It was Saturday morning and my eyes blinked open to see my Hello Kitty clock flip to 6:00 am. I lay still for a moment, watching the golden morning light stream through my bedroom window. My eyes followed dust particles as they danced, playfully bumping into one another. I wriggled my feet, pushing them under my cat, Tucker, who was purring at the end of my bed. Classical music played softly from the clock radio in my parents’ room as footsteps moved from one end of the house to the other. There was paper rustling, plastic bags crinkling, water running, and the coffee maker groaning.
I pulled myself out of bed and wandered downstairs in my underwear and tee shirt. The summer was beginning to melt into fall, leaving our house chilly in the mornings and blazing hot in the late afternoon. I shivered. My mom came down the stairs behind me holding my sister who had her thumb in her mouth and her head resting on my mom’s shoulder. My mom kissed the top of my head and breezed past me, headed straight to the coffee maker. Her comforting smell wafted from her robe, which was made from billowing, dark blue linen, scattered with crisp white stars. She poured steaming black coffee into her mug, replaced the pot, and lifted the mug to her lips, taking a long, slow sip.
I went to the dining room window and peered out to see my dad working in the yard. On the weekend, he wore a flannel button down, usually tucked into his jeans, which never fit quite right. They were usually tight around the waist and baggy in the butt, creating a small sag right above the back of his thighs. He favored moccasins over sneakers, even on casual days, lest he suggest that exercise might take place, even accidentally. My dad wasn’t the physical activity type—he was strictly books, business, Budweiser, and bourbon. He caught my eye and waved, which I took as an invitation. I started to skip toward the door when my mom said, “Not so fast! You need breakfast and pants.”
I rolled my eyes and responded, “Fine.”
“I don’t like that tone, young lady,” she said, firmly placing her mug on the counter.
I thought for a second, smiled and responded, “Fine!” brightly.
“I guess that’s better,” she replied, “Just go get some clothes on and I’ll get you some cereal.”
I ran up the stairs and into my bedroom to find Tucker now snuggled into my still-warm spot on the bed. He was curled into a ball so tight, he looked like a round, black loaf of bread. I grabbed a pair of jeans and yanked them over my legs, then ran to my closet to find the one plaid shirt I had. I pulled it on over my sleep tee shirt, and buttoned it over my long, scraggly brown hair. Finally, I pulled on a pair of work boots before bolting out of my room and down the stairs. I slid into a chair at the table across from my mom who was pouring Cheerios onto my sister’s high chair tray. She then slid a bowl full my way, which I grabbed and began to furiously shovel into my mouth.
“Why are you eating like that?” my mom laughed, “Slow down!”
“Done!” I yelled, letting my spoon fall into the bowl with a clatter. I ran to the front door, yanked it open, and ran out into the cool, crisp air. “Morning, Daddy!” I yelled.
“Good morning,” he said flatly, looking up from the pile of leaves he was raking.
“Can I help?” I yelled, running toward him.
He didn’t answer, and instead focused again on raking.
“Dad! Can I help? Can I?” I yelled again.
This time, he looked up to see me barreling toward him. He stepped in front of the leaves and responded, “You can help by not messing with this pile.”
“Ok, then what else can I do?”
I straightened my posture as he looked me up and down, putting on my most capable, serious work face. He breathed in audibly through his nose, then out again and said, “You can sort the recycling.”
My stomach dropped as I looked up at the deck. It was the one outside chore that required me to be at least 20-feet away from him. But, I reasoned, it was a pretty cool chore and I’d still get to be outside, working with my dad, so I’d consider it a win. “Great!” I said, and ran back toward the house, bounded up the porch stairs and skipped over to the large, wooden chest where my parents kept our recyclables.
Our house was a converted barn. The house itself and the porch that wrapped around it were made of wood so old it splintered when you looked at it. The box was a few inches taller than me and made out of this same wood, its top impossibly heavy and set on rusty hinges. I realized almost immediately that I wouldn’t be able to get the box open easily. I positioned my stool accordingly and tried getting underneath the spot where it hung over the lip of the box and shoving it hard, but it wouldn’t budge. I tried moving to one side and shoving, then the other, then I tried climbing on top of it, which really didn’t work. Finally, I called out to my dad for help. “Dad!” I yelled.
“Dad!” I yelled again.
Still no answer. He continued raking the leaves.
“Daddy, dad, dad. Help!” I yelled.
