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Dispatches from the Third Line
“A park is not a farm.” This is the only piece of advice my father dispensed before my graduation from college that May. I hung on his every word, the more obtuse the better, like sticky notes written in a stranger’s short hand.
His aphorisms reflected intense observation, yet often lacked contextual shape, like warm marrow dislodged from its bone.
“A city is often a large small town.”
Perhaps his oblique language fostered my love of mystery, and multiple, shifting interpretations of simple signs.
“Birds are better all-around animals than squirrels.”
His obtuse references shielded me from the wide world.
He had distinguished a park from a farm when I informed him that the City of New York Parks and Recreation (“Parks” a.k.a. the “Emerald Empire”) had named me one of the ten Class of ’99 Parks Fellows. It was an elite, junior management training program comprised of successful northeast college graduates. We were interviewed and recruited on our campuses.
A farm was where you grew things—did he think I didn’t know that? I wanted to prove to him that I could navigate my own way in the world—use my own references to succeed.
The “Class Of” program was the Parks Department’s version of the Morris K. Udall, the Javits, the Carnegie, the Rhodes—in the pantheon of coveted post-graduate fellowships, the “Class Of” program was certainly not a second or even third-ranking deity. It offered city government employment on what was known as “probational” basis and access to decision making in the rough and tumble stomping grounds of power brokers in the lineage of Robert Moses. Any recent graduate with aims in politics on a local level would, well, maybe not kill for the job, but at least pursue it with vigor. We were being groomed for city government leadership, and as his entourage, Commissioner Henry Stern required us to accompany him on weekend ribbon cutting ceremonies and speaking events. It was sort of like being an E-list celebrity.
While my peers at Wellesley standardized their wardrobes and schooled themselves on investment bonds and mortgage cycles, I found the only on-campus interview with a non-profit, a city government agency at that, whose mission was to guarantee democratic access to outdoor space, to apply the latest conservation principles to public lands, and to beautify the areas where New Yorkers spend over a third of their waking hours: the public parks. I had boasted to my friends that while they developed carpal tunnel in their drab cubicles, working for The Man, I breathed in the city’s version of the outdoors through the windows of my very own government-issue Jeep Cherokee, which I drove proudly throughout the five boroughs, checking on a pool depth sign at Juniper North in Queens, or delivering a parking entrance sign at Henry Hudson Playground in the Bronx. Pizza parlor grease, river life thrashing upon docks somewhere, speck-sized smells from a bakery—molecules of New York City bobbed around my head on my daily jaunts.
I navigated the green vehicle through crowded alleyways in order to explore the parameters of a Parks playground in a crowded cluster of Bedford-Stuyvesant tenements. I eased the green beast down dried creek beds in Central Park to get a closer look at damaged tree labels. I could be out of the office for most of the day with only a couple of digital photographs of misspelled signs to show for myself. I measured distance between signs and bike paths. I determined visibility of entrance signs from approaching roads. I proposed new signage: Fisher Pool in Brooklyn needs a new restroom sign—it’s hard to see from the parking lot; Queensbridge Baby Park needs a handicapped entrance sign—the current one is defaced by spray paint.
Armed with a large black binder containing all Park Names, Commissioner Stern—“Starquest” to me—assessed each new Parkie and bestowed us with our very own unique moniker to be used in place of our birth names while on the job. Starquest hunched in an armchair, an ergonomically padded contraption with leather cushions to bolster his posture. His septuagenarian face was flabby with Muppet-like creases, vestiges of a shape he once took as a man. He patted his dog’s head and we chatted about my alma mater. He asked me about my interest in Parks. I spoke of summers spent in Assateague Wildlife Refuge, a national parks property, whose tenuous dunes are protected by parks management and would otherwise be fully eroded due to encroaching development. I suggested “Delmarva” in honor of the peninsula where three states meet to form the beach.
He shrugged and stifled a yawn. “I want to name you Terrapin.” No matter that I hadn’t attended the University of Maryland, my home state school.
And before I could say “public recreation land management,” I was the owner of two bronze nametags engraved with Terrapin, each punctuated with a tiny engraved London Plane leaf, the NYC Parks’ insignia.
