Thursday, March 21, 2019

Across the Hall

I’m on my hands and knees in my dad’s little office, which is right across the hall from my bedroom.  My light is off so no one can tell I’m not in bed under those blue and white Smurf sheets, which I’ve totally outgrown now that I’m TEN, in FIFTH grade, but my mom insists are in perfectly good condition.  I’ve crept across the hall so I can do it. Again. Sin. I’m a sinner. The hallway light spills in as I kneel at one of my usual crime scenes. If I get caught, it’ll be my third offense. “Three strikes you’re out,” I imagine my dad singing off key at a Portland Beaver’s baseball game.

My dad’s office is small and painted mint green.  Even I seem too big for that little room. There’s a desk crammed into one corner with a floor to ceiling cabinet pinning it in.  Not one of those metal cabinets, but cheap pressboard which means the doors bow out, so it’s hard to slide them open. Unless you’re an expert, like me, at sneaking and stealing.  Burgling they call it on TV. The loot inside? My dad’s favorite thing ever, which is also my favorite thing ever. M&M’s. Peanut M&M’s. The real kind, even though my dad doesn’t keep them in the big yellow bag he gets at Safeway (whether they are “BUY one, GET one free” or not).  Nope, he pours his M&M’s in a brown paper lunch sack and rolls the top down. We agree that they’re much better than the generic ones my Grandma puts in a fake crystal dish on her coffee table each Christmas Eve. They are the only thing my dad will pay full price for, even on NON-payday weeks and he says the splurge is worth it because it makes me smile my silly Hobbit smile.

My dad started calling me “Hobbit” or “Hob” earlier this school year when I got the lead in the school play.  Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit. Yep. He came to the play all three nights, even though he slept through most of it.  My mom promised to wake him up when I killed the dragon. And each night, during the car ride home, he went on and on about my sword and how I took out the dragon.  He’d say, “You did it, didn’t you Hob?” And I’d say ”Yep, Big Dad, I did it!” I don’t know when I started calling him Big Dad because he really is the tiniest man ever.

My dad’s laugh is the one big thing about him.  It’s so big it almost sounds fake, like he’s trying on a Santa suit and borrowing the bellow.  I can always get him to laugh. It’s another one of my favorite things (even though it annoys my mom).  The best time is at the dinner table right after someone has taken their turn saying the prayer. I sit across from my dad, now that the oldest three kids are out of the house, my brother Kerry sits across from my mom.  Which means I have to hold Kerry’s hand when we pray, and he always squeezes too hard. But if I say anything I’m the one who gets in trouble. And if I’m in trouble I can’t do my silly smile which gets my dad to laugh, and always seems to make him a little less tired.  My dad’s strong, even though he’s tiny, and he works harder than anyone I’ve ever met. I’m pretty sure we’re pretty poor because he worries about money even harder than he works.

Each year, for his birthday, when I pick out his card, I try to find something particularly funny, because he’ll take extra time during his special birthday meal.  He’ll open the envelope slowly, notice my artwork on the outside, comment on how creative I am, say, “Hobbit, you sure can draw can’t you?” He’ll slide the card out carefully and read the start of the joke on the front and get the goofiest grin on his face, which tells me to get my silly smile ready.  And then, when he reads the punch line, he’ll say “You got me, Hob!” and I’ll give him my silly smile and he’ll Santa laugh. Then he’ll read the front again and the punch line again and we’ll crack up again, together! And it’s almost as good as my own birthday. Almost.

I think I hear someone in the hall so I sit back, the carpet scratchy on my bare knees.  I hold my breath and try to listen, try to hear something beyond the pounding in my chest.  But the rest of the house is quiet. It’s just my dad, noisy in the lazy boy, snoring. I imagine his mouth tipped open, the stubble darkening his chin, the strain of his workday leaving him limp in his lazy boy.

I’m already in the doghouse with my dad.  Royally. I’m in the doghouse because of last week and a couple things that happened.  See, first, I broke the little doorstopper for my bedroom door. I really like the sound it makes when you flick it, when you hold it all the way to one side and then let go.  “Thwooooing”. I love that sound. But my Dad caught me doing it and hit the roof, blew a gasket, and for him, that’s pretty odd because he’s usually off somewhere in his head, not noticing anything at all.

