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I always believed there was something different about my father. He was whimsical and airy, light of foot and so smooth and graceful, he could slip in and out of a room full of people without anyone realizing he was gone. I don't think I ever saw him depressed or even deeply concerned about anything, no matter how dark the possibilities were. He lost jobs, had cars repossessed, saw his homes go into foreclosure. Twice, that I knew of, he was forced to declare personal bankruptcy. There was even a time when we left one of our homes with little more than we carried on our very selves. Yet he never lost his spirit or betrayed his unhappiness in his voice.
I used to imagine him as a little boy stumbling and rolling over and over until he stopped and jumped right to his feet, smiling, with his arms out and singing a big "Ta-da!" as if his accident was an accomplishment. He was actually expecting applause, laughter, and encouragement after a fiasco. He once told me that when he received a failing grade on a test in school, he took joy in having a bright red mark on his paper while the other, less fortunate students who happened to have passed had only the common black. Defeat was never in his vocabulary. Every mistake, every failure was merely a minor setback, and what was a setback anyway? Just an opportunity to start anew. Pity the poor successful ones who spent their whole lives in one town, in one job, in one house.
Daddy, I would learn, carried that idea even into the concept of family.
He was a handsome man in a Harrison Ford sort of way, not perfect, but surprising because his pastel blue eyes could suddenly brighten with a burst of happy energy that made his smile magnetic, his laughter musical, and his every gesture as graceful as a bull fighter's. He stood six feet one, with an unruly shock of flaxen-blond hair that somehow never looked messy, but instead always looked interesting, making someone think that here was a man who had just run a mile or fought a great fight. He was athletic-looking, trim with firm shoulders. He never had the patience or the discipline to be a good school athlete when he was young, but he was not above stopping whatever he was doing, no matter how important, and joining some teenagers in the neighborhood to play a game of driveway basketball.
Daddy's impulsiveness and childlike joy in leaping out of one persona into another in an instant annoyed my mother to no end. She always seemed embarrassed by his antics and depressed by his failures, yet she held onto him like someone clinging to a wayward sailboat in a storm, hoping the wind would die down, the rain would stop, and soon, maybe just over the horizon, there would be sunny skies. On what she built these sails full of optimism, I never knew. Maybe that was her fantasy: believing in Daddy, a fantasy I thought belonged only to a young and innocent daughter, me.
Or maybe it was just impossible to be anything but optimistic around Daddy. I truly never saw him sulk and rarely saw him look disgusted. Of course, I never saw him cry. He wasn't even angry at the people who fired him from his jobs or the events that turned him out of one opportunity after another. It was always a big "Oh, well, let's just move on."
At least we remained in one state, Georgia, crisscrossing and vaulting towns, cities, villages; however, it soon became obvious that Daddy anticipated his inevitable defeats. After a while -- our second mortgage failure, I think -- we stopped buying and started renting for as short a period as the landlords tolerated. Daddy loved six-month leases. He called every new rental a trial period, a romance. Who knew if it was what we wanted or if it would last, so why get too committed? Why get committed to anything?
Of course, Mommy flung the usual arguments at him.
"Rose needs a substantial foundation. She can't do well in school, moving like this from place to place. She can't make friends, and neither can I, Charles.
"And neither can you!" she emphasized, her eyebrows nearly leaping off her face. "You don't do anything with other men like most men do. You don't watch ball games or go out hunting and fishing with buddies and it's no wonder. You don't give yourself a chance to build a friendship, a relationship. Before you see someone for the second time, you're packing suitcases."
My father would listen as if he was really giving all that serious thought and then he would shake his head and say something like, "There's no such thing as friends anyway, just acquaintances, Monica."
"Good. Let me at least have a long enough life somewhere to have acquaintances," Mommy fired back at him.
He laughed and nodded.
"You will," he promised. "You will."
Daddy made promises like children blow bubbles. At the first suggestion of approaching storm clouds, he blew his promises at us, perfectly shaped, rainbow-colored hopes and dreams, and stood back watching them float and bob around us. When they popped, he just reached into his bag of tricks and started a new bubble. I felt like we were all swimming in a glass of champagne.
Bursting through the front door at the end of his workday, whatever it happened to be, he cried out his wonderful "I'm home!" He bellowed like someone who expected everything would be dropped. Mommy and I would come running out of rooms with music blaring behind us. She would put down her magazine or book, or stop working on dinner. I would leap from my desk where I was doing homework or spring from the sofa where I was sprawled watching television, and we would rush into the hallway to hug him and be hugged by him.
