The first time I saw my father in years, who knows how many exactly, twenty, maybe thirty, I realized that I'd almost forgotten him — the rheumy eyes set deep in an asymmetrical face, doubly crooked nose, hair that grows like reeds near a swamp. Then again, nobody who ever met Garth Danner, or Gart as he was called, ever forgot him.
We were sitting at a table near the kitchen in Kroll's Diner in Fargo. It was fitting to be seated diametrically opposite him, as if we were ambassadors to warring nations grinding out an unlikely peace treaty. There was a frozen stillness to our booth that kept either of us from moving or talking for a long time. Even the waitresses seemed to slow down and look over as they passed by, curious about the tension. I watched him squeeze ketchup onto the French fries on his plate and then scrape it all off. He did this three times, as the silence grew unbearable. The air was pudding.
"How do you know I am who I say?" I asked as a provocation.
His mouth twitched, then his eyes along with it. "Why would you ask that?"
"Mother used to tell me you had no faith. In God, in human nature — "
His jaw slackened and he tilted his head. "I'm sure your mother told you a million wild lies about me. Did she say I was a crossdresser? Or a high school gym teacher who peeked at the boys in the shower?"
"So you're saying you do have faith?"
"How about trust?"
"What is this, an interview? I trust what I see with my own eyes. When I look at you, I see myself. Flesh and blood." He paused. "It is curious, though, what made you find me now all of a sudden."
"You're my father," I said in a strangely solid voice.
He considered my reason while he rearranged food on his plate. His eyes were a jury, his mouth the judge weighing the validity of my words. I was about to be convicted of something. "Could it be because I have money now?"
Just as I said. A lifetime of mistrust had woven deep grooves in his face, grooves that on someone else's face might have been construed as laugh lines or the wrinkles endemic to old age. I started to remember things about him at that moment, in the pomade of angst that somehow punctuated two decades of his absence — both emotional and practical. I remembered the sound our toaster made in the house in Bismarck. It was an old fashioned toaster even for back then, and it made a horrific "crack" every time the toast bounced up from the taut metal springs in the bottom. And every morning he would say, "Gloria, damn that toaster! Don't they make anything quieter than that in this day and age?" My mother was Gloria. She loathed my father from the day she married him. All right, maybe the day after.
And I remembered the time we found an eagle spread out in our backyard under the clothesline. He kept it in the smaller of our two barns, since that one was the warmest, and made a nest out of hay, wood chips, and a horse blanket. Out of some bizarre, beastly kinship, he seemed to understand what it needed. He took a tube of nasal spray from our medicine cabinet, cut a hole in the bottom, emptied out all the medicine, replaced it with warm water, and taped it back up. He used this as a crude dropper bottle to squirt water into the eagle's beak. He could be a genius at times. I wondered how he could take such care of a stray animal and then just wander off. He did the French fry thing again. I hadn't touched my salad.
"I don't need your money," I said. And I didn't, though the words need and want were the same thing in my mind.
"So why then?"
Every word out of my mouth felt like labor contractions. I couldn't stop my eyes from squinting, my upper lip from curling. This was a man who terrorized my mother, my sister, and would have terrorized me if I'd been old enough to challenge him, and then left in the dead of night like a criminal. This was your bright idea, I reminded myself, taking a deep breath. He was asking why, and it wasn't an unreasonable question. It's just that I could think of nothing intelligible to say.
"We're all going to die, you know," I blurted.
"So you can't count on living forever is what I'm telling you. Do you understand?"
"Who wants to live forever?" he said and slapped his knife down on the table. "The enlightenment of old age is a farce. There's bitterness, anger, hemorrhoids. Not necessarily in that order. The hemorrhoids pretty much are constant. You're only as good as you were when you were thirty-five."
"When you were thirty-five you were in jail," I shot back.
His index finger waved through the air as his eyes bulged. "Just for two weeks. I wasn't convicted. I got a suspended sentence and did community service for six months."
