Harold Ackerman works in Berwick, PA, close by the Susquehanna River, where he lives with his spouse, Jane. He has published poetry and fiction and maintains a photo gallery at briarcreekphotos.weebly.com
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Vivien Schütz recently graduated with a Master of Fine Arts in Media Art and Design in Germany and is working as a freelance audio producer and director’s assistant for German public radio, and is now relocating to New York City. She did her Bachelor in Journalism and worked for a local radio station as a reporter.
I let the phone ring three times before I answer. I’m hoping it’s the boy I have a crush on, and I can’t seem too eager, says Seventeen. I close my algebra textbook.
“Hello?” I lilt the O.
“Can I talk to Katharine?” a man drawls. I’m disappointed it’s not for me.
“Sure, hold on one minute please.” My phone etiquette education did not include requesting the caller’s identification. I put down the receiver and walk to the landing to shout downstairs. I lift the phone back to my ear to confirm she’s on the line. I should hang up, give her privacy, but I am intrigued. What strange man is calling for my married mother?
My sneaky heartbeat pulsing in my ears drowns out most of their initial conversation, but I figure out quickly that it is him. Something about child support, new job, late check. I try to quiet my breathing.
“Hey, you know, her birthday is coming up soon. You could send something,” my mom suggests.
“Oh, yeah? When is it?” he replies.
I hang up as the tears come. My father doesn’t remember when I was born.
It is a Saturday morning, and I am cashing out a regular for her bagel and coffee to go, chatting about the April rain. A woman carrying a white wicker basket of small pink flowers walks up to register and waits until we’re finished.
“Is there a Hilary here? These are for her and she needs to sign.”
I beam; I have never gotten flowers delivered before. I come around to the front of the counter to sign the clipboard, hold out my hands for the transfer of the basket. My coworker Brittany nods, a silent I’ll cover you, as I hurry back to the kitchen, out of site of customers, in order to investigate this floral mystery. I pull the small card from its plastic trident.
Happy 16th Birthday!
Your old man, Neil
He has sent me flowers. Before I can even wonder how he knew I worked at this café, I think pink. My least favorite color. Of course.
Work is slow because of the midday thunderstorm. I have already swept the floor and wiped down all surfaces, rearranged jars of jam, and rotated the stock in the cooler. I am allowed to eat all the fruit I want during my shifts at the farm stand, so I routinely make myself nearly ill on cherries. My hand mindlessly travels from quart to mouth while I flip through the local paper. My half-trance is interrupted by the ring of the office phone, and I hastily spit the last stone into the nearby wastebasket.
“Hello, Love Apple Farm.” I hope it’s my boss telling me to go home early.
“Is Hilary there?” It is not her.
“This is she,” I reply, internally questioning my grammar. There is a too-long pause. “Can I help you?”
“This…this is Neil,” he stammers, and begins to cry. “Your mom sent me your graduation announcement from the paper, and I just want to say I’m proud of you. And I’m sorry.” The crying continues.
I ask how he knew to call me here, because this is all I can muster.
“I called your house and some kid told me,” he says, now mostly under control.
“Oh. That’s my step-sister.” I can’t be mad at a ten year old for not having better sense.
He keeps talking. He is crying again. I have never before spoken to my father and he is calling me at work. I am ill-equipped to handle this. I think he asks me questions about future plans, but I can’t be certain. I assume I answer them. I hear the sound of tires on the gravel driveway and interrupt him to say I have a customer. I hang up and the portable drops from my shaking hand. Thankfully, the car drives away instead. I cannot eat more cherries that shift.
Bored, I decide to visit the beloved campus psychic. After greeting me with a hug, declaring me at once both well hydrated and dangerously fertile, she tells me I will never have a healthy relationship with a man until I resolve issues with my dad. Despite being annoyed at the trite nature of this claim, I resolve to reach out—it can’t hurt, I think—and later that day send a belated Christmas card, expecting nothing.
Today has been the kind of day where I’ve invented ways to look busy at my desk job. When the phone rings for the first time around noon, I am sadly excited to answer it.
“Hello, Alumni Relations; this is Hilary.”
“Hi, this is the front desk of the Student Union. You have a flower delivery.”