That stopped happening so long ago, I couldn't remember if we had ever done it. Now when he bellowed his "I'm home," his voice echoed and died. He still greeted us with his big, happy smile, looking like someone who had returned from the great wars when all he had done was finish one more day of new work successfully enough not to get laid off.
At present, he was a car salesman in Lewisville, Georgia, a small community about forty-five miles northwest of Atlanta famous for its duck ponds and its one industry, Lewis Foundry, which manufactures automotive cast-iron braking components and employs over seven hundred people. Small housing developments sprouted up around it and from that blossomed retail shops, a mall, and four automobile distributorships, one for which, Kruegar's, Daddy worked selling vans and suburban vehicles and Jeeps.
How Daddy found these places was always a mystery to us, but for the past two years, which was a record, we had been living here in a small house we rented. It was actually the most comfortable and largest home we had ever owned or rented. It was a Queen Anne with a gabled roof and a front porch. It had a small backyard, an attached garage, a half-basement, and an attic. There were three bedrooms, a nice size dining room, a kitchen with appliances that still functioned, and a modest living room. Since we didn't have all that much furniture anyway, it was quite adequate for our needs, and the street was quiet, the neighbors pleasant and friendly.
Everyone liked Daddy pretty much instantly. He was so outgoing and amiable, always greeting them with a smile and a hello full of interest. Daddy was a glib man. He could stop and talk politics, economics, books and movies, and especially hunting and fishing with anyone. He always knew just enough to sound educated on an issue, but not really enough for any deep analysis. He hadn't gone to college, but he knew how to agree with people, to anticipate what they felt and thought, and find ways to escort them down their paths of beliefs, making them think he was a sympathetic voice, in sync with whatever theory or analysis they had. Mommy always said Daddy missed his calling. He should have been a politician. He even could talk his way out of a speeding ticket. By the time he was finished, the poor policeman almost felt guilty.
Daddy's verbal skills and friendly manner did make him a good salesman. When he failed at a sales job, it wasn't because he couldn't do it. I always thought it was either because he lost interest or saw something over the horizon that attracted him more. He would slack off and eventually cause his boss to decide it would be better if Daddy moved on, and move on he did. Daddy was so agreeable, I'm sure his bosses found firing him was almost a cheerful experience.
Now, we were here, still here, hoping to stay, hoping to build a life. Mommy was permitting herself to make close friends, to join organizations, to make commitments. I was doing well in school, and since I was at the beginning of my senior year, we were expecting I would graduate at this high school. I hadn't yet decided what I wanted to do with my life. I had been in school plays and I was told I had an impressive stage presence and carried myself like a seasoned fashion model, but I knew I didn't have a strong enough voice, and I was never very comfortable memorizing lines and pretending to be someone else.
Mommy didn't pressure me to be anything special. Her advice was more along the lines of what to do with myself socially. Lately, she was more strident-sounding than ever with her warnings.
"Don't give your heart to anyone until the last moment, and then think it over three times."
Her dark pronouncements came from her own regret in having married so young and ending what she called her chance for really living before she had even started. She and Daddy had been high school sweethearts and consequently married soon after graduation, despite the admonishments of her parents, who refused to pay for any wedding. Daddy and she eloped and set up house as soon as he acquired the first of what was to be a long string of jobs.
Because of our lifestyle, I knew that Mommy now considered herself well beyond her prime. I could see it in her eyes whenever she and I went anywhere. She would take furtive glances at men to see if they were looking her way, following her movements with their eyes, showing any interest. If a younger woman pulled their attention from her, the disappointment would settle in her face like a rock in mud, and she would want to get our shopping over quickly and go home to brood.
Over the years, she had taken odd jobs working in department stores, especially in the cosmetic departments, because she was a very attractive woman. When Daddy lost his positions, Mommy would have to give up hers, no matter how well she was doing or how pleased her bosses were with her work. After this happened a number of times, Mommy simply gave up trying to work.
"What is the point?" she asked Daddy. "I won't be able to hold down the job or get promoted."
"I'd rather have you at home anyway, my homemaker, Rose's full-time mother," Daddy declared, avoiding any argument. He acted as if the added income was superfluous, when it sometimes was all we had.