As assistant Signs Manager, I researched and responded to residents’ letters about flawed signage (in a parks system of 29,000 acres, there are a lot of signs and a lot of residents to write about them) and directed the sign makers to produce new or corrected signs. “People care more for people they know,” Starquest argued, “and for trees they know, and for parks whose history they know.” The power of knowing was in the power of naming.
I. Flash Back
“You always tell people what they want to hear,” my father chided me. He and I were waiting at a red light. I was fifteen or sixteen.
I played with the Velcro fastening on the velour curtains, which my mother had sewed herself for the windows of our Dodge Ram van.
“Stop telling people what they want to hear,” he warned me, as if my behavior portended disaster. I remember thinking he looked trapped in the driver’s seat, like he wanted to get out of the car and destroy something.
I had met Jeremy, a manic depressive guy who went to my high school, to fly kites at the local library field. I confessed to my father that I didn’t like him, but I was scared of what he’d do if I broke dates with him. Being nice was sometimes my first and last line of defense. I sometimes wondered if he could fathom the possibility that what others wanted to hear was what I wanted to hear. My father pressed his palms against the steering wheel for emphasis.
At first it was exciting, getting a new name on the job. We were named and counted. Twenty Class Of’s, thirty division heads in headquarters, 3,000 seasonal and full-time employees across 1,700 parks, playgrounds, and recreation facilities sprawled across the five boroughs. Starquest had fifteen years of service under two mayors. He had acquired 1,488 additional acres of Parklands and increased the operating budget by $10 million.
In 1983, when Starquest took command of the Parks, a reporter for New York magazine stated that the Parks were now Starquest’s “to devour.”
“Isn’t that nice?” He was quoted as saying in response. He leaned against a London Plane tree, which was slated for demolition hours before he took office and pressed his palm against its craggy bark. “Don’t worry,” he said, patting the trunk. “You shall be spared.” And then, to his assistants: “Feel the tree. It’s happy.”
The year our class arrived saw the start of the Bronx River Restoration, the re-opening of City Hall Park, and a free public talk offered by the Dalai Lama in Central Park.
Starquest labeled trees, too—over 4,000 Park trees by the time I started there.
“Everyone wants a name,” he once said. Though Former Mayor Edward I. Koch, who appointed Stern for a second time as Commissioner, refused a nom du Parc.
Mayor Giuliani? Eagle.
I was mindful of the benefits that a double life afforded. Terrapin, not Alison, stood by at ribbon-cutting ceremonies or little league ballgames or tree plantings with a clicker in hand to count the number of pets enjoyed by Starquest’s golden retriever. His name was Boomer, and the number was in the four thousands during my tenure. The goal was to enter him into Guinness. Most Petted Dog.
I. Trash Analysis
I was also in charge of pitching outdoor recycling program to our Long Term Planning Team, and my proposal would rely on collaboration with the Sanitation Department.
“Glass and Paper recycling bins. A feat never attempted in a city park before,” Starquest had boasted when he and Kermit, my boss, gave me my mission. “So we must be exacting in our data.” Starquest waved a crooked finger here and there as he talked. “We must know down to the pound what park visitors in different parks are throwing away, in order to know how much of it could be recycled. Trash.” He took in a raspy breath. “—analysis.” He turned to Kermit and raised a sloppy eyebrow at him. He giggled and shrugged. “Isn’t that nice?”
And so my Outdoor Recycling Pilot began with Trash Analysis, which involved sifting through pounds of garbage at each of ten parks chosen throughout New York’s five boroughs. I sorted, categorized and weighed. I learned a lot about a park’s social and economic terrain from what was thrown away in it: Zima bottles, baby rattles, chicken bones, fast food containers, couch cushions, utility notices (Bleecker Playground, Mercer and West 3rd Streets). Arbor Mist, cigarette cartons, condoms, New York Post. (Fort Greene Park, Myrtle and DeKalb Streets). Evian bottles, frozen yogurt containers, New York Times (Strawberry Fields, Central Park).
P.S. 155 Playground
25% paper/plastic bags; 25% leaves; 18% cups; 13% aluminum cans; 6% plastic bottles; 6% glass bottles; 7% other*
*hard sheet plastic, metal, food, diapers; other household items that were not found more than once.
