My shoes are wrong. Mother brings it up in the rental car after she and Joanna pick me up at the airport and we are heading onto I-40 to go to the funeral home. We are late. I was supposed to get here last night but there was a fluke spring snowstorm in Connecticut so my plane was late leaving Hartford and I missed my connection in Louisville and had to spend the night in a hotel by the airport. But now I am here, in this rental car, in Nashville, with my mother and Joanna and they are worried about my shoes.
“You have another pair in your bag, don’t you, Sweetie?” my mother says, eyeing my yellowish brown lace-ups with inch-thick waffle soles doubtfully as I ride along beside her in the front seat. Joanna, in the back, says nothing, but I see my mother catch her eye in the rearview mirror. They exchange a glance that I am not meant to see. It’s a glance that says they know the answer: No other shoes. It is a Problem.
I look out the window, pretend to study the scenery, even go so far as to crane my neck to pretend to look at a passing car, and generally try to appear indifferent. “These are fine,” I say.
“Not really,” my mother says, but I can tell from her voice that she knows she can’t do anything about it. Joanna—actually the woman I’m calling that—still doesn’t say anything but I know her expression, her practiced look of sincere concern. Joanna is my half-sister from one of my father’s earlier marriages. She has her own mother but she seems to like mine. Later I will learn that she thinks my mother is the wife who talked our father into buying her a dollhouse for her birthday or Christmas or something when she was a little girl. But it must have been one of his other wives, because my parents didn’t even meet until Joanna was well past the dollhouse stage, and I know for a fact that my mother never met her until she showed up in our lives when I was eleven and she was twenty-five and already had a husband and two kids. That was in 1968, or thereabouts. Now it’s 1979 and I am twenty-two and in college and she is thirty-six and divorced and re-careering to become some kind of social worker. She thinks she has great insight into my life. Like right now, she’s probably got a theory about what’s going on with my shoes. She might be right or she might be wrong but what I think is that it’s none of her business.
The person who has died is Joanna’s and my father. He is also the father of our other half-sister, whom I’ll call Peggy, who is older than both of us. It’s confusing, I know, but there it is. I haven’t seen him in a long time. He moved out one morning when I was sixteen, three days after my birthday. I was sitting on my bed doing geometry homework. He tried to say goodbye and I wouldn’t speak to him and then two years later he came to my high school graduation and I didn’t want to talk to him then, either. There was another time, when I went to the cheap motel where he was living just after he moved out. I went because isn’t that what children of divorced parents are supposed to do, go see the one you aren’t living with? Have a big teary scene? I didn’t stay long. I didn’t feel much of anything then and I don’t feel anything now. I am just here, because my mother called and said he died. I told her I couldn’t make it, that I had a paper due in my archaeology class. I told her I didn’t want to come. She said, “I think you do, Sweetie.” So here I am.
The funeral home is in a place called Dickson. That’s where my father was from and where he moved back to after the divorce. Dickson is a little way west of Nashville, so it takes a while to get there. We ride along. It’s mostly Mother and Joanna talking, exchanging occasional glances via the rearview mirror. They talk about work. My mother is an executive secretary for the state welfare department back home. She calls it The Department in the voice she uses for important things. Joanna works there sometimes, too, as part of her new social work career. She likes to talk about people in acronyms, although I can never remember what they are. It’s like she’ll say, “You know those ABCD’s,” and then talk about what a problem they are and to whom and what needs to be done about them. My mother talks about Mr. R because he’s the big cheese and about his secretary, Vera, a huge woman with a perpetual scowl who sits at her typewriter all day with a cigarette hanging out one side of her mouth. You’re not supposed to smoke in the office but they make an exception for Vera. I happen to know that Vera scares my mother a little, although she does not admit this to Joanna. If my mother had her way, I’d give up my ridiculous notion of going to college in the East and join her at The Department. She could get me a good job as a secretary. Then she could keep her eye on me and stop worrying that I’m going to turn out like my father. Of course, I’d have to get different shoes, like maybe the pair of little black leather pumps that she thinks must be in my suitcase in the trunk of the rental car, the pair that are not there, so she may as well give up on it.
