Acts both Ordinary and Profound by Dawn Allison
The phone rang. The name on the caller ID was Brenda Williams, Jane’s mother. Jane turned down the music, shook some of the drywall dust out of her hair, and picked up.
“Yeah?” She examined her hands. They were dry and cracked, white powder collecting in the creases. Ethan sawed two-by-fours in the other room, a loud whine and a clatter fast on its heels. Sawdust floated lazily in the sunlight that slanted through the blinds. Her mother said something as the power saw screeched again. Jane waited until it stopped and cupped her hand over the mouthpiece.
“Give it a rest for a minute, will you? I’m on the phone.”
Ethan peered around the corner, shrugged, and went out the front door carrying an armload of scrap.
“What did you say?” Jane asked.
“What was that awful noise?” Her mother replied.
“Ethan’s cutting studs. What do you want?”
“I just got off the phone with your father.”
Somebody had to have died. Jane couldn’t see her father calling her mom for any other reason. She would have been hard pressed to name two people who hated each other more. It wasn’t alarm that she felt, just idle curiosity. It was probably some aunt or uncle whose name she had heard before, but whose face she’d never seen enough of to recall. Maybe only in a photo album some long time ago. She drew a smiley face in the dust on the surface of the desk.
“He wanted your phone number.”
Jane snapped to attention. “You didn’t give it to him, did you?”
“What would you do that for? You know I don’t want to talk to him.” She clenched her fist and scrubbed the smiley face out of existence.
“I know. He said he wants to come out to see you.”
Five years and three thousand miles away from their last conversation and her father wanted to see her? Here? She looked around the place. What would he think? Silence stretched through the telephone wire.
“Why didn’t you tell him that if he wanted to see me he could have come to my graduation, or visited when I was sick, or any time before we moved to California? If he didn’t care to see me then, I don’t want to see him now.”
Ethan opened the door, heard her tone of voice, then turned around and walked back out.
“You have every right to feel the way you do,” her mother said softly.
“Then why did you give him my number?” Jane’s voice deflated, all her righteous anger diffused by her mother’s tone.
“Because I know what it’s like to regret things. Did I ever tell you about the last conversation I had with my mother?”
“Yeah, mom.” Only eight hundred times.
“I told her that my marrying your father was all her fault and we never spoke again. It was no way to leave off.” She sighed. “He sounded sad, Jane, and he asked whether or not you would even talk to him if he called.”
“Why didn’t you just tell him no?”
“Because I know you better than that. I know you don’t want to be the person I was.”
Was it so obvious? There was pain in her mother’s voice, and a certain thinness that spoke of resignation and defeat.
“When is he planning to come?”
“I think he’s already there. In the Bay area for his job.”
“All right, I’m going to get back to sanding, then.” For his job. Her mom had made it sound like he was coming all that way to see her.
“Think about it,” she said. “I love you.”
Jane grumbled something unintelligible and ended with, “I love you too.” Then she hung up the phone. Think about it. What was there to think about?
Plenty, she supposed, but that didn’t mean she wanted to. But it could hardly be helped, now. She thought of the notebooks stashed in the closet, full of letters that she would never send. She thought of their last conversation. She’d been sixteen at the time and had called him crying after a fight with her mom. She didn’t remember all of what he said, but she would never forget the word he used to describe her. Trash. Any time she thought of him, that word rose to the surface, the definition of their relationship.
Think about it.
She saw herself as a girl again, out in the backyard of their first house, a shovel in her hands and dirt under her fingernails. Her father laughing and encouraging her in intervals from the patio. He told her the fastest way to get to China and set her to it. She dug until dark, caked with filth when her mom came out to get her.
She thought about the time she threatened to run away, back when she still rode a red tricycle with pink ribbons flowing from the handlebars, a Strawberry Shortcake model.
“Go,” her father had said nonchalantly. She hadn’t been expecting that. She went into the room she shared with her sister and started packing her pint-sized kindergarten book pouch. A minute later his shadow loomed in the doorway. He marched in and ripped the bag from her hands.
“What do you think you’re doing?” He dumped it on the floor. Three dolls and a sweater. “I bought this bag.” He shook it in her face. “I bought these dolls, that shirt. You want to run away, go. But you’ll be taking just the clothes on your back, and consider yourself lucky since I paid for those too.”
Jane cried. Of course she did. She was five years old, maybe six. She hadn’t anticipated this when she threatened to run away. Now, she only wanted to escape his glower. He had the smallest eyes of anyone she’d ever seen, and they shrunk smaller still the madder he got. Looking into his eyes was like peering into starless night itself. She was afraid of the dark, always would be a little.
“Go on, then, get out of my house,” he stepped into the corner where she crouched and prodded lightly at her with his foot. She stood and ran, out through the back door and into the yard. She sat on the swing to catch her breath and to figure out where to go from there. He followed her out.
“What do you think you’re doing?” he screamed.
“You said to get out of your house.”
“Yes, I did. But this yard, it’s mine too.” His tone dropped dangerously low. “If you really want to run away, you’re going to have to go. I won’t stop you. You’ll see how many people offer to take you in, to put clothes on your back, and to feed you. I bet there won’t be any, but maybe you’ll be lucky.”
She stood, her knees shaky, afraid of her father and afraid that he might be right. She walked down the driveway, paused halfway. He came around the corner.
“Farther,” he said. She walked out to the street.
“Farther. I don’t want no run away kids hanging around near the house.”
