H E A T H E R N E W T O N
The Preferred Embodiment
The night his daughter Lorna was born, when Richard Pierce held her in his arms in the warmth of the hospital nursery, the promise he whispered to her was not I will protect you or I will love you, but this: I will not embarrass you.
His own father had made no such covenant. In the small Pennsylvania town where they lived in the years after World War II, his father was the man the neighbors stopped on the sidewalk to gawk at. His father, on the roof, clumsily bundling metal rods, plywood, sheets of aluminum, tilting mirrors to catch the sun. His father the inventor of things that didn’t work. A solar oven that oozed under-baked cookie dough, antennae that didn’t receive. Once, an automatic bird-feeding device that mangled a family of finches. His father threw the downy remains off the roof, arms raised and stained coat flapping as if he himself were some giant rumpled bird. Children gathered to watch, some perched on their bicycles, some leaping to catch the feathers that drifted through the air like dandelion seeds. Among them was pretty Becky Ames from next door, and Richard, mortified, hid behind a tree across the street from his house and didn’t come out until porch lights winked on and parents called their children home for supper.
Richard’s mother and his sister Mabe, large and laughing, thought his father was a card. They encouraged him, suggesting outrageous things he might invent for them. Super-girdles and love potion and permanent makeup that wouldn’t wash off. Dust-resistant furniture. An electric doorbell to shock annoying salesmen. A contraption that would force the corners of Richard’s sour mouth upward in a smile.
Richard left his father’s house as soon as he could, earning a scholarship to prep school where rules offered peace, and no one invented anything. To stay in that ordered world he became a teacher and then the headmaster of the McMullen School. He made a perfunctory call to his father in Pennsylvania every Sunday afternoon when the rates were down, or had until recently when their conversations took a disturbing turn. For all his father’s bizarre behavior, the man had always been happy. Now, stories Richard had heard his father tell the same way for decades began to feature new characters, new plot twists, all ugly and frightening. Happiness was peeling away from the nerve sheaths in his brain, flaking like the paint on Richard’s boyhood home.
Mabe had moved the old man into a nursing home that month. “You should come up,” she said the last time she called. “He wants to see you. There are things you might want from the house before we sell it.”
“I’ll try,” Richard said, but he hadn’t gone yet.
He stood, between tasks, at the kitchen window of the headmaster’s residence. His daughter Lorna was out in the yard working on something with an intensity that would have made her grandfather proud. She measured a board the way Richard had taught her, his jigsaw lying beside her in the grass. Sunlight had found the auburn in her hair, and Richard felt the urge to put his hand on the top of her head in some kind of blessing or oath.
I will not stumble around on the roof. My feet will always touch the ground. I will not kill small animals in front of the neighbors. My clothing will be neither stained nor brightly colored. I will not forget to zip my fly. Where our house faces the street the paint will not blister and the grass will never grow above ankle height.
He went outside to where Lorna knelt, trying to cut the thick board with the jigsaw. Its flimsy blade bent, refusing to hold a straight line.
“What are you making?” Richard asked.
“A dunking booth. I’m going to have a carnival. Frankie Domiano has a rain barrel he’s going to roll over here. I’m making the seat.”
“Will you be the one getting dunked?”
“No, that’s Frankie’s job. I’m in charge of everything.”
“I have a better saw for that. Want me to cut it for you?”
“Yes, please,” she said. “I measured twice.”
Richard got his saw and in just a few strokes cut through the wood along the penciled line she had drawn.
“Thanks, Daddy,” she said.
“You might want to sand that end, so Frankie won’t get a splinter.”
She shrugged. “It’s okay.”
“When’s the carnival?”
“Saturday after next. Will you come?”
“Does it cost anything?”
“A quarter for every activity. I’m saving for a model horse.”
He resisted the urge to insist she give the money to UNICEF. “Wouldn’t miss it,” he said. The high school students at the McMullen School could afford to support his daughter’s entrepreneurism. He helped her wedge the board into the crotch of a tree in the front yard, high enough off the ground that Frankie could jump off into the barrel. Then he stood back while she painted a red target on a piece of cardboard.
The last time Richard’s father had seen Lorna she was a toddler. The old man had watched her playing with blocks on the floor. “We’ll make an inventor of her yet!” he crowed. Richard froze, repulsed, and then filled with guilt. It was the same mix of feelings he experienced when he saw photographs of himself these days. When he smiled, showing his teeth, he looked like his father, and the revulsion that rose within him made him feel ashamed.
