"Affected" (A Short Story for Father’s Day)

Author’s Note: This story (based on actual events) is not a typical Father’s Day story, but I hope readers will agree that the world is better for stories that are not “typical.” Even our ancient Bible stories are not filled with “Precious Moments” moments, but they always tell us something true about God and man...

Sissy Harvey was an average suburban housewife living in the fourth largest city in America, several states away from the tiny rural community which heralded her birth as the year’s first back in 1965. She didn’t often think of that wind-swept humble hole in the road – except for days like today. It was Father’s Day and Sissy watched as her children excitedly bestowed gifts on her husband. As her kids soaked up their father’s enthusiastic appreciation over his new tape measure, she pondered an ironic truth: she couldn’t remember a single gift she’d given to her father when she was the age of her children. Moreover, she reflected on the turn of events that had conceived the colorful journey, which had caused her path to cross with that of this man – her husband, father of her children. She suspected that many people were similarly affected by these kinds of events, but still, she’d lived her life feeling a little different.

Eight-year-olds don’t go through what Sissy did and not come out affected. That’s what Sissy concluded she was– “affected.” She was affected by the weather, especially deep, grey, drizzly days. As an adult, she once moved to a part of the country where it rained nine months of the year. She learned that rain could make happy things grow inside her just as well as sunshine.

She was also affected by music – not just in the sentimental way that music moves people. She was moved-to-the-pit-of your-stomach moved by it. She was especially affected by music of the 70’s. That was probably because that was the decade when most of what affected her affected her. For some reason The Carpenters, Jim Croce, and Ferrante and Teicher took up permanent residency in one obscure crevice of her brain. She thought maybe it was because her older brother, Seth, had gotten these particular eight track tapes free through his Columbia Records Club membership. Whenever she heard their music (and to be honest she had rarely heard Ferrante and Teicher since) they’d come out of their corners, take a bow, and hold up a picture of Seth’s car with the scandalous mermaid hood ornament.

Seventies rock music was playing the night of her affectation. It was Seth’s Junior Prom. Of course, she wasn’t at the prom. Sandra and Ted, her older sister and brother-in-law, were babysitting her and her younger brother, Stevie. Sandra and Ted were home from college for the summer. They lived a mile north of town in a little white farmhouse that had been in Ted’s family for decades.

Sissy was not at the Prom, but she knew they played loud rock music because years later Seth related a comment Daddy had made about it. School board members, of whom Daddy was one, were invited to the prom dinner. (Daddy was just past his mid-40’s now and self-conscious of his thinning hair, so he often wore a platinum colored fur felt cowboy hat. In their wedding pictures, Mama and Daddy are as attractive as Desi and Lucy.) The band had started up as Daddy and Mama were getting ready to leave and he had said to Seth, “Son, that sure is loud music. I can feel it in my chest.”

As a grown woman, Sissy wondered if the idea of feeling music in your chest could be inherited. When she was living in the rainy part of the country, a woman with children of her own, she’d spent a day with two other women and their kids at a scenic, secluded lake. It was on a sunny day during one of the three months when it didn’t usually rain. As they sat on their lawn chairs under the towering firs near the lakeshore, the women talked about sundry life-changing concerns, including the validity of rock music. Sissy proclaimed she thought her heart beat in 4/4 time. The visored women looked at her askance and guffawed. Sissy imagined that they’d later had a private chuckle about her lunacy.

Daddy and Mama picked Sissy and Stevie up from Sandra and Ted’s. The four were cozy on the bench seat of Daddy’s pea green work truck. Usually they drove a white Ford station wagon with wood paneling, but that night Daddy had had to stop and check some wells on his way to the prom. (He was an independent oil well pumper in the years just preceding the Oil Boom.) They left the little farmhouse and drove down the shadowy elm and cottonwood lined lane and got on the black top. Their house was about six miles north of Sandra’s. Both houses sat about a half mile off the highway, and once you left the black top your vehicle would be enveloped in a cloud of white calichie dust.

They were nearing the turn-off to their house when Daddy saw a cow in the road. He came upon it suddenly, and since it was black and barely visible it gave him a scare. Sissy had seen the vision numerous times herself. Cows just standing there, gazing dumbly at you, their heads like shoeboxes with huge, lazy eyes and loppy ears. She didn’t hear Daddy utter the words, “My heart just skipped a beat,” but the next thing she knew Mama was scrambling over her and Stevie to take control of the steering wheel.

Mama gripped the wheel and found the accelerator just in time to turn the truck right and head up the calichie covered hill. She drove the half mile to their house, Daddy slumped against his door and part of the steering wheel. Mama drove under the silver-painted iron entrance arch of their ranch. The arch held welded letters that spelled out the name of the previous owners. Daddy planned to change the sign to read 4 S Ranch. The four S’s stood for the names of Sissy and her siblings.

Daddy had other plans, too. This was actually the second time he’d owned this place. The first time was when Sissy was a baby. There’s a black and white photograph of Sissy at the time. She’s standing in front of a scrolled screen door with a Halloween mask on. Her face is a smiling chubby old man with a pipe in his mouth. The rest of her is clothed in long-legged pajamas bottoms and a short-sleeved pajama top.

Sissy didn’t know why Daddy ever sold the ranch. He always wanted to buy it back, and one day he did. The place held a sort of a tragic mystique about it. The original owners had been a pair of brothers who endeavored to build a home together – a kind of grand duplex. The unit would join two spacious three-bedroom homes that looked like one, and apron it with one long, wide, covered porch. According to the legend, the brothers had gotten along long enough to complete the outside and the porch in a champagne colored brick, but eventually they had had a fight and one brother never completed his home. Of course, Sissy’s family lived in the completed side, but Daddy was dreaming and planning for the day he could tear down the dividing wall and make one huge dream house. He envisioned a place for he and Mama to grow old, watch their grandkids have tricycle races on the porch, and take in the raw tangy sunsets famous for bathing the skies in that part of the country. Perhaps they would watch the moths dance around the tall mercury light that guarded the circle drive.

