He finally raised his gaze to meet mine with a look of amused bewilderment that said, I still have work to do.
I was only a few years younger than he was at the time, he exhaled. He wasn’t stupid, he reminded me. He was waiting, he said, waiting until I was old enough for a real conversation. “Man-to-man,” was the phrase he used. Clearly, I was not ready.
“You talk about her like she’s a person in a story, son.”
I hated when he called me son.
“You have to tell me. She could have been my mother, and everyone knows her name, and I don’t know anything—”
“Now you listen. Your mother is the greatest woman you’ll know, and it would break her heart to hear you say that.”
“But, you haven’t—“
He sent me away, smelling of cedar and tasting ground enamel. We never spoke of Rebeccah again. When I left for college half a handful of years later, I hugged my father tightly and wondered if that unfortunate conversation in August was to blame for my desire to leave home. Whatever the reason, I was happy to go. My mother dabbed at her eyes and held onto me like I was going to war. When I pried her hands off my shoulders, she placed them upon her own, folding herself into a pretzel. I can’t remember what she smelled like, but my father reeked of new mud and old shaving cream. He patted me on the back once more before leaving, and my jacket held onto his scent for weeks.
My mother died in a car wreck twelve years later. It was spring and the flowers were blooming from green specks into purple and white blossoms. She was on her way home from school and there were cupcakes in the backseat, leftover from a favorite student’s birthday party. When we put her in the ground, my father fell to his knees, ripping the earth up in fistfuls and cursing the sky. It took three of us to get him in the car, and I still haven’t forgotten the look in his eyes.
When his heart gave out, I came back to town to pack up the house. It was fall and the leaves began to do just that. But the picture frames were free of dust, the driveway had been newly blackened, and the cars in the garage were waxed. I raked the yard and called the funeral home and thought about what a stupid fucking kid I was at fourteen. I found a box of keys, in the kitchen of all places, and used them to unlock the place I grew up. When I got to my father’s office, the top left drawer was locked. There was a slight tremble in the pit of my stomach, as my inner teenager roused himself from hibernation and began salivating at the chance to discover my father’s long buried not-so-secrets. So I poured myself a drink that put him back to sleep before opening the drawer.
Inside, I found some thumbtacks and two crinkled movie stubs from a late showing of “Jaws.” My birth certificate. Recipes for bland chicken wild rice soup and chocolate cake, scrawled in familiar loops. A yellowing photograph of my father, almost unrecognizable in his glee, with his arms wrapped around my mother—younger than I remembered—whose hair is falling out of a hasty ponytail as she falls backwards into a thick chest and an auburn beard.
I sat on the back porch for a long time after that, smelling the violet winds that used to hold so much. The lake seemed too far of a trek, and the store only held old faces. So instead I watched the yard that I’d cleaned grow messy again, and I thought about how falling in love was a bit like jumping into a pile of leaves. That porch was still pretty smooth, all things considered.
I’m a lucky one, I thought, and couldn’t remember ever feeling so alone.
It’s only now that I’ve realized. Some loves were made for the bright lights; they get etched in stone and recounted in black and white in all their sticky glory. But others are more quiet, with their cyclicalities and small smiles across the dining room table. And no one will ever know the story of my mother and my father.