I shook my head and listened to the sound of branches scraping against the aluminum siding of the diner. It was one of those crystal clear winter days, the best Fargo has, where you can see blue sky till the back of your head hurts. Looking in his eyes was like being on a runaway train. I was scared, but couldn't get off. "What did you ever do for the community?" I asked unbelieving.
"Built an addition to the library. How's that for service?"
I started looking for the bathroom. The diner couldn't have been more than a thousand square feet but I failed to see the typical alcove or hallway that normally led to such places. "Where's the restroom in here?"
But he was looking down at his plate, inspecting the spectacle of smeared ketchup on steak fries and remnants of a half-eaten cheeseburger. He looked up. "And that's another treasure of old age — you become a slave to your bladder. What was once a thriving organ capable of holding twenty ounces of liquid and stretching out three times its normal size contracts to the size of a pencil eraser by the time you're sixty-five. Seventy, well . . ." he waved his hand. "You just sort of make camp. It's all inclusive, you know. The toilet, of course, and running water, fresh air from the window. You could live there. It's perfect, really."
I couldn't believe what I was hearing, not sure if I was more shocked by my father's idiotic words or the frightening suicidal thoughts in my own head. Okay, I thought. We're talking about toilets now? Fine. "So what about food?"
"Food," I repeated. "We're talking about living in the bathroom."
"I know people, my age of course, who routinely cook dinner in the bathtub. You can set up a little hibachi in there or else one of those self-contained gas stoves for camping trips. Coleman makes all that stuff now. Hell, they'll probably be making artificial hearts soon."
The wind picked up outside. The branches scratched the shingles now in a tangled frenzy. An old woman in the parking lot saw me looking out the window, and made a gesture toward my father. Hardly adept at interpreting nonverbal communication, it seemed like some sort of female solidarity, a knowing of the nature of things and people. I wanted to run outside and tap her on the shoulder and say, "Do you know men like this? Do you know people who have these conversations, and are they still alive or are they babbling fiends locked up in state hospitals?" Oddly, the urge of my bladder disappeared.
"Bet you never thought she'd die, did you?"
I couldn't help but laugh. It was bad luck to laugh at the dead within six months of their dying, or so I'd been taught. Growing up in small towns, you absorb all kinds of superstitious nonsense, and not just about opening umbrellas indoors. Threats against renaming boats, showing babies their own face in a mirror and transplanting parsley was more than mere folklore. "What was she? About a hundred and eighty?"
My father didn't laugh at this, or at any other irony of life. Not because I was there and we were talking about his dead mother, but because he didn't grow up in a culture that allowed such luxuries. Laughter to my grandmother, as I recalled from some distant memory I had of her, was what you did when somebody told the stupidest joke you'd ever heard. Laughter was the ethical equal of charity to the Danners of North Dakota.
"Ninety-nine, God rest her soul."
"She didn't have one."
"Watch what you say, Nadine," he warned me.
"I don't care about the power the dead have over us. I just hope she left you with enough to do something fun with your life."
"I have fun every day."
"I doubt it."
I watched my father summon one of the pink-uniformed waitresses and gaze upon her bodily breadth with impenetrable focus, from her bulging breasts to the eight inches of exposed flesh between the hem of her skirt and the tops of her white folded socks. He ordered more coffee for the both of us.
"What kind of fun do you have?" he asked, turning the question on me.
"I'm an insect geneticist, for God's sake. If I was the kind of person who needed fun in my life, I would have been a stripper."
He immediately looked at my chest, regarded it carefully, and seemed to shake his head. Okay, maybe not a stripper then.
"I heard you got a boyfriend who works in one of the mills. Fishy told me. I ask about you, you know, even if I don't call you and come over for dinner."
"Ex-boyfriend. And how do you know I'd want you for dinner?" I was feeling sassier now that the realization that I was going to be stuck there with him maybe till morning stretched through my bones. A wet, rainy snow had just started and the wind blew the trees sideways.
