Fiction William Hoffacker — September 11, 2012 14:11 — 0 Comments
Hand, Nails, Left, Right – William Hoffacker
This isn’t Emily’s first time to the beach, but it is her first time with me. As soon as I slide the gear shift into park, my seven-year-old daughter unclicks her seat belt and reaches for the door handle. Before she can pull it, I press the lock button on my armrest. All the little black lock nubs hide in their holes. “Hold on a second, sweetie.” I reach for the small knapsack in the back seat, open the zipper and pull out a pocket-sized, black notepad, my latest Emily Book, number twenty since the divorce. She fidgets in her car seat, behind the passenger’s seat, where I can see her, where she won’t be crushed by my weight if an oncoming car rams into us.
“Come on, hurry up, we’re here, let’s go,” she says.
“This’ll only take a second,” I tell her. I grab a pen from the glove compartment and flip through pages until I find a blank one. Pressing the book against the steering wheel, I write, Asked to ride in the front seat for the first time (I didn’t let her). I scribble today’s date in the corner and stick the book in my cargo shorts pocket.
“Okay, let’s have fun,” I say, and I unlock the car. She hops out so quickly that she’s out of my sight for ten seconds at least while I climb out and lock the door. “Emily, stay with me,” I say, and she runs to my side.
I hold her hand as we walk through the crowded parking lot toward the beach. Her hand feels a little bigger than last time, and her fingernails dig grooves into my palm. As we pass a family of four unloading lawn chairs and beach balls from their minivan, the gray-haired mother stares at us, confused—less at me and more at Emily, who wears a pink-camouflage winter jacket that goes down to her knees.
“Are you sure you don’t want to leave your coat in the car?” I ask.
“No. I mean yes. I’ll keep it on,” she says.
“Aren’t you hot under there?” With my free hand I lift her bangs and touch her forehead. We are both sweating.
“I don’t want anyone to see me yet,” she says.
I nod and smile, and we walk between rows of cars to the end of the parking lot where the concrete meets the sand. Before I can step onto the beach, Emily stops walking, the edges of her flip-flops touching the end of the pavement. She grips my hand tighter as she looks up at me and asks, “What if there are landmines buried in the sand?”
“Where did you get that idea?” I ask. She shrugs her shoulders, which usually means she’s hiding something. “Don’t worry, sweetie. There are men out here every morning with metal detectors combing this beach for landmines.”
“Are you telling the truth?” she asks and scowls at me.
“Some people really do bring metal detectors to the beach,” I say. “And it really is safe. Landmine-free, I promise.”
“Maybe you can walk a few steps ahead of me, just in case?” She always does this. She already knows exactly what she wants, probably had it in her head before we got in the car.
“But if I walk in front of you, I won’t be able to keep an eye on you,” I say. A few yards ahead, a twenty-something guy rubbing suntan lotion onto his girlfriend’s back is staring at my coat-wearing, beach-going, frozen-to-the-spot daughter. At least I think he’s staring, he’s wearing sunglasses, so it’s hard to tell. Did I remember suntan lotion?
“You could walk backwards,” Emily says.
“Then I won’t be able to see where I’m going,” I say. She starts doing her little dance, hopping back and forth from one foot to the other, itching to keep moving but stuck in place, like I’m the one holding us up.
“I can tell you where you’re going,” she says.
“Okay, I’ll do it,” I say, “but you have to promise to watch me very carefully and let me know before I bump into anyone.”
“I promise,” she says, “but plus you have to promise me that you’ll watch me very carefully and you won’t let anybody bump into me because people won’t be able to see me so well.” She crouches on the black pavement, pulling me down with her, and with her free hand she traces a heart in the sand with her pinky.
“Okay, we’ll watch each other,” I say.
“But do you promise?” she asks.
“Yes, I promise,” I say. She lets go of my hand, my cue to start. I take two steps into the sand and turn to face her. Emily is looking at me, but not at my eyes. It’s more like she’s looking through me, at the ocean maybe. I take two steps back as the sand shifts beneath my sandals. She doesn’t budge.