“I’ll be right over!” I hang up and grab my coat from the back of my chair. “Hey, Bev,” I say to the office manager, “I’ll be right back—I got flowers!”
“Probably from your boyfriend for Valentine’s Day!” That hadn’t occurred to me; she’s probably right. Giddy, I arrive rosy-cheeked from the February air to the Union, and identify myself to the student worker who dips away and returns with a basket of daisies. An odd seasonal choice, I think, before chastising myself for being an ungrateful snob. There is no card.
I protect the flowers from the sleet as best I can on the walk back through the main campus corridor. After showing them off to Bev, I start to write a thank you email to Nick, but the phone rings again.
“Hello, Alumni Relations; this is Hilary.”
“Did you get my flowers? The florist says they were delivered. Happy Valentine’s Day, kiddo. Thank you for your Christmas card.”
I am flustered. “How did you know how to send them? Or call me?” I start to sweat despite the chilly office.
“I did a search on the internet, found your college, got this number.” Oh, I think, of course. The internet.
“Well, um, thanks. I like daisies.” I don’t mention that he can’t possibly know this. He starts to cry.
“I would like to be in touch more. Can we email?” Yes tumbles out of my mouth; he spells his unique AOL handle out for me. “I found yours online. I check at work every day,” he adds.
“I’m in college, so I check all the time,” I try to joke, though I doubt I sound funny. We hang up after that, his conscience once again temporarily soothed. I rush to the ladies room, lock myself in the farthest stall, and try not to vomit. An email is waiting for me when I get back to my desk.
We begin to correspond frequently, slowly sort of getting to know each other. It is awkward, because we are strangers, despite moments of bloodline similarity. I avoid asking him the important questions—why did you leave? How could you forget my birthday?—and he apologizes nearly every time, a blanket “I’m sorry” to cover his paternal omissions over the last 20-plus years. Several weeks into this seemingly regular exchange, when waves of nausea no longer accompany opening my inbox, I read one that says only I want to meet. I respond to tell him that for my upcoming spring break, I’m headed to California to get out of the Northeast weather and visit the friends I met junior year during my semester abroad. California is so much closer to New Mexico than Pennsylvania! he writes back almost immediately, having understood my implication. When will you be there? I reply with my basic itinerary, noting that the time I’ll be in Los Angeles is probably more convenient than when I’ll be in San Francisco, geographically speaking.
I never hear from him again.
My fiancé and I are sitting on opposite couches reading. My cell phone rings, and he instinctively glances over. “It’s my mom,” I say as I flip it open to answer.
“Hi!” I am always happy to talk to her.
“Hi.” Her tone seems off. “Are you sitting down?” I tell her I am, though I slide off the couch onto the floor. She pauses, and I think I hear her crying. “Your dad died.”
Uncontrollable, visceral grief takes over. I curl into the fetal position and quake with guttural sobs. Pete hurls himself off the couch and wraps my shaking body with his. I have managed to hold onto the phone and hear my mother repeating I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry.
As quickly as it came on, the storm is over. I wriggle out from Pete’s clutches and nod to indicate that he can safely retreat to the couch. He looks wary, but does so.
“What happened?” I ask, drying my face with a shirtsleeve. She explains that Neil had been in a motorcycle accident and is quick to add that he was wearing a helmet. He was in a coma and they—his wife and other children, half-sisters I’ve never met—took him off life support. She is silent. I wait.
“In April?” Pete raises an eyebrow at me and I wave him back to the book he’s now pretending to read.
“Yes. With everything going on, Terry didn’t call me until now.” I sense protective anger in her voice. How could you do this to my kid? “I’m so sorry you never got to meet him.” Her tears are back.
“Me too,” I reply. We hang up after I’ve assured her I’m ok. I relay the information to Pete and open my laptop.
“What are you doing?” he asks.
“Looking up his obituary.” I find it easily on the site of a Santa Fe newspaper and begin to read.
I am not listed as one of his surviving children.
