Hold It; Keep Still Child

I fish for the knife in the pocket of my dirty overalls and slice at Barbie’s pretty blue eyes so they open. I sit and poke little holes where her pupils are, and then I saw at her ratty hair. I lick my bottom lip, almost got it. A pleasure fills me.

“Amy!” Nikki dashes out of the white hamper of a farmhouse, the screen door slamming shut. I throw the doll, stash the knife in my pocket, and leap out of the lilacs in time to see her break across the dirt driveway for the grass. I know she is heading for the apple trees.  The swing.

Grandma Helen walks out after, pressing her tight wrist to her lower back, her heavy arms tan against her white apricot apron.

“Amy Jo, I know you was out here in them flowers again,” but I have no time for her, it’s my turn for the swing.

“Daddy John says he’ll push you now!” Nikki squeaks with excitement. I can hear the zip-zip of her corduroy pant legs racing ahead of me, knowing she’ll save it for me even if she wins.

The swing is made from a splintered, soft wood with thinning yellowed ropes knotted beneath it, reaching up into the dense crab apple tree. It creaks when I swing and the pink blossoms shake down like snow to the green grass my bare feet dangle over. I pick at the unraveling cords and notice at the center of the fresh grass stains on my knee is a medium-sized hole I had managed to make in my pant leg. I try to pretend it’s not there, that it will go unnoticed tomorrow night.

“I built you’s this swing,” I hear his muffled voice behind me now, but coming from high above so I know he is looking up, talking into his beer. I run my cupped palms up and down the rotting ropes. I think of how it feels oily, and it looks like the texture of Barbie’s wiry eyelashes. I start picking apart the rope, my gut a fist like how it felt before I gave Barbie eyesight. I can’t find relief this time.

Maybe my dad had strong hands when he built this because my efforts at its undoing are making my hands sweat. I pick and pick the cord, my movements getting faster. I take the knife out of my bib’s pocket, opening the dull blade with such speed and ease I feel butterflies. Hacking doesn’t work. At all. So I saw like I did to my doll’s hair. Faster and drool and squinting eyes, I am cutting the hole back into the denim. I am replacing the knife. I am sealing Barbie’s eyes back. I am not drawn into these behaviors that drive me forward fast and into something I can’t name. I am a good girl.

“No now you’s girls don’t belong with knives,” the familiar slugging of his Adam’s Apple as he tips the can back again. His voice a gentle afterthought, like he’s coaching himself to remember he is the parent, and to be nice. It’s gentle enough to calm me and I forget I don’t have to try here. I give myself room on the swing and start pumping. We still have a whole day left out here plus tomorrow.

His lanky figure seems to project into the summer sky. He is a blanket to me that I miss. He is someone I don’t know yet read completely. He is the smell of stale wine and Old Style, tractor oil and sun-bleached denim shirts dried in sweat. My dad’s eyes are large like Nikki’s but blue-gray like Jodie’s. Somewhere a time ago, beneath a kitchen table in a yellow warm room, my aunt leaned over to say just to me under a tablecloth, “You have your daddy’s dark eyes,” and I watched her eyeliner disappear into the smile’s wrinkle.

“Daddy John,” I feel sweet but cocky. “How come mom wants us with Daddy Scott?”

Then, “Daddy, why do we have to move away with him?” And pressure seeps into my chest. Last night my mother taught me how to spell Scott’s last name, the first letter a loopy cursive “S” like an eight. It is our last weekend with him. I begin to think about that night, the smell of the shoe polish on Scott’s cheap zip up boots, the kick to my forehead, and there, again, something about skin. Camera lenses. A boxy silver VCR with yellowed lights and then I notice my dad has stopped pushing because the swing is still.

“Hey,” I hear his softball-sized knees crack beneath the jeans as he gets down and asks me what’s wrong. I can smell the familiar Old Style on his breath.

I am beginning to pick at the hole in my pants, and then I focus really hard and start ripping it open wider, that strange pleasure filling me again, armed with bravery.

“Hey, you, what’s the matter?”

I look at the dandelions beneath my feet, transparent as ghosts.

“You want one of these? You blow on this, see? And then you make a wish, and when they fly away your wish will come true.” His goggle-thick glasses magnify his long lashes as he grins a little nervously.

How can you believe in something you can’t hold onto?

I look at my own kneecap, the skin exposed more now that I’ve stretched at it. My skin. Like on Scott’s camera. Like my sweaty hands. And then here, with him, under this tree that snows in late June, I am my father’s skin. He is mine. We have the same knuckles; I stare at them a lot. I will remember them when he dies.  I almost want to jump into him -I won’t ask for anything I will be good you can do whatever you want. But I stay pretty still.

He hands me the dandelion after he blows away the seeds-an ugly, bald stem in my hand. I notice one seed left. I don’t make a wish; I already know somehow: he is too small to save us. Small like us.

Then I feel the sting of the rope scratch against my forearm and leg, and I am jerked backwards a little as he abandons his beer can and tries to stand–pulling on the swing for leverage and pushes me into the air.



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