Now, because we had lived in Lewisville so long, Mommy was considering returning to work. I was old enough to take care of my own needs, to help out in the house, and she had lots of free time to fill. Daddy didn't oppose her when she brought all this up now. In fact, they rarely had marital spats. Daddy was too easy for that. He would never disagree vehemently. Nothing seemed to matter that much to him, nothing deserved his raising his voice, putting on an angry face, sulking or being in the slightest way unhappy. His reaction to it all was always a shrug and a simple, "Whatever."
It had become our family motto. Whatever I wanted; whatever Mommy wanted. Whatever the world wanted of us, it was fine with Daddy. He loved that old adage, "If a branch doesn't bend, it breaks."
"How about not breaking, Charles, but not having to bend either?" Mommy asked him.
He shook his head, smiling.
"Monica, there's no place in the world where there's never a wind."
Mommy showed her frustration and started to go into a depression and brood, but Daddy would come up with that rabbit in his hat almost all the time. He would have flowers sent to her, or he would secretly buy her some new perfume or some piece of jewelry. She would shake her head and call him an idiot, but she was always too pleased to keep up her growling. In the end, Daddy's charm overwhelmed everything. I started to believe he might be right about life. There was nothing worth stress. He lived the Edith Piaf song he played when he sat quietly with his martini in the living room. Je Regret Rien: I regret nothing.
Whatever happened, happened. It was over and done with, in the past. Forget it. Look to the future. It was a philosophy of life that turned every rainy day into a sunny one. You put your Band-Aids on your scrapes and bruises, choked back tears, and forgot about them.
"There should be only happy tears, anyway," Daddy told me once. "What does crying get you? If you're miserable, you're defeating yourself. Laugh at life and you'll always be on top of things, Rose."
I looked at him with wonder, my Daddy, the magician who seemed incapable of not finding rainbows. The ease with which he captured people impressed me, but what impressed me more was the ease with which he tossed it all away or gave it up once he had succeeded. Was that ability to let go with no regret a power or a madness? I wondered. Was nothing worth holding onto at any cost? Was nothing worth tears?
It wasn't long before I had an answer.
According to Mommy, it was Daddy who insisted on naming me Rose, quoting one of his favorite Shakespearean lines, "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." It wasn't only because he insisted I had the sweetest face of any baby born that day. He argued that a rose always brought happiness, good times, bright and wonderful things.
"What happens whenever you place a rose next to something?" he asked her in the hospital. "Huh? I'll tell you, Monica. It makes it seem more wonderful, more delicious, more enticing, and more desirable. That's what will happen every time she comes into a room or into anyone's life. That's our Rose."
Mommy said she gave in because she had never seen him so excited and determined about anything as much as he was about my name. She said my grandparents thought it was just dreadful to have a name like that on a birth certificate.
"She's a little girl, not a flower," Grandfather Wallace, Daddy's father, had declared. He favored old names, names garnered from ancestors, but Daddy had long since lost the ties with family that most people enjoy. His father never approved of the things he did with his life. Both of his parents closed all the blinds on every window that looked out on him. They shut down like a clam, but Daddy didn't mourn the loss.
"People who drag you down, who are negative people, are dangerous," Daddy told me when I asked him about my grandparents and why we had so little to do with them. "Who needs that? Before long, they make you sad sacks, too. No sad sacks for us!" he cried and swung me around.
When I was a little girl, he was always hugging me or twirling my strawberry blond hair in his fingers, telling me that I was a jewel.
"Your eyes are two diamonds. Your hair is spun gold. Your lips are rubies and your skin comes from pearls. My Rose petal," he cried and kissed the tip of my nose. Laughter swirled in his eyes and dazzled me. Everything my daddy did was fascinating to me in those early years. He even made every meal we had a special event, assigning names and stories to each and every thing we ate. Mommy told him I laughed too much at dinner and I would have stomachaches, but Daddy didn't believe that happy things could do any harm in any way.
"Glum people have stomachaches, Monica. We don't, right, Rose?" he would ask.
Of course, I always agreed with him then. To me it seemed the right thing to do, the right way to go, the right way to be: carefree, happy, unconcerned.
"Your father just never grew up," my mother told me. "He's a little boy in a man's body. Yes, he makes people feel good, but one of these days, he's going to have to become substantial. I just hope it's soon," she would tell me.
Worry darkened her eyes. She took her deep breaths and waited, worked when she could, and made the best of every home we had, but I couldn't help feeling this same anxiety as I grew older and wiser and saw the shine begin to dull on Daddy's face and ways. Despite his attitudes and behavior, he was growing older. Gray hairs sounded small warnings and began to sprout like weeds in that flaxen cornfield. Lines were deepening under his eyes. He was less and less apt to drop everything and rush onto a basketball court to match himself against young boys. The world he had kept at bay was seeping in and under every door. He was beginning to show wear and tear. He had to search harder and harder to find ways to deny it, or avoid it.
