At fourteen, I was too young for anything but seasonal work in the tobacco fields, so I spent my winter weekends at the mall, sauntering up and down its long linoleum promenade spanning from Belks to J.C Penney. I wore two-tone green suede shoes with wedge heels and above-the-ankle crisscross buckling. I wore wide-legged denims that swept the floor and made a swishing sound at every step. I wore a cotton peasant girl crop-top. My startling white midriff was cold and icy-blue-veined. I roamed the mall with whatever friend I could convince to meet me there. A great deal of time was used up in the phone booths, calling boys and hanging up. Sometimes we pushed each other in grocery carts borrowed from the Winn Dixie. No one ever tried to stop us. We were sweet girls. Quiet, with friendly, freckled, faces. We bought 45s at the drug store. We ate donuts with chocolate icing and bought fried chicken snack-paks from the chicken place.
My father would drop me off and head back home to watch TV until it was time to drive into town again to pick me up. I didn’t want to be seen being delivered in his old truck with the dented round fenders, the peeling paint. I didn’t want to be seen with him. My father had an alarming scar. I grew up in a kind place where most folks genuinely cared about one other. I believe this. But no one could ever take their eyes off the long line of a surgeon’s cut on my daddy’s face. He’d had mouth cancer the year before, and the surgery disfigured him. It wasn’t just the scar starting at his lower lip, careening over the bump of his chin and dipping into his neck in a divot before disappearing beneath his workman’s shirt, where it ended at the armpit. No. It was the monkey slump of his shoulder as well, the twist of his torso, the contrapposto ruined posture of a once standing straight and handsome man.
All this hanging out at the mall came after the disenchantment of my family. After the surgery, my mother left us. She didn’t actually move out of the house but made a point to never be at home unless we were sleeping. It wasn’t a very big family to start with, just my father, my mother, and me.
My father was lonely. We both were. One night, instead of pulling to the curb, he parked the truck. I’m going in for popcorn, he said. He loved the stuff--and the way they sold it then, in narrow, paper bags that were at least a yard long. Why, a yard’s worth of popcorn could last a good long time. After that night, he never dropped me off again. He’d park the truck and come inside for popcorn, and he’d sit and he’d stay until it was time for us to go home.
Poor papa. I was appalled. Any effort I’d made to escape him, his curious face, his tragedy written right there upfront for everyone to see was no longer available to me. It wasn’t only his face, though; it was his obvious loneliness. Who sits in the mall’s open atrium with lengths of popcorn tucked between their knees? Only the lonely, the very lonely.
What I saw, whenever I swooped by flying fast on a grocery cart or on my friend’s ample back, swinging through with new clothes and donuts, was my dear, sad, papa passing the time, watching me grow up before his eyes, and I wondered if he ever wouldn’t be lonely. I couldn’t ignore him.
Embarrassment turned to pity. I was the sort of girl who could understand her father’s sorrow and the difference we held between us. I had my eye on my glowing emancipation date. Soon enough, I’d be grown and gone. But Daddy, where would he be?
At sixteen, I drove and worked and dated. I was busy. I was free. I never went to the mall. About then, Daddy started going to the dance hall, a place way out in the county called The Ponderosa. Could he dance? I don’t know. I never went. I never saw him. But he always came home right around midnight, and I’d joke that it was both of us who had the curfew.
For the first time in years, he seemed happy. He’d tell me about who was at the dance and what they were wearing. If something funny happened, he’d tell me about that too. Like the time a woman was so drunk she fell backward in the middle of her Dixie two-step. Like a tipped cow, he said. Except the word he used was heifer.
Sixty-six million years ago, an asteroid hit the earth somewhere near Cancun, and a cone of fire rose so high it reached halfway to the moon. As the innocent earth circled beneath this burning cockscomb, it was set afire, anew, all around the globe. Next, came a falling rain of glass, drifting ash, iridium-laden dust descending. Dinosaurs, direct victims of the catastrophe, went extinct. It’s so much easier, wouldn’t you agree, when disaster ensues all at once?
My father seemed satisfied with his life, after so many years. Of course, he couldn’t see through time to what was in front of him--the next-chapter catastrophe of another cancer to come. An interval of relief before the slow arc of death angled back.
On dance nights, Daddy wore crisply pressed denims and a plaid shirt with mother-of-pearl snaps and white piping. His soft leather boots were the comfortable kind. I imagine the low heels clicking soundly against pinewood in a constant bluegrass groove. Those nights, if I got home first, I’d sit on the porch bench and wait for him. Once he arrived, we’d stay outside talking, the fierce orb of moonlight flaming above. Dance, Daddy. Quick quick, slow slow. Dance with anybody at all.
[Check out Elizabeth Fergason’s back porch interview]