words: Marla Cantrell
I used to believe in the equanimity of the world. I’d see panhandlers at intersections, their cardboard signs asking for help, and I’d believe that whatever they’d lost would be restored to them. I’d see a storm blow through, houses gone, and wait for the rebuilding of something better and stronger.
At home, when my daddy laid down the law, I’d wilt for a second, his red-faced proclamations crushing something inside me. But then I’d defer to him as best I could, hoping there was a better me on the other side. If he, for example, believed that the music I was listening to really was a hammer in the Devil’s toolbox, I’d break the record in two. If he thought that my favorite skirt was leading boys far from their charted course, I’d drop it in the Goodwill box the next time I was in town.
Theo said Daddy was flat-out brainwashing me. He told me this one afternoon while we were lying on our backs on a blanket in the field where Daddy would plant sweet corn the next day. Theo’s black hair caught the sun and held it. His jeans, faded to baby blue, were torn at the knee. His knee was a slice of the moon showing through, and it was all I could do not to reach over and touch it.
“If you play that Freddy Mercury song backwards, he’s telling kids to smoke pot,” I said. “Daddy heard about it at a Kiwanis meeting.”
Theo laughed. “So, a bunch of old dudes played a Queen song backwards? I’d be asking them what they’re smoking down at the Sizzler.”
“They probably heard about it on the news,” I said.
“Heard it from The Man.” Theo shook his head. “Sounds about right.”
America’s “Sister Golden Hair” was playing on the radio Theo had brought with him. The song always got to me. Maybe it was the tambourines. Maybe it was the deep yearning, laid out like a banquet.
Theo turned to face me. Lifted a lock of my hair. Held it between his finger and thumb. “You have a mind of your own, Daisy,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to use it.”
Theo’s eyes were the color of sapphires. His skin was eternally tan. I pulled him to me, and he kissed me. Kissing him was like swimming in the deep end of the pool, my feet never touching.
The blanket beneath us crushed the grass, which smelled like spring and looked like emeralds. If my daddy had driven up, he might have laid into Theo. He might have disowned me. I can’t say that I cared as much as I should have. Sometimes what you’re feeling in the moment is more powerful than what you think the rest of the time.
Later that night, Daddy knocked, and then opened my bedroom door. “Still seeing the Tilden boy?” he asked.
“I am,” I said.
“I don’t much like him.”
“He’s got a heart of gold, Daddy.”
“Hard to tell, what with the long hair and wide-legged jeans.”
“Bell-bottoms,” I said. “Everybody wears them.”
“Well, not everybody dates my little girl.”
“Eighteen next month, Daddy. I won’t be your little girl much longer.”
Daddy gripped the doorframe. His hair was getting gray, and he wore it swept back. “Daisy,” he said, and a deep furrow marked his forehead. I thought he’d say more, but he just stood there, the hallway light framing him. It felt as if a stone had landed in my heart, though I couldn’t say why.
The day I turned eighteen, Daddy threw a party. Theo came. Most of my friends came. My mother, who lived in Louisiana by then, showed up wearing heels and red lipstick and a dress that showed her knees.
Daddy and I had hung mason jars in the trees, put candles inside them. We’d set up card tables here and there and covered them with checkered cloths. We ate fried chicken and biscuits and corn on the cob. We drank sweet tea and Coca-Cola. We played records that caused my daddy to go inside before the sun went down.
Not long after, my mother followed. I wondered if I should go in and check on them, to make sure they weren’t at each other’s throat, but then Theo appeared at my side. “We should get out of here,” he said.
“We haven’t even cut the cake.”
“Cake can wait, Daisy.”
As much as Theo told me to think for myself, there were times when he didn’t want me to think at all. He wanted me to say yes, to go along, to bend to his will.
I said yes.
He’d driven his daddy’s work truck, which was littered with tools and Styrofoam cups stained with coffee. We drove past the barn and onto the dirt road that led to the highway. Theo had one hand on the wheel, the other on my thigh.
“You’re eighteen,” he said.
“You can do anything you want.”
The windows were rolled down a bit, and I felt a chill cross over me.
“Let’s fix that.”
Theo turned off the road. He unhitched a cattle gate, and we bumped across a pasture, surprising cows here and there. The air smelled of newly turned earth and honeysuckle. I took a breath.