"I guess if we were gonna start something regular, then yeah, I might like it. But not a one time thing."
"That's what this is, isn't it?"
"How do you know? I might have wanted to start seeing my own father every week for dinner for all you know." Damn it, I was crying now and I swore I wouldn't no matter how he provoked me, assuming he inevitably would.
Gart Danner reached his gnarled, wrinkled hand across the table and laced his fingers in mine. The skin was warmer than I expected. He didn't look at me but kept his hand there while the wind whipped across the prairie and the waitresses clanked stacks of dishes as loudly as they could.
We met two weeks later in the same place, and had the same conversation almost to the word. For over an hour, the comments, banter, and jibes went back and forth, in and out, without the least bit of communication. I can't even call it conversation, really. It was somewhere between a Bach fugue and two seagulls squabbling over a piece of bread. So I lied and told him I wasn't available until the next month because I was going out of town for a conference. It was the same thing, wasn't it? Going out of town and not wanting to see somebody? Because if I had really wanted, needed to see my father, I could have gotten out of spending an entire week studying the behavior of screwworms and the twospotted stink bug.
By now I knew every biochemical engineer in North Dakota, having spent nearly fifteen years working for Bio-Sciences Research Lab and attending the American Engineering Society's annual conference. They, or I should more appropriately say we, had been organized into subdivided sects according to academic affiliation. Growing up in Moorhead, Minnesota, gave me many options for exploring the sciences. But North Dakota State in Fargo offered a handsome advisor that I met at my first interview and, well, if you're not completely shallow when you're eighteen, you lose your chance forever.
Gart called me at the lab and wanted to meet for a quickie lunch. I suggested a Chinese restaurant across town, but Kroll's was closer and yesterday's rain was beginning to ice over. So I got there early to make sure we got a booth rather than the counter. He lunked through the heavy glass doors like an arctic Frankenstein, and stood at the table waiting for me to react to him before sitting.
"Does that at least keep your head warm?" I said of his blue Ushanka.
But no reply came. I never did understand him. Right then, I saw my father's mortality, visualizing from some imaginary crystal ball all of his ailments, treatments, and the illnesses that hadn't yet manifested. I'd spent my life studying the behavior of insects and admired the simplicity of their collective existence. Eat, sleep, procreate. And, in even more rudimentary terms, survive. In seventy-four years, Gart had already lived nine lives. I wondered how many were left. He wore a sad, almost resigned look on his face today. I ordered him coffee and a cheeseburger with fries. For a while, he just fiddled with his napkin, then the silverware on the table. He started digging the fork tines into the formica table and covered the marks with his hand when a waitress walked by.
"They need new cutlery in this place."
"What's wrong with it?" I asked.
"And new dishes. I've been coming here all my life and see the same ugly white dishes with a red stripe going around the top. It's time for a change. Time for change!" he repeated in a volume that turned every head in the place.
"What are you talking about?" I whispered.
He seemed stuck in a place I couldn't see.
"Gart? What's the matter?"
"Let's get out of here."
"I've already ordered and — " He was standing with his coat zipped. I followed him out through the glass doors and fumbled for my anti-snowglare sunglasses hidden in my pocket. "Get in," he said unlocking the passenger side of his rear-wheel-drive Lincoln Continental.
"You actually drive this thing through the snow?"
He wasn't listening. I asked where we were going but there was no point — conversation and words to him now were superfluous. We were headed toward Oak Grove Park near the river. That meant it would be even colder than it was on the other side of town. He parked sideways under a canopy of green ash trees, got out, slammed the door and trudged toward the curved path near the benches.
"What's the matter with you?" I yelled ahead of me.
His hat was pulled down over his ears but I knew he heard me. He stopped when he got to the first bench and, looking back, flailed him arms at the ducks in the pond.
"Yes, I see them. I'm familiar with the species. So you like ducks."
