Mom was a nurse who worked ten-hour shifts. Dad was a traveling salesman who came home once a month for a few days. He took us out for pizza and listened to my science fair/art project/book report stories.
“I’m working my way up in the company,” he told Mom and me when I was done reciting news. “After I put in my time on the road, I’ll get a new position and settle down.”
Dad brought home regular checks but had a sad smile and sleepless crescent moons under his eyes. I felt bad for him in a disconnected way because he’d never been a dad, just a visitor. By the time I was twelve I had accepted that, like I accepted the fact that the tooth fairy and Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny were really my mother. My mother was my father, too. When I came home and found Dad on the living room couch it was always a bit of a shock, like a what’s-wrong-with-this picture puzzle.
I heard their whispered conversations in Mom’s bedroom, listening to Dad’s plea for one more year on the road, and my mother hissing he’d promised that last year, and did he want to be a dad or not?
“I’d like to travel a little while longer,” he said.
“I should divorce you,” Mom hissed, but I knew she wouldn’t.
I kept up my end of the performance when Dad was around, a song-and-dance routine about school activities. Mom wanted me to tell him all the details, and I wanted to make her happy since she was the one I lived with while Dad orbited like a satellite.
I wasn’t exactly happy when Dad left, but it felt like things were back to normal with me and Mom sitting at the kitchen table eating meatloaf or pork chops and talking about our days. We didn’t have to strain for conversation or think of entertaining things to say like we did when he was around. Dad always looked so sad, I wanted to think of happy stuff to cheer him up. It was a lot of work.
My grandma, Mom’s mom, had more faith in our future with Dad.
“He’s making a name for himself,” she said when she came over after school to make peanut butter cookies with me and complain that Uncle Wayne was screwing up the real estate business my grandpa had started. Grandpa had been gone for eight years and Grandma was seriously jealous of the two other real estate companies in town that were bigger than ours. She lived with the imagined greatness of what Grandpa’s company could have been.
“Your grandfather, God rest his soul, was never aggressive enough,” she lectured as we creamed butter and sugar and peanut butter. “Your uncle is the same way. Wayne wasn’t cut out to be a businessman. But your father is different. He’s moving up in the world.”
Grandma nodded with the sharp certainty that Dad would come home a millionaire. I added baking soda to the cookie dough and didn’t contradict. Grandma never changed her mind once she’d formed an opinion.
Uncle Wayne did pretty well in the real estate business, no matter how loudly Grandma claimed that he was messing it up. Wayne was Mom’s older brother and suspicious of Dad, which came out in lectures when we went to his house for backyard barbecues. Grandma was there, too, pumping my mother for news of Dad so she could shove his latest travels in Uncle Wayne’s face.
“From Des Moines to Pittsburgh to Salt Lake City to Spokane in the span of two weeks,” Grandma said, waving her plastic fork like a wand. “He understands sales.”
Uncle Wayne sat between me and Mom, drinking a beer and muttering, “Either divorce the loser or put your foot down and make him find a new job.”
Mom nibbled at her chicken and pretended she didn’t hear him. She really loved my dad, but Uncle Wayne was more of a dad to me than my father. I saw my uncle at least once a week because I babysat my younger cousins, five-year-old Max and seven-year-old Jeff, after school. Uncle Wayne chatted with me before he took me home, asking about school and beaming at grade cards.
After barbecues, Uncle Wayne, Max, and Jeff jumped on their huge trampoline, giving Grandma the opportunity to scream that someone was going to bust his skull open.
“You’ll be the death of those children,” she screeched, but that made my uncle jump higher. He’d been a sick and spindly kid, and Grandma worried he’d catch his death of cold. She bundled him up like a scarf mummy in the winter, and made sure he came home right after school. That didn’t help Uncle Wayne become less weak and spindly.
“Your mom went out to play and skin her knees while I was cooped up like a freak in a cage,” he told me as we watched Max and Jeff on the trampoline. “I was so jealous. Your mom wasn’t a delicate little angel like me. She could go outside.”
I knew from Mom’s stories that Grandma had freaked out over her skinned knees and runny noses, but Grandma didn’t worry over her as much as she still worried over my uncle. She didn’t understand that her harangues were the reason my uncle taught Max how to do midair flips. When Max misjudged the distance and hit his head on the side of trampoline, he wailed long and loud. Grandma was louder.
“Someone call an ambulance!” she screeched as my mother, the voice of calm, soothed Max and examined his head.
“He’ll just have a goose egg,” she announced.
Grandma muttered that Uncle Wayne would be the death of everyone in the family.
Uncle Wayne kissed Max’s forehead, gave him one of Aunt Sandy’s chocolate chip cookie, and said, “You okay, Sport?”
Max nodded and wiped his nose on Uncle Wayne’s shirt.
Grandma always took Dad and Mom and me out to dinner when Dad was around. She paid for the meal and supplied half the conversation, asking Dad how sales were going and where he’d travel next. When we ate with her, Dad always had promises for the new year.