My cell phone buzzes with the arrival of a text. “We’re walking in now!” it reads. I check my hair one last time in the chintzy Las Vegas hotel room mirror and hurry down to the foyer with nervous anticipation. After a few moments, I see three people whom I recognize only from Facebook pictures round the corner. I don’t know whether to stand still or rush them, so I split the difference and start walking. Jeff, the husband, is the first to introduce himself and sticks out his large hand to shake. After sing-song introducing their strawberry blonde daughter he’s holding in his beefy arm, he steps aside. My half-sister and I wait a beat, then furiously embrace.
“It’s so nice to finally meet you!” she nearly shrieks. I echo her sentiments, and we stand there, hugging and crying, ignoring the looks we get from tourists on their way to the casino.
We head across the street to have lunch, and after we order, Jeff is smart enough to occupy Olivia so Shawna and I can talk. We start with basics, like how grad school is going—I’m in Vegas for an academic conference—and how her job has been and segue into chitchat about the reelection of President Obama, especially since we’re both liberals living in swing states. “He would have voted for him,” she says, “in case you were wondering.”
“I was wondering,” I reply, “though I’m pretty sure I knew he was a Democrat. My mom is too big of a hippie to have married a Republican, especially after Nixon.” It occurs to me, not for the first time, how little I know about him. Shawna and I fidget in our chairs. “What was he like?” I finally ask.
“He was hilarious,” she replied, smiling. She tells me about some of his antics, like goofy costumes for childhood Halloweens with her and her older sister Erin, how he loved the family dog, and other tidbits you learn about your dad when you grow up in his house. “But he also drank a lot. Until he got sober. It was the PTSD.” My mom had told me that he’d wake up with violent nightmares and sometimes had too much beer as a way to handle his combat medic demons. Shawna stops to eat a fry and gets a wistful look. “I miss him.”
“I know you do. I’m so sorry.” I have to force myself not to just stare at my salad.
“I’m sorry, too,” she says to me. “It must be hard for you.”
“It is, but it’s harder for you. You actually knew him,” I deflect.
“He talked about you a lot. I’ve known about you since I was a kid.”
“He did?” My fork clatters to the table. I leave it there, feeling sheepish at the cliché dramatics. She begins to tell me his version of my parents’ divorce. “That’s not the story I got from my mom,” I cut in. Inside I’m trying to calm my anger. Of course he invented a story that makes them look equally at fault. I correct a few factual errors, as I know them.
“Oh.” She pauses. “Well, I bet he just felt guilty and didn’t want to tell us the truth. I wanted to meet you ever since I was little,” she adds. “He just always said that it wouldn’t be a good idea. So. Your mom is probably right.”
Now I feel guilty that I’ve potentially reconstructed the impression a daughter has of her late dad, whom she adored. I don’t tell her about the phone calls, flowers, emails, or how I felt reading the obituary. These are my memories of him, not hers. She doesn’t need to know.
After another hour or so of talking and watching Olivia play around in the mall fountain, it’s time for them to drive home. We take a couple of pictures together, and I hug all three, saving Shawna for last. I watch them walk toward the parking garage in the bright Nevada sun.
No one ever asks how hard it was for me.
As a small child, Father’s Day was celebrated for and with my grandfather, until he died when I was sixteen. Beginning in ninth grade, I also had to appear invested in honoring my then stepfather, but I’m quite sure we all knew I was faking it, and thankfully that ended before I was twenty. Now when Father’s Day rolls around, not only do I reach out to my male friends with kids, I make sure to check in with my friends who have lost their dads, too. But the latter sentiment is never reciprocated.
Maybe it’s my own fault: I’m quick to deflect the occasional comment that even hints at the potential emotional challenges I may have faced growing up without knowing my dad. I point out how worse it is for kids whose parents get divorced in middle school and have to split time between two houses, or for my friends who are now adult orphans, or for kids in the overcrowded foster care system or who are victims of abuse or neglect. When I get asked the inevitable “so what do your parents do?” question on first dates, I tell them that my mother is a nurse at a drug rehab facility. If pressed with a follow up question about the other parent, I matter-of-factly say “my dad left when I was a baby and died in 2008.” That’s usually followed by a sincere apology for my loss and a quick change of subject when I reply “that’s ok, I didn’t know him.” I even dropped my given last name in an act of feminist defiance when I was 23—a man who didn’t raise me shouldn’t get the privilege of me walking around with his lineage attached to my signature.