Two months into the job I was in a bit of a haze: if I wasn’t at work or in a bar, I walked for hours through unfamiliar city neighborhoods as if addicted to the visual gumbo of the city. Sometimes I’d pick out signs about food on my walks: pin prick red lights spelled out taqueria in Fort Washington, shabu-shabu glowed in blue neon in the East Village, and Hamentaschen proclaimed itself in red vinyl lettering in the lower east side. I offered myself to the signage of New York, hoping somehow it would filter through me and become legible: my own turf.
Trash analysis gave me an organizing principle for the sordid ingredients of my new city. Zima and Boone’s Farm, I learned, would rarely appear together at the same function, much like High Life and Woodchuck cider. Discarded bottles of Black Radiance nail polish suggested West Bronx Recreation Center in Highbridge neighborhood of the Bronx more than it did Leif Ericson Trees Triangle in Bay Ridge, Queens. Parliaments? Inwood Playground. American Spirit? Prospect Park.
I. Employee of the Month Mad Lib
Though it was a lesser task, writing Starquest’s speeches for the Employees of the Month was one of my responsibilities in which I took some pride. Providing breakfast food for the ceremony also fell to me and my senior colleague, also a woman, by the Parks name of Bumble.
I learned quickly that by asking for a speech, Starquest meant he wanted me to give him a template in which to inject personalized information about the subject of each award ceremony:
First name "Parks name" Last name is Borough's Employee of the Month for Current month. Parks name started with Parks on date and is a job title at Name of Park verb the piece of equipment to verb the park's facility and ensure the noun process is running adverb. Parks name regularly drastic, self-sacrificing action and stays high number hours overtime every week in order to be a friendly, helpful addition to the Parks family. Parks name sustained painful injury in order to deliver the needed bag of inanimate objects for the borough's obscure holiday or cause to celebrate event just in time. In a pinch, the agency has counted on Parks name to operate the large, heavy machine even though it is not in his/her job description, nor is he/she certified to operate it. At last year's name of parade, Parks name sacrificed attending his/her relative's important family event in order to hand out prizes to children who participated in the annual Parks name of holiday athletic competition. For his/her virtue-noun and the ability to verb the noun for the good of the agency, Parks name was nominated by a different Parks name.
Terrapin had a fairly straightforward job that entailed ordering new signs for parks, and starting a recycling program. Once a month Terrapin gave Starquest a script to read aloud while she poured award winners orange juice and offered donuts. Terrapin sat next to Starquest in his Buick while his driver zoomed about town and Starquest regaled her with aphorisms like “all racial stereotypes come from a truth.” But he would never just come right out and tell her truths. Terrapin, not Alison, hardly ever got the signs on time—Terrapin couldn’t get the sign makers to do their jobs as fast as Kermit or Starquest wanted. They were surly and wouldn’t turn down the Black Sabbath blaring from their stereo when she walked into the sign shop.
I told my father and he asked who I was.
“Just who are you?” he asked.
I thought he was angry. I thought he was worried. I was confused; I didn’t know what he meant. I turned it over to Terrapin. Terrapin thought she should grow a thicker skin.
“Terrapin, where are you with the trash analysis for the Bronx?”
Terrapin pushed back from her desk and walked the few steps from her cubicle to Kermit’s office doorway. She shuffled with a couple of printouts.
Kermit, stocky, with large eyes and a crescent moon under each to match, always looked like he was in between unfortunate haircuts. He worked late and often ate Pringles. His thick dark hair shot out in patches every few inches around his head. He was wearing his special shirt—the blue pinstripe with white collar and bulky white cuffs.
“So let me get this straight—you went to the Bronx this morning? In that outfit?” Kermit’s neck was invisible.
Terrapin looked down at her outfit. Terrapin thought it was what every other woman in the office wore. Her mom bought most of it for her. Nothing special; big-legged, flowing patterned pants that were fitted around the hips and waist and a matching knit short-sleeved top. Ann Taylor or JC Penney. Did they look like her mom bought them for her?
