This story is about a meeting between an abandoned daughter and her father who has summoned her because of his ostensible impending death from cancer. It closely aligns with my non-relationship with the male source of my DNA. This version of this story was published in June 2019 in New Reader Magazine. I’m grateful to the New Reader Magazine for publishing this version although I continue to work it. This has been my first foray into creative prose. As a science student at the University of Chicago, I somehow missed out on any creative writing courses–an educational lacuna I hope to address in the near future.
She glowered at him, eyes narrowed, trying not to hear him. She studied his ruddy face with his pale, hooded, sky-blue eyes. His face was terribly like her own. When her mom was mad at her, she’d seethe in disgust, “You look just like him.”
She hated the truth of it. His widow’s peak, his unruly hair and his godawful teeth: they too were hers. Years of dentistry prevented that oral disaster from playing out in her mouth, but it was a Sisyphean task. Her teeth would crack or break. The dentist would patch them up. They’d break again. Bob just let his teeth go. His smile had large gaps where teeth once were. Her eyes traced the holes along his gum-lines as he spoke.
“That goddamned son of a bitch” pounded in an endless loop in her head while she tried to appear indifferent, as he plowed on in that flat, nasally Midwestern voice which was all too familiar. When her ears grabbed onto his words, she could feel the familiar anger rearing up on its hind legs with a desire to lunge at him. She reminded herself to episodically grunt or nod. The task helped to keep his vapid words at bay.
He was still droning on about “his kids,” as he called them. The expression grated on her nerves every fucking time he said it. Not only was she his kid, she was his firstborn. However, to avoid the responsibility of being her father, he volunteered for two tours of duty in Viet Nam. He tried to re-up a third time, but the army declined, explaining that only nutcases wanted three servings of that war and they wouldn’t take another known nutcase back there. Admittedly, he had signed up for the first tour before he knew her mom was pregnant, but that didn’t excuse the second and the attempted third.
The simple truth stung: this ratfucker actually preferred to shoot and be shot at in the jungles of Viet Nam than stay in Indiana and be her father and her mother’s husband. This was an inescapable fact and, as her mother would say, in resignation before such facts, “you can put chocolate on a turd and call it a donut. It’s still just a chocolate-covered turd.”
Her mind drifted back some twenty years ago when she was in her late 20s—a few years after her mom died of Melanoma—when she went to Viet Nam with a boyfriend. She visited the war museums in which they curated the personal effects of captured soldiered and downed airman: their dog tags; photos of their sweethearts or children; their dogs; watches; random pocket litter from their last trip to Bangkok. She wondered what would have happened if Bob had been captured. What artifacts of his existence would be on display? Did he have her baby picture in his wallet on his second tour? Her mom’s picture? She knew the answers. Or at least she thought she did. They divorced after he returned to the United States. He married his high-school sweetheart, leaving her mother’s life was ruined, condemned to go from one jackass’ bed to another in order to survive. Rural Indiana in 1967 was unforgiving of her mother’s circumstances, while the men, equally at fault, escaped judgment.
Waves of rage washed over her. She stormed out of the last museum she visited in Saigon. She strode up to the first sidewalk hawker she could find and bought a post-card depicting Ho Chi Minh, who looked so much like an ornery Colonel Sanders. She scribbled on the card hastily, “Dear Bob. In Viet Nam. Wish you were still here. Chris.” She had every intention of mailing it even though she didn’t have his address. But her rage made her tenacious. She would find his address and mail that motherfucking card from Viet Nam and he would see that stamp and post-mark from Saigon come hell or high water…or both. From an internet café, she opened up Alta Vista and searched “Bristol Indiana White Pages.” She was surprised that finding The Shitbird’s address was so easy. She scrawled out the address, set out to the find first post office and dispatched it before her conscience had a chance to advise against it.
Something he said caught her attention and dragged her away from her memories of 1998 Saigon, and back to Bob, sitting in front of her in this Indiana hellhole.
“Fuck this fucker!” she thought. “What the hell am I doing here?!”