I don’t tell people that the storyline on Gilmore Girls when grouchy diner-owner Luke Danes discovers he has a daughter he’s never met and immediately sets upon building a relationship with her had me weeping jealous, broken tears. I look back on my boy-crazy high school and college days with a sense of pathetic embarrassment, knowing now—thanks to both therapy and maturity—that I was merely desperate to feel wanted by a man. Once, when I was 11, angry that I had to keep practicing the piano, I had a fleeting thought that perhaps my mom had abducted me, since it seemed unreasonable that a father just wants nothing to do with one of his children.
I am able to piece together bits and pieces of our shared humanity. I find it oddly comforting when my mom tells me, after finding a few letters and photos during a spring cleaning binge, that Neil’s favorite song to play on the guitar was “Sound of Silence.” It’s the first song I memorized the harmony to at summer camp. After a friend confesses she recently learned her Dad is not her biological father, I impress upon her the regret I have for never having met mine, despite our circumstances being quite different. When I backpacked through Southeast Asia, I had a heavy heart from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi, knowing what horrors he surely saw as a medic in the Vietnam War.
Grieving a ghost was hard. Forgiving one was even harder.
Hilary Brewster is an Assistant Professor of English at Marshall University. Her essay “Traveling in the Time of Trump” was published by Cargo, and her scholarly publications include book chapters on Harry Potter and The Hunger Games and an article in Bookbird. She hosts the podcast Damn Near.
Hip-deep in crystal clear water, they posed every morning. Two, three, sometimes as many as five men silently casting their lines soon after the sun appeared on the horizon. Whether they spoke before or after, she never knew. By the time she passed, they were already in position, each facing a unique direction, intent on casting their line with graceful precision, reeling in with stoic optimism.
Before 9/11, cars were allowed to drive over the dam on the Western side of the reservoir. After the terrorist act, cement blocks were deposited on both ends of the dam. Pedestrians were still permitted, between sunrise and sunset, allowed to traverse the mile-long dam with its sweeping lawn that sloped down to a trickle of river where the fly-fishers stood. All summer, this is where the couple took their morning walk. He calculated that the length of the dam was one-fifth of his daily Fitbit goal. She discovered the path down to the river.
The large reservoir, constructed during the 30’s, was the primary source of water for a large city in the East. The descendants of families who had lived in five small farming towns, hers among them, had been awarded commemorative charms made from metal foraged from the submerged towns. Where once there had been hundreds of acres of rolling farmland, there was now a vast body of water dotted with uninhabited islands. A map at the overlook indicated where the towns had once existed, the steeple of a church here, a cemetery (all remains now re-located) there. Tourists often sat in their cars at the overlook, peering through binoculars at the sky. The islands housed an eagle restoration project, one of the most successful in the nation.
The reservoir and its tributaries were stocked each spring. Fly fishing was strictly catch-and-release. The fish that fly-fishers reeled in over the summer were required to be thrown back. The peaceful morning scenario was a fabrication. At best, a simulation of a survival skill. The meditation that it reflected, however, soothed her. Some mornings, she stood for nearly a half-hour watching the fishermen prepare arcing casts, following the gentle drag of lures being retrieved.
When there were droughts, as there often seemed to be, the quantity of water pumped through aqueducts to the city was increased. The local towns had their own water supply.
Earlier in the spring, the Department of Health had issued a Fish Advisory. A white warning sign was tacked to a tree stating that high levels of mercury had been found in fish samples taken from the reservoir. The advisory recommended limiting or eliminating consumption of fish due to the elevated levels. Water test results, the sign assured the public, had not indicated any reason for concern about the drinking water or its suitability for human consumption.
Pleasure boats were not allowed on the reservoir. The islands were off limits. Some mornings as they walked across the dam, she watched the Department of Public Works motor boat putter around the glassy surface, taking water samples. One early morning, she spotted something strange just under the water’s surface.
“Honey, what is that?” she asked her husband. He used his camera’s telephoto lens to magnify the blob, but it bobbed listlessly. Neither of them could identify it. Soon, the DPW motor boat approached, leaving a large V in its wake. Several morning walkers stopped to see what they were looking at. The male on the boat retrieved a long stick and poked at the shadow. She overheard his companion saying, “They are watching us.” After much discussion, the park employees lassoed the blob and towed it behind the boat until they reached the far side one of the distant islands.
