Present Ghost

Telling stories




My dad had the worst breath, and even though it was bad, I still liked being close enough to smell it. The scent of stale, overcooked office coffee he drank, cup after cup, until his teeth were stained saturated his mouth. They were yellow on the outside, and grey from fillings inside. He hated his teeth, because although they were straight, they were small. He cared more about his appearance than you would have imagined. Once he stormed from the room when my mother told him he looked like “Baby Huey” after attempting to fix a new style into his hair with an expensive salon product. He didn’t swear at her; he looked in the mirror, took a small-toothed barber’s comb and left to return his basic and thinning crew to its normal position.

I never knew he had been attractive as a young and middle-aged man, so I didn’t know he could have been attractive as an older-middle aged man, or that his self-image could falter. Continue reading “Halitosis”

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My father’s pale arm hung out the window and he leaned over to dump his sunflower seed shells from the day’s damp Styrofoam cup. He saved emptied McDonald’s cups of coffee and stored them in the console until he got too tired to drive without resorting to his one physical vice. He didn’t smoke or drink: he ate sunflower seeds and listened to conservative talk radio that drove my mother nearly insane.

He told my brother and I that we still had 10 miles to go and that we’d see it very soon.

We were taking one of his budget option day trips in the middle of Iowa. One year, we’d visited Dyersville, Iowa, where Field of Dreams was filmed. We tossed some balls on the recreated field and bought a few souvenirs. I still have a baby blue comb from the barbershop on the property. That same year, we visited the Ertl toy factory to see how toy tractors were made.

Out my window, everything looked about the same. Green corn and soybeans woven and rearranged waved almost imperceptibly in the August heat. As we passed, Dad pointed out how each farm and small town had changed, the big tee-pee in Pocahontas, and the drive-in he frequented when he was 19 with a girl named Cheryl or Betsy.

When we got to town, he asked an aged darling, plump pink and platinum blonde, how to find where Buddy Holly died. The woman bore no accent save for the Minnesotan giveaway of locked teeth and barely moving lips.

“It’s about a mile or so thataway. My husband and I moved here about a year ago, so I’m not too sure what crops they have planted this year, but usually it’s this one row where they don’t plant anything. I think it’s corn on one side and soybeans on the other to make it easy.”

Dad parked on one side of the narrow highway at first. That made mom nervous of the semis that swung too close to where we’d be opening our doors. When she wouldn’t quit clutching her door handle, he chanced pulling into a dirt driveway a couple hundred yards further down.

It was exactly where the woman’s instructions said it would be. About a quarter-mile down the green funnel along the path were old gum wrappers and a few apple cores tossed to either side of the dirt trail. A ponytail holder with fuzzy blond strands still wound tightly to the metal clasp had been wrapped around a cross made of dried corn stalk.

We wouldn’t have known where to stop, but there was a small clearing with a lame excuse for a monument. Don McLean wrote of the “day the music died” in a long unbearable song. It was one of those songs like “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Caroll” or “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” that people memorized just to prove something on karaoke night. Because of that and watching Gary Busey in The Buddy Holly Story at least ten times, I thought seeing where Buddy Holly died should have been a bigger deal, but the Iowans mustered up this pathetically thin stainless steel plaque of a guitar and three grooved records.

Without wood to carve names, dates, or any obscene triumphs, students left old community college ID cards, Wrigley’s gum wrappers without anything written on them, and some hastily scrawled notes on ripped up legal pad paper and old receipts. There were earrings, small plastic Happy Meal toys mottled with dirt, and pennies green from a season of rain. Aged twine tied hung off the neck of the memorial guitar structure in half-braids. Someone left a condom. It looked like a rotting burst balloon, a crude castaway unashamedly expiring in the sun. My mom stood with her arms across her chest, not saying anything but thinking it was strange and disrespectful.

Kneeling in the clearing, I fingered the plastic daisies by the crash site. None of these mementos had anything to do with Buddy Holly or Ritchie or The Big Bopper. Although I was disgusted with the collection of garbage, I still felt like I had to leave something, but I had nothing that would stand out among trash. If I left anything, it would seem more of a dishonor than a tribute.

A sticky Dum Dum stick stuck to the knee of my dirtied pants.

While I was prying the stick from my jeans, my dad spoke.

“This really is out in the middle of no-where,” he said. “You really couldn’t find this without having talked to somebody.”

Then, I wished I had something yellow, something suitably sad and unremarkable. Yet I had nothing. Thumbing a large fake silver coin keepsake from the Ertl toy factory in my pocket, I considered tossing it but clamped it in my fist.

“Well, what do you think? Are you ready to go?”

He rolled up the city guide that provided a history of the fateful night. The program’s corners curled from sweat coming off his thick-chapped hands. Already a wet line was spreading in a thick shade of dark mossy green where the bill met the crown on his grimy baseball cap.

