The Iowa Review


Felicity Fenton

- felicity fenton

Headbanded braids churn. I press play on my boom box. Blame it on the rain. Yeh. Yeh. I’ve recorded over my dad’s old tapes with static radio hits. They’re labeled “Steely Dan” in permanent marker. He used to play them in his car stereo and sing the high notes while blazing down treacherou­s mountain passes. Now he uses compact discs. I ask for real tapes with high-gloss pictures and lyrics printed inside. It’s better to sing along with all of the right words. Stand up now tell me do you really want to love me forever, o-o-o. No, he says, his old tapes will work just fine.

I want everything my friends have. New shoes, watermelon-scented shampoo, Lisa Frank Trapper Keepers, Hypercolor sweatshirt­s, blue eyeliner. I dream about white high tops, and when I wake up and realize they aren’t on my feet, I’m destroyed. In our house, we use economysiz­ed bottles of honey-scented shampoo from the wholesale factory store and have to add water until there is nothing left. My head has smelled the same since I was a baby. My mom makes all of my clothes except T-shirts and underwear. My dad thinks footwear should be functional, long-lasting. One day I will appreciate his frugality, he says. It may save my life.

Dad says I get an allowance. Dad says I make approximat­ely two dollars per hour for stacking firewood, for cleaning out the refrigerat­or, all the toilets too. I will not get paid for cooking breakfast or packing my lunch or making dinner, steamed dover sole and broccoli, a little salt. I will not get paid for changing the sheets and mopping the floor. He says I need to learn what it’s going to be like to live out there in the world. It’s harsh. It’s real. There’s no bullshit because it’s all bullshit. It’s Sisyphean. Prepare for the boulder to roll over you again and again and again, he says. Don’t worry, you’ll grow a tough skin. You won’t even feel it. You don’t want to be a lazy human. There’s nothing worse than a lazy human. Nothing. He says he’s paid his dues and I’ll pay mine.

Fun hides away in our house. I listen for its whispers, yearn for its surprise. I have to get up early. I have to make breakfast and wake up my dad so he can bring me to the bus stop. I have to go to school. I have to get A’s and B’s. I have to come home and do homework at the library,

until the library closes, until my dad picks me up a half an hour after the library closes, never apologizin­g to the librarian for being late. I have to go home and do more homework. I have to cook dinner. I have to clean up after dinner. I have to sweep and mop and make sure all the crumbs are wiped up from the countertop. When all of the work is done, dad says I can talk to friends on the phone or watch MTV for a half hour. If I do everything right, I have this one glimmer of freedom. I savor these moments. I call my best friend and tell her I’m going to get the new Milli Vanilli and Paula Abdul tapes. She’s excited for me. I’m excited for me. I watch myself dance in the window’s reflection. I’m not embarrasse­d by my homemade clothes. I writhe and shimmy and glide.

Occasional­ly I catch glimpses of fun in my friends’ dirty bedrooms. It’s okay if their clothes aren’t folded into perfect triangles. Their Nintendo games stack up in twenties. There’s relief in seeing moldy snack food under their beds. I imagine they aren’t banned from TV if they miss cleaning up a smudge. I imagine all the time. I try on other families. Dads who don’t plot out my days. Dads who don’t count my money. Dads who trust I’m a decent girl and just the right age for unambitiou­sness. Dads who don’t blame my tears on hormones.

Every night, it’s a similar scene. My dad’s hands press into mine at the sink. Use elbow grease, he says. He forces my hands with his hands to scrub harder. Long ago, when I was two or three, he used to take my hands and swing me around and around and around. The wall would spin and I’d giggle until my belly ached, and sometimes those bellyaches were prompted by a night out to the movies with my mom and dad and sisters. Romancing the Stone and fusilli alfredo were too much for my fun-starved heart. These were rare nights because my dad didn’t like to spend money on eating out or the movies. He’d rather spend money on things that make him look better to others—ski poles, fancy stereo equipment, seasonally appropriat­e spandex.

Linoleum pads my bare feet. My dad’s hands push my hands into the wet sponge filled with water and bubbled soap, Palmolive. There are lady’s hands on the bottle. They look like happy hands, hands without scrapes or masticated fingernail­s, a mom’s hands, not a man’s hands. Her hands scrub gently, unlike his hands on my hands, which scour dishes until there’s no residue and my hands become red. He says there should be no evidence left of meals eaten. His hands press harder into mine. If someone were to walk into the kitchen and see us from behind, they might assume he was hugging me. But if they flipped us around,

all they would see is agony. His face drawn on with furiousnes­s, spittle at the edges of his mouth, a pulsing vein on his forehead; my teeth bite the inside of my cheeks, already bruised from doing the same thing last night and the night before. I blink to keep tears back. I think the dishes will never be clean enough for him. I picture myself in someone else’s kitchen, doing someone else’s dishes—my neighbor’s dishes, my grandmothe­r’s dishes, all the dishes in the world piled high, but not his dishes. I should escape out the window. I think of crawling under my bed. I want to swap heads with someone else. I think of slicing off my hands until blood fills the sink.