I’ll tell you a secret. I don’t like these shoes. I bought them one day in Hartford when I skipped class and took the bus there. Skipping class is taboo at my college. No one takes attendance, and the professors don’t care half as much as other students. Everyone is supposed to be smart and say smart things in class and go around saying smart things to people you pass as you walk across campus and then typing up smart things at night in your dorm room using your Smith-Corona portable electric on Eaton’s Corrasable Bond. I hold my own. I was high school co-valedictorian and am hardly a poor student, but once in a while I need to get away from campus, to give my brain a rest from all that smartness, so I walk down to Main Street and catch the local bus to Hartford. I go shopping. I walk around. I listen to people talking about stuff that has nothing to do with Nietzsche. I get an ice cream cone. I bought these shoes on one of those trips. They are perfect for clodding around campus, where almost everyone is rich though they try to hide it by dressing shabbily. Middle-class guilt, I heard someone call it. I personally don’t have middle-class guilt. Mother, as I mentioned, is a secretary and my father, when he worked, was an appliance salesman. I can only afford the college because they gave me a huge scholarship. But I figure I should blend, and they’re good in snow. Mother keeps trying to buy me nice things. The Christmas I was a freshman she bought me black velvet pants and a silk brocade blouse so I wouldn’t look like a girl from a poor family. I told her that’s exactly what I would look like if I went around campus wearing velvet, but she didn’t believe me.
At the funeral home, everyone is standing around like people at a party, only no one has a drink. We go up to the little circle where Peggy stands with her husband and their two older-than-me children (I told you it was confusing) and some people I don’t know. I glance over to where my father is lying in a grey metal casket. Nobody pays much attention to him. He’s like the guest of honor who’s also the wallflower. I look quickly, so no one notices. Peggy says, “I’m glad you got here.” I realize she actually means that so I say, “Thank you.” Peggy’s mother was my father’s first wife, so she’s kind of like the chief half-sister. She is about thirty years older than I am, a small woman with short loose curly hair that used to be red but has gone grey. She doesn’t dye it, a thing I admire about her. I notice that she doesn’t look once at my shoes, or if she does I don’t see her. But I do see that her daughter Ann, a flutist with small feet, is wearing a thin gold bracelet around one of her tiny ankles. She has on little black pumps, the kind my mother wishes I had to wear to funerals and to be a secretary. I think two things simultaneously about Ann’s ankle bracelet. One is that a lot of people at my college would say it’s bourgeois. The other is that I wish I had one. Anyway, we just stand there. Nobody hugs or cries or anything. We aren’t a hugging crying family. People say things about my father that start with “Well” and trail off into a sigh, like exhaust from a passing airplane. I don’t say anything.
After a while my mother says, “Sweetie, you need to come see Charlie.” Charlie is what I called my father. When I was little I called him Daddy and my mother called him Chuck, which was his salesman’s name, but then I heard someone call him Charlie and thought it was funny, so I started calling him that, too. He didn’t care; I was the child of his old age and did as I pleased. Then Mother started calling him Charlie, except when she was mad she would say, “Now Chuck” in her exasperated voice. He would close his eyes and sigh and pull in the side of his mouth in this way he had when he was pushing his partial plates into place. They were little rows of false teeth that clamped on to his real ones in back. “Partials,” he called them. Anyway, when Mother got into one of her “Now Chuck” moods, he would sigh like that and go into his bedroom, which was not the same as her bedroom, and shut the door.
She takes my elbow and leads me over to his coffin. He is dressed in a grey suit and a blue tie and she stands there looking at me looking at him. The tie is wrong. He always wore a red tie. Once when I was a little girl I picked out a red tie to give him at Christmas, and he wore it to work every single day the following year. At the end of the year it was frayed at the edges. Now, I’m thinking that I would have picked out a red tie if they had asked me. I wouldn’t have had to make a big deal of it. I could have just said, “Here, use this one.” Now he’s going to be lying in the ground for all eternity in the wrong color tie. I think about saying something. Maybe they could still change it. But I don’t want to give my mother the satisfaction of knowing I care, so I keep quiet. For the rest of my life I will think about how I let him be buried in the wrong tie.