“I’ll only travel a little longer,” he said. “That promotion should be coming soon. My boss has been making noises about it.”
He smiled tiredly. Grandma clapped her hands, dreaming this would mean a six-figure salary and the huge house we couldn’t yet justifying buying. Around the apartment, Dad was exhausted and shadowy. I knew he was different on the road because I saw him change into that salesman every time we had dinner out. When Dad saw someone he knew—the mayor or his doctor or an old high school friend—his eyes lit up like someone had pushed a button and turned him on from sleep mode. He was bright and shining, sang, “Hi, how are you? How’s the family? Just got back from Tampa and next week I’m on to Baltimore. Yes, business is great!”
Mom and I huddled next to each other in the booth, feeling boring and forgotten. Dad didn’t have to sell us on anything, but his energy when he was around other people made me suspicious. I didn’t want the sloth dad or the salesman dad to live with us, but I wasn’t sure what kind of person fell in between.
Thanksgiving and Christmas meant more time with Grandma, moments of sweetness when we made pecan pie and pumpkin pie and butter rolls and her special holiday chocolate cake. We baked as she told me how, when my mom was little, they made jellied cranberry sauce and cornbread muffins and baked bread for turkey stuffing.
“When will your father be home again?” Grandma asked.
I shook my head because I never knew his schedule, only that Santa Dad would bring tons of gifts along with his worn expression. On Christmas morning he hugged me gently, like he was afraid I might break. Just once I wanted him to give me a good, hard, take-my-breath-away squeeze. Instead he asked if I liked the set of calligraphy pens.
“They’re great,” I said. “So is the chess game. Want to play?”
“Don’t know if I remember how,” he said. “But your mother said you played.”
“I can teach you,” I said, ripping the cellophane off the box.
“Maybe later this afternoon,” he said.
“Later” was a time that never came, but I was used to that.
Christmas dinner at Uncle Wayne’s place meant a honey ham, sweet potato casserole, cheddar biscuits, and Uncle Wayne and Dad at opposite ends of the table. Christmas also meant rehashing the traditional argument between Grandma and Uncle Wayne.
“It’s a good thing we still have Wayne with us this Christmas,” Grandma said as she passed the biscuits. “Your bad eyesight saved you from the draft.”
Uncle Wayne tightened his fist around his fork like he was seriously thinking about stabbing her. “I would have come back fine.”
“Not everyone did, dear,” Grandma said with a honey smile.
“I know that,” he said.
I’ve never met anyone else who wanted to go a war after it was over. Maybe Uncle Wayne had even wanted to go while Vietnam was happening, just to defy Grandma. She talked like she’d saved his life. My uncle talked like she’d killed him. Max and Jeff shot forkfulls of peas at each other across the table until Aunt Sandy told them to stop. Dad muttered to my mother to please pass the ham.
Late that night I put my ear to my parents’ bedroom door and listened to their whispered fights. It was a harsh but not entirely disturbing rhythm, simply meant that nothing had changed. Mom wanted Dad home. Dad claimed he wanted to be home, and he would be home. Soon but now now. I padded back to bed and felt sorry for both of them.
Dad was visiting in early April when Uncle Wayne bought a motorcycle as a fortieth birthday gift to himself. We went to his house for a spring barbecue birthday party, and Dad came along because Grandma wouldn’t hear of him staying home. I think she wanted more people around to complain to about the motorcycle.
“He’ll be fine if he drives safely and wears a helmet,” said my mild mother.
“I should call Child Protective Services,” said Grandma.
This was the response Uncle Wayne had been hoping for, and why he’d purchased little helmets for Jeff and Max so they could ride in the side car. They blasted off down the street after dinner, with Grandma lecturing Aunt Sandy how she just didn’t understand why she’d let Uncle Wayne buy a motorcycle.
Aunt Sandy said, “Wayne will be Wayne.”
I sat on the porch listening for the rev of the motorcycle engine, saw Uncle Wayne and the boys going full-speed down the road. For a moment I didn’t think he’d stop in time and pictured the bike ramming the mailbox and Max flying into the bushes, but Uncle Wayne braked at the right moment.
“Great ride, Dad,” Max yelled as he hopped off the bike.
Jeff got off more shakily and looked like he might throw up.
“You okay, sport?” said Uncle Wayne, tousling Jeff’s hair.
Jeff gave Uncle Wayne a weak smile and a high five.
“Being on a motorcycle is as close as you can get to flying on pavement.” Uncle Wayne marched into the house. Jeff wobbled after him. I followed. My cousin lost his dinner in the bathroom, then stumbled back out and collapsed on the couch. The adults were in the kitchen and didn’t notice.
“You don’t have to do everything your dad and Max do,” I said, plopping next to him.
“But then I’ll be alone,” Jeff said, his eyes a little wider and more fearful than they should have been. After we had dessert, Wayne suggested another motorcycle ride.
