My Father’s Orchard

STORY — Linda Lane, my name, is a porn star’s name with the cheap advertising of alliteration I like to credit to my mother. She left when I was three years old and she was twenty, probably because she knew things were about as good as they were going to get then, my dad working two jobs as a janitor and as a landscaper, my dad spending his days off plugged into ear phones on his stereo, my dad smoking joints. She never saw him. One day she drove his truck, with the sofa loaded in the back and all the appliances squeezed between the hairy arm rests, and disappeared into Seattle. She might have wanted steady improvement. She didn’t see it, so she left. I suppose she is happy now.


I don’t know if her leaving mattered to my Dad, because when he came home and saw the dusty outline of where the sofa no longer was and the kitchen counters clean of the toaster and everything else and the dust balls where the refrigerator wasn’t, he just said “Oh shit,” and went to sleep. I don’t know if he was mad because his things were gone or if he was mad because his wife was gone; but sometime the next week, a new refrigerator appeared, and on his next day off he had a new stereo. It took a month or so for him to find a new girlfriend.

I grew up to look like a porn star with dark hair and sloppy breasts, but I never talked or acted like a porn star; not that I knew how they did act, but I imagined them strutting around like rubber imitations of Hollywood. When I joined the enlisted army, with a hope of self improvement and a desire to escape like my mother had fifteen years before, the people I went to high school with were convinced I was a diesel dyke. I didn’t care because I would never see them again. I saw that in four years I would be twenty-two and free.

I had planned never to see my father again. As I grew older his physical presence had begun to frighten me. Often he would stomp into the house after a day of landscaping. A chalky dust would float from him and he smelled perpetually of manure and earth. During the summer the sun would crack and peel his face. He would clean his hands and face at the kitchen sink, filling the sink strainer with small pebbles and loose particles of chaff, the skin flaking from his face in shafts. He would smile at me as he smelled up the house. “Come here and give your Dad a hug,” he would say.

I had planned never again to see the house in Monroe with its disorderly expansive gardens and his sometimes live-ins he insisted I call “aunt.” It seemed a little incestuous for me to call these women his sister since he was sleeping with them, but I did it. Sometimes one would eat breakfast with me while I was getting ready to go to school. She would wear one of his T-shirts or a dress shirt like pajamas, her naked legs sticking out from the knees down. There were many aunts while I was growing up, at least until I was in high school, then they stopped coming around.

In the army I served in Germany, and then in South Carolina. At first I thought I could find a place in uniform; I thought I would see some measurable sign of success after four years. But, when my time for reenlistment came, the paper work said I could stay on and go from specialist E-4 to buck sergeant. No entrance into sergeant-hood without being a rookie all over again. And the thing was, people with years and years, even decades in, were the same rank I was in the real scheme of the United States Army. We were one packaged unit with an allotted number of personnel in various configurations, so many privates, so many sergeants, so many majors, and so on. I wouldn’t get anywhere; even if I became a sergeant major I was an invisible component of a larger scheme. I decided to move back to Seattle where I had felt less invisible, and find an apartment and start to go to the university. I came back home, maybe in order to go all the way home to Monroe in the mountains, back to my father.

When I finally went to him, I told myself I only wanted to pick up a hat I used to wear as a kid, a felt fedora in a bright green. I had worn it when I wanted to be the Green Arrow, or Peter Pan, or Robin Hood_ all of the superheroes that were feminine, male, small, muscular. They were super heroes who used agility and wit to overcome the bad guys.

The drive to Monroe took longer than I remembered. The freeway ran on and on toward the mountains and finally I left the freeway and drove through farmland and farmland until I came to the road leading up the hill to his house. A few new houses stood in the forest where I had once played and I wondered about the changes at home. I also wanted to turn around and cut my losses and consider that I had made an attempt to see him. I wanted to be free.

In Dad’s empty driveway, an oil spot clotted the gravel where I assumed he parked. I left my new Honda parked over the spot while I found a way to break in. My Dad was terrified of leaving his house completely locked because he knew one of the times he went outside to get the mail in his underwear he would lock himself out. But at the same time Dad was afraid to leave his house unlocked because of the plants he grew in his basement and the racks of curing hemp in his attic.