My mother, I notice, is still looking at me.
“Why are you even here?” I say. “None of his other ex-wives are here.” I try to say it low so no one can hear, although some of them turn and look at us then look away. I see Joanna, off with the others. She has her social work face on.
“Sweetie, keep your voice down,” my mother says.
Of course, I do know why. She is here to supervise my grief. She wants me to touch him. It’s a thing I’ve seen her do with dead bodies. When her own father and then her mother died back when I was in high school, she put her hand on their hands and stood there for a long time with her eyes closed. I get that it was important to her, but she wants me to do the same thing, like she and I are the same person. She shows me how, touching my father’s hand. I think that’s pretty interesting because she wouldn’t go near him when he was alive. “No,” I say. “I’m not going to do that.” I put my hands down by my sides so she doesn’t try to take one and put it up there. Then Peggy or somebody comes over and says we’re all going to lunch at Long John Silver’s and we step away. First, though, I look at his thumbnail. It grew funny, from the time when he was young and mashed it in an accident at a summer job laying rail ties. I know this because I once asked him what happened and he told me about hitting it with a hammer and how it hurt like the dickens. Or hell. He might have said hell. Anyway there it is, folded up across the other one. So it’s really him. That’s all I need. I wonder, vaguely, if I could still make it back to Connecticut tonight to write my archaeology paper.
So here’s a thing that happened: The other night, before I knew my father was dead, I spent the evening with an unwrapped Egyptian mummy. It was for my archaeology class. Some professor in the nineteenth century had brought back a mummy from Egypt, and after that professor died somebody stuck the mummy in the top of the library, up behind some old books near the top of the stacks. Who knows how many afternoons I sat up there working near it? I write all of my papers in the stacks, taking books and paper and pens up to the farthest reaches where carrels are stuck in random corners under single hanging light bulbs that you turn on by pulling a string. All this time, there was a mummy nearby. My professor decided that it was his mummy now, and that he would take it to the science lab and unwrap it.
The unwrapping took several days. The professor had a team—a couple of doctor friends and some other professors. The New York Times came, landing their helicopter on a field in the middle of campus. In the lab, my professor and his team gathered around the mummy like surgeons, wearing scrubs and masks to avoid, I guess, inhaling mummy fumes. Our class stood in the back and watched. They worked slowly, gently pulling the fabric with tweezers and dropping the pieces into special containers to be analyzed later. When they were done we were supposed to go back on our own and take field notes about what we saw and write up a short paper. That’s where I was before my mother called. I was the only student there that night, so I was alone with the mummy.
I should tell you it wasn’t my first mummy. The science museum back home had a mummified Egyptian woman that we always saw on school field trips. She was in a glass case like Snow White and we thought she was a princess. The teachers always wanted us to look first at an exhibit about rocks or find out how much we’d weigh on the moon, but that mummy princess was a lot more interesting. She wore an elaborate mask that made it look like her large round dark eyes were staring straight up through the glass case at the white tiles in the drop ceiling, but the most amazing part was her feet. They were bare, the color of black shoe leather, and they protruded out from the end of her wrappings. I thought about that mummy as I stood next to the one in the lab. I had my notebook. What did I see? A dead man, obviously. He was skinny; I noticed that. He was black all over like the mummy princess’ feet—darkened, my professor said, by the stuff they used to embalm him. His mouth was slightly open. I could see his tongue, thin as paper, and teeth clinging to the upper gum as if they still had a purpose. We were not supposed to touch him. I don’t know why. Maybe there were still germs—microbial remnants of whoever he had been, suspended between past and future. It would be like touching time, I thought.
So that’s death.
I took some notes and stood there a while looking at him, and then I walked home. It wasn’t far back to my dorm. It was a clear cold night and the stars were bright. I remember thinking how beautiful they were, and I wondered what stars the mummy saw back when he was some guy walking around Egypt and not an unwrapped mummy in a college lab in Connecticut. When I got to my room, the phone was ringing.
“Hi Sweetie.” It was my mother.
She asked me how I was and I said fine-how-are-you and she said, “I’m afraid I have some bad news about Charlie.”