“Yeah. I have the breakdown of recyclable materials and non-recyclable. It was kind of hard to tell at times because the food containers really contaminate otherwise clean newspapers and stuff.”
“You get any comments?” Kermit leaned back and the stripes on his shirt strained to continue their upward progression despite his bulk.
“Comments? About what?” Terrapin thought Jarmane, the Pelican Bay Park supervisor in the Bronx who had been really helpful.
“About your outfit.” Kermit let out a guffaw. Starquest wouldn’t approve the investment in extra bins and a schedule of recycling pick-ups without hard evidence that the program would be worthwhile. They had to have numbers.
“What’s wrong with my outfit?”
“Nothing. I love picturing you out there among those grease monkeys with your clipboard: Now I’d like us all to sift through this trash together. Here’s a glove for you, you, and you.” Kermit aped Terrapin handing out gloves. Terrapin didn’t know she should just let these digressions play out, like Bumble did. Bumble was the only other woman in the Operations Division. Terrapin thought Bumble looked like an airhead when she ignored Kermit’s comments, right in the middle of giving her vehicle fleet report. Her red lipstick was often a little uneven, suggesting a gash-like opening where lips should be.
“Do you want to hear about the percentage of trash we would have recycled if we had a separate bin for paper and cans?” Terrapin put her hand on her hip and looked down to keep whatever would come out of her eyes away from Kermit.
“Excuse me, who’s on a busy schedule—me or you?” He fumbled through a stack of memos on his desk, found his watch and put it on. “I’m just saying, the way you’re dressing, you call a lot of attention to yourself.”
Terrapin felt stupid. She imagined herself not in her conservative matching separates from an affordable women’s department store, but in chaps and a halter-top, sequins on her nipples, shaking over the reports on trash and signage as Kermit and Frolic did their best to shield themselves from her pungent sexuality. Kermit took the pages from her hand, glanced at them, and held them back out to her as he used his other hand to skim his email in-box on his computer.
“You’ve got to break the paper category up into food stained and not food stained. You’ve also got to account for different colored glass.”
“But I didn’t differentiate between green and clear bottles—”
“So you’ll go back and do it again.”
“That was a lot of work. I don’t know if Jarmane will go along with the trash in his garage again.”
“Tough shit. Jarmane will do any goddamned thing the Commissioner’s office tells his slimy ass. I’m sure you enjoyed the attention. The latest sign issue is on your desk. Get it done, Terrapin.” He waved the pages at her. She reached for them, letting one fall to the floor.
“I don’t think this is the best use of my time to do everything over if we’re going to get the recycling pilot started by next month—”
He looked down at the paper on the ground and back up at her with a twinkle in his eye. “You’re part of a chain of command.” She bent down and, realizing her blouse hung open at the top, and seeing Kermit shift forward in his chair, she straightened and picked the paper up by squatting. She sprang back to her feet. “Chain of command,” he repeated, and leaned back to watch her go.
Terrapin backed out of Kermit’s office, aware of how her chaps left her backside open to the elements.
From the moment I took the nametag off at night to the second I pinned it back on in the morning, Terrapin mocked me from my bedside table. Black engraved letters in bronze-colored plastic caught the light in a way that wasn’t shiny or pretty.
“Buck up, toukie.” My father called me toukie when he was trying to get through to me. He had heard enough of how I hated my job. What did Terrapin want to hear him say, after all?
A Problem With No Name
The problem in my father started with complaints bookended by conversations—a slight irritation in his side, a sharp pain that shortened his nightly walks. He’d rarely report these inconveniences over the phone; I’d have to be visiting home to hear about it. He had stopped popping popcorn; the kernels might have something to do with the scratchy sensation in his gut. When he visited me, he avoided spicy foods; maybe he was developing a digestive problem, we thought. We lived in constant fear of losing one of us. We imagined worst-case scenarios so that nothing would be a surprise.
I was conscious of sweat gathering under my arms as I smiled at the EEO lawyer.
As I spoke to her, one of the two lawyers on the third floor, an impossibly thin, elegant lady with peach lips and pearl earrings, I became less conscious of my appearance. I felt safe. Her long brown fingers played with a silver pen as I talked. It would be okay. She was woman; she would understand. I finished talking. I took a deep breath, straightened my skirt, and waited for what she had to say.