Daddy kept his little escapes private. He did a little more drinking than Mommy liked, but he didn't do it in salons and dingy bars with degenerate friends. He kept his whiskey in a paper bag and drank surreptitiously. Even his drinking was solitary. All of his means of relaxation were. He loved to go duck hunting, but he never went with a group. He was a true loner when it came to all this. It was as if he didn't want to share those moments of doubt or admit that he needed his retreats from reality.
One weekend morning, as usual, he rose early and left the house before Mommy and I rose. He didn't leave a note or any indication about where he had gone, but it was fall and duck season, so we knew he was off to some solitary place he had discovered, some little outlet from which he could launch his rowboat and sit waiting for the ducks. He never shot more than we could eat, and Mommy was very good at preparing duck. She said it made him feel like some great hunter providing for his family. He was always saying that if we had to return to the days of the pioneers, he was equipped to do so.
The night before he went hunting, he had come into my room while I was doing my homework. I had started it on a Friday night because I had been given a lot to do over the weekend, including beginng a social studies term paper. He stood there a while, watching me quietly, before I realized he had entered. He smiled at my surprise.
"Daddy? What?" I asked him.
He shook his head and sat beside me on the floor with his legs curled up under him. It had been a while since he had done this. Unlike the parents of most of my friends, Daddy didn't hover over me daily or even on a weekly basis checking on my schoolwork and questioning my social activities. In some of the houses of my school friends, their parents behaved like FBI agents. One girl revealed that her parents had actually bugged her telephone because they suspected she was in with a bad crowd, and another told me her parents had hired a private detective who followed her when she went out on dates. She said it was by pure accident that she had discovered it. She inadvertently pressed the answering machine playback in her father's office and heard the detective's report about her most recent date.
These parents made me feel grateful I had a father who was so casual and trusting. Nothing I did ever displeased him greatly. He didn't yell. He never even so much as threatened to hit me, and if my mother imposed a punishment like "Go to your room for the night," or "Stay in all weekend," my father would intercede to say, "She knows she's made a mistake, Monica. What's the point?"
Frustrated, my mother would throw up her hands and tell him to take charge and be responsible. Daddy would turn his big, soft eyes on me and say, "Don't get me in trouble, Rose. Please, behave." I think that plea of his, more than anything, kept me from misbehaving. It was funny how I hated the idea of Daddy ever being sad. If he should be, it would seem as if the world had come crashing down on us. I was afraid that once my daddy lost his smile, the sunshine would be gone from our lives.
"There's nothing in particular," Daddy replied to my question when he sat on the floor beside me. "But it's Friday night. How come you're not going anywhere with your friends -- a movie, a dance? You're probably the most beautiful girl in the school."
"I'm going out with Paula Conrad tomorrow night, Daddy, remember? I told you and Mommy at dinner."
"Just you and Paula?"
"We'll probably go to a movie and meet some other kids."
"And I assume other kids includes boys."
"So how are you really doing these days, Rose? Are you happy here?"
A small patter of alarm began in my heart. Daddy often began a conversation this way when he was going to explain why we were about to move.
"Everything is good, Daddy. I like my teachers and I'm doing well in my classes. You saw my first report card this year, all A's. I've never gotten all A's before, Daddy," I pointed out.
He nodded, pressing his lips tightly.
"And I was in the school plays last year, so I was thinking of going out for the big musical in the spring. The drama teacher keeps reminding me. I don't know why. I can't sing that well."
"You're the jewel, Rose. He wants his show to sparkle," Daddy said, smiling. "Don't be too humble," he warned. "Act like sheep and they'll act like wolves," he warned.
I knew he was right, but I was afraid to wish anything big for myself. I guess I've always been modest and shy. Maybe that was because I was afraid of committing myself to anything that required a long-term effort. We had been so nomadic, moving like gypsies from town to town, city to city, so often I was terrified of becoming too close to anyone or too involved in any activity. Good-byes were like tiny pins jabbed into my heart. How many times had I sat in the rear of the car looking through the back window at the home I had just known as it disappeared around a bend and was gone forever?
However, Daddy wasn't the only one who used superlatives when remarking about my looks. I should have been building up my confidence. Wherever Mommy took me, even when I was only six or seven, people complimented me on my features, my complexion, my eyes. I was often told how photogenic I was, and how I should be on the covers of magazines.