Seriously? She called me to talk about him? “What did he do now?” I asked. I was supposed to have gotten her innuendo, to know what “bad news” meant so I wouldn’t put her through having to say it.
Died? My first thought was, “What did he go and do that for?” Death was, you know, so permanent. I thought about the mummy, with his papery tongue and ancient teeth. A blip of a thought went through my mind about whether “to die” is a transitive or intransitive verb. I realized I didn’t know.
“Are you sure?” I said. We both knew he had a tendency to exaggerate. Maybe this was another thing like that.
“I’m sure, Sweetie.”
There are a couple of things I don’t tell my mother. One is about my father’s ghost. The other one is about having a drink in a bar in a hotel in a city where I’d never been with a man I didn’t know.
After she called, there was the predictable making of plans and cancelling of things. I called friends. “My father died,” I told them. I said it to hear myself say the words as much as to give them the news. It was like trying on new clothes, or a new identity, and checking it out with other people. I had never been a girl with a dead father. I even looked up the archaeology professor’s home number in the phone book and called him. “I went to see the mummy but I can’t get my paper in. My father died,” I said. You’d think I’d believe it myself, telling a professor, but I didn’t. I felt like an actress in a play about a girl with a dead father. I knew my lines but couldn’t get in character.
Then it snowed. More like a blizzard, heavy for March, even in Connecticut, the next day when I was about to leave. Planes were backed up. Mine finally left Hartford but it was late getting to Louisville and the next flight to Nashville was tomorrow. So there we were.
I say “we” because I was now in the company of two businessmen who were trying to get to Nashville, too. The big guy did all the bickering with the woman at the airline counter, who said there were no more flights to Nashville that night. I stood to the side with the other guy, and a couple of times when I could get a word in said, “My father died. I have to get there.” I thought sounding urgent might help get us a flight, but the airline woman and the big guy didn’t believe me, I could tell. It’s a strange thing, to tell the truth and feel like a liar.
They took us in a little bus to a nearby hotel. It was one of the chains, brand new, by the airport. It smelled faintly of new paint and floral air freshener. The big guy bickered again with the desk clerk and I tried to help again by saying “My father died” but got the same annoyed look. Maybe next time the line would come out right and it would sound real, like grief on TV.
Here’s the truth, though: I love hotels. When I was little and my father wasn’t drinking, we took summer road trips and stayed at hotels and motels. They were never expensive, since we had no money, but we always got one with a pool. My father and I would put some ice in the plastic bucket that was always on the counter next to upturned glasses wrapped in paper and those little bars of soap. We’d get a Dr Pepper to split, and then we’d head for the pool. My mother wouldn’t get in because she’d almost drowned once when she was younger, so she sat next to the pool reading a magazine while my father and I played in the water. He would float me, resting his hands just under my back as I lay flat against them, squinting against the late afternoon sun, the water undulating around me. Sometimes he would go by himself across the colored rope into the deep end while I stayed in the shallow part. He’d swim around, dip under, go back and forth. I saw him as a different person then, not Charlie or Daddy or my mother’s husband or an appliance salesman, but someone who had a past I knew I couldn’t touch. Don’t ask me how I knew this. I just did.
I wondered if the hotel in Kentucky had a pool, although of course I didn’t have time to swim, hadn’t brought a swimsuit, and my father wasn’t there.
The desk clerk gave us our room keys and a coupon for a drink at the bar, which was just across the lobby. I looked in. It was dark. I saw a woman with her hair in an up-do talking to a man who sat across from her at one of those little round tables that’s too small for anything but glasses and a bowl of nuts. I felt my mother inside me then, telling me this was a forbidden zone. “You don’t want to turn out like your father, do you?” I felt vaguely cheated, getting a coupon for something I couldn’t use. I had tried tequila at parties in high school, but I had never been in a hotel bar, and contrary to the cliché about college students, I didn’t drink much now. I studied a lot in the library. With, it turns out, a mummy.