His jigsaw still lay in the grass where Lorna had left it. Richard picked it up. His father had taught him to use a saw like this. He remembered the feel of his father’s callused hand over his, wrapped around the saw’s smooth handle. The tickle of the blade’s vibration in his palm. He went inside and phoned Mabe to arrange a date when he could drive up to Pennsylvania.
Every fall, the electric company invited the Tonola Falls community to a barbecue at the power station overlooking the gorge. The event was the McMullen School’s best fundraiser, a chance for Richard to hobnob with company executives and rich alumni who came back each year for the pulled pork. At breakfast on the morning of the barbecue he looked at his wife and daughter with the eyes of a prospective donor, and found fault. Lorna hadn’t brushed her hair, and the flowered bell-bottoms she’d pulled on, her favorite pair, were too short. Sarah was still in her bathrobe, no outfit selected yet, but Richard didn’t want to leave anything to chance.
“Lorna, you’ll need to change clothes before we go. That sweater Aunt Mabe sent you would be nice. And some longer jeans.”
“That sweater itches,” Lorna said.
“It’s a barbecue, for God’s sake,” Sarah said. “No one will be dressed up.”
“We need to look respectable. Casually respectable,” Richard said. “The Vaughan sisters will be there, and some of our other biggest donors.”
“Casually respectable.” Sarah widened her eyes in mock horror. “Does that mean you might even go without a tie?”
“Please,” Richard said wearily. People called Sarah a free spirit. They said it with fondness and even admiration, accepting behavior in her that they would never have condoned in a less attractive woman. Richard hadn’t known about Sarah’s free spirit when he got involved with her, hadn’t seen past her lovely brown eyes and enticing curves. And perhaps she hadn’t been so free then, but had only become so when she learned how uncomfortable it made him.
“Please,” he said again.
“Relax,” she said, turning away.
When it came time to go, Sarah and Lorna weren’t ready. Richard didn’t want to leave until he was sure they were presentable, but he couldn’t be late.
“You go ahead. We’ll be there shortly,” Sarah said, brushing her long hair and shaking it into place.
He drove to the power station property. In the mowed field below the station the company had set up two pits with whole pigs and a separate wood fire for a cauldron of Brunswick stew, big enough for a child to stand in. The smell made Richard’s stomach growl.
Several dozen people already sat on blankets listening to an impromptu bluegrass band. Richard shook hands with alumni he recognized, working his way across the field to where the power company president stood in front of a pile of hay bales with Mrs. Dolores Vaughan Parke and her sister, Mrs. Sheila Vaughan Emory. Both old women were swaddled in tweed. The sisters didn’t like each other, and Richard had been known to make use of that fact, letting slip to one sister the amount of the other’s pledge to get them bidding against one another.
Richard greeted the power company executive and the sisters and raised his hand to shield his eyes from the bright sunlight.
“I believe this is the nicest day we’ve ever had for the barbecue,” Mrs. Emory said.
“Nonsense,” Mrs. Parke said. “I distinctly remember at least two other Indian summer days nicer than this one. The colors just don’t seem as vibrant this year.” She swept an arthritic hand toward the ridge above the gorge, where trees burned with heartbreaking hues of red, orange, and yellow.
“Your eyesight’s just dim,” Mrs. Emory said.
As the sisters bickered, Sarah’s VW bus drove into the gravel parking lot. Sarah and Lorna climbed out. Lorna, wearing her new sweater, immediately ran to join other children who had lined up to take a turn stirring the kettle of Brunswick stew with a canoe paddle.
Sarah walked across the grass toward Richard. She wore a midriff top that showed her navel and jeans with a hole in one knee so big it was a wonder the pants leg hadn’t fallen off. The hole gaped like a talking mouth as she walked. A red bandana-print patch covered the other knee. The fronts of the thighs were worn so bare Richard could see flesh between the individual threads. Bleach spots dotted the pockets. Richard hadn’t known she even owned a pair of jeans that ragged. He suspected she had borrowed them from a student just to sabotage him. He wished he hadn’t said anything to her about what to wear. If he had just kept his mouth shut Sarah’s natural vanity would have led her to put on something nice. Their marriage had passed the point of even the simplest consideration for each other’s feelings.
She reached them and gave the sisters and the company president a radiant smile.
Mrs. Parke arched a drawn-on eyebrow. “Richard, are we not paying you enough to clothe your family?”
“Oh, hush, Dolores. It’s the style now,” her sister said.