She interrupted whatever useless thing he was blathering on about. She had to know. “So, Bob, did you ever get that postcard I sent from Viet Nam.”
For a moment, a look of hurt washed across his face. “Yes. Yes!” he said in a rising voice. “I did. And it was an asshole thing to do.” She was relieved that he got it and that it stung. She nodded and said “Well, I got the asshole gene from you, along with your shitty teeth and your goddamned cancer gene. I got nothing else from you except that pile of olid ass. Oh. A pile of shrink bills too.”
Here she was, at some execrable Indiana lake dive, because Bob called her to say he was dying from an aggressive cancer of his esophagus. He said that he was in a lot of pain. He said he wanted to see her. She and her husband Jeff drove all night, her crying most of the way. Tears of sadness, guilt, anger. When they got to Indiana, he was hardly dead. In fact, he was still a complete, unreconstructed, unapologetic prick who reveled in his hurtful antics. She felt she had been made a fool. Played in fact. As he bloviated about the tedious lives led by his unaccomplished, slothful children, she wondered how many times had she been in the hospital, alone? Where was he when she and Jeff lost their babies? Where was he when she had been abducted in Iran? When she nearly died in Kabul and Amritsar and Dhaka from food pathogens? Where. The. Fuck. Was. He?
And yet, despite their better judgment, she and Jeff were there were a second time. And he was still not dying. To wretched was immortal. She wondered if this boor might actually outlive her. It was possible that this clod would deny her the simple pleasure of micturating on his grave. Yet, despite her unending furor, here they were, sitting outside at a picnic table, on an August evening in shitty Indiana, when the humidity was exceeded in its oppressiveness only by the tiger mosquitoes that bit through her clothes.
She inventoried movies to distract herself, recalling a George Clooney film in which he had stared at goats until they died. Or he tried to. Of course, she considered Bob to be slightly more sentient but less considerate than a goat but decided to employ the technique, staring at him, while mendicating upon the facial expression that Clooney’s had character maintained. The absurdity of it all kept his words and their meaning at a safe distance. Would he notice her utter disinterest in the rubbish spewing out his toothless, twisted mouth, noting only the saliva that had dried in the downward tilting corner? His face was asymmetrical, as all faces are, but his was noticeably and irritatingly so. His nose was warped like someone had smashed it right and properly, but in all of the photos she had of him, that was his nose. It didn’t mean that prior to becoming her father, he didn’t piss someone off, and gotten wailed on his face. But it does mean that he had lived with that nose most of his life, and he didn’t care to fix it. “Thank Dog,” she thought to herself “that nose is not genetic. Otherwise, I’d have that misshapen snout, too.”
For a moment, she looked away from him in shame. She felt abashed for being there, for being conned into seeing this jackass, who was incapable of the slightest remorse. She couldn’t even grasp that this vulgarian is the source of half of her DNA. She had never wanted her colleagues to see him, to hear him, to know of him. Once, she gave at a talk at Notre Dame. He met her at the restaurant where she was dining with her colleagues. She kept looking at the door, hoping to intercept him before he came to their table and introduced himself, but he managed to slip in. She was thankful that he had at least bothered to wear decent clothes. Nonetheless, she hurried them out the door. How could she explain who this man was and why he was there? It was just too much work.
She looked down at her plate that had arrived somewhere in the middle of this annoying reverie. She pushed her food around with her fork as if it was that tiny sand pit and miniature rake their couples’ counselor had on the coffee table. Eating was not possible, knowing that if she ate it all, she would have to excuse herself to purge. Yet, the desire to wolf it down was there– French fries and barbecue pork ribs. She knew what it would feel like coming up, the comfort of wrapping her arms around her stomach in this practiced exorcism of anger at others and herself. The self-flagellation accompanied by the self-induced heaves were a soothing ritual she learned early in childhood. If she didn’t stave off his never-ending, irritating words, she would pick up that ketchup and smother her fries, then begin shoving them into her mouth, swallowed after barely chewed. They looked like they had been slightly dusted with chili pepper. Likely spicy. They were double fried, golden brown and crispy. She wanted them so badly. Then she’d move onto those ribs, glistening in their sauce.