He looked up, stared at me for a moment then started to walk toward me. There was no urgency in his steps, he took his time, eventually leaning the rake against the porch and climbing the stairs. When he got to me he said, “Move over.” Then opened the box, looked at me as if to say “there, it’s done” and walked away, the smell of his aftershave hanging in the air behind him.
“Thanks!” I responded then started to sort the cans, bottles, and boxes that had contained everything our family had consumed for the past month. I looked over at my dad who was back to raking his growing leaf pile. I thought about Victoria Frank. She was a girl in my class who had just celebrated her eighth birthday. The very next day, she came into school wearing a sparkly, gold necklace that said “daddy’s little girl.” It was the most beautiful piece of jewelry I’d ever seen. It was real 14 carat gold, which I didn’t know children were even allowed to have. Not only that, but the concept behind the necklace equally astonishing to me. Her father wanted everyone to know that she was his. He was proud of her. To me, that meant she had solved a puzzle that I couldn’t seem to crack—she found a way to earn an elite kind of love. One that I wasn’t sure I deserved, but I knew I wanted desperately.
I fished an empty cereal box out of the bin. “Hey, dad!” I yelled.
He didn’t respond.
“Dad!” he lifted his head, “Me and mom got this cereal at the store last week. It was so good!”
“You mean mom and I,” he said, looking away again. “Come on. You know better. You sound uneducated when you talk like that.”
“Right,” I responded, my face red. I put the box back in the bin and moved on.
My chest felt tight. I looked through the window into the dining room. My mom and sister were counting Cheerios together at the table. I so badly wanted to be in there with them where it was comfortable and easy. I looked over at my dad. He had stopped raking and was starting to stack wood on the pile near our driveway. I looked down at the recycling and reached for a can that was coated in cat food residue. I wrinkled my nose as the smell filled my nostrils. It was a stinky job, but if was worth it. I knew in my heart that that if I did things next to my dad for long enough, he would eventually just accept the fact that we were doing something together. And maybe, one day, he’d even start to like it.
Once I finished sorting the recycling, I shouted, “Done!”
“Good,” he said, then went to the bin to start gathering the over-stuffed paper bags of expertly sorted cardboard, aluminum, and glass, then started loading them into the trunk of his car.
I ran to the door of the house, flung it open and yelled, “Bye, mom!” before turning around, bounding down the porch stairs and running to the passenger side of my dad’s rusty, silver Subaru.
“Where do you think you’re going?” he asked.
I paused then blurted out, “With you!”
He didn’t respond, just continued to pile garbage and recycling into his trunk. Eventually, I tried the handle and noticed the door was unlocked, so I slid into the front seat and fastened my seatbelt knowing that there was no way he’d want to go through the trouble of trying to get me out.
To me, there was very little better than being in my dad’s car—a place that held answers to questions I didn’t yet know I had. As he said goodbye to my mom, I settled into the front seat, taking a moment to enjoy the warmth of the sun beating down on the windshield. The car smelled like charcoal and aftershave, which mingled with the smell of newspaper and old beer dripping from the cans in the backseat. It was my favorite smell in the world.
Soon, my dad came down the stairs and crossed the gravel driveway, placing his work gloves in his back pocket. He opened the driver’s side door and sat heavily on the seat, the car bouncing slightly as it received his weight. He turned the key, and AM talk radio came to life as the engine revved. My dad craned his neck to look behind us as he backed the car up, rather than placing his hand on my headrest like mom did. He then turned to face the road as he steered us out of the driveway, heading toward the town dump.
In mere moments, we came to a small dirt road that you could easily miss if you didn’t know it was there. The dirt path was lined on either side with brambly bushes and tall brush, the scraggly limbs seeming to reach desperately for one another. As we drove, I imagined we were headed into a bewitched forest, the gravel cracking and popping beneath the worn tires of my dad’s car. At the end of the path was a barn-like structure sitting next to a large metal gate, which sat open. A man was sitting in front of it, leaning back in an office chair, which looked out of place in the outdoors. He was reading the paper, a cup of coffee resting at his feet. My dad stopped the car and opened his door, “Stay here and don’t touch anything,” he said to me, then turned his focus to the man reading the paper, “Hey, Chuck!” He says, closing the door and walking to the trunk, “I got some recycling in here. . .”