My dad worked as a landscaper and owned five acres of land with twenty years of experimentation on it. He once constructed a small oriental garden with failed bonsai, tortured pine trees twisted in iron maidens of wire. An oriental style gazebo with flaking red paint overlooked a stagnant carp pond; shards of red floated in the algae green water. Behind the house, fifteen rows of Christmas trees grew past their harvest age into a thicket. Evergreen needless spilled endlessly onto the roof shingles and the scent of pitch stained the clapboard siding. Dad had planted a cherry orchard whose trunks stunted in an early frost and they bore knots of fruit in the late summer that were just skin covered pits. Almost everything he had started had failed. As quickly as it failed, he started another project, and it failed. And then Dad started another.

I found a back window, and it slid open. Drapes blocked the view into the room. I pushed myself through the soft material and to stand inside his office, the room that had been my bedroom. It was a shock because the last time I had been in my room Duran Duran posters had layered one wall and my sticker plastered bed had been pushed under the window. I assumed when I came back, my bedroom would be just as I had left it. In the war movies, THE SON WHO GOES OFF TO WAR leaves his room, decorated with the velvet triangles that say Harvard, Penn State, etc. and when he returns after his grueling, life-threatening adventures to his old room, his blonde mother has kept it just as he left it. Then there is a shot as THE MAN WHO BEFORE THE RAVAGES OF WAR holds his child sized glove and looks out the window of his room, his face a pale mask revealing the scenes of senseless blood shed, the scenes of senseless of lines for chow.

My father didn’t keep his daughter’s room intact while she was away in the war_ well_ away in the Armed Forces. A jade tree stood by the window, its waxy leaves bloated and plastic. I stepped past it, and my soles clicked on the hardwood of the floor. Jade trees decorated the room, in corners, on window mantles, and on shelves. His desk sat in the center of the room, covered in papers. Two plywood bookcases bent under the bulk of thick paperbacks. Titles in vivid pink or red or blue shouted things like Passion, The Arms of Augustine, Amanda: A Woman. Under the smell of the paper and the earthy pots of jade trees, I sensed the incessant musk of marijuana, which I had expected but had forgotten.

The kitchen was clean except for a Mr. Coffee encrusted with the debris of coffee grounds and the sink full of mugs and microwave dinner cartons. Down to its plain yellow linoleum and closed oak cupboards everything seemed swept and washed. The room smelled like coffee, acidic and stale. I slid my hand across the ripple of new formica.

In the living room, the amber glow of the wood floor reflected the blue of the window light. When Dad first removed the original carpet and found the hardwood, he spent an entire fall sanding it, varnishing it, admiring it. When he discovered all the rooms were hardwood, his voice grew hushed and secretive_ he babbled to me. I was only five. He babbled about the value of such a thing. “It’s all hardwood,” he whispered through his clenched teeth, on his knees, running his calloused palm over the floor. “It’s all oak.” He worked and sanded the splintered floor until the oak gleamed with his sweat. When I woke on Christmas and ran out to get at the Santa presents under the tree, I hit the sheet of polished wood in the living room and slid, catching a glimpse of red plastic and green wrapped boxes under an ornamented fir, before colliding with the outside door.

From the coffee table, I picked up his marble ash tray, thick and practical because it could always be found. He had bought it before I was born and, for as long as I could remember, it had remained in the living room, outliving the other pieces of furniture. It felt like a cold brick in my hand, the sides rough with uncut knobs of formed crystal. The top, a smooth hemisphere, cupped a black pile of roaches. I ran my flat palm over it; the circle of the cup opened under my flesh. The dust that clung to my palm smelled of my Dad’s mouth, the kisses goodnight, burning paper, marijuana; Mary do you wanna?

I had just turned sixteen when I woke up in the living room at 7:30 in the morning. The ash tray on the counter, the same as it was when I was ten and when I was twenty-two, cupped a pile of pale gray ashes.

