St. Louis is the third-place winner in SNHU’s 2015 Fall Fiction Short Story Competition.
by Virginia Spotts
Through the ghostly fluorescent lighting and piles of boxes, my father poked his head through the door, giving a slight smile. My returned smile was tight-lipped. He stepped inside slowly, stopping just a few feet from the door. From the other end of this long, windowless room, the space between us stretched like years. He glanced around, taking inventory of the partially cleared bookshelves and the unmade bed piled with suitcases. He looked old.
“Is your friend coming by soon?” he asked.
“Yes, she’ll be here with a truck in an hour or so,” I said, barely looking up from the box in front of me.
“Looks like you’ve got a handle on this.”
“A lot of this was still boxed up.”
His forehead scrunched up, grimacing like he’d just heard a bad joke. I didn’t want to notice this, but I did. I remembered all the other times I’d seen this face: the warm summer day when my mom took my sister and I away, the times when he’d waved us goodbye at the airport, the way he’d greeted me in the auditorium with flowers after my first big role in my high school’s production of “Bye Bye Birdie,” when I accidentally told him that I wasn’t a virgin, when I told him about mom’s second wedding. I pretended to notice something in a box of books at my feet, screwing up my face in faux-concentration as I rummaged around inside. I didn’t want to think about the memories that were coming to me.
I was only six years old on that warm summer day. My sister Betty and I were packed into his pickup truck that morning, singing loudly with the radio. He wanted to go by the florist to buy some roses, and then took us to the dollar store. He said we could get whatever we want, and Betty and I tore off, screeching around the aisles. I stopped in front of an off-brand plastic doll that was dressed in a boxy-looking blue dress. She came with her own hairbrush and scissors, and I decided that I was going to learn how to cut my own hair by practicing on her. Betty got two bouncy balls, which she kept dropping in the cab of the truck. Dad wouldn’t let me cut my doll’s hair while we were driving, so I just brushed it over and over, feeling the warm air and tinny music whiz past my head as we shimmied along over the quiet roads.
Mom wasn’t home when we got back, so dad left us to play with our toys in the living room while he went into the kitchen. I could hear him whistling as he let the sink run, scrubbing pots and dishes, then the various sounds of washcloths wringing, cabinets banging, mixing, boiling, chopping, and frying. Onions and meat and bread drifted through the air into the living room. I laid my doll out on the floor and concentrated as hard as I could on straightening her hair out above her head, then methodically cut through the strands, which kept slipping through the blades of the scissors. Her new haircut was choppy, and I pretended that I liked it. Betty tripped over me, chasing after a bouncy ball, and fell right into the small pile of fake hair.
“Betty, STOP IT,” I yelled, pushing her away. The hair had stuck to her shirt and scattered around the floor. Each stray strand felt like an insult.
Betty pushed back and started crying, and I hated her for that.
Dad rushed from the kitchen and stood very still as he looked outside the living room window. Betty and I kept screaming. My mother walked through the front door with empty suitcases, her hair tied back in a messy bun. She walked right back to the room that Betty and I shared, and the color in my dad’s face disappeared. That was the first time I saw him make that face.
My dad cleared his throat and I looked up from the box of books. I noticed that his stubble was showing, peppery and white. He rubbed his hand over his cheek, hard.
“I’m sorry, Sarah,” he said, barely above a whisper.
I concentrated on breathing in.
“You… moving out to St. Louis to live with me… I’m sorry this didn’t work out.”
I let the room be silent for a moment.
“Yeah. Me too, Dad.”
I could feel that he wanted to hug me, but he stayed near the door. He didn’t know how to handle having an adult daughter. This wasn’t the time for a pack of gum and a coloring book. The years of missing out were written all over his face, and the weeks of getting it wrong were fresh on his memory.
“So, you said you were staying with a friend for a while?”
“Yeah, I’m moving in with Ashley for a few weeks while I get another apartment.”
“Good,” he said, and then paused. “Do you want any help with this?”
I looked into his eyes and didn’t know what to do. There was a time when I wanted things from my father. As I looked at him, I finally saw the naïve young man who fell into fatherhood, the man who’d turned a life of painful loss into a life of giving all he could to others. And at the end, he was just scared of losing it all again.
“Actually, yes,” I said. “Could you empty out that bookshelf? I started a box over there.”
He smiled, and the tension broke on his face. He started grabbing books on the shelf, stacking them with care inside boxes.
“Want me to play some music?” I asked.
“Sounds good, sweetheart.”
I walked over to the stereo and plugged the aux cable into my phone. I scrolled through everything I had, then found the perfect background music.
“The Beach Boys!” my dad said, beaming. “You sure do know your old dad.”
“You’re welcome,” I said, cracking a small smile.
We kept working like that, boxing and taping, rocking back and forth to the music. There were times when he would close his eyes, his expression somewhere between pain and rapture. I’d always seen him react to music this way. He was the kind of man that felt music deeply; he played the piano with his whole soul. Watching him play piano had always been like church for me, no matter how I felt about my dad. After I told him about mom’s wedding, I found him that afternoon massaging the keys of his old piano, expanding on the theme of “I Dreamed a Dream,” from Les Misérables. He loved that musical. He played for nearly an hour, weaving in and out of the song, working in flourishes of arpeggios, and then shifting down a key to mingle in some slow blues, mirroring the sounds that he grew up on in Kansas City. He was a master at bending themes, at pouring his pain out onto keys. I’ve never heard anyone play like my dad.
“Well, Sarah,” he said, “Looks like I’ve packed up everything over here.”
“Same here, Dad.”
“Alrighty then,” he said, rocking on the balls of his feet. “I guess that’s it.”
“I guess so, Dad.”
He stayed where he was, looking at me. I couldn’t tell if he was sad or proud. Suddenly, the sounds that floated through the air were a familiar set of guitar strums and “Oooohhh’s” and “Aaaahhh’s.”
“Surfer Girl,” I said, suddenly giddy.
“I love this song,” my dad said, closing his eyes. “Every time I hear this I remember when you were just a little girl, and I’d hold you over my head and sway you back and forth to this song. My little surfer girl.”
“Yeah, I remember,” I said, glancing back at the stereo.
I felt my dad’s arms gently encircle me, and I turned back in surprise. The smile on his face was effortless. He spun me out with his arm, then back in again. We swayed with the song, exchanging smiles and laughter. I fought back unwelcome tears and hoped he wouldn’t notice. The song ended, and my dad spun me out again, letting go of my hand.
When I left that afternoon, moving box full of my belongings, we waved goodbye. I saw the grimace on his face start up, then he paused, and his face relaxed.
“Let me know when you can come over for dinner!” he shouted, cupping his hands around his mouth.
I gave him a thumbs up as I held back hot tears.
“Will do, Dad!”
The truck rumbled away down those bumpy Missouri roads, all warm air and muted radio.
Virginia Spotts is a student in SNHU’s online bachelor’s in creative writing and English with a concentration in fiction program,