He sits at the kitchen table reading. It’s for class, Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville, but he finds it interesting nonetheless. His father stands at the sink, washing dishes and whistling. He takes a break from Bartleby to lean back in his chair. It’s a quiet morning. No one else is in the house.
“Hey Dad,” he says. “Have you read anything by Herman Melville?” His father looks up from the sink.
“Just Moby Dick, and a couple of his short stories maybe,” his father says. “Why?”
“This story is really good. Bartleby the Scrivener.”
“Yeah! That’s a good one. ‘Ah, Bartleby! Ah, life!’” he quotes, turning back to the dishes. The clock ticks above the old wood stove.
Would now be good? Quietly observing his father, he wonders, for the hundredth time, whether he should ask.
She was eight years old. The summer day was hot and sunny, and she and Alivia sat on the cool red brick of the back patio. The back door opened behind them and Dad marched out, the compost container that usually sat in the kitchen to the right of the sink in his hands.
“Do you girls want to give me a hand with something?” he asked. She and Alivia jumped up eagerly. “I’m going to stir the compost. Come on.” They all walked to the back fence, where the round, black plastic compost bin stood between Carolina pines. Flies buzzed lazily into the air as Dad knocked the kitchen compost bucket against the bin and then dumped its contents in with the rest. Smells of grapefruit rind and coffee grounds combined with the heat. Dad walked over to the woodshed and took a shovel and pitchfork off the nails where they hung.
“Now watch.” He took off his faded blue t-shirt and hung it on the wire fence behind him, then shoved the pitchfork into the compost bin. She watched her father stir the compost. “You want to turn it over so some of the older stuff gets to the top. Here Anna, you try.” He handed her the pitchfork.
“Dad, can I take my shirt off too?” she said. He shrugged.
“Sure, if you want to.” She excitedly pulled off her bright yellow shirt and put it on the fence with Dad’s. Stirring the compost with Alivia, she felt important, like a boy on a farm working hard to help support his family. Sweat ran down her bare back.
A dish clanks in the sink. His father stops whistling long enough to say “whoops,” and then resumes. The tune sounds like “The Lollipop Tree,” one of Dad’s old favorite records, but he isn’t sure. Bartleby lies momentarily forgotten on the black and white patterned tablecloth. It’s been so long. Years, really. His whole life. It’s not like it’s anything new. He runs his hands through his hair and sighs. Dad will understand. Of course he will. Will he?
It was Saturday, and she was with her father in a discount shoe store at the mall. She knew exactly what she wanted, because she had seen them on her friend Megan. Dark brown sneakers with pink accents. They were just the right amount of not-too-girly to satisfy her. The shelves in the kids’ section towered high with colorful shoeboxes. She pulled the desired shoes off the shelf, but they were too small. They were also the only pair of their kind. She looked helplessly to Dad.
“Hm. Is there anything else you like?” he said. She scanned the other boxes on the girls’ side of the aisle.
“I don’t know.” She hadn’t been prepared to make another decision.
“Well, maybe we can find something like it,” said her father. He looked through the girls’ boxes, then crossed the aisle and looked some more.
“What about these? They look kind of similar,” he said. He held out a box containing a pair of brown shoes, flatter than sneakers and cooler looking. They were boys’ shoes.
“Those are boys’ shoes,” she said
“So?” he said. “If you like them, it doesn’t matter.”
The clock ticks again. He agitatedly sketches a triangle in the margin of his printed Melville reading. He knows he can’t keep putting this off. His father has stopped whistling in favor of singing. When he doesn’t know the words, he substitutes gibberish, scrubbing out a glass when he turns to his firstborn.
“Anna, would you give me a hand with this?” his father says. He stands up from the table.
“Sure Dad.” Now is the time. He’s decided. His heart beats faster as he takes a dish towel from the handle of the oven and the wet glass from his father’s hand.
“Just dry them if you would, Anna.”
“Dad.” His father looks at him, putting the sponge down after a moment’s pause.
“Yes?” says his father. He exhales. And tries to sound casual.
“Would you call me Carter?”