“Want to come?” he asked me.
I was ready to nod yes, but glanced back to my parents. Their brows were furrowed with identical worry. I expected that from Mom, but Dad?
A shot of bright and unexpected hope burst into my chest. Dad was worried. He wanted me to stay on the porch. Maybe after Wayne left for another ride, Dad would agree with Grandma that my uncle was an irresponsible parent for endangering his kids. I didn’t go along with that idea, but Dad didn’t want me on the bike and that made me happy.
“There’s not enough room on the bike,” I said. “Maybe another time.”
“Smart child,” Grandma muttered. “The rest of you will ride to your deaths.”
As Jeff secured his helmet, his mean little smile surprised me. But he was my uncle’s kid, after all, and I was my mother’s mild child.
Uncle Wayne and the boys sped off, leaving me with quiet parents.
I expected Dad to say “I’m glad you didn’t go,” or “Maybe Wayne needs to practice more before he has passengers,” or “How’s school?” but he was silent.
I sat on the porch steps with nothing to do but listen for the rev of that engine to return.
A month and a half later, Dad was home during the annual Memorial Day fair. My aunt and uncle and cousins went every year and invited me along. I don’t know whose idea it was to invite Grandma and my parents. Dad tried to bow out, saying he was tired and we’d have more fun without him, but Grandma dragged him anyway.
“It’s quality time with the family,” she said, meaning something to build on when Dad came home a millionaire.
Uncle Wayne must have known about the elephant ear eating contest, because he entered the adult category and said Jeff and I should enter the one for kids. He paid our entry fee while Grandma protested.
“So much fried food can’t be healthy,” she said.
“It’s for a good cause,” said Uncle Wayne. “Charity. Five dollars is cheap for as many elephant ears as you can eat in fifteen minutes.”
I’d watched my uncle in other Memorial Day eating contests and didn’t know if I wanted to make a pig of myself in front of a bunch of people, but no one from school was around and I only ate elephant ears once a year at the fair. Why not stuff myself and get sick of them? Thirteen other kids were competing, and we lined up at a long table with a pile of elephant ears. The contest organizers started us with two, but said we’d get more when we finished.
“This is crazy,” said Grandma, loud enough for anyone within a fifteen-foot radius to hear. “He’s corrupting my grandchildren.”
I rolled my eyes. My parents stood beside Grandma with quizzical gazes. Dad dug the toe of his shoe in the dirt like he wanted to be somewhere else. Probably making a sales pitch. I narrowed my eyes, remembering the weeks-back disappointment of the motorcycle ride I gave up to make him happy. Dad said he cared about me, but his hugs would always be hollow.
That was when I quit acting. This was my moment, my decision, my fifteen minutes of gluttony. Electricity shot into my hands and stomach. I was going to win the contest.
When the whistle blew I grabbed the first elephant ear, ripped it in pieces, and stuffed them in my mouth. The fried dough was warm but hard to enjoy because I had to eat as fast as possible. I rolled the dough up and took huge bites. When I swallowed it hurt, but I kept going. When I enter a contest I’m in it to win, which is why I still don’t enter many contests.
After I polished off two elephant ears and got a third, I noticed the boys beside me weren’t that far. I finished elephant ear number three and moved to the fourth, ignoring my aching stomach. In gym class I was a good runner since endurance was one of my strengths. It was the same with elephant ears, a constant push until I reached the finish line, cramming piece after piece into my mouth. I was surprised (and relieved ) when the time was up.
I was even more surprised to find out I’d won a check for fifty dollars. My uncle picked me up and swung me around, which was a bad idea. For a moment I thought I’d throw up on his head, but I kept everything down. My stomach suggested I was going to die.
Jeff didn’t place in the contest, but looked like I felt.
Dad’s face was one I’d never seen. Not tiredness. Not false cheer. It was shock, disgust, awe, like he couldn’t believe I was his cinnamon-and-sugar coated kid. I grinned and gave him a gritty cheek kiss that meant he had to make up his damn mind, buy into my life or keep the hell out of it. I was done with my song-and-dance-make-Dad happy. Mom could continue the cheerful chatter, but I was too old for those games of pretend. When I pulled away that look of disbelief was still there. I wasn’t surprised.
Full-stomached, Uncle Wayne and Jeff skipped along the midway like they were following the yellow brick road. Even though my gut was heavy with dough and grease and sugar, I ran ahead to join them. Grandma screamed that Uncle Wayne would be the death of me. That was okay. Reborn as his niece, I was ready for my motorcycle ride.
Teresa Milbrodt is the author of a short story collection (Bearded Women: Stories, Chizine Publications), a novel (The Patron Saint of Unattractive People, Boxfire Press), and a flash fiction collection (Larissa Takes Flight: Stories, Pressgang, May 2014). Her stories, flash fiction, and poetry have appeared in numerous literary magazines, and her writing has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. You can read more of her work at http://teresamilbrodt.com/homepage/