“I’m ready,” I said.

I turned around, and the waves of grain rustled behind me as I walked toward the car. We drove back through town and saw the Surf Ballroom pass by quickly and fall from sight. In the car, I tried to find a feeling, but the site was neither glamorous nor educational. Although it was intentional, it wasn’t a monument. It was where they landed.

I’ve been trying to write about the feeling of this day for years, but it’s been mixed up because now that my father is dead, I think about how he is buried 80 miles away from that obscure American remembrance. None of his children have seen his headstone in person.

Although he died in Ohio where he’d been living since 1992, he wished to be buried near his family’s farm. He died in November when the ground was too cold and hard to break, so they waited until spring when all of us had already returned to our respective parts of the world. None of us have ever returned to Iowa to lay so much as a flower on the ground where he rests next to his parents. Not one of the three women he married will ever sleep beside him either.

I remember the tiny cemetery where my grandparents were buried. Old trees separate the small plot from the corn. Some days when I remember him driving, I hear him spit into that horrible cup in the middle of a story about someone we need to visit on the way home when we pass through Moline. Tonight I walked to the table to ask him which relative that was and realized I can’t call him. I know he’s not in the middle of nowhere, but I certainly feel like it sometimes.

The First of My Fairy Godmothers

In a department store formerly known as Kaufmann’s, I met my first fairy godmother. Instead of glass slippers, she gave me tan knee-high go-go boots. If I am to be more precise, she didn’t give me the boots but she affirmed my right to wear them, which is far more important anyway.

My father and I were on our way out from the mall, and as we were passing the women’s shoe department, he told me we should stop and take a look around for sales. During high school, I hated casual shopping almost as much as I do now, so I objected and he insisted and won.

I pretended to be browsing while my dad rummaged through stacked boxes. From a few display tables away, I saw him lift an enormous box and shout, “What about these? They’re a deal!”

When I made my way over to him and opened the box, I started to laugh.

“These? Dad. You think I should get these?”

I couldn’t believe that my dad, the dad who was always pressuring me to start brushing my hair and to find dates for homecoming dances, would encourage the funkier side of my fashion.

“Why not? They’re fun and only 12 bucks.”

Knowing my father, I knew that wearing a comical bargain was fun.

After trying to reject him a few times by refusing to pick up the box, I agreed and found a spot on one of the muted gray lounge chairs stocked with nylon footies at each arm and shoved in each crevice between the seats. I sat next to a big, older middle-aged woman with a mountain of high heels and comfort wedges piled at her feet.

The long fake leather boots intimidated me as I pulled up one of my baggy jean legs, removed a gym sock, and replaced it with one of the shriveled wormy-colored footie socks. Inside, it was cool, and as I zipped up the long side of the boot, I began to feel like I was crossing the boundaries of the Converse, the Nike running shoes, and the athletic sandals territory I’d always known.

And then the zipper stopped mid-calf.

“Look! See, Dad, they don’t fit. Now we can put them back.”

“Oh, come on. They’re fine. Just pull a little. They’ll loosen up,” he cajoled.

It was too late. The fun stopped with the halted zip.

“It’s your fault, Dad! You and Mom did this to me. Both of you have huge calves. I actually like them, but they just don’t fit.”

We began to argue, and when he walked away exhausted with my rationalizing and explosive emoting, I noticed that the woman next to me had been watching us. She was holding one gold sandal and she pointed it at me.

“Honey. Your daddy gave you those calves, and now he’s gonna give you those boots—and if I were younger and I had your calves, I would wear them. Now. Are you going to put them back on and take a look in that mirror over there?”

She wasn’t asking me any questions, so I opened the box and zipped them up again, this time a little faster than before. After I’d gotten both boots on, I walked over to the slanted foot mirror with both jean legs rolled above my knees.

“Now look!” she said. “Just look at those.”

The two of us looked together. She praised me and told me to turn around, again and again.

“You’ve got to celebrate those calves, girl. You look good.”

Dad walked back to me while I was still on parade with the boots, and he was smiling quietly at the triumph. In an uncharacteristic demonstration of verbal restraint, he grabbed the box after I’d put on my tennis shoes again and he took them to the cash register.

At last, when we were finally walking past the Izod, Nautica, and Polo sections in the men’s department, just when we reached the double doors opening to a snowy, gray mid-January, he said, “And they were only 12 bucks!”

For weeks, I excused myself from not breaking them in because of the ice, but eventually I started to wear them with sloppy, ill-fitting vintage dresses I’d found at the Goodwill. There was one tight dusty mauve and cream sheath dress I particularly liked to pair with those boots.

Walking down the crowded halls of the high school in those boots, I forgot my calves and focused on walking, keeping my gait just at the pace I wanted it and even finding myself glancing around to see if anyone else was looking.

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