“Aren’t you going to follow me?” I ask.
“You’re not far enough,” she says. Does she think I’m invincible? Or is she willing to watch her father get blown to bits?
“Okay, two more steps, then you have to follow me,” I say.
“I promise,” she says. I take two small paces back, and my right heel connects with a half-buried seashell. Without wanting to, I turn my head and look over my shoulder, then snap back to keep Emily in my sight. She’s still there, and she’s stepping into the sand.
I’m walking backward on the beach, eyes fixed on my daughter, trying not to stumble as the sand gets lower the closer we get to the shore. I’m so determined not to look away from Emily that my maneuvering has become a game. Maybe she planned it that way. She does this, too. Invents a game, explains the rules, but never tells me we’re playing.
“Daddy, go right,” Emily says. I take two steps to my left. “No, your right,” she says. When did she learn that? I stumble to the right, but it’s too late. My left foot is kicking sand onto somebody’s beach towel.
“Hey, watch where you’re going,” says a wrinkled, tanning woman lying on her stomach. She looks up at me and swats the air with her arm as if to defend her territory.
“Sorry, take it up with my daughter,” I tell her.
“Whatever,” she says, lowering her head back onto the towel. I look back at Emily, who is jogging in place, kicking up sand, waiting for me to call time-in in our game of Follow the Blind, Backwards Leader.
I start walking again. As Emily follows she’s constantly looking to the left and right of me, like she’s about to cross the road. While I’m watching her, and she’s watching where I’m going, I’m trying to keep things about her in my mind until I can write them down. I’m mouthing four words—hand, nails, left, right—and I wonder if Emily can see my lips forming them.
We’re almost half a mile from the end of the parking lot when I realize I don’t know when this game will end. Will she stop before I hit the water? Will she stand at the shore and watch her father march backward into the ocean? Will she follow? “Let me know if you see a good spot to stop and set up camp,” I call to her.
She gives me two “okay” signs with her hands, then two thumbs-up. “Daddy,” she hollers, “what’s trench warfare?” I hear a man to my right stifle a belly laugh. People must be staring. I keep my focus on Emily.
“Where did you hear that, sweetie?” I call.
“Mommy lets me watch History channel for an hour a day, and two days ago I was watching a special on a big war called World War I, except when it was happening people called it the Great War, because they didn’t know there would be a World War II yet, and the narrator said something about ‘trench warfare,’ but his accent made it hard for me to understand, plus Mommy came in to tell me it was time for bed, so before bed I wrote down ‘trench warfare’ in my notebook so I would remember—”
I’m listening to all this when my one leg bumps into a guy sitting on the ground behind me. I lose my footing in the shifting sand, trip and fall over him onto my back. I land on the beach hard. The sand feels like rug burn against my neck and shoulders. I imagine a big me-shaped dent in the ground, like a chalk outline surrounding my body. How long will it take, if I just lie here, for me to sink below the surface? I hear Emily laughing.
“Hey, watch it, will ya?” says a voice near my feet. I sit up and see the person I tripped over, an old guy with a big belly and a balding head that is starting to turn pink in the sun. He’s massaging his shoulder like he’s nursing a wound.
“I’m really sorry,” I say as I pick myself up. “I didn’t hurt you, did I?”
“Get lost,” he says and fixes a stern gaze on me. Emily runs to my side and presses herself against my leg.
“Come on, Emily,” I say. “Let’s go find a nicer spot.” I bend down, grab her beneath her arms, and lift her onto my shoulders. She laughs on the way up, and her hands come to rest in my hair. “You’ll be safe up here,” I tell her as I walk away from the man.
“Are you okay, Daddy?” Emily asks from her perch.
“I’m fine, sweetie. Thanks for asking,” I say.
“I can see really far away,” she says, and her hands reach outward to the boardwalk and the ocean. “I hope I get to be this tall.”
“I hope so, too,” I say. I turn my head to see how much distance I’ve put between us and the balding man.
“Can we set up camp now?” Emily asks.