"Gart, I want to know about my grandmother."
He shot me a crazed look as if my head had split in two. Maybe it was the wrong day to ask.
"Because yesterday I turned forty-four, thanks for remembering by the way, and I'm collecting memories that I can keep in my old age. You left when I was little, mom's parents died before I went to high school, and I never knew your mother."
"You never liked her, either."
"I wouldn't say that, exactly."
"Soulless? A hundred and eighty years old?" he bellowed.
"All right. Give me two things you remember about her and I'll never bring it up again."
The ducks, which I recognized as Common Goldeneyes by the round white patches on the cheeks of the males, seemed to be responding to Gart's voice. At the sound of it, they swam toward him and squawked in concert. Normally high-pitched and frenzied with nervous energy, today his voice belonged to someone else.
"Did she have any siblings?" I found myself asking to provoke the ducks' behavior. It felt good to have them hover around us.
"Ten. Eight of them were girls."
The ducks moved closer, first one by one and then three at a time, gliding across the glassy surface toward my father. I watched him secretly smiling behind his cigar.
"This happens every time I come here," he explained.
"They like you. Do all animals?"
"I suppose. Small consolation for the fact that women and kids never could tolerate me."
"What happened in the diner, Gart?"
"Get cabin fever sometimes, cooped up in the same places every minute of every day, and too damned cold out to walk anywhere for more than a minute. Maybe I need to get away."
"Maybe I know just the place," I replied.
Milo, my English friend, works as a programmer at the lab. He kills me. He said over the phone one night, "I've got a lovely beach house, love, overlooking a lake outside Reykjavik. It's my sister's place and we rent it at exorbitant rates to unsuspecting tourists. It'll be perfect for you and the old codger. I should think the view alone'd be a fantastic tension-diffuser."
And, by some freak coincidence, the engineering conference was in Iceland this year. I know. There's no such thing as coincidence.
"You don't know Gart," I told Milo, and realized, ironically, that neither do I. Mother used to tell me that change had to be introduced to him in tiny increments. Like when the First State Bank in Fargo was bought out by a large conglomerate and the branch my family had used for a decade was closing, she mentioned this casually over breakfast. Something like, "You know, dear, all the small local places are being eaten up by the big fish of the world." He wouldn't have responded to something like this, as conversation to him, like medicine, was used only when absolutely necessary. She'd mention it again indirectly a week later. Then sometime in the future when he heard it from someone else, he'd nod and say, "I think my wife mentioned something to that effect."
The dinners happened every Sunday now. As I set the table, I tried to think of a way to slip the conference into normal conversation. "I've got a conference coming up in Iceland and I bought you a ticket," was how I put it, opting against subtlety.
My father, perched awkwardly on the edge of my green flowered sofa, looked like he was doing long division in his head.
"The national chapter holds a conference every year in the states, but every five years the international organization has their conference in a different country. I've heard Reykjavik can be pretty this time of year."
He was memorizing the objects in my house. Every so often he'd glance in my direction, probably wondering where I'd gotten my collection of dolls, and the African masks and clunky antiques. "Your mother liked furniture like that one there," he said pointing to the walnut buffet.
I nearly died when he said it, but then remembered that he only lived in that house for a few years after I was born. "It was hers. Who do you think gave it to her as a wedding gift?"
He looked up and blushed.
"Your mother. The grandmother I've been wondering about all this time."
"Nothing to know."
"Or just nothing you want to tell me?"
I brought dinner to the table, and poured red wine into tall, delicate glasses that looked all wrong in his hand.
"What am I gonna do in Iceland? Wander the streets talking to people who don't speak my language? How will I find my way around?"
"Eat your steak, Gart," I said. "Do you have anything better to do a month from now? After all, I mean, really."
He closed his eyes when he put the first steak tip in his mouth. I marinated them in wine and olive oil for an hour before cooking. I knew they were delicious before even tasting them. I didn't need him to tell me. Or maybe I did.