He says one day I’ll need money for college. College will be so expensive I may not be able to afford the pens and paper, the books or words teachers say at podiums. A lady will hold a financial aid meeting two days before I graduate from graduate school, she will hand out pens and folders, packets of informatio­n about how much money we owe, and how we may go about paying it back. She’ll tell us that we aren’t alone, most students in the U.S. will have loans to pay back, and don’t worry, if you can’t pay the monthly sum, call up the office, and there will be solutions. One day, I’ll block it out, the X amount of money totaled up at the bottom of my statement. I’ll be organized, label file folders, shove the statements inside, close them into a tidy drawer alongside phone bills and my cats’ vet records. I’ll pay the loans, little by little. Debt will be part of my financial life, my emotional life. Sometimes I’ll get cold sores thinking about it. Sometimes I’ll envision myself living in a box next to a highway, a blanket wrapped around my shoulders, strumming a busted two-string guitar for a quarter. My dad tells me this was never the case for him. Cash for everything. If you can’t pay cash, you can’t afford it. One day, my face won’t be recognizab­le because of all the working I will have done to pay off my school loans, a mortgage, childcare, medical bills. I’ll be old, recognizab­ly so. Someone will call me ma’am, and I’ll wonder which part of my face died-off first, my crooked forehead, the crevice between my eyebrows, my red sleepless eyes. I’ll be careful not to compare myself to the faces and bodies of other women my age, specifical­ly celebritie­s on magazine covers in airports. Coworkers will ask about plans for the weekend, and the plans for the weekend will be cancelled due to fatigue. And so I’ll wait for the exhaustion to end. I’ll wait for another opportunit­y to hit my inbox. I’ll wait, and very little will happen. I imagine someone eventually saying, have it, it’s all for free. I’d sit in class and not worry about credential­s. I’d study cyborg anthropolo­gy, quantum theory, West African jazz, and I wouldn’t feel like I needed to do anything with what I was learning

aside from knowing. One day, I’ll list all of my talents on a single piece of high-grade paper with a watermark on the back. Someone will hire me, trust that I can do all the things I claim I can do. I’ll be a director of something and a manager of something else, an executive assistant, a bartender, a backup singer. Until then, I’m here: a twelve-year-old, schlepping logs for my dad.

He keeps his checks in the top drawer next to a film canister of weed, a wood ruler, some envelopes, and paper clips. The drawer smells of molded paper, stale farts, Marlboro Reds, erasers, pencil shavings. My dad’s wrath can be oppressive, but the smell of this drawer is part of the dad I love, fragments of him ordered into tidy rows. He’s the man standing in the shower brushing his long hair down the drain, screaming jojoba, making me believe his hair contains the stuff of mythical creatures. He cranks his music so I can hear it. We sing along without looking at each other. He brings me into the woods and talks about the end of God. I adore this man, his reveries and hopeful cynicism. Still, I haven’t been paid my allowance, not once, and I want Milli Vanilli and Paula Abdul to be the first two tapes in my impressive collection.

They sit in plastic on the top shelf of the checkout counter at the video store. They wear drop-crotch pants, oversized button-down shirts, black fedoras, high tops. They sidle across floors and rotate hips freely. I pretend to know what they are doing and copy their moves in mirrors, in front of my friends, my sister too. They root me on and dance along.

My dad slaps a pair of work gloves on me. My hands float inside their droopy fingers with wood chips and splinters. He piles logs into my arms. It’s winter break, but I haven’t paused since school ended. What does a break feel like? I ask my friends to tell me. They watch TV, play video games, mini golf. I get an hour, they get all day. My friends don’t come over because my dad makes them work too hard. We don’t eat cookies or have the kind of bread that is easy to chew. No soda, no sugary cereal, lights out at nine.

Chill rarely escapes the high desert mountains. Our house is heated by a wood-burning stove that isn’t large enough to warm up multiple rooms or the wandering hallways adjoining them. It’s so cold the mice have to crawl into bed with me to stay warm. And they do almost every night. They scamper on my desk, then make their way to my bed to tuck their little ears between my thighs. They are tiny and never bite, but I find

their tails terrifying. I move nothing like these little creatures. They slither and scurry. I lumber and stomp.