“I like the holes,” Sarah said. “I’m getting a nice breeze.”
“That’s a mighty pretty knee,” the power company president said, smiling.
“Why, thank you,” Sarah said.
An employee brought over the first tray of fresh barbecue. Sarah wandered off to say hello to people she knew. Richard watched her walk over to where Art Robbins, the chemistry teacher, stood listening to the music. She put her hand on Art’s arm, then looked over at Richard and deliberately moved closer to Art, facing him from just a few inches away. Richard could almost see Art start to salivate.
“Excuse me,” Richard said to Mrs. Parke and Mrs. Emory. He walked around to the other side of the stack of hay bales and sat down on one, where no one could see him.
“In my day, men had control over their wives,” he heard Mrs. Parke say.
“Oh, eat your barbecue, Dolores,” her sister said.
Richard closed his eyes. He was having trouble drawing the heavy smells of pork and newly-cut hay into his lungs and his face and hands were tingling. His heart started to limp in his chest and he felt the falling sensation he sometimes experienced at night, that always made him think he was dying. Sweat dripped from his forehead into his tightly-squinched eyes. Adrenalin gushed through his body, poisoning him.
Richard opened one eye.
“Are you sick?” Lorna said.
With effort, he reached out an arm and crooked it around her waist. “No, honey. I’m fine.”
She put her arms around his neck and gave him a loud kiss that left a wet spot on his cheek. She smelled the same as she had since birth, of open air and a hint of maple syrup. The smell brought him back to himself and he was able to return her hug before she skipped off across the field to rejoin her friends.
I will not, Richard thought, but couldn’t finish. I will not. I will not.
Richard made the long drive to Pennsylvania. Before going to the nursing home he went to his father’s house, a one-story, identical to the others on the block except for the unmowed grass and the sag in the flat carport roof where his father used to test his inventions. Richard took the key from its place under the mat and went inside. He could tell Mabe had been in to clean, but clutter—things his father had gathered for projects he would never get to—lined the walls of the dim hallway. His father used Richard’s old bedroom for storage and when Richard tried to push open the door, a dismantled metal bookcase fell with a clang. Tack holes in the wall, where Richard’s Cleveland Indians pennant had once been, were the only sign that he had ever inhabited the room. He closed the door without going in.
In the small living room, behind his father’s worn easy chair, family photographs crowded a built-in bookcase. Some were from his mother’s era, nicely-framed pictures of Richard and Mabe as children, but in front of them his father had lined up Lorna’s wallet-sized school pictures in a colorful row. Sarah must have sent them in their Christmas cards. His father had laminated them in plastic to protect them, and Richard felt strangely touched.
On the middle shelf, exhibited like a diploma, was a familiar photograph of his smiling father holding the one patent he got on his only successful invention, a better chalkboard eraser. The patent itself was in a long, yellowed envelope tucked into the corner of the frame.
His father had been a manager at a janitorial company that cleaned office buildings at night. He noticed the janitors fighting over a certain type of sulfur-colored sponge, one they could use dry or wet, that devoured dust and dirty water alike. One night his father used one of the sponges to wipe the chalkboard in the break room where he listed assignments and was amazed when the sponge ate the chalk dust and didn’t need dusting itself. He brought some of the sponges home and glued them to pieces of wood to make erasers, and emerged from his workroom announcing “the end of eraser-beating as we know it.” Richard, who liked beating erasers for his teachers because it made him feel useful and special, was dismayed, but the things really worked. His father patented the eraser and had several thousand manufactured for sale. Richard’s teachers loved the self-cleaning erasers and loved Richard’s father. They got him to come in and talk to their classes about inventing. He demonstrated the eraser with a flourish and set off explosive science experiments while Richard sat stiffly at his desk.
His father, optimistic, resigned from his job to devote himself to selling the erasers, but demand wasn’t what he had hoped. Money grew scarce. Richard’s allowance stopped and his pants flapped two inches above his ankles because his parents couldn’t afford to replace them. Finally, even Richard’s jolly mother stopped laughing and his father went back to the janitorial company to grovel. The employer relented but made him work as a custodian for six months as punishment before returning him to management.