I considered putting on a CD during dinner to break the mind-numbing chasm of silence. Something from his era like Glen Miller or Tommy Dorsey, or some of my old Sinatra tapes. But I think I was starting to get used to the atmosphere. Not that it was comfortable or anything. No sane person would think so. But it was a characteristic that, after all the years of having nothing between us, was entirely, distinctively ours.
Hope Deerling, my childhood friend from Moorhead, agreed to come to Reykjavik with us. Historically, she was the world's best icebreaker. At parties, she often started conversations with strangers about the intensity and duration of her last orgasm, and why it was important for women to be allowed, in society, to experiment sexually with other women. She had been present every time I'd broken off a relationship with a man. In this case, I hoped she might help me facilitate the opposite.
After telling her about the ducks, she had the idea to take my father out to a park on our first day in Reykjavik. I left at the crack of six a.m. to the largest hotel in town for a conference and a career I suddenly wanted nothing to do with. The idea of my father wandering around terrorizing European strangers made my hands buzz with terminal anxiety. I could picture him frightening some poor old lady to tears while asking for a coffee shop and having the police escort us to the airport. By ten o'clock, no longer able to feign concentration, I slipped out the hotel's side entrance and took a cab back to the condo. It was empty, so I wandered around town and tried to remind myself of things — like why I came there, why I got my bioengineering degree, and why I was forty-four and still not married.
Never in my life had I smelled air this crisp and had the sky been such a deep, icy blue. The cold was starting to seep through my clothing, though I was dressed in perfect accordance with an arctic climate. Silk underwear, layers of Thinsulate, Gortex vest and down overcoat. Up ahead of me a few hundred yards was a park with acres of frozen green grass poking up into the tundra, a children's swing set positioned too close to the parking lot, and a gigantic frozen lake. I could see a single person standing in the center of it on thick ice, bent over and talking with grand gesticulations. When I moved closer, I saw a tiny patch of ice near shore where ducks were swimming around. I thought of Gart, but then realized he'd be with Hope somewhere struggling to be polite and listening to her stories.
That night we ate dinner at Caf� Victor, a swanky restaurant in a 17th century building that served exotic food in the most outlandish combinations. Raw lamb with cantaloupe, monkfish medallions, whale steak with black pepper relish, reindeer, goose, ptarmigan. And, for dessert, skyr with blueberries and whiskey sauce. I was happy there, happy at least to be out of Moorhead and away from my regular routine. Gloomy Gart, however, drank enough vodka to fill the hull of a ship and Hope was near tears. I didn't know what happened between them and was more than just afraid to ask.
I went back to the lake the next day, blowing off the second segment of a $2000 conference. Hope had always liked charity work, so I was sure she'd relish in her assignment to look after him. In Moorhead, she routinely patrolled the train station at night looking for hungry mouths to feed, or cold bodies to clad with wool blankets, children to be read to. I guess she didn't understand that I brought him with me to start putting back some of what was taken out of my life and my heart so many years ago. At twelve o'clock, I used the pay telephone in the parking lot of the recreation area to call the condo. A message had been left on the answering machine. "Flying back this afternoon, can't stand another minute with him. You'll find him in the park two blocks from the hotel — on the ice. I'm sure I'll pay for this later. Sorry."
All the blood drained out of my extremities. I couldn't even feel my feet. I took a cab back to the condo to try to intercept her, but her suitcase was gone when I got there. Hope was my oldest friend in the world. How could he let her go???
When I got back to the park, I saw the same person standing on the ice waving his arms back and forth. Three old women were on the banks pointing.
"Gart!" I yelled from the west bank of the lake, then repeated the call. He had so many layers of clothes on, it took him five minutes just to turn his head. I waved and tried to smile, but could only wonder what he'd done. He was walking toward me now in the center of the ice in tiny penguin steps, and motioned toward a bench. I waited for him and set down two cups of coffee on the seat. A peace offering.