“Good idea,” I say as I scoop her up and lower her to the ground. I slip the backpack off my shoulders and unzip it. As I’m pulling out the beach towel with the palm trees on it, Emily says, like we never stopped talking about it, “So what is trench warfare?”
“Well,” I say as I lay down the towel, “it’s a strategy in war where soldiers on the battlefield would dig big holes in the ground, called trenches, big enough for them to stand up and sleep in, and sometimes they wouldn’t leave for a long time.”
“And did they work?” she asks.
“In World War I? Sure,” I say. “As long as you were in the trenches, it was very hard to shoot you. The enemies could hardly see you down there.” For a moment she stands still except for one hand fiddling with the zipper on her coat.
“I think I’d better dig a trench,” she says. I reach into the backpack and pull out a yellow plastic shovel. “Thank you,” she says as I hand it to her. Slowly, Emily scans her surroundings, the long stretch of beach to our left, then the ocean, and finally the distant boardwalk to the right. She could be an explorer. She could be a navigator measuring the wind before hoisting up the sails. She crouches down in the sand to the right of our towel, marks a spot with an “X,” and starts digging.
I sit down on the towel beside her and kick off my sandals. The sound of the waves splashing onto the shore is soothing enough to lull me to sleep, and maybe it could if not for all the chatter of the people around us. I reach into my pocket and remove my Emily Book, the latest in a series of black notepads, the rest of which are stacked up in my closet back at the apartment. I flip through it and read a few pages at random—“Got a haircut, two inches shorter,” “New sneakers that light up red,” “Called me ‘Dad’ instead of ‘Daddy.’”
It’s like, when parents keep a baby book, they don’t know what not to write down. Everything is a milestone, every moment is baby’s first something, and you end up with a record of “Johnny’s first sneeze” or “Stacy’s first bite of avocado.” My Emily books don’t go back that far, because I only started writing things down after the divorce. So many things change about her from visit to visit that I had to write them all down or else I thought I’d lose track of her.
I find the next blank page and realize I’ve forgotten what I was going to write. What was I trying so hard to remember before? The first word on the list was “hand,” but why? I think of Emily’s hands nestled in my hair, twirling it between her fingers. It comes to me: I grab a pen from my pocket and scribble on the page, Hand felt bigger, fingernails long and pointy.
To my right, Emily is almost knee-deep in a hole in the ground. Her coat is sitting by my feet, like a shed skin, and she’s wearing a one-piece mint-colored swimsuit I don’t recognize. “Hey, Emily,” I say, and she looks over her shoulder at me but keeps digging. “How long have you had that bathing suit?”
“It was a Christmas present,” she says. She takes shovelfuls out of the ground around her feet and tosses them onto a growing mound in front of her trench.
“Did Santa Claus bring it to you?” I ask.
Emily lets out one of her quick, dismissive laughs. When she does that, I almost feel defensive, like she’s patronizing me. “Santa’s not real. Mommy told me.”
This isn’t in any of my books.
“Plus she told me the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy aren’t real either.”
“Right, okay,” I say. I think of asking how she felt when she got all that news, but I don’t want her to remember if it was painful. How could her mother do this without even consulting me? I flip the page in my notebook and write, Knows truth about Santa, Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, thanks to her mom. Maybe Angela did this without me on purpose, like she means to monopolize the truth, make herself into the parent Emily trusts. For good measure I write on the next page, Knows about trench warfare, thanks to me (and History Channel).
Emily is digging herself deeper into the ground every minute. I look at the shore and see three boys about her age running in and out of the water. They laugh hardest at the biggest waves, rushing toward them with mouths wide open, like they mean to swallow the ocean, before the water breaks down on the sand. Sometimes I wonder how much harder my life would be if I had a child who climbed trees, threw rocks, scraped knees, rode a bike around the neighborhood, did cannonballs into backyard pools, broke bones—instead of Emily, who invents games to keep herself safe.