But even worse, is what happened with my dad’s Bearcat Emergency scanner.  There I was, sneaking into his office after school to get my M&M fix and I started fiddling with the mysterious black box because it’s just so cool with gleaming dials and a lovely extendable antenna.  That’s the part I broke, the antenna. (Which just doesn’t make sense to me because it’s supposed to extend. Really, they should make those things more durable. In my opinion.) But that time, he got so mad he barked at me.  “That’s. Not. A. Toy. Hobbit!” I tried to act sorry, even worked at making myself cry when he called me by my favorite name, Hobbit. Of the two of us, I think he was closer to crying than me.

Now, my dad’s not a fireman/medic/policeman, he doesn’t need the emergency scanner for his job, he delivers propane for a propane company.  But he loves that thing. And I love that thing. Whenever a siren sounds he’ll flip it on to discover what disaster has occurred, where the fire truck/ambulance/police car is headed.  And then he’ll sit there in his little office and listen. And I’ll listen from my bedroom across the hall. I’ve often wondered if you could see the images in our heads, how closely would they would compare?  So many times I’ve wished he’d pop his head into my room and say, “Hey Hobbit! Lets go!” And then we’d race through the kitchen to the garage (ignoring my mom’s ambush of questions) jump into his red Chevy truck and take off.  We’d chase those sirens with the windows down.

But he never does.  He just sits. Even when I linger by his door and try to catch his eye.  Sometimes, when he does notice me, he’ll swivel around in his chair, reach down and slide the cabinet door open.  His fist will disappear into the crinkled bag and emerge with a handful of Peanut M&M’s. Two at a time, he’ll drop them into my outstretched palm and say, “Sounds like fire, Hob. Sounds like a big one.”

I bought him a new antenna with some of my strawberry picking money that I’d been saving for one of those curling irons that’s also a brush.  When I gave it to him, he thanked me and said, ‘I know what this cost you Hob,’ which made me feel even more guilty because my mom helped me find the antenna on-sale at Waremart and I still got the curling iron.

Yeah, I KNOW what I do is awful sinful.  Stealing candy from my tiny tired dad. And I always try to hold out, try to be good, but I can’t help but do it again, I am just that BAD.  And I know it’s no excuse, but there’s something about having a fist full of those Peanut M&M’s that makes me feel like WE’RE GOING TO BE OKAY.  Because no matter when I sneak some, the bag seems full, like we’re doing just fine, like, there’s plenty for all of us kids, even me, the last of five.  And, there will be enough for my dad and mom if I ever make it to college and have to leave them.  See, when I reach down deep into the mass of M&M’s I think, maybe my dad’s got treats and treasures hidden all over and they’re not gonna end up sitting on the steps of the ‘Poor House’ like he likes to says.  (I’m pretty sure the Poor House is just an expression and not an actual place. Although my dad seems as afraid of going there as my mom is afraid of going to the loony bin, which I know is a an actual place because my mom said a distant cousin went there and never came back.)

I start to slide the cabinet door closed, the chocolate is coating my teeth and tongue. I really should dart back to my room but I want a second scoop so I stay.  I leave the cabinet door cracked open, just wide enough, so I can slip my hand back inside. I usually eat the green ones first and make a list of all the candy I love that is green (watermelon nerds, lime now & laters, apple blow-pops) and imagine having a Tupperware container of each stashed under my bed.  I make sure and save the red ones for last and get my list to cherry starbursts before diving my hand back into the paper sack.

And then suddenly the light goes out behind me.  Not completely. Not like someone flipped off the hallway light - that would have made my dad’s office go dark, concealing me completely.  More like… an eclipse, like the one I looked at with the shoebox I made at school. The light dims, it is diffused. I turn around to see my dad’s tiny figure silhouetted in the doorway, insignificant compared to the massive shadow he is casting down on me.

My mouth is packed with peanuts.  I can’t swallow, let alone speak. And my heart does that thing I’ve read about in Sweet Valley High romance novels, when one of the twins gets her heart broken.

“Night, Hob.”

That’s all he says, standing there, between me and the light.  An eclipse. I have been eclipsed. My sin covered.

He continues on down the hall to the bathroom.  I hear the water running in the sink as he brushes his teeth and then I hear the water stop, hear him come back into the hall.

“Make sure and brush your teeth, Hobbit.”  The light goes out, all the way this time and I hear his bedroom door open and close.  The walk back across the hall feels like desert miles. I sit there on my Smurf sheets trying to swallow.

'Big Dad' Kenneth L. Felton
9/22/42 - 3/21/16

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