Richard eased the patent out of the picture frame. Moisture had resealed its envelope. He opened it carefully and extracted the patent. He could hear his father’s excited voice in the old-fashioned language describing the patent’s claims, its abstract, the field of invention, the prior art: “Commonly used chalkboard erasers, comprising laminated felt pads, are prone to the collection of chalk dust on the surface, causing the efficiency of the erasers to drop markedly in short order, and requiring frequent cleaning of the erasers.” Under the heading, “Description of the Preferred Embodiments” he read, “The illustrative eraser consists of a resilient, porous, sponge-rubber body, affixed and generally coextensive with a handgrip member made of wood or other solid material. The body member shall have grooves extending lengthwise and disposed about its periphery.”
Richard wondered if there were any boxes of erasers left in his father’s basement that he might salvage for the McMullen School. He tucked the patent in his breast pocket, then opened the door to the narrow cellar stairs and pulled the chain to the overhead light bulb. Mabe hadn’t cleaned down here. He waved an arm in front of his face to break spider webs as he descended the stairs.
Along the back wall, just as he remembered, were several unopened cardboard boxes of erasers. He stepped around and over piles of other items to get to them. The boxes had mildewed where they touched the wall, but he was hopeful that the erasers themselves would be intact. He ripped the seal off the first box and opened it. Surprised silverfish flowed outward like shiny drops of water from a fountain. Richard peered into the box. All that remained of the erasers was the wooden handgrip. The spongy body was completely gone, eaten by silverfish or dry rot.
All the boxes were the same. Richard left them where they were, not bothering to close them.
Back upstairs, he looked around the quiet house. His father’s patent rustled in his breast pocket. There was nothing else here that he wanted. He started for the front door, then as an afterthought went back and retrieved the laminated pictures of Lorna. If his father didn’t have space for them where he was now, Richard would take them home. Lorna grinned out at him from one of the photos, her two front teeth missing.
I will not fill our house with detritus that you will have to remove when I am old. I will do nothing to jeopardize my steady job. I will buy you clothes the other children will not laugh at. I will take care of our possessions, protecting them from rot and vermin.
At the nursing home, he found Mabe in his father’s room, helping the old man eat supper. His father was wizened, no longer the big man Richard remembered from his last visit a few years before. When Richard took his father’s hands they shook terribly, even when Richard squeezed them tight.
“Richie, I’m so glad to see you.” His father’s voice was a whisper.
“You too, Pop.” Richard looked around. “I like your room.”
“They take good care of me. Mabe takes good care of me. I get so tired that I can’t do like I used to.”
Richard brought out the laminated photographs of Lorna. “I found these at your house. Would you like to put them up here?”
His father looked puzzled.
“It’s my daughter, Lorna,” Richard said.
“Lorna,” his father said. “Those were at my house.”
“There’s not much room here for personal effects,” Mabe said apologetically.
“Then I’ll just take them with me,” Richard said, setting them on the bed.
“Pop, is that all you want to eat?” Mabe started to clean up his tray.
“I’d like some ice cream.”
“I’ll go get you some while you and Richard visit,” she said.
“I don’t want to be any trouble,” his father said.
Mabe bent and kissed the top of the old man’s head. “You’re no trouble.” She left to find an aide.
Richard’s father lifted a trembling hand and wiped food from his chin. “There’s something I have to tell you,” he said.
“Sure, Pop,” Richard said.
His father began a story Richard had heard him tell many times, of his childhood in North Dakota. Richard could recite it down to the last turn of phrase: a blizzard had left a drift of snow as high as their house against the front door. Richard’s father, then four years old, hadn’t understood and kept wheedling to go outside. Finally his mother, to tease, had said “go ahead.” The boy had opened the door and faced a wall of snow.
Richard’s father had always ended the story with the musical sound of his mother’s laughter. But this telling was different. Someone else was in the snow-bound house now, a paternal grandfather, sinister in dark clothing, his face obscured by a wooly beard. The boy was alone with him, his mother and father stranded elsewhere by the snow, and the grandfather was doing awful things, unspeakable things, touching the boy in places he shouldn’t, hurting him. Richard’s father began to weep as he told it, his whole body shaking.
Richard stood rigid while tears and mucous streamed down his father’s face. “He did bad things to me,” his father sobbed. An odor of urine filled the small room. His father had wet himself.
Richard couldn’t handle it. He left the room and leaned against the wall just outside his father’s door.
Mabe returned, carrying a bowl of vanilla ice cream. She saw Richard’s face. “Oh, dear. He’s been telling stories. Which one? The snow?”
Mabe put a gentle hand on his arm. Her fingertips were cool from holding the ice cream. “It isn’t true, you know. That grandfather died before he was born.”
Richard couldn’t speak.