The night before, in the small cellar used as the growing room for his plants, lit with the incandescent flicker of thin tubed fluorescent lights, whose chilled light hung over the streaming jungle, Dad had made me drunk sampling vodka, beer, wine, beer, and beer. I had sat on a wooden bench, leaning against the wall, tasting the unfamiliar briny froth of the beer. I hadn’t liked the taste, but after I had swallowed two or three mouthsful my head had began to fog with a light tingling fuzz. The hot air had seemed to shine with the sensation; the hot air had lifted from the beds of sword ferns, the tubs of fiddleheads, and the pots of marijuana, paper money green. Their thick leaves had plastered to the white painted timber. I had rolled the beer in my mouth.

“Do you like it?” Dad said.

My mouth was full, so I had to swallow to speak, and I made a face. Dad giggled, hunching his shoulders together, and squeezing his hands to his face as he drew the smoke from his joint. He gasped, and coughed out clouds.

“Sure you do; sure you like it,” he said.

The plant steam and joint smoke ionized into a blank cloud of vapor. I felt the beer can grow empty, and then he handed me a glass with clear fluid in it. I couldn’t taste it. It was like drinking the foggy air. He handed me the joint without looking at me. His eyes were winced shut, and he smiled as I took the smoldering paper and weed. “You’re sixteen, old enough to drive and thus drink or do anything else your heart desires, without anyone looking of course.” He winked when he said that. I watched Dad’s lips talking, his face watching me as I drank another beer, frothy and yellow from the flimsy aluminum can. “Do you like it?” he asked and I nodded. The mixture filled my head, clogging my ears like hot wax. The mist in the room wrapped warm around me. “Would you like some more smoke?” The fog in the warm room wrapped around me.

And I had woken on the sofa undressed, fabric in my mouth. My clothes were in a heap on the hardwood floor. My breath was sharp. My hair smelled like it had been washed in aspirin or organic hair soap, or something natural and pungent like flower pot soil. It was seven thirty. I was still light headed from the sticky air of the growing room. I had to go to the bathroom. When I did, it burned inside; I thought that the urine still had alcohol in it. It hurt my insides and I had a headache.

I lay back on the sofa, and I could hear Dad waking up. I heard the echo of his urine thudding into the center of the toilet. I hoped he wouldn’t wake until after nine. I enjoyed the privacy of early morning, before Dad and an aunt woke up, but on this morning there wasn’t anyone in the house besides my father. In the mornings when he was still asleep I didn’t feel him watching me like he did while he prepared breakfast, asking me what I wanted, or asking me not to watch tv because he wanted to play music out loud. The click as the refrigerator handle lifted, decompression of frigid air, and the opening pin on a can of Oly, signaling my father’s waking attempt to cancel his hang over.

I placed the ash tray back on the table. The room suddenly stilled after the memory. The mildew on the wall, its fuzzy texture, pushed through the vertical surface. Outside I heard sparrows on the electric lines. Limbs from the wild Christmas tree orchard scratched the roof of the house and something yapped across the street. It was eleven o’ clock.

What had happened to all the things I had owned before I left? It was like my Dad had gone into my room after I left and bundled everything into garbage sacks and thrown my posters, my books, my broken toys, my old green hat away. I didn’t want to scour the attic or the storage shed above the growing room for the old things. I didn’t want all of them.

I waited for my father to come home. In the wooden box I found a collection of two months Valley News; I read them until I fell asleep . I dreamed I was flying, wearing the lime fedora. I dream this sometimes. I was six or seven years old, because before I left the ground I looked at the house, it was still the loafer brown color it had been when I was six, and it was so large. Blood rushed to my feet as I skipped off the ground. Gravity rushed through my body as I looped into the air with wind guiding me unavoidably into the white sky.

My father stooped over me when I woke. His face held more wrinkles than I thought it would at his age. A crescent shaped crease separated his mouth from his eyes, and the three points, his two eyes and his mouth, were slits and wrinkles. A smell like dirt came from his clothes. Age had accumulated into a pot belly. Shamelessly his shirt tucked in over it, and the shirt rolled taut from the belt line to the worn fabric of his shoulders. He held my purse in his hands and he said something to himself. My purse cradled in his hands like a cat. “Mmmmm,” he said, “You are my daughter. So I thought. Where did you pop up from?”