The family was fond of their lengthy teardrop- shaped circle drive. Sissy’s bay stick horse, Trixie, and she had already made many rounds of it that spring. They’d leave the house through the back gate, cross in front of the old milk separator barn (now her personal playhouse) and out the wide car gate. Sissy would rein Trixie to the right and they’d gallop in front of the white detached garage, past the bullet-shaped butane tank. They’d curve by the wrongly named sign, then pass by the tractor-sized gate that led to the wheat field. Almost at the top of the teardrop, they’d ride past the little gray rent house. (Sissy remembered the house being occupied at various times by two different bachelor teachers, one a little nutty, one congenial.) Finally, at the top of the teardrop, Sissy and Trixie would trot past the silver grain silo and find shelter in the gigantic yellow barn. The barn was something of a local landmark. You could see it for miles. Daddy wasn’t fully into farming yet, so the barn wasn’t really living like a traditional barn. Sissy always felt kind of sorry for it – all those sturdy stalls and feedboxes just going to waste. Moreover, it aggravated her that Seth’s hovercraft science fair project took up most of the lower floor.

Sissy’s favorite part of the barn was the spacious loft, which was empty except for the corners where old rusty tools menacingly guarded their space. She and Stevie and sometimes their cousins would play pioneer rancher or some such game. Often when the cousins were there the older ones would tease and torture the younger ones, dangling (or more likely threatening to dangle) them through the loft hole or the upper windows. Sissy did tolerate her little brother at least once, though. She had ulterior motives. It was the 4th of July and she had written a patriotic musical. She forced Stevie to sing and dance and wave the Stars and Stripes with her. They begged Mama and Daddy to come and watch them. Mama and Daddy watched, their faces smiling up through the square loft hole where they were balancing on the wide-planked ladder. Sissy sensed that Daddy was quietly struggling to be patient; he had taken a break from plowing the wheat field just to attend her production.

The windows of the barn were like two square eyes, constantly surveying all that was below. They saw everything that night Sissy was affected. They saw pretty, petite Mama straining to drive the pea green truck along the circuitous route Sissy and Trixie knew so well. They saw the dust as the family headed back down the calichie road. Mama drove, Daddy slumped, Stevie slept and Sissy drowsily took it all in. Mama was rigidly focused on the road. No one spoke, except when Mama told Sissy she was heading to Dick and Jane’s house for help. Dick was an air traffic controller at the little station at the local airport. Jane, his wife, was slightly dark complexioned with dark hair in a pageboy cut. Sissy thought one might describe Jane as big-boned. Jane was also gregarious, loved hot tea, and was always good for a story about the Zuni Indians from New Mexico where she and Dick had previously lived. Dick and Jane were friends of Mama and Daddy – the kind who were always welcome to drop in, and Sissy always loved it when they did.

Tonight Sissy and Mama were dropping in. Dick and Jane’s house was right across the street from the high school where Prom was now in full swing, but Sissy and Mama were oblivious to any music or commotion. They stood on the moonlit porch and Mama knocked on the front door. Suddenly the urgency of the moment overtook them both and they tried the door, found it unlocked and burst through it. Mama immediately suspected that Dick and Jane were already in bed, and she headed to their bedroom. They arrived at the closed-door right as Sissy’s panic peaked. They both banged desperately on the door, Mama calling out their names and Sissy yelling, “Daddy’s sick! Daddy’s sick!”

A stunned Dick bolted out of bed, donned nearby clothes, and ran with Mama to the truck where Daddy was still slumped. Sissy didn’t remember specifically how, but Jane (now dressed in her bathrobe) got Stevie in the house and put him to bed in another bedroom. She watched at the front door long enough to see Mama and Dick struggling to transfer Daddy’s limp body into the back seat of Dick’s white Ford Fairlane. Dick was going to drive to the nearest hospital – seven miles away, but Sissy didn’t see them take off. Jane shut the door and gently bundled her off to the couch. She covered her with a banana-colored blanket and told her to go to sleep, that everything was going to be “all right.”

Sissy didn’t go to sleep; she only pretended. She lay there waiting, and when the phone rang, she knew her waiting was over. She heard Jane answer the kitchen phone and say quietly, “OK. I won’t say anything to the kids.” Jane didn’t need to say anything. That night Sissy’s young brain birthed intuition in every bit a bloody fashion as an old cow calving. This newborn sense of intuition slid through her being like afterbirth, and she knew from the very depths of her soul what it was that Jane was not going to say.

Jane’s not saying anything didn’t change the news that Sissy’s intuition foretold that night over three decades ago. The news, however, changed most of Sissy’s life. She looked at her husband and children and smiled to herself.

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4 thoughts on “"Affected" (A Short Story for Father’s Day)

  1. with tear-stained cheeks, i sit in awe of your ability to transpose me as maybe one of those windows in the barn. i, too, yearn to write of my father, biological to boot, and how each father’s day my mind races down those roads as well…. i, too, had a mask with the old man’s face and cigar. it was, appropriately, a clown’s face.i loved the story. i love you, my kindred soul.

  2. Bina, (my “R”) I look forward to the day I read about your father. I know I will one day because we are, as you say, “kindred souls.” I love you, too!

  3. I think I recognize this story . . . I just haven’t heard it from your eyes. Thank you for sharing it and for your inspirational writing. Love, Stacie

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