“Have you told him how you feel?” She asked me this as if it were a perfectly reasonable question. I blinked into her eyes, trying to clear my head for the umpteenth time that fall. The book-lined office and piles of paperwork on her tapestry rug gave me the feeling that she didn’t have cause to leave headquarters much.
“How I feel?” I asked. “But I’m telling you how I feel.”
“And my advice to you is to tell him how you feel.”
I tried to tell my supervisor how I felt—I really planned on it. I bought my coffee the next morning. I pinned my nametag. It glinted back at me in the mirror: vague, indirect, distracting. I told myself that the next time he mentioned my ass I would tell him where he could stick it.
Terrapin couldn’t figure out what she was supposed to do about work. She headed straight to the bars after work, sometimes with other Parkies, and sometimes with friends of friends. She decided to drink her father’s drink, scotch and red vermouth, the Scottish Rob Roy, the old man’s drink, the satisfying metallic flavor that lingered like a punch in the mouth—or what she imagined a punch in the mouth felt like. When out with her roommate, she downed enough booze to fall into a light sleep in a back booth until closing time or until her roommate’s patience ran out and Terrapin was awoken with a rough jab to the ribs and a scolding lecture about how roommates weren’t supposed to be caretakers.
Her hips were square-ish, her butt was pert and followed a shallow rectangle trajectory downward—who knew? Her biceps were larger than other women my size. Her boobs were small but they fit my frame. High heels made her calves curve nicely. Percentages dropped out of Terrapin’s frame in rude angles and edges that was, on the surface, new, but somehow very old. Her body had become its own speed bump.
Terrapin was going to say something the next time it happened. But she didn’t get the chance. Word had traveled.
Terrapin sat down at her cubicle, checked the list of parks left on her trash analysis list. Queens. Flushing Park South. She thumbed through letters on her desk from concerned citizens regarding misspelled signs—if there were any in Queens, she could take some pictures while she was out there.
She rolled her chair over to the bulletin board where they each hung their vehicle keys. She listened to her voicemail while she groped on the felt board with one hand. Asser Levy’s Recreation Center wanted three new trash bins and handicapped parking sign. She scribbled it on her note pad and frowned—there were no keys on the board. Under each of their names, a hook for keys designated who was assigned which Parks jeep. Kermit’s keys were there, Frolic, and Bumble’s hooks were empty, indicating that they were all out in the field. But where there had been Terrapin’s name, the keys and hook were missing.
She sat still, listening to people’s shoes clopping in the hallway and the clank of phones in cubicles yards away. Without a vehicle, she had nothing to do. She couldn’t verify errors in signage in the parks, so she couldn’t follow up on letters from constituents. She couldn’t sort through trash, so she couldn’t analyze trash.
Harlem River Drive
20% baby diapers; 17% clothes; 15% glass bottles (liquor); 12% plastic bottles; 12% plastic toys; 12% cans; 7% newspaper; 15% other (includes hypodermic needle)*
Precision comforted Terrapin.
East entrance by Riverside Drive and 65th Street
40% coffee cups; 10% cardboard (juice boxes); 10% paper; 40% newspaper
The needle had been a cause for concern. Jarmane winced as he saw her rubbing the pinprick it left in her palm. She didn’t want to lose their respect, so she soldiered on.
When Kermit would call her into his office, Terrapin pictured the shapes of each park to distract herself: Riverside—a forearm leaning to win an arm wrestling match.
Kermit’s grey socks bunched above his scuffed leather shoes, which he propped on his desk. “I won’t speak to you unless the EEO lawyer is present,” he barked. She had told. And now what was Terrapin to do? When push came to shove, who was Terrapin?