In my hotel room, I got the plastic bucket and padded up to the ice machine, just because. Back in the room I picked up each one of the little soaps and smelled it and put one in my bag, along with the pen and a couple of sheets of the stationery in the desk drawer. My father always did this; he said they wanted you to take stuff. I missed him a little then, taking that soap and stationery. It wasn’t a sad feeling. It wasn’t quite a whole feeling at all, just a memory, a shadow, like a scent of something that passes so quickly you’re not sure it was ever there. Then, as dutifully as if my mother were watching, I brushed my teeth and put on my nightgown, which was flannel and went to the floor.
Despite all the delays, it wasn’t late. I tried to sleep, but with everything that had happened I was wide awake. Then I remembered the free drink coupon. And it dawned on me for the first time since I’d gone halfway across the country to college that my mother wasn’t there, that I was my father’s daughter, too, and that I was over twenty-one.
I got out of bed, put my clothes back on, and went downstairs.
The bar was empty when I walked in, except for a waitress who was gathering some glasses off the tables. “Come on in, honey, we’re still open.”
I found a table near the back where there was a long booth and sat down. On the far wall behind a counter were rows of whiskey bottles lined up against a mirror. I felt like I was in a movie, playing a girl having a drink in a bar. Only the character I played was a lot more sophisticated.
The waitress came over and put a tiny napkin down on the table. “What are you having tonight?” I rummaged in my bag for the drink coupon. I didn’t know what to order, so I said the first thing that came to mind: “Scotch on the rocks.”
About the time she brought it, one of the men from the plane came in. Not the big guy who bickered, but the other one. He was a skinny guy, a few years older than I was. He still had on the tan suit he’d worn earlier, and now that I saw him up close, I noticed the acne scars on his bony face and the beginnings of tomorrow’s beard. “Mind if I join you?”
It turned out he was a salesman from Ohio. He sold tractors, or something like that. He asked what I did and I said I was a student at a liberal arts college in Connecticut. He started lecturing me then about how I should major in something practical. Or why go to college at all? I had heard this sort of thing before, of course. Most of my relatives back home assumed I was just going to college to get a husband. They didn’t see why I had to go so far. Wouldn’t it be more convenient to get one closer to home? If I had to work I could type, and I didn’t need college for that. It always seemed like they were talking to some person they thought I was, instead of me. That’s how I felt with this guy.
While he was talking, I took little sips of Scotch. It was disgusting, but I tried not to let him see that I thought so. Every once in a while, I jiggled the glass so the rocks would clink around. I took a good look at his suit. All of the guys I knew at college and most of the male professors wore jeans and shirts that may or may not have been ironed in recent memory, but I had spent enough afternoons in men’s clothing stores as a child watching a tailor make chalk marks on my father’s new suits to know how one should fit. This guy’s suit was probably polyester, and it was too big in the shoulders. It looked like it came off the rack at Sears. His tie was a clip-on. I could see the edge of it under his shirt collar.
“What takes you to Nashville?” he asked when he had exhausted himself telling me what to do with my life.
“My father died.” Hadn’t I said this earlier, at the airport and when we all checked in to the hotel?
He looked straight at me then, eyes steady, and ever so slightly shook his head no. I felt again like a liar, as if my perception of reality had gone haywire. Maybe I wasn’t going to my father’s funeral. Maybe I was sitting in a bar in a hotel in Kentucky for some other reason, although I couldn’t imagine what it was. I didn’t want to sit there anymore. The rocks had melted and what was left of the Scotch was a watery mess. I said I should get to bed.
I’m not sure what he thought I meant by that. What I actually meant was sleep, by myself, in my flannel nightgown. Nothing else had even occurred to me, except maybe getting out of this conversation.
There was no way to avoid riding up in the elevator with him. I made small talk, something about hoping tomorrow’s flight was on time. It turned out we had adjacent rooms. He stood in the hall waiting while I opened my door. I thought he was just being polite but then when I got my door open, he walked into my room. I stood there in the hall, feet planted, watching as he walked over to the dresser and tossed his room key on it. The suit hung all wrong in the back, too, I noticed; I could see his bony shoulder blades. It occurred to me that this guy could have learned a lot from my father, who was also a salesman and no doubt spent his share of time in hotel bars. And given all of his wives—did I mention we don’t know how many? —probably a fair amount of time picking up strange women.