She ran. She cried like a beat dog all down Third Street. Nobody so much as opened a door or peeked through a window. She slowed down about halfway, heaving, choking on sobs. She got clear to the end of the street when she saw the midnight blue sedan pull out of their driveway. Before she could react her father pulled up alongside her and demanded that she get in. A mingled lesson of dread and worth. It took all of two minutes to get back to the house, but it seemed longer for the silence. He didn’t speak to her for days after and she cringed whenever she saw him, expecting the blow that never came and always came through that look in his eyes. And those were the good old days, before the drink, before the divorce, and before the bridge.
Think about it.
Her mind wandered to when her mom told her they were going to get a divorce. Her father had taken up the drink, then, and hid bottles of beer all over the house. She would send Jane out to find them so they could dump them down the sink before her father got home from work, like some sort of terrible Easter egg hunt, where the prize for finding the loot was falling asleep to the sound of her parents screaming at each other. Once to the sound of an ambulance when he broke her mother’s arm. After that, the proceedings began.
Jane was ostracized at her Catholic school. A nun came once a week to pull her out of class for counseling sessions in a trailer out back. She was supposed to talk about her feelings, work them out through a dumb board game. The nun gave her the impression that she was supposed to feel torn, guilty, that she was supposed to feel some sort of grief for the death of a marriage, but she didn’t. She was just glad that it was over. She was tired of curling up into a ball, scrunched there in the dark waiting for the fighting to end and trying not to hear their words. She might have felt differently if she’d realized that it was just the end of one thing and the beginning of another. Worse for her because now she would have to face him alone.
Think about it.
She recalled her first Thanksgiving with him after the divorce. He had put address labels on everything he owned. Jane suddenly realized that he might be crazy after all. Before that, her mom had her convinced that it was all a ploy to avoid child support, even when he was committed for jumping off the interstate overpass.
There was a wicker basket on his coffee table, with an address label on the handle, as well as one on the saltwater fish tank he’d been so proud of, now clouded and green with algae. There was an address label on the kitchen table, on the coasters in the living room, on his cassette cases, his ashtray. She asked him why. He said that it was so if he ever lost any of his stuff it could be returned.
She was ten years old. He told her to cook the turkey. She didn’t know how. He turned on the oven and left her to it. Occasionally he poked his head around the corner to check on her progress. Jane snipped open the packaging and dumped the bird into the pan. He asked if she needed any help. She shook her head. It was bad enough that he should ask her to cook the thing, to do it with him looking over her shoulder would have been unbearable. Nothing was ever done to his satisfaction, and unsatisfied he was prone to rage. She watched every word she spoke, every gesture she made, even tried to guard against allowing the wrong look to surface in her eyes. Trying to avoid his wrath was like walking on broken glass. She couldn’t step lightly enough.
Three hours later the turkey was still frozen because he had set the oven temperature on low. He hollered at her for ruining Thanksgiving dinner until she dashed into the bathroom to cry. She sat on the toilet, her head in her hands.
“Come on,” he’d said from the other side of the door. “Come on out, it’s all right. I’m going to make something else. We’ll have dinner and it will be all right.” He paused. In the bathroom Jane rinsed her face with cold water to soothe the swelling of her eyes. It was her instinct to hide away, because it was her instinct, even then, to keep him from seeing her weakness. “Please, Jane, you don’t want to make me ask you again.”
She could hear that tremor, not in his voice, but beneath it, the growl of the beast itself, and no, she didn’t want to make him ask again. Broken glass and frozen turkey. She stepped carefully through the door. He smiled, the whole thing over and done. He made them both tuna sandwiches. He didn’t know how, though. He just drained the fish and smeared it on the bread, no mayo, no bits of onion and celery like how mom made it. She knew better than to say anything. She chewed her sandwich and it stuck to the roof of her mouth. Soft white bread that he’d had to go to the store to get just for her and a glass of cold milk to wash it down with.
Absently, Jane sanded at the wall. She ran her fingers over the spot she’d been working on. It was perfectly smooth, smoother than she wanted it, even. The rest of the wall was prickly beneath her palm. More than once it’d drawn blood when she’d brushed up against it, until she finally decided the texturing had to go.
Ethan came back in and asked her who called. She answered with a dismissive gesture, hadn’t even properly heard his words. He went back to sawing boards, and she didn’t notice the noise. She dropped the sandpaper and shook a cigarette out of her pack. She lit it, looked around. The place was such a mess. Every surface was taken over by dust, and tools, and the thousand useless things that they owned and had no proper place for yet. Her father would judge her as soon as he stepped through the door. She would have to look into his eyes and know his opinion of her by how far his pupils contracted.
She was, just as much as ever, afraid of him. What did they have to talk about? What was there to say? Would he apologize for the past? Would she?
She didn’t realize that she’d been staring at the phone until it rang, jarring her out of her thoughts. His name and his cell phone number on the caller ID.
“You going to get that?” Ethan asked around the fourth ring.
Was she? It would be easier not to, easier to keep all the bad stuff restrained to notebooks in the closet. To live in sunny California and forget about the gloomy Ohio days that came before. But would she ever forget, really? The phone trilled.
She picked up just before the answering machine switched on. The line was dead. She held it for a few minutes and listened to the sound of emptiness. She hung up. She bit her lip and stared at the phone.
“Who was that?” Ethan asked on his way out with another armload of scrap.
“I don’t know,” she replied.
“That’s what the caller ID is for.”
“Oh. How about that?” Her voice sounded far away, even to her ears. She picked up the phone and stared at the display as though she’d never seen it before. He watched her for a minute. She wrote the number in the undisturbed dust on the other side of the desk.
“Okay, then,” Ethan said, eyebrow quirked. He whistled for the dog. “I’m just going to go ahead and take him out for a walk before it gets dark.”
Jane nodded. The dog ran out the door. She stared at the number a few minutes longer. Finally, she dialed. He picked up on the first ring.