On October 23, 1999, I woke up from a dream. My head slammed against the side of the bathroom stall and struck the metal tampon disposal box with a loud thud. Its sharp corner stabbed into my scalp and for an agonizing, confusing moment I thought I was still in the dream, watching in horror as hundreds of tiny orange crabs crawled out of holes in my parents’ backyard and picked their way toward me where I stood, unable to move. A woman flushed in the stall next to me. And then pain—a throbbing puncture in my head—took over. My nametag clattered to the tile floor. And then I remembered I was in the second floor restroom. I pressed a wad of toilet paper gently against the side of my head, I swallowed a hiccup of pain, noticing my earlobe was a little wet with blood. Once I was sure the restroom was empty, I staggered to the sink and surveyed my reflection: light blood-spattered collar on an ill-fitting, borrowed button-up, a rumpled blue polyester skirt, gaunt cheekbones that were once cushioned by a chubby countenance. I noticed the eggplant-shaped wine stain near the hem of my skirt, which had seemed smaller the night before at the bar.
I went back to school and became a middle school teacher. I had my own classroom. I made my own rules, and I had the power to enforce them. Students talked, worked, sat according to the routines I established within the space. If my ass jiggled in certain skirts, I never heard about it. I could dole out detention. I insisted on the Ms. in Ms. Barker. I corrected anyone who called me Miss. I was known in the school as a teacher who had control.
A Problem With A Name
Peritoneal carcinomatosis. Stage 4 growth. Extent of tumor rupture throughout peritoneal space to plasma barrier.
Specially named forces like Sugarbaker, NCI, Johns Hopkins affixed their labels to what had long been a murky pain in my father’s side: tumor cell entrapment, change in the route and timing of chemotherapy administration; and the final, hopeful implementation of heated intraoperative intraperitoneal chemotherapy administration.
Sweat and body odor lingered after school hours, but I straightened the desks into rows, and I took the time each evening to print the next day’s homework on the board. I didn’t want any misunderstandings about what was expected in my class.
My father called me in my classroom as the sun set. I sat down on the dirty carpet in my classroom, dizzy, listening to his laundry-list diagnosis. I said what he wanted hear: I am coming home. I drove my father, fed my father. My mother said she wouldn’t have survived. We wouldn’t have survived if I hadn’t. I sat with my mother. I held her up. The children made cards and bundled them into large cardboard boxes, which arrived at our doorstep.
“They must like you,” my father said.
“I have control,” I replied, squinting into his eyes.
The same year that twenty of us recent college grads, all white, entered Parks middle management, I was oblivious to the fact that black employees earned 17% of the promotions, though they represented 30% of Parks employees. Latino employees earned 1% of the promotions, though they represented 16%.
In the winter of 1999, a dozen Parks employees contacted Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in New York City to file a formal complaint regarding discriminatory practices. The plaintiffs, black and Latino employees in management, clerical, and skilled trade positions, brought instances of being passed over for promotions in favor of white colleagues with equal education and less experience in the department. While I worried over my ass and my bruised ego, they approached the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund for help.
Once his Human Resources records were subpoenaed, Starquest was quoted as promising, “now that we are sensitive to the issue, we will count minority promotions,” but he missed the point; he missed the point on purpose—he had no framework for being accountable. Numbers, names spewed out of his offices. Real reasons, real people, did not. Starquest, not Henry Stern, was ambivalent on the issue of racial and sexual harassment in the work place. Terrapin, Frolic, and Bumble—not Alison, Dan and Aimee—were the ones who secured management positions in place of people who had worked longer and harder for the promotions.
The Parks Department settled the class action suit in 2008, and Parks paid $21 million in restitution for back pay and damages to 1,000 employees who were denied advancement due in part to the Class Of program.
I still have my nametag. I like the satisfaction of leaving it sitting there every morning, useless and dusty, a vestige of being trapped in a series of someone else’s territory, of worrying about doing the right thing when right and wrong are caught up in cubicles filled with alter egos.
My mother and I fought for my father’s body with pain patches, Lycopene, Xanax, Dilaudid, dietary supplements, cruciferous produce. He was always the first one to tell me when I had got it all wrong. It was just the three of us. We stayed in the hospital room, huddling repeatedly, the three of us. When one angle of a triangle family is gone, is the triangle family annihilated? When one angle of the triangle is threatened, isn’t that when the triangle family shines best?
In the hospital, a nurse would come in every six hours with an instrument that resembled a large turkey baster. She used it to siphon out the excess fluid building up in his belly. Edema, I was told was its name, caused by chaotic multiplication of those mitochondria, working overtime, burning calories, to fill a space that exceeded the proscribed limits of his body. We slept on cots next to him.