She assumed they left soggy remains on the shore to be eaten by wildlife. Deer, bear, even bobcats flourished in the “unintended” wilderness.
It irked her husband that dogs were not permitted in the park which surrounded the dam. Park regulations cited sanitation as the explanation, but certainly, he said peevishly, an area could have been allocated for dog walkers in the vast park. Dog walkers picked up after their pets. Which was, after all, more than the flocks of Canadian geese flying overhead were prepared to do. Whatever the DPW boat had deposited on the island couldn’t have been great for the water supply.
He was a city boy. She got that. He expected accommodations to be made.
“Look at the motorboat spewing gasoline in its wake,” he pointed out to her as they walked across the dam. “That’s pollution they should worry about.”
Whenever they ate in a restaurant in the city, her husband would point to a glass of water and tell the waiter “that’s our water that you are drinking.”
“Mine,” she would think but never say, “not yours.”
He regularly insisted on a city fix. Camera in hand, he walked all day capturing the throngs of humanity clustering on every street corner. He thrived on street musicians, art installations, exotic cuisines. Accompanying him, she listened in on strangers’ phone conversations, writing down snippets of conversation that she would exploit later, in the quiet of the country.
“Sometimes I need to be alone,” she knew he would look hurt when she told him she wanted to take her morning walk alone. He had just said that he couldn’t imagine standing there all day in the frigid water. She could think of nothing else. If he didn’t have his camera in hand to fiddle with, he became restless, spoke too loudly. The fishermen glanced at him, annoyed, but never said a thing.
Fly fishing required equipment. A long, light-weight rod, reel, fly line and backing, leader, and trippets to connect the fly line to the fly. Flies, of course. Dry flies, nymphs, and streamers, each resembling the kind of bugs she swatted at all summer long. Casting shirts, wading jackets. She googled the necessities. Pop-up menus offered to sign her up for fly-fishing newsletters and equipment updates, a whole new world beckoning.
They were always there, no matter what the weather. Always men.
One night she dreamed she stood with them in the stream at the bottom of the dam. Wearing hip-high waders, her long hair in a braid down her back. In her dream, the silent men ignored her, just as they did in real life. On the opposite shoreline, a bear wore a hat like Smoky. He held his rod, angling for trout. She concentrated on casting, refusing to analyze what the dream meant. Overhead, a bald eagle soared, the shadow of his wingspan crossing the water ominously.
Certainly, mercury levels were bellwethers. And terrorists not apt to be deterred by concrete blocks. When they had visited the city, she noticed that policemen had started to wear guns where they could be seen in an effort at deterrence. Her husband was no longer allowed to take photos from the bridge that bussed in commuters on a daily basis.
By early December, a thin crust of ice formed on the shoreline. The men were still there in the morning, but their time was running out. Her husband didn’t celebrate Christmas, but in the hubbub of TV and online advertisements, he purchased a new camera, a new camera bag. He ordered frames for two of his wilder creations and hung them in their foyer. Bright yellow and chaotic, they screamed at her as when she returned from her walks, her shoes squeaky with water from the stream.
Every day, she received more e-mail, encouraging her to buy fly-fishing equipment and discounted clothing. The list of wildlife observations that was maintained in the Dam’s visitors’ center became shorter and shorter as birds flew south and animals hunkered into hibernation. She dressed in layers, long underwear, turtlenecks, vests, and a down-filled jacket. A knit cap and gloves, a scarf to cover her face against the icy wind. When the dam became treacherous, she refused to give up, adding crampons to her hiking shoes. Even so, she minced across the dam with small, careful steps. Dark patches of black ice glittered in the sunshine. She knew not to trust them.
By December, only one fisherman remained, wearing a wet suit and heavy gloves with fingers that folded back so that he could tie knots or fidget with swivels with minimal exposure to the cold air.
“Freezing my ass off,” he said to her as she stood on the shore, shivering. “Cold weather is supposed to slow the fish down but I think I’m the one approaching torpor here.”
In slow motion, he pointed towards the shore. “Hot coffee in that thermos there,” he pointed to a small pile of gear beneath a tree.