I knew when my dad said not to touch anything he was referring to the contents of his glove box. He didn’t like when I rifled through his belongings, which made rifling through his belongings seem like the most amazing thing I could ever hope to do. As my dad opened the trunk and shuttled the recycling into the barn, I surveyed the dashboard. There were buttons and glowing lights, all very tempting. I pushed one button, which sent warm air flowing through the car, then another, which made the air cold. I turned the radio up, then down, then up again, then down. Then, I noticed a button with what looked like an old record player on it. I wondered why a car needed a record player button, so I reached out and pushed it until I heard it click.
Then, to my surprise, the button popped with the most satisfying sound I’ve ever heard. I reached forward and decided to pull it out, because that’s what the button seemed to want me to do. Once I had it in my hand, I realized it was warm. I glanced at my dad then flipped it over to get a peek at the other side. As I did, I noticed that the coil in the center was bright red—the prettiest color I’d ever seen. It looked like a glorious, glowing crimson orb. I lifted my thumb and pressed it down on the red coil. Only then did I realize that it was red because it was hot—and I yelped then threw it on the floor, shoving my thumb into my mouth. That’s when my brain put the pieces together—it wasn’t a picture of a record player on the button, it was a lit cigarette. I had burned myself with the car’s lighter. Idiot, I thought as I pulled my thumb out of my mouth so I could survey the damage. It had blistered immediately, a neat spiral burned into the center.
To my horror, tears started rolling down my face just as my dad started to walk back to the car. I didn’t know what to do, so I tried to wipe my face to hide the evidence, but I quickly admitted to myself that there was no hiding this huge mistake. When he slammed the trunk door closed and got into the car, I watched his face contort as he took in the smell of burning flesh. Then he saw my face and immediately reached out and grabbed my hand.
“What the hell happened to you? What did you touch?”
I thought quickly, then started, “This thing fell out onto the floor,” I pointed to the lighter, “I went to pick it up and it burned me!”
He looked at my thumb, then at my face, which was hot and wet with tears. The tightness in my chest returned. I waited, the low murmur of talk radio voices seeming to echo in my ears.
“Oh man,” he said. To my surprise, his face relaxed into an easy smile, his eyes looked kind. His voice suddenly light, he continued, “That stinks, kiddo. I’m sorry that happened.”
Not sure what to say, I managed only, “Yeah.”
“You know, when I was an Eagle Scout, I got a nasty burn on my hand from a match. We’ll sort it out when we get home.” He patted me on the knee and shifted the car back into drive. My heart swelled and my lips curled into a smile.
We quickly drove through the gate and into the dumpsite, which consisted of pits and mounds of garbage with seagulls swooping and soaring above it. As the Subaru bumped and rocked down the road, my dad looked at me, noticed me smiling again and began to chant, “Bumpy, bumpy, bumpy, we’re going to the dumpy!”
He stopped the car about half a mile into the dumpsite, got out and unloaded the trash bags, heaving them onto one of the giant piles. Then, he got back into his seat and turned the car around before looking at me and lifting an eyebrow.
“What do you think about giving some driving a shot?” he asked.
I was so excited, I almost yelled, “Really? Driving?”
I unbuckled my seatbelt with my left hand and climbed onto his lap, positioning myself in front of the steering wheel, which felt huge as I wrapped my hands around it. I winced as my burned thumb connected with the wheel.
“Ok,” he said, “Keep us steady!”
I pushed my foot down on his and our car lurched forward, I rocked the wheel back and forth noticing that it was sending our car from one side of the makeshift road to the other. My dad began singing Wille Nelson’s On The Road Again, but replaced the word “on” with “off.” He laughed hard, letting out huge guffaws every time I hit a bump or cut the wheel, sending us careening toward a mound of garbage. Each time, he grabbed the wheel to correct our course at the last second. I was laughing too, taking us past old mattresses, crushed soda bottles, dirty, smashed dolls as we cut through the rolling sea of white trash bags.
Finally, after several trips back and forth on the makeshift road, he scooted me off his lap and back into my seat. As we drove out of the dump, he beeped his horn twice and waved “goodbye” to Chuck. We drove back down the bewitched path, made a right on the main road and headed home.
“How’s your thumb?” He asked.
“Still hurts,” I responded, even though I had already forgotten the pain.
“We’ll get you taken care of,” he replied.
I closed my eyes and rested my head against the window. Flashes of light broke through the trees, casting warm, pulsating light on my face. I savored every moment of that five-minute drive, desperately gripping the fleeting feeling of being my daddy’s little girl.
Written by our founder, Alee Anderson. Click HERE to learn more about her writing journey and career.