Finally, the guy noticed me standing out in the hall. He looked puzzled and then stunned and said, “Oh, excuse me,” ducking his head a little then as he picked up his key and made his way out. If I said anything, I don’t remember what. I went inside and shut the door.
The ghost came to my dorm room the night before my mother called. It wasn’t the kind of ghost you see, just the kind you know is there, with whatever sense you know that. I had just gotten into bed and was settling in under the blankets when I had a feeling I wasn’t alone. My first thought was, “Jane, don’t be ridiculous.” I was raised on ghosts—not spooky tales of horror but a possible reality just beyond ordinary. I knew my mind’s tendency to entertain itself with such thoughts when it didn’t have anything else to do. But this was different. For one thing, my mind had plenty else to do. I had been thinking about my archaeology class and getting the mummy paper done. In the middle of all that, the thing was just there, an interjection, heavy and ovoid, hovering a little to the right of the bed. “This is real,” I thought. Then it was gone. I didn’t think about it being my father, since I didn’t yet know he was dead.
After Long John Silver’s, we all go back to the funeral home. Someone has rounded up a preacher. It’s not anyone we know, but he comes up to Peggy and Joanna and me separately and takes our hands and says something about Jesus. We nod. What else is there to do? Then it’s time to sit down.
The funeral director has set three chairs at the front just under the pulpit and across from where my father lies in his casket with his mashed thumb and blue tie. “For the three daughters,” he says, clearly pleased with himself. He is a thin man with white hair and there is something comforting about him, although he seems perplexed about our far-apart ages. The three chairs are straight hard wooden chairs and they aren’t better than the other chairs, which are those brown metal folding kind, but just different. Peggy walks in and takes her seat and then Joanna sits down and then my mother walks up and sits down beside Joanna in the chair that is supposed to be mine. I look over at the funeral director. He goes up and takes my mother’s elbow gently and says, “This seat is for your daughter” and leads her back to one of the regular chairs. She looks dismayed, like nobody has ever told her that she and I are not the same person. I sit down in my place, my feet in their big brown shoes inches from my father’s casket.
The service is irrelevant. It could be anyone’s funeral. I half listen, but mostly don’t. Everything about my father is a muddle in my brain. His drinking. When I was three he rammed his white Plymouth Fury into a light post going well beyond the speed limit. At the hospital when they wheeled him through he leaned over to look down at me, rivulets of blood on his face. “Jane, I’m going to be all right,” he said, and then eventually he was all right. He went to Alcoholics Anonymous. He took me sometimes. I remember the dim room and the rabble of men. Once he held me up and said, “This is my higher power.” For a long time, he didn’t drink after that, but one day when I was twelve or thirteen I noticed a pile of Coors beer cans that he had tossed behind the chest freezer in the garage. “Don’t tell your mother,” he said, and I didn’t. I felt powerful, sharing his secret. But then sometimes when I got home from school—this is eighth or ninth grade—he would be there, bloated and slurring words. I would notice that he had been in my things. The middle drawer of my dresser where I kept my little red diaries with the tiny locks and boxes of cheap jewelry and some old Barbies would be open. I’d yell at him. He said he was the man and everything in the house was his and I said wasn’t it my mother who was at work earning a living and he didn’t have a response for that, but still I dissolved in futile tears. Another time, he picked up the receiver on the kitchen wall phone and pretended to talk to someone he called “the authorities.” “I’ve got a girl here. She’s crazy. You can come get her then? About an hour? That’s fine. She’ll be ready.” He said they would lock me away. I cared less about him calling me crazy than about him thinking I was stupid enough to believe that. For starters, my mother would never let anyone take me. Besides, I was standing right there by the telephone. I could see his finger on the receiver button. He wasn’t talking to anybody.
When he wasn’t drunk, though, he said I was smart. One afternoon he told me he wished they had money to send me to a good Eastern college. That’s what put the idea in my head. I started sneaking the “U” volume of the World Book into my room at night. It had a list of universities and I picked out some and wrote to them. It was a way out of the life expected of me—a year of college, find a husband, be a secretary—a life of thinking about what I could have done, might have been, if only. A life literally in my mother’s shoes, high-heeled pumps with pencil-point toes. I used to sit on her bed and watch her take them off when she came home from The Department. Her toes had hard yellow bumps that she covered with Dr. Scholl’s corn pads. No matter what, I decided, I was never wearing shoes like that.