I glance past Emily’s trench toward a stranger reading a book a few yards away, and for a second I swear I catch him staring at us. I blink and his nose is back inside his book. With Emily halfway underground and the mound building up before her, I imagine he can only see her head, and I’m grateful. This guy has no towel, no umbrella, only a book. Who goes to the beach alone? I wonder if Emily chose that side for her trench on purpose. I remember what I was repeating earlier and fill another page in my Emily Book: Understands ‘my left / your right.’
“Daddy, look what I found,” Emily says. She reaches up from inside her trench and plops a big pile of dry seaweed into the open notebook on my lap. The strands are thin but wide, so dark you almost can’t tell they’re green. I pick up one piece and rub it between my thumb and forefinger. It feels like wax paper.
“Oh, thank you,” I say, and I lift it toward my open mouth and say “Ah” like I’m going to eat it. Emily shouts a long “No!” as she jumps up and down trying to snatch the seaweed out of my hand. I drop it in the pile and we laugh. “This is great, sweetie,” I say. “What should I do with it?”
“Keep it in your notebook,” she says. “Like a bookmark. Or a leaf in a book.”
“Great idea,” I say. I close the small book around the clump of seaweed, and it bulges with its new cargo. I pull out a long piece, wrap it around the book, and try to tie a knot with the ends, but it’s too dried out and brittle, and it breaks up in my hands.
“Daddy,” Emily says. She’s looking up at me from her hole in the ground. Flecks of sand are lodged in her hair and eyelashes. “I’m sorry I didn’t keep my promise before.”
“Which promise?” I ask.
“Watching where you were going and making sure you didn’t bump into anybody.”
“It’s okay,” I tell her. “You just got caught up in your own story.”
Emily smiles and returns to her digging. “Wow, that’s a mighty big hole you’ve got there,” I hear a voice say. I look up, and standing at the edge of Emily’s trench is the man with the book. He looks young, in his early twenties maybe, and he wears brown swim trunks and a pristine, white wife-beater. Emily doesn’t look at him.
“Can I help you?” I ask, and stand up.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to bother you,” the kid says. “I was just being friendly, admiring the little lady’s talent for digging. The name’s Jeff.”
“Malcolm,” I tell him. “And this is my daughter.”
Jeff gets down on one knee like he’s proposing to her. “Well, it’s very nice to meet you, Emily.” Her eyes stay transfixed on the sand.
“She’s a little shy,” I tell him.
“I understand,” he says. “My niece is the same way.” I nod as I feign politeness, as if I want to hear about this guy’s family. I wish he would get out of here. “You want some help there?”
“We only have one shovel,” I tell him.
“I don’t mind working with my hands,” he says and smiles at me. His one front tooth overlaps the other.
“I’m sure you don’t,” I say. “But I think she’s got it covered. It was nice meeting you.”
“Alright,” he says, and he stands up. “Careful how much you dig there. Soon there won’t be any beach left, and before long you’ll hit China.” He laughs at his own joke. I don’t. Emily has not looked up once.
Jeff turns to me and thrusts his hand forward. “Pleasure to meet you,” he says. I shake his hand and try to squeeze it harder than he grips mine. We are locked in. I stare into his eyes, which are brown, and pull him a little closer to me. I’m trying to tell him without speaking, “Leave my daughter alone.”
He pulls his hand back first, and I let go. With a little wave, he walks away, toward the boardwalk. I look down at Emily, who has stopped digging. The mound of sand above her trench has grown higher than her head. “You were very good just now,” I tell her, “not talking to that stranger.”
“Now that my trench is finished,” Emily says, “could you please bury me in the sand?” She smiles in her cheesy way that helps her get what she wants. Her two front teeth have grown out straight, side by side. I grab my notebook and pen from the ground. She kneels down in her trench so that her head is just above the surface of the beach. Crouching beside the hole, with the shovel in one hand and my notebook in the other, I scoop armfuls of sand and drag them into the ditch. As her legs disappear, Emily says, “This is better than my coat.” I look at the pink-camouflage jacket lying on the ground, discarded, replaced.
The answer isn't poetry, but rather language
- Richard Kenney