I break a promise to my 16-year old Mina the evening of the big father-daughter high-school hoedown. The promise is that I won’t cause a scene with her best friend and her best friend’s father. They’re coming with us to our pre-hoedown dinner. Mina’s mother told her to remind father to be on his best behavior. He’s not reliable some times.
In the car on the way to pick up her friend and dad Mina starts, “Mom said…”
“I know what your mother said,” I interrupt her. “Your mother is trying to control your fragile, developing mind by making you think your father is peeing his pants and heading for the gutter with a bottle of Night Train. Listen to me, sweet pea, your daddy is just fine. I won’t embarrass you.”
“The Hardys think our name is funny,” Mina says, and my heart sinks. You can’t do much about what your parents name you or your DNA. When someone pokes fun of one of the fry and hurts their feelings because of their rightful inheritance, a man can’t help but feel less of a good protector. Our name is Hoobler, and therein lies some of the uncleansable original sin of the family no baptism is going to wash away.
“Hardy’s not exactly a Rockefeller of a name, either,” I say to my little Mina, and she shoots me a glance that suggests I should douse myself with gasoline and jump into a pizza oven.
“What’s Night Train, Dad?” Mina asks sarcastically.
And so here’s where it goes wrong. I’ve got a head full of this Hardy family mocking my good name and when we get to the front door and Mina introduces me to her best friend, Zert Hardy, the energy it takes me to stifle a convulsion of laughter nearly blows me off their front step.
“What was your name again?” I ask the youngster, certain her parents must have cursed her birth.
“Zert,” she says. “Like de-zert. Zee-ee-are-tee. Zee-ert. It comes from when my mom and dad were, like, dating, you know? And, you know, they like had this really romantic dinner. And, like, candles and all, you know? And my dad’s all like, what do you want for dessert, Pumpkin? And Pumpkin, that’s what he calls my mom, she’s like, she’s just all like, well, duh, not food, you know? And so, like, here I am.”
“And you know this?” I say to her, absolutely incredulous that I haven’t even entered these people’s home and I already know the circumstances of one of their children's conception. Then I make a mental note to remind Mina that if she starts peppering her speech with the word ‘like’, she should expect to be kidnapped by deprogrammers.
Zert remembers something, the process of which is obviously a novelty to her. The thought hits her so hard it’s as if she’s been shot in the forehead. She recoils from the force.
“Oh wow. So, like I should probably be letting you guys in,” she says just as an older gentleman appears at her side and takes the door handle.
“That’s okay, darling. I’m ready, we’re leaving now,” he says to Zert. Then he shouts inside, “We’re leaving, Yolanda.”
Something Spanish that sounds like, ‘trabaja del diablo,’ comes from inside and the older Hardy pushes his daughter onto the front step and closes the door behind himself, guarding the open space between the door and the jamb the way zoo personnel close the doors to the tiger cages.
When he’s sure the door is locked he holds out his hand and introduces himself. It takes me three times to get his name imprinted in my memory.
“I’m sorry, I don’t think I heard that right. Did you say your name was Rock Hardy?”
And you think my name is funny, you prick?
I don’t actually say that, though it’s what I’m thinking hard enough to leak out my ears. The angst would grow and I’d probably start spouting insults if it wasn’t for the fact I’m distracted because young Zert has forgotten something. Namely, clothing.
The girl is dressed in cowboy boots, fishnet stockings, and an amply filled rhinestone-striped bikini bathing suit.
“Are you forgetting a coat, dear?” I suggest as the Hardys pile into my Jeep. “Aren’t you going to be cold?”
Mina’s looks at me as if I’ve burst into flames. I know she’s wishing I would simply stop speaking, especially to our guests who in their terminal absurdity are likely to erupt onto the cover of an issue of “Psychology Today” at any moment.
She says, “Daaaady.”
I turn up my palms and say, “What? I was just thinking that maybe she’d…”
“Zert is not cold. She’ll be fine,” Mina informs me, getting into the shotgun seat.
When Rock Hardy and his daughter get into my car the miracle of speech has evacuated their heads. Cruising to the restaurant where Yolanda Hardy has made our dinner reservations, I occasionally glance into the rearview mirror to make eye contact with my passengers. They each have their nose pressed to their respective windows like springer spaniels begging to hang their tongues in the breeze. From the expression on their faces it seems they’re either about to vomit or leap to their deaths.
“So I hear you work for NASA, Rock,” I say, not wanting my vehicle tainted, hoping to distract the him from his suicidal plunge onto Route 9. And upon having an embarrassing silence plop onto me like a jello mold from a passing jetliner repeat myself, “Rock, you work for NASA, do you?”
Rock grunts, and now I suspect he’s so terrified of automotive travel that the experience of vehicular motion has paralyzed him.
“Do you and your father dance, Zert? You know Mina is going to have to teach me. I have two left feet,” I say.
Zert doesn’t even grunt. Mina looks at me as if she’s trying to decide where the best points are to begin flaying the flesh from a human body.
“They’re quiet people, Dad,” Mina explains.
I mouth the words, “They’re ZOMBIES. RUN!”
Mina says, “You’re impossible,” and commences to join the Hardys in their brain-damaged behavior.
Over dinner, Rock Hardy sat across the table from me and stared into the distance as if he’d dropped a tab of acid and was enjoying a parade of animated kitchen implements dance past his face just for him. His eyes were static and saucer sized. His lips curled in a fiendish grin under his mustache and he said absolutely nothing to any of my questions, his only utterance when the waiter came and he ordered a type of extinct fish plesiosaurs used to eat.
Upon being denied his wish, he deigned to eat the restaurant clean of all its free bread and butter.
Zert, on the other hand, became lively and responded well to the leering of the restaurant patrons who either found her amusing or so stimulating the consumption of food fell from their minds like dried mud from an elephant’s ear. She had succeeded in claiming her title.
And I wondered how this sociological event was affecting my little Mina. While I was certain that sixteen years had made her just as worldly as I had been at that age, I could not expect her to process the absurdity of the evening with any measure of perspective.
Watching her talk to Zert, I was alone with my imagination. And there she was again, staring up at me from the crook of my arm, two months old, smiling when I touch her nose, butterflies fluttering in my chest, reminding me I have no idea how to become a father other than to keep her smiling. Keep feeding her. Keep changing her diaper.
Unencumbered by knowledge of ritual and custom, a baby will look right into your eyes. They’re drawn by the spark of life visible there, their eyes and cooing the only mode of communication. And I remember when she was young I knew what Mina was thinking and loved her with all the power I could summon from my paltry history. The best intention of a father in training.
I’d prayed my inexperience wouldn’t hurt her.
“Dad, what?” she says, and I realize I’m staring. Zert looks at me, then pokes her father who giggles like a toy.
“Nothing,” I say to Mina, and she goes back to talking to Zert. Rock goes back to staring, and when the bill comes I pay it.
Inside the high school gym we’re herded toward cookies and soft drinks with other fathers and daughters. The fathers introduce themselves, certain to keep their eyes from drifting onto each other’s progeny. The girls, especially the older ones, are in the throes of fertility and amid a hoard of 40-something males one may as well be chumming sharks.
So we dads stare at each other. Say hello to the daughters while staring at the floor or the ceiling, careful not to read what’s written across the girls’ breasts or judging the snugness of their jeans.
Because truth is, any one of us for our children would gladly commit to dying in a glorious hail of bullets and pyrotechnics, and we were all looking for the chance to do it. It was our only option. Any amount of fatherly affection was sure to be misinterpreted as incest by near-sighted public prosecutors, child protection groups, and radical feminist institutions. So we buried our love for our kids in a pile of testosterone laden war images, and yearned for the opportunity to bleed for them. Between diapers and crying at their weddings we had nothing else.
And each of us, so tightly wound, was loathe to trigger the other. Beyond perfunctory introductions, we retired to separate corners to watch our daughters dance, and despised the young men who would take from us the babies whom we were certain had seen in our own young eyes the man worth saving.
At the appointed time, Mina came to find me skulking in the dark and led me to the bleachers. We sat and watched a video the girls had made. Each of them stood in front of the camera for ten seconds and thanked their fathers for whatever it is that fathers are supposed to do. Food and shelter. How to drive a manual shift car. How to field a fly ball. Where they could go when everything else in the world had cratered and nobody was a friend.
Soon the gymnasium was filled with the occasional sniffling of construction workers, engineers clearing their throats, lawyers wiping itchy noses, bank presidents fidgeting, physicians rubbing at their eyes.
And when my Mina appeared on the screen for her ten seconds, she thanked me for making her laugh and for teaching her there could be adventure in her life. I was the bravest person she'd ever met.
So now I can tell you there is a God. He’d kept the lights off in the gym, took all the air from my lungs, and showed me that at the end of the fear and heartache I’d had watching Mina struggle through life, none of it was wasted by my imperfection.
That out of everything, at least one thing had been good.
next episode is in Kat, floating in midair
last episode is in Prophet of human wreckage