She wished he hadn’t spoken.
After they had all gone, only the ghosts remained. Her father once told her that the only time he had seen is parents cry was the day that their house was condemned. No amount of compensation made it right, his father had sobbed. The drinking water of strangers had swallowed her family’s history. Those who had not lost everything lived the rest of their lives in fear of doing so. By the time she met her grandparents, they were small people who lived in a stuffy house along the two-lane highway into town.
The eagles flew towards the coast in winter to stay warm. Here, survivors learned to tough it out. Turning her back on the stranger angling for slow fish in defiance of the approaching winter, she headed home. In the kitchen, her husband was preparing coffee and humming 60s rock tunes under his breath. A steady stream of water flowed vigorously from the kitchen faucet which he had forgotten to turn off while scooping coffee grounds into the bleached filter. Before she had a chance to stem the flow, he enveloped her in an enthusiastic bear hug. “How many steps did you take today?” he asked, as if that were the only thing that mattered.
K.B. Holzman has been a poet, an administrator, and a parent, wandering from the West Coast to the East, and finally settling in New England where the sun filters through towering pines regardless of the season.
Brian Phillip Whalen
This poem was originally published in The Cardiff Review.
When I eat pepperoni pizza late at night, I have nightmares. I’m 35 years old, the same age my father was when he slept nights inside a bottle of Boone’s Farm wine. [My father was 13 when his mother warned him:“Boys like you end up in jail or Vietnam.”] When I was 13, I read the morning comic strips: Garfield ate a pepperoni pizza late at night and had a ghastly nightmare. He woke Jon and Jon took on his monsters. [I was 7 when my father roused me, at midnight, knelt beside me, hung his head: “Tonight,” he said, “in Baghdad, a father tucked his son in bed, now both are dead.”]
Brian Phillip Whalen’s writing appears in The Southern Review, Spillway, Mid-American Review, North American Review, Cherry Tree, Fiction International, Poets.org, and elsewhere. Brian received his PhD from SUNY Albany and is a lecturer in the English Department. He lives in upstate New York with his wife and daughter and teaches creative writing workshops in regional libraries.
Reliable as a courier pigeon, I did my job: i.e. I bought things. I lurched into the theater dressed in my fatigues to cry before the Jesuses. I listened to far off disco planets, crooned to the carpet, carried my satchel. But my religious conversion was the God-given equivalent of wax paper. Nothing ever stuck. So I’m running from the government down tilt and tumble alleys looking for a place to stow my snow globe collection.
Jennifer Metsker teaches writing at the Stamps School of Art and Design. Her poetry has been published in Beloit, Birdfeast, Gulf Coast, Hobart, and other journals. Her audio poetry is featured on the BBC Radio’s Short Cuts, and she has and essay coming out in the anthology The Shell Game.
Most of my life has consisted of longing and probably most lives are like this I suppose it to be the fundamental human substance well why not one’s life has to consist of something the mind is just a big empty space and must needs be filled with something and so longing is the most readily available filler I can tell you I’ve clung to longing like a shipwrecked man clinging to a piece of floating wreckage it has given my life and by extension my identity what little structure and coherence it has had so I ended up clinging even to my own clinging and mostly it’s been a vague though desperate longing to somehow elevate myself to some kind of barely-imagined higher life and I struggled hard for many years in pursuit of this my personal Valhalla there came a point when in my late 50s I became thoroughly weary of this struggle and finally discovered I felt much better if I simply stopped struggling and tried to make myself at home in my own life whatever it happened to be at any given time and it was about this time I met someone and it was as if a door had quietly and unexpectedly opened in my life and I went through it and found everything changed I am living this very different life in the very center of it feeling as if everything is available to me but wanting very little I lack for nothing though the content of my life is agreeably sparse and my old self is gone I am no longer that one whose mind was given shape and substance by longing I am someone else now things are quiet here and I am not afraid so the question is what do you do when you finally realize that you have everything you want well I can tell you what I do everyday I just pick a direction in my mind and go
E. J. Evans has contributed poetry and prose-poetry to many literary journals including Poetry East, Confrontation, Rattle, RHINO, and The Midwest Quarterly. His chapbook First Snow Coming was published by Kattywompus Press.