“You get used to it if you’re around him all the time,” she said, with no hint of reproach. She took the ice cream into the room and Richard heard her murmuring to their father, calming him down. Richard took a deep breath and steeled himself to go back in.
I will not rewrite history, or if I do, I will paint it better than it was, not worse. I will not burden you with my baggage. The infection will stop with me.
He stayed in Pennsylvania just long enough to help Mabe arrange the sale of their father’s house, then drove home to Tonola Falls, arriving in mid-afternoon. His yard was full of people. Lorna’s carnival. He had forgotten. He got out of the car.
Frankie Domiano, the son of one of the cafeteria ladies, was perched on Lorna’s dunking booth, dressed like a clown. A group of younger kids had created a freak show by drawing masks in rough crayon on brown paper grocery bags. Sarah sold paper cups of lemonade from a card table in the corner of the yard. High school students had wandered over from the dorms for the entertainment. In the midst of it all, Lorna directed the show. Richard had never seen her look happier.
He walked over to her. “How’s it going?”
“We’ve made twenty-four dollars and seventy-five cents so far,” she said.
A plump student tried her hand at the dunking booth. Frankie taunted her, “Hey Fatso, can’t get me! Fatty, fatty, two-by-four!”
Richard called, “Frankie, that’s not acceptable.”
Frankie tried again. “Yah, yah, your pants are falling down!” He cut his eyes over at Richard and Richard nodded.
“Are you coming to the carnival, Daddy?” Lorna said.
“Of course. Just let me wash up.” He went inside and splashed water on his face to get the road haze off, then went back outside.
Lorna stood by the dunking booth, looking distressed. Frankie Domiano was nowhere in sight.
“What’s the matter, honey?” Richard said.
“Frankie quit. He went home to watch Gilligan’s Island, so now we don’t have anybody to dunk.”
“How about one of the other kids?”
“Their moms won’t let them get wet.”
“Then you can do it yourself.”
“But I’m in charge,” she said, her eyes welling up. “Could you do it, Daddy?”
Richard eyed the dunking booth. Lorna had filled the rain barrel with water from their garden hose. A few dead leaves floated on the surface. He looked at Lorna. Her lower lip trembled. She was fighting not to cry.
He sighed. “All right.” He took off his shoes and used a low branch to pull himself carefully up to the seat in the tree, brushing flakes of bark off his clothes. The dunking booth worked on the honor system. If a beanbag hit the target, he was morally obligated to jump off the shelf into the barrel.
“Put the clown nose on.” Lorna handed him the nose Frankie had worn, made with a long rubber band stapled to half a red rubber ball.
“Is that really necessary?” Richard said.
Her face said it was.
I will act my age. I will not behave foolishly. Richard stretched the rubber band around his head and centered the nose on his face.
“You have to yell things to make people want to dunk you,” Lorna said.
Richard called out weakly, “Yah, yah.” Nobody turned his way. Lorna began to look anxious.
Sarah flirted with a cluster of football players at the lemonade table. Richard cleared his throat and yelled to the quarterback. “Yah, yah, your pants are falling down!”
The quarterback turned around.
“You gonna take that, Bruce?” one of the other boys asked.
“Heck no.” The quarterback swaggered over to the dunking booth. He dug a coin out of his pocket and handed it to Lorna. She gave him a beanbag. He slapped it from palm to palm, warming up, while his teammates cheered him on.
Sarah set the pitcher of lemonade down on the card table and crossed her arms to watch.
“You couldn’t hit the side of a barn!” Richard yelled.
The quarterback wound up and hurled the beanbag expertly at the target, hitting the bullseye. His friends stood frozen, waiting to see what the headmaster would do. Lorna waited too, her body tense, her fist clenched around the quarterback’s coin.
I will never look silly.
Richard took a breath and launched himself off the seat into the water.
Heather Newton is the author of the short story collection McMullen Circle (Regal House 2022), finalist for the W.S. Porter prize. Her novel The Puppeteer’s Daughters is forthcoming from Turner Publishing in July 2022 and has been optioned for television. Her novel Under The Mercy Trees (HarperCollins 2011) won the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Literary Award, was chosen by the Women’s National Book Association as a Great Group Reads Selection and named an “Okra Pick” by the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance. A practicing attorney, she teaches creative writing for UNC-Asheville’s Great Smokies Writing Program and is co-founder and Program Manager for the Flatiron Writers Room writers’ center in Asheville. www.heathernewton.net