She imagined her mouth biting down on the soft, tangy flesh. And then, having polished her plate, she would drink the rest of her large glass of water (that was critical) and she’d excuse herself. First the fries would come up. They always come up like rocks, hurting as they made their way up and out. The ketchup, sweet and sour, would come up with them. Then the ribs. Somehow, they seemed to sink beneath the fries in her gut. They would emerge last, burning her throat. The sauce was one thing. The grease was another. It would leave an orangish ring of stain along the toilet. She considered ordering a milk shake. The cold milky beverage would mitigate the burn of the spicy pork’s exodus. Later, she could drink some water with baking soda stirred in, to neutralize the acid and mitigate any damage she would do to her esophagus and compromised teeth. Another inheritance, she had been diagnosed with Barrett’s esophagus which had a history of becoming the same cancer Bob had. Thinking of that cancer, she reminded herself that she could not allow herself to binge and purge anymore. She had to self-soothe some other way. She poured water over her meal to make it less appealing. She sighed, shrugged her shoulders and looked right into his face. Resigned to her outrage.
He would just not shut up! She looked at her husband’s face. Nothing. He had tuned out, too. She looked back at her plate. She felt her mouth water. Why was she here? This man is a horrible human being. Perhaps the worst person she knew, except for her uncle, a pederast who murdered her aunt, her namesake. But that’s a low bar. Or maybe a high bar, if you are measuring distilled evil.
This rube was her father, but he did not raise her. Where was he when her stepfathers’ beat her, or her uncle thrust his finger into her girlish vagina and plucked her innocence like a blackberry? He had given her nothing, except his rotten genes. A lousy esophagus and unseemly teeth. What the fuck was she doing there? He was supposed to be dying of esophageal cancer! She felted trapped, smothered, unable to breathe. She had to get out of there. She began looking around furtively at her husband, the waitress, the table behind Bob, where a large woman, with voluminous arms draped about her pot belly, sprawled out and wide like the desert sands she once traversed in Jaisalmer.
The woman’s purple veins bulged, out and over her thick legs which strained the polyester shorts she wore. Her friend, in thickly caked makeup, wore a colorful maxi dress, held a yappy chihuahua on her own capacious lap, making the tiny dog appear even more diminutive. She had to keep herself distracted. Focus on the chihuahua. On those veiny legs and flaccid arms. The swirls of hues on the endless muumuu.
She saw a milkshake at the chihuahua’s table. Was it vanilla, she wondered? She loved vanilla. It almost tasted as good coming up as it did going down. She looked once more, furtively, at the water-logged food.
And then he said something that she could not ignore. He called his granddaughter a pig. She hadn’t been paying attention to how he ended up there in his story. She thought maybe she misunderstood. Her voice piqued as she asked him to repeat himself. “What did you just say?” She elongated the vowels in “what” and “say” to make the words last longer as they fell out of her mouth.
He gathered himself defensively, sat upright and looked her defiantly, square in her eyes and said “She’s a goddamn pig. Ashley is pig. Her mom is a pig. She’s a fucking pig, like her whore of a mom.”
Sublimating her range, she retorted “Bob, just how old is this ostensible pig?” wondering if he knew what “ostensible” meant. “She’s fourteen,” Bob snorted, almost gleefully. “But she’s always been a pig.”
“And just why is she a ‘goddamned pig’?” she asked with contempt-dredged curiosity. She slapped hard at a mosquito biting through her clothes. She glanced down at the blood spatter on her thigh and palm. It was cathartic to kill it and see its blood on her skin.
Again with increased adamancy, Bob told her “Her mother is a pig, and she’s a pig, too.”
Inhaling and crossing her arms over her empty stomach, she leaned back and repeated her question in a lowered voice, slowly and with an intense glare, “Why, Bob, do you call your teenaged granddaughter a pig, a goddamned pig?”