A rush of warmth comes when my dad tucks me in each night. He gives me a quick kiss and tells me he loves me. I believe in his love even when he’s enraged, when he’s demanding I be someone better than who I am because I see him struggling with himself, fatherhood, manhood. Rearing small humans in a convoluted world must be hard. Holding it all in must be hard. I believe in his love, especially when he pulls the sheets up to my chin and whispers goodnight, weed on his breath, nearly free of parental obligation­s for the day, ready to spend the remaining hours of the night in his office, listening to his new jazz CDS while watching a muted football game.

He signs his checks with a strident scribble then finishes them off with a heavy line. This gesture pays for our groceries, our water bill, skis, boots, and poles. I watch and learn. One day I’m alone in the house. This doesn’t happen very often, usually my dad is here, tinkering away on bike wheels, making phone calls. I think of the Milli Vanilli and Paula Abdul tapes sitting on the top shelf in the video store. I asked to use my allowance for them, but my dad said no. Two names are on the checks inside my dad’s drawer: Thomas P. and Cynthia R. She prefers Cindy. He prefers Tom. He calls her Cindy. She calls him Thomas. The voices they use with each other are curt and unfeeling. His slices the air. Hers is silenced by it. She would say yes if she were here and they were still together. My asking would be quiet footsteps to her sewing room, a plead between the stop and go of a needle driving thread into a seam.

The checkbook feels hefty in my hands. If I think back to a year ago, to home economics, I can remember how to fill one of these out. Pay to the order of. In the amount of. I rip a check off of its perforatio­ns, fold it in half, place it into the pocket of my coat. This is the third bad thing. The first bad thing would be humping the couch during sexy parts of movies, teaching my friends how to hump the couch, humping the couch of my cousin’s inner thigh. Part of the first bad thing would be having to pee in a jug all day because of my couch humping. I shouldn’t be humping things or straddling hot tub jets and shower streams because they get into the kidneys. I’m afraid the doctor will discover what I’ve been doing and tell my mom. She’ll say I’m disgusting, and I’ll promise not to rub my vagina on things again. The second bad thing was the moment I was in the grocery store with my mom, the cherry flavor Chapstick was begging me to take it long after my mom said no. But I could have

it. I could. I thought I could, and I knew I could, and so I did. I grabbed the cherry Chapstick and stuffed it into the pocket of my pants until we got to the car and unloaded all the groceries. I took it out of my pocket and smeared some on my lips in front of my mom. Incredulou­s, she grabbed my arm and marched me back into the store to confess. I felt horrified by this, the confessing part. I was worried about how my confessing would sound and what I’d say. Would I cry? Would I laugh? I would definitely blush, and the feeling of a blush is the most dreadful feeling a face can have.

This is the third bad thing. I know it is, but I feel deserving of this third bad thing. This check is mine. I’ve earned it. I have splinters in my fingertips to prove it. I have burgeoning biceps and freezer burned ears from hefting logs from snow to fire and back again.

I bike down the hill to the highway, which is more of a road, and left to the video store where I think one day I’d like to work. I think it would be nice to sit back and watch movies all day, suggest to others what movies they should watch, memorize lines and reenact scenes from Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead. I point to the cassette tapes on the top shelf. They are each eleven dollars. The boy at the counter doesn’t ask questions when I write the amount due in the check box. Twenty-four dollars and sixty-one cents, including tax. He takes the check and shoves it in the register drawer, hands me the two cassette tapes in a brown paper bag, and I skip through the parking lot back to my bike.

My dad doesn’t ask me any questions when I press play on the tape player in my room. I figure if he does, I’ll tell him that I’ve borrowed the tapes from my friend. I dance alone to Straight up, now tell me. I envision a boy looking my way, getting horny over the moves I make with my chest, butt, and thighs. I dream I have a chest, a butt, thighs. I put a few loose braids in my hair and pull suspender straps over my tank top.

My guts roil. I can’t eat anything on my plate, the zucchini or dover sole. I’m convinced he’s going to ask me about the check. I tiptoe downstairs after doing the dishes, moving slowly so he can’t hear my steps. I hit the bottom stair. He yells my name, first and middle, in a droning rhythm I’ve been forced to memorized. Dadadadada. This is the forth bad thing, despising my dad every night after dinner as I hit the bottom stair. I turn around, straighten my spine, clomp back up, purse my lips into a false smile. He tells me I’m half-assed. Only an animal cleans a kitchen like this. He points to the counter. I see a single crumb, feel sorry for it. Poor

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