"It's not my fault, Nadine," he started.
At least he was acknowledging that something had happened. Not exactly a precedent in my family. With widened eyes, I looked at his downward pointed nose, his razor stubble, grayish teeth and single eyebrow. "What's not?" I said, praying for a coherent answer.
"She was provoking me."
"She's flying home, you know. This very minute. What did you do? Beat her up? Hasn't there been enough of that for one lifetime?"
He sighed and pulled the triple layer wool ski mask over his head. "You know, asking me about you and your mother, and your sisters and why I did — ahhh," he waved his hand through the air. "Things that have nothing to do with her."
"I've been crying to Hope for twenty years about how you disappeared one day and never came back, leaving us and Mother to fend for ourselves without any state assistance or even enough money to buy clothes. She had a right to ask." I was determined not to cry. My composure was intended to be a dagger through his heart.
"Maybe, but not the way she asked."
My fists involuntarily clenched in and out.
Three or four ducks arrived out of thin air in front of our bench. I couldn't imagine they had a constitution capable of withstanding submersion in water that cold. And then here we were sitting by another lake accompanied by ducks again. Gart pulled some seeds and crumbs out of his pocket and threw them. More interested in him, they ignored the food. "Your grandmother was a duck charmer," he said. "Really with all animals, but there were ducks in a pond near our house growing up. They loved her, followed her everywhere. Through the house, in the basement. Willomena was also a tailor," he added after four agonizing sips of coffee.
I turned to look at him, unsure of how we got off the topic of Hope and wondering about the identity of Willomena, but not totally unaccustomed to his non sequiturs. "Who?"
"My mother," he yelled in his typical way. "She was the one who earned the money when I was growing up. My father was a pilot, but he developed cataracts and couldn't fly anymore. After that, he sort of gave up and never looked for another job again. Ma was an expert tailor who never had to be taught anything about making clothes or fixing them. We used to say she was born with a needle sticking out of her index finger. She'd sit by the fire every night after supper with her mother's old shawl around her shoulders and sew by hand. We always knew when she was in bed because it's the only time we'd see the shawl and her thimble on the chair. She put a sign up at the post office one day that just said 'Seamstress — Fast, Expert Service' and next thing we knew people started knocking at our door all hours of the day and night. It gave Pa something to do other than sleep and drink. He organized the incoming orders, delivered the outgoings and eventually did the books. He was a numbers guy."
"Interesting," I said, as Gart had been an accountant earlier in his life. As a biochemist, I didn't know how I fit into the pattern.
Maybe I didn't, and maybe that was the pattern.
Gart pulled a wrinkled paper sack out from the folds in his coat and clutched it in his gloved hands. He squeezed the bag once, then turned it and squeezed it again. "You wanted to know about her."
"Right now I'm more concerned that you'll call Hope and apologize when we get back." I glared at him, waiting for confirmation that he was still somehow a human being. "I don't have many friends, Gart. She's it, really."
"Since I'm an only child, she left me all her money, which didn't turn out to be as much as everyone expected. She got sick in the end and had to pay big hospital bills." He handed me the bag. It was lighter than I thought. "But I guess she was wondering about you too. Because she left you this."
For a long time, I just held it, enjoying the sound the crinkly paper made. Was this possible — a grandmother I had never known leaving me something of herself? I had never seen sentimentality in my family before. I carefully peeled back the thin, red tissue paper to find something black and furry. I looked up at him, praying it wasn't some joke. Inside the crudely wrapped package was a long, black, wool shawl; and, inside all the intricate folds of the fabric, was something hard and metal. A thimble. Hers.
Willomena's magic thimble that helped my father somehow become human — not once but twice in his life. I slid the shawl over my shoulders under my coat and walked through the snowy park to Gart's rented vehicle, the thimble sliding around my pocket beneath the agile fingers of my grandmother's hands.