Ode to the Father

As published in Loras College Catfish Creek, Volume 4, Spring 2014

You are seven years old, a second-grader with muddy stick-legs and a different color of polish on each fingernail. Your hair is long and wet, slicked back into a ponytail with a green and yellow felt bow. You’re running off the elementary school soccer field; the field sloshes with rainwater. The little cleats on your feet are soggy; muddy brown smudges cover the toes and chunks of grass are stuck between the pointy spokes.

Your daddy is standing on the sidelines. He’s wearing a green hat with a yellow soccer ball logo in the center. The hat is damp along the rim. Little drops of rain fall from his beard. This makes you giggle.

“Are you ready to go, sweetie?” he asks.

You jump in and out of a mud puddle by your soccer bag. “Yes, Daddy!” you squeal, “Yes!” Your ponytail bounces along with you, thumping wet against the back of your green mesh jersey.

Your daddy picks up your bag, puts your America-colored ball in the open compartment. He gathers his coaching clipboard, shrugs what you call his ‘Rainy-Day Jacket’ over his shoulders, and kneels down next to you.

“Put your legs up here.”

Your daddy points to the muddy cleat on your best kicking foot, and you lift it onto his leg. The mud squishes against his black athletic pants, but he doesn’t seem to mind. He unties the green laces and hands you a black sandal to slide on. You switch feet. He tosses your soccer bag over his left shoulder, holds the wet, messy cleats in his opposite hand. You stand up straight and look down at your feet. A little mud puddle is pooling around your heels. The yellow soccer socks are stained a dark brown. With a quick sweep, your daddy lifts you under his arm, tosses you over his shoulder. You squeal in delight.

It only takes a few steps until you’re at the car. He pulls open the door handle, tosses you playfully inside. You laugh.

“Ready for more adventures?” he asks, sliding into the front seat. He takes off his hat and shakes his hair like a puppy. Little drops of rain scatter across the steering wheel. You laugh. He rubs his hands together and turns the red heat knob. Then he looks back at you in the mirror and you give him the ‘thumbs up’.

You and your daddy have been driving all around town the past few weeks. It’s the Sally Mae Fundraiser time of the year. You sell chocolates and peanut-butter cookies, meats and cheeses, and Christmas wrapping paper. You take the catalog from the elementary school and ring each doorbell. Your little chest is puffed out; you stand on the tips of your toes.

When the door opens, you flip the pages: pretzel rods dipped in white chocolate, Swiss cheese by the handful, Christmas paper with white polar bears and silver dancing snowflakes. There’s a little brown envelope where you collect the dollar bills and checks and count the dimes and nickels. Then you skip down to the next house. Your daddy, with his soggy hat, sits patiently in the black ’06 Durango at the curb.

You keep this up from one in the afternoon, when the game ends, until six-thirty. When your feet get sleepy, you slide into the passenger seat, next to your daddy. He parks and pulls down the visor to shade the sunset from your eyes. Then he reaches under your muddy flip-flops for a wrinkled beige folder filled with papers. The papers look a little dirty. There’s a smudge in the left corner from your sandals, but your daddy just shuffles the lose papers and tosses them to the back to make room for dinner. There are two fresh cheeseburgers, a small Frosty, and a greasy pile of French fries spread across a napkin on the middle thingy—a ‘center console,’ your daddy calls it.  You eat and he talks what he calls ‘strategy’. He is a coach, and selling is just like a soccer game, he says. So you listen.

When the last bit of salt is licked from your fingertips, you get ready to go back outside. You turn to your daddy, but he holds up a finger. His phone is pressed to his left ear and he seems to be looking for something in the back seat. There is a piece of French fry stuck in his fuzzy, brown beard. He turns to you, nods for you to go ahead without him. You wait for a moment, but he shoos you on with a finger to his lips and a smile.

Your feet are a little clammy, but you don’t care. You have one big goal—the new Razor scooter. If you sell one-thousand dollars, you will win it. The school will get a new playground and sandbox, but you will win the scooter, the best prize in the world. You want to sell the most. You want to win.

You ring the next doorbell, rocking back and forth on your toes. The lady at the door lets you inside to pee. She has grey hair like salt and pepper and smells like laundry soap. Daddy leaves his beeping cell phone in the car and comes too, just to be safe. This old lady buys three Christmas ornaments, one for each of her children: a snow globe, a gold sparkly star, a red Santa hat. She gives you and your daddy two shortbread cookies to take with you. You say thank you in your squeaky little voice.

Some people say no. These are the busy mommies with babies on their hips, the old people who walk slowly to the door with creaky knees. Once, it is a boy with his three friends. The boy with the Angry Bird t-shirt slams the door in your face. This makes you sad, your nose wrinkles up. Your daddy tells you to wait at the car, then he stomps all the way to the front porch. His black gym shoes make little wet prints on the sidewalk. You can hear his angry coach voice.

In a few minutes, he walks back with the boy. The boy looks at your muddy sandals and mumbles a sorry. When the boy leaves, your daddy yawns, smiles, and gives you a big ‘thumbs up.’ Then he walks with you to the next house.

At the end of the night, your daddy tucks a tie-blanket over your cold legs. He moves his folder to the passenger seat, peels off your damp soccer socks, and tosses them on the floor. He buckles your seatbelt at your waist, and places his balled-up sweatshirt under your head as it falls sleepily to the side.

It’s a twenty-minute drive home, a light drizzle falls on the windshield. Your daddy rubs the side of his head right under his hat and squints at the road. When the car pulls into the driveway, you pretend to be asleep. You can feel him watching your little chest rise and fall. You wonder if he knows you’re awake. You breathe extra slow, just to be sure.

You are seven, a second-grader with stick-legs covered in mud and rainbow-colored fingernails. You do not understand the passing of five hours, the near-empty gas tank, the stiff back against a leather seat, dead cell phone battery. You do not feel the clammy toes, do not mind damp hair or fatty cheeseburgers. All that will matter is the new silver scooter, flying across the sidewalk And your daddy, mowing the lawn, waving and smiling as you glide by.