When I was about eleven, I sensed that my male teachers looked at me and spoke to me differently from the way they did the other students and especially the other girls. I could feel the pleasure I brought merely being in front of them. In my early teen years, my male teachers seemed to flirt with me. Other girls with green eyes of envy muttered about my being Mr. Potter's pet or Mr. Conklin's special girl. They complained that I could do no wrong in the opinion of my male teachers. They even assumed my grades were inflated because I knew how to bat my long, perfect eyelashes or smile softly so that my eyes were sexy, inviting.
I suppose it was inevitable that Mommy would want to enter me in a beauty contest. Six months after we had arrived in Lewisville, Mommy heard about the Miss Lewisville Foundry beauty pageant and discovered that through some oversight there was no minimum age requirement. She decided I could compete with women in their late teens and twenties and filled out the application. She made Daddy ask his boss to consider sponsoring me, and I was brought to the dealership to meet Mr. Kruegar, a balding forty-year-old man who had inherited the business from his father. It was the first time I was paraded in front of someone who looked at me like some commodity, a product -- in his case, like a brand-new car. He even referred to me as he would refer to one of his new model vehicles.
"She has the chassis. That's for sure, Charles," he said, drinking me in from head to foot, pausing over my breasts and my waist as if he was measuring me for a dress. "Nice bumpers and great chrome," he added and quickly laughed. "You're a beautiful girl, Rose. No wonder your father's proud of you. Sure we'll sponsor her, Charles. She's a winner and I can't get hurt by the publicity. Not if she's going to wear a Kruegar T-shirt and a Kruegar pin. That's for sure."
Mr. Kruegar wiped the tip of his tongue over his thick, wet lips and nodded as he continued to scrutinize me with his beady eyes. I felt like a dinner for a cannibal and wanted nothing more to do with the contest or him, but Mommy assured me he would have little to do with what happened.
"You probably won't see him again until the actual event," she promised.
With a good budget now for my preparations, Mommy set out to buy me an attractive evening dress, a new bathing suit, and a pretty blouse and skirt outfit. The contest took only one day. Like the Miss America pageant, there was the question and answer period, which at least pretended an interest in our minds as well as our bodies. Then there was the swimsuit competition, and finally, the evening when we could sing, read poems, dance, whatever. I did a Hawaiian folk dance I learned off a videotape Mommy had bought. After we were all finished with our talent show, we paraded in front of the judges for the final evaluation, supposedly based upon poise and grace.
I knew the older women were infuriated that I had been entered. None of them were friendly. As it turned out, a woman named Sheila Stowe won the title. I was first runner-up. Everyone in the audience, except Sheila's family, thought I was cheated because Sheila, as it turned out, was a relative of the Lewis family.
After the contest, people insisted on calling me Ms. Lewisville Foundry or just Miss Foundry whenever they saw me. They sympathized with my mother, cajoling and insisting I was the true beauty of Lewisville. I can't say it didn't put daydreams in my head. I began to imagine myself on the covers of the biggest and most glamorous magazines, eventually developing products under my name. I started to think of elegance and style more seriously, and began to dare ambition.
"I'm expecting you to become someone very special, Rose," Daddy told me as he sat there in my room. "I have high hopes. I know that I haven't exactly made things easy for you and your mother, but," he said, smiling, "you're like some powerful, magnificent flower plowing itself up between the rocks, finding the sunshine and blooming with blossoms richer than those of flowers in perfectly prepared gardens. Just believe in yourself," he advised.
Daddy hardly ever spoke so seriously to me. It kept my heart thumping.
"I'll try, Daddy," I said.
"Sure you will. Sure," he said. He played with the loose ends of my bedroom floor rug for a moment, holding his soft, gentle smile. "I guess I never had much faith in myself. I guess I move on so much because I'm afraid of making too much of an investment in anything. It would make failure look like failure," he said, looking up, "instead of just a temporary setback I can ignore.
"Don't be like me, Rose. Dig your heels into something and stick with it, okay?"
"Okay, Daddy," I said.
He stood up, leaned over, and kissed me on the forehead, twirling my hair in his forefinger and reciting: "Your eyes are two diamonds. Your hair is spun gold. Your lips are rubies and your skin comes from pearls. My Rose petal."
He laughed, kissed me again, and walked out.
I never heard his voice again or his laugh or bathed in his happy smile.
Copyright © 2001 by the Vanda General Partnership