by Susan White
My friend Rachel was the first to notice it. Sitting on the yellow reupholstered couch, her black Chinese shoes on the coffee table, she shuffled through the Kodak pictures of my family’s beach trip. I sat on the window seat, using my mother’s good scissors to cut a mat off the end of my filthy cocker spaniel’s ear.
“What’s wrong with your father’s crotch?” Rachel asked.
I looked through the large adjoining windows at our side yard, then realized she was looking at a picture. She held it close to her nose. Leaned into the light of the floor lamp.
In the picture, my father stands in his navy bathing suit on the white sands of Sanibel Island. He wears a worn undershirt. So thin in places that dark chest hair shows through in patches. His neck is the color of a toad—as are his arms. The tops of his large, flat feet are red. He holds a fishing rod upright in his right hand. The point extends a few inches above his dry, brown hair. He looks proud of himself. But something is terribly wrong with his crotch. It’s missing. The white sand that fills the sliver of space between his legs reaches nearly to the band of his swim shorts.
I balked when I saw the shocking deformity. Rachel and I tugged the picture from each other, trying to solve the mystery of the crotchless father.
“Have you ever seen him naked?” Rachel asked.
“No,” I lied. My skin burned as I remembered years ago hiding behind my baby sister’s plastic changing table so I could glimpse my naked father as he walked through the nursery to his room. I knelt behind the shield decorated in pastel ABC blocks and bears, breathing in baby powder, listening for the shower sounds to cease. He walked out of the bathroom with no towel. I held my breath and leaned to the side to see his butt. And then he turned. Faced the changing table and scratched his back. I saw all of him. Black fur and a dark fat worm as long as my sock. He stood in front of me until the pink splotches on his shoulders and chest faded and I exhaled.
Later that afternoon, I sat at the wooden desk my grandmother had given me and wrote a confession to him with a green marker. He told me he understood. That it would be our secret. But I couldn’t digest secrets. That’s why I had confessed. To me, secrets were information you tried to swallow, which eventually poisoned you. So I told him to tell Mom what I had done.
“Well, actually, I did see him naked once—by accident,” I half-way confessed to Rachel. “I don’t think anything was missing.” When I looked at the picture yet again, I saw it. A tiny white triangle cutting into his thigh. A fin. “There’s a fish between his legs. A Whiting. We caught a full stringer of them that day.”
The illusion couldn’t have been planned any better. The white fish dangles between his legs, its head against his crotch. The fish is perfectly aligned and colored to merge with the sandy background.
Knowing the illusion made the image even more outrageous. Our entire family had seen the picture, and we had all overlooked the fish-trick. But we were good at overlooking. We overlooked the crate of whisky bottles my father kept in the dark, unfinished basement. We overlooked my big brother’s red, distant eyes and failing grades, my mother’s sad weekend naps beside her black leather Bible, my little brother’s speech impediment, my little sister’s aversion to being touched, and my habit of sleeping in my closet.
Once the hidden fish had been pointed out to us, we couldn’t stop looking at it. My father was a good sport. Didn’t mind that no one visited our house without seeing the picture. He’s immune to what others think of him. He is an entertaining specimen and is happy to please. His brain is so full of information that he’s socially unbalanced, which makes him appealing. For forty-two years, he led thousands of students through the labyrinth of American and Russian literature, but he can barely dress himself. He often wears two different shoes, his zipper is never pulled completely up, and one pant leg is always tucked into his sock. (He has yet to remember to put his socks on before his pants.) More than once, he has driven off with the gas nozzle still in his car —which was more forgivable than leaving his four-year-old son at a gas station. Students liked to ask him for the time to watch him flip his wrist inward, spilling his mug of coffee down his shirt and khakis. No one at the high school called him Mr. White. Students, faculty, administrators, parents—they all called and continue to call him Whiteman. He is more character than human.
I remember Rachel skateboarding to our house. She and her mother had fought about the shaved sides of her head and her older, rude boyfriend. She threw herself dramatically on the window seat and flung her arm out in the gesture of a last request. “Show me the fish picture. It always cheers me up.”
The corners of the picture became as flimsy as his undershirt. A crease ran across his neck. I don’t know what the picture looks like now—or where it is. Midway through my younger brother’s ninth grade year, he brought the picture to school. Tacked it to a bulletin board to make people laugh and forgive him for being a freshman and a faculty brat. By lunch, the picture was gone. Pity. That picture captured my father’s cartoon-side: the fleshless, goofy Whiteman. And, I now realize, his emasculation comforted me.
When I crouched behind the diaper-changing table to see a naked man, I did not know about sex. I spied on him because I knew so little. From my baths with my brother, I knew boys and girls were different. But my father had done something on my bedroom floor that had rattled me.
Each bedroom had an intercom to prevent trips up the stairs, but I used the intercom to force my father up the stairs. At night, I pushed the lock button on my intercom so that my parents could hear if something evil crept into my room. I learned that when fear seized me, I could hover over the plastic speaker crying, and—since the lock button prevented their speaking to me—they would have to come to me or endure my crying. My mother never caved, but my father always did. I only felt safe at night when someone else was in my room or if I was curled up beneath my hanging clothes in my closet with the door slightly cracked. I was eight or nine, way too old to feel this scared but too young to know how abnormal this was. My father clumped up the stairs with a blanket and pillow. He lay on the diamond-patterned carpet on his side. I was able to shut my eyes. I awakened to a panting sound. I thought my dog had somehow made his way into the room. I looked down. My father’s hunched, blanketed form was shaking violently. He grunted, shivered, and let out a sighing sound like he was setting down something heavy. I shut my eyes and concentrated on looking asleep. When I heard him stand up, I lifted my eyelids enough to watch him walk across my room to the bathroom. Holes in the back of his underwear exposed two circles of flesh.
What I witnessed reminded me of another time I had awakened to sounds on my bedroom floor. A frenzy of squeaking and scrambling erupted from the cedar chip-filled aquarium on my floor that housed my white mouse, Mitison, I had bought at K-Mart. I leapt up and turned on the light. A gray mouse clung to her back, pumping furiously. I screamed as Mitison twisted free and bit the gray mouse. He jumped to the edge of the aquarium, then onto the floor, and scurried behind my desk. I screamed toward the intercom that there was a wild mouse in my room. Though my father staggered up the stairs and searched my room, he insisted I had dreamed the episode.
By my early teens, I knew my father couldn’t stop thinking about sex. He had managed to control one addiction. The bottles from the basement disappeared, and he attended a meeting every Tuesday night.
But he spent hours late at night in his computer room with the door locked. And he had ways of arousing himself between his computer shifts. Looking to steal a couple of dollars from his wallet, I found tiny pictures. Glossy, labia close-ups. I ripped them up and shoved them under the kitchen trash. My younger brother’s friend wandered into the den one night, looking for an extra blanket and saw my dad masturbating while watching Lady Chatterley’s Lover. When my brother told me the humiliating scene his friend had encountered, I threw the VCR tape—unaware that it is a classic story and not porn—in our neighbor’s outdoor trashcan. After searching our house many times, my father had to compensate the town library for the lost tape.
Whiteman’s dirty ways were widely known and discussed at school. So much so that even I, his daughter for God’s sake, was not spared the unseemly images.
Image One: my father rinsing off his dick in the sink of the boys’ bathroom at school, claiming to have spilled coffee down his pants.
Image Two: A student looking to hide his watch, which was set to sound an alarm during class, opened the bottom drawer of my father’s filing cabinet to find a stack of playboys.
Image Three: My father popping a boner at the girls’ basketball game.
Boys were flattered when he pulled them aside to tell lewd jokes. Girls were flattered when he ogled them. I was disgusted.
Just last year, one of my father’s former students, a forty-something-year-old man who had quit being an attorney to write a novel, drove five hours to hand-deliver the first draft to my father. I happened to be home to attend a funeral service. He stayed the night in the corner room my older brother once inhabited. He brought a bottle of wine to the dinner table and, since neither my father nor mother drink alcohol, and I never drink around them, he gradually drank the whole bottle himself. I was accustomed to the frequent visits of former students who watched Whiteman squat on furniture in the living room, waving his arms in the air to the speed of his brain, spinning stories.
After my parents went to bed, the drunk ex-attorney wandered up the stairs and joined me in the den, where I lay on the couch watching television. The unsteady man insisted that he become the show I watched. He teared up, telling me my father was the most gifted teacher this world has known. He sat forward in the wicker chair. “This man made me believe I could do something amazing during my lifetime. Something fucking profound, you know?” He put his hands on the sides of his face and squeezed out a confession: “And I can’t help but feel that I never lived up to what he thought I could do. That I’ve let him down.” He trembled.
“You were an attorney, you wrote a book, you have a family,” I told him.
He just bit his lip and shook his head. “Not enough.”
“What made him such a good teacher?” I asked.
“Whiteman cared about his students. He loved us all. And he didn’t just quiz people over literature. Assign pointless essays and diagram sentences. He made stories pulse.” He squeezed his hand, palm up. “Connected us to everything we read. The first day of class—you have to remember this was when the school was a boys’ academy—he squatted on his desk and said, ‘Literature is the vagina of humanity.’” The drunk former attorney parted an imaginary vagina in front of his nose. “And he hopped off his desk. Held up a copy ofAnna Karenina and said, ‘This is an 800-paged orgasm.’”
“I’ve never heard that before,” I said. But I believed it. I pulled the scratchy afghan across my folded legs.
“Swear to God. That’s what he said. He leaned back into the chair but jolted forward as if he’d been poked. “And once he was on dorm duty, and he said to me, ‘Parker, I want to show you something.’ He took me to the end of the hall and pointed out a small hole about waist-high. He said, ‘Stick your dick in there and fuck the world.’”
I don’t know if my father fucked Sadie Michaels. The GARM (gossip and rumor mongers—as my mother and friends referred to themselves) were at our house. Three of them were in the living room. Sadie hid in the adjacent room: my parents’ bedroom. She had flown in for a visit—unbeknownst to the other GARM—and waited for the right moment to spring out at them. I cannot recall what the set-up was—some adult humor that intrigued but eluded me. Since I heard my mom and Sadie plotting before the other GARM arrived, I hid under my parents’ bed. My mom believed I was playing with my dog in the backyard. I had been shooed away, but I had crept back into the scene. The GARM were upstairs and my father was getting our car fixed at Mr. Bailey’s shop. Beneath the gauzy cloth sagging from the bed boards, I lay frog-style on the carpet that smelled like chips watching Sadie’s calves pace and lean.
The door opens, but from the other side. My father’s navy sneakers. Gasping—giggling—whispering. It sounds like they are tickling each other, but I know they are not. Their pairs of feet are too far apart. He says, “I just came in to get my—”
Sadie shushes him.
Sweat moistens the hair above my ears. Pushing off my forearms, I lift my torso higher and breathe deeper. I can reach out and grab Dad’s ankle—start a chain-reaction that will bust the plan apart. But I know better than to reach into this adult world.
Sadie whispers that she’s waiting for her cue.
Dad says something back, and they laugh into their hands.
Dad stomps past me. A drawer opens. Jingling—scraping—bumping. The drawer shuts.
Sadie’s sandals point toward me. Her back must be against the wall by the door.
When his jeans block my view of her painted toes, I squeeze my teeth together—terrified of detection. Of the way they breathe together. Of suffocating.
Sadie whispers, “You better leave.”
The door opens. His shoes walk away. The door closes.
Sadie leaks like a balloon with a tiny hole. Her penny-colored sandals walk past me and toward my parents’ dresser. I know she is looking into the big mirror with the family pictures jammed into the wooden frame.
The GARM laugh, their voices overlapping. Rising and falling like waves. My father’s deep voice mixes in.
Sadie’s sandals return to the wall by the door.
I want to scream—to claw the cloth hanging over me.
Sadie flings the door open. Shouts, “Hot damn, let’s go!”
The GARM squeal. Their voices bounce all over the room.
I crawl on my belly like a soldier. As soon as I stand, the sweat around my ears and under my bangs dries My scalp tingles. I pace. When the voices move out of the living room and into the kitchen, I run through the living room and the front hall into the wide-open brightness, expecting the porch and the giant White Oak to explode. I wind and unwind, ’round and ’round, on the pink monkey swing until I nearly vomit.
I never saw my father with another woman. My mother never told me he had fucked other women. But my father was obviously indebted to my mother, because she ran all over him like a vacuum cleaner. And he just allowed himself to be sucked up along with the dirt and the forgotten coins. And there were the years when a family trip in our station wagon with the fake wood paneling on the sides and the brown tint adhered to the back windows seemed like a giant, jagged lie. Three of us squeezed in the back seat. Anne between Nathan and me to obviate boney arm battles. Frank was old enough stay home. To open his tin Sucrets box of pot, roll a joint, and play his electric guitar as loud as his amp would allow. My father would drive—getting Cheeto crud on the steering wheel. He’d try to put his hand on my mother’s hand or leg. She’d pull away. Not because of the powdered cheese. But because, it seemed to me, his hand had been on another woman. I felt my father’s fear and guilt. I read my mother’s disgust and hurt easier than I read my flimsy novel, wedged between my hip and the vinyl seat.
No matter how much my mother has belittled her husband, one time he was the savior of our family. It’s important for me to admit that his heart is as active as his penis. Whiteman lusts and loves easily And he certainly loves dogs. Always has. He rolls on the floor with them, embracing them and talking to them like his own children. He walks his dogs early in the morning and at night. Insists on taking them on long trips. When we had to give Sheba to a farmer because she mangled an elderly woman’s leg, my father wept like I imagine he did as a twelve-year-old boy when his father died in a car accident. Before he drove Sheba away, my father cried so hard he could not form words. He wheezed and crumpled in raw pain. Choked out, “She has to go. Our Sheba.”
My father once told me, “One of the things I must know more about before I die is how dogs think. I had a black and tan when I was a kid that I swear I could tell to do certain things. And, by God, he’d do them. I know we understood each other.”
So one day, our family (even Frank) coasted half a mile on an icy road to Lake Brattin, which was actually a small pond. My mother had heard it was frozen. Frozen ponds in Tennessee are as rare as grits in the Northeast. We walked on the powdered, kidney-shaped pond like paranoid chickens, but—soon enough—we were scampering and sliding in our rubber-soled tennis shoes. We walked on the water where in summers we reeled in bass and gigged frogs. And then we chased one another, slid on our sides. Laughed like we weren’t broken.
My mother aimed her Kodak camera at the rest of us. Arms around each other, snow in the creases of our jeans, we smiled at this miracle that we stood on our fishing pond.
Sometime after my mother took that picture, Nathan shrieked. Barron, who had run after our station wagon to the pond, was in the water, near the grass, pawing and breaking the icy surface around him. Our Irish Setter was freezing and tiring. My mom screamed for someone to get a rope. I walked across the still-solid part of the pond then ran up the snow-covered bank. Banged insanely on two nearby front doors. I screamed for a rope, no one had one. By the time I made it back to Lake Brattin, My father lay on his stomach on the frozen pond, edging out to Barron—despite my mother’s frantic pleas for him to stop, to be reasonable. He could fall through, unable to push through a ceiling of ice. But he continued to make his way to Baron. Grabbed his faded blue collar, pulled him to. Used all his strength to lift him up and out. My father carried Baron to our car. At home, we ran a hairdryer over him until he was fluffy and panting.
About a month later, my mother returned from our mailbox with bills and a Kodak envelope of pictures. She and I sat on the yellow couch smiling at images of us bumbling on top of the pond. Then my mother became silent. Held a picture close to her face—as Rachel had done. Mom said, “Oh my God, would you look at this,” and showed the picture to me.
Our family—minus our mother—poses, arms around one another, oblivious to the fact that—in the left corner—Baron , mid-scramble, fights for his life. My father does not look at Baron or the camera, but at his children—with the same beam his mother wore whenever we sat on her church pew. As I said, we are good at overlooking, but you can’t see all things at once either. As soon as he was aware of the danger, my father transformed into Whiteman and impulsively yanked our helpless setter from a deadly hole.
The same Whiteman who dragged himself out of his sleep, away from his wife, and up the stairs every time his daughter cried through his intercom.
Susan White, originally from eastern Tennessee, received her Masters degree from the Bread Loaf School of English and her MFA from Stonecoast. She teaches high school English in Asheville, North Carolina. When she’s not grading or writing, Susan enjoys running on the mountain trails with her dogs, Zora, Callie, and Hooper.