I watched my father lose his foothold over his vessel: the large expanse of his middle, the parchment paper-thin skin in creases over his knuckles and elbows. We struggled to support his growing weight on trips to the toilet. If he fell, the assemblage of tubes, needles, tape couldn’t be re-constructed without professional help. Food smells disgusted him. He ached to see his back yard—lovingly planted with Azaleas and Clematis, Forsythia. Celosia, Trumpet vine. Moss roses, Four o’clocks, Salvia, Princess Feather. I never wrote them all down to remember. We couldn’t position his body in a way where he could see the land he had tended so carefully.
And on the sunny day before he died? “My death will free you,” he said. Purple rimmed his mouth and eyes, but his hair smelled sweet and the bones of his hands glowed. Would I know it if I saw it?
Death has a way of changing people’s hobbies. I learned how to surf. I sought the third line on the crests of waves. The vibration of the water and fear—my board fins once cut across my right breast in a frightening tumble—left my body rattling deep inside for hours afterwards. I couldn’t find another activity that gave me the same thrill—drunk driving was less constructive, and learning a real skill like karate would take too long. The way I felt when I saw my father’s face, eyes closed, hours after life left control? It was the same way I felt on a four-foot wave, turning a board just a little too soon, staring down an ugly whitewash that could destroy me, or at least dislocate a shoulder. But before the crash and the pain, I felt power. Uncontrolled, disordered power. My father was right. And it hummed inside me after the event had long past. Riding a wave was like being on the last line of a territory. Feeling the water pummel itself below my board and knowing I was inches from taking an uppercut felt like cheating death.
And then one early morning, my friends too far away on the shore to witness it, I caught it: the feeling of being your own line of defense. I dug my back right foot heavily on the board, carving my fins into the hump of a cresting swell, and the tip of my board raised up. The wave broke unevenly to my right. I squatted deep, bringing my center of gravity as close as I could to the water. And I was delivered. I tumbled over, my speedy flight into and over the sand leaving angry red scratches along my torso and thighs, but not before the sensation of flying, of maneuvering my body over a chunk of fiberglass just so I could experience equilibrium.
I have a picture of my father at my graduation reception, his sunglasses hiding piercing gray eyes. In a pastel tie and light gray suit, he sits in front of a plate of fruit salad and smiles broadly, all systems functioning, just a flicker more joy and he would have been showing teeth, his face dimpled into a laugh—but he restrained himself. Graduation, after all, was a time for tentative optimism. Before a second front of cancer invaded his abdomen and upended the organization of healthy cell reproduction with senseless, cruel mismanagement—the photo at my graduation caught him before all of this disembodied power grabbing. My friends think I keep this photo on my bedside table to remind myself of the good days, or to keep a favorite image of my father intact despite the ravages of disease and its scrapbook of images I surely want to forget. But they’re wrong. Until we’re stripped down to our framework, it is very difficult to see what is really there. My favorite picture of him? Gaunt, sitting up in his hospital smock, flesh barely hiding the structure that gave him form.
Alison Barker is a native of Maryland, with roots deep in the Appalachian cul-de-sac of the Mason-Dixon. She holds a B.A. in Political Science from Wellesley College. Her work is inspired by replicas and signage: how we paper our insides to feel safe. She currently lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where she is at work on her first novel.
“My favorite front porch is at Aunt Phyllis and Uncle Keith's house on West Street in Ripley, West Virginia. There's a porch swing, four chairs, and a door to the living room that's never used. Look left and you can see all the way down the block to the corner where they put out the inflatable Santa-in-a-Snowglobe. Uncle Keith added thick wooden slats which serve as blinds, so these days, our attention tends to be focused either in the porch, or what's happening directly in front of us. Here, I attempted to cheat my Uncle Keith at Old Maid, I sat still for Aunt Phyllis to braid my hair on summer mornings, I waited for family to come up the stairs and grieve my father, I watched the bikers brake on the front lawn and pay respects to my cousin Rick, and I waited for the cinnamon rolls to be done.”