“Hi Dad,” I said. I didn’t want to meet him this way. It had been a secret dread of mine that one time on a plane I would fall asleep and wake up, and the annoying man crammed next to me would suddenly realize that he was my father.

“How are you?” he said and dropped my purse on the table beside his ash tray. “How’s the army?”

“I finished my obligation.” Disoriented from my sleep, my eyes didn’t readjust to being awake. I blinked them. He and the room and everything looked brown.

“Looking for a job?”

“No.”

“Are you planning on staying for dinner?” He sat down in the child-sized chair and gathered the mislaid CD cases and flipped them into some sort of order.

“I don’t know.”

“The army must be rough. You don’t talk much.”

“What’s there to talk about?” I said; as soon I spoke I remembered all of the countless conversations I had with my father as I grew up and the times I would answer with monosyllables and avoid saying anything. “So, how have things been with your business? How have things been with yourself?”

“Fine.”

“Still working as a landscaper? Still driving the old truck?”

“Yes.”

“Must be rough,” I said, “Because you don’t seem to talk much.”

He smiled and the crescent wrinkle in his face flushed out . “You live far away?”

“I have an apartment in Seattle.”

“Really? That isn’t far.”

“Really it is; I’m not used to the drive.”

“Have you lived close for very long?”

“I have lived there almost a year.”

“Long time. Well, you’ve come to take your old things. I moved them out back. There wasn’t space to keep all of it in the house.”

“No, I don’t think I want all of it. All I want is the hat I used to wear. Remember the fedora I wore for Halloween when I was Green Arrow?”

“Who is Green Arrow?”

“You don’t remember Green Arrow?”

“Is that the only reason you showed up, to get your things?”

“No.”

“Why then?”

“To see you.”

“Here I am.” Yes, there he was. “Well,” he said. “I’ve waited for you to come so I could dump all your things.”

“I don’t think I have enough room.”

“Yes you do,” he said, and then stood up, leaving me sitting on the couch; I looked up and his head was far above my body, wrinkled and old like a tree on the cliffs, like he used to look when I was little, far older and larger than I would be. I stood up and he was shorter than I remembered. He stooped partially into his pot belly and it bothered me to be a little taller than a man, whose being a man_ my father_ had been important to me for so long. We walked outside without saying anything. Above the cellar he used as a growing room was a small storage space. In the space, all the things I had owned as a child fit into six cardboard boxes. The cardboard was damp from mildew and smelled like mushrooms. In my hands the old cardboard was soft and pliant, and I worried that the weight of the things inside would rip through the musty paper. “Thank you,” I said after my old things were loaded into my car.

“By the way,” he said. “How did you get into the house?”

“There is always a way,”” and I smiled. He didn’t smile. He just looked at the gravel, nodding his head for a moment about something he was thinking about.

“I would invite you to dinner tonight, but I have plans…”

“Aaah,” I said. “I sort of came out to see you.”

“I know,” he said, “But you should’ve called first.”

“I can come again.”

“Yes, you can.” He looked at my car, which he gazed through as an uninteresting fixture in an open house he wasn’t planning to buy. He looked through the car and then he stared at me in the face. “Well,” he finally said, “Is there anything else I can get you that you may have left here?”

“No, Dad,” I said, “I guess I had better be going then.”

“Oh,” he said, “Yes. I suppose so.” He leaned over and kissed me on my cheek. “Call me,” he said. Both words were stressed, and I couldn’t tell if it was because he wanted me to call him or not. As I pulled out of the driveway, I looked in the rearview mirror and he was gone.

The smell of the boxes was strong. I thought a cat must have peed into one of them during the time I was away; halfway to Seattle I stopped off and dropped the boxes into a dumpster behind a Safeway. Dumping the things out, I looked for the green hat. It wasn’t there.

When I came home to my apartment, I called his house. The answering machine turned on to answer after the first ring, and I could hear him reciting something he had written down, “Hello, This is Paul Lane, president of Lane Landscapers. I am not home right now, leave a message at the sound. Thank You.” I hung up before the machine uttered a beep.

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