It was my father who bought my school shoes. I was six, seven, eight, nine—probably all of those ages. For some reason that I never understood, my parents divided up my care. My mother was in charge of dresses for school and shorts for summer and things like pajamas and underwear. She made the dresses herself, sewing in the evenings after work, and dispensed with the rest with a quick trip to Penney’s. She wasn’t a shopping sort of mother. My father’s part was my feet and teeth. He’d ask me two or three times a day if I’d brushed and he stood by the chair at the dentist’s asking if my molars were coming in straight and if my wisdom teeth would have room to grow. “Your teeth have to last,” he’d say. His hadn’t. That’s why he had partials—a little row of three in the back and a single one on the other side. Compared to the mummy’s teeth, they hadn’t lasted at all.
Shoes had to last, too. I used to watch him buff his wingtips using a horsehair brush and tins of polish he kept in a wooden shoe-shine box. For me he would buy only Buster Brown. Once when I ran across the aisle to admire a cute pair like I’d seen at school he said, “No, we’re getting these. They’re solid.” That he was the only dad in the children’s shoe department didn’t seem to bother him. He’d look at the styles, examining the thickness of the sole and the shape of the toe box, then get a clerk. They’d make a big deal of measuring my feet, speculating how much they’d grow by spring. He bought shoes big so I could wear them a whole school year. Before I wore them at all we had to go to a shoe-repair shop to get taps—kidney-shaped pieces of metal at the precise place where I wore my heels down on the playground and a tiny one on the toe. I hated taps. They made little clicking sounds on the tile at school. I envied the other kids with their shoes that were silent, although I also felt a little superior, having a dad who shopped for me.
After the service, we go to Peggy’s, where we sit at her dining room table and divide up his belongings. There isn’t much. Peggy has given his clothes to charity so we are mostly looking at the contents of a small box that Mother and I got him one Christmas a long time ago. It looks like a miniature sea chest, with fake wood and a little clasp, and it is lined with red felt. It came with a fancy bottle of men’s cologne and a matching bottle of after-shave. With that gone you could use the chest for jewelry. It had been a good Christmas.
Peggy lays the contents of the box out on the table. There are things I would expect my father to have—cufflinks, his American Legion pin, some pennies, a styptic pencil.
“I guess we can take anything we want,” Peggy says, but at first we sit there blankly, like people too polite to take the last chip. Mother tries to get me to take some black and gold cufflinks with a cursive “C” on the side, but I say I don’t want anything. And I don’t.
Then I notice something shiny that blends in with the jewelry. A tooth—one of his partials. It’s the single tooth, suspended between silver prongs that curve out to the sides like sharp crab’s feet. I pick it up and examine it the way I’d learned to examine artifacts in archaeology class. I can’t decide if it’s a treasure because it’s silver or disgusting because it’s a tooth. Everyone is staring. Joanna sits across from me. I don’t yet realize, as I will later, that she was probably a lot like me, a woman with her own story, just trying to find her way.
Next to me my mother says, “Sweetie, you don’t really want that thing, do you?”
But I do. I want something I can take home, where I will run my fingers across the small indentations of the white surface and the sharp points of the silver prongs, hoping they might yield answers to ancient questions: Who were you? Where did you go? Why were you the way you were? The answers, of course, are speculative. What can artifacts really tell us about a life that slips, like all our lives, more deeply into the past until even memory can’t touch it. Still, I want something essential—something with his germs on it.
JANE MARCELLUS‘s essays have appeared or are forthcoming in the Gettysburg Review, Hippocampus, the Washington Post, and the Nashville Scene. She is also the author of an academic book, Business Girls and Two-Job Wives: Emerging Media Stereotypes of Employed Women (Hampton Press, 2011) and a co-author of Mad Men and Working Women: Feminist Perspectives on Historical Power, Resistance, and Otherness (Peter Lang, 2016). She is a professor at Middle Tennessee State University.