(The following is an excerpt from a longer work.)
7:30pm, 2nd March, 1980
For a few weeks in the Fall, every year since I was nine, Daddy rented a little white cottage by a farm in Iowa.
He called it the ‘Angel’s Hut’.
There was nothing angelic about it: the rooms were airy, made from hollowed stones, while the doors rested on their rusted hinges like embalmed spittle. There was of course, the Dove Door. The door at the rear of the cottage, which was shaped like a wing; the wood had fanned out and was bleached by the sun. Daddy loved that cottage. He took me up there every year, when the trees were bursting with flames. We walked a lot, around the grounds, me holding his hand, looking up at him. He used to smile at me with all his teeth – he had such white teeth, Daddy did. The whitest teeth in the business, like a string of pearls.
When we were in the Angel’s Hut, nothing could hurt us. Nothing could stop us.
Back then I knew, so long as Daddy was with me, we could take on the world and then some.
Daddy was not a Journalist. I never thought he would have approved of my profession. He’d been born deep in the heart of Alabama, in Bessemer, in 1901, where the trees were thinner than toothpicks. Smaller than his three brothers – who would all die in the Great War – Daddy was the runt. The smallest piglet, but oh my, did he have the loudest squeal. He used to do the households chores, since his Mama had wanted a girl. He used to stand on a wooden chair in the old barn, which had been converted to a house in 1885, before Daddy’s father bought it for barely three dollars. Daddy would stand on that rickety chair, which shrieked with every inch he moved, running a small brush over the ceiling to collect spiders. Carefully, he’d shake them from the brush into the sink. Slowly, he’d turn on the tap. Wait until they were submerged, gasping for breath, and then he’d shut the water off. Giggle as they tried to scramble up the sides of the tin. Only when the eight-legged troupers had made it to the rim did he flick them back into the sink and turn the water on again. He used to spend hours drowning them. Hours of watching them struggle with a grin on his face, until Grandma found him with a particularly large Brown Recluse, which was one of the more common species. She changed the rota and dealt with the critters herself. Daddy was devastated.
Daddy didn’t talk about Grandma much when he was alive. He talked about Granddaddy instead, who built up his business selling strange contraptions he’d crafted from scrap metal. Metal bears perched on clockwork, springing to life once a string was pulled. Once, Granddaddy made a metal carousel for his eldest son’s birthday, where four dolphins swum around in circles.
Daddy was a salesman too, only he sold other people’s ideas with a counterfeit smile. He told me lying was okay if you were at work, but you should never lie to family. I never did.
Of course, some parasite had to put a dent in the family line. That was parasite was me. College was a necessity, since Daddy made good money. As a Salesman, he was forced to travel to New York, to Boston, to Pennsylvania. Eventually, he slithered up to the Iowa office, where he spent his days slathered in a gold-capped smile drinking ground coffee and ordering his perky secretary to answer the phone. Coming to work with him, when I was around seven or eight, felt as if I’d stepped onto a different planet. A parallel universe where my Dad wore a pin-striped suit and smiled all day without really looking at you.
It was then I decided I could not follow him.
I’d followed him everywhere else, but I could not let him lead me to such a fate. Spending my days as a husk in a gentleman’s tie. It wasn’t just that, I realised. For anyone who’d been raised in a comfortable converted farmhouse in Iowa’s bustling centre, becoming a top salesman would have been a dream come true. The Rolex watches, the Ford Roasters painted cream, the women. I had to admit, even the idea of a plump girl on my arm was appealing. Now I balked at the sight of married couples. I wasn’t opposed to love – whatever that was – but marriage was just another obstacle course. Besides, most women tended to find me macabre. Workaholic was the word they used. Task-focussed was what I would have said. Sure, once I got started on my most famous piece – an article about the anti-abortion rallies after the recent shock of Roe V Wade – I was a hurricane in a whirlpool. They usually left after that. Pretty women, intelligent women. Even career-driven women who would have sooner thrown themselves under buses than start a family were repulsed by my intensity. The best thing, I realised, was to remain married to my work. I feared if I tried to sit down in a rumpled suit, in one of those classy restaurants with red lobsters in the doorway, I would crumple, or my mouth would wilt. I didn’t deserve any of those women. What was I compared to them?
Daddy never told me about Mother either. Part of me wandered if I truly had one. If I’d suddenly emerged from the concrete outside his perfect house, the perfect baby boy with blushing cheeks. Or perhaps, like Diana, Daddy had sculpted me from clay and wished me into being.
In the office, I laughed to myself. I couldn’t believe I still remembered the Greek Myths. Or were they Roman? Classics had never been one of my strong suits. After all, Daddy had taught me not to waste time on pointless endeavours. Apart from the Journalism course at Community College, I had heeded his advice.
Daddy named me ‘Thana Trent Williams’. The Trent, I thought, was after Granddaddy. He never told me the meaning of my first name and, to be quite honest with you, I never asked. Being born on a sharp night, when the air was treacle, but the stars were visible through the plastic-generated smog, Daddy knew I would go far. I supposed he just didn’t know in which direction.
Being a journalist paid well, certainly. In times like this, I had a conveyor belt of articles up my sleeve. I’d even interviewed David Sanborn about his fourth studio Album Hideaway this February. I would have been honoured to cover the New Mexico State penitentiary riot, but my boss wouldn’t fork out the dough for the gas. I understood of course; it was a long journey. It had been a long journey to the cottage too. All the way down the dirt track, clackety clack from Daddy’s automobile, one he hired. Daddy always hired a car to drive there for the summer. It was white if I remembered correctly. White like the ‘Angel’s Hut’.
Shaking my head, I paused over the letters on my desk. A cigarette in my hand – like a wand of nicotine – I forced my lungs to calm. Nothing. No stories. Even with my independent research, which took place out of hours, at the local library where I spent sweat-sodden afternoons chasing rumours, I’d found nothing. Jack-squat, as they say. I wasn’t sure who said it, but it was a phrase people used.
As you can probably tell, I wasn’t one for friends.
I smiled at people, sure. Sometimes, I even joined the boss for a white lightening on a Friday night when the office had emptied. But since Daddy passed away, I’d been a larva in a cocoon. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever be ready to come out. And I feared who I’d be when I did.
Rubbing my face absently, I thought of Daddy. What he would have been doing at my age: driving up and down the state, knocking on doors with his brass knuckles. It wasn’t the prospect of being a cog in someone else’s machine that frightened me so – after all, many people would say being a journalist is no different – but it was the prospect of being unable to truly look people in the eye. When I interviewed, I had to face my subjects. To have the strength to raise my spine to meet them head on. Otherwise, how else would I tell if they were lying?
By Ned Veena