Fiction: The Bridge
Apr 14, 2014 10:03AM, Published by A Kitchen Drawer Writer , Categories: Arts+Entertainment
By Amanda Cera
Outside, the fireworks boom and shrill, marking the finale of another Independence Day. Daddy sits quietly in his recliner, legs stretched out in front of him. From her spot on Daddy’s lap, Cassie, the poodle, yips and grumbles at each celebratory explosion. I sit cross-legged on the couch working crossword puzzles. Occasionally I glance at the TV as Daddy flips through the channels. His third stroke left him mostly mute, except for a “hey” here and a “hell” there. Even with his lack of speech, his presence seems to anchor the room. Though four years have passed since the stroke, I’m still uncomfortable with his silence.
For most of my 42 years, no one ever accused my Daddy of being quiet. He had an opinion about most things, and he shared it without prompting. Don’t get me wrong. He wasn’t a loudmouth know-it-all unless he knew he was right. On the contrary, he was adored by most everyone who met him. With his charisma, he could have been a top-notch salesman, except for his honesty.
My Daddy ran heavy equipment for Duke Power, climbed power poles wearing spiked boots, lopped tree limbs with an industrial chainsaw. He traveled across the Carolinas and even up North when storms knocked out power. He was gone Monday through Thursday for most of my life, toiling in the humid heat of summer and the damp cold of winter. He never missed work, except when he lost his right ring finger running a seeding machine at work. He was out for only a week.
There are four of us, all girls. I’m the youngest, Kelsey—a late-life surprise just when Mama and Daddy thought their child-rearing days were behind them. Daddy wanted a boy, but he got all girls, and by the time I came along, he was content with his fate to be the minority under the roof he paid for.
I was in awe of my Daddy, terrified of his grumblings, yet worshipful. He was a stranger to me in many ways—the man who came home on Thursday nights and made me sleep in my own bed instead of with Mama. He was a giant with red hair and a wiry beard who field dressed deer in the side yard. He was the man who must be obeyed.
Daddy’s love was a given, conveyed through Mama’s reassurance, but I always felt a distance between us, a chasm—the distance measured in years, not miles. Or maybe it was measured in birth order—a bridge that had existed in Daddy’s youth had decayed and collapsed with age, separating Megan and me as perpetual outlanders. Darla and Tina, my oldest sisters, had been born when the bridge was new. They had been eyewitnesses to Daddy’s flaws and errors—to them, Daddy was approachable and knowable, even if he was Superman. Rest assured they protected their proximity to Daddy as one would guard the Hope Diamond or the crown jewels. In all holiday snapshots, no matter the season or the pose, Daddy is in the center, flanked on either side by Darla and Tina. Megan and I are relegated to the outside edges like decorative bookends too insubstantial to truly accomplish their intended purpose but there nonetheless, a part of the scene.
I never envied my oldest sisters. Megan and I had easier childhoods than they did. Mama and Daddy were older and more financially secure, more settled down by the time Megan and I came along. The world had drastically changed—civil rights, integration, women’s lib—and the moorings that once held Connection Bridge in place had shifted and swayed, the underlying cause for the eventual decay. My older sisters' camaraderie with Daddy seemed their reward for having endured. They got closeness. Megan and I got stability. Who were we to complain?
My questioning nature never quite aligned with Daddy’s, Darla’s and Tina’s worldview, although I wasn’t one to give voice to those differences. Though I longed for a deeper understanding, I never could find the courage to ask Daddy any of the hard questions. I was sustained by the occasions during the summer when Daddy was home and I stayed up late, unfettered by school hours, to watch boxing or baseball. When I was younger, I’d crawl into his lap as he stretched back in the recliner, the room lit by the flickering TV as the boxers squared off in their respective corners.
“Which one do you want?” he’d ask, brushing my long, brown hair to one shoulder as I snuggled in against his broad chest, secured by his strong, freckled arm.
“I’ll take the one in the green shorts,” I’d answer after a long, thoughtful pause and a furrow of my brow.
“You sure?” he’d ask. “That one has awfully skinny legs. He might have a glass jaw.”
“Okay. I’ll take the other one, the black shorts,” I’d say, and he would nod.
“Well, I’ll take the green one, then,” he’d say with a wink.
I can’t remember, even one time, whose fighter won or lost. I just remember how close I felt, how loved and protected I felt nestled against Daddy. In those moments, there was no distance between us, no fear of mistakes, no pressure to be who he wanted me to be, though I had no idea who or what that was. There was only father and daughter, with a bond that transcended time and distance, no matter its measure.
Those times never lasted long enough. Soon I’d nod off, and Daddy would send me to bed with a goodnight hug and kiss. In the morning, I was back across the divide, the fear and awkwardness weighing heavier for the previous night’s connection. Braves games and Tar Heels basketball were my teleporters across the chasm.
I always intended to figure out how to know my Daddy, to overcome my fear of disappointing and just know him as a person—his fears, his regrets—but life pushed in, and it was easy to be distracted from the task. It was much easier to remain that little girl who wouldn’t question, yelling across the distance from time to time, sharing only the parts of me I knew he approved of and avoiding everything else. I don’t know if I lacked faith in his ability to love me, faults and all, or if I lacked faith in my own lovability. It just never seemed worth the risk to take that giant leap out into the unknown. It was easier to worship from afar.
I have read that humans will go to great lengths to avoid discomfort. Not pain, per se, but situations that make us feel unsure. My freshmen literature professor called those moments of uncertainty “growth edges.” It was his belief that we only learn and expand ourselves when we move away from the things we are good at, the places where we are comfortable—when we risk failure, ridicule, vulnerability. I’m sure he borrowed the concept from Thoreau. I must say I’ve certainly found myself trapped under the weight of mundane, quiet desperation and missed opportunities.
I envy them now, though, my oldest sisters. Even in Daddy’s silence, they hear his voice, recall his swagger, and he knows them, hears them. His presence seems to swell and expand when they enter a room. They own his faults and he owns theirs. The assurance of acceptance is unspoken, yet as solid as the brick walls of the house where I, forever the outsider, sit quietly filling in crossword puzzles.
As I pencil in the last word of my crossword, I wish I had found the courage to ask the hard questions, to lay myself open so I could have known him and be known. I close the puzzle book and stretch my legs. Disturbed by my movement, Cassie raises her head, then sleepily yawns, her pink tongue a backwards “C” as she stretches, then snuggles back against Daddy, who pats her on the head. A lone firecracker pops in the distance. The TV channels jump steadily as Daddy works the remote. I glance toward his chair, and he’s smiling back at me, an unmistakable spark in his faded blue eyes.
I hear the Tomahawk Chop chant, and Daddy’s smile broadens as he gently pushes Cassie down and pats his lap. I’m frozen for a moment, then I stand, walk to the recliner, and snuggle into Daddy’s lap. He pushes my brown and gray hair to one shoulder and pulls me snugly to him as the umpire calls a full count and the batter readies for the next pitch. I hear the familiar “twak” of the bat connecting solidly with ball. It flies smoothly, effortlessly, across the field, eclipsing the outfield lights as it bridges the distance and disappears across the wall and out into the night.