He explained how she’s “a little slut, who got kicked out of school for asking boys to show her their dicks.”
Horrified, she recognized the child’s behavior. This was the behavior of a child who was suffering abuse, but was too confused to understand her inclinations. Her wife-murdering uncle had abused her since she was a toddler. Her first memories were of him turning her over the back of the couch in their basement, sliding aside her underwear and thrusting his trigger finger inside her tiny body. And, having been touched like that, her body reacted in ways her mind could not understand. She had learned to enjoy the physical reaction to nerve stimulation, while not understanding why pleasure had to be kept secret. Only later did she understand how fucked up it was. And when she did, the feeling of guilt, filth, and self-loathing followed her like a miasma that was always present. It was then that she discovered the calm that came after eating an entire box of Raisin Bran with whole milk, then thrusting her face over the toilet, calling herself names as she summoned the contents of her stomach into the commode. With each hurl, she felt the self-loathing leave her along with the contents of her gut. It wasn’t the eating that soothed her: it was the purging. With each expulsion, she felt better, until she collapsed on the cold bathroom floor and felt the sweat evaporate.
She sat back and looked at him from the side of her eyes as she turned away from him. Then at the food. She wanted so badly to do what had comforted her for so long. But she knew she couldn’t. Not since her doctor showed her the photos of her injured esophagus. She thought about those photos. They kept her on point. She pondered Bob’s cancer and the extensive surgery that required a reorganization of his upper thorax after they removed most of his cancerous esophagus. The stomach had to be moved up. They had had to cut him from the front and back to rearrange his lungs, upon which his truncated stomach now rested. He could not breathe as easily as he used to, with that stomach sitting on his lungs. And eating was not a pleasure. For months, he had that tube that sent nutrients directly to his upper bowl. Considering this, she again resolved that he, this unrepentant shitbird, would not bring her to her knees, face plunged into a toilet, puking up her loathing for him, herself or anyone else while courting that cancer, his cancer.
She turned, and returning his defiance in measure, stared right into his face and sneered whether it had occurred to him that perhaps “that the little girl is a pig because someone abused her?” Bob replied in a most matter of fact way, “Of course she was abused! Her mother is shacking up with a goddamned pedophile!” The swirl of rage felt like a typhoon, an urge she felt she could control. It was too much. Ashley, the “pig” was his granddaughter. His son’s daughter.
She had to leave. She had to get out of there. She explained that it had been a long drive from DC to Indiana and that she had to go. She asked for the bill and paid it. She didn’t want him paying for their dinner. She wouldn’t ask him to pay for anything. After he left, she sat there with her husband, grappling with what just happened. She felt wrong inside like someone had scrambled her. She couldn’t grasp why. Understanding seemed to lurk beyond her reach.
That night, sleep was elusive. In their motel bed, she kept replaying his words and re-seeing his twisted, saliva-crusted mouth. She sat up beside her snoring husband, and cradled her unease, trying to pin it down.
In the darkness, cut by a street lamp, she stroked the velvety ear her dog, Boudreaux. They had brought all three dogs with them, and at this moment, it was Boudreaux who sought comfort, while Vega and Saffy slept. Rubbing that soft ear was something that pacified them both. He nestled his Janus-faced head into her lap, turned over, and stretched his hind legs out and up, revealing his snow-white chest and belly to indicate that he wanted a tummy rub. She leaned over to stroke his strong undercarriage and thought how much she loved him.
After a sleeping Boudreaux, hind legs in the air, snoring snout flopped beside her, the puzzle floated back. At first, it was hazy but slowly came into focus with glaring obviousness: during her dolorous childhood marked by a revolving door of abusers, she often rehearsed the consoling canard that if her father only knew about this shit, he would have saved her. Maybe he would’ve beaten her uncle or even killed him in a fit of rage. When her step-fathers consecutively rained hell upon her, she imagined her father as a kind man who, moved by her pain and his remorse for not rescuing her earlier, would drape himself around her like a warm coat and lead her away from a life that waged a vicious war on her young self.
She had come to know Bob somewhat over the intervening seven years. The first time she met Bob, she was thirteen. They met at the Walgreen’s restaurant in the Glenbrook Mall, in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. Her mother promised her that she could meet him when she turned thirteen, if she could find him. Her mother worked all day. From their home in Huntertown, the Allen County Library in downtown Ft. Wayne was no more than 12 miles. The bulk of the distance was on the peri-rural highway, Lima Rd. So, one summer day, after her mom left for work, she hopped on her bike and made the journey. It was nothing for her: a friendless loner, she spent most of the Huntertown summers on her bike traveling through farmlands. The library had phone books for the entire state. It took her no time to find Bob. She Xeroxed the page with his name, address, and phone number.
When October 12th came, she presented her mother with the finding she had kept secret since July. Her mom was annoyed but kept up her end of the bargain. She remembered dialing his number, waiting for him to answer and explaining who she was. He didn’t seem terribly excited. He was about thirty years old then and he seemed mostly confused and uncertain. Nonetheless, he agreed to meet her.
At the mall, her closest friend, Holly waited as they met. Holly was more reliable than either Heather or Carmel, with whom she had once planned to escape. How many times had they considered hopping a boxcar and going wherever it took them? She and Holly had spent hours under the railroad bridge plotting, while with Heather and Carmel, she waited for them both underneath the street lamp for an hour before she concluded they had chickened out. Holly was made of tougher stuff. And that is why she was there today. Holly watched from a distance, while she and Bob sat at a table visible to mall shoppers. Bob brought his wife, who sported expensive Jordache jeans. She wanted Bob to ask her whether she was okay, was she loved, did her stepfather treat her well? He asked her little other than pro forma queries about school and puzzled questions, riddled with revulsion, about why she kept pet rats. It went no deeper than that.
The next time, she was 23, and had just buried her mother, who died at 46. He callously told her while she still stood on the concrete steps outside his house that “You weren’t born out of love. You were born out of a bet.” Her stomach twisted and churned, not because of the cruelty of it, but because of the confirmation of truth. Her mother had long told her, from the time she was six, that Bob and two other men made a bet to get her into bed. She hadn’t known what it meant until she grew older and came to understand the words and implications of the posited scenario, the more unbelievable it was.
By the time her mother was dying, she was in full revolt. She had outright called her mother a liar and, in a fit of anger over her mother never having protected her from the men in their lives, yelled at her to never repeat that nonsense again. Her mother died with her rejecting that foundational truth, which, more than anything, explained her mother’s own pain and resentment towards her daughter who had committed the crime of being born alive. Now, Bob said those words with cavalier flare as if he were explaining some unfortunate turn of events at the dog track. So, she returned to her rented car and drove back to Chicago, in silence, with her stupefied boyfriend saying nothing for the four-hour drive.
By now, she was a grown woman approaching middle-age. She had met him about a dozen times over the years and had made infrequent efforts at small talk on the phone. She didn’t know him well and never would. Too much had passed. But she knew him enough to recognize him in her. As far as she could tell, there was no her in him. He was still an appalling mystery. She had gotten the worst of his DNA. He was a selfish, unrepentant churl who reveled in his assholery. Still, she could not find it within herself to just write him off, delete his information from her phone, and block his number as her brother, whose own father was another participant in that ignominious bet, and her husband repeatedly advised. She hoped—just as she always had—that there would be some point at which he would understand just how shitty he had been to her and her mother and do something to make it right. She didn’t know what that would take. Her mom could not forgive him; she had died decades ago. But she still held out some hope that deep inside, he wasn’t just an unreconstructed bint of no redemptive potential.
Sitting there that night, she knew that she had seen the bottom of his soul and there was no reason to look further. Hearing him call his first granddaughter a pig, she understood for the first time that he never would’ve saved her. He would have seen her anger and truculence and averred it was her fault, the abuses she had suffered. Maybe he would’ve seen her precocious sexual interests and described her as a pig; inherited from her mother, whom he would have denounced as a pig, without an iota of irony. He would have embraced no obligation to intervene in the smallest of ways to save her. She and Ashley, in Bob’s universe, were pigs by birth rather than by circumstance. He could give no fewer fucks about this if he had to at gun point.
In the morning, they left Indiana for home. Boudreaux wailed while Vega slunk off to the back of the minivan and fell asleep, snuggled up against Saffy. Jeff, sensing her silence, knew she was marinating on something. As they reached West Virginia, she said “Jeff, I want to discuss something with you. It’s serious.” He didn’t like having somber conversations while driving, so he pulled the car into a strip mall. Neither were hungry, so they just talked.
“Jeff, I’m going to report this to child protective services. He’s not going to do it. No one called them when I needed them. I’m not going to let this girl hang out to the dry. Do you think I should?” Just saying the words aloud caused a strange calm to fall over her. Jeff told her that he thought she should, but she should know that any chances of a rapprochement with Bob would be impossible. “But”, Jeff said “that would be a positive externality of doing the right thing.” She smiled at him and said, “Two nerd flares for that one.”
In the middle of nowhere, her cellphone had no bars. T-mobile had less coverage in the United States than in Afghanistan. Jeff had Verizon which fared better in rural Murkah. She called Bob from Jeff’s phone and apologized for abruptly ending the dinner last night, explaining the long drive home and the presentation she was giving on Bangladesh to the Atlantic Council on Monday. Trying to sound nonchalant, she asked about his granddaughter Ashley’s name and her mother’s name, writing them down furiously. “And um…where does she live? Does she live near you and Rick?” He blurted out “Rome City” before he caught himself. “Why you asking this stuff?” he asked suspiciously, omitting any verb. But she had what she needed.
She remained silent. She didn’t want to lie, but she didn’t want to tell Bob either. That made him nervous. He knew her because he knew himself. Though he didn’t raise her, she was like him: stubborn, resolved and once she took a decision, the decision was made. “Chris, what the hell are you doing?”
The silence bugged him, which oddly pleased her. The power was now in her hands. As he grew irritated and anxious, she told him flatly, “I’m calling CPS to report the situation with Ashley. No one called CPS when I was abused. This girl deserves a chance. And frankly, you or your son should’ve done this. What the fuck is wrong with you people?”
He bellowed “Don’t you dare. If you do…” She hung up. She Googled child protective services for Rome City, Indiana. She told the operator all that she knew and hung up. She had no idea what, if anything, would come of this. But at least she tried to give that little girl the chance no one gave her. Bob kept calling. She declined to answer. For another day he called her mobile and home phone. And then the calls stopped.
And, so did her fantasy that he would have done a damned thing to save her childhood self no matter what he knew. And with that epiphany, she understood that she never needed or wanted to see him again. She blocked his number. She didn’t need to entertain him anymore.
A year passed, then two. She wondered if Bob had died. But she was at peace when she realized that even if he was dead, she didn’t care. He died that day when he called that little, broken girl a pig. In his mind, she and Ashley were pigs, faulty females with a lack of morals. Coming to terms with this information about Bob, she was able to let go of any expectations about his ability to parent; to care about anything more than himself. He had failed to see that neither she nor Ashley were the pigs; rather the men who tried to break them. She never learned what came of Ashley and she was too timorous to speculate. Indiana is not forgiving. It’s why she left as soon as she could. College was her escape. Would Ashley escape? What life would she make for herself and would she one day rage at her father’s indifference to her suffering?
Sitting on the porch, sipping on an Old Fashioned, with Boudreaux’s snout foisted into her armpit as she scratched his ears, with an easy smile as she gazed back at Saffy and Vega who slept with angelic calm beneath her feet. Bob’s cruelty and callousness, which once felt like quicksand around her legs, had finally set her free. She wished such freedom on Ashley, a little girl she would never know but could never forget.