When he stopped the truck, all I could hear was the wind shaking the leaves, and the tree frogs calling out to one another. “Let me hold you,” he said.
There was a quilt behind the seat. We lay in the bed of the truck, the quilt beneath us, the stars above. He kissed me, and I could feel my heart, a race horse inside my chest.
“I got a job,” he said. “In Mississippi. On the oil rig. Sixteen days on. Four off. It pays a lot, Daisy. I’ll have so much bread I won’t know what to do.”
The thought of Theo leaving was a threat written on a brick and thrown through a window.
“I don’t want you to go,” I said.
“You could come with me,” Theo said, and his voice shook.
His body was warm next to mine. “And be alone for weeks
at a time?”
I could barely see him in that dark night. “Think about the reunions, though. Imagine that.”
“Cynthia’s daddy died on a rig,” I said. Cynthia was my best friend in third grade.
Theo held my hand. “I know how to be careful, Daisy.”
I could see him flying across meadows on his dirt bike. I could see him driving his daddy’s truck like a getaway car. I could see him with his forged I.D. buying Strawberry Hill at All-Nite Liquor when he was sixteen. The only thing he’d been careful with was me.
“Tell me what you’re thinking,” he said, but I couldn’t. I was thinking about what love had done to my daddy. When my mother finally left, I was almost relieved, although sometimes I still hated her for it.
He seemed to read my mind. “We won’t be like anybody else,” he said.
We drove home later, so much later everyone had left my party. We walked by the tables where paper plates holding chicken bones sat abandoned. My birthday cake was mostly gone. Someone had left a corner piece, though, with its blue sugary rose.
I walked by it all like I was in a museum, seeing a culture that had passed away in the time it took this party to wind down. When Theo kissed me goodnight, I didn’t want to let him go.
Inside, my dad sat on the sofa, staring at nothing, his hands clasped. “You missed most of your party,” he said.
“I know,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
He looked at me. I patted my hair, smoothing it down as best I could. “You were with the Tilden boy.” He tugged his ear, something he did when he was mad or nervous. “You think you know everything at eighteen, but you don’t know a thing, Daisy. I married your mother when she was seventeen. You see how that turned out.”
“I’m not like her,” I said.
“Oh, honey,” Daddy said, his voice hardening, “yes you are.”
I felt as if he’d punched me.
“You need to get to bed now,” Daddy said.
I bent down to kiss his cheek, but he turned from me.
My room was pink and ruffled, and my mother had been in it; I could smell her perfume, citrusy and sharp. The night she left, she’d sat on my bed, her eyes rimmed in red, her nose raw from crying. “I’d give anything if I could stay,” she’d said. On my dresser, there was a picture of the three of us at Six Flags. “But staying would kill me, Daisy.”
“Then go,” I’d said. I was thirteen, and angry.
She’d touched my cheek. “You see everything so clearly now, but life gets murkier as you go along. You make a decision that you think will save your life, but it near about kills you. You make another decision that really will save your life, and it near about kills everyone around you.”
I’d pulled the covers tight around me. “Just go,” I’d said, and she rose from my bed and walked away.
My phone was pink and oblong, with numbers that lit up at night. I lifted the receiver. If I called Theo, he’d tell me to use my head, to think it through. “You love me, don’t you, Daisy?” he’d ask, and I’d feel that blind need rush through me.
If I got my daddy to talk to me, he’d tell me to stay as far away from Theo as I could.
I couldn’t keep them both.
I set the receiver down. My alarm clock ticked off the seconds. In the living room, Daddy had put on a record, and George Jones was singing “Why Baby Why.”
In the morning, I found my mother at the Travelers Inn. When she opened the door, she wrapped her arms around me. It had been five years since I was in her embrace, and I lingered there, covered by her imperfect love. Wrapped in her impossible choices. I felt a kinship then, as improbable as snow in August. She said, “It’s going to be okay, Daisy.”
It didn’t sound like the truth, but I didn’t care. The truth seemed to morph so easily, tainted by one opinion or another. She led me inside, her small room already tidy. She was set to leave again, but I’d stopped